Liane Moriarty’s 2013 book, The Husband’s Secret, is a page-turning mystery that centers on the lives of three women whose paths cross when one life-changing secret is revealed.
The secret, it turns out, is murder.
Over twenty years ago, when they were only teenagers, John-Paul Fitzpatrick killed Janie Crowley.
It was an accident, he insists. He lashed out in a moment of anger, and he tried to stop himself as soon as he realized what was happening. By then, it was too late. He instantly and regretted what he had done and wanted to take it back — he loved her.
What did Janie do to make him so angry he would kill her?
She rejected him, and then she laughed at him.
It was a nervous laugh, a bad habit. She could see how deeply he was hurt by her rejection, and she felt anxious. So she laughed.
It was the laughter that caused John-Paul to lunge at her and put his hands around her neck.
“I was a stupid teenage boy. She told me she was seeing someone else, and then she laughed at me,” he said. “I’m so sorry, but that’s the only reason I have. I know it’s no reason at all. I loved her, and then she laughed at me.”
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” ― Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, is credited with saying, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It seems Moriarty took this observation and made an entire novel out of it.
In 1996, documentarian Mary Dickinson interviewed men and women about their fears, anecdotally testing this theory. Women’s fears were what you would expect:
“I worry sometimes that I might get attacked or something by some guy because I run in the morning and it’s always real dark. I got a dog, so that I can run with him, and I also carry mace on me now when I run.”
Men, she writes, “tended to be more afraid of failure or being humiliated.”
“I’m most afraid of being stupid.”
“Failure is the dominant fear in my life.”
“I think I’m most afraid of an overall loss of control.”
Men are absolutely terrified of being humiliated. This is because to be humiliated is to be put in the feminine position. Women’s position in society is one that is humiliating by default, and men enjoy humiliating women. It gives them a sense of power and control which they rarely have over other men.
In her 1999 book, The Whole Woman, controversial feminist theorist Germaine Greer examined the motives of men who expose themselves in public. She writes that men find the fear of their victims “gratifying and exciting.” This fear, she claims, is used to keep women in their place —terrified, out of the public sphere, and dependant on other men for safety.
Refusing to show fear, anger, and humiliation to a man strips him of his power. This, Greer claims, can prompt a man to lash out in an attempt to regain his dominant position.
Laughter is the opposite of fear. It is fearless — and it can pierce a male ego to its core.
Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.
A recent thread on a radical feminist forum on Reddit discussed the power that women’s laughter has over men. The original poster writes:
“Men do not fear female anger the same way that women fear male anger; in fact, men enjoy it, and are therefore incentivized to continue provoking us. Although women may feel humiliated, frustrated, or silenced when men laugh at them, we do not fear it the same way that men do… Female laughter is, apparently, the most terrifying thing that could possibly happen to a man.”
This power, she discovered, could be used not only with the twelve-year-old boy she was babysitting, but also with her adult boyfriend — who enjoyed her anger and said it was “cute” when she got mad. So she stopped getting mad and started laughing at him. Suddenly, his attitude changed.
Yet, as most women probably instinctively know, this is a dangerous game.
Multiple commenters on the post shared stories about how when they had tried to laugh at a man, he lashed out. One woman’s boyfriend even tried to strangle her, just like Janie:
“When the party died down a bit, and there was only a few guests left, he started in on me again. I jokingly said, “go to bed, old man” and laughed at him. He lost it. Started strangling me right there on the couch in front of everybody… don’t underestimate male anger and violence, and laughter is a surefire way to enrage them.”
In July of 2017, The Washington Post reported on a man who had killed his wife during an Alaskan cruise. “She wouldn’t stop laughing at me,” he said.
A few months later, a man in Russia stabbed a woman 88 times because she laughed at him when she discovered that he was not a “successful businessman” as he had claimed.
In February of 2019, a man in Pennsylvania repeatedly threw a woman across the room and sexually assaulted her after she laughed at him.
So men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them, and women who laugh at men are killed by them. This isn’t just fiction anymore.
The truth is, no matter how powerful it may feel to laugh at a man and put him in his place for a brief moment, women don’t actually have any real power here. As the commenters on Reddit pointed out, “ I do not advise using this technique if you are in an unsafe situation… Only do this if you feel safe.”
And when should women feel safe?
Janie never would have thought John-Paul would wrap his hands around her neck and rip the breath out of her lungs.
Though The Husband’s Secret is fiction, Moriarty has told a true story. “Women,” as Germaine Greer wrote, “have very little idea how much men hate them.”
Three women are killed almost every day by former or current intimate partners — people who were supposed to love them. But killing, despite the romanticized idea of “crimes of passion,” is not an act of love.
John-Paul did not love Janie, despite his pathetic pleas two decades later. He wanted her. He wanted to own her.
“I thought you were my girlfriend,” he sobbed.
And Janie laughed.