I’ve been drawn to true crime stories since I was a pre-teen. The stories that attract me most tend to be those committed by people from relatively normal, non-abusive upbringings; the 'How?' and 'Why?' in these cases is more interesting and mysterious to me. I’ve found myself fascinated by female criminals for similar reasons; there’s that sense of unlikelihood, since women – for various reasons – are less associated with crime, especially violent crime.
He proposed to Caril and she turned him down. Not long after that, he killed her family and forced her to run away with him, killing more people along the way.
I read biographies, true crime books, court transcripts, newspaper articles, letters – anything relevant that I could get my hands on, really. I also watched documentaries and original footage of them when possible (Eva Braun notably had a lot of home movies). For voice and mood inspiration, I read novels and watched movies set in the times and places these women lived in, as well as listening to music that they liked, or that was popular during their times.
If there was one thing that was common to all these women, it was probably insecurity, and a willingness to have their sense of self determined by the men they were involved with. I think insecurity is a very human thing, though; you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who isn’t insecure in some way, or hasn’t been at some stage in their life.
Much of the time it had to do with the information that was available. It was easier to stick to the truth with subjects like Myra Hindley and Eva Braun, for example, who’ve had loads of books written about them. With these ones, it was mostly a matter of choosing anecdotes or points during their lives that best represented who they were, what they did, and how they got there.
Voice was extremely important to me. I wanted each voice to be unique and persuasive, and for each of these women to feel as real as the next. People, when they tell their own stories, generally try to garner sympathy, and to present themselves in a vulnerable and human way. As I was writing these stories in first person, this was something I kept in mind.
It’s hard to say where the figure of the 'bad man’ ends and the ‘antihero’ begins. There’s a huge crossover there and, as a result, bad men are often romanticised – tragically flawed, but human; dark and sinister, but exciting. As long as antiheroes are seen as attractive, bad men will be too, on some level.
If there was one thing that was common to all these women, it was probably insecurity, and a willingness to have their sense of self determined by the men they were involved with.
I find the term 'brainwashing' problematic, since it has an association of brainlessness and total powerlessness, which I don’t think is completely true to life and the complexity of individuals. The most skilled manipulators, I believe, are those that tap into something latent within the manipulated person and channel it, while allowing the manipulated person to retain a sense of agency and even, in some cases, strengthening their ego. This was a dynamic within many of the relationships that I researched.
Caril Ann Fugate was actually 13 when she became involved with Charles Starkweather. He was older than her by five years but, intellectually and emotionally, was very unsophisticated. He proposed to Caril and she turned him down. Not long after that, he killed her family and forced her to run away with him, killing more people along the way.
There’s certainly evidence that some of them cared, and had genuine affection for their women: serial killer David Birnie exchanged over 2,000 letters with his partner Catherine Birnie (the couple were nicknamed Australia's Fred and Rose West) before she cut off communication with him.
Bonnie and Clyde were a lot less glamorous, and a lot less competent as criminals, than in the legends surrounding them. They were constantly getting injured, living in dirty conditions, eating poorly, and risking their lives for relatively small amounts of money. Both of them missed their families and, by the end, weren’t having much fun living on the run.
Most, if not all, of these women probably wouldn’t have committed the crimes they did if they hadn’t become involved with these men; on the other side of the coin, most of these men wouldn’t have been such successful criminals if they didn’t have dedicated women helping them.
A woman I didn’t include in the book, Carolyn Moore Layton, who was the mistress and closest advisor of Reverend Jim Jones (of Jonestown infamy). She ended up inspiring the novel I’m working on now, Beautiful Revolutionary. A fascinating woman, and one who definitely fits into the ‘normal, non-abusive upbringing’ camp.
Hazelwood Jr. High by Rob Urbinati is a play based on the murder of middle-schooler Shanda Sharer by four female classmates in 1992. It’s a brutal, pitch-perfect inquiry into the dark heart of girlhood, with a lot of the dialogue coming from actual court transcripts.