The Righteous Rage Of Aileen Wuornos
How can a dreamer be dead at 14? You could ask Aileen Wuornos, although she actually died many years later. Aileen’s life was effectively over when she was a smiling slip of a kid sucking on men’s private parts for cigarettes in the back woods near her home. The real question is what actually went on inside her head and why it eventually led her to being sentenced to death for killing seven men that she had picked up while working as a hooker on America’s highways. Aileen dreamed a dream in which she saw her life through the movies, put up a front and played the roles she thought were expected of her. The ones her life cast her in were, sadly, extraordinary. They included other characters such as one of her victim’s widow, Shirley Humphreys, who said in a televised interview that she couldn’t wait to see the bubbly blonde meet Old Sparky, as the electric chair was known.
Aileen was born in 1956 in Michigan to Diane, a mother who dumped her six months after birthing her, and Leo (her father) who was jailed for paedophilia. Aileen, her sister Laurie and her brother Keith were sent to live with her grandparents. Not that this initially bothered the bright as a button little girl with the slightly wonky grin, though she was rumoured to be the biological daughter of her grandfather and that he abused both her and her mother. In Aileen Wuornos: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, life-long friend Dawn Botkins also asserted that she had seen Wuornos beaten badly by her guardian in full knowledge that the assault was being watched. By the age of 14, still really a baby herself, she had been pregnant and the baby had already been taken from her for adoption, and soon she was living in the woods having been kicked out of home. In subsequent interviews Aileen’s breezy tone belies the bitter winters she spent sleeping in a car in the snow while still a child. Her mother later claimed to Nick Broomfield that she had no knowledge of her daughter’s plight, arguably showing the level to which she appears to have cared.
Her daughter became a pint-sized prostitute aged 9 for what seems to have been for little more than a bit of company. The local kids thought she had no shame and she suffered for it at the boys’ braying mouths, with one Jerry Moss commenting at a trial that that he would take her ‘gifts’ whilst calling her “ugly” and a “bitch” and throwing rocks at her just to make sure no one associated them together. Torn between the two personalities of an innocent dreamer and a derelict, Aileen was Les Miserables: a little girl lost. The ailing Aileen was turning blue, both through lack of love and barely any bodily heat owing to living outside at such a tender age. Realising she would have to save herself, she reached for the sunny smile of Florida.
Come on, Aileen
The good time party girl followed that dream and rocked up on Daytona Beach in search of clear blue skies. First she married yacht club president Lewis Gratz Fell (getting divorced again shortly after). Then she got on down to the local biker bar, The Last Resort, like there was no tomorrow. Then she became great mates with The Human Cannon Ball (though none of the lads would touch a lesbian or ‘flap cracker’, as she was known). Eventually, she formed a relationship with Tyria Moore, a woman she met in a gay bar in the area. Sheprofessed love for this lady despite Tyria’s alleged demands for more robberies for more money to fund their somewhat pleasure-seeking lifestyle. Aileen was creating the illusion of her life as being full of love, fun and friends all the while she was still turning tricks, but as any decent magician knows, the greatest effects work by correctly assessing the risks. Aileen’s prop was a pistol, carried for ‘protection’, but this didn’t just pop a little flag out when she pulled the trigger and she couldn’t reset the scene afterwards.
But those are just the facts. Or at least, they’re the recollections the people have of her. They jar and jive with the images we have of the woman through the medium that made her famous – the movies she knew even then that the police working on her case were selling their stories to make. We know Aileen through films: Nick Broomfield’s two documentaries (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling a Serial Killer and Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer) and as played by an ‘uglified’ Charlize Theron in the film, Monster. This is in addition to lesser-known features such as Overkill, The Aileen Wuornos Story and others besides. Wuornos was portrayed either as a drama queen with puppy dog enthusiasm who was betrayed, or as an abused pitbull that would snap if petted by the slightest unwanted hand.
