Thursday, November 4, 2010

Life's Puzzles on a Timeline

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, 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,, American Legion, Tru TV’s Crime Library, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Southwest Airlines’ Spirit, and the Detroit News and San Diego Union-Tribune.

Buy Lethal Intent: Lethal Intent is being reissued as a Kensington Books “True Crime Classic.” Find it in bookstores or order it online at your favorite bookseller.


  1. Sue, thanks for joining us today and writing such an interesting piece! I don't know how you true crime writers do what you do. You're part writer, part historian, part psychologist. And you have to go to sleep each night with your subject's thoughts/actions/motivations (not to mention, the victims and their families)on your brain. That's a lot to deal with. I know I couldn't do it!

  2. What a fascinating post - I'm familiar with the case but will definitely go out and buy the book. Your "job" sounds chilling - it takes a certain kind of person to be able to delve such troubled souls. I always felt some compassion towards her (misguided or not) - I'm looking forward to finding out more.

  3. Thanks wonderful Stiletto Gang for having me. It's an honour to guest blog for you!

    You're right, as Hannah says, delving into such troubled souls can be challenging. (I once wrote a piece called "Out of My Mind" - meaning, out of my mind and in to hers. It was hard at times during this 18 months to 2 years to know where one ended and other began.)I too felt compassion Hannah although oddly, some readers have questioned this. Truthfully, I felt overwhelmed with compassion for the little girl she once was. As the story reached her adult life, of course I also felt huge compassion for the families she wrecked by killing seven men who, contrary to news reports, were likely not all her "johns". So I identified with whomever I was focused on in different parts of the book. Thanks for getting the book! Please let me know what you think...Sue

  4. Hopefully my timeline will produce a different outcome from Aileen's! I definitely think there's room for compassion for a troubled little girl here. But even if a trouble child isn't equipped to grow up and make the right choices, there still has to be some accountability. This has to be the most chilling story of the past 30 years. I can't wait to get the book and curl up with it on a cold night this winter. With the lights on.

  5. There is an old saying “Never Judge a book by it’s cover” and Sue Russell certainly did not judge Aileen Wuornos throughout the writing of this book. That is reflected in the openness and trust that she gained whilst interviewing and in turn publishing Lethal Intent.

    Sue peels back the layers of Aileen’s violent life as a child, teenager and adult and exposes that she was alienated from the world a long time before she ever committed her first murder.

    Gripping and emotional - a fantastic read, go buy a copy.

  6. Oh, Sue, how painful it must have been to write that book! Thanks for a very interesting and informative piece.

  7. I've always been one to try to understand the underdog - think we're all products of our upbringing ... I'm really intrigued that the men weren't all johns! Can't wait to learn more!

  8. Thanks KL. Mary, sure your timeline will look very, very different!
    Hannah, I interviewed men (and indeed a couple testified at Aileen's trial) who had been flagged by her, shown a photograph of her waiting hungry children - not her own - and asked to give her a ride to her motel. A couple of men managed to get her out of the car when stopping for gas as she scared them. At least some (clearly not the couple who were naked when murdered) likely were giving a ride to a woman who claimed her car had broken down. But the media roundly labeled them as her "johns" - a double whammy for the families of her victims. Can you imagine?

  9. What a chilling post.

    I don't know if the time line of my life would say anything to anyone else--but I certainly see patterns there. I admire you for discerning the logic and meaning behind such a seemingly chaotic life.

  10. Thank you Jenny. I've always liked puzzles and that is something that certainly helps!
    Yes, I see some patterns in my timeline too. thanks for your note!