Sunday, June 15, 2008

Aileen Wuarnos, Psychosis and the Death Penalty

Thank you, Kate and Ken, for your insightful comments and for faithfully reading my scatter-brained words. I really appreciate what you have to say.

Along the lines of Kate's comment to my last post, I'm not going to write about Scientology in this post. I will just mention, yesterday was the most recent international protest by the group Anonymous against Scientology. I chose not to attend this time. I can keep up with the issue on the internet, and I think it is best that I do not focus on it as much as I had been.

So onto a different topic! I watched a documentary about Aileen Wuarnos, serial killer, last night, and I found it really fascinating. I had previously seen the movie, Monster, about her life, in which an actress who looks surprisingly identical to the real Aileen portrays her, and Christina Ricci portrays her girlfriend.

My reason for bringing this topic up here, is that, in the video Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, she is interviewed many times, and it is very clear in these interviews that Aileen was acutely psychotic. She was also very suicidal and wanted to die towards the end of her life. She actively worked against her own defense, making statements in court to discredit witnesses that her attorney had brought in for her defense - because she wanted to be put to death. She clearly states to the reporter filming the documentary that she has changed her story so that she will be executed. And, in the end, she was executed, in 2002, while Jeb Bush was Governor of Florida and gearing up for another election.

What disturbs me most about this film is that a woman who is clearly mentally ill, and suffering from delusions, could have been considered competent to stand trial in the first place. I don't see how she could have been considered competent. However, I do know from a Constitutional Law class I took last semester that it does not take much to be considered competent to stand trial.

Before her execution, Aileen was interviewed by three psychiatrists. However, they only spoke with her for about fifteen minutes, and the only purpose of their interviews with her was to see if she understood what the death penalty was and why she was going to be executed. When the psychiatrists said that she had passed their examination, Governor Bush gave her execution the green light.

I just want to mention a few facts here about Aileen's life. And I am not mentioning them to excuse or condone her crimes, but to bring them to light, in case anyone is interested in what might have caused this woman to murder seven men. When Aileen was a few months old, her mother abandoned her. Her father went to prison for raping a little girl. He then killed himself in prison. Aileen and her brother were raised by their grandparents.

The grandfather sexually abused both Aileen and her mother, according to the documentary. He also physically abused Aileen, according to witnesses who testified to this in court. He beat her with a belt with her pants down. When she was nine years old, her brother, who was only a year older than her, began to rape her. Then neighborhood boys got involved in raping her, and she became a sex object to them. She began to have sex with neighborhood boys for money - turning herself into a prostitute before she was old enough to drive a car. When she was 14 years old, after reportedly being raped by a neighborhood pedophile (who later killed himself), she became pregnant.

When she became pregnant, her grandparents sent her away to have the baby. It was given up for adoption. No social services agency ever intervened in this young woman's life, as far as I know. After her baby was born, her grandmother died, and her grandfather blamed this death on Aileen's behavior. He kicked Aileen and her brother out of the house. The brother lived with some neighbors. Aileen had to fend for herself - sleeping on the ground in the woods and in abandoned cars in the snow. She prostituted herself for money to survive. Sometimes she camped out with a young man who had been kicked out of his home as well. He testified in court about her sleeping in the woods.

Because it was cold in Michigan sleeping outside, she set out for warmer weather. A few years later, she landed in Florida. Aileen worked as a prostitute in Florida for ten years - entering her 30's, before she became a murderer. She started up a lesbian relationship with a young woman who lived off of her money. Aileen supported the both of them by prostitution. Then she met a trick who raped her, brutally. He poured rubbing alcohol all over her naked body, burning her genitals and nose and eyes. In self defense, as she stated in court, she killed him. That was how Aileen Wuarnos became a murderer.

Sometime after she moved away from Michigan, Aileen's grandfather committed suicide. Her brother then died of cancer. It should be noted that having a father and a grandfather who commit suicide is a strong indication that a person might have mental illness running in their family. It should also be noted that before she ever committed murder, Aileen attempted suicide more than once. The time when she was hospitalized for it was because she shot herself in the abdomen. It is very rare for women to choose a violent method such as a gun for a suicide attempt. When we do, it is usually because we are seriously mentally ill.

Besides the excellent documentary, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, there is also a biography show for the A&E TV network about Aileen's life. I watched some of that show. When it describes her first murder, the film fails to mention anything about the man raping her and the fact that she killed him in self-defense. I don't understand why they would leave out such pertinent information.

When she was on death row, and trying to get her execution to happen faster, Aileen began to recant some of her own testimony from court. She began to say that she had not been raped by the men she murdered, and that she had a fine childhood and was not abused. Witnesses who saw her being abused as a child (including one who raped her himself when she was nine or ten years old) testified in court that she was, and she declared that they were all lying. Ostensibly, she was in some serious state of denial about the horrific things she had lived through in her childhood. Also, she wanted, towards the end of her life, to make herself look like she would definitely kill again and like she had no defense excuse for any of her killings - to make sure that she would be executed, because she was seriously suicidal and wanted to make sure she was killed.

If you watch the documentary, Aileen can be seen whispering to the filmmaker that she really was raped by several of the men she murdered, but she does not want anyone to know that because she wants to make sure she gets executed. I do not know if the prosecution or the judge involved was aware that this woman was stating outright that she wanted to be killed, but I do not understand how such statements could not be seen as an obvious sign of mental illness.

Towards the end of her life, Aileen was psychotic and talked in interviews about her food being poisoned and her brain being zapped by sound waves and electromagnetic forces. She believed the only way she could escape the torture she thought she was enduring was to die. And the state followed through.

