True Crime: Aileen Wuornos

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Fifth in a series on serial killers!

I have to admit, watching Charlize Theron play Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster made me feel a strange sympathy for the serial killer. I felt something similar after reading about Henry Lee Lucas too. Maybe it’s a teacher’s job hazard to always see the hurt, traumatized child in the adult, for, as Dr. Phil would say, I don’t ask why Wuornos and Lucas killed, I ask why wouldn’t they, given their formative years? Wuornos was convicted of killing seven men between 1988 and 1989 at point-blank range. She claimed self-defense: the men she killed either attempted to rape her or did rape her while she was working as a prostitute.

A few snippets from Wuornos’ early life:

  • Her mom was 14 when she married her dad, who was 16. They had a boy a year later, and then Aileen, a year after that.
  • Her mom, aged 16, filed for divorce when Aileen was barely 2 months old.
  • She never met her father, as he was jailed when she was born and committed suicide in prison.
  • Her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia and charged with sex crimes against children.
  • Her mother abandoned Aileen and her brother when Aileen was just 4. Their maternal grandparents took them in.
  • Her grandfather was an alcoholic who beat and sexually abused Aileen. He made her take her clothes off before a beating.
  • She engaged in sexual behavior with her brother.
  • By age 11, she was performing sexual acts at school in exchange for food, drugs, and cigarettes. Age 11. Age 11!
  • At 14, she became pregnant and gave the child up for adoption. The father? One of her grandfather’s friends.
  • Shortly after the birth of the child, her grandmother died and Aileen dropped out of school.
  • At 15, her grandfather kicked her out of the house. She began prostituting and living in the woods.

Mix together and bake for 20 years. What would we expect from her?

Wuornos appealed her conviction, but stopped all attempts in 2001, saying, “I killed those men…robbed them as cold as ice. And I’d do it again, too.”

Well, then. At least she’s honest. She continued:

“I have hate crawling through my system…I am so sick of hearing this ‘she’s crazy’ stuff. I’ve been evaluated so many times. I’m competent, sane, and…one who seriously hates human life.”

Can you blame her, considering what her first fifteen years of life were like?

She was found sane, but over the course of the next year, became increasingly erratic in her behavior. She was executed in 2002. Her last words were “I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mothership and all, I’ll be back. I’ll be back.”

I’m no psychiatrist, but that would make me question her sanity.

Why is it that some people can be exposed to horrific early-life trauma and come out on the other side, but others, like Wuornos and Lucas, can not? Let me know your thoughts after you read up on Ed Gein, Henry Lee Lucas, Belle Gunness, and Robert Hansen.

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True Crime: Robert Hansen

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Fourth in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas? Belle Gunness was number three.

In 1924, Richard Connell wrote “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story that has spawned numerous movie versions about human beings hunting other human beings. I don’t know if Robert Hansen read or saw a version of Connell’s creepy concept, but it sure would appear he was inspired by it. So inspired he packed his bags, moved to Alaska, and, in the 1970s and 80s, began hunting quarried women in a remote part of the Alaskan landscape accessible only by boat or plane.

Robert Hansen is the perfectly stereotypical serial killer. You’d never suspect him, for he was the shy, introverted type. He was a baker by trade, passed down to him from his Danish father. Married with two children, Hansen lived a quiet life. So when a woman went to police indicating Hansen had attempted to kidnap her, no one could believe it.

And no one did.

Hansen was questioned by police and admitted to meeting the woman, but he said she was trying to extort him. He also had an alibi courtesy of a good friend. And Hansen went free.

However, police began finding bodies strewn about the Alaskan wilderness. They turned to the FBI for help with profiling the killer, even though profiling was in its infancy. The criminologists suggested a white male who was an experienced hunter, had low self-esteem, and a history of rejection. Oh, and probably a stutter.

Robert Hansen ticked off all the marks–plus, he had a plane that could get him to the remote areas of the deadly Alaskan wilderness.

People still could not believe it was Hansen, and if it weren’t for a map hidden in his bedroom–a map where “x” quite literally marked the spots–who knows if they’d have found him guilty of the crimes so incredible that they seem ripped from the pages of, say, a short story.

Hansen would kidnap a woman, fly her to the wilderness, then release her. That was when his “game” began. He’d track and hunt the woman down, often violating her before killing her.

His map correlated with the bodies police found and gave them direction for finding even more bodies.

Over the course of ten years, Hansen “hunted” at least 17 women. Some estimates are upwards of 30. So why did he do it?