That unwanted hand came courtesy of Richard Mallory, a typical pickup on the highway. Like any sex worker who wants to stay safe and make money, Aileen had to be a people pleaser on the job and spoke in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of A Serial Killer about how she would converse on politics and religion with her clients. While this probably an exaggeration of the thematic depth of her actual conversations, the style normally worked. With Mallory, however, it fell on deaf ears and he began to verbally and sexually abuse Aileen, calling her a slut and anally raping her, aided and abetted by rubbing alcohol. Relating her thought process during the attack in court, rather than simply recalling an instantaneous reaction to the situation, there is the suggestion that she realised she had to kill or potentially be killed. It is as though she projected the attack on to someone else and Aileen cried while giving her evidence. Dragging on every ounce of her reserve, she spat in his face to buy time, grabbed her bag and shot him. It was a scene of pure survival and like Jennifer from I Spit on Your Grave, she sought to make herself safe.
If that were the end of Aileen’s tale, she might still be here today. It has been commented by Broomfield that during her trial she was “medically described” as being “too immature to properly grasp the finality of death” and, importantly, the likely lenient outcomes handed down by the courts if she was found guilty. Instead, she simply kept going.
It’s impossible to know what to believe next. What we do know is that the killings happened in the aftermath of the gay rights revolution. Along with this, courtesy of theorist Judith Butler, came the theory of gender as something that is performed and the idea we play social roles to make ourselves understood. Having progressed from giggled ‘favours’ for ciggies and food to shotgun rape, Aileen’s behaviour changed as she found a whole new audience, not least herself.
In one version of events, she simply snapped: the first assault became too much to bear and she killed six men after the first murder to enact her own personal revenge for earlier experiences, over and over and over again. In the other version, she became Aileen the Warrior Queen: a Joan of Arc-style figure who charged hotrods in order to stack up the lines of dollars that would help her and Tyria fight their way to a new life. At the same time, she would avenge all womanhood by hunting down any guy who attempted to get beyond his station, particularly if this involved using rape as a weapon of on-woman war.
The argument demonstrated by director and writer Patty Jenkins’ Academy-Award winning movie, Monster, is perhaps closest to the Aileen seen in court and Nick Broomfield’s documentary footage. This Aileen has humour but is righteous about what she did. However, the confusing image we retain of Aileen is no doubt complicated by the constellation of scene-stealing extras including Arlene Pralle, the woman who adopted her after her case hit the papers and played a large part in the crucible of her later acts.
Aileen and reality
Just as Aileen’s own testimony changes depending on whom she’s talking to (and, presumably, how she wants them to react), it’s also important to remember that documentaries such as Nick Bloomfield’s are not necessarily any more of a true picture of her mental state than the fictionalisations such as the biographic movie, Monster. Bloomfield uses the reflexive mode of cinema wherein his film
narration talks through the process of making his movies and the things that can go wrong in production rather than just showcasing his subjects. It is sometimes considered a more honest approach than showing documentary films as polished products rather than gritty reality, but it also highlights the conceit at the heart of his representation of Aileen: barring one segment in which we cannot see her face, she constantly references her own representation, looks into the camera and shows that she knows that she’s being both watched and judged by the audience. She’s not being the ‘real’ her, so we can’t judge the films as proper representations of her personality, sanity or insanity.
What’s more, Broomfield cuts his footage of Aileen to represent her differently across his two different documentaries, separate products he will sell as part of his job (one now playing on the paid-for streaming service, Netflix, over a decade after its release). A key
sequence shows him interviewing Aileen about her adopted mother, Arlene, and her lawyer, Steve. The sequence focuses on the segment where Aileen rants and repeats herself, boggle-eyed and fingers jabbing, about the legal weighting accorded to the principle of self defence versus importance of the number of people killed. She looks mentally unstable and thus suitable for Broomfield’s final
comment that justice has not been served through the punishment by execution of someone unable to comprehend what they had done.
