National Post

Monday, October 07, 2002

She's a murderer - end of story

Donna Laframboise
National Post

After a jury convicted Aileen Wuornos of first-degree murder in January, 1992, she dismissed its members as "scumbags of America." To the media, she insisted: "I'm innocent! I was raped! I was tortured!"

The case of Wuornos, 46, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Florida on Wednesday, is a lurid one. Not least because she was a lesbian and a prostitute who told police she'd slept with 250,000 johns, her story has inspired books, a made-for-TV movie, a documentary film and a play. Last year, an opera based on her life premiered in San Francisco.

But the tale of Wuornos is also a cautionary one. Long a cause célèbre among feminists, prostitute groups, lesbian activists and prison reformers, she is, in fact, remarkably undeserving of such sympathy.

In total, Wuornos was convicted of murdering six men who picked her up as she hitchhiked along Florida highways in the late 1980s. (She confessed to a seventh murder, but the body was never recovered and she wasn't charged.) Wuornos insisted that, in each case, the men had become violent and she'd had no choice but to defend herself.

In the view of the activists who bought her "victim of male violence" line, the fact that she systematically robbed these men amounted to details, details. So did her previous prison time for armed robbery and her criminal record for assault, auto theft, resisting arrest, passing forged cheques and firing a firearm from a motor vehicle.

Among those who championed Wuornos is Phyllis Chesler, a prominent women's studies professor and founder of the National Women's Health Network. According to Prof. Chesler's 1994 book, Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness, Wuornos' "bullets shattered the silence about violence against prostituted women, about women fighting back: and about what happens to them when they do."

In addition to raising funds to assist Wuornos' legal team, Prof. Chesler recruited expert witnesses to testify on her behalf. Although some people have dismissed Wuornos' claim of sleeping with hundreds of thousands of men as implausible (in the words of journalist Marlee MacLeod, "such a feat would require the bedding of 35 different men a day every day for 20 years") -- Prof. Chesler isn't among them. Instead, her book asks: "Was a quarter million johns all Wuornos could take before she cracked or, dare I say it, experienced a momentary flight into sanity?"

Lynda Hart, who teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania, dedicated her own book, Fatal Women, to "Aileen Wuornos and for all the women who have been vilified, pathologized, and murdered for defending themselves by whatever means necessary."

Similarly, when the California-based Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender Art and Culture screened a documentary about Wuornos followed by a panel discussion last year, it said the film "tells the story of how an ordinary, working-class woman's history of abuse at the hands of men propels her into extraordinary circumstances."

And to this day, the Web site for the Prison Activist Resource Center continues to insist Wuornos was condemned to death due to "sexism, anti-lesbian and anti-prostitute prejudice."

How inconvenient that Wuornos now says her earlier version of events was a bald-faced lie. "I'm coming clean and telling you that it was not self-defence," she told an Orlando television station in May, 2000. "It's seven counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of robbery." Interviewed by the Oscala Star-Banner last summer, she reiterated: "There was no self-defence in any of these cases. I just flat robbed, killed them."

Wuornos told the newspaper that, afraid she might lose her lesbian lover if she couldn't raise sufficient funds to rent an apartment, she killed her victims so they wouldn't report her to the police. "I know I'm gonna have to kill [him]," she said of the first man she murdered. "Because if I don't, there's going to be a witness. I thought, 'Well, I've always wanted to kill somebody for everything they ever done to me in my life, so here goes.' "

Those who were once so eager to believe Wuornos' "poor little me" claims, aren't much interested in her new account. Judging by the promotional material for the opera that opened a full 14 months after she publicly 'fessed up, her status as a victim remains secure.

"Is it so shocking that a woman, horribly abused as a child and later as an adult, killed in self-defence and then had knee-jerk reactions to threats of violence" this material asks. "Men returning from war call it shell-shock. Yet women have been in the trenches for centuries."

Oh, please.

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