Growing up, it seems Hansen had a normal home life, though his father was somewhat domineering. Schoolchildren, on the other hand, can be cruel. Hansen was a small, slight, shy boy who stuttered. Raging acne appeared with puberty, and you can just imagine. Think Stephen King’s Carrie without the telekinesis. Boys taunted him, girls shunned him, and he began plotting his revenge early on. Was his overbearing father the extra ingredient that pushed Hansen over the edge? Or was it simply the overload of bullying for too many years? We’ll likely never know, as Hansen died in 2014 without any explanation of why he created his own most dangerous game.

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True Crime: Belle Gunness

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Third in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas?

It used to surprise me that serial killers existed in the 1800s. H. H. Holmes, for example, shocked me with his continual insurance fraud. Apparently, it was all the rage. One of his contemporaries in Chicago, Belle Gunness, also discovered the lucrative business of insurance fraud, and used it repeatedly–on her husbands and even her own children. Read on, and you, too, will start thinking that Holmes and Gunness would have made a perfect pair.

In the 1800s, Norwegian immigrant Belle found her way to the Windy City. In 1893 (the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago), she and her husband, Mads Sorenson, opened a candy store. It would seem as though Belle and Mads had a run of bad luck, with a business and their home burning down and two children dying. It was luck, alright, devised by Belle to cash in on insurance policies. Yes, conventional wisdom says she administered strychnine to her own children.

Later on, Mads died. Surely the fact that he died on the day two insurance policies overlapped was mere coincidence. Surely.

Now a woman of some means, Belle took her remaining children to the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. There, she bought a 42 acre farm. Part of it burned down. I don’t need to tell you it was insured…

By 1902, she found a new beau, Peter Gunness. Gunness, who had two children already, sent one to live with relatives after the other mysteriously died in Belle’s care. It wasn’t long before Peter, too, was dead. There was some concern that Peter showed signs of strychnine poisoning, but the doctor ruled it heart failure.

Belle’s life was like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: her greed overtook her ambition. Rather than being content with the cash she already had, she continued on her murder-for-money spree. Now, however, she unknowingly borrowed from H. H. Holmes’ playbook: set up potential lovers. Belle’s version was to get men to “buy” shares of her farm. Once she had the money, the men disappeared. Rumor has it she burned them, buried them, and fed them to her pigs. Handy, those hog farms.

Belle’s fast-track train came to an end in 1908. A relative of one of her “investors” was suspicious and told Belle he was going to come check things out. Soon, the entire farm burned down. In it, Belle’s remaining three children perished, as did Belle.

Or so it seemed.

The missing man’s relative insisted they do a complete search. Eleven bodies were discovered on the farm property. The adult female body discovered in the fire? It likely wasn’t Belle.

Her farmhand, Ray Lamphere, was a prime suspect for arson and murder–that is, until he confessed that she faked her death. The woman’s body in the fire did not match up to Belle’s size.

Twenty years later, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson in California was tried for poisoning a man. In her possessions were photographs of children–children who looked very similar to Belle’s.

We know very little about Belle’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor town in Norway, but as to what trauma may have caused her willingness to kill, we’re left to our own devices to make suppositions. Or, perhaps worse, there was no trauma. Perhaps she, like Holmes, was likely born that way.

True Crime: Henry Lee Lucas

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Second in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? Click here!

Henry Lee Lucas is often billed as the most prolific serial killer in the United States, but there is a reason he’s also known as the “Confession Killer.” Investigators have little doubt he killed, but they do doubt he was the prolific killer the media made him out to be. They also don’t doubt that Lucas contributed to that media frenzy.

Henry Lee Lucas killed for the first time at either 14 or 15 years old. His victim was a girl who fought back while he was trying to rape her–he says. For the next several years, he was in and out of prison on burglary charges. He then killed his own mother in an argument. Later, Lucas confessed to killing Becky Powell, a girl who had been his lover (allegedly consensual, but she was barely a teenager when they met). While people were still looking for Becky Powell, Lucas convinced another woman, Kate Rich, to help him search, and he killed her too. Both of the bodies were found with his help, so we know these two, coupled with his mother, are the three deaths we can attribute with certainty to Lucas.

However, to make things more difficult, Henry Lee Lucas hung out with, worked with, and lived with another killer, Ottis Toole (the uncle of Becky Powell). Whether or not they were in on these deeds together is unknown. Both confessed to numerous murders alone and together. (I’m not going to go into some of the things that Lucas did–just like with Ed Gein, if you really want to know, Google him, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

A television program interviewed Lucas years after he was imprisoned and retracted his confessions. He said that all of the media attention was “like being a movie star…they make you out that you’re the worst serial killer in the history of the United States, and that’s what I did.” Did Lucas confess simply for the attention and adoration (yes, adoration) he received?

Potentially.

