Laura Elizabeth Woollett's The Love of a Bad Man was officially launched by writer and editor Jo Case at Readings bookstore in Carlton last week. Jo was kind enough to share her speech with us below:
I want to start by saying how delighted I am to be launching Laura Woollett’s brilliant collection, The Love of a Bad Man.
I’ve actually been a fan of Laura’s writing – and this project – for a long time. In 2014, Laura was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow (incidentally, this fellowship was sponsored by Readings). I was the Wheeler Centre’s in-house editor at the time, and worked with the fellows to publish extracts of their works-in-progress on our website. Laura’s extract was the second story in this book, told from the perspective of Hitler’s mistress, then wife, Eva Braun.
Reading it, I was immediately struck by the beauty, bite and extraordinary polish of Laura’s writing – and fascinated by this project, which tells the stories of twelve real-life women who were involved with notorious evil men, from Hitler, Charles Manson and Jim Jones to lesser known killers and conmen.
A year later, in 2015, Laura was one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s '30 Under 30', and she took part in a festival event where she gave a reading. In the audience that night was one of the fine people from Scribe, who contacted Laura with an interest in publishing her work. And now, another year later, here we stand, with this book.
I’m not going to talk for too long – but I would like to say a few words about why I think it’s special. (Apart from Laura’s exquisite prose.)
The Love of a Bad Man draws on real-life people and stories, but it doesn’t simply retell them. Like the best books that take familiar stories as their springboard or skeleton, she uses them to do something new. These stories invite us to question what we think we know: about these specific relationships and crimes, but also about love and criminal behaviour more generally. In the process, societal norms, expectations and structures are excavated as part of the picture.
Laura fully inhabits her characters, exploring their psychology and layered motivations. There are some elements that surface again and again: insecurity, outsider status, individuals’ lack of control over their everyday circumstances.
Some of these women are drawn to criminals, or stay with criminals, because of their own insecurity or lack of anchors in the world, and the comfort, validation and family connection that these men promise. Insecurity underlies the actions of many of these men too: Hitler’s inferiority/superiority complex is infamous; cult leader Jim Jones, who incited over 300 cult members to commit mass suicide in the 1970s, is ‘the kind to take things personal’; the boy who kidnaps his teenage girlfriend and takes her on a killing spree is described as scrubbing himself ‘so I can barely smell the garbage’ before their dates.
Some of these women become complicit in the crimes of their men by an escalating series of small steps that gradually ensnare them. Myra Hindley, the serial killer who helped her boyfriend Ian kidnap people he then raped and murdered, describes the insidious way Ian led her to the point where their actions seemed inevitable: introducing her to particular books and ideas and positioning the two of them as contemptuously outside of the rest of society. She is motivated by her desire for Ian and her desperation not to be seen as ‘weak’ or ‘ordinary’. Alienation, rebellion against the ordinary and validation from a charismatic man also drive Charles Manson’s harem of women. ‘We all leave home looking for something that isn’t there.’
Other women are explicitly turned on by the idea of being with a violent man, like Veronica, the playwright and model who writes erotic fan letters to an imprisoned serial killer, who she becomes involved with. In one of the most intriguing stories, Karla, the dominated wife of a charismatic psychopath and serial killer (who she partnered with in his crimes, even helping him drug and rape her own sister) is a shadowy figure. From our vantage point inside her head, we see the stories she tells herself about what happened, the stories she tells staff at the institution where she’s held, and try to construct a likely truth from these unreliable, sometimes contradictory fragments. The fact that we watch her construct lies to get what she wants (usually, drugs) undermines her credibility further. To what extent was she an active partner in crime, and to what extent was she manipulated?
Gender is explored in interesting ways too. Australian serial killer Catherine abandoned her husband and seven children for her high school boyfriend. We meet her in the maternity ward, visited by the ex-boyfriend, a month before she leaves her family for him, trading her housewife life for daytime sleep, drugs, and lots of sex. To what extent is she shedding the bonds of her domestic duties and attempting to return to her youth, we wonder? And while her criminal activities are motivated by ‘giving him what he needs’, she’s no passive dupe: she has chosen this path, deciding it’s a fair price to pay for their relationship. Morally, she’s entirely culpable in a way some of the other protagonists are not. ‘It turns me on too, hearing how all those others are just garbage to him, how they can’t touch this thing between us that goes back to when we were twelve,’ she reflects.
This agency is contrasted most starkly, perhaps, with homely Jan, who feels unwanted even within her family, and submits with a blend of terror and revulsion to the sadomasochistic fantasies of her much-older boyfriend. In this story, the darkest horror happens outside the pages of the story. Laura’s stories are intense snapshots of these relationships, focusing on what binds the couples together and motivates their crimes. She doesn’t focus on the most sensational details, but on those that best serve her storytelling purpose.
And that clarity of purpose is the key to what’s really impressive about this book. Yes, it’s remarkably zeitgeisty, with its mix of literary true crime and fiction, coming on the heels of fabulously successful pop culture moments like the podcast Serial and Emma Cline’s novel The Girls, a portrait of Charles Manson’s Family from the perspective of a girl on its fringes. But The Love of a Bad Man is not trying to ride a trendy wave or be like anything else: it is original, sophisticated and confident, its richness a result of Laura’s nuanced curiosity and commitment to getting the words just right.
It is my pleasure and privilege to announce The Love of a Bad Man officially launched!