Murderer or Battered Woman?

Author: Bill Griffeth

One late night in April 1991, the abuse was finally too much for Gloria Burtzlaff. She walked down the stairs, loaded the gun, walked back, said “Larry, I’m going to kill you,” and shot her husband dead. From there, the trial spooled out, but South Dakota did not allow expert witnesses to offer a diagnosis of “battered woman syndrome.” Besides, Gloria had had an affair, one that lasted years. She had options. She showed calm forethought. It was enough to put her away, but was it all really true? What is battered woman syndrome, and how does it manifest? How does someone who has been abused and threatened, day in and day out, perceive their own safety, see the possibility and opportunity of escape?

From prison Gloria began to share her insights, to tell her story, to work to change the law. This then is her story, a story of murder, of a case, of physical and phycological abuse, and of a growing awareness of battered woman syndrome.

The author, Bill Griffeth, was distantly related to Gloria. She was a cousin of his wife. The sort of extended family you only see at big events. She and her long-term husband, Larry, seemed happy. How did no one see what was happening until it was too late? What really happened that night? These were questions Griffeth brought to the table in this thoughtful, non-judgmental, and well produced blow-by-blow description of a vicious crime, what led to it, and how laws and society have evolved since the 90s. It’s still not an easy or a clear-cut story since it explores the depths and complexities of toxic relationships and domestic violence.

Have At It, Sister is an exceptionally well-done true crime narrative, one with a purpose beyond just recounting a singular event. The scope is how Gloria’s case revealed society’s prejudices and how our collective understanding of domestic abuse, especially as it impacts women, has grown and then influenced the law.

But, of course, it starts with Gloria and what happened. Her husband Larry was monstrous, but he too had his own issues. A complicated career, failing health, rage issues, and then discovering his wife’s long-term affair with a co-worker. It’s hard to empathize with Larry, but Griffith tactfully showcases the humanness inherent even in abusers. We see how events spiraled for Larry, and we see, sometimes, briefly, why Gloria still loved him, why she stayed, and why she was terrified to leave.

Image by heliofil from Pixabay

The Audible original version of this story uses multiple voice actors to recreate the events, to highlight the conclusion, and the suspiciously contradictory nature of Gloria’s frantic testimony the night she shot her husband. These voice actors evoke the atmosphere of the trial, the personalities of those involved, the rage and sympathy in equal turns.

While Griffith makes excellent points about battered woman syndrome, letting experts and science speak to the heartache so many women walk through daily, I was never entirely sure if Gloria was telling the full truth. It was more than evident that she was abused . . . yet. . . the affair rankles. The fact that her former lover was not called to the stand seems odd to me. Of all people, would she have not told this man the most about her private life? Could he not have shed light on their relationship, but, more importantly, if she had continual bruises, if she was afraid of Larry, if she spoke of verbal and physical abuse, wouldn’t this be the person most likely to know?

That being said, I do believe that Larry was abusive, and there is no reason, no justification for his abuse. Could Gloria have walked away? Yes . . . but then again, could the law really have stopped Larry from coming after her? Is any justice really done until it’s too late, until there is a body? These questions, and more, are part of the discourse, making this true crime narrative both interesting (I feel guilty even saying that) and more importantly, thought provoking at both a moral and legal level.

True crime fans, people interested in learning more about battered women’s syndrome and how laws regarding it have been shaped by real events, and anyone looking for an engaging non-fiction narrative should enjoy Have At It, Sister.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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