Complex Feminist Fantasias: On Elizabeth Flock’s “The Furies”

By Emily Ann ZiskoFebruary 25, 2024

Complex Feminist Fantasias: On Elizabeth Flock’s “The Furies”

The Furies: Women, Vengeance and Justice by Elizabeth Flock

ELIZABETH FLOCK WASN’T yet 21 when she set off for Rome with friends. Their plan was to explore and enjoy; innocent and excited, Flock left, as she says in her new book The Furies: Women, Vengeance and Justice, “thinking of nothing but the Spanish Steps and rigatoni.” The group signed up for a tour on their very first night, only for Flock to be roofied by her guide and come to, mid-rape, in his bed. Bent on survival at the time, the 20-year-old “let it happen,” “dissociated,” and “was gone”—unsurprisingly, the experience has haunted her for the past 15 years.

Flock’s latest work of nonfiction stems from an incredibly vulnerable place. From the book’s first page, the L.A.- and Chicago-based, Emmy Award–winning journalist makes clear that, for her and an agonizing number of others, the topic at hand—violence committed against women and reaffirmed through a nearly global network of patriarchal institutions and systems—is, above all else, personal. She explains how, too often, these harrowingly intimate transgressions beget only trauma, unsuccessful lawsuits, and an unrequited desire for justice. Occasionally, victims are driven to extralegal measures; as Flock writes of her own rape, “I’ve wondered how that morning, and my life since, might have been different if I’d had access to a knife or a gun.”

The Furies tells the tragicomic stories of three women who did have access to knives and guns, among other weapons. Their names are Brittany Smith, Angoori Dahariya, and Cicek Mustafa Zibo (Flock defaults to using their first names throughout the book), and the book’s tragedies are born of what each woman endured: Brittany shot and killed her rapist, a former friend she agreed to let crash at her place during a snowstorm; Angoori, a Dalit once beaten and evicted by her upper-caste landlord, created a girl gang to challenge injustices in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh; and Cicek fought in the YPJ, Syria’s all-female Kurdish militia, to combat ISIS’s invasion of the newly self-governing Rojava region. Any comedy imbuing these women’s experiences is rooted in the absurd—that is, the (sur)reality of living under what bell hooks termed an “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

Cases in point: The state of Alabama charged Brittany with murder rather than self-defense; Angoori’s gang dissolved in the process of politicizing to reach a wider network of women; and Cicek’s liberation of Syria was successful only with aid from the United States that was later terminated when Turkey, an American ally, invaded. Put another way, these are not happy stories, and they don’t have happy endings. However much the women “took matters into their own hands,” readers might reasonably question whether their efforts to fight back ultimately led to tangible change. Still, Flock hopes that, by sharing their struggles, her three chosen Furies will set “events into motion that very well may change the world after them.”


In some ways, Brittany Smith’s story resembles Flock’s; both women were raped by older, ostensibly trustworthy men. But the aftermath for each proved markedly different. Flock didn’t press charges (“I did not go to the police,” she writes, “because I did not think they would help me”), while Brittany, who was arrested after fatally shooting her rapist, Joshua “Todd” Smith (no relation to Brittany), endeavored to be found not guilty on grounds of self-defense. Specifically, she invoked the “Stand Your Ground” principle, or the common-law doctrine dictating that individuals have the “right to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to protect themselves against an intruder in their home.” Through a rigorous and infuriating account of Brittany’s court case—the single mother eventually pled guilty to murder to avoid a longer sentence on manslaughter charges—Flock renders her primary argument in the section clear: the justice system in Alabama functions as a cruel and highly effective tool for the suppression of women.

