The ghost of Aileen Wuornos, the hooker and serial killer that Oscar-nominated Charlize Theron plays in "Monster," will not leave me alone. With her roller skates and acid-washed jeans and murderous swagger, she's my white-trash Ghost of Christmas Past; the ghost of all the lost girls I've known.
I was cruising around Aileen Wuornos' old stomping grounds in Daytona Beach in 1983 the last time I got nailed by the cops. When I woke up in jail the next morning, probably the same jail Wuornos spent time in, I had no idea what I'd done. I was too drunk to remember being arrested, and I wouldn't find out what I was charged with until later that day at my arraignment. At the time, I was waiting to be sentenced for another charge in Orlando. I needed to get out of Daytona in time to make it back to court.
I spent 10 days in Daytona's Volusia County Jail for drunk driving and resisting arrest. I remember bits and pieces: a lunchroom. A grassy field surrounded by a fence. A prostitute named Karen. Her nose had been sliced open and a thin white scar upset the symmetry of her face.
I remember hearing about the local queer bar: a dark place called the Zodiac. As I found out later from news reports about Wuornos, this was the bar where Wuornos met her lover, Tyria Moore (called "Selby Wall" in the movie and played by Christina Ricci).
Aileen Wuornos and I were drinking and drugging in Central Florida at the same time. I never met her -- but the prostitute turned serial killer as Theron played her is uncomfortably familiar to me. We drove around the same landscape of blighted neighborhoods, strip malls and storage units; we partied with the same kind of people. We didn't care about hurting others or hurting ourselves. But unlike Wuornos, the daughter of a child molester who killed himself in prison, a girl abandoned by her mother, who grew up in Michigan with abusive grandparents, I was born in Florida and raised on Sunday school, homemade dresses and Ivory soap. If anyone was destined for a life filled with trouble it was her. I had to go looking for trouble: Bored with my parents' small-town existence, and without plans for the future, I fell into a life of drugs and alcohol.
Watching "Monster" brought it all back: I'm 18 and it's 1977. I'm finally out of my parents' house, on my own in a big Florida town. I walked home from my job filing tag titles for the state in the afternoons; when I got to the parking lot in front of my apartment, Joanie, a slight, blond-haired girl who'd run away at 15, would stumble out from between a Buick and a Chevy, hands in her pockets. She sucked men off in their cars, right in front of the building where I lived with my pinball-playing girlfriend. I tried to get a look at the sort of guy who'd pay a teenaged girl to do that, but the windshield was always glazed with late-afternoon light.
I'd never met anyone like Joanie and I didn't know how to help her. I didn't even know if she needed help. She never said she did. I invited her in for dinner, shared my Thai sticks, my beer.
Joanie partied with my girlfriend and me for months. We dropped acid and sat at the Krispy Kreme watching the baker squirt out blobs of dough behind glass. We shot pool, smoked weed. We never mentioned her work. It wasn't until she snapped that I realized how much being a hooker cost her.
One day she got stoned in my apartment, and the next day she tried to kill herself, shooting a bullet into her stomach. When I went to see her weeks later, she wore a muumuu, under which hung a colostomy bag. She laughed as she told me how she'd changed her mind about dying, how she dragged herself out onto the front stoop of her friend's house and called for help in a whisper before passing out. "I opened my mouth but I couldn't make a sound," she said. "I didn't think anyone heard me."
I certainly didn't hear her. After I left her that day I never saw her again.
I got fired from my filing job for smoking reefer in the parking lot behind the office and I started hitting the plasma stores, where I lay on cots next to old winos and sold my blood for $10 a pop, enough to keep my girlfriend and me in beer and pot for an evening. Becoming a hooker to put beer on the bar never occurred to me. I wasn't that kind of girl.
But men assumed I was that kind of girl. Once, my girlfriend and I were hitching to "Colville," the (fictitious) small town I'd escaped from 50 miles away, and a greaser in a pretty blue T-bird picked us up. "I'll uh, take you girls to Colville if you uh, if you uhhh, give me a blow job." I screamed at the guy to stop the car and let us out: "Suck your dick for a ride to Colville? You've gotta be kidding. I hate that place." Red-faced, he pulled over to the side of the road and let us out.
My girlfriend and I broke up. I enrolled in the local university studying English lit and worked in a carpet-backing factory, selling drugs on the side. I quit the factory job after I wrecked my motorcycle and had no way to get there, and got a job shelving books in the university library between classes. On my breaks I snorted coke in the bathrooms. The college students I met were commonplace and predictable, their lives boring as geometry. My life was populated with gangsters, drug addicts, alcoholics, whores.
One of my homegirls was a short dyke named Gladys. She drove a brown Trans Am and wore cowboy boots. She was beautiful, with high-planed cheekbones, black hair, olive skin. Like Wuornos, whose power was all posture, Gladys swaggered to make up for her size. She liked to pick fights with people. I nicknamed her "glad to do it to you." On a typical weekend we'd drive from bar to bar, burning whole bags of sinsemilla. We'd drink most of our money and throw tips at the waitresses. Sometimes we ended up in low-rent motels, too broke to buy breakfast the next morning but too hung over to care. We were living the high life.
