Monday, January 26, 2009

Sacrificial Names: Monstrous Labels, Deadly Stereotypes, Serial Murder and the Mind of Aileen Wuornos

F.Y.I: Due to a copy-and-paste approach, formatting (i.e. spacing, italicizing, and so on) has been altered.

Jessica Mason McFadden
ENG 301 Criticism
Dr. David Schmid - University at Buffalo
June 25 2004


Sacrificial Names:
Monstrous Labels, Deadly Stereotypes, Serial Murder, and the Mind of Aileen Wuornos


A Monstrous Unity of Dissonance

Monster received rave reviews in local and national newspapers. The famous names and the themes of lesbianism, serial murder, and subjective femininity were selling the movie before it reached theaters, but it was the individual experience of Monster that earned it notorious stardom. The experience between the audience member and the real woman behind the character separates Patty Jenkin’s film from other forms of entertainment. It was the monster at the heart of Monster that cast curiosity into the mass media and into the homes of individuals who inexplicably desired to know Aileen Wuornos. Like many other lovers of art and humanity, I followed the reviewer’s advice in Artvoice and gathered among strangers to experience Monster. At the moment the movie ended, my quest for knowledge of Aileen Wuornos’ life began. Emotionally drained, the audience remained seated for moments after the movie had ended. It was as though each individual was engaging a private, internal conversation. This was not because the audience was stricken with grief or throbbing with rage. The audience seemed shocked, even confused, and struck by the commonality of dissonance in the theater. I, too, felt awkward and alone, yet at the same time deeply unified with those by whom I was surrounded. This moment, my own emotions, and the content of the film inspired in me an intense desire to explore the story behind the film.

Compassion is what I felt for the character: a murderer, a woman, a lesbian. How could I possibly connect with a murderer? The answer is that anyone can relate to a murderer because, as humans, we are all connected. Human beings are connected by their experiences and choices, but they are also connected by their shared humanity. Violence is an aspect of human nature; it is not antithetical to it. There are no monsters, no saints, only fictional characters created by a community of human beings hungry for knowledge, power and truth. Because of the wide range of individual experience, foreign concepts and realities often stir in individuals discomfort and fear. These emotions create a need for and influence the stereotypes and labels that provide superficial comfort for homogeneous groups. Of course, those who do defy widely-held norms are habitually alienated and persecuted.

The Vast Expanse of Alienation

Individuals often confuse fictional monsters with monstrous actions committed by humans. The category of the monster has been blown out of proportion. Fictional monsters exist, and as a society we draw parallels between the grotesque images that monsters represent fictionally and the bad choices people make in reality. Unfortunately, the original fictional creations that might be classified as alien to the human species are often acknowledged as a tangible aspect of human life. This is a problem because the label is thrown around loosely and the effects are debilitating. What many fail to acknowledge is the fact that human beings created the fictional monster out of an innate sense of fear of monstrous behavior that existed in early civilizations. Although society tries to ignore the so-called monsters (unconventional beings) by labeling them by their actions, it cannot eliminate monstrosity, which reflects some of the darker aspects of human existence. The monster was created in order to disassociate ideas that created fear. Because there are so many unwarranted fears manifested in societies controlled by tyrants and religious hierarchies, the label of monster became an easy way for people to attempt to eliminate anything testing their blind beliefs. In fact, the monster provided hierarchical establishments with opportunities to gain even more control over society because monsters serves as a method through which fearful people could be manipulated. This not only explains how monster-murdering, burning crosses became electric chairs, but also how unmarried women became witches and intellectual pursuits were deemed to be satanic worship.

Serial Murder, Monsters and Aileen Wuornos

The exclusion and repression of defiant individuals have rendered them as others, and as a result, created the monster. The growing fascination with the category indicates that as much as society would like to destroy these distant aspects of humanity, it simultaneously desires to continue observation from a distance. The film, Monster, is based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, who has been labeled a monster for several murders she committed in the late 1980’s. As a lesbian and a prostitute who wasn’t feminine or beautiful by any stereotypical standards and who often behaved aggressively, Aileen’s life was atypical long before she committed murder. Because of these characteristics she was easily labeled as a monster by law enforcement officials, investigators, jury members, the media, and the majority of American society. Labeled a monster, Aileen represents violence, cruelty, vulgarity, masculinity, and darkness. However, in this essay, I will present an alternative understanding of Aileen Wuornos as a human being struggling through the hardships of life.

Mainstream media sources have even gone so far as to label Aileen Wuornos as the “First Female Serial Killer,” but, as many scholarly sources point out, this is far from the truth. Serial murder is defined by specific characteristics. Some of these basic characteristics can be identified in Wuornos’ actions, but most of her murders were not carried out in a manner similar to the way in which the majority of serial murders committed by men are executed. Aileen Wuornos does not completely fit into the category of the serial killer, and although some of her choices were monstrous, she was not a monster. There are no monsters—there is, however, a society of human beings with monstrous capabilities. Society is quick to condemn and execute individuals like Wuornos, who perform monstrous acts, but the truth within these actions is ignored. Although ideally murder would be eliminated altogether, there is a great responsibility that we all have as humans to recognize the many aspects of our nature, regardless of how dark and awkward they may be. The actions of human beings who commit murders are not justifiable, but they can be understood inclusively as a part of humanity rather than a divergence from it.

Distortions of Serial Murder Create a Monster of Prejudice

No one blatantly argues against the “serial killer” label that Aileen Wuornos has been assigned because of the number of men she killed, but there are so many other significant details surrounding her case that indicate that she does not fit the role of the traditional serial killer. Aileen Wuornos’ actions do not necessitate all of the labels that the media have constructed. Her experiences were truly uncommon, but in order to protect itself, society has ignored this and created the illusions of a female predator. In Part One of Richard Tithecott’s, Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer, he discusses the origins of the serial killer, as well as the serial killer in relation to the FBI. Aileen Wuornos’ case provides a perfect example of the changing relationship between the FBI and the criminal. Tithecott addresses how the criminal’s motives affect the way in which the FBI and the public equate individuals with monsters through the popular belief that the “modern monster’s crimes to be inexplicable, beyond the reach of scientific knowledge” (28). The FBI’s primary goal is to locate the criminal along with the evidence that proves that the suspect committed the crime. During the initial stages of the investigation, little regard is given to the possible motives and the criminal’s perspective. By primarily focusing on the results of crimes, we do not learn anything about the mind of the criminal or about crime in general. In order to prevent crimes from occurring, there must be an effort put forth to understand how individuals rationalize their actions. Without approaching these motives with sincerely, unbiased interest and an understanding of the important role they play, there is no hope in progressing and finding new ways to analyze and solve crimes.

