This essay originally appeared in PROJECTIONS, Volume 16, #2, pp. 37-42.
Monster: Based On A True Story (2003), written and directed by Patty Jenkins.
Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003);
The Selling of Aileen Wuornos (1992), directed by Nick Greenfield.
From 1989 to 1990, a ragged drifter, Aileen Wuornos, murdered seven men along a stretch of central Florida freeway. Her MO bore the reckless signatures of a dissolute and desolate life. She would hitch a ride in a car or truck with a male driver; rattle off a song and dance about getting back to her kids in another state. After sussing out a mark with the prostitute’s native intuition, she proposed exchanging sex for a few bucks. The unsuspecting john drove to some offroad clearing, where Wuornos drew a battered pistol and blew him away.
Some of her victims were gunned down in the driver’s seat. Others stripped for action outside, to be slaughtered buck-naked. Wuornos would then toss the corpse into a wooded area nearby, take the cash (little gain in most cases), and ride wherever the wind took her, until fear of detection lead her to abandon the stolen vehicle. She knew that the authorities were zeroing in on her, but their pursuit didn’t deter her from returning to her lonesome road and killing again.
Wuornos’ past reads like the history of a Jerry Springer trailer-trash guest. She was born in a seedy Detroit neighborhood. Her mother bolted early on. She and a brother were left in the care of a father who beat them mercilessly. He too took off, later killed himself in prison. This time, the children were sent to Kallikak grandparents who enthusiastically continued a daily round of brutal abuse, physical and possibly sexual.
Mean streets furnished Wuornos all the education she ever had. By her early ‘teens, she had already borne a child and given it up. The termination of a hasty marriage left her with only her husband’s last name – eerily alliterative with the oldest profession she had begun to ply. After squandering insurance money from her brother’s early death, she returned to the streets, exchanging sex for meagre sustenance. Occasionally she was arrested for petty crime.
Wuornos was never any kind of happy hooker. As far as one knows she disdained pimp or madam, preferring to work solo at whoring’s lowest rung. She stood by her gritty roadside, sporting roadhouse gear and worn sneakers instead of the street prostitute’s gaudy uniform – hot pants, stilletto heels, so forth. With an impudent thumb stuck out, one hip shot provocatively at the rushing traffic, she attracted homebound husbands with a yen for the gutter, as well as rough trade with more sinister urges. Often she was not used well.
Writer/director Perry Jenkins’ harrowing film, Monster, addresses the nine months of Wuornos’ killing spree during which she became involved in a passionate lesbian affair. Jenkins theorizes that Wuornos’ romance was the mainspring of her serial killing.
According to the director’s loose reading of actual circumstances, Aileen (Charlize Theron) meets a shy young woman, Shelby Wall (Christina Ricci) at a gay bar. Shelby has been exiled by her parents, sent to relatives with the hope that a change of scene will make her shed her ‘ungodly’ desires.
Barely out of the closet, primly dressed, hunched over her drink at the grotty bar, Shelby would seem an unlikely exciting object for a wild creature like Wuornos. But Aileen is drawn to Shelby’s innocence and vunerability – arguably these qualities evoke dim fantasies of a prelapsarian childhood.
Shelby for her part is infatuated with Wuornos’ manic energy, her absolute disregard for convention or authority. The two elope shortly after they meet, live in a succession of seedy motels.
Steamy sex between bisexual women is a staple of male oriented pornography. However, in mainstream Hollywood fare lesbian love tends to be curious chaste. It’s often shot in soft focus, frequently informed by a none-to-subtle assumption that the gender-ambivalent heroin will eventually see the light when Mr. Right comes along – e.g. Personal Best (1982). It’s greatly to Jenkins ‘ credit that Wuornos and Shelby generate an intense sexuality that fairly lasers off the screen.
Monster’s subsequent plot recapitulates a durable subgenre of doomed lovers on the run. Often from lower- class backgrounds, these misunderstood outlaws often are depicted as pitiable victims of a repressive, puritanical society (e.g. Gun Crazy (1949), They Live By Night (1949) and the signature Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
While Monster powerfully lays bare the utter impoverishment of a throwaway underclass woman – living roadkill – Jenkins laudably avoid facile blaming of Wuornos’ cimes on her lurid background. Indeed it’s scarcely mentioned. One only infers that Wuornos’ relationship with Shelby provides the first authentic love she has ever known, at least as an adult.
Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1981) introduced a lesbian context to the outcast couple subgenre. The heroines never actually coupled. After the parking-lot homicide which was clearly committed in self-defense, their non-lethal violence comprised an often hilarious clarion call to arms against a dulled-down patriarchal culture.
The film’s feisty heroines facilitate each other’s becoming liberated equal partners through their criminal adventures. In Monster, however, Aileen is always the boss, while Shelby grows increasingly incapable of fending for herself, a feckless parody of male-dominated suburban domesticity Thelma and Louise ultimately rejects. She cannot or won’t get work, relying on Aileen to find the money which they suppose will help them realize an absurd fantasy of a tidy picket-fence ever-after.
