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Posted in: Feminism, Arts, Film & Culture

Published on Nov 11, 2012 by Phyllis Chesler

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Dear Dawn. Aileen Wournos In Her Own Words


Last year, I was asked to write the Foreword to a collection of letters between condemned serial killer Aileen Wuornos and her childhood friend, Dawn Botkins. This was a 1990-1991 high profile case, for which I assembled a team of expert witnesses and about which I wrote several law review articles. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of Wuornos in the film Monster. The book, titled Dear Dawn. Aileen Wuornos In Her Own Words, is edited by Lisa Kester and Daphne Gottlieb and is published by Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint Press. I wrote the Foreword, Gottlieb wrote the Introduction. The book appeared in 2012.

Dear Lee:

This letter is for you. Even though you've been dead for many years, here I am, still talking to you

Face it: You've entered the world's imagination and pried it wide open. You're a real folk hero-outlaw, like Jesse James or James Dean. Are you "laughing your ass off" or do you feel "ripped off" every time some made-for-TV movie, true crime book, film, documentary, opera, play, or academic article about you appears?

Baby: Imagine the plight of Vincent Van Gogh. He was a goddam genius who barely scraped by. Centuries later, people are still making a fortune "offa" his work. (I can almost hear you putting it this way).

You hit the ground running before either Thelma or Louise came to town. You're the real star of that movie; it's about you, about what you've done.

Man: You sure fired some shots heard round the world--shots which told male serial killers that they might just end up dead if they continued to rape and murder prostitutes or even your average female hitchhiker. As the so-called first female serial killer you've made headlines, not for what has been done to you, but for what you've done. Your bullets shattered the silence about violence against prostituted women, about prostitutes fighting back, about revenge.

No small feat.

Talk about women who run with the wolves! You've navigated America with a primeval cunning, a scavenging genius, without which neither wildlife nor prostitutes could survive: Not for a day, not for an hour. And, you understood early on that mutilated, headless, even limbless female corpses litter the landscape all over the country and that they remain unclaimed and un-mourned.

Long ago, you discovered such a corpse yourself. In a letter to Dawn, dated 4/29/02, you write that in 1973, when you were only 17, you were hitchhiking outside of Chicago along interstate I-80, when you smelled something real bad, a "foul odor" which you followed; then, you found a woman's pitiful headless, limbless torso. You write that, although you frantically tried, you could not get a state trooper or even a trucker to pay the slightest attention.

Girl: You "got" it a long time ago: That some women are treated like garbage, whether they are alive or dead.

But the whole thing must make you crazy: Your shitty life, your awful death, your fame, how you can't lay your hands on the money, how others are still "ripping you" off.

For years, feminists talked about how they'd like to get blow the bad guys away. They never did. It was only battered women, who, one by one, finally killed their tormentors in self-defense. And they were all mainly jailed forever after.

Hell, girl: Some feminists believed that you killed for them and would die for what they couldn't do. I kid you not. To them, you're some kind of Outlaw Jesus. You have to marvel at it all.

Lesbian feminists marched for you with banners which read "Free Aileen Wuornos." Feminist supporters wrote to you in droves. Most would end up sending me their correspondence with you. I even visited your true love, Tyria, who is absolutely nothing like her character in the film Monster. If anything, she seems tougher, far more butch than you. I guess we hit it off because she also gave me your letters to her. I even tracked down your biological mother, Diane, who said that "I sounded like a member of the family, I seemed to know everyone." Lee: Please know that I begged her to write to you or to consider visiting you. She said she was too afraid to do it.

I first heard about you in December of 1990. The newspapers and national media announced that "two women are being sought as possible suspects in the shooting deaths of eight to twelve middle-aged men in Florida." They warned the "public, particularly middle-aged white men (!) traveling alone" to be careful. At first, I thought the broadcast was as diabolically whimsical as Orsen Welles's 1938 broadcast about a Martian invasion. Was this some kind of joke? What was Everywoman's most forbidden fantasy and Everyman's worst nighmare doing on television? Was this some kind of joke? Perhaps these women were feminist Martians on a mission to avenge the Green River killings (of prostitutes) or the Montreal massacre (mainly of women).

But it was only you.

Lee, do you remember when we first spoke? It was early in 1991. I had hopped a plane down to Ocala and tried to meet with your public defender Trish Jenkins. She refused to do so. Next, I met with you new "best girlfriend," Arlene Pralle, and persuaded her to have you call me. And so you did, the very next day. You called me from jail. I knew I would only have a few seconds to really get your attention and so I took a deep breath and told you that I represented a feminist government in exile, that we knew you'd been "captured," and that we wanted to help you.

"Far fucking out, man," you said. "You're from the Womens Lib aren't you? Tell the women out there that I'm innocent. Tell them that men hate our guts. I was raped and I defended myself. It was self defense. I could not stop hustling just because some asshole was going around Florida raping and killing women. I still had to hustle."

Your voice was Joplin-husky and surprisingly sweet, even girlish. Did I expect you to sound like a man? Well honey, that's a real hefty swagger you wore on TV, and the way you tossed your hair around. Most women do it out of nervousness; you, you seemed to do it out of defiance, to intimidate, the way male lions toss their manes.

I still did not know how much of a hippie-wannabe you used to be, how much you loved Zeplin, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Carol King, (you write all these things to Dawn who shared some of this history with you); that you boozed, popped pills, took psychedelics, and "ripped off" clothing. I did not yet know that you were raped and impregnated when you were thirteen and gave up a son for adoption when you were fourteen. And were thrown out of the only home you ever knew and had to hit the road, sleeping in cars, begging, stealing, selling pills, selling sex.