Fame and the Characteristics of Serial Murder

In David Schmid’s essay, “The Locus of Disruption: Serial Murder and Generic Conventions in Detective Fiction,” elements that constitute serial murder are described in relation to detective fiction. The ways in which serial murder has been depicted in popular fiction has greatly affected the way society views serial killers. Some of the characteristics of the serial killer in fiction are reflected in reality. For instance, serial killers generally murder strangers for “non-rational” reasons (75). These characteristics may be applied to Aileen Wuornos’ case. Technically, the men Aileen shot were strangers, despite the fact that they willingly drove her into the woods to have her provide sexual services for them. In the news article, “Wuornos Attracts Interest Until End,” Beth Kassab describes the FBI’s definition of a serial killer as a murderer who kills three or more victims who were not connected in any way, who he or she does not know, and spreading the murders out over a period of time (1). Wuornos fulfills the criteria on a basic level, but her motives, personality and circumstances were unlike that of other serial killers. In early trials, Aileen claimed that she acted in self-defense, but because she changed her reasoning at different points during the trials and there was little witness testimony used, the possibility proved to be useless to her. Lacking competent lawyers, witnesses and supporters, Aileen’s chances of being heard were fruitless. The details surrounding her crimes were unique, but they were not taken into account. The labels ‘man-hater,’ ‘lesbian’ and ‘prostitute,’ however, were considered, becoming the focal points in her case.

There are other aspects of Wuornos’ case that contradict characteristics traditionally associated with serial murder, and these are explored in David Schmid’s forthcoming book, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Serial Murder and Celebrity in American Culture. Schmid surfaces and analyzes the relationship between crime and celebrity, as well as the marketability and appeal of the serial killer. Today’s celebrities reflect aspects of society and fictional monsters reveal monstrosity in society. Just as Wuornos didn’t play the role society handed out to her as a prostitute, she doesn’t play the role of the celebrity with any enjoyment or recognition. Publicity may have been her only source of power, but she believed it worked against her. Using publicity was worth a try to Wuornos because she did not have anyone supporting her during many of the trials. In this sense, Wuornos does not fit the description of the serial killer as a “dominant media figure” who “personified the tabloid sensibility (all scandal, all the time)” (Schmid 14). Society forced Aileen Wuornos into the spotlight in the same way they attempted to force her into the traditional definition of the serial killer.

Clearly, Wuornos’ crimes were not conscious cries for media attention, though the possibility of a subconscious desire is another story. She does not represent scandal as do some other serial murderers, but Wuornos’ uniquely ordinary qualities are lost and destroyed when confronted with the overpowering desire for monsters that occupies the attention of society. The social construction of serial killer is similar to the constant scandal in the tabloids. This, as Schmid points out, is part of the widespread demand for sinister forms of celebrity. Unlike the typical serial killer, who lacks the “empathic dimensions” of heroic criminals (22), Wuornos’ childhood and personality, as revealed in interviews, leaves a great deal of room with which society could connect and empathize. Aileen Wuornos, labeled a serial killer from the moment she was arrested, wasn’t received by the public with the empathy she might have received if the police treated her case with respect, if she had a fair trial, if there were fewer make victims, and if the men she killed were actually investigated themselves. The number of men killed (seven) allowed investigators the room necessary to take advantage of the case and the media to use the ‘serial killer’ tag recklessly. Investigators and media sources alike created a monster, and the public was willing to buy into it without any hesitation. On the surface, it may seem ridiculous that American culture is awestruck by serial murder (Schmid 26), but it is quite clear that celebrity represents something that is self-serving for the cultures taken in by its glamor and absurdity. Media often manipulate details and facts by blowing elements of stories out of proportion. In some cases, human beings are labeled monsters. Of course, society doesn’t separate fact from fiction — the influence of the monster is too powerful for that. Even nature is comprised of fact and fiction in a world where so much is fabricated, Donna Haraway explains in “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others.” The local and global monster is what is referred to as the “postmodern world” (297). Just as the technological world is referred to as a monster, the structures of societies have always been monstrous in some form or another. The people who are victimized by society are deemed monsters in order to protect all of the actual cultural and economic monstrosities that exist. The label, ‘monster,’ is protection against truths about human beings. Society embraces the distorted versions of reality that cast off individuals like Aileen Wuornos.

Aileen Wuornos, the Celebrity: Film Representations on a Serial Killer

It is not possible to capture the essence of any human being on film or otherwise, but directors continually attempt to capture the essence of celebrities like Aileen Wuornos, who have stories that are will sell. The success of a film should not be determined by the number of people who view it, but on the way in which it speaks to individuals. Aileen Wuornos’ life and trial have been depicted in films, as well as among other mediums. At various points during her trial, she expressed extreme anger over the popularity of her story because she felt powerless in the process—she realized that her version of the story did not matter, that she should be what society wanted her to be. This was expressed multiple times in The Selling of a Serial Killer. She claimed that the popularity of her story was part of a large conspiracy against her between the media, her ex lover, Tyria Moore, and the investigators. According to Wuornos, they all wanted to make money off of films that would depict her as a monster. Despite her complaints regarding certain films, such as the made-for-TV movie, Overkill, Aileen agreed to participate in interviews with Nick Broomfield, who eventually put together two documentary films of interviews conducted with Wuornos and others involved in her case.

