Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Aileen Wuornos has been labeled the “first” or the “most famous” female serial killer. I don’t know if that’s true. Before seeing this film I maybe had heard the name or had some vague sense of who she was, but I’m not sure of even that. I’m at most a very infrequent consumer of true crime material; that’s probably why I’m not positive I had even heard of her.

Apparently she is, in the world of true crime at least, quite a big deal, though. Two highly regarded movies were made about her—Nick Broomfield’s documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and the partly fictionalized conventional movie Monster, which won Charlize Theron an Oscar.

The Broomfield documentary, as indicated by the title, focused on the commodification of Wuornos, the way people in her life found ways to make money by selling their part of her story to the media, and the way the media in turn made money from the public. (And, yes, there’s irony in making a movie implicitly critical of people’s tendency to benefit from exploiting a sensational story like Wuornos’s.)

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is Broomfield’s follow-up documentary from about a decade later, which tries to better understand Wuornos herself, taking her story through to her execution.

I’d say Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer mostly stands on its own. It would have helped me as background to have seen Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, or just to have had significant knowledge of the Wuornos story in general, but it’s not like this documentary made no sense to me or constantly makes references that assume a familiarity with the earlier documentary.

The film was interesting to a degree but never drew me in all that much. It’s entirely possible it’s an excellent documentary but the subject matter is only of modest interest to me.

Wuornos was from a troubled family background, to put it mildly. No doubt at least in part due to that she was simply a mess as a human being.

She lived on the streets off and on. She’s generally identified as a prostitute, which is true as far as it goes, but I’d say she was kind of a drifter who did whatever she needed to do at the time to get by—generally crooked, criminal, “life in the gutter” stuff—which, yes, not infrequently included turning tricks. But it’s not like that was some career.

Incidentally, I was reminded watching this of the bizarre fact that looks have little or no bearing on one’s ability to sell sex. I mean, to me it’s hard to imagine a more sexually undesirable woman, physically and otherwise. You’d think the market would overwhelming favor hot women working as prostitutes, but in the real world there’s little or no such correlation.

Anyway, she ended up killing seven men, I think all seven being guys who picked her up in their cars for sex. Not in some big city, but I take it out on the highway somewhere, I believe all in Florida.

She long maintained that each was a case of self-defense, that each of these men raped her or attempted to rape her after getting her alone in their car. Which on one level is not too far-fetched, given how many men there are who don’t think of prostitutes as full human beings with the same rights as anyone else, including autonomy over their own body and sex life—I think they think prostitutes kind of implicitly forfeit that by becoming prostitutes—and how common violence is against all kinds of sex workers.

On the other hand, you’d think once it happened a time or two that prostitution proved so risky as to place you in a position of having to choose between being raped and killing someone, you’d find another line of work.

I think that was mostly what she claimed when she was first apprehended, though. By the time of this second documentary, she has already been tried, convicted, and sentenced, and is about to be executed, and she mostly has dropped that line. She no longer makes much effort to deny that she killed her victims in a blameworthy manner—to rob them, and perhaps because her hatred for life in general or men in general made killing them pleasurable to her.

Broomfield is clearly anti-capital punishment, as the overwhelming majority of people in the civilized world are. Living in this country we forget that most countries—at least Western democracies—did away with the death penalty long ago. Someone like Broomfield sees capital punishment as a disgraceful manifestation of brutality. I get the sense he was at least somewhat sympathetic toward her self-defense argument for a time and opposed executing someone who was as much a victim herself as a criminal, but even after she more or less stopped bothering making that claim I think he opposed her execution at least as much, on the grounds of her reduced mental capacity.

Because the bottom line is she’s an utter loon. I mean, my read on her after spending this hour and a half with her is that, as murderers go, she’s much more toward the crazy end than the evil end of the scale.

Could she just be acting like a nut in the hopes that it’ll somehow enable her to avoid her punishment? I seriously doubt it. She’d have to be an extraordinarily good actress to pretend to be this delusional and to drift in and out of coherence the way she does.

Her primary mental illness or condition seems to be paranoia. She eventually convinces herself that somehow the authorities—the cops, etc.—knew that she was the murderer after her first or second murder and could have easily picked her up any time, but that they purposely let her kill over and over so that it would become a bigger, more sensational story, which would make them bigger heroes when they eventually did capture her and, more importantly, would mean they could sell the stories of their involvement in her case for more money.

Which, in her mind, lessens her responsibility for what she did. Like, “I was fucked up in the head, unstable, in a dangerous situation, panicking and spontaneously acting out violently because I didn’t know any better, whereas they were of sound mind, fully in control of themselves, fully aware of the ramifications of everything that was happening, and made a conscious choice to sit back and let all these additional people be murdered because they anticipated benefiting from it. So they’re a lot worse than me.”

Or at least if you paraphrase and read between the lines of her delusional blubbering, I think something roughly like that is what she has in mind.

Bottom line for me is: treat people right, especially children, and far, far fewer such “monsters” will be created. From the way you treat people in one-to-one situations, to the public policies you support or oppose, everything you do constitutes a tiny little incremental step toward a world with more or fewer of the factors that influence someone like her toward murderous insanity.

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