You said that jail didn't "bother" you, that you could "take it," that the daily verbal abuse was nothing: "Hey, whore, show us some tits 'n ass." "We'll put you in solitary forever if you do any weird lesbian shit in here." "Bark at the moon, bitch, if you don't like it." "I'm going to enjoy watching you fry, real nice and slowly, once for each guy you killed."

I asked you what you needed. "How are you doing on toiletries, do you have a canteen allowance? Are they letting you shower, exercise, see sunlight?

I asked you if anyone had ever helped you when you when you were growing up.

You told me: "I raised myself. I did a pretty good job. I taught myself my own handwriting, and I studied theology, psychology, books on self-enhancement. I taught myself how to draw. I have been through battles out there raising myself. I'm like a Marine, you can't hurt me. If you hurt me, I can wipe it out of my mind and keep on truckin'. I took every day on a day-by-day basis. I never let things dwell inside me to damage my pride because I knew what that felt like when I was young."

I believed you had committed that first murder in self-defense. You had me convinced. You said so on the stand, you said so in our correspondence and in our meeting on Death Row. But right here, in this book, in a letter to Dawn, you claim that you just out-and-out killed Richard Mallory, that you did not kill him in self-defense, that you "lied through the skin of [your] teeth." Who am I supposed to believe? You— or you? Are there two "Yous?" The Femme who killed, the Butch who held it all together?

On 11/28/01, in a letter to Dawn, you write that, even before Richard Mallory picked you up, that as you stood there hitch-hiking you had "revenge in your heart". Do you remember that you yourself were raped and impregnated when you were hitchhiking when you were thirteen years old? Did you have "revenge" in your heart ever since, is that why you became a hitchhiking prostitute: to relive that experience so that you might master it, escape the consequences, be the one in charge, actually be paid for being raped? Did you want to turn the tables on all the driver-rapist-Johns? You write that Richard Mallory "intensified your hatred when he mentioned…a dislike for various women." You tell Dawn that you had to persuade him to have sex with you. Then, "once parked, that was it-he didn't have a chance to do a thing. The gun was pulled and he was instantly shot numerous times.'

Lee: Who pulled that gun? For a Serial Killer you are curiously reticent, detached, disassociated, almost passive about actually doing the shooting yourself.

I know you told people that I, too, had disappointed and betrayed you,that I was into you for the money or the fame. That hurt.

Lee: It is true. There was nothing personal between us. I wasn't trying to become your new best friend, your lawyer, or your adoptive mother. You gave your heart only to those people who would use you and do you in, it's all you knew how to do. I admit: It was all pitiless politics on my part. That's why I stepped in to create a Dream Team on your behalf. I wanted to use your case to help extend the battered woman defense to prostituted women's right to self-defense. And, I wanted to educate the jury about the extreme level of violence that prostitutes routinely absorb, the danger they always face.

You delivered the bullets. I did not deliver the dream team. Your public defenders did not call a single expert to speak (you called us "the testifying witnesses"). And the jury got to see your videotaped confession to other murders before they ruled on the first murder.

No, you did not get a fair trial. But you sure were guilty. I asked you to consider taking an insanity defense. You flatly refused. You didn't want to talk to any "prying" shrink, you had given up drugs and didn't want any psychiatric medication. And, you did not think you were "crazy."

I respectfully disagree.

You were gang-raped, tied up, sometimes left to die, by so many boys and men, that you had to have been traumatized. I stopped counting after you listed thirty seven such incidents. You talk about some of this here, in your letters to Dawn. Lee: No matter how tough a woman or a soldier (has) to be, one does not walk away from such torture completely unscathed.

When you first asked me to help you tell your story I reluctantly agreed to do so. I referred to your tale as a Slave Narrative. Remember how you tried to hire me as your agent/manager too and actually ordered me to start selling your same life story over and over again—as if you were selling sex and I was your pimp? Remember how hard it was for you to understand that I was "in it" for political reasons, not for money. Or fame.

But it's true: Years later, I was pleased that Carson Kreitzer's excellent play, Self-Defense, or Death of Some Salesmen, which was all about you, featured a character named Cassandra who was supposed to be me, a "famous feminist." The actress, Phyllis Wright, did a far better impersonation of you than Charlize Theron did in Monster—and Theron won an Oscar for her performance.

Did you impersonate yourself as well? I know for sure that you impersonated a regular, plain-Jane. Your working clothes when you hitchhiked, your costume, so to speak, was that of an average Florida woman, a housewife, whose car had just broken down and who needed a lift to the next gas station, or town, or to your own imaginary house. Your disguise was to "pass" for normal, average.

We did not meet until after you were sentenced to die. I visited you on Death Row. Do you remember? You were led into the room by two guards. You were unsteady on your feet, a bit ungainly, not that tall. I remember how you looked when you were first arrested: Spirited, defiant, drunk, but now the swagger and the smirk were all gone, all gaunt, not an ounce of flesh on your bones. You were already more ghost than human.

Your blonde hair was pale, and pulled back into a thin pony tail. You looked like one of your Finnish ancestors. Your face was taut, your features bony, inexpressive: No energy to waste on "expressiveness." Survival in prison demands that you contract everything, even dreams, in order to conserve energy, and call as little attention to yourself as possible.

Know that you had great dignity. You came to meet me from some truly faraway place, you were jerky in your motions, but gamely, your tried to smile. As if my visit was a social occasion. We hugged hello, briefly, carefully.

I am glad that Softskull is publishing your letters to Dawn. They are part of an entirely new archive about serious child abuse, throwaway children, prostitution, lesbian killers, serial killers on Death Row—all in America.

I extend my condolences to the families of the men whom you killed and whom you now admit having done so with "revenge in your heart."

I extend my deepest condolences to the innocent girl child you once were, born into Hell.

May you all now rest in peace.


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