In his first documentary film, The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield focuses primarily on the difficult task of getting an interview with Wuornos, lawyer Steve Glazier, and Arlene Pralle, a Christian woman who adopted Aileen. After an interview with true crime author, Mike Reynolds, Broomfield notes that Aileen’s story was given tremendous attention from the press. Fifteen movie companies were in competition for the story of a female serial killer before she was taken into custody. Even after three resignations of officers involved in the investigation, no further investigations of the possible deals made with Hollywood companies were performed. This is just one example of how Wuornos was not given a fair trial and was repeatedly and instinctively exploited. Aileen never denied killing, she was upfront and brutally honest, which worked against her in many ways. Lacking an education, Aileen had little means of defending and protecting herself throughout the trials. Speaking on her own behalf was a hopeless cause because her rough and childish manner of speech only built up her image as a monster. She was completely defenseless in life. She was especially vulnerable after she had been taken into custody, but that isn’t what the public wanted to believe. It is not surprising that the press disregarded Wuornos’ victimization, because the press had the country behind them in their quest to display Wuornos as a monster that must be destroyed for the good of the people.

The Autonomous Monster: Monstrosity behind Society’s Monster

Luckily, Wuornos wasn’t completely lost in the mass media competition over the rights to her story. Regardless of Nick Broomfield’s personal motives for interviewing Wuornos, his documentaries include some of the words and expressions of the real woman behind the supposed monster. These can only be detected with close attention because the interviews with Aileen Wuornos’ were few and brief. Most of the interviews Broomfield conducted were with individuals who either knew Wuornos or were indirectly connected with her. The documentaries also attempt to reveal certain aspects of Aileen’s troubled childhood in an unbiased and objective manner. Most of the time Broomfield let the footage do the talking, but there were moments where his personal assumptions became a part of the documentary. At times, Wuornos seemed to respect and even trust Nick Broomfield, but it was difficult to identify in light of the changes in her mood and stories. Aileen Wuornos’ feelings toward the media were clear in several of the interviews and appearances in front of the court that were included in both of Broomfield’s documentaries. When Wuornos realized that her case was being manipulated by the media, she didn’t hesitate to speak out:

To the public and to all the people of the world, and to the news personnel that have been working on these trials and these cases for the past sixteen months—that have stated defamations and mendacious lies of 98. 6 percent of magazines and news articles…to vice my character, make me look like a monster, deranged or something like Dahmer, which I’m not. I intend to expose the crooked cops to the people all over the word… before I die. And I also feel that the movie Overkill, that is a total fictional lie—that they framed me as a first time female serial killer for the title of that movie. First time female serial killer is not what I am and I’m not even near it, and my confessions prove it…and it stated self defense totally, which they hid from the jury at the Mallory trial and they have hid from the public eye.

Speeches like this, in which Wuornos spoke on her own behalf, did not achieve what she was hoping for. Her attempts were too small and primitive to be taken seriously or to compete with the forces working against her. They proved to be detrimental to her image, building upon the media’s creation of a monster. Despite Wuornos’ knowledge of the media’s desire to make her into a monster, she still made an effort to work with Broomfield on his documentary. It is obvious that part of her motive in doing this was to be heard and express the truth that she wanted the world to hear.

Like many other decisions in Wuornos’ life, working with the media was an attempt to gain some sense of control over her destiny. Her actions may have been motivated by a subconscious need for attention, but considering Aileen Wuornos’ history, it makes more sense that many of her actions were efforts to achieve control over some, any aspect of her life. As a child, her cries to be heard were ignored by society, but she did not fade into oblivion. She did not find her voice in a constructive manner, but in a desperate one. Another earlier method through which Wuornos strove to gain control over her destiny was to earn money through prostitution. Money gave Wuornos a sense of dominance over her fate because it brought people into her life (Russell 23). Throughout her life, Aileen Wuornos was active in her fight for survival. Her hot-tempered emotional eruptions strengthened her public image as a monster, though Wuornos, who in many respects was misguided, believed it was a mechanism through which she could acquire power. Many of her attempts failed simply because she could not control her childish rage. She had some interesting points to make, but she didn’t have the knowledge, resources, or access to information to successfully project those points. Her role as a murderer was role was influenced by her frustration over having been neglected by her parents, her siblings, other children, and society as a whole. Murder was not an appropriate solution to the abuse and neglect that Wuornos faced throughout her life, but it clearly emphasizes the theme that is often neglected in society’s approach to understanding individuals who are labeled ‘monsters.’ Murderers who come from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds aren’t the primary target for the label. Outcasts and those who are disadvantaged are prime targets for such labels. Society ignores the darker aspects of American culture, including poverty and destitution. When darker elements of human nature speak out in the form of violence, individuals are labeled ‘monsters’ and are admonished. The label is used by society to maintain the credibility of and provide fuel for the federal government. It is also used to shield the majority of people from having to bear any responsibility for human behaviors that are destructive.

Nick Broomfield’s second documentary, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, included some of the interviews from the first film, but presented footage primarily from the 2002 interviews and trial that occurred just before the execution. The most shocking aspect of this documentary is that Wuornos changes her story. This has been used by media sources to support the image of Wuornos as a liar, as well as a serial killer. Even true crime sources have criticized the change in her story without analyzing or mentioning the information leading to the decision and the fact that when Wuornos thought the cameras were off, she admitted that her motivation was self-defense. In the first 2002 interview with Broomfield, Wuornos announced:

I killed those seven men in first degree murder and robbery…they had it right—a serial killer—not so much like thrill kill, I was into the robbin’ biz. I mean, serial killers are into this thrill killin’ jazz; I was into the robbing and eliminate a witness…All of us are full of evil one way or another…and my evil just happened to come out because of the circumstances of what I was doing…I got where I was gettin’ a real problem with our rent due…but Tyria was doin’ a lot o’ beer drinkin’ and stuff…she was burnin’ up the money I was makin’…Oh yeah, Ty always knew everything I was doin’… I really think first about the people that lost their loved ones, then Ty second…I know that feeling… Richard Mallory was definitely not self-defense. Richard Mallory I killed for he had, uh, I needed his wheels to move the stuff and he had the right amount of money I needed to move into the apartment so…This is the last time I’ll say it. You have to kill Aileen Wuornos cause she’ll kill again.

The interview in the beginning of the documentary was abrupt and puzzling when compared to her constant pleading of self-defense in the 1992 interviews. Characteristically, Wuornos appeared unstable and had difficultly calmly expressing her feelings. One likely motivation for the change in her story was to further sabotage her defense, ensuring that she would get the death penalty and sealing her fate.

