Women who love bad men: An interview with Laura Elizabeth Woollett

When I’m asked what Homer is about, I sometimes mention that I want to change the idea of what it means to be a man by talking about the good men no one thinks to hold up as role models to men, the ones who are part of the woodwork. But even if you disagree with what I think constitutes a good man, you have to create the image of a good man in opposition to something—a bad man. And just as we might disagree about what constitutes a good man, we’ll most likely disagree at some point about what constitutes a bad one. Unless, you might think, you mean the men around whom Laura Elizabeth Woollett has framed her second book.

The Love of a Bad Man is a collection of twelve short stories, each written from the fictionalised first-person perspective of a real woman who was loved by and/or who fell in love with a real-life “bad man”. These men, who include serial killers, rapists and mass murderers, range from Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones and Charles Manson, to less familiar figures like Buck Barrow (cousin of Clyde “Bonnie and Clyde” Barrow), Ian Brady (a serial rapist and child murderer) and David Birnie (a Western Australian rapist and murderer).

You have to create the image of a good man in opposition to something.

In each case, Woollett’s work in her female narrators’ interior lives, her in-depth research and deployment of detail and vernacular, combines to lend a frightening and compelling understanding to these women’s choices, and in some but not all cases, their coercion. In many ways, what Woollett’s stories demonstrate is just how convolutedly masculinity permeates the realms of good and bad, not just as men see it, but as we all do. In this way, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of her book is that we not only often understand “bad” as human, we at times even feel the pull of its violent gravity.

But is it really love? And where does masculinity end and sickness begin? Here we talk to Laura Elizabeth Woollett about love, suffering, politics, the familiarity of manipulation, and the cold, close places where masculinity and femininity find each other.

I’d like to start by talking about the title: The Love of a Bad Man. In one sense, it depicts the love between these women and the notorious men they were with as flowing from the man to the woman, as though to be the subject of the love of a bad man is a condition with defined symptoms. That the stories of the women in the book span almost a century reinforces the idea that there is some constant at work, that the love of a bad man is destined to morph the lives of women in predictable, macabre ways. Do you believe in this as a constant phenomenon?

I’m sure that there have always been bad men, and women who love these men. In that regard, the kinds of relationships depicted in The Love of a Bad Man transcend historical context. I do wonder if the ways that such men morph the lives of their women are necessarily predictable, though. Certainly, there are similarities between a lot of stories, with many of the women being drawn into crime and subsequently incarcerated. Some of the women, however, escaped incarceration, or received lighter sentences than their men, and went on to lead relatively normally lives. So I do think there is such thing as “life after the love of a bad man”. And certainly, there must be stories of women who’ve fallen for bad guys without following them to such dark places.

Interview – Laura Elizabeth Woollett 1

Another reading of the title might lead to the conclusion that love is a necessary component of the violence and exploitation in the relationships in your stories, but in a few stories, I saw no love. Indeed, some of these men might be described as incapable of love, some of the women, too. That said, many things that might look like suffering feel like love to the sufferer, and some of the women loved making others suffer. What connections do you see between coercion, exploitation, violence and love?

It could be argued that emotional manipulation is a component of every relationship, even those that are ostensibly healthy. I think it’s certainly easier to manipulate those we’re closest to, to tap into their vulnerabilities and ask things of them that we wouldn’t ask of other people. Likewise, it’s easier to be manipulated by those we love; we tend to be more forgiving of them, more willing to see the best in them, and more invested in their personal happiness. In that sense, I see the relationships in these stories as (very extreme) examples of the manipulation that happens between individuals who are drawn together. Most of the time, such manipulations are pretty innocuous – everyday passive aggression, guilt-tripping, etc. – but the patterns are there, and perhaps it’s more a matter of degree than anything. On some level, I do also think it’s seen as noble or romantic – for both men and women – to put one’s lover before oneself, to ‘suffer for love’.

Most of the time, such manipulations are pretty innocuous – everyday passive aggression, guilt-tripping – but the patterns are there.

There is a tendency in Australia, and the West more generally, to characterise acts of extreme violence by men as symptomatic of deep internal struggle and mental illness. Do you see the men in your stories as mentally unwell? To what extent do you see their violence as an expression or extension of normative masculinity?

Most of the men in these stories had rotten childhoods, and there are certainly some who could be classified as mentally ill. I think there’s a tendency to view such men as outliers, lone wolves, which may be counterproductive when looking at violence committed by men more generally. While I believe it’s becoming more socially acceptable for men to admit to vulnerability, in many circles it’s still seen as favourable for men to be ‘strong and silent’, expressing themselves through action, rather than communication or introspection. In this sense, there’s arguably something hyper-normatively masculine about the men in this book, extreme and atypical as they seem.

To what extent do you see the women’s degrees of compliance with and facilitation of brutal acts as indicative of rejection of feminine norms and/or aspiration to standards of male or patriarchal approval?

