Fascinating felons
A violent woman defies the role society has given her. Is that why she holds a gruesome appeal, asks Clare Longrigg

Monday February 16, 2004
The Guardian

"I pretty much had them selected that they was gonna die. My evil came out because of what I was doing, the hitchhiking and hooking. I'm telling you, you have to kill Aileen Wuornos, 'cause she'll kill again."

When serial murderer Aileen Wuornos made her confession to the camera of documentary-maker Nick Broomfield, she endorsed an image of herself that the American media had been propagating for a decade. In 1990, Wuornos murdered seven men who had picked her up for sex, robbed them, stripped them and dumped their bodies. Her story so electrified America she was dubbed "America's first female serial killer" - by no means the case - and her story was sensationalised in books, documentaries and now a new feature film, Monster, which has already earned Charlize Theron a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for best actress for her role as the killer prostitute.

Until her on-screen "confession", Wuornos had maintained that she killed in self-defence. Exhausted and half crazy from 10 years on death row, she finally showed her audience what they wanted to see.

"I was interested in Aileen's story as a woman who was an outcast, rejected by society," says Broomfield. "A lot of hatred that came towards her was because she was a woman who contradicted what was expected of her. Women are not supposed to be violent. It is very threatening to society if you defy your role. Aileen reflected society's worst fears. She was perceived as an evil witch and she was effectively burned at the stake."

Every time a major crime is committed in an unexpected quarter, by a GP, a child, or a mother, there follows a period of soul-searching. It's as though the crime reflects the dark heart of our society. Because we give women special status as nurturers and accord them the virtue of passivity, we tend to take it personally when a woman commits a violent act. A woman like Wuornos is demonised. She seems to represent the death of innocence.

The same happened with Moors murderer, Myra Hindley. Her mugshot, with its bleached-blonde hair and murderous stare, is an intriguing and unfamiliar thing: a study of hatred in a woman. So intriguing that it has become an iconic image, eclipsing that of her co-murderer, Ian Brady.

Rose West, who was sentenced in 1995 to life on 10 counts of murder, has always been more confusing as a demon figure than her late husband Fred. This is perhaps because a sexually deviant and murderous male can be classed as an outcast; while a female and a mother is at some level one of us. We prod about in their stories, searching for a glimmer of understanding. Those who have interviewed Hindley in prison have come out shocked to find no grain of empathy or compassion.

More recently, Maxine Carr has caught the public's fascination. Like West and Hindley, there was no clear category in which to place her so she too has been demonised - though her crime was not violent. When she lied to police to protect her boyfriend Ian Huntley, Carr seemed to be defending a repugnant killer; in the eyes of many, this gave her the mantle of Myra Hindley. Although her crime was slight in comparison, Carr has been the subject of almost as much feverish analysis as her lover. There has been endless - and often unjustified - speculation about her nature and possible motive - whether she was frightened of Huntley, afraid to lose her security if he was arrested, or complicit in "grooming" the girls.

Inevitably, the notion of female transgression still has the greater power to shock. Women represent a tiny proportion of violent criminals in jail. According to latest statistics, only 14% of violent crime in the US is committed by women, while FBI figures show that fewer than 3% of serial killers are female. In 2002 just 128 women were jailed for murder in England and Wales, compared to 3,464 men. But, as a spokeswoman for Women in Prison explains, women are punished twice over: once for the crime, and once for not behaving like women.

A new book, Female Terror, by Ann Magma, provides a gripping catalogue of scary women, most of whom confound our expectations of what a woman is supposed to be. Some have made capital of society's unease with the notion of female violence. Dante Sutorius, from Ohio, who was convicted in 1996 of murdering her husband, described herself as "moral, loyal, cute and adorable". She was kittenish, flirty and pouting, all highlights and liposuction. She shot her sixth husband after cleaning out his bank account and threatening to destroy his reputation. It was not a first offence: she had pulled a gun on her previous boyfriend when he tried to leave her and another boyfriend accused her of setting fire to his bed while he was sleeping.

A series of killings in Canada in the early 1990s became known as the Ken and Barbie murders because the couple who carried them out were bronzed, good-looking, bleached-blonde yuppies. The idea of Deviant Killer Barbie as a style icon was irresistible. In this case, the couple, Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, became sexually obsessive, progressing from their own S&M compulsions to kidnap, sexual assault and murder. Homolka procured teenage victims for her husband, and directed the action to please him. When it all got out of control, Bernardo beat her, and she went home to her parents with two black eyes and a tale of domestic violence. The public was so ready to accept her as a victim, that she nearly got away with it.

When women over 50 commit crimes, they tend to be tagged by the jocular title "Granny". Dorothea Puente was an aging landlady in Sacramento, California, who took in vulnerable boarders from the church. She was a brisk, effective carer, taking her charges' medication and benefit payments in hand, keeping them well fed and clean. She had social services fooled. When the police finally investigated a number of disappearances, they dug up her basement. As eight bodies emerged from the foundations, Puente asked the officers on the door if she could nip out for a drink. Still fooled by her respectable little old lady persona, they let her go. It took a major manhunt to track her down. Women who kill often harm those in their care - children, the vulnerable or elderly - and rationalise their crimes as mercy killings. Puente is remarkable because she killed for money, cashing in benefits years after her charges' deaths.

Another woman who slipped through the net for years on account of not looking the part was Rosetta Cutolo. Her brother, Naples' most notorious mafia boss Raffaele Cutolo, is serving life in a secure unit. Rosetta, a grey-haired, pious-lookingwoman, lived alone for years, tending her roses. In 1993 she was charged with mafia association: prosecutors alleged she had been running her brother's organisation for 15 years. Rosetta had persuaded the authorities she was harmless, and her frumpy image definitely helped.

A frumpy image was not something the girl gangs of the 90s were going to hide behind. An account of the rapid rise of gangs in America gives an insight into the potentially lethal consequences of dressing to kill. In 1999 New Expression magazine reported over 30 girl gangs in Boston: "These girls fight with razors, knives and stomp other females with their heels on."

These girl gangs came out of tough environments, where women had featured merely as witnesses, or victims, of crime. Joining a gang was often an attempt to reverse that role and protect themselves. They needed to show they were tough and fearless.

The media loved the idea of violent girl gangs, and caught on to it in a way quite out of proportion to the scale of the problem. There was something titillating about tough girls who knew how to use a knife, rather than recoil from it. The image of dangerous women appealed to both sexes; indeed, the combination of women and violence seems inextricably bound up with sex. As an article in Esquire magazine put it: "For men, the real attraction is the thrill of disempowerment."

Patricia Pearson, in her study of female violence, When She Was Bad, makes the point that women who kill seem in a criminal league of their own. This is because their murderous acts are not the logical extension of habitual violent behaviour, like many male offenders, but seem to have come from nowhere. Traumatised women tend to turn their rage on themselves, by cutting, starving or taking drugs. Comparatively few express their rage in violent acts, and so some of those who do have become feminist icons.

Aileen Wuornos, who was executed by lethal injection last year, attracted a group of supporters who praised her for defending herself against sexual violence. Elisabeth Broderick shot her ex-husband and his new, younger wife as they lay in bed, and became the champion of deserted wives who had been traded in for younger models. Lorena Bobbitt was celebrated for emasculating an abusive male. But Pearson points out that to see violent women as avenging victims is a dangerous tendency. If we refuse to accept that women are accountable for good and ill, we deny them responsibility for their actions.

Clare Longrigg's next book, No Questions Asked: The Secret Life of Women in the Mob, will be published by Miramax in July. Female Terror by Ann Magma is published by Virgin, 6.99.

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