The true picture of a life comes into focus only slowly. The real, rather than imagined, existence essential to non-fiction can be inconveniently opaque, downright incomprehensible, and, in the case of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, unimaginably violent. Aileen was behind bars and had confessed to killing seven men when she first crossed my radar in 1991. I was riveted, I admit. I couldn’t imagine why she did what she did. So I wound up making sense of her life for my true crime book Lethal Intent. It was like piecing together a shattered glass.
Here, a family vacation snapshot of a smiling Aileen boating with the grandparents who raised her. There, stories of her screams heard way across the yard whenever her adoptive grandfather whipped her. Here, old school yearbooks showed her smile sliding further off her face every year. There, a letter from a school counselor revealed a missed opportunity, an ignored cry for help. “This girl needs help now,” it insisted.
Learning that during adolescent kissing games no boy ever would kiss Aileen made the sting of her rejection palpable. Between ages eleven and twelve, she began selling her body for packets of cigarettes, earning the nickname “cigarette pig.” It was clear that she was sexually abused, but Aileen’s stories were ever-changing and slippery. However, she got pregnant at fourteen and had a son who immediately was whisked away from her. In Florida, working as a prostitute, she once drunkenly held up a mini-mart while wearing a bikini.
As I interviewed, researched, and covered her murder trial, the puzzle pieces kept piling up. She wasn’t charged in one of the seven murders to which she confessed. She was too drunk to remember where she left the victim’s body. And to this day, the body of part-time missionary Peter Siems has not been recovered.
So many scenes swirled in my head. They drew me right into her world but did not tell me why she was a serial killer. I have a huge, detailed timeline of Aileen’s life to thank for that. It stared down at me from my office wall for ages before it began to speak to me.
Then it hit me. Aileen suffered from borderline personality disorder, said the experts, and was consumed by fears of abandonment. The timeline showed me that those fears and the stress on her all-important relationship with Tyria Moore, her girlfriend of four years were, for varying reasons, through the roof in the days preceding each murder. Often, she had no money, and in her mind, having cash was essential to hanging on to Tyria.
As a teenager, Aileen drove people away with her explosive temper and tried to buy the friendship she craved by supplying beer for parties. Adult Aileen stole hundreds of dollars from many of the men she murdered. She carried Windex in her “kill bag” with her .22 caliber gun and methodically wiped away any fingerprints. Then she’d scoot home triumphantly, waving wads of dollar bills to pay for rent and beer – a short-term fix to quiet her dread.
The timeline showed me that she committed at least five of the murders when her jealousy and fears that Tyria would leave her really escalated. A pretty blonde heterosexual co-worker of Tyria’s joining them for Thanksgiving and being close to Tyria shook Aileen up a week before her first known murder. And when Tyria’s 18-year-old sister visited, Aileen’s murders spun out of control. Aileen was incredibly jealous of the sisters’ tight bond and was petrified that Tyria would move back with her family and leave her. She killed three men in six weeks. With the hundreds of dollars she scored, the women partied and went to Sea World.
Ultimately, I felt as sure as I’ve felt about anything: Aileen killed – she said it herself – to avoid leaving behind any witnesses, but her “killing days,” as she called them, were when her fears of being left overwhelmed her. For me, the timeline on my wall was the key to understanding.
Do you think the timeline of your life would reveal anything important about you? If so, do let us know. We’d love to hear from you.
Aileen Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in October, 2002, after a decade on Death Row. Award-winning journalist and author Sue Russell’s book “Lethal Intent” is being re-issued in November 2010 as a Kensington Books “True Crime Classic.” Visit her at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook
Sue Russell is a California-based, internationally syndicated award-winning journalist and the author of several non-fiction books including the top-selling true crime book, Lethal Intent. Sue has had over 1,500 articles published with her work appearing in the Washington Post, New Scientist, Miller-McCune.com, American Legion, Tru TV’s Crime Library, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Southwest Airlines’ Spirit, and the Detroit News and San Diego Union-Tribune.
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