I saw them in "Monster," too -- those trashy, tragic motels that charge daily rates, the rooms with dirty carpet and grimy walls and brown stains on the ceiling. In the film, when Wuornos and her lover, Selby, holed up in their hotel room to party party party, I remembered a windowless corner room in Sunset Inn, a motel where we often crashed. Gladys had brought along a ghost-white woman with purple bruises on her thighs to party with us. I wanted to fuck her in spite of the bruises, because of the bruises, because she was with Gladys. People came to these kinds of rooms to be fucked. Feelings didn't enter into the equation. The real me hovered in the corner of the room and watched myself treat this woman the way men had treated me. I knew I was turning into a monster, but the party must go on.
That was one of the last times I saw Gladys. My drug dealing led me to an even rougher group of people. A man tore clumps of hair off my scalp during a drunken argument. Another man punched me in the face because I was sitting on his car outside of a bar. I got arrested in Orlando for drunk driving and resisting arrest and went before the judge with black eyes. My arms were mottled with purple needle tracks from shooting up coke. But something in me wanted to live. I wanted to crawl out of my beat-up body, the body that had dragged me to all those places, and leave it behind like bruised fruit.
In the film, after she is beaten and raped, after she kills her first john, Wuornos arrives at this point, too. She's going to quit hooking; she wants to be a veterinarian, a businessperson. Determined to live in the straight world, she dresses up and pedals off on her bicycle to apply for a job in a lawyer's office. It's no surprise she can't pull it off -- she can't even fill out a job application correctly; they take one look at her thrift-store getup and they know what kind of person she is -- but her optimism is heartbreaking. She didn't understand that you can't go from shooting up and kicking cops to typing reports, even if you tried.
I didn't try. I moved to Orlando to live with my sister and went straight to one of those day-labor jobs. But weeks later, I got arrested after threatening to kick the cop's ass when she pulled me over. That's when I ended up in Daytona, in the Volusia County Jail.
I made it back to Orlando in time for my sentencing. The judge wasn't impressed when I told him that I'd been arrested in Daytona while out on bail. I landed in a cell in the Orange County jail. A fat black hooker named Sunshine squealed "She mine!" when she saw me, still wearing the white dress I thought would convince the judge I was coming clean. It didn't. I was sent to serve time for the second time in a month.
I spent the next three months surrounded by hookers, bad-check writers, women who murdered their children or boyfriends or husbands. There's nothing exciting about sleeping in the same room with a woman who murdered her husband, then camped next to his body with her boyfriend. There's nothing exciting about hookers. "People look down their noses at hookers," Aileen Wuornos says in the film. "Think we took the easy way out. No one could imagine the willpower it took to do what we do."
Not once did anyone from Orange County check in to say, "Hey, y'all were all drunk or drugged when you committed your crimes. How about some counseling?" Instead, they raided our cells for contraband: an extra towel, an extra shirt, a spoon. They woke us up at 3 in the morning, told us someone had lice, made us strip our beds, strip off our clothes and shower with Quell. And we sat there day after day, playing cards, reading romance novels, drawing flowers, doing sit-ups, braiding hair, eating baloney sandwiches. The only comment our jailers ever made regarding our jail time was to say upon someone's release, "You'll be back."
They were right. Some hookers showed up every weekend. Being in jail was a relief to them after being on the streets. They could count on a safe place to sleep, food, a bath.
Not me. I was determined to get back outside. I went to AA meetings to get a break from the tedium of sitting in the cell, and the cure stuck when I got out of jail.
I got a job working construction -- no questions asked about my past -- and after pushing wheelbarrows for a couple of years, I decided I'd give college a try again. That meant going home. I called up some old friends, who told me the horrifying news that my old homegirl Gladys had been gang-raped.
The details were shadowy: a trailer, four or five Mexican farmworkers, a field. I don't think she even pressed charges. Apparently, she survived. My friend assured me she'd bounced back, was as "glad to do it to you" as ever.
Shortly after I returned to town, I saw her. I can still see her walking through the door of the grocery store -- still the same swagger. I wanted to run over to her, tell her I was sorry about what'd she'd gone through, but I was too shaky to tell her I'd gone straight. I ducked behind the magazine racks, afraid if she saw me, she'd drag me off on a road trip from which I'd be unable to return. I never saw her again.
She went to a bar one night, weeks later. It was the usual scene: shooting pool, getting drunk. A man offered her a joint. They went out to smoke and something terrible happened. He raped her, then killed her, then dumped her body at the edge of the river where she was found the next day, her cowboy boots shoved on the wrong feet.
When I think of Gladys, I think of her face, thrown back as she walked into the store the last time I saw her. What if I had stepped out from behind the rack, embraced her, told her how sorry I was for her, told her how I'd gotten sober, how I'd discovered that people cared enough to help me? What if I'd offered to help her? But I didn't. I was too fearful of losing what little bit of sanity I'd rounded up for myself.
And that's what hurt the most about watching "Monster": watching people turn away from Wuornos, the way I turned away from Gladys. It reverberates throughout the movie, from the beginning, when a teenaged Wuornos is tossed like trash out of a john's car, to the end, when she is sentenced to death and led out of the courtroom. How easy it is to make that turn -- one that creates monsters of all of us.