Because Wuornos was not educated, there appears to be an abrasive honesty in her rants and rampant eruptions. When she attempts to assert control over her story, she loses control of her own emotions. In this regard, Wuornos is not like most serial killers, just as she was not like most prostitutes. Her hot temper makes her an easy target for society to label as monstrous. While she is primitive and childish, she is not a monster. Wuornos was not treated like a child in need of support and guidance, although it is what she needed all her life. Instead, she was blamed for all of her actions without a shred of compassion for her mistakes. Nick Broomfield made the decision to lie to Wuornos when he told her the camera was off and asked her what the truth was: whether she acted in self-defense of not. Earlier statements made by Wuornos revealed that she was mainly concerned with escaping life in prison. She would not talk about self-defense while the cameras were on because she feared it might affect her soon approaching execution date. Believing the cameras were off; she admitted her true motivation for pleading guilty and taking back her earlier claim on self-defense, saying, “They’re so corrupt it’s not funny, so I gotta go down. I have to. That’s why I can’t say nothing about self-defense on tape or anything…I have to go down to the execution. They’re too corrupt.” Although Nick Broomfield did what he thought was best for Wuornos by lying in order to expose the truth in his documentary, he too, betrayed Wuornos’ trust, just as almost everyone in her life had.

Regardless of whether or not there was any truth in Wuornos’ statements claiming that she did not act in self-defense, they provided the media with exactly what the public desired. Those statements were accepted as truth rather than her earlier statement, even in true crime books that previously challenged most other statements made by Wuornos. Marlee MacLeod addresses some of the changes in Wuornos’ story in chapters ten and eleven of the true crime profile produced by Court TV, “Aileen Wuornos: Killer who Preyed on Truck Drivers.” Objectively, MacLeod makes little attempt to manipulate the information gathered on the case. However, she does allege that the tape of Aileen’s confession used in the Mallory trial made self-defense implausible because Wuornos appeared to be confident (Chapter ten “The Trial”). No matter what Wuornos had done or how she might have acted during her confession and interviews, she would have been criticized. Once she was caught and in the custody of the police, Wuornos was trapped. The human who is labeled a monster by society and who commits a monstrous act can never escape the role because it plays an important part in restoring society’s peace of mind and because maintaining the false image of humanity requires famous, sacrificial names of individuals to “become” monsters.

Destroying One Monster to Preserve Idealized Humanity

One of the main facets of the trials and interviews included in the documentary made in 1992 is that Aileen Wuornos appears to be the most honest person involved. The recorded phone conversation that Aileen has with Tyria Moore, which leads to her initial confession, reveals her capacity to be unselfish, to love, and to be honest. Tyria tried to inflict guilt upon Wuornos’ to get her to confess (manipulating Wuornos’ love and trust) when she said, “You evidently don’t love me anymore. You don’t trust me or anythin’, I mean, you’re gonna let me get in trouble for something that I didn’t do…I don’t know if I should keep on livin’ or if I…and what if they don’t believe me?” This wasn’t necessary to begin with because Aileen had repeatedly stated that she would not do anything that would harm or implicate Tyria. Aileen’s unselfish concern and love for Tyria is obvious in her response, “Listen Ty, I’ll probably never see you again. I love you. If I have to confess everything, I will.” Investigators didn’t even need to go as far as bugging the phone line, because just as Aileen promised Tyria, she immediately forfeited her chances of escaping the situation and confessed, still focusing on her love for Tyria as a motive. This act alone is indicative of Aileen’s positive qualities. It does not change the fact that she committed murder, but it does speak to her ability to be mature, selfless, and honest.

As a raw piece of evidence used against her by the prosecution, the phone conversation is anything but incriminating. Aileen’s love and devotion for for Ty is obvious in her willingness to confess. Tyria Moore, on the other hand, exhibits monstrous characteristics in her betrayal of Wuornos all for the sake of self–preservation. It truly shows us something about Aileen’s life. Tyria Moore was the one person in the world with whom Aileen felt a sense of trust, and Tyria manipulated, lied to, and deserted her. The only form of communication that Tyria had with Aileen was through a bugged phone call, after she had set up Wuornos with the police to obtain a taped confession. So, Aileen Wuornos is given an unfair trial and is completely exploited by the media, while Tyria Moore, who knew about the murders committed and who displayed poor character in the process, is protected by the police in order to pin down a murderer—a “monster.” There was so much effort invested in the portrayal of Aileen Wuornos as a monster that perhaps an equally if not more monstrous individual, Tyria Moore, was ignored and even protected from being cast in a negative light. Despite the fact that originally police were looking for two suspects, once they had Wuornos, Tyria faded into the background, only to briefly be mentioned by sources such as Wuornos’ lover (rather than as her accomplice). Aileen Wuornos received punishment and ridicule, while Tyria Moore, whose character and actions proved to be equally, if not more monstrous, maintained autonomy, freedom, and little media attention. In their bargaining with Moore, investigators showed little consideration for the truth, and were determined to pin down another monster to throw away. Society is not interested in the truth about monstrosity, but it should be. Figures like Aileen Wuornos commit monstrous acts, many of which are inevitably caused by the stereotypes and societal roles that dominate American culture, but they are not monsters. Monster are fictional creations based on the monstrous aspects of human nature. Monstrosity is evident in society’s need for famous criminals, but our definition of the monster is constantly changing because today’s monster doesn’t have to be guilty of anything to be persecuted and destroyed.

Is Wuornos the Monster in Monster?

