Book Review: Becoming Unbecoming, Una (2016)

November 25th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Raw, powerful, necessary.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

Canon Gordon Croney, vicar of Leeds, considers police-controlled houses of prostitution to be impractical. “I know it’s an easy answer, but I believe it could make the problem worse,” he said.

“If prostitutes came under police protection, then it could make a psychopath like the Ripper prey on innocent women.”

So many popular cultural monuments to Sutcliffe have been built by men. Perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another story, if you don’t belong to the group of people the Ripper wanted to kill?

So what’s the truth?
Maybe it’s something like this:

Ordinary men are capable of extraordinary violence.
Women and girls are neither virgins nor whores.

None of it is funny.

Between 1969 and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe – who would eventually become known as the Yorkshire Ripper – attacked at least twenty women, killing thirteen of them. He primarily targeted sex workers, either because he was conned by a prostitute and her pimp – or because God commanded him to. (When caught, he pled not guilty due to diminished capacity, on account of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s currently serving a life sentence.) However, not all of his victims were sex workers; the investigators’ inability to reconcile this inconsistency is perhaps one of many reasons they bungled the investigation, for example, by ignoring important evidence from an eyewitness who survived, 14-year-old Tracy Browne. Sutcliffe was caught in January 1981 – after he was brought in for driving with false license plates. The police had interviewed him nine times at that point, and had countless “photofits” bearing his image in their files.

The author – who goes by the pseudonym Una – was just entering her teenage years when the attacks escalated. Born in 1965, Una lived in west Yorkshire; her formative years were colored by the hysteria and misogyny whipped up by the killing spree. By the police and in the media, the Ripper’s victims were deemed complicit in their own assaults; what else could women with “loose morals” expect? As his body count grew and came to include “regular” women (and girls), evidence of immorality could be found everywhere: going out drinking at night (with or without your husband), dating outside your race, arguing with a boyfriend.

No one was safe, and that’s kind of the point: Peter Sutcliffe was a misogynist and, to the extent that he targeted sex workers, it was because he felt he could get away with it. And he did, for far too long.

2016-10-26 - Becoming Unbecoming - 0010 [flickr]

Nor was the Yorkshire Ripper the only threat facing the women of England in 1977. According to current rape stats for England and Wales, 1 in 5 women aged 16 to 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Only about 15% of victims choose to report; some 90% know their attackers. Furthermore, 31% of young women aged 18 to 24 report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. The Ripper may have been the face of violence against women in the mid- to late-1970s but, in truth, danger lurked much closer to home.

A fact Una knows all too well. Una was assaulted on at least three separate occasions, by different perpetrators, between the ages of twelve and sixteen – including her mother’s boyfriend (who also physically abused her mother, fwiw). After the first rape, she began to act out, skipping school and engaging in risky sexual behaviors (where consent wasn’t always clear, it’s worth noting; once she had “a reputation,” men felt entitled to use her body as they saw fit). She had nightmares and likely suffered from PTSD. She began to see a therapist – a series of them – yet no one even guessed at the underlying problem: that she’d been raped, and that that assault – and the subsequent lack of support – left her vulnerable to further victimization.

In Becoming Unbecoming, Una explores her own sexual abuse against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper – and then interrogates and eviscerates the rape culture undergirding them both.

This is unlike any other book I’ve read on rape and rape culture, owing in no small part to the format Una chose. Telling her story in pictures as well as words (and there are large chunks of text, including newspaper recreations and statistics galore) makes her experiences feel so much more raw and visceral. A nondescript, ordinary-looking girl in a babydoll dress and bangs, Una looks vulnerable, almost frail. She seems stuck in childhood, even as the years advance, forever doomed to shoulder an empty speech bubble – empty not because she has nothing to say, but rather no one willing to listen. The artwork, both lovely and infuriating, humanizes the author and puts on face on statistics that otherwise threaten to overwhelm.

2016-10-26 - Becoming Unbecoming - 0007 [flickr]

If comic books aren’t really your thing, please don’t let the format discourage you! Becoming Unbecoming is also unlike any graphic novel I’ve read, with end notes, a bibliography, and a list of resources and further reading at the end. While some pages are quite minimalist – a storm cloud here, a metamorphosing Una-bug there – others are very heavy on text. It almost feels more like an art project than a comic book (although I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive!); think: Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who carried her mattress around campus to protest the administration’s failure to punish her rapist.

Una’s artwork and commentary are smart and witty and simmering with righteous anger. In a book filled with memorable images, two stand out. While Una mostly avoids more graphic details of her own rapes, in one series of panels we see her rapist’s face – from Una’s perspective, as she hits and slaps and tries to push him off her. It’s deeply unsettling, yet also satisfying in that it puts the focus where it belongs – on the perpetrator. In a culture saturated with images of sexy female corpses, this is … refreshing.

2016-10-26 - Becoming Unbecoming - 0006 [flickr]

On the book’s final pages, Una laments our fascination with violent men, while simultaneously erasing their victims, relegating them to footnotes and mug shots. She wonders what the Ripper’s thirteen victims might be doing with their wild and precious lives now, had they not been so callously and violently stolen from them? What follows is a series of thirteen portraits of the women – Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, and Jacqueline Hill: some of them well into middle age, others elderly; mothers and sisters and grandmothers; office workers and gardeners and dog people; happy, sad, bored, or just getting through the day. Living and loving, before Peter Sutcliffe – and a culture that enables and emboldens men like him – engaged in the ultimate demonstration of power and control.

2016-10-26 - Becoming Unbecoming - 0003 [flickr]

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Una explores her own multiple sexual assaults (beginning at the age of twelve) against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper, whose attacks escalated during this time. She then interrogates and eviscerates the rape culture undergirding them both. Una includes quotes, statistics, and even newspaper recreations to build her argument; Becoming Unbecoming is well-researched and documented, especially for a graphic novel. The rape statistics she uses are intersectional in nature; for example, referencing the higher rates of assault for Native American women and women of color. While her focus is primarily on the UK, she includes a news story from India, and also looks at what women in the Congo are doing to combat sexual and gender-based violence.

After her assault(s), Una suffered from nightmares and PTSD. She began to see a psychiatrist; she notes that her behavioral and mental issues made her an unreliable witness – and thus a more perfect victim.

One of Una’s rapists was her mother’s boyfriend; he was also physically and emotionally abusive to her mother. Una’s parents divorced when she was young, and her mother struggled with alcohol addiction.

While most of the faces in this book are white, there are a few POC, particularly in crowd scenes.

Animal-friendly elements: Mostly n/a, although Una discusses how one of the Ripper’s victims, Wilma McCann, left her partner/the father of her children due to physical abuse. After her death, they were sent to live with him. In one scene, he appears to have killed the family’s dog – drowned her in the bathtub – thus linking interpersonal violence with animal abuse.


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