Mission author Daphne Gottlieb has been busy: for the last four years she has been reading and co-editing hundreds of letters written by Aileen Wuornos.
So who is Aileen Wuornos?
Known as “the Monster,” Wuornos shot and killed seven men in the late 1980s and early 1990s, garnering a reputation as the United States’ first female serial killer. Though her crimes seemed to lack a ritualized element normally associated serial killers, the media didn’t care — the Monster had been born.
Wuornos was far from one-dimensional, however. Her father was a pedophile who hung himself in prison. At age 4 she was abandoned by her mother and began living with her grandparents; at age 14 she became pregnant after being raped by a friend of her grandfather. At 15, her grandfather kicked her out. She claimed that he, too, was physically and sexually abusive. From that point on, Wuornos was more or less homeless.
The woman who admitted to killing seven men was a sex worker who made her living along the highways from her native Michigan down to Florida.
Wournos maintained that in each of the killings she had acted in self-defense, but it didn’t matter. In 2002, she was executed by the State of Florida via lethal injection. The next year, the film “Monster” was released, garnering actress Charlize Theron an Academy Award for her portrayal of Wuornos.
Wuornos spent 10 years on death row. During that time, she penned thousands of letters to her best friend from childhood, Dawn Botkins. Gottlieb and her co-editor, Lisa Kester, worked to edit these letters down into “Dear Dawn,” a gripping book that offers readers an intimate look into the life of a woman who seemed doomed from the start.
A Mission resident for 17 years, Gottlieb sports tattoos of black cats on her arm and rings in her nose. Her apartment is filled with curiosities relating to sex and death, making her perhaps the ideal editor for a book about a murdering female sex worker. Much of her past work includes topics that are morbid or sexual in nature, brought forth from a post-feminist perspective. As a poet and editor, Gottlieb has eight other books to her name.
Mission Local sat down with Gottlieb and one of her cats (named Mosh Pit) to talk about Wuornos, the book and what it’s like to read more than a million words written by such a complex and tragic figure. When asked a question, she often paused for a long time before answering.
Mission Local: Tell us about your personal interest in this project.
Daphne Gottlieb: There are a bunch of things. I’m wired to root for the underdog. I’m wired to throw my lot in with the outcast. And I am very much interested in transgression. And those are very personal preoccupations but also artistic preoccupations. Also, I have a fairly strong activist streak, particularly around violence and women.
I write about sex and death a lot, because I write about things I don’t understand — and love — and those three things are sort of very hard to get a grasp on, and when you combine them you get things like the Aileen Wuornos story, where you’ve got the intersection of sex and death and power and gender and how they play out.
ML: Letters are a particularly beautiful form of communication.
DG: What was interesting about editing them was, you know the ending before you start. I knew what was going to happen, where if you’re reading anything else, most of the time you don’t know what’s going to happen. I knew what was going to happen and it was very hard moving through the letters knowing she was going to stop writing at some point.
And when I was reading them, even before editing them, I found myself really slowing down toward the end, because I didn’t want her to be gone. And through the editing, every time I got to the end she was gone again and it was this really strange, cyclical process of grieving. And it was also very hard to let go when it was published, because I feel very protective of her and I want people to have the bond with her that I developed through the letters.
ML: How many letters did you read?
DG: I read all of the ones that were sent to us by Dawn, which was 10 4-inch binders full. All from death row. It was more than a million words, which I had to cut down to 150,000. My hope is that someday the letters are donated to an archive.
ML: Did you feel much of a connection to Wuornos before you started? How did that connection change as you read her letters?
DG: I definitely felt an affinity with her when I started the project. I was disabled at the time, and I felt very vulnerable and very angry. It sort of manifested as solidarity with her for the reasons that emotions do without substantial similarity. She resonated with me. I think living with her for four years inside my head, she surprised me frequently.
She’s a lot funnier than I thought she would be, she’s a lot lighter than I thought she would be. She’s a lot happier than I thought she’d be. She didn’t have to struggle for survival at that point [in jail]; it was three hots and a cot.
ML: What was the most difficult challenge you faced in editing this book?
DG: Having to cut things because of space. There was so much wonderful stories and thoughts and moments that weren’t usable because of space limitations. And trying to keep balance in it. In cutting so much it would be really, really easy to distort the picture of her. One of the things that got cut completely was she would copy pages and pages and pages of the Bible to share with Dawn. And I cut it, because it’s not original material, for one, and it doesn’t add to the portrait of her.
Some of it’s in there, but I had to be careful to keep some balance. There are different threads — there are the crooked police who framed her and there’s cashing in. There’s her adoptive mother who betrayed her and her attorney who’s swindling her and then there’s her love for [Wournos’ lover] Tyrea and stories from the past, and all these are in some sort of balance, and they need to be reintegrated so they read like a book, but they also have fidelity to the original letters.
So it was kind of a delicate balance between creating the best book possible and always keeping integrity in the forefront.
ML: Do you have a favorite part from the letters that has stuck with you?
DG: There’s a part where she sees the TV movie made about her and she runs down all the differences between the made-for-TV movie and her life. And she is completely indignant. For example, in the movie they’ve got the hooker wearing a miniskirt and high boots, and she’s like, “I would never wear that! I wore shorts and T-shirts.” I find it particularly charming that she has a sense of identity and pride and is so appalled at being misrepresented.
ML: What has the reaction to the book been since it came out?
DG: What I have seen is sort of an outpouring of empathy for Aileen. The one big thing we wanted to do was to allow her a little bit of relief, allow her some more dimension than she’s been allowed.
ML: So she shot seven men?
DG: Yah. And when she was taken in she said they were in self-defense. But she later changed that statement. Basically, she was trying to get executed faster, we think. That’s why she stopped saying it was self-defense. She was writing letters saying, “Just kill me, already,” to the Florida government.
ML: Shooting doesn’t necessarily seem like serial killer behavior.
DG: No, and there was no ritualized component to it the way you see with a lot of serial killers. The closest thing to ritual is they were all in sort of off-the-beaten-path places. They were in little glens in the cypress trees off the freeway, so it was not in plain sight. They’d find a place. But there doesn’t seem to be anything methodical about it; that’s why the label serial killer is challenged with her.
ML: What did you learn from this project?
DG: I learned about resilience. I am in awe of her strength and her courage. For a long time I’ve said that courage is what you get when you run out of options, and in that sense I think she’s the most courageous person I’ve ever spent any quality of time with. And that happiness is where you find it.
Dawn said that [Wuornos’] time on death row was the happiest time of her life because she didn’t have to struggle, particularly after the execution date was set, because she didn’t have it hanging over her head any more; she was free. The execution she was trying to hasten had come.