Patty Jenkins' film, Monster, is a prime example of the dismissal of Tyria Moore by the media. The majority of the film focuses on the relationship between Wuornos and her younger lover, Selby (Ramsey 1). The use of the fictional name, Selby Wall, may have been a part of a legal contract that Tyria signed when she bargained with investigators and film makers for the story. It provides ambiguity for Tyria Moore to some extent, while Aileen Wuornos’ name is used in the movie. The preservation and protection of Tyria Moore goes much further than a name, though. While the film captures some of Tyria’s selfishness, the character, played by Christina Ricci, is dramatically different from Tyria Moore. This choice may have been influenced by the safety in choosing two feminine and stereotypically attractive females to portray lesbians, but there is more to it than that. The construction of Selby Wall mirrors the same kind of unjustified protection that Moore received while working with the FBI. In her witness testimony, which was a part of Broomfield’s documentary, Tyria appears to be an extremely masculine individual with a buzzed hair cut and the build of a man. In Monster, however, tiny, feminine, and elegant Christina Ricci (as Selby Wall) physically embodies the opposite. The character did, however, provide a contrary personality and physical stature from that of Charlize Theron, as Aileen Wuornos. Theron portrayed Wuornos accurately in many respects, but the character’s mannerisms were distinctly more masculine than the real Aileen Wuornos. In real life, Aileen was inarticulate and vulgar, but many interviews revealed her as having a sense of gracefulness and gentility that the character lacked. On the other hand, Tyria Moore’s selfishness is present in the character of Selby and Wuornos’ generosity is revealed in the character of Aileen when she sacrifices everything, literally, to provide money for Selby. Obviously, Aileen is not the stereotypically genuine character, but it is obvious that there is a part of Aileen that wants to be decent. Unfortunately, the world she is living in will not give her a chance.

The title, Monster, is actually appropriate because Aileen Wuornos is not depicted as the only monster in the film. There are other monsters, including Selby Wall and the anonymous character of Richard Mallory, who represent the monstrosity in society that is not recognized by the FBI or the public. The movie presents a very aggressive individual who generally has good intentions, but finds herself trapped in the occupation of prostitution, even though it is something she loathes. She is constantly forced back into her state misery by society and her inability to communicate with other people in a manner that socially appropriate. The first murder portrayed in the film was justifiably committed in self-defense. Initially, the audience is made to feel compassion for Wuornos until other murders occur during which the character makes a conscious choice to kill the men asking for sex from her. Both extreme ends of the spectrum are present in the film. In the first murder, Wuornos acts in self-defense. In the last murder, an innocent man begs for his life but she decides to kill him anyway. Jenkins does not dictate to the audience what they should feel about Wuornos because she shows different sides to Wuornos’ personality, as well a variety of possible motives for each crime committed. This is a fair approach because she attempts to balance the actual facts involved in the case with the story told in Wuornos’ interviews, journals and letters.

Because there was little witness testimony describing the possibility that the murdered men were not upstanding citizens and little testimony regarding Wuornos as a person, those are the only factors that Jenkins could have relied on whily making the movie. Patty Jenkins saw the monstrosity of the murders that were committed in Aileen Wuornos, but she also saw that there was more to Aileen Wuornos than her crimes. Nancy Ramsey explains this in the New York Times article, “Portraits of a Social Outcast Turned Serial Killer.” In an interview, Jenkins stated:

Aileen was a prostitute, she had been raped several times, and she had had a horrible childhood. She had obviously committed these acts, but there was something so tragic about her, something that made me not able to look away, something scary and at the same time heroic and heartbreaking. Heroic not for what she did but for surviving (1).

Intuitively, Jenkins indirectly asserts that Aileen Wuornos is a complex individual with more to her personality than monstrosity. In this respect, Jenkins commends Wuornos for not giving up the hope of survival, even in the decision she made to damage her defense in order to ensure the execution would take place. Despite the fact that Wuornos was a victim and was wronged by the system, Jenkins holds back from portraying Wuornos in this manner (Zacharek 2).

Although Monster only reveals certain aspects of Wuornos’ life and crimes, it is thought-provoking and it attempts to fairly portray the complexities of the individual. The character of Aileen Wuornos is tender in some respects and fierce in others (Zacharek 3). The monster is only created in a world where people are black and white, but Wuornos doesn’t fit the role of the monster because she is not all evil (all bad all the time). The monster only exists in a fictional world, although again and again actual criminals are forced into this fictional sphere created by a society that cannot fathom its complex nature.

The Inseparable Phenomenon of True Crime and the Media in Marketing the Monster

Just as the monster is a fictitious phenomenon, Aileen Wuornos’ case will always consist of stories because “facts” do not exist in a case where so many dynamics are weaved together. In Roslyn Muraskin’s “Introductory Remarks” to Stacey Shipley and Bruce A. Arrigo’s The Female Homicide Offender: Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos, segments of Wuornos’ experiences are mentioned. Muraskin dispels the rumor that Wuornos was America’s first female serial killer and points out major events supporting this, such as her arrest at age thirty for the robbery of a convenience store (viii). Her motivations in robbing the convenience store and committing the murders are likely connected, because they are both crimes that involve money and attract public attention. Wuornos may have principally committed the crimes for money, but subconsciously performed them as a cry for attention, not in the sense that she wanted to be condemned, but perhaps as an antagonistic cry for the help that society never offered her. But her motives could not have entirely been of greed, especially considering that she often used the money to support her lover, Ty, and when she was younger, she tried to support her siblings with the money she was making. In Chapter eight, “Aileen Wuornos: A Case Study,” of Shipley’s true crime analysis, Wuornos’ best friend Dawn commented on her ability to act generously to her siblings, claiming that Aileen would frequently give her siblings, Keith and Lori, the money she made prostituting out of a feeling of protectiveness over them (102). These aspects of her personality are not recognized because her generosity and love opposes the monstrous image that society needs Wuornos to uphold in order to keep her in the necessary role, as a monster.

Before her execution, most people preferred to see Wuornos treated mercilessly. There were protests against her execution, but most of society felt that it was necessary to bring down the “monster.” Victoria Brownworth’s Curve article, “Demons and Killers,” voiced the opinions of most individuals regarding Wuornos’ execution, including the violent conviction of victim Dick Humphreys’ son, Tern Griffiths. After witnessing her execution by lethal injection, Griffiths expressed that he wished she had faced electrocution instead because it would have been more painful. He said, “That would have been enough, for her to kick and have smoke come out of her ears” (48). So much emphasis is put on the violent nature of the monster that other forms of violence are overlooked. Griffiths’ desire to see Wuornos suffer is just as violent as any of her vulgar outbursts, but because he is connected to a victim, society excuses his vengeance. His monstrous words do not render him a monster because it is seen as part of his humanity (victims’ families are allowed to be hateful), but Wuornos wears the label so her monstrous nature is undisguised and magnified. Aileen Wuronos lived her life facing the prejudice that came along with the label every day, and when she acted on the impulses of her monstrous nature, she sealed her fate as one of society’s sacrificial monsters.

