The judge who presided over the trial of the ‘Moors Murderers’ described Ian Brady and his girlfriend Myra Hindley as ‘two sadistic killers of the utmost depravity’. People get excited learning about criminal couples (the murders were reported in almost every English language newspaper in the world) but usually we only hear about what these pairings do to society, not what they do to each other. The Love of a Bad Man opens that dark, fascinating can of worms and reveals the writhing minds of the women folk from the some of the world’s most infamous duos. Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s twelve short stories take the reader to different times and places, introduce an expansive cast of different men and women, and induce a broad spectrum of emotional responses. On turning the final page of The Love of a Bad Man, however, and reflecting on the collection as a whole, I saw universal themes and experiences emerge from the criminal chaos.
I met with Woollett in the office where she wrote the collection, saw the evidence of her research, and listened to her speak about the hard work and deliberate choices she made at every stage of the writing process. The Love of a Bad Man is no fluke. It is bold and ambitious to try to illuminate the inner workings of a dozen convicted criminals in the notoriously tricky medium of short stories, but it works. A specific kind of human experience is documented in this collection and it strikes me as an excellent reminder of why books will always be important tools for exploring morality.
The key seems to be (aside from blazing, bloody talent) her decision not to shy away from the challenge of presenting each woman’s story in first-person, engaging with what she describes as the ‘interiority and subjectivity’ of the form. It would be easy to sensationalise these real-life stories by narrating from the sidelines, but instead the reader is the recipient of twelve internal monologues. Twelve mental landscapes of distinct sound and feeling. Combined with meticulous research undertaken over many months at a Hot Desk at the Wheeler Centre, the result is a confronting yet entirely believable tapestry of women and the relationships that ruined them.
‘I shied away from consciously drawing parallels between the women,’ Woollett explains, saying it would’ve felt ‘too much like pigeonholing.’ Close up these women are unique, but pan out, reflect, and the connections crystallise. The bad men are obviously the thread between them all, and it’s interesting to see how the men share traits more than the women do. Why do so many men claim to be prophets, and why do so many of these messiahs need multiple virginal mistresses? At best it’s unoriginal, and at worst, when these young wives are collected via kidnap and rape, it’s horrific. Some passages are difficult to read, and responses to the collection have already been divided.
Woollett describes experiencing backlash for being too ‘forgiving’ of the more monstrous women, but notes she has received just as many complaints about painting women as ‘victims’, without agency. The irony of these opposing complaints is, essentially, a compliment. Some of these women are just as bad as their men, and Woollett shows us the parts of them that are present in all of us. Some of the women are victims in the truest sense of the word, making us fearful. A few fall in between – initially duped then developing a kind of love-based Stockholm Syndrome. Reading the story about Janice, for example, is especially heartbreaking. Janice and her husband, Cameron Hooker, held a young woman hostage in a torture basement for seven years. I wondered what would drive Janice to treat another woman in such a way, but Woollett shows us how Janice’s spirit could have been broken down in crushing stages by her family and surroundings, stripped of all her dignity and self-respect, so that finally assisting her beloved bad man in a heinous crime was the only option. I felt no condemnation for Janice – only deep sorrow.
Woollett seems at peace with most of the backlash, saying she’s ‘not really surprised’ that people would diminish her work in such a way, and I found it frustrating and saddening to see her shrug. One person had specifically criticised her depiction of Eva Braun, saying it was too sympathetic toward the wife of the most infamous monster in modern history, but it is Woollett’s favourite piece in the collection. ‘It was one of the first that I wrote and I think it set the tone of the collection, or made me more confident of the direction I wanted to go in,’ she explains, saying how much she enjoyed reading up on the trivia of Braun’s life and watching her home movies – which are all available online. ‘Though Braun was involved with probably the most notoriously bad man of The Love of a Bad Man, she struck me as an incredibly normal person. There was something endearingly tragic about this normalcy, seen in proximity to such monumental evil.’
Researching Braun in this detailed – almost caring – way was how she approached each woman. Woollett scoured the internet for photos to make sure her descriptions of the way the women held themselves were accurate. She dug up newspaper clippings from court reporters who were at the trials and saw the women testify. She even travelled to America to meet with historians who specialise in documenting the deadliest cult mass-suicide in modern history, the Jonestown Massacre.
To the haters, I would ask: why do we read if not to understand humanity a little more? In an age where abused women constantly get asked ‘why they don’t just leave’, many of these stories do a damn good job of illuminating the inner workings of women trapped with bad men. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we know now that as women get closer to equality and enjoy more freedom and power in society, they also commit more crimes and more violent crimes. Some of the stories in this book also speak to that. None of the depictions are middle-of-the-road. None are ordinary. There are no fillers.
Thinking along those lines I asked Woollett if there were any stories that didn’t make the cut, and she said yes. ‘Some women I read up on superficially, but didn’t pursue, either because there wasn’t enough information readily available, or because I didn’t sense a sympathetic point of entry.’ There was one woman she did feel an immediate sympathy for, researched in depth, and wrote a story about, but didn’t feel right about. ‘Carolyn Moore Layton, who was Jim Jones’ mistress from 1968 until their deaths in Jonestown, ended up inspiring the novel I’m working on now.’
This is how we come to consider the second in Woollett’s two-book deal with Scribe. It’s a full-length treatment that we get an introduction to in one of these short stories about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. The short story is about Jones’ wife, while the novel is about his mistress, and it is set amongst ‘the radicalism of California in the 60s and 70’s.’ Woollett says the work she has done on the novel is the best writing she’s ever done in her life. Better than The Love of a Bad Man? I ask, almost incredulous. ‘Definitely,’ she replies.
Rather hopefully I ask if she intends to turn all of the short stories in The Love of a Bad Man into novels, but no such luck. She’s too deliberate for that. Everything is considered, planned, researched, and polished. Only the best makes it to print, you can be sure of that.
The Love of a Bad Man is available now at Readings, and will be launched at Readings Carlton on Thursday 15 September.