When Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who raped and murdered more than 30 women, was put on trial in 1979, women from all over the world sent him fan mail. Many of these letters included nude pictures, and some of them even contained marriage proposals, according to Stephen Michaud, co-author of Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer.
During Bundy’s trial, women (referred to as “groupies”) would show up to the courtroom wearing their hair parted down the middle and hoop earrings, on the assumption that this style matched his victims. Some of them even dyed their hair brown to match the hair color of the women he murdered. In 1980, while still on trial, Bundy married one of his admirers. He was executed for his crimes in 1989.
This may be the most famous case, but it’s a pattern seen over and over again throughout history: murderous men winning over legions of female fans. Jeffrey Dahmer, who committed the murders and postmortem mutilations of 17 young men and boys, received love letters and gifts from women after he was imprisoned. Richard Ramirez, a serial killer, dubbed “the Night Stalker,” who raped and tortured over 25 victims and killed at least 13 others, married one of his many female admirers in 1996 while he was in prison. More recently, Anders Breivik, the terrorist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, mainly children, was reported to have received “love letters” from girls as young as 16.
So, who are these women who fall for arguably the world’s worst men? Laura Elizabeth Woollett, author of a new book, entitled The Love of a Bad Man, is trying to shed some light on the matter. Her book consists of 12 short stories of the complicated lives of such women, including Eva Braun (Adolf Hitler’s mistress) and Marceline Baldwin (the wife of Jim Jones of the Jonestown massacre).
We spoke to Woollett about why she wrote the book and how she went about getting inside these women’s heads.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“I’ve been drawn to true crime stories since I was a pre-teen. The stories that attract me most tend to be those committed by people from relatively normal, non-abusive upbringings — the how? and why? in these cases is more interesting and mysterious to me. I’ve found myself fascinated by female criminals for similar reasons. There’s that sense of unlikelihood, since women — for various reasons — are less associated with crime, especially violent crime.”
How did you research these women?
“I read biographies, true crime books, court transcripts, newspaper articles, letters — anything relevant that I could get my hands on, really. I also watched documentaries and original footage of them when possible. Eva Braun notably had a lot of home movies. For voice and mood inspiration, I read novels and watched movies set in the times and places these women lived in, as well as listening to music that they liked, or that was popular during their times.”
Did you notice any common threads between all of these women?
“If there was one thing that was common to all of these women, it was probably insecurity, and a willingness to have their sense of self determined by the men they were involved with. I think insecurity is a very human thing, though. You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who isn’t insecure in some way, or hasn’t been at some stage in their life.
“In general, young adults especially have a lot of insecurities and are less solid in their sense of self. The majority of the stories in The Love of a Bad Man feature young women — even teenagers — and the women who don’t fall into this category often met their partners when they were young, or else had involvements with abusive men prior to meeting the titular bad men.”
How closely did you decide to stick to the truth?
“Much of the time, it had to do with the information that was available. It was easier to stick to the truth with subjects like Myra Hindley and Eva Braun, for example, who’ve had loads of books written about them. With these ones, it was mostly a matter of choosing anecdotes or points during their lives that best represented who they were, what they did, and how they got there.
“With others, such as Janice Hooker and Veronica Compton, there was very little information available, so my imagination had more of a free rein. I may never know how close I got to the truth with these stories.”
Did you intentionally set out to give these women a voice so that readers would empathize with them?
“Voice was extremely important to me. I wanted each voice to be unique and persuasive, and for each of these women to feel as real as the next. People, when they tell their own stories, generally try to garner sympathy, and to present themselves in a vulnerable and human way. As I was writing these stories in first person, this was something I kept in mind.”
What do you think they were attracted to these men?
“It’s hard to say where the figure of the ‘bad man’ ends and the ‘antihero’ begins. There’s a huge crossover there and, as a result, bad men are often romanticized — tragically flawed, but human; dark and sinister, but exciting. As long as antiheroes are seen as attractive, bad men will be too, on some level.
“In real-life terms, though, it’s often less a matter of being attracted to exclusively ‘bad’ men, and more the crumbs of goodness they offer: attention when no one else is giving it; plush kittens; boxes of chocolates; moonlit drives; intelligent conversations. It’s harder to see the bad if there’s good mixed in.”
“I find the term ‘brainwashing’ problematic, since it has an association of brainlessness and total powerlessness, which I don’t think is completely true to life and the complexity of individuals. The most skilled manipulators, I believe, are those that tap into something latent within the manipulated person and channel it, while allowing the manipulated person to retain a sense of agency and even, in some cases, strengthening their ego. This was a dynamic within many of the relationships that I researched.
“That’s not to say these men weren’t psychopaths, but it wasn’t always a clear-cut distinction between ‘brainwashed’ follower and equal villain. Most, if not all, of these women probably wouldn’t have committed the crimes they did if they hadn’t become involved with these men; on the other side of the coin, most of these men wouldn’t have been such successful criminals if they didn’t have dedicated women helping them.”
Caril Ann Fugate’s story is perhaps the most shocking covered in the book. Did people feel sorry for her because of her age?
“Caril Ann Fugate was actually 13 when she became involved with Charles Starkweather. He was older than her by five years but, intellectually and emotionally, was very unsophisticated. He proposed to Caril and she turned him down. Not long after that, he killed her family and forced her to run away with him, killing more people along the way.
“Looking at the evidence, it seems evident that Caril was an unwilling accomplice — a recent book by Linda M. Battisti, The Twelfth Victim, explores Caril’s innocence. At the time, though, Caril wasn’t seen as innocent; it was the 1950s, and she was a girl who’d had premarital sex, living in a placid Nebraska community, which had just been shaken by these violent murders. While likely suffering from PTSD, a lot of people found her cold and ‘snooty’ when she took to the witness stand. She was tried for first-degree murder and sentenced to life, though was paroled after 17 years.”
Do you think any of the men involved actually cared for these women?
“There’s certainly evidence that some of them cared and had genuine affection for these women: Serial killer David Birnie exchanged over 2,000 letters with his partner Catherine Birnie before she cut off communication with him.
“Raymond Fernandez publicly declared his love for his partner Martha Beck before they were executed. If ‘care’ is defined as the willingness to put someone’s needs and happiness before one’s own, however, a lot of these men wouldn’t pass that test; a lot of people in general wouldn’t.”
The Love of A Bad Man is published by Scribe.
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