How to Become a Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

by Laura Kipnis

29 September 2011

Image from the film poster for Scandal, Inc. (1956) 

Women Drivers

Clearly scandal favors certain motifs, but is it also drawn to particular locales? The question arises because, oddly enough, another spectacular revenge scandal had erupted just a few years before in the same bedroom community south of Houston where Nowak and her husband lived, involving yet another scorned woman behind the wheel. This was Clara Harris, a forty-five-year-old dentist who claimed that running over her unfaithful orthodontist-husband, David, with her Mercedes in the parking lot of the hotel she’d discovered him at in the company of their receptionist (the Harrises shared a dental practice in addition to a cancerous marriage) was an accident. David died of his injuries, which included a broken back, pelvis, jaw, and multiple smashed ribs.

Initially, after David confessed the three-month affair, Clara did try forgiveness (first firing the receptionist), though as Reik might have predicted, it didn’t take. The night David broke the news, he and Clara went to a bar together to talk over the situation. Though David promised to end the affair, he also justified his straying by telling Clara that she was overweight, pessimistic, and a workaholic and that she dominated conversations, whereas Gail, the receptionist/love-object, a thirty-nine-year-old former beauty queen, was, by contrast, petite, an optimist, and the perfect fit to sleep with; in fact he could sleep all night holding her. This last bit of information was particularly devastating to Clara, since David had never slept holding her all night, though on the plus side, Clara did have prettier hands, feet, and eyes. (Clara kept notes about the conversation on a cocktail napkin that was later introduced into evidence at her trial.)

Though David sounds like a husband anyone would be well rid of, apparently he had his charms, since within a day Clara embarked on a whirlwind plan to save their ten-year marriage by becoming everything she thought David wanted in a wife. This included quitting her job, having sex with him three times a night (or so she testified), cooking his favorite meals, hiring a personal trainer, and beginning bronzing sessions at a tanning salon. Her checkbook, which police found in the dented Mercedes following the homicide, was a manic itemized record of female abjection, with carbons for checks written in the days leading up to David’s death to a hair salon (she’d decided to go blond), a spa, a nail salon, a lingerie shop, a clothing store, a gym ($1,277.35 for a one-year membership), and two checks to a plastic surgeon with whom she’d scheduled both liposuction and breast enlargement surgery. There was also a check made out to the private detective agency she hired to trail David (which was how she learned he was at the hotel), the rather whimsically named Blue Moon Investigations, one of whose employees, stationed in the hotel parking lot with a video camera, ended up being perfectly situated to film their client plowing down her husband with her car. And one final check, to a local Baptist church for its building fund: if the plastic surgery god didn’t come through, maybe the other one would.

The hotel, the Nassau Bay Hilton, happened to be the same one where the Harrises had gotten married ten years earlier on Valentine’s Day. (It also happened to be across the road from the Johnson Space Center, where Lisa Nowak worked.) Now, just a week after David’s confession to Clara and following a romantic late-afternoon lunch at a lake-view table, he and Gail had checked into a room. Did he really have to go to the same hotel—does Houston have only one of them? Not only had David promised to break off the affair, he’d even confessed it to his parents and daughter; the purpose of the lunch was supposedly to end things with Gail, and Clara had agreed to a final meeting. Learning that David was at a hotel instead, Clara instructed the nanny to pack a week’s worth of clothes in an old suitcase and throw the rest of his wardrobe in the trash. Arriving at the Hilton in lethal form, she demanded the desk clerk call David’s room, but there was no record of him; he’d checked in under an assumed name. Clara finally reached him on his cell, inventing an emergency at home; when David and Gail appeared in the lobby Clara sprang on Gail, tearing her blouse. Hotel security guards broke up the fight, and the ménage retreated to the parking lot, where Clara keyed her former receptionist’s Lincoln Navigator, leaving deep scratches along the sides and rear, then ripped off the windshield wiper blades as her coup de grâce.

David was heading for his own car when Clara careened into him with her Mercedes. There would later be disagreement between the defense and state pathologists about exactly how many times he’d been run over, though it appeared to have been more than once. David may have been king of the cads, but Clara managed to lose whatever wronged-female sympathy vote she might have accrued by virtue of having David’s seventeen-year-old daughter with her in the car, as if to punish the child for the crimes of the father, in the classical mode. (Euripides’ Medea springs to mind, the original spurned woman—“Her mood is dangerous, nor will she brook her cruel treatment,” another character remarks of her—though Medea killed her children rather than her philandering husband, a somewhat more wrenching denouement.) Lindsey Harris testified against her stepmother at the trial, tearfully disputing Clara’s testimony that it had been an accident. “She stepped on the accelerator and went straight for him,” she told the jurors. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, it was an accident.’ She knew what she did and she wasn’t sorry.” Clara sobbed throughout her trial, shaking and weeping so loudly during the coroner’s testimony about her husband’s injuries—some fifty autopsy photos of David Harris’s body were shown to the jury—that the (female) judge warned, “We’re just not going to have a big show going on.” The jury concurred that Clara’s crime was “an act of sudden passion” as her lawyer had argued—a peculiarly Texan legal throwback to the code of the Old West—but sentenced her to twenty years anyway. At the sentencing hearing her pastor argued for probation in lieu of prison, noting that under biblical law David and Gail had committed the sin of adultery. He didn’t prevail, but at least that building fund check Clara wrote didn’t go entirely to waste. (The inevitable made-for-TV movie, Suburban Madness, came two years later. The television treatment of women murdering their husbands tends to be sympathetic these days (playing to the secret fantasies of the genre’s core demographic?), melodrama veering toward kitsch; the screenplays take an arch and knowing tone toward the male victims and their treacheries, and the actresses playing the leads invariably push it up a couple of notches, like late-period Joan Crawford. )

Reports occasionally surface of an obscure human tribe that lacks the propensity to overvalue those who’ve abandoned them, but reports occasionally surface of unicorn sightings too. The rest of us are left muddling through with makeshift forms of revenge that, in deference to social proprieties, usually stop short of outright slaughter. Shark like divorce lawyers and murderous property settlements generally have to do, though how can even the worst financial punishments suffice when someone’s fallen out of love with you? You want them dead. Clara Harris’s murderous impulse isn’t hard to fathom; what’s less clear is why she not only mowed down her husband in front of as many witnesses as she could assemble on short notice but also arranged to have the act captured on videotape, as though preparing the evidence for her own prosecution. Perhaps the score settling wasn’t with David alone: Clara blamed herself for the affair (if only she’d been thinner), then punished her husband for succumbing, then punished herself for administering the punishment. Clara Harris may have killed her husband, but it’s not as though she wasn’t also deeply beholden to social proprieties; unfortunately, they’re not so easy to elude.

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