In Broomfield’s other film, an extended version of the same interview is shown. Here, while the same gestures and expressions are present, Aileen, also talks calmly about knowing that her two closest allies are using her as a prize heifer. We see only what Broomfield wants us to see, rather than what actually happens, a point brought up in the court itself as evidence. Furthermore, considering the enormity of Arlene and Steve’s actions – demonstrated by Broomfield’s footage to be the knowing emotional exploitation of a soon-to-be-executed rape victim for their own financial gain via payment for interviews – Aileen could be forgiven for being rather more angry than she appears. Her representation is not the truth, but an edited view of her suited to Broomfield’s argument, as is the norm for any documentary no matter how honest it aims (or claims) to be.
Quieter moments suggests she had the capacity to be a relatively ‘normal’ individual who had suffered the most extraordinary and terrible of circumstances. As Dr Stephen Holmes, author of Serial Murder, has told Real Crime, “Aileen Wuornos was a classic example of an individual that suffered from borderline personality and anti-social personality disorders. With these afflictions and her history of being abused both physically and emotionally as a child it is no wonder she ended up in the position she was in.”
‘Borderline personality disorder’ and ‘antisocial personality disorder’ both sound menacing until one realises that 2.6 per cent of Americans were diagnosed with the condition as of 2007, according to a study published by the Biological Psychiatry journal. Living with mental ill health is a relatively common problem. Considering what she was up against, even the most saintly would rant and rave. This, however, does not make for a good scandal. Instead, what we see is the image of Wuornos as the snaggle-toothed, ageing and bloated drow who raised her cuffed hands to her own neck (to tidy her hair) and who pulled grotesque faces (because she was tired).
We cannot know how or who she truly was because everything about her prosecution and depiction was inherently motivated by politics, both of government and of the media. She was the antithesis of what the media still says a woman should be – pliant and beautiful, especially if blessed with accepted standards of good looks, such as her blonde hair. Aileen looked outright glamorous in a photo with ex-husband Lewis Fell. It was as if the media were offended by her image alone; in comic-strip coverage she was shown as a beautiful, shapely (near naked) young streetwalker before the murders, and as an aggressive and androgynous convict in their next frame. As Broomfield’s Selling of a Serial Killer documentary reports, news outlets directly linked the seriousness of her crimes to her gender and she and Tyria were instantly dubbed “Angels of Death” who added “an even more chilling twist to the slaying” by “murdering with the feminine touch” in the otherwise standard, gun-based crimes. Aileen was demonised in order to be exorcised for being too ‘unnatural’.
This may explain her final filmed behaviour in interview with Nick Broomfield. When she thought the cameras stopped rolling she commented that she had committed most of the murders in self defence but was pleading guilty because she couldn’t stand being in prison anymore. When Nick challenged her on this in their final interview, she refused to comment and demanded to talk about the police and prison guards, mixing the fact of their corruption with ramblings about surveillance and poisoning. She may have believed this and wanted justice or simply said it to make the public hate her more to as not to prolong her prison stay.
Aileen’s last words reflect the dreamed life she was denied. She spoke of meeting Christ as well as going in a spaceship in the same way as her heroes from the movies. She also belligerently pronounced that she would be back. She perhaps chose to believe in just about anything that remained within the grasp of her tattered sanity – a religion of the truly lost.
Her story reads like a cheap paperback fantasy but it is horribly real. What remains of Aileen are documentaries, press clippings, letters and faux-fascinated compare and contrast memes matching her to the beautiful Hollywood actress who ‘uglied up’ to play her. Aileen Wuornos was a multiple murderer who robbed her victims and shot them more times than was necessary to aid her escape. We will, however, never know how situations played out or comprehend how the bright-eyed, flossy haired little girl wound up a bulge-eyed woman washing herself in public toilets and thankful for any human contact that came in her direction. We do know how her eventual death sentence was executed as much by ballot box and media ratings as by lethal injection: she was killed at 9:47am on October 9th 2002.
“I’ll be sailing away with the rock. I’ll be back with Jesus Christ like on Independence Day. On June 6th. Just like the movie on the big mothership. I’ll be back. I’ll be back.” – Aileen’s reported final words.
This article was featured in issue 4 of Real Crime Magazine. Hungry for more serial killers and true crime stories? Subscribe here and have the magazine delivered to your door every month.