In 1993, I saw Aileen Wuornos’ photo in the newspaper. She had received three death sentences. When I looked at her photo, a ping went off in my brain, the kind that happens when you meet someone for the first time but you feel that you’ve met them before.
The next day I saw her being interviewed on an Australian current affairs show, and that feeling of familiarity grew as I listened to her voice and saw the way she moved. A couple of days later, someone gave me her jail postal address out of the blue. So I took that as a sign from the universe and I wrote to her.
You see, I had been making art for years — photography and film — about the sexual abuse of women and children. I grew up in the suburbs of Australia, which is an incredibly violent country if you are female. The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was 6 years old. It was perpetrated by a stranger, on my way home from school. I have lost count of the times I have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault and harassment in all its forms. I was almost murdered twice but sheer luck saved me. It has become the normal socialization of the girl child to experience sexual abuse. Women tend to direct the pain of abuse internally through addictions, eating disorders, self-mutilation and depression. It was unusual that Aileen struck outward.
She asked me if I would come and film her on death row telling the truth of her life and crimes, which she had never done before.
She wrote me back and we continued our correspondence for 10 years, up until her execution in 2002. In 1997, she told me that she had decided to die and was halting all her appeals. She was tired of her life in prison and just wanted to leave the planet. She knew that I was a filmmaker and an artist and that I didn’t judge her, so she asked me if I would come and film her on death row telling the truth of her life and crimes, which she had never done before.
She also wanted to be right with God and wanted my film — titled A Matter of Life and Death — to be a confessional. She had been treated so badly by journalists that she didn’t want anyone from the media to film this interview. She also wanted to give me a gift — I was 33 when I filmed Aileen on death row — and believed that the interview would sell for millions of dollars.
So I flew to Florida from Australia in August 2007 and filmed her for two hours. I didn’t ask her any questions; I just let her speak. Up until then, she had claimed that the seven men had raped her or attempted to rape her, and that she shot them in self-defense.
Aileen, as had been reported, had been sexually abused since she was a little girl. She was gang-raped by high school friends. At 14, after another rape, she had a child, and her father, who was actually her grandfather, kicked her out.
She gave her child up for adoption and from then on lived on the road, doing sex work to support herself. Aileen told me she had lost count of the times she had been sexually assaulted and physically abused, so by the time she met her first victim, who had been incarcerated for 10 years for rape, she had reached her limit.
He attempted to rape her. She killed him. In self-defense.
Now that she had crossed the line though, she knew her life was over and as soon as she got caught, she would be sentenced to death. So? So she became a bounty hunter for rapists. Convenient, as the next six men she killed? They all did something that triggered her trauma, which she saw, in this confessional, our film, as not necessarily killing them in self-defense.
Before I flew to Florida to film Aileen, I had been asked by an organization that helped child sexual abuse survivors to teach them art. The class culminated in an exhibition.
It was an enriching experience watching these women who were almost totally broken take pride in the art they had created. I was then asked to be an art therapist in a shelter for homeless drug-addicted women. Every single client had suffered child sexual abuse and assault as adults.
After a while I saw that there was just a merry-go-round of abused women coming in and coming out, none of whom were healing. I realized my art therapy was not healing these women in any profound way. I had so many of their horrific stories in my head that I couldn’t take one more. I was burned out and I left.
However, I continued to make art about abuse as a way to both transmute my own pain and to be a voice for women who were silenced, or dead. So I think Aileen had become a shadow-side archetype of women who fantasized about getting revenge on their perpetrators.
After I came back to Australia after filming Aileen, I was unable to get funds to finish my project, as another documentary filmmaker had two films about her and that was considered a glut on the market. As the years went on, much of my time was spent just trying to survive as an artist. I have now finished 90 percent of the film. I just need to acquire music and do a little editing here and there.
Last year, I showed a recent draft of the film at a friend’s tattoo parlor, and it was received well. I’m now waiting for COVID to be over, as I would like to premiere it in a theater rather than releasing it online. But having said all that, I fear I have a massive psychological block about completing this film, and what this block is, I have no idea.
But I found Aileen very sweet, charming. Charismatic. I felt like I was in her living room rather than in a small room on death row. She was very excited to be able to talk freely and tell the truth. Her eyes had a light in them, which a couple of times clouded over with darkness.
I was very familiar with darkness. It was the darkness of being profoundly wounded.
Her mind was very sharp and despite her situation, she made jokes and laughed, which made me forget I was on death row with her. She loved her ex-girlfriend deeply even though the girlfriend had betrayed her, and said she wished to be this girl’s guardian angel.
When I saw Monster, I thought Charlize Theron had channeled Aileen in her performance. In fact, a few times throughout the film, I thought I was looking at Aileen rather than Charlize. She did an incredible job.