Aileen Wuornos killed seven men, and some people love her for it.
There have been many portrayals of her tortured life. In 1992, Jean Smart, from Designing Women, portrayed her in a TV movie called Overkill. In 2001, San Francisco premiered an operatic adaptation of her life. Jewel wrote a song called “Nicotine Love”. In 2003 a documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer attempted to explain her motivations. The director said:
“I think this anger developed inside her. And she was working as a prostitute. I think she had a lot of awful encounters on the roads. And I think this anger just spilled out from inside her. And finally exploded. Into incredible violence. That was her way of surviving. I think Aileen really believed that she had killed in self-defense. I think someone who’s deeply psychotic can’t really tell the difference between something that is life threatening and something that is a minor disagreement, that you could say something that she didn’t agree with. She would get into a screaming black temper about it. And I think that’s what had caused these things to happen. And at the same time, when she wasn’t in those extreme moods, there was an incredible humanity to her.”
Also in 2003, Charlize Theron won a Best Actress Academy Award for the movie Monster, in which Aileen was portrayed as a nuanced character. There might be a certain group that has decided to love anyone Charlize depicts – I challenge them to see Young Adult – but there are other reasons for the appeal.
Feminist Rag remembers her fondly as “the beautiful Aileen Wuornos” and calls her “a hero and inspiration to all women in the face of male violence”, quoting Aileen’s own words, “You sabotaged my ass! Society, and the cops, and the system! A raped woman got executed, and was used for books and movies and shit!”
Carla Lucero, who made the opera about Wuornos, claimed, “I feel a strong yet reluctant connection to Aileen Wuornos. Her story embodies the darkness in every victim’s soul and the fleeting fantasies of every survivor.”
Killing people. Justified because the people victimized you. Which may have been the case with Aileen. Her defense for killing seven men was always “I killed ’em all because they got violent with me and I decided to defend myself.”
All of which is fantastic if Aileen was in fact a victim. The court sentenced her to the death penalty, so a jury seemed to disagree with that assessment. It is important to remember that she did kill seven men, and we do generally frown upon killing people. I sometimes think that people are become apologists for female serial killers (and you see this with Elizabeth Bathory) simply because there are few enough of them that we assume that the women who do become serial killers must have had good reason.
It might help to look back to her fairly bleak childhood to draw your own conclusions about justifications. I will reserve mine until we reach the end of this indisputably unhappy tale.
Aileen was born in 1956 in Troy, Michigan. I am going to look up Troy. Apparently Troy is home to Antoine’s Ice Cream Parlor, which offers a very intriguing “play dough ice cream.” I was trying to find something that might have been nice about Aileen’s upbringing, but I bet this emporium wasn’t there in the 1950’s, so maybe there was not a single nice thing about her childhood.
Her family situation wasn’t great; her father was in prison for kidnapping and raping a 7 year old girl. Her mother doesn’t sound all that terrific either; witnesses later claimed that she would abandon her children for hours at a time, leaving them loudly crying. One day, she left her children, Aileen included, with her roommate and never returned.
Aileen was adopted by her grandparents. She later claimed they abused her, but the abuse wasn’t sexual in nature.
That is not the same thing as a happy outcome.
Her grandfather – despite not abusing her sexually! – did punish her with beatings of a leather belt. He also once made her eat food out of the trash as a punishment for throwing her meal away too early. Of the two, I think I’d probably prefer being hit with a belt.
By the time she was 11, Aileen was having sex with teenage boys in exchange for cigarettes. At school, her nickname became Cigarette Pig. I think this is pretty self explanatory, and also awful.
When she was 14 she became pregnant, and she was forced to give up her child for adoption despite begging to keep him. Despite begging the hospital staff, she never even saw him.
By the time she was 15, Aileen left her grandparents’ home, and became a hitchhiker.
Christ, I wish someone at some point had taken her to an ice cream parlor.
But then, bizarrely, something kind of nice happened!
In 1976 Aileen got married. To a 69 year old, extremely wealthy man named Lewis Gratz Fell. He was the retired president of a yacht club. Aileen was considered very pretty at that time and for a while they seemed quite happy. This could be a kind of weird-nice story, with Aileen as a kind of Anna Nicole Smith type, but it’s not.
Lewis filed for divorce, claiming that Aileen beat him with a cane. Before that, she had been arrested for assaulting people in a bar. Aileen responded that she was the one who had been beaten, and, furthermore, that Lewis had paid her $30 every time they had sex. That seems a little beside the point, but it may indicate that it was not a match based on deep love and mutual passion.
These incidents make it so difficult to figure out Aileen’s character, because, frankly, either version seems plausible. 69 year old yacht club presidents who marry pretty teenage runaways are perhaps not the stablest people in the entire world. They seem like they might be into some weird stuff. However, Aileen also came from a family where violence was seen as a reasonable way to handle situations, and by that point she’d developed a pretty serious alcohol problem, and was known for having fits of uncontrollable rage (though, again, that could just have been a natural reaction to her traumatic childhood).
Either way, they were divorced, and Aileen resumed hitchhiking. She was convicted for armed robbery, theft, assault and battery and a list of other crimes that make you wonder if, yes, maybe she did beat Lewis with a cane.
Eventually, she was arrested, and spent three years in prison. When she was released, she informed her family she was a lesbian. And then another kind of happy thing happened!
Aileen met Tyria Moore, who was to prove to be the longest relationship of her life. Tyria worked as a hotel chambermaid, while Aileen began prostituting herself by roadside bars. Aileen claimed she did this in part so that Tyria could stop working, which seems very sweet, except that this was obviously a very dangerous and poorly thought out plan. If you have a passion for turning tricks for truck drivers for $20, well, to each their own. However, this is not usually the kind of lucrative career move that will allow you to support your lover far into the future.
