☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

It’s the tree under which Aileen Wuornos’ ashes are spread. Natalie Merchant’s “Carnival” is playing. It’s the end of Nick Broomfield’s documentary Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer, and the song is wise and melancholy, wistful.

Aileen loved that song. She asked for it to be played at her funeral (albeit among dozens of others, including selections by the Doobie Brothers, Gloria Estefan and Cheap Trick). It reminded her of a time on the road when she almost got to run away. Aileen and her partner, Tyria, met two girl carnies on the open road. The girls urged Aileen and Ty to come with them to Indiana and become carnies themselves—they could make good money: $700 to $1500 a week. All they needed was to buy a car to tow their trailer.

Aileen was mesmerized by the animals the girls had: The women had a turtle, a couple of parrots, finches, three or four cats, three dogs,  a snake, and a hamster. All these animals, she said, looked well groomed, well fed, and quite happy.

Aileen and Ty never got the money for a trailer. The carnies left without them.

***

When Nick Broomfield asked Natalie Merchant’s permission to use her song in his movie, he sent her a working edit of the film. She said that she was “so disturbed by the subject matter, she couldn’t even watch it.”

***

In prison, Aileen decided that in heaven, she would have two white German shepherds. Unless she somehow was released. Then she would have them this lifetime.

***

Aileen Wuornos killed seven men. She received six death sentences (it would have been seven, but one body was never found). In her initial confession, Wuornos claimed self-defense.

For the past four years, Aileen has had residence in my head, as I edited the letters she wrote to her best friend from childhood from death row.

The book is done now. It came out in June. But she hasn’t left my head yet. Whenever I hear Hendrix. Whenever I see a white German shepherd. She’s never far. Today, it was when I heard about the “Grim Sleeper” and how the LAPD was posting forty-eight photos of unknown women online, in the hopes that they could be identified.

***

Aileen Wuornos was 5’4”. This means if she were standing behind a white picket fence, she would be just a head and shoulders above it. She would be the height of two white German shepherds, one standing on the back of the other. She would be the exact right height to bury her nose in my armpit so I could tell her sssssh, it’s alright.

***

I am writing this essay so that you will learn a little bit about her and know her with me. She’s worth knowing. I hope you will want to know her more, and read the book of her letters. I never heard her laugh, but I imagine that she had a raw, open throated guffaw, HAW HAW HAW. She drew faces all over her letters—laughing, crying, scowling. When they were laughing, sometimes they said, HA, but also sometimes, HAW. When she laughs in my head, her voice is husky, like Joplin’s.

***

Let’s talk numbers:

Aileen Wuornos killed seven men in one year. That looks like this:

☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

This is the number of prostitutes who were killed that year:

☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

For every ☠ by Aileen, there were ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠  by men like the ones she killed.

***

I want to tell you about Aileen, so you can see her as I see her, but all I come up with are things, details. They’re not Aileen. The whole reason I wanted to work on the book was to show her in dimension, to let her show who she was without someone else’s agenda on her.

Here: She had a miniature collie named Maggie May, after the Rod Stewart song. She loved Rod Stewart, and also every other singer you can think of with a gravelly voice, although her favorite band was REO Speedwagon. She loved to barbecue, and she loved beer. She loved the smell of Emeraude. She had a crude sense of humor, and was frequently grandiose.

She would be annoyed by the word “grandiose.”

***

Let’s talk numbers. She was fifteen when she started prostituting. She worked at the Rochester Motel for, she wrote, $.75 an hour. That is, until a guy came around and offered her $50 for sex.

***

She had a miniature collie named Maggie May, and three cats: Zyphyr, Dusty, and Tyler. Her animals were her babies. She doted on them. Pampered them.

When Zyphyr had kittens, Aileen’s partner Ty stepped on one’s head, crushing its skull. Aileen drowned it so it wouldn’t suffer. Once, Ty threw Tyler against a wall. He was later killed by homophobic neighbors.

