Aileen Wuornos: Victim or cold-blooded killer?

An incisive new true crime series, Making a Monster brings together some of the world’s leading experts on criminal psychology. They be pore over the dark case histories of notorious serial killers, asking whether it was nature, nurture, or a toxic mixture of the two which set them on the path to committing their brutal crimes.

Amid the rogues’ gallery of sexual sadists and torturers covered in the series, US serial killer Aileen Wuornos is a clear ‘odd one out’. Not simply because of her gender, but because her killings were motivated not by an insatiable craving for perverse kicks, but by desperation. She gunned down numerous men out of a desperation to survive. A desperation to preserve a precarious life she’d created for herself. A desperation not to be left behind by the one person she cared about, her lover Tyria Moore.

She had an abandonment complex.

As forensic psychologist Dr Julian Boon puts it, ‘She had an abandonment complex. And this desperation was one of the factors that drove her to go from a petty criminal to a cold-blooded serial killer.’

Despite the clear difference in MO and motivation between Aileen Wuornos and her male peers in murder, she did have one major thing in common with many other multiple murderers: an ugly, abnormal upbringing. In her case, her father was a convicted child rapist who died in prison, while her mother abandoned Aileen as an infant. The young Aileen was raised by her grandparents, who led her to believe they were her mother and father.

It was a dismal domestic existence, with her grandfather a tyrannical alcoholic who ruled the household with an iron fist. In the words of forensic psychologist Dr David Holmes, ‘The strict regime that was imposed became quite militaristic. The beatings were very regular… she actually had to clean the strap she was beaten with.’ Dr Holmes also notes the sexualised element to the abuse, which could account for why Aileen began selling sex to local boys before she was even in her teens. 

Indeed, the young girl became notorious among fellow pupils at school for providing sexual favours in exchange for loose change and cigarettes. Her behaviour led to her being ostracised – many decades later, an old school friend recounted in a TV interview how Aileen had once been ejected from a party she herself had thrown for her classmates.

Her social alienation could only have increased when she fell pregnant at 14 – allegedly after being raped by an older man. Her son was given up for adoption, and shortly afterwards Aileen was thrown out of her home. A period of wandering and hitchhiking followed, followed by a brief glimmer of hope when Aileen – by now a young woman – crossed paths with a wealthy, elderly yacht club president in Florida who fell in love with her.

Making a Monster

It’s telling that even at this early stage in her life, presented with a chance of a comfortable, normal life, Aileen Wuornos was too socially maladjusted and damaged to settle into it. Her fierce temper and violent rages became directed at her husband, to the point where he took out a restraining order against his young bride. After the failure of the marriage, her downward spiral continued, with multiple arrests for petty crimes, as well as a jail term for armed robbery.

Then, in the mid-80s, she met the woman who would herald the defining chapter in her life: a hotel maid named Tyria Moore. The two of them soon became inseparable, but Aileen’s love ran parallel with her gnawing fear that Tyria would one day leave her if she couldn’t provide for them both. Psychologists have pondered whether Aileen’s long-standing abandonment issues, stemming from her time as an alienated, unloved and abused child, may have turned toxic and lethal as a result of this love for Tyria. 

She’d ‘robbed them as cold as ice’

It could certainly go some way to explaining why, during this relationship, Aileen Wuornos made the shocking transition from sex worker to murderer, her first victim being a small businessman called Richard Mallory who picked her up on a Florida highway. The Mallory case is complicated by the fact that Wuornos claimed she had shot him dead in self defence after he’d tried to rape her, and it was indeed later revealed in court that Mallory had once been jailed for ‘housebreaking with intent to rape’, and had been found to possess ‘strong sociopathic trends’.

There has been widespread debate about the inconsistencies in Wuornos’ accounts of how she’d come to kill seven men – first claiming she’d been driven to it, then confessing she’d ‘robbed them as cold as ice’ and that ‘I’d do it again, too.’ Could it be that the Mallory killing had indeed been committed in self-defence, but getting away with it had emboldened Wuornos to kill again and again, for money?

Whatever the details of the murders themselves, Aileen Wuornos – executed in 2002 – remains notorious as an almost unique example of a female serial killer who (unlike most other women who commit multiple murders) worked completely alone, was not in a caregiver role, and killed strangers rather than people she knew. 

The complex, even poignant nuances of her case have also led to her being reclaimed as a kind of darkly heroic icon of marginalised womanhood. In 2019, rapper Cardi B paid homage to Wuornos by recreating a famous photo of the killer raising her handcuffed wrists to her neck, while journalist Sofia Barrett-Ibarria wrote that ‘Wuornos’ story sheds light on the societal structures and circumstances that can force victims into a position where they feel that retaliation is the only option.’ Decades after her killing spree, Aileen Wuornos’ status as a figure of fascination, pity and revulsion remains undimmed.