It’s easy to attribute qualities of a fictional monster to a foreign creature because humans often fear the unknown and fear itself generates monsters. People feel disgusted at the thought of individuals like Wuornos simply because they wear the label, ‘monster,’ but what they fail to realize is that they labeled her a monster out of their own fears of human monstrosity. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Aileen Wuornos assumed the role of the monster, while those surrounding her somehow escaped having to do so. On a grander scale, society works in the same manner. As long as one sacrificial person serves as the monster, a large group is able to preserve autonomy and a sense of security. Author, Sue Russell, profited from a prejudice society’s monster in her crime story, Lethal Intent. She uses many stereotypical descriptions of the monster to sell her product, such as describing Wuornos as a man hater and creating the image of a vile predator seeking to violently torture men. Wuornos’ whole existence is summed up in a few chilling words. The back cover of Russell’s book is a prime example of the media’s role in making a monster of Aileen Wuornos by describing her as pure evil and making her larger than life. In her book, Russell describes the way in which the neighborhood boys used Aileen for sex, but would ignore and even harass her in public, referring to Wuornos as “Cigarette Pig” (27). School boys, in this case, used stereotypes as protection. Now men, these individuals never suffered punishment for their monstrous behavior because Wuornos, whom they labeled a monster, served as a sacrifice for their cruel enjoyment and self-preservation. Many human beings behave monstrously, but are protected from having to wear this label because they are protected by the power of the majority (sections of society gang up on certain individuals, like Wuornos, in order to escape having to take responsibility for their own, inner monstrosities). Not only does the monster provide an illusion of safety in society, it also manifests greed in creating a prosperous market of financial and other exchanges. The monster functions as a commodity.

A Victim of Society

Aileen Wuornos was a victim of a society of media reporters and investigators who dismissed her motives and gave up on the hope of understanding her. Those involved in her investigation were so caught up in the promise of an aggressive, female serial killer, that Wuornos, as a human being, was lost in society’s creation of a real-life monster. This is a relevant example of how today’s serial killer is the result of the focus of the police on the technical aspects and the goals of solving crimes as a competition in winning conservative approval (Tithecott 28). The complete disregard for the factor of motivation among investigators is indicative of society’s desire to lock deviant individuals into the role of the monster. The more distance between the “normal” individual and the monster, the safer “uncorrupted” individuals are from having to face the troubling aspects of their own thoughts and desires. Fear has created the label of the serial killer as much as it has the monster.

The label, ‘serial killer’, serves as a dungeon for fear-provoking, foreign emotions. Although there is a great possibility that Aileen Wuornos did not commit murders that fulfilled the main definitive qualities of serial murder, the media and the legal system destroyed her chances for rehabilitation by forcing her into the role of the monster. But this is not the only way that Aileen Wuornos was forced into the role of the monster. Born from the darkness of civilization into poverty and neglect, Aileen fulfilled her destined role in society by following the path that lay before her. Investigators were ready for Wuornos and the world was ready for another monster. Her pleas of self-defense were constantly disregarded by prosecutors, as well as Aileen’s defenders. Even the tape of Aileen’s confession (used as primary evidence by the prosecution in the trial of Richard Mallory), which included Aileen stating it has been self-defense over sixty times, was manipulated for the jury so that these references were excluded (“The Story of Aileen Wuornos”). Those demanding equal justice for Wuornos realized this point, but their attempts to point out the injustice of Aileen’s trials were overshadowed by society’s need to destroy a so-called beast at the cost of a life of promise.

Monsters are created by society in order to justify monstrous humanity, as well as in an attempt to put a lid on the consequences of monstrosity. The federal government and the criminal justice system in the United States carry out these restrictions, but they are not successful because they fail toy acknowledge that monstrosity is not a sickness that is antithetical to human nature. Individuals labeled ‘monsters’ challenge powerful entities, producing fear and questions in societies governed by superficial, impossible ideals, and therefore, are quickly destroyed in an attempt to preserve power and order. The monster is complex and fear-provoking because it is a symbol of something other than itself: the “monstrous body” that is “pure culture” (Cohen 4). Classic fictional monsters, such as the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, were feared and loathed for their physical appearances, mirroring the harsh labels that are associated with Aileen Wuornos. The basic human characteristics that challenge the notion of the monster are disregarded in today’s culture. As much as we have moved beyond primitive understandings of human nature, many of us still believe in and fear monsters. This indicates that human beings are still in denial of the complexities of human nature. Until we take responsibility for the creation of monsters and monstrosity, there will always be new monsters to challenge our unwarranted fears.




Annotated Bibliography

Aileen Wuornos; The Selling of a Serial Killer. Dir Nick Broomfield. Lafayette, 1992.
The documentary film contains brief 1992 interviews with those involved in the Wuornos case as well as in Wuornos’ life (Arlene Pralle, Steve Glazier, Dick Mills, Michael Reynolds, Sheriff Mullond, Brian Jarvis, and Aileen Wuornos.) The film tries to set forth an unbiased and honest version of Aileen’s case, including footage from Richard Mallory’s trial, the difficulties of the interviewing process, news coverage over the story, phone conversations, background on Aileen, and factual information on the actual crimes. I will combine my observations of the documentary (including character details and structural analysis) and quoted material of individual perspectives—mainly Aileen’s testimonies and interviews. This documentary will be part of the third section on film versions of crime in the paper. It will be used in a comparative analysis of other pieces of crime work, as well as the film Monster, and used to support the thesis claiming that Wuornos was not a monster, and was manipulated by a monstrous society into the role of the serial killer for both social and political motives.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Dir Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill. Lafayette, 2003.
The second documentary produced and directed by Nick Broomfield repeats some of the 1992 interviews, but includes new 2002 interviews with Aileen Wuornos (a year before her execution.) The interviews with Wuornos are especially important to the paper because she goes back and fourth between reasons for the murders. One major aspect of this is her desire to be executed, which possibly had a great affect on her interviews and decisions in the last year of her life. This tape includes witnesses called on by her lawyer before Wuornos sabotaged the defense completely. I will use her last interviews to draw possible conclusions on Aileen’s mental state and position, in order to prove that in many ways, Aileen herself was a victim of the true monster: society. This will draw on comparisons between the perspectives of the film Monster and the true crime sources depicting Wuornos as a serial killer, which I also plan to argue using David Schmid’s forthcoming book and media coverage of the case. This will also be a part of the large second and third sections of the research paper on true crime coverage in film media.

