Jeffrey Dahmer was attractive

Why do women fall in love with serial killers like Ted Bundy?

When Ted Bundy, a notorious serial killer who raped and murdered over 30 women, was tried in 1979, he received fan mail from women all over the world. Many of them contained nude photos and some even had marriage proposals, says Stephen Michaud, co-author of the book Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer. During Bundy's trial, women came into the courtroom as spectators wearing center partings and hoop earrings in the hope of resembling his type of woman (the one he, as a reminder, raped and murdered). In 1980, when he was still on trial, he married one of his admirers. The marriage lasted nine years until he was sentenced to death for his crimes in 1989.
Though his execution was 30 years ago, he still has a firm place in popular culture. The Netflix documentary about him and his crimes Ted Bundy: Self-Portrait of a Serial Killer, made big waves. And while he's probably the most famous case of a female fanatic criminal, it happens over and over again. Take Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, who received love letters and gifts from female fans after he was jailed for the murder and subsequent mutilation of the bodies of 17 young men. Or Richard Ramirez, known as the "Night Stalker", who raped and tortured over 25 victims and killed at least 13 of them. He married one of his fans in prison in 1996. A more recent example is Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a nationalistically motivated rampage in 2011. It is reported that he also received love letters, some of them from girls who are not older than 16 years.

While Bundy is probably the most famous case of a criminal who rallied female fans, something like this happens over and over again.

But what kind of women are they who fall in love with such men? Laura Elizabeth Woollett has written a book that The Love of a Bad Man is called and has so far only appeared in English. It deals with exactly this topic and consists of twelve fictional short stories about the complicated inner life of such women, including Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler's lover and Marceline Baldwin, the wife of Jim Jones, who is responsible for the Jonestown massacre. We talked to Woollett about why she wrote the book and managed to empathize with women.
The interview was edited and shortened for better understanding.
Refinery29: Why did you write this book?
Elizabeth Woollett: I've always found true crime stories exciting. What I found most exciting were those of people who actually had relatively normal childhoods in which nothing bad happened. The How and Why these cases here is particularly interesting and mysterious to me. For the same reasons, I have always been particularly interested in female criminals. Women are not associated with crime as often as men for a variety of reasons, particularly when it comes to violent crime. It's so unlikely to happen anyway.
What did your research look like?
I've read biographies, true crime books, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, and letters. All the relevant sources that I could get my hands on. If possible, I also looked at documentation and original material. Eva Braun, for example, had a lot of home videos. In order to understand the tone and mood of the time, I also watched novels and films from the respective era and the countries in which these women lived.
Did you notice anything in common between these women?
If there is such a thing as common ground, it is probably a combination of insecurity and a willingness to let the men they've been with determine their self-esteem. But I believe that insecurity is something very human. It will be difficult to find someone who isn't insecure in some way, or at least has been at some point in their life.
In general, young adults have more insecurities and are not as stable in their self-esteem. Most women who live in The Love of a Bad Man occur are young women, sometimes even teenagers. And the women who don't fall into the category often got together with their partner when they were young. Or they had relationships with abusive men before they met the criminal they fell in love with.

If there is such a thing as common ground, it is probably a combination of insecurity and a willingness to let the men they've been with determine their self-esteem.

How close have you been to the truth?
That depended on the information I had on hand. With women like Myra Hindley and Eva Braun it was easier to stick closer to the real role model because many books have been written about them. For them, it was more about choosing anecdotes or times in their lives that represented their character well. Who they were, what they did and how they got to where they ended up.
With others, like Janice Hooker and Veronica Compton, there was little information. I had to let my imagination run wild. I will probably never know how close these short stories are to the truth.
Did you purposely tell the stories from a first-person perspective so that readers can better identify with them?
It was extremely important to me that all women have their own voice. I wanted each voice to come across as unique, real, and convincing. When people tell their own story, they usually want to generate compassion and to be vulnerable and human. I tried to keep that in mind when writing the stories.
Why were you drawn to these men?
It is difficult to say where the line between the "bad man" and the "antihero" is. There are some concoctions that often make bad men romanticized: They are tragically flawed, but human. They are dark and ominous, but exciting. As long as antiheroes are considered attractive, so will bad men to a degree.
In real life, however, it is not necessarily the case that such women are exclusively drawn to the evil in these men; rather, it is the breadcrumbs of goodness that they throw at them that leads them to fall in love. The men pay them attention when no one else does. In the form of soft toys, chocolates, trips in the moonlight or stimulating conversations. It's difficult to see the bad when they have such good qualities.
How many of the women you have written about do you think have been brainwashed and how many were as bad as their partner?
I have my problems with the term brainwashing because for me it implies brainlessness and total weakness. That doesn't do justice to the complexity of real life and real people. I believe that there are very gifted manipulators who can initiate something dormant deep within the manipulated person and then channel it, while allowing that person to maintain a sense of agency and in some cases even strengthen their ego. I have seen this dynamic in many of these relationships.

I believe that there are very talented manipulators who can initiate something slumbering deep within the manipulated person and then channel it.

I'm not saying that the men weren't psychopaths. But in most cases there is simply no such clear demarcation between partners who have no wills and who are equal to bad guys. Many, if not all, of the women likely would not have committed the crimes had they not engaged with these men. On the other hand, many of the men couldn't have become such successful criminals if they hadn't had dedicated women behind them to help him.
Probably the most shocking story from the book is that of Caril Ann Fugate. Didn't people feel sorry for her because she was so young?
Caril Ann Fugate was actually only thirteen when she hooked up with Charles Starkweather. Although he was five years older than her, he was intellectually and emotionally very underdeveloped. He proposed to Caril and she refused. Shortly afterwards, he killed her family and forced them to run away with her while killing more people along the way.
If you look at the evidence, it's clear that Caril was an involuntary accomplice. A book by Linda M. Battisti was only recently published that The Twelfth Victimis called and proves their innocence. However, in the 1950s, when the case happened, she was by no means innocent in public opinion. She was a girl who had pre-marriage sex and lived in a quiet Nebraska neighborhood that had just been rocked by the gruesome murders. When she was called to the stand, many people found her cold and snooty, although she probably only suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was sentenced to life imprisonment for first degree murder, though conditionally released at the age of 17.
Do you think that the men really cared about these women?
There is even evidence that some of them were very caring and had honest feelings towards their partner. Take serial killer David Birnie, who exchanged over 2,000 letters with his wife Catherine Birnie before breaking contact with him. Or Raymond Fernandez, who publicly acknowledged his love for Martha Beck again before he was executed. However, if caring means willingness to put someone else's needs and happiness above one's own, most men would likely fail this test. In general, however, very few of us would pass this test.