Maggie was brought to the pound—just for a minute while they found a new place to live, since they’d been evicted. They got a place to live, and needed—and got!—the money to get her out of the pound. And arrived an hour after the dog had been put to sleep.

Aileen Wuornos was abandoned by her mother, raised by her alcoholic grandparents, abused by her grandfather, incested by her brother, turned tricks and was raped for the first time at thirteen, had a baby and went to juvie at fourteen, and was gang raped and homeless at fifteen, when she stuck out her thumb. You know the rest of it.

Aileen once got cat scratch fever trying to save a kitten from a tree.

It is hard to call a cornered animal either predator or prey.

***

I have a day job. I work with the homeless. That’s the name we give to injured people lethally wounded by capitalism. Under capitalism, it is important to believe that the homeless want to be homeless, since otherwise they would do something, like get a job or go to school. Under capitalism, it is essential to believe the homeless are somehow defective. Atavistic. Some were released into the streets from institutions by Reagan, and they came home to the street from Vietnam and they got caught in a recession and more. They hid under a bridge from their husband, or they got kicked out of home for being gay.

With no home, no money, no job, no family, no way to survive, no hope, things get desperate. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Some of the people I work with are murderers and rapists. They are both weapon and wound. We work together to get them shelter, get money, and healthcare. It’s scary for both of us, in ways that aren’t easily explained except to say it is so vulnerable, the possibility that we can fail each other. It is so dangerous to hope.

***

I do not think Aileen had a lot of hope. I think she had a lot of courage, though. Courage is what you have when you run out of options. Courage is what happens when you keep breathing.

Courage is what you have when you are untied from being passed out and gang raped and you walk out the door into the day and—and you what? Courage is what you have when you climb out of the cab of a semi, not knowing what truck stop parking lot you are in, not knowing what state you are in, with no money or ID, bruised, bloody and covered with semen, and you—what?

Maybe courage is what Aileen had instead of hope.

***

When I bring up animals here, I am not suggesting that Aileen was atavistic—there’s a long tradition leading back to the very first criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, describing women—and especially female criminals—and, most of all, lesbian prostitute criminals—as lesser forms of life.

I bring up animals, it because that’s how the phrase goes. Not “cornered runaway.” Not “cornered prostitute.” Not “cornered X.”

Aileen loved animals. Is it atavistic to love? That’s how she loved: Doggedly. Devotedly. Dumbly.

***

Robert Shulman killed ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ prostitutes.

And Lorenzo Gilyard killed ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠  prostitutes.

And Joel Rivkin killed ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ prostitutes.

And William Lester Suff killed ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ prostitutes.

And Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, killed ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ prostitutes.

And now Lonnie Franklin Jr., the “Grim Sleeper,” is linked to the killings of ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

There are many, many more. I can only think of one prostitute who is known for killing.

***

Is a cornered animal courageous?

I can’t make a statistic out of courage.

***

Dusty the cat had a terrible bladder infection and died in Aileen’s arms. She didn’t really know he was seriously sick. Even so, she could never have afforded to take him to the vet. He died in her arms. It seems like—at least from her letters—that in her whole life, it’s the thing she feels guiltiest about.

***

Let’s talk numbers. At one point, the motel Aileen and Ty were staying in cost $15 a day.

To make rent, Aileen needed $105 weekly. To keep things simple, let’s say that all Aileen needed to do was give blowjobs. Giving one blowjob daily for $20 (a sexologist said this was a reasonable figure), Aileen would have had $140. She would have needed more for food for her and Ty, as well as for her pets. And for beer. And cigarettes. And in case she didn’t feel like working Thursday. Or in case she got beaten up on the road and couldn’t work. Let’s say she worked another five clients each week, for a total of $135 spending money.

That’s 12 blowjobs a week. That’s 624 blowjobs a year. Aileen turned tricks on the road from the age of 15 until she was arrested for the murders: approximately 20 years. That’s 12,480 blowjobs.

Aileen Wuornos killed seven men in just under one year. That looks like this:

☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

82 percent of street prostitutes are raped, with 48 percent raped multiply.