I find it harder to make generalisations for this one, since there was a lot of variation between the women’s personalities and circumstances. While some had a lot of agency, and willingly (even enthusiastically) took part in criminal acts, others were more passive, more normatively ‘feminine’. I think there are multiple ways to read these stories; on one level, I’ve had people saying, “Hey, some of these women are just as bad as the men … equality of the sexes!” At the same time, there’s this caveat of, “Oh, but women making victims of other women … isn’t that the most unfeminist thing ever?” and, “Would these women really have done these things if they weren’t influenced by men?” Which reading, if any, is preferable, from a feminist standpoint? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I believe they’re worth asking.

I’m fascinated by the notion of the folie à deux, the fatal merging of personalities.

There are shades of glamour in these stories: some of the women truly do love the men, holding them up, chasing them down. Were you ever afraid of giving the impression that there is something desirable about being a violent or manipulative man?

It was a fear of mine, as was being seen as romanticising abusive relationships. Lana Del Rey cops a lot of flack for doing that kind of thing with her music, and I think my stories make use of a similar sort of ‘glamour’, as you call it. I’m a fan of Lana Del Rey’s and think she does tap into something real, with regards to self-destructive impulses in young women and how we may sometimes be guilty of romanticising the things that hurt us. To interpret that as a romanticisation of the things themselves seems like a misinterpretation, to me. Nevertheless, it’s an interpretation some will make. I hope that the majority of readers will find something more in these stories, though.

You’ve said before, and reviewers have rightly noted, that interiority and subjectivity are central to the way you capture your subjects’ experiences with these men. You write every one in first-person, capturing subtleties of accent and dialect, but also focus almost solely on the women’s time with the men. Do you see this coalescence around wrongdoing as something that happens between individuals? (Rather than, say, something precipitated by society, upbringing, and so on?)

I think societal factors are at least as important as the psychological makeup of individuals. A lot of my subjects wouldn’t have found themselves in such situations if they had more options available to them, in a societal sense. That said, I’m fascinated by the notion of the folie à deux, the fatal merging of personalities, where individuals may become more dangerous/influential together than they would be apart. For example, the Moors Murderers had very distinct personalities, which carried through to their roles in the kidnapping, rape and murder of several children: Ian Brady was the antisocial mastermind, a self-professed nihilist who read the Marquis de Sade and wanted to challenge the moral order of the universe; his partner, Myra Hindley, was more pragmatic in her intelligence, with a tough but socially self-assured exterior. I remember reading about how she would go to order fish and chips while he hung around outside the shop, not wanting to talk to anyone, and how this dynamic extended to their later dealings with victims. That sort of pairing of personalities was something that interested me greatly, and that I wanted to explore.

You said in an interview with Kill Your Darlings that there were women whose stories you passed over because you “didn’t sense a sympathetic point of entry.” Could you explain that a little more, both as a matter of craft and a matter of judgement?

While I was looking for women to write about, I did a lot of Google searches like ‘criminal couples’, which led me to the subjects of several of the stories – Martha Beck, Catherine Birnie and Karla Homolka, for example. There were other women whose names repeatedly cropped up, yet who I ultimately didn’t write about, like Rosemary West and Charlene Gallego. My choices were often impacted by practical factors, such as research available and avoiding repetition (I ended up with three out of twelve stories set in California, for example, but there were several other Californian stories that I passed over).

My decision to present these men in the way that I did was a way of emphasising the problem of subjectivity – whether we can ever truly know the ones we love.

Finding a sympathetic entry point for each woman was probably the most important factor though, and had a lot to do with getting a sense of their vulnerabilities. At the same time, they couldn’t be too vulnerable, too broken or victimised. I found myself shying away from those kinds of stories somewhat – or at least not up to the task of writing them. Ultimately, there had to be a compromise between having a ‘why’ for what these women did, and avoiding the kind of excessive pathos that makes for bad reading.

You described your approach to masculinity as a matter of archetypes, used as a tool to draw out shades of light and dark in your female narrators. In doing this, it felt to me like you positioned femininity where masculinity is normally found: as the axiomatic norm. I may be off track with that observation, but to what extent was this or any other part of the book a reflection of your personal gender politics?

I wouldn’t say it reflects my own gender politics so much as my artistic concerns. Maybe that’s a cop-out, since I don’t know if art and politics can truly be separated. I can say though that, as a writer, and often as a reader, I’m most drawn to stories that place femininity at the centre. This may change over time, but I feel that it’s what I do best, for now. In general, I believe that we all see each other through the veil of our individual selves. My decision to present these men in the way that I did was a way of emphasising the problem of subjectivity – whether we can ever truly know the ones we love.

Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of The Love of a Bad Man ($27.99), which is out now through Scribe Publications. Find out more about her at lauraelizabethwoollett.com.

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