This is the First in a Three-Part Series on Love in a Culture of Abuse
America’s “first female serial killer,” Aileen Wuornos was executed ten years ago, but a new book edited by Lisa Kester and Daphne Gottlieb gives us the closest thing to Aileen’s autobiography as we’ll likely ever have.
Aileen's story—from abused runaway to hitchhiking prostitute to killer—has inspired books, articles, made-for-TV movies, and the 2003 feature Monster for which Charlize Theron won an Academy Award, but here we get Aileen's uncensored voice. In Dear Dawn, a series of death row letters to her beloved childhood friend Dawn Botkins, Aileen reflects on the murders, her legal battles, and the media coverage—and goes even further, revealing her fears and obsessions, her humor and empathy, and her gradual disintegration as her execution approached.
I recently talked to editor Daphne Gottlieb about this riveting new account of a life of trauma, violence, mental illness, faith and, ultimately, some redemption in the love of a good friend.
Ariel Gore: When I first heard news about Aileen Wuornos’ killing spree, I was a young feminist in California, hanging out with a bunch of other young feminists, and Aileen did strike a lot of us as a vigilante hero. She was an abuse survivor and hitchhiking prostitute, she was Hothead Paisan before Hothead Paisan; Thelma and Louise before Thelma and Louise. She was taking matters into her own hands, killing the rapists…
As Phyllis Chesler notes to in the foreword, there was something terribly and morbidly refreshing in the news reports that: “two women are being sought as possible suspects in the shooting deaths of eight to twelve middle-aged men in Florida.” And media warning that “particularly middle-aged white men [!] traveling alone” should be careful.
Of course, after her arrest it quickly became apparent that she was also completely out of her mind, but do you think a lot of people felt—at least initially—that she expressed their own rage-response, living as we all do in this culture of abuse?
Daphne Gottlieb: Absolutely. I want her to come in, cool as Eastwood, locked and loaded. I want her to be cold as Schwarzenegger, declaring, "I'll be back"—and she actually says that, in her last words. But she doesn't fit in the white hat. While she's absolutely the outlaw she admires -- she's a transient, a hitchhiker; she lives outside the law, as a sexworker; she has a gun and she's been done wrong -- these same things damn her: She's a prostitute, meaning that in America, she's treated as less than human in the eyes of the law; she's got a female partner, and lesbians are aberrations. She's female. She's poor. She's homeless. She's alcoholic. She's mentally ill. She's got a history of abuse. By the construction of heroics—at least in modern America—that takes her out of the white hat. She is too wounded to stand up in the black hat. She's just left in the dust.
Ariel: Aileen seems indignant at her portrayal in news media, in made-for-TV-movies. What was the complexity she most wanted people to understand about her?
Daphne: I think primarily, no one ever listened to her. And even when they listened, what she thought often didn't matter, whether it was her parents, or the courts, or juvie, or prison. She often felt misunderstood. I don't want to get too literal about it, but she turned tricks wearing tee shirts and tennis shoes, and she was aghast that these movies featured versions of "her" in stiletto boots and miniskirts. She worked without makeup and the like so that she could plausibly be a woman whose car broke down and just needed a ride. This positioning, to her, made her much different than the prostitutes on TV. It gave the clients an alibi, but it gave her one, too. She wasn't one of "those" girls.
I think she wanted to see herself in very specific ways—from death row, as wise, as devout, as martyred. It's not that she didn't like the publicity—I think she craved the attention—but she wanted to be seen in line with her views of herself. Like we all would, I guess.
Ariel: In some of the letters, Aileen recounts horrific scenes of abuse, of being gang-raped, and then she just barrels along in her stories--no pause to reflect or integrate the violence of life. There's such a realness in that. The subtext is almost that it's a privilege to be able to reflect on or take even a moment to heal from our experiences.
Daphne: She really didn't get much respite. And even though there may have been periods of her life that were more placid, I believe that she was sort of stuck by that time, re-living trauma and triggering PTSD episodes on an ongoing basis. I think that trauma was so much a part of the warp and woof of her life, her emotional scale, her perspective was inappropriate. So that in her day-to-day, a rape has the same weight as breakfast, and stepping on a kitten's head has the same weight as a celebrity trial on TV, and the like.
Ariel: In a life marked by trauma and violence, was Aileen ever happy? Did she ever get a chance to be happy?
Daphne: Dawn says that the best time of Aileen's life was when she had been notified of the execution--it wasn't a waiting game any more. She had food and shelter and God.
By the time the execution was scheduled, Aileen had been on Death Row for a decade. There were appeals and campaigns and research and evidence and different agencies and really, a whole circus that went around and around and around. And every day that the sun rose, there was the open question of whether or not the date would be set. I think knowing that her waiting was over was a relief and allowed her to be present with herself, her body, her time. She could stop holding her breath. The stress was gone. When a bullet comes out of a gun, they both feel relief. I think that's how she felt at her execution: both bullet and barrel, and relieved.
Ariel: In a 1993 letter, Aileen gives Dawn instructions for her funeral--the ways she wants her body to be dressed, in white, with a single rose and a Bible. What do you make of her list?
Daphne: I think she wanted very much to be admired. In a way, a funeral is a place of honor and importance. I think she wanted that place in death since she couldn't have it in life. Her funeral instructions as she gives them are strongly influenced by the preparations she made for her much-loved older brother Keith's funeral. I think she wanted someone to have the kind of devotion to her that she had for him.
Ariel: So ultimately we have a portrait that’s neither vigilant hero nor monster.
Daphne: Ultimately, it's letters from one heart to another. Clinically, it's absolutely a portrait of a woman with a severe personality disorder who decompensated during her time in prison. It's a document of a woman who was the survivor of repeated, unspeakable trauma, and one who was a survivor. I think the letters show a resourceful, coarse, raw woman with a drive to survive. Miraculously, despite all the damage, the PTSD, and the horror, the author of the letters is still able to connect and to love. And she did.