The journalist’s previous reporting buttresses this unsavory truth. Flock covered Brittany’s case for The New Yorker in 2020, contributed to the 2022 Netflix documentary State of Alabama vs. Brittany Smith, and has appeared on several podcasts to discuss women and self-defense law. In The Furies, her comprehensive analysis draws on academic research, the work of women’s rights advocates, and local testimonials, concluding that “[i]t is overwhelming how many women in the U.S. who have claimed self-defense have served so much time. The names and stories could go on like an endless scroll.” And, here at least, they do: Brittany Smith, Amy Herrera, Debi Zuver, Alisha Walker, CeCe McDonald, Willie Mae Harris, Tewkunzi Green …

Particularly incisive is Flock’s assessment of the ways so-called justice systems pathologize and punish women. For her part, Brittany falls outside the category that Norwegian sociologist and criminologist Nils Christie characterized as that of an “ideal victim,” or the type of individual likely to “generat[e] the most sympathy from society”; a single mother of four, she is a recovering methamphetamine addict who, fearing loss of custody after her rape and Todd’s death, initially told the police that her brother, Chris McCallie, had fired the gun. Flock goes on to discuss battered woman syndrome, similarly mishandled court cases, and the misogynistic public reception of Brittany’s trial, thereby weaving a Philomela-like tapestry of singular and irrefutable injustice on her subject’s behalf. She also demands that readers recognize their closeness to Brittany’s subjugation—in a post-Roe America, it would be intentionally ignorant to believe that the often violent oppression of women stops at the borders of Alabama.


The Furies’ preface deftly outlines its aim: to highlight its subjects’ common, eminently human drives toward agency and survival. Accordingly, Brittany, Angoori, and Cicek are sistered in these pages, “their stories of pain” aggregated and “transmuted,” collectively, “into power.” At the same time, as an intersectional feminist, Flock exhibits vital awareness of the women’s respective ethnicities, beliefs, and nationalities, as well as other idiosyncrasies of their lived experiences, and she handles each narrative with due care. In light of this general attentiveness, the book’s lack of trans women’s representation registers as an uncharacteristic oversight. It’s a particularly unfortunate one given the recent wave of anti-transgender legislation in the United States and the historic ostracization of trans women from mainstream feminist writing (Flock mentions, but only in passing, CeCe Macdonald, a trans woman given jail time after stabbing a man she said was assaulting her).

Still, in the hands of a less adept journalist, The Furies might read as a predictable, even formulaic feminist exposé. But Flock acknowledges the women’s fallibilities as readily as she does their strengths. Her account of Angoori is especially knotted, following the gang leader as she kidnaps a grieving mother to obtain the names of that mother’s murdered daughter’s rapists; takes bribes from politicians to expand her influence in Uttar Pradesh; and, most distressingly, beats, kidnaps, and forces a teenage girl to marry a stranger as punishment for having an affair with a different man.

These and other questionable events unfold as part of Angoori’s creation of the Green Gang, a group of Indian women clad in green saris and brandishing lathis, or bamboo canes. Their mission? To “take on anyone who dared hurt a woman,” by way of intimidation and violence. During the gang’s 15 years of activity, Angoori often falls short of her stated aims. Yet, just as Flock recounts Angoori’s exploits in bracing detail, so too does the journalist consider the gang leader in crucial context, suggesting that her violent brand of vigilantism stems from a foundational (and understandable) desperation. She cites an effectively infinite backlog of Indian court cases, law enforcement corruption, an entrenched culture of violence against women, and the damaging effects of the outlawed caste system as potentially ripe soil for the seeds of gang-style justice in the region.

Notably, Angoori is not alone in her quest. Departing from the mostly linear, investigative structure employed throughout Brittany’s section, Flock braids Angoori’s story with that of another infamous low-caste bandit queen, Phoolan Devi (a stylistic shift that emphasizes the contrast between a woman working, albeit vainly, to find justice within the law and others taking justice into their own weapon-wielding hands). Phoolan, who notoriously executed 22 men from a village in which she had previously been gang-raped, went on to serve two terms in Parliament as a member of the Samajwadi Party. Eventually, she was assassinated outside her home in New Delhi at 37 years of age. Flock writes: “Angoori was not surprised by the ending to Phoolan Devi’s story. A female vigilante upset many people doing the work she did.”

What is that work, exactly? The answer isn’t easily summarized. Angoori’s Green Gang emboldened and liberated many women from domestic abuse and caste-based discrimination. They also harassed politicians and police, obstructed the judicial process, tampered with political votes, and committed arson and assault, among other crimes. In relating all this, Flock clears space for opposing truths, demonstrating how many women embody myriad, simultaneous contradictions to survive.