The nature versus nurture argument is never more significant than when discussing mentally disturbed and traumatized individuals, and Henry Lee Lucas is a stellar example. He grew up with an alcoholic father who couldn’t work and made moonshine instead. They lived in a one room cabin with no heat and no running water. His mother, also an alcoholic, prostituted herself and made a young Henry watch, and at least one older sibling forced him into an incestuous relationship. His mother also made him dress up as a girl and send him to school with his hair curled.

But that was just the beginning.

While Lucas had to endure abuse from his father, his mother was much, much worse. He was beaten so badly on the head that he was comatose for three days. He also had an injured eye that went untreated. It became infected and had to be removed. His mother shot and killed a mule that an uncle gave to Lucas, and, once, when he accepted a teddy bear from a teacher at school, he was beaten for it upon his return home. All of this while Lucas was still in grade school.

That fight he got in with his mother before he killed her? It was because she was demanding he return home (as an adult) to care for her in her old age.

Given what kind of life he had as a child, I’m not surprised at all he became a killer, but he did recognize he had an issue. In fact, he even said this: “I have tried to get help for so long and no one will believe me. I have killed for the past ten years and no one will believe me. I cannot go on doing this. I also killed the only girl I ever loved.”

To suffer the physical, mental, and sexual abuse he did as a young child, well, that’s going to impact brain development. But why would he confess to crimes he didn’t commit? For once in his life, he was getting attention. Attention that didn’t hurt him physically or sexually. Attention that came while he was in a warm environment with adequate clothing, food, and water. Attention that meant he could travel from state to state with police to show him where he may have disposed of bodies, eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes along the way. In short, Henry Lee Lucas’ life in prison was a thousand times better than it was on the outside.

Want to learn more about Henry Lee Lucas? Take a look at The Confessions of Henry Lee Lucas by Mike Cox and Henry Lee Lucas: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Notorious Serial Killer by J. Norris.

Stay tuned for part three in the series: Belle Gunness.

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True Crime: Ed Gein

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First in a series about serial killers!

Stranger than fiction: there are definitely some true crime stories that are just so outlandish they’re barely believable. Such is the story of Ed Gein.

A student taught me all about Ed Gein after the culmination of American Horror Story. We were talking about H. H. Holmes’ portrayal as Mr. March in the Hotel series, and he said, “kind of like Ed Gein and Psycho.” 

“Like who?” I asked.

“Ed Gein.” He stared at me expectantly.

“Who?” I asked again.

“You don’t know who Ed Gein is?”

Nope. Sure didn’t. (Just one of many examples where my students teach me.)

Ed Gein, born in the early 1900s, lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin, and is the basis for Psycho’s Norman Bates. Norman, eerily brought back to life as of late by Freddie Highmore in Bates Motelhad a, shall we say, fixation, on his mother, just like Gein. When she died, Gein began robbing the graves of women who he thought resembled his mother. He created seat covers from their skin and bowls from their skulls–and those are not the most gruesome items he kept or manufactured. (Google if you are so inclined, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) He committed numerous crimes before he was caught. He was found guilty of murdering Bernice Worden and was sentenced to life in a mental institution. Gein was also the “inspiration” behind Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dr. Thredson from American Horror Story, and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

My morbid fascination with serial killers is not because of the death and destruction, but the why behind it all. I fully acknowledge that some people are just born damaged. For some, no matter what interventions took place, they would be the psycho- or sociopaths they are. However, the psychology of the early years, the imprint caregivers have on an infant, the indelible marks parents leave on children, those have always been of never-ending interest to me.

Ed Gein, well, I believe he falls into the latter category. Raised on a remote farm by an alcoholic father who was a poor provider, and indoctrinated by a mother who taught him all women were evil and prostitutes (and punished him when he tried to make friends), Ed Gein’s upbringing was a perfect storm of isolationism and conditioning with a dash of mommy and daddy issues.

Want to learn more about Ed Gein? Take a look at Harold Schlecter’s book Deviant and Paul Anthony Woods’ Psycho!

Stay tuned for part two in the series: Henry Lee Lucas.

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How to Set Goals–and Achieve Them


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Today is my one year blog-iversary! I feel like trumpets should be sounding, confetti should be flying, and someone should be pouring the champagne. Why?  Because I hit my writing goals last year. Every last one of them, including starting and maintaining this blog.

How? Great question since I procrastinate. I fear failure. I loathe imperfection. I spent a few months prepping my website (hellooooo learning curve) and preparing a few blog posts in order to go live January 1, 2018. On that date on my planner, I wrote,”Do not be afraid!” I knew I would chicken out if I didn’t have that reminder. Taking my writing public and opening myself for critique and criticism was a huge challenge and risk for me. But here I am–still alive.

If this sounds like you, trust me when I say if I could do it, you can too. Here is the short version of the steps I took. If you’d like a free goal-setting worksheet, click here!

Give yourself some quiet time and space to think.