After a pathetic attempt to get a job in the daylight world fails, Wuornos returns to the only work she knows. Her love for Shelby puts her at risk as a disposable receptable for roadside rutting. She shoots a deranged sadist who rapes her, then tries to set him on fire. Afterwords – if one accepts Jenkin’s thesis – she’s gripped by a traumatic repetition compulsion, cannot stop killing.
Monster may be read at one level as a realization of the homoerotic sizzle and revolt against male oppression latent in Thelma and Louise. Monster is not nearly as well crafted nor ideologically sophisticated as the former picture. It would probably fade into DVD oblivion, were it not for Charlize Theron’s blazing portrayal of Wuornos.
Theron has radically transformed her alluring features – she’s a well respected model – into an uncanny simulacrum of her character. She gained thirty pounds for the part; artful make-up replicates Wuornos’ freckled, weather-beaten face. Theron’s Wuornos seethes with turbulent impatience; a ferocious kinetic energy seems to send her body juddering in several directions simultaneously.
Typically, Theron/Wuornos alternates between pressured, fragmented muttering and frenetic paranoid rant. But she is also able to address her alienation, the blasted lives of her peers, the venality of her captors, with startling eloquence. Her poignant yearning for Shelby and the small joys of an ordinary life articulates with crazily rationalized homicidal rage. The actress adroitly captures the complex nuances and contradictions of Wuornos’ tormented, tormenting character. She’s both appalling and pitiful.
The accuracy of Theron’s impersonation is even more impressive, after viewing Wuornos herself in Nick Greenfield’s unsatisfying documentaries: Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer and The Selling of Aileen Wuornos – the latter released twelve years ago. Both films are patchwork jobs, but they do accurately describe Wuornos’ life before and after the murders, as well the social canvas that backdropped both the homicides and their prosecution.
Wuonos’ own vision of her motives was slippery, inflected at any given moment by psychopathy, psychosis, even genuine insight. Initially, she declared her guilt without qualification. She then turned on a dime, pleading innocence by reason of self-defense. At one time or another she presented herself as a hapless victim of male depredations, betrayed and exploited at every turn; or a profane avenging angel seeking to redress the wrongs perpetuated on the feminine wretched of the earth by patriarchal authority.
Greenfield discovered that there was at least a grain of truth in many of her allegations. Wuornos maintained she began killing after her first victim, Richard Mallory, raped, then treatened to slay her. Subsequent to her trial, it was revealed that Mallory had indeed previously served ten years for violent rape in another state. Wuornos’ public defender was an inept pot-smoking wannabe rock star. Her real lover, Tyria Moore, who knew fully about Wuornos’ crimes, never served a single day of inprisonment in return for ratting her lover out.
Others also sought to cash in on from potential TV or movie rights. These crass unworthies included her attorney (who Greenfield insinuates may have wanted her dead, in aid of creating a more potent – and saleable – narrative arc) and three members of the Florida police department. Wuornos’ life also inspired a plethora of lurid tabloid stories and a sensationalist TV docudrama. Even Greenfield, pace his good intentions, does not refrain from inserting himself clumsily into his own film as a high-minded truth-seeker. (All this having been said, Wuornos herself frequently perpetuated and relished the publicity she generated). .
Wuonos’ last and most despicable exploiter was Jeb Bush, who wanted her executed to ramp up his gubernatorial campaign. Wuornos had been imprisoned for twelve years when Bush came on the scene. Although she knew he wanted her death, she definitively confessed her guilt – possibly because she could no longer tolerate confinement by that time.
She also had gone quite mad. She told Greenfield that a mother ship – arguably a psychotic elaboration of the mothering she never received – would effect a one woman Rapture, take her up to sit at Jesus’ side. On the evening prior to her execution, several psychiatrists declared that she herself was sane enough to be murdered by the State. What gain these Doctor Deaths desired is not clear. Perhap they merely wanted a paycheck for an odious night’s work. But one never knows who knavery is afoot when a Bush is about.
The origins of Aileen Wuornos’ homicidal binge have never been satisfyingly elucidated. One could, for instance, blame a conflation of her horrific childhood, a genetic predisposition towards psychopathy, and a periodic dissociative state which emerged after barely escaping death from her first victim’s attack.
One must underscore, however, that the overwhelming majority of women who have suffered the same hurtful backgrounds and degrading experience as Wuornos do not kill. Indeed, it’s far more likely they will die at the hands of some malevolent misogynist – more often than not a husband or lover.
So – what finally tipped the scales to precipitate Wuornos’ road kills? A forensic psychiatrist told me that after years spent studying the minority of mentally ill who murdered, he never had been able to tease out an “X factor” separating the perpetrator from the majority who didn’t. I don’t believe Wuornos demonstrated the diabolic cold-bloodedness of male serial killers like Ted Bundy and Ed Gein. The “X factor” of these hideous creatures has proven even more resistant to explanation.
Some years ago I participated in a discussion about Silence of the Lambs (1985). Another panel member was an amiable Texas FBI profiler who had extensively interviewed Bundy, Gein, and others of their heinous ilk. Asked to speculate on their diagnosis, he drawled: “Well – let’s see. You folks are up to DSM-III, right? I guess I’d put Ted and Ed somewhere around ….DSM-22.”