Let’s say vengeance isn’t such a bad idea.

The statistic I found says that 4.5 percent of men are rapists.

According to this article about rapist men, there are twice as many rapists in the United States as there are single mothers. And for every drunk driver who is in a fatal accident this year, there are over 500 rapists.

Aileen Wuornos only killed seven men. She says she killed in self-defense. To kill each of her rapists, she would have needed this many bullets (in addition to the seven she used):

☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠

She killed ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ ☠ .

***

I showed a draft of this essay to a friend. I said, I am not doing a good job trying to sell this book. I am also not getting Aileen across.

She said: Why would you do sex work, if killing johns is more or less an occupational hazard?

There are so many things I have to say to her, about mental illness and stability, about getting and keeping a job when you are homeless, about working for $.75 an hour and having someone offer you $50.

Instead, let me say this:

No one asks what Lorenzo Gilyard did (he was a trash company supervisor), or Gary Ridgway (he worked for a truck factory). Joel Rivkin was a landscaper, and William Lester Suff was a county stock clerk. Robert Shulman was a postal worker, and Lonnie Franklin Jr. was an auto mechanic. No one ever asks.

***

I have worked with killers. One had a drunken argument with his best friend that was settled with a bullet. He had the same argument with himself every day after that. He waited every day for his bullet. He waited in prison, then out.

Another one, a girl. A prostitute, like Aileen. Dramatic. Loyal. Fierce. Wrecked. Too high to stand. She killed her father’s killer. The last time I saw her, she was crying. I pulled her up from the sidewalk and she collapsed against my armpit, crying. Shhhh, I told her. Shhh.  She pushed me away and staggered off, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

***

Statistically, every single man Aileen Wuornos killed was her rapist.

Symbolically, none of those men was her father, she said.

***

Another one. The prostitute, kidnapped across state lines, bound with duct tape. Another one. Aileen Wuornos. Another one. One out of every four.

Another one. My mother. And me.

***

While I am writing this, my spine grows the length of one .22 bullet.

***

Aileen, driving a Mustang. Aileen, having a one-night-stand with the lead singer of Foghat, smoking pot with Ted Nugent. Aileen, writing note after note into her bible, praying for the blood.

***

Robert Shulman was sentenced to death, had it commuted to life, and died on death row. Lorenzo Gilyard got life in prison. Joel Rivkin got 203 years to life in prison. William Lester Suff is on death row. Gary Ridgway got life without parole.  Lonnie Franklin Jr. goes to court two days after the deadline for this piece, on October 24, 2012.

***

Aileen was, of course, executed by the state of Florida in 2002. Her ashes are scattered in Michigan around the base of a tree. She would not be interested, particularly, in what I’ve written here. She would, if she were still in prison, ask for you to send her money for commissary—not for cigarettes or stamps, she has plenty of those—but for those yummy calzones they have in the commissary.

With her mouth full, she would scoff at the mention of the serial killers, since she wasn’t one. She knew, though, what bastards—what woman-hating bastards—some of those men are. She would stab the air with the calzone, sitting at the table. She would stab at the air.

And all of a sudden, she’d shrug. It’s the world, she’d say. You can have this wicked world. I’m here for God.

Aileen is still in my head, but she’s done talking for now, for tonight. She takes the leashes for her white German shepherds off the table, and whistles. Come on, boys, she says, let’s go. One dog scrambles to his feet so quickly, he loses his footing and lands, bewildered, on his chest and chin. Aileen looks surprised, then breaks into a grin. She musses the top of his head, clicks his leash on, and the three of them start towards the door. Silly dog, Aileen says. Haw haw haw

About the Author

Daphne Gottlieb

Daphne Gottlieb is the author of five books of poetry (most recently, 15 Ways to Stay Alive) and a graphic novel (Jokes and the Unconscious), as well as the editor of two anthologies, both more or less about sex. She is currently waiting for something else wicked to her way come.

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