A couple of weeks ago, ABC2’s Sunday Best aired Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. It’s second documentary by British filmmaker Nick Broomfield on Aileen Wuornos, often billed as America’s first female serial killer and subject of the 2002 hollywood movie Monster.
Broomfield formed something of a friendship with Wuornos, and this unique relationship provided him with access to her right up until the day before her execution in 2002. His interviews with her are at once captivating, disturbing and saddening. Wuornos is compelling from the moment she comes on screen.
There is her physical presence – a battered face, swept back blond hair and piercing, wild eyes. Her large frame is hidden in prison orange, but it is hard to imagine a more formidable, frightening woman. She is frank, prone to outbursts of rage and clearly delusional, becoming more and more convinced over the course of her incarceration that the police allowed her to kill as part of a conspiracy to make money off her story. But her trust in the filmmaker also provides glimpses of a woman who, despite being hardened by a tragic life, is hungry for friendship.
One of the most engaging aspects of the film is the question of whether Wuornos killed in self defence. During her trial, she claimed that she was raped and tortured by the first man she killed, and that there was evidence to support this. Broomfield suggests that the resultant trauma drove her to kill the six other men.
In later interviews, however, she states that she was never threatened by any of the men and that she was just “in the robbing biz”. The film presents these admissions to be motivated by her desire to speed up her execution, and further contradictions, along with the fact she is obviously eager to leave a world that has brought her nothing but suffering, cast her apparent confessions in serious doubt.
Certainly, the film maker could be accused of glossing over her crimes, a tendency he shares with killer herself. People who routinely commit cruelty use language that distances them from the act, and Wuornos refers to the lives she took as “cases” and “a number”.
But her culpability is further complicated by her upbringing. Abandoned by her mother. Father in jail for a child sex crime. Raised by a physically and sexually abusive grandfather. A sexual plaything of the local boys, and maybe even her own brother. Pregnant at fourteen, possibly to the ‘”local paedophile”. Then kicked out of home, living in the woods and swapping sex for shelter and money before becoming a hitchhiking prostitute. All before she was sixteen.
I couldn’t help wondering what reasonable person could emerge from such circumstances without becoming a psychopath. There’s no excuse for murder, but if the documentary is accurate, Wuornos certainly had her reasons.
You can still catch it here until 8 April 2012.