Brownworth, Victoria A. “Demons and Killers.” Curve Apr 2003: 13:2.
This magazine article discusses Brownworth’s interpretation of Wuornos as a person and the trial surrounding her life, and includes perspectives that many publications covering the story didn’t offer, such as the reaction and relationship of the LGBT civil-rights movements with the system of law that Wuornos faced. Some of the issues that “Monster” reviewers ignored are brought up in this article briefly. I found one of the protests over Aileen’s execution quite shocking: that of Tern Griffiths who felt she got off too easy with lethal injection. Just who are the monsters here? This article brings up many good points without elaborating on their meaning, which is what I would like to do in my essay. I will include this essay in the comparative part of section two (film representations of crime.) Specifically, in my discussion of the Aileen Wuornos case in relation to a monstrous society.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Cohen 3-25 (ed). Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.
Jeffrey Cohen’s seven theses on monster culture include a few descriptions that will be very helpful in supporting the thesis of my paper. I do not limit my use of this article to the first section, because I may use it in various sections depending on the themes that come up in each. Section one will focus on literary discourse on monstrosity and the serial killer, leading into today’s culture and the monster. In the later part of the first section, I will analyze the idea Cohen proposes of “reading cultures from the monsters they engender” (3), in relation to the Wuornos case. I will apply Aileen Wuornos’ experiences to Theses I, II, III, IV, and VI in order to draw conclusions about the role of the monster in today’s society, as well as more general conclusions on monstrosity. I will also expand these theses, by discussing the fictional monster from the real life monster. This topic will be thoroughly covered in a comparison between Aileen Wuornos and the character that Charlize Theron portrays, as well as between Tyria and Selby. The comparison will reveal how our society reacts to different forms of monstrosity.

Haraway, Donna. “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg et al. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. 295-337.
This technical essay in some ways reflects the monster as a source revealing the struggles of humanity (which explains the need to push these symbolic beings away.) Nature is thoroughly discussed, and defined as a “commonplace,” setting up the rest of the essay. I plan to play with Haraway’s explanation for artifactualism as nature being made up of fact and fiction. This will support my later comparison between fact and fiction (and imagination) in the Aileen Wuornos case, in order to further analyze the roles of fact and fiction in human nature, as reflected in society, and what this means for the future of monstrosity. This would also fit into my introduction, as I discuss human nature (to be what Haraway describes as a “public culture.”)

Kassab, Beth. “Wuornos Attracts Interest Until End.” Orlando Sentinel 7 Oct. 2002. 5 Jun. 2004 .
Another example of the mass media coverage over this case was this article published in 2002. Although it relays some of the same messages already expressed in other articles, it also has a different twist and different points that will be useful in my paper. After the film representations and true crime work sections, I will include a smaller section on some of the media coverage involved with the crime, and the role it plays in the making of a monster. I am interested in the points in this article because it focuses on how Wuornos has been labeled as a serial killer and what constitutes that reasoning. I will draw back on the definitions of serial murder made earlier on the paper to address it in terms of the media and monstrosity. This article will support my thesis on how the media has made Aileen Wuornos into a celebrity (as well as a monster.)

MacLeod, Marlee. “Aileen Wuornos: Killer who Preyed on Truck Drivers.” Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods: Notorious Murders/Women who Kill 2004. Court TV 6 Jun 2004 http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial4/wuornos.>.
Court TV is like any other station that is out to increase ratings and support, and because of this media greed, many of the stories are manipulated to increase the popularity and interest for the program. This piece was divided into sections for the station’s crime library. Although the titles are made to manipulate the reader, the story told is often accurate in pointing out the hyperbole surrounding the Wuornos story (simply the fact that she was not America’s first female serial killer.) It breaks apart Aileen’s life and case, focusing on her difficult childhood, the several murders, the investigation, and finally the arrest of Wuornos, as well as the trials and the execution. The chapters are full of names and factual details, and I consider it crime work because it is written objectively. I will use it among the true crime work and media sections.

Monster. Dir Patty Jenkins. Columbia Tristar, 2004.
This fictional adaptation of the Aileen Wuornos story made waves in the box office, creating a celebrity appeal for actress Charlize Theron. The film portrays specific fictionalized aspects of Aileen Wuornos’ life (focusing on her experience as a prostitute-turned-murderer and her relationship with Tyria Moore.) The interviews with Patty Jenkins (arranged as a special feature portion of the film) reveal her motives in making the film, as well as offer sympathetic interpretations of the film and Wuornos’ case. This will come in handy when weighing the positive and negative aspects of the film, which is based on the story of Aileen Wuornos’ life (or certain aspects of it.) Although the film portrays it differently than it may have occurred in some respects (perhaps to gain public appeal, though that would be argued for the most part by Jenkins,) I still think the intentions were good and that whether based on a real life story or not, the movie represented an aspect of human life that many chose to disregard (specifically the lives of some prostitutes and lesbians.) I will analyze this source, comparing it to the true crime work and documentary films done on Aileen Wuornos, in the second section of the paper.

Muraskin, Roslyn. Introduction. The Female Homicide Offender: Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos. By Stacey L. Shipley and Bruce A. Arrigo. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. vii-x.

Ramsey, Nancy. “Portraits of a Social Outcast Turned Serial Killer.” New York Times 30 Dec. 2003. 30 Dec 2003 .
A year after her execution, this article was published in the New York Times. It briefly introduces some of the portraits that have been based on Aileen Wuornos’ life. It fits the second section of the paper because it includes commentary on the film, Monster, from Patty Jenkins and Charlize Theron, as well as Nick Broomfield talking about his documentaries. There are no surprises in this article, mainly because the films alone convey the ideas. I will further explore the notions of feminist heroism that Jenkins believed to be an important part of what we learn from Wuornos, not from the murders, but from the survival mechanism. One interesting point that I noticed in this article is the discrepancy over how many men Wuornos killed and how many murders she went to trial for. This article claims Wuornos killed six men although, but I have also read that she killed seven or eight. I am curious as to why this number changes in each source. It does not seem like an aspect of the case that would be up in the air. This article, like many others, dos not address the idea of whether Wuornos can or cannot be considered a monster, as the title indicates.