You know, if I had been through everything that woman had been through, and I was a murderer as well, and I was psychotic, I think perhaps I would prefer to be dead. But who knows what chance she could have had for some kind of productive life, if she had been put on medication, and given therapy to deal with her traumatic past?? I know that I wanted to die when I was psychotic. I am now on medication, and am not psychotic, therefore I do not want to die. I would hate to think that this woman who was clearly psychotic, engineered her own death with help from the state of Florida because she thought there was no other way out.

Perhaps if she had been kept alive in prison, Aileen could have rehabilitated herself enough to figure out why she did what she did, and to help others understand what needs to happen for such tragedies to be prevented in the future. It is very rare that a woman becomes a serial killer, and much could have been learned from Aileen's story.

While you may not agree with this, I personally believe that the death penalty is a form of state-sanctioned murder, and I do not support it. I believe it should be abolished. This is just my opinion. In case anyone is interested, I wanted to mention that there is going to be a national protest against the death penalty in Washington D.C. in front of the Supreme Court building from June 29-July 2nd, of this year. This website on the abolition movement has all the details.

I think major changes need to take place in how mentally ill people are treated by the criminal justice system in the United States. It is a sad fact that the Los Angeles County Jail currently holds more people with mental illnesses than any mental hospital in this country. It is a sad fact that many people with mental illnesses are locked up in jails and prisons where they are not getting adequate treatment for the illnesses that landed them there in the first place. There must be a better way to do things than this.

I did some research for a paper last semester on how the mentally ill are treated in the criminal justice system in the U.S. This led me to really be grateful that I was never arrested when I was psychotic, though I did do things which could have led to trouble with the law at the time. I am also more interested now in advocating for the mentally ill people who are locked inside the criminal justice system. I feel very strongly that we need more rehabilitation and less warehousing of people like animals in cages. I read a statistic recently that 94% of tax dollars that are used to address crime, only deal with the aftereffects of the crimes, and so only 6% of the tax dollars go towards prevention of crime, which is, usually, much more effective. That really does not make much sense to me.

When Aileen Wuarnos was executed, she asked that this song be played at her memorial service, if there ever was one. It's Natalie Merchant's, "Carnival":

Well, I've walked these streets
a virtual stage
it seemed to me
make up on their faces
actors took their
places next to me

Well, I've walked these streets
in a carnival
of sights to see
all the cheap thrill seekers
the vendors and the dealers
they crowded around me

have I been blind
have I been lost
inside my self and
my own mind
by what my eyes have seen?

Well, I've walked these streets
in a spectacle of wealth and poverty
in the diamond markets
the scarlet welcome carpet
that they just rolled out for me

And I've walked these streets
in the mad house asylum
they can be
where a wild eyed misfit prophet
on a traffic island stopped
and he raved of saving me

have I been blind
have I been lost
inside my self and
my own mind
by what my eyes have seen?have I been wrong
have I been wise
to shut my eyes
and play along
by what my eyes have found
by what my eyes have seen
what they have seen?

have I been blind
have I been lost

have I been wrong
have I been wise
have I been strong

Have I been
by what my eyes have found
in that great street carnival
(Repeat from A1)
in that carnival?


  1. I remember her story on the local news. It is a sad thing that a number of mentally ill people commit "suicide by police" when they charge towards the police knowing they will be shot. I think that most law enforcement agencies do not adequately train their officers to deal with these types of situations properly. Rehabilitation may have not been successful for Aileen but I wish they would have tried it.

    The court system will put people on trial as long as they as conscious. Mental illness will not stop them.

    As far as the death penalty, I do believe in it in exceptional cases for people like Ted Bundy who are overtly evil and a danger to others. I think that they do use the death penalty for some cases that warrant more compassion than retribution.

    I hope you are doing better there.

  2. I agree with you. I think the death penalty is barbaric and outdated. And I think anyone who commits grisly violent crimes over and over again is obviously mentally ill. To my mind to be violent is to be ill.

    During the acute phase of my psychosis I believed that I was telepathically connected to a serial killer and that he was following me and having other members of his cult group follow me. God, I'm glad that part of my illness is over. But it did teach me to push myself towards compassion over fear, which is hard when you're paranoid. I still think that there should be support groups for people with histories of abuse and violence. Why are some people so adamant against treating the violent mentally ill with compassion? It's all about fear and defenses and it sucks.

    As long as well condone violence (death penalty, war, cops with guns,etc...) we make it acceptable and some people follow suit...too many people do. I lived with an abusive alcoholic for five years and was totally shocked by his behavior. But he wasn't living in isolation, he learned his behavior at home and from his peers and the society at large. Domestic violence is still alive and well around the world and Aileen Wuarnos was a victim of it. She should have been treated kindly instead of killed. People can recover, be rehabilitated. It's the mean spirited people out there who wouldn't give her a chance or followed politics as usual.

    Natalie Merchant's song "Carnival" aptly made your point: this was a sensitive and perceptive woman despite her mental illness.

    You'd be a great advocate. Have you thought of joining NAMI? And whatever happened to that support group you started?


  3. Hi Ken and Kate-

    Thanks for your informative comments. To answer the question about NAMI and the support group I started - I have joined NAMI. I actually took their peer-advocate training class recently. It was a nine-week class every Saturday for a few hours. I liked it a lot, and learned some things. Plus, it was a chance to tell my own story with people who have had similar experiences.

    As far as the DAISIES support group I started, I've kind of put it on hold for a the past couple months. Once I get my life back on track with a new job and have a little less stress I would like to do it again, but I kind of have felt like it was too much for me to handle recently because of the problems I've had with anxiety and depression and sleep.

    But thanks for asking about that! It's nice to know some people are reading what I write here.

    Take care!


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