In 1989, Aileen arrived at Tyria’s in a Cadillac, which she claimed was “borrowed.” She told Tyria they could move to a new apartment. Again, this might have been a happy moment if, later that day, Tyria did not recount that Aileen suddenly said, “I killed a guy today.” She explained that she had hidden his body in the woods.
Tyria was horrified.
Though her horror seemingly wasn’t enough to dissuade Aileen from killing more people. Her victims – or aggressors, as Aileen claimed that every one was violent with her – are listed on Wikipedia, as:
Richard Mallory, age 51, December 1, 1989—Electronics store owner in Clearwater, Florida. Wuornos’ first victim was a convicted rapist whom she claimed to have killed in self-defense. Two days later, a Volusia County, Florida, Deputy Sheriff found Mallory’s abandoned vehicle. On December 13, Mallory’s body was found several miles away in a wooded area. He had been shot several times, but two bullets to the left lung were found to have been the cause of death. It was on this murder that Wuornos would initially be condemned.
David Spears, age 43—Construction worker in Winter Garden, Florida. On June 1, 1990, his nude body was found along Highway 19 in Citrus County, Florida. He had been shot six times.
Charles Carskaddon, age 40, May 31, 1990—Part-time rodeo worker. On June 6, 1990, his body was found in Pasco County, Florida. He had been shot nine times with a small-caliber weapon.
Peter Siems, age 65—In June 1990, Siems left Jupiter, Florida, for New Jersey. On July 4, 1990, his car was found in Orange Springs, Florida. Wuornos was seen abandoning the car, and Wuornos’ palm print was found on the interior door handle. His body was never found.
Troy Burress, age 50—Sausage salesman from Ocala, Florida. On July 31, 1990, he was reported missing. On August 4, 1990, his body was found in a wooded area along State Road 19 in Marion County, Florida. He had been shot twice.
Charles “Dick” Humphreys, age 56, September 11, 1990—Retired U.S. Air Force Major, former State Child Abuse Investigator, and former Chief of Police. On September 12, 1990, his body was found in Marion County, Florida. He was fully clothed and had been shot six times in the head and torso. His car was found in Suwannee County, Florida.
Walter Jeno Antonio, age 62—Police Reservist. On November 19, 1990, Antonio’s nearly nude body was found near a remote logging road in Dixie County, Florida. He had been shot four times. Five days later, his car was found in Brevard County, Florida.
This kind of report presents a problem for me. It strikes me as unlikely that that many men were violent with her. However, I also imagine that being a roadside prostitute is not a profession that lends itself to tender treatment.
A lot of Aileen’s biographers are very quick to point out that, while she’d once been a pretty young blond thing (pretty enough to have the yacht club president marry her) she’d since become haggard, and by the late 1980’s drugs and alcohol had taken a toll on her. They point this out as though it might explain why men might be violent with her.
This is rather idiotic reasoning. Sex work is a field with great potential for danger regardless of whether or not you have perfect skin. That’s not necessarily relevant to determining whether or not all the men were as violent as Aileen claimed, but I just wanted to point that risk out. That said, I do suppose it is possible that seven men might try to force themselves on her. I also suppose it’s possible that Aileen had a history of violent behavior and was lying.
After the cops caught on to the fact that Aileen seemed to be murdering people, they went to Tyria.
Tyria was promised immunity provided she was able to provide the police with evidence that would help them arrest Aileen. She placed a phone call, which they recorded, wherein she asked Aileen why she killed the men, and Aileen replied, “Because I’m so, so fuckin’ in love with you, that I was so worried about us not havin’ an apartment and shit, I was scared we wouldn’t be together. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the truth.”
If you are ever wondering whether it would be better to live alone or kill people to provide for your lover, the answer is the former. Always keep that in mind. But I think the notion that she was someone who was fundamentally hungry for love is one of the most compelling aspects of Aileen’s story. Or did she just need to give Tyria a convenient excuse?
Either way, her explanation wasn’t enough to allow her to escape judgement. Aileen was arrested. In court she said, “I wanted to confess to you that Richard Mallory did violently rape me as I’ve told you; but these others did not. [They] only began to start to.” She also said that she wanted to “get right with God.”
In 1992 and 1993 she was charged with six death sentences. (No charges were brought against her for Peter Siems’ murder as his body was never found.)
Until the end of her life, she claimed that she had killed the men because they were violent with her. She was executed in 2002. For her last meal, she had a cup of black coffee. Her last words were, “Yes, I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mother ship and all, I’ll be back, I’ll be back.”
Which may not have summed everything up quite as well as people would have hoped.
As for what I think?
Well, I think how you feel about Aileen has a lot to do with how likely you feel men are to victimize women. Aileen’s story does not seem impossible to me. It strikes me as very likely that men can behave badly and violently to women, especially women who seem to be in vulnerable positions.
But it’s equally possible for me to believe that women are very far from being saints, and that people of both genders are capable of behaving very badly when they want something. Aileen seemed to want a home and loved one desperately, and it seems reasonable that she was willing to kill to get it.
I also generally think that people are telling the truth when they make direct statements, for example when Aileen said that she killed the men for the money so she and Tyria could set up a house together.
I believe that it is very, very likely that men were violent with Eileen. I also believe that she killed them, and she deserved to go to prison for that. I don’t applaud vigilante justice, because there are recourses available to us other than killing people. I think the most heartbreaking thing about Aileen’s story is the fact that she never felt there were people she could go to for help. By the end of her life, she seemed to have no faith in anyone but herself, and, considering her upbringing, what cause would she have to do so?
This, not the fact that she’s some forgotten feminist icon, makes me feel for her.