Such contradictions are not unique to Angoori, or even the women in the book. Upon introducing Brittany’s assaulter and rapist, Todd, Flock notes that, according to the “honor-based” culture of the American South, Todd’s “violence was learned, if not forced upon [him] by [his] caretakers.” This observation bears marked similarity to Flock’s later conclusion that she believes her female subjects’ “individual failings […] caught up to them and complicated their stories.” As with Todd, she characterizes these failings as, “in part, a response to living within damaging cultures of honor.” Consequently, while the women in question “sought to change the status quo,” they “never fully escaped the oppressive systems they grew up in and continue to live under.”


In her 1975 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous argues that women employ alternative means of communication to circumvent institutional and patriarchal language. These include uniquely feminine modes of writing, speaking, singing, and—most importantly—laughing. Flock certainly captures the laughter of her three chosen Furies (gratifyingly, her calls for change remain audible above their cackles).

Perhaps no one laughs louder than Cicek, a soldier in the YPJ (an acronym that, in English, translates to Women’s Protection Units) fighting ISIS insurgents in the Rojava region of northern Syria. Cicek joined the group in 2013, at 17 years old, and quickly became known for her loud, joyful exclamations upon killing. In Cixousian fashion, Flock underscores the subversive, feminist significance of Cicek’s notorious laughter and other audible expressions of defiance; following a successful American airstrike against ISIS militants in the city of Kobani, for example, she relates how Cicek and her fellow hevals, or comrades,

shouted and […] ululated, a wavering, high-pitch call. People wailed that way at weddings in Syria to greet a bride and groom’s arrival, and the YPJ fighters had started doing it, too, no one quite sure where it began. To Cicek, ululation was both joyful and a message to her enemies, “that whatever you do, we still have the power to fight and enjoy ourselves at the same time.”

Passages like these demonstrate Flock’s masterstroke: the immediacy and occasionally unnerving potency of her mythmaking. The book’s prelude assembles a vivid and complex feminist fantasia, calling on fierce goddesses from each woman’s cultural tradition: the Greek goddess Athena, who, born from the rape of her mother, “sprang from [Zeus’s] skull with a ferocious war cry, fully grown and clad in armor”; the Hindu goddess Durga, who was “merciful of mind but fought with fierce cruelty in war”; and the Sumerian goddess Inanna, who sat “on harnessed lions [and cut] to pieces him who show[ed] no respect.” As promised by the book’s title, Flock also invokes the three Furies of Greek mythology—Tisiphone, the “voice of vengeance”; Megaera, who was “grudging”; and Alecto, the “unceasing one.”

Flock thereby aligns her subjects with the divine and the damned. Just as these women alchemized their pain into power, so too does The Furies forge their narratives of loss into myths of reclamation. It’s hard to tell where one myth ends and the next begins—Brittany is Athena is Tisiphone, Angoori is Durga is Megaera, Cicek is Inanna is Alecto—as the women’s stories repeat, overlap, and bleed into similar tales from their respective communities.

Make no mistake: these are upsetting stories to share. Still, though Brittany, Angoori, and Cicek ultimately fall prey to systemic patriarchal forces, Flock’s work feels hopeful, even rebellious. Because, just as women confront similar challenges, so too can they stage analogous forms of resistance. This slim but palpable silver lining is encapsulated by the final line of the book’s section on Angoori, in which, describing the arrest of another upstart bandit queen who robbed local traders and kidnapped a landowner’s son for ransom, Flock writes: “One official acknowledged ‘how innocent she looks,’ and how normal—which is to say that any woman could be her.” Which is to say, so too, dear reader, could you.

LARB Contributor

Emily Ann Zisko is a writer, filmmaker, and the literary editor of Currant Jam magazine. Her written work has been published in the Beloit Fiction Journal, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Currant Jam. Her web series, Play It by Ear, is available on the Karen Twins Productions YouTube channel. She lives in Los Angeles.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!