Criminology/First Serial Killer in the United States term paper 41357

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Aileen Carol Wuornos is known as the first female serial killer in