The Hysterical Woman

Individuals have taken to internet comment boards en masse to highlight one lesser reported aspect surrounding the tragic shooting of Jonathan Ferrell: outrage at Sarah McCartney, the woman who initially called 911, reporting that Ferrell was attempting to break into her home.

Here are a few snippets that various users have posted about her:

“This woman sounds like a racist nutcase. My husband says she sounds like she is on drugs.”

“White women don’t hold an exclusive card for irrational overemotional responses. If you listen to her comments, it’s overly clear this is not a rational individual; at one point she becomes hysterical, convinced that the police are leaving without finding the man. I think it’s likely she would have reacted in the same manner if the man was a five foot Leprechaun. ”

“I hope her husband has the good sense to divorce her after this.”

“Shouldn’t she just have asked the man what he wanted?”

“her biggest mistake was not rationally communicating with him through the closed door. Then she would have know why he was there.”

“I don’t want to sound uncaring, but her constant squealing, “oh my God,” every 5 seconds, became fairly annoying.”

“I couldn’t listen to the entire recording, all the whining and dramatics made it ridiculous.”

“The 911 dispatcher did a good job at keeping her calm but he contributed to her paranoia asking her if she had a way to protect herself. She did not need protection she need to pull her head out of her arze.”

Why is it that when a woman is emotional, she is labeled crazy, hysterical, or paranoid? Could it possibly be that, in the same vein of slut-shaming, this serves as one additional example of the narrowly range-bound and exacting expectations placed on women by society?

As a woman who has recently undergone the experience of encountering an unidentified man at my home late at night, I personally empathize with Sarah McCartney. I also posit that, unless you have ever felt the vulnerability of being an unarmed woman – the genuine “I could be raped or killed and I’m helpless against it” vulnerability – then you should attempt to empathize as well.

My wife and I recently bought a home – one constructed almost entirely of glass that affords great views and is utterly impractical when it comes down to security. We are a household of two Asian American women each under 5’8” (ok, I routinely lie about this – I’m closer to topping out at 5’7”) and two Chihuahuas each under 6 pounds. If someone really wanted to rob or harm us, it’s not inconceivable that our household would be one of the easier targets.

Around midnight during our second night in our new home, I saw a man whom I did not know shine a flashlight into our ground floor, then walk off. He was wearing a backpack and dressed in all black. After immediately calling my little brother to assess the situation, I spent a sleepless night which involved lining the floor near our doors with beer bottles (which would theoretically fall over and alert us should someone open a door), and slinking around the home with one of our Chihuahuas in tow, on guard for any strangers with ill intent. Suffice it to say, I was a little peeved when I learned the next day that the listing agent conveniently forgot to mention to us that our neighborhood has night security guards who check in on all the homes. (She certainly will not be receiving a Christmas card from us this year.)

Sarah McCartney, home alone with her child, was jarred awake at 2:30am to the sound of someone frantically knocking on her door. Expecting her husband, she opened the door, saw a man she did not recognize, and immediately shut the door and called 911. The pursuant 911 call can be heard on YouTube and is the object of the scrutiny and criticism listed above.

At the most basic of levels, there exists the notion that we should not judge others (can you definitively state how you would have reacted at 2:30 in the morning, groggy, shocked and your veins coursing with adrenaline?); and upon a deeper examination, I cannot help but query the damage inflicted on the overall discourse surrounding Jonathan Ferrell’s shooting by the hatred directed at Sarah McCartney.

Firstly, there are the clearly misogynistic undertones in characterizing McCartney as hysterical for her decision to not calmly carry on a conversation with Ferrell. After all, I like to consider myself a fairly rational human being and it never once occurred to me to say to the man with the flashlight, “Hi, is there a particular reason you are shining your flashlight into our glass home at this hour?” Instead, I froze – quite literally. It was only after his departure that my fear subsided enough for me to call my brother for advice.

There was also the critique that even though McCartney shut her door, she should have asked Ferrell through her door what was wrong and if he needed help. How do I put this delicately, America? You cannot have your cake and eat it, too. Owning guns and arming ourselves to the hilt may make us feel safer as we sit in our protected fortresses, but our daily interactions are now shaped by the reality that we have no clue whatsoever if that other person is carrying deadly force. I am in no way condoning shootings of civilians by the police, but have we ever stopped and asked ourselves how the militarization of our society also shapes the assessment of risk (and hence reaction) on a daily basis by police officers?

Finally, let us not forget the very basic fact that McCartney is not a trained professional. The onus was not on her to accurately assess the situation, ask Ferrell his intentions, and then call the police with a fully accurate report. She was, and is allowed to be, a frightened mother at home alone with her child. The misplaced hatred at Sarah McCartney only detracts from the core issue that we should be examining: did the police officer, the trained professional at the scene who has sworn an oath to protect and serve, act improperly and with excessive force in shooting an unarmed man? Was race a factor here, and does it represent a larger issue endemic to our culture?

Any criticisms of hysteria or paranoia directed toward Sarah McCartney not only smack of unfettered misogyny, but also do the greatest disservice to Jonathan Ferrell by acting as a distraction from the proper inquiry he deserves surrounding his death and the social constructions that could have played a contributing factor.


Vania is an investor in the Media industry, focusing on music, film and TV. She sits on the Management Board of BMG Chrysalis, the world's largest independent music publisher. She and her partner live in London, but also split their time between Los Angeles and Berlin. Twitter: NirVan1a

2 thoughts on “The Hysterical Woman

  • December 11, 2013 at 11:49 am

    She lied and said he was breaking into her house when asked by the dispatcher. This sent the police into a whole different training of thought. Had she had not lied, this man might very well be alive. Hysterical, i don’t think so, but she did lie and that started the process down this sad sad road for Jonathan and his family.

  • December 11, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Shadiff, thanks for your comment. Could it perhaps be that she (1) was jarred awake, and probably not fully awake, and (2) confused a stranger banging in desperation at her door as trying to break in? I don’t think we should be so quick to judge — much less state such extrapolations that she caused the police to kill him. The police are meant to be trained professionals, taught to not shoot on arrival but upon assessment of calculated risk. The onus is on them.


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