Voluntary manslaughter is defined by as a killing preceded by, “a circumstance that may cause a reasonable person to become emotionally disturbed or considered as a murder fueled by passion or impulse (Jackson 2018).” In Jen Sookfong Lee’s novel, The Conjoined, foster mother Donna experienced this when her foster children Casey and Jamie’s torment brought up memories of her childhood. She neglected to save her brother’s life due to the abuse he put her through. When the girls arrived Donna saw an opportunity to use them to resolve her childhood trauma. Instead, their actions caused her to repeat the past and she fell victim to a state of temporary insanity, briefly unable to understand the consequences of her actions during the criminal act (NOLO 2018). The unreciprocated love and abuse Donna endured combined with her violent tendencies caused her to commit voluntary manslaughter against Casey and Jamie.
While Donna had experience taking care of foster kids, Jamie and Casey brought new challenges. Many times throughout the novel, it was stated that Donna “didn’t need handholding (Lee 87)” as a foster mother. Social workers would count on her to take the kids who were more difficult or required more attention, and Donna would love and care for them. Unfortunately, Casey and Jamie overwhelmed her, running away and stealing from her. Donna never needed help before; she was independent and took care of everyone else. When Casey and Jamie became unbearable she was unsure what to do. She contacted the social worker in charge of the girls, but was repeatedly denied help. They stayed with Donna for a week and a half rather than the standard two or three nights. No one noticed at the time, but Gerry retrospectively admitted, “obviously, your mother [Donna] needed help. I couldn’t see that… (Lee 125)”. Jessica even heard Donna cry, “What am I doing wrong? (Lee 20)”, but did not talk to anyone about it due to her confidence in her mother’s perceived strength. Even though the girls treated her badly, when they returned safely after running away Donna was elated. She ran to hug them but they “backed up, fast, until they were flat against the wall (Lee 113)”, obviously avoiding her affection. Not only was Donna overwhelmed by the girls, but Donna had a similar experience of unrequited love in childhood with her brother, Devin. As a girl, Donna expressed to her mother, “I love him [Devin] so much, Mother. But he’s always so mean, like he hates me (Lee 166)”. The two lived alone with their mother in an isolated house. Donna just wanted a friend, but Devin was never interested in pursuing a relationship. Donna’s clear inability to cope with these abusive and one-sided relationships created an emotionally disturbed state of mind in which led her to commit voluntary manslaughter.
Devin taunted Donna throughout their childhood, pulling her dolls’ heads off and laughing at the tea parties she set for him. One night Devin came into the room while Donna was bathing and began pinching her body. He told their mother she was acting “like a whore (Lee 174)”. This culmination of Devin’s mistreatment caused Donna to chase him out onto the rocks. In this case, she held her negative emotions in for so long that when Devin took things too far, she was mentally unstable. She said to her mother, “I hate him [Devin] so much. I hope he dies (Lee 174).” This harassment resurfaced when the girls’ disdain for Donna evolved into physical and verbal abuse. Casey punched Donna in the mouth after Donna suggested they talk about their past. She threatened to hit Donna again if she did not stop pressuring them to talk. On one occasion Casey and Jamie burst into the bathroom while adult Donna was bathing. They took pictures of her, called her vulgar names and stole her clothes and towels. Filled with thoughts of the torment Devin put her through, Donna did not think clearly. She acted in a state of passion in both situations, committing voluntary manslaughter against both the girls and Devin.
Donna resorted to violence repeatedly throughout her life. She was always larger than Devin, and could exploit this natural advantage when they fought. Despite the fact that he was often feverish, Donna would seek physical revenge on Devin for his antics. She even chases him through the house and onto the slippery rocks of a cliff during a storm. When they fought, their mother could only, “prevent Donna from drawing blood (Lee 163).” Over the years though, Donna changed. She developed into a person who was described by her daughter as near perfect. This angelic image of her mother was so strong that Jessica repressed a memory of a violent event she witnessed simply to maintain the illusion. When Donna found Casey and Jamie scheming to run away and stealing food she threatened them, saying, “I will sit in the kitchen and watch you eat all the leftover and dried-up food you can handle. And then, you can throw up and eat some more (Lee 189)”. As the girls cried, Donna threatened to call the police. Despite Jessica’s glowing reviews of Donna as a foster mother, Donna even told the girls she has, “lots of experience dealing with brats like you (Lee 189)”. This statement implied that Donna intended to hurt Casey and Jamie, but also that her past foster children have experienced threats and abuse from Donna. The pattern of violence throughout the novel made it plausible that Donna could have killed the girls.
Overall, Donna is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, supported by her unreciprocated love, the abuse she suffered, and her violent tendencies. The buildup of neglect from both Devin and the girls created a basis for Donna’s negative emotions. When the abuse started in each case, Donna became more and more upset. The climactic bathtub scenes parallel each other, each time pushing Donna over the edge. In Casey and Jamie’s case it was doubly impactful as it brought back traumatic memories of Devin’s death. Neglect and abuse lead to an altered state of mind in which Donna could not fathom the severity of the crimes she committed. Donna was accustomed to using violence in stressful situations. Her childhood consisted of constant fights with Devin, all of which she won due to her size. When Donna was not in control, she resorted to forceful tactics. She was a passionate person in many aspects of her life, caring for her family and neighbours. Unfortunately, this passion transferred easily to her rage. She took three lives over the course of her own life, each in a crime of passion. Donna was compelled by neglect and abuse to develop violent tendencies in childhood, which surfaced in her adult life when she committed voluntary manslaughter against Casey and Jamie.
Jackson White Attorneys at Law. jacksonwhitelaw.com. 2018, https://www.jacksonwhitelaw.com/criminal-defense-law/difference-second-degree-murder-voluntary-manslaughter/
Lee, Jen Sookfong. The Conjoined. ECW Press, 2016.
NOLO. nolo.com. 2018, https://www.nolo.com/dictionary/temporary-insanity-term.html