Russell, Sue. Lethal Intent. Kensington, 2002.
Sue Russell takes an unemotional role in depicting Aileen Wuornos to be a “cold-blooded serial killer,” but also considers the situations surrounding Aileen’s murderous actions. Every monster that is born into the society reflects some aspect of every human being. By taking Aileen’s life in an effort to destroy the monster, we, as a society, are merely trying to push away some aspect of ourselves, which just isn’t possible. I am specifically interested in this source for Russell’s exploration of Wuornos’ relationship with Tyria Moore. As a part of section four on true crime, I plan to analyze the actions of Tyria Moore and compare them to the police and society as a whole in order to prove that a monster, perhaps a more horrifying one, lies in Tyria Moore, the police, and society as a whole.

David Schmid. Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Serial Murder and Celebrity in American Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, forthcoming 2005.
- - - . “The Locus of Disruption: Serial Murder and Generic Convention in Detective Fiction.” The Art of Detective Fiction. Ed. Warren Chernaik et al. NY: St. Martin’s P, 2000: 75-89.
The chapter in the book will be helpful to my paper in many respects. The opening focus on murderabilia (“Selling murder,”) is an interesting point for me to apply specifically to the case of Aileen Wuornos in the fourth section of the paper. What I am most interested in is Schmid’s discussion of the celebrity serial killer (the reason for the fame.) I want to apply his ideas to definitions of monstrosity. There is a fine line of difference distorted into a world of difference between buying a movie about a serial killer and ordering merchandise as murder collectibles. I want to try to answer some of the questions about society that Schmid poses, in relation to monstrosity and the Wuornos case. The idea that the celebrity serial killer merchandise is a representation of a historical time period is something I would like to discuss in the first section of my paper. An individual may find something heroic about the serial killer without something heroic in the actual act of murder. Schmid’s essay will ass to my argument that today’s celebrities reveal and reflect society, just as the media accounts of monstrosity reveal a monstrous society. When defining the label of serial killer, the introduction to the book provides a great deal of information what makes a serial killer an important figure to the media. Later in section one, I will look at how Aileen fits the role of the celebrity and address whether the interviews seem to indicate she had any motive of fame. Also, in Schmid’s article on serial murder in detective fiction, the motives of the serial killer are discussed, as well as what can be considered rational versus irrational reasons for committing a murder. I wonder if we, as a society, can come to understand the individual mind as working rationally to some degree, even if ultimately in the scheme of civilization, it is not rational. Also, the theme of ambiguous appeal in this article is relevant to serial murder in the first section of my paper, in terms of the relationship between humanity and monstrosity.

Shipley, Stacey L., and Bruce A. Arrigo. The Female Homicide Offender: Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Primarily, I will be using this source as a part of the section on true crime (beyond the use of the documentary films by Broomfield.) The book is different than other true crime sources because it involves categorized information and psychological theories from psychological and criminological studies. The introductory remarks, written by Roslyn Murakin, explain some of the facts that are relevant to the studies that are revealed in the rest of the book. I may use certain facts presented in the introduction. I want to point out that there were financial motives involved to some extent in Wuornos’ actions, noting that she had been arrested previous for the robbery of a convenience store. Although I may not have the space to include these details, the book is helpful in analyzing the stereotypes and myths that play a role in the actions of the female criminal One aspect of this is the perception of female criminals as mentally ill. I would like to challenge the assumption, applying it to Wuornos’ case. In certain aspects, Wuornos fulfilled the stereotype of female criminality (childhood victimization,) but in others, she challenged this. Regardless of her role, she was not treated as a male or female criminal completely, but as a monster.

“The Story of Aileen Wuornos.” Aileen Wuornos Defense Committee. 5 Jun 2004 .
The website was created by the prison activist group in order to inform the public about Aileen Wuornos from a humanist perspective, and to provide information on how to help the defense committee. On the defensive side of the case, the activist organization strives to demand justice for Wuornos. It claims that she acted in self defense and that she hasn’t been given a fair trial or adequate representation, points out the unjust practices of the police, and believes the corruption on the part of the legal system and officers are to blame for Aileen’s death sentence. This does not fit any definition of true crime, but it is part of the social response to the case, and brings up many points that other forms of media ignored.

Tithecott, Richard. “Defining the Monster: Serial Killing and the FBI.” Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Madison: WI:U of Wisconsin P, 1997.
- - -. “Investigating the Serial Killer: The Seeking of Origins.” Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.
Both sources are relevant to the first and fourth sections of my paper. The first in particularly because I will be analyzing research on the serial killer and comparing the idea of serial murder to the creation of the monster out of society’s fear of the internal monstrosity of human nature. An interesting point is brought up regarding Dennis Nilsen’s definition of the serial killer, and that the term itself is not accurate considering each murder is intended to be the last. If we assumer a true definition of serial killer, then Aileen, may in some respects, but not all, fit the label. It is difficult to label her case because she had many possible reasons for committing the crimes (money, background with men, pressure from lover Tyria Moore, a matter of education, self defense, etc) and the reasons for each crime may have been different in Aileen Wuornos’ mind. If I can work in a small comparison of Jeffrey Dahmer and Wuornos in a discussion of different forms and degrees of monstrosity, this essay will be helpful in that respect (as will David Schmid’s chapters.) The essay notes the psychology of Dahmer, which can be compared to the psychological aspects of the Wuornos case.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Monster.” Salon 25 Dec. 2003. 19 Jan 2004 .
Stephanie Zacharek’s review of the movie, Monster, involves an analysis of the film in relation to the life of Aileen Wuornos. I am not going to focus on the glorified performance by Charlize Theron, but I will discuss the public reaction to the film in general, and how the celebrity of the film is ultimately beneficial, even though it does lack the substance which exists in true crime work. Specifically, I am interested in the mind of the director Patty Jenkins and what her goals were in taking on the subject of this movie. This will fall into my second section of film representations of Wuornos, as it addresses the feminist ideology that many associate with the film, Monster.

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