Maybe the local coffee shop has enough background noise for you to concentrate. Maybe you send the kids to grandma’s for a few hours so you have silence in your own home. Whatever your brand of thinking space, make room for it. You need to genuinely consider your dreams here, and that won’t come easily if you’re trying to multitask. I set aside an hour but found I needed only about 20 minutes to be honest with myself.

What are your wants and dreams?

Don’t be bashful–be honest. If you could have/do/be anything, what would it be? Write it all down. Silence that inner critic that tells you it’s impossible or stupid or too far out of reach. Then, take each dream and ask yourself how you could make it happen. What are the baby steps you’d have to take to start down that path? Write it all down and create a timeline for yourself.

Then, be honest with yourself. One of my dreams is to get a literary agent. I have zero control over that in some ways, but I can write and edit and edit some more. I can polish my work and give it to beta readers and re-work it some more. I can research the industry and find out how to write a kick-butt query letter. I can do more research and find out which agents would be the best match for me and for my writing.

One of my dreams is also to win the lottery, but there’s not much I can do short of buying tickets. Which I never do. Assess your dreams and look for the kind of difference between my two examples here.

Put your list of dreams and goals where you’ll see them.

I printed mine out and put it in my planner. I also had a copy on my phone. I didn’t want it displayed on a wall at home or on my desk at work. This was a private challenge for me.

Some people will tell you to share your goals with someone else to better hold yourself accountable. This is a great idea, but I would like to add something: Only share them with someone who is in your corner, who supports you no matter what, and who knows the inner workings of your brain. I told my husband that I was really going to go for writing a book, but that was it. My intrinsic fear of failure coupled with perfectionism means I often freeze up and procrastinate. The thought alone of sharing my goals with the world started a deep freeze. As I began ticking off my goals, I shared them with more and more trusted people. At the end of December, I shared my completed novel with three co-workers who are reading it over our Christmas break. If that had been a goal of mine a year ago, I guarantee you I would have frozen at the thought. So be judicious. It’s ok to keep them private as long as you are honest with yourself.

Check in with your goals. Update your progress. Adjust as needed.

Again, be honest with yourself. Don’t self-sabotage. Don’t make excuses. Decide that you’re going to do it. If something takes you longer than you anticipated, that’s ok. Adjust your timeline. It took me longer to write my first draft because I edited a lot as I went (and I researched probably more than I needed to). BUT, that made my life easier during the editing rounds.

Ready to write down those dreams and goals? Click here for your free goal-setting worksheet!

 

Joining a Writing Group


groupLast month in my Top Five Things This Writer Is Thankful For post, I mentioned two writers’ groups: the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. When I first began thinking seriously about this writing thing, I did some research. Ok, I did a LOT of research.

Much of the advice centered around finding others like you in various stages of the process: beginners with only a story running through their heads; people who had novels written but not yet published; those from both sides of the traditional publishing/self-publishing aisle–both brand new and seasoned professionals.

Great, I thought. I live in the middle of nowhere. How was I going to find these people? Twitter has a beyond-fabulous writing community that stretches all dimensions of personality and experience, but I wanted to find people I could connect with in real life too. I learned about the genre-specific groups, most of which have a national–even international–presence. However, that presence does not reach its tendrils to the middle of nowhere. The closest I was going to get was Chicago. Enter Mystery Writers of America-Midwest (MWA) and Sisters i(and Misters!) n Crime-Chicagoland (SinC). I signed up, considering the membership charges an investment in my goals.

A year ago, I was hesitant to attend any of their events. I didn’t even have a completed manuscript. I didn’t know Imposter’s Syndrome was a thing, but I was certainly in the throes of it. (An excellent guest post by Kassandra Lamb on Jami Gold’s blog can help you self-diagnose. *smile*) I finally attended the Chicago Writing Workshop. Several people–including a published author and a small press publisher–encouraged me to join MWA and SinC, explaining that they were helpful for people at any stage of the game.

They were so right.

I’ve since attended four events (two events for each group). All were free, I might add, provided you’re a member, but I can’t even put a price on the value. I’ve found a group of people who are at the same stage, and we stay connected via email. I’ve found two beta readers. I’ve learned about others’ struggles and successes, small presses, the worth of an agent, and the changing landscape of publishing. I’ve networked with published authors and publishers themselves. And I’ve found an incredibly supportive group of people–no matter their “station” in the writing world–who are encouraging and willing to help others along their journeys.

If you are suffering from Imposter’s Syndrome and are doubting your worth, your credibility, your ability, I hope that you seek out some writing groups, whether it’s a general group or genre-specific, whether it’s home-grown that meets at your local library or internationally-known. Don’t be afraid to step out of that comfort zone so many of us writers dwell in! You will likely be pleasantly surprised.