Posted in: Feminism, Gender, Psychology & Law
Published on Dec 29, 2020 by Phyllis Chesler
A Forbidden Feminist Fantasy
Phyllis, you started working on Aileen Wuornos at that time and advocating for her, not least to make her story useful to the women's movement. Has that plan worked out?
I was not focused on the women’s movement but on prostituted women who are stigmatized as criminals and whose so-called “work” is the most quintessential form of violence against women. Since the global media was so obsessed with Wuornos, I thought that her case might provide an excellent teaching moment. Also, it seemed a very important story to write about.
I saw in Wuornos an opportunity to extend the right of rape/self-defense to prostitutes, most of whom are on the front lines of violent misogyny every single day. Life on the edge of the ledge does not necessarily make someone “nice.” I did not expect to “like” her. Our so-called first female serial killer was not required to be a role model for women who dress for success.
In the beginning, I viewed Wuornos as a prostitute who fought back—but I understood that she was no more a political actor than Valerie Solanas was. Solanas is the woman who shot the artist Andy Warhol (he lived)—and she also wrote a brilliant and slightly crackpot Manifesto, titled The Society for Cutting Up Men, which was translated into thirteen languages.
Wuornos and Solanas were embraced by a number of radical feminist leaders whom they promptly abused, wore out, and rejected. Both women were loners: fiercely literal, concrete, explosive, and anti-social. As teenagers, they both gave away babies to be adopted, worked as prostitutes, and were lesbians, bisexual, or asexual. After she was arrested, Solanas was diagnosed as a “paranoid schizophrenic” and warehoused in an asylum for the criminally insane. When they released her, she drifted off to San Francisco, never wrote again, and died in poverty.
Solanas did not become a serial killer.
What drew me to Wuornos’s case was my desire to educate her first jury about how violent prostitution is and how routinely prostitutes are verbally degraded, death threatened, beaten, robbed, tortured, and routinely killed. They are the ones whom male serial killers target. Very few prostitutes are ever able to fight back in self-defense to save their own lives. Wuornos did, at least that first time. I got involved with Wuornos because of these issues. I organized a team of experts for her first murder trial; none of us were allowed to testify.
I did not obtain even a smidgen of justice for her, or for any other prostitute who continues to face violence and death every day. Wuornos was far too damaged to be saved; I could not save her, we could not save her, she was beyond earthly salvation.
What function might the memory of Wuornos and her deeds serve for today's women and today's feminism? Can Wuornos be said to have fought a battle, as it were, on behalf of "the women"? Can she perhaps serve as a kind of "threat" of what men face when they disrespect women? Is she suitable as an icon for the gender movement because, as a woman, she committed acts that until then had been committed almost exclusively by men?
Wuornos is not a role model for most feminists but she does embody a forbidden feminist fantasy, one that other women may share, about going after child rapists, male pornography pimps and their addict customers, male batterers, and male serial killers who mainly kill women.
There is no doubt that Wuornos was “brutalized” and that such brutalization amounted to torture and therefore required drugs and alcohol as well as a “disassociation” from reality. I write about this in Requiem.
Like other feminists and academics, I initially saw her as a quintessential American outlaw who pried the world’s imagination wide open by shooting down seven male authority figures, including former police officers; a Badass, gun-toting lesbian prostitute who became a notorious legend.
She was the original “Thelma and Louise.” After Wuornos, we have seen a great number of female spies and assassins, female paid killers, female CIA and MI5 operatives, battered women who kill husbands, etc. on screen.
In the complex of Wuornos' motives, "revenge" obviously plays a significant role. Commonly, the process of civilization is thought to be a process of overcoming or containing the desire for revenge. In this respect, Wuornos’s case would be a reversion to barbarism. Would there not have been other, more "civilized" forms of response to inflicted injustice for her, or is that a naïve notion?
Battered women who kill men in self-defense often get life sentences without parole in the United States. Fathers who rape daughters and priests who rape children are rarely prosecuted. The mothers of murdered children rarely see justice. Most suffer and accept their awful fates. A mere handful find ways to fight back, get even, get justice, or, if you will, “get revenge.”
For many decades, feminists have hotly disagreed about whether women are always victims or whether they have “agency” and are responsible for what they do.
In her film, A Question of Silence, Marleen Gorris asks whether women have the right to kill any man of their choosing—given that there is a war on against women in general. In the film, women unknown to each other collaborate in killing a contemptuous male clerk. They are all arrested and remain silent. The female psychiatrist chosen to examine them can find nothing psychologically wrong with them; eventually she joins them. The psychiatrist explains that what they’ve done has to be understood as something that happens during a war. Gorris’s male clerk was a complete stranger, but he treated the women with an all-too familiar contempt. He paid the price for what hundreds, maybe thousands of other men had done before him. Did the women snap? Or, did they finally understand that they were the losers in a never-ending war, and were now ready to act as combatants, not prey.
When I first got involved in the Aileen Wuornos case in Florida, I viewed her as a fictional figure, taken right out of the novels written by Andrea Dworkin, Monique Wittig, and Helen Zahavi. I believed (and still do) that Wuornos killed in self-defense the first time. Thereafter, something changed—maybe everything changed. Slowly, reluctantly, I came to a conclusion somewhat different from that of Gorris’s psychiatrist.
At my Facebook page, a feminist approvingly quoted someone who had said: “Seven men (were) not enough...”
A great line but it stopped me in my tracks.
Perhaps such feminists are confusing fictionalized female assassins/holy warriors, a metaphoric feminist Hit Squad—with what it means to actually kill someone and stand trial in a patriarchal court of law for murder. Perhaps these seven male victims did not mistreat Wuornos but they still deserved to die because of how other men had mistreated her.
However, in Wuornos’s case, the entire culture of patriarchy and prostitution was not on trial. That would require a different venue and a more revolutionary moment in history.
Wuornos committed her serial murder in the West, in the USA. In your opinion, what is the significance of this fact? Could an event like the Wuornos murders have happened in non-Western societies at that time? Could something like this happen today in countries with manifest oppression of women, such as Saudi Arabia?
Women in Saudi Arabia and in other Arab and Muslim countries are often honor murdered for inconsequential and even imagined crimes. If they kill their rapists, their cruel Masters, or their husbands in self-defense, they will be tortured and executed. On the other hand, what Wuornos did is quite unusual even in the United States, even in the West. Most women lack military training, do not use guns, and have been carefully trained to accommodate male violence and to blame themselves for it.
How has the phenomenon of female serial killers evolved since Wuornos? What "type" of serial killer was she compared to others?
There are many kinds of female serial killers: “black widows,” women who kill husband after husband for insurance payouts and for real property. Their names are legion. Female nurses (male nurses too) who kill patients, sometimes for money, or “mercy,” but also because they can. In addition, women have lured young girls into prostitution and they torture or even kill them if they try to escape. Sometimes women become pimps or Madams in order to escape the grueling, war-like conditions of prostitution.
Here’s how Wuornos is different from other known female serial killers of men: she killed strangers on the highway of life—outdoors, not inside at home; and with a gun, not with poison.
Other female serial killers only killed male intimates, and they did so for money, (insurance politics, real property), pure and simple.
Wuornos is not like male serial killers—she is a rather unique female serial killer. She is not like other women who’ve been savagely abused but who do not become killers. Nor is she like murderous wives or murderous nurses. Finally, she is totally different from male serial killers who kill mainly women, prostituted women, with erotic perversity, and whom they sometimes pose in grotesque gynecological positions. Read the brilliant Jane Caputi on this point. Male serial killers may kill anywhere from 10–100 women. They strategize their “kills” and are very hard to find. Wuornos had no erotic motive, she did not have orgasms while she killed or post-mortem with corpses, and she left clues everywhere, and was swiftly captured.
Why did you revisit the subject of Wuornos at this particular time? What are you trying to accomplish with the book? What were the reactions to it? Which reactions did you expect? And which ones didn't you expect?
It was accidental. I came across five chapters that I wrote nearly thirty years ago. I could not stop reading. It really flowed. I resurrected my huge Wuornos archive and began reading thousands of pages of legal documents and the interviews I did with Wuornos both on the phone and in person. I found our correspondence and am publishing some of our letters for the first time in this book.
I also organized the hundreds of interviews I did with the entire cast of colorful characters, including her biological mother, the lover who testified against her, a multitude of Florida lawyers, former prostitutes, the team of experts I’d put together and hoped would testify at her trial, and the feminists who worked at Florida’s shelters for battered women and rape crisis centers.
This book is about Wuornos, but it is also about my trying to get inside her head to see it both her way and my way, and to understand us both.
I was a bit younger in 1990, the year she committed most of her murders. Would I get involved now? I doubt it. Physically, I couldn’t do it. Would I still see Wuornos as a feminist folk hero of sorts? Yes, I would, or primarily as a dangerous, damaged, doomed, and demented woman—well, she was that, too.
Would I still be as sympathetic toward this volatile, trigger-tempered, foul-mouthed child-woman, and would I still risk being seen as defending, or advocating for such an unsympathetic woman?
Perhaps—for here I am, writing about her.
Lee is long gone—but she still lives on in my imagination and memory. I titled my book Requiem for a Female Serial Killer because this is my way of finally laying her to rest—by memorializing her life, her deeds, and her death. A dirge of sorts, to mourn what can happen to a girl in this world, a horrifying and pitiful tale with an inevitably sordid ending.
Yes, I know she was a raging drunk, a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, unstable, contrarian—and a serial killer as well—and yet, now that I more fully understand what rape and prostitution can do to an adolescent and to a woman, and what a pitifully damaged child-woman she really was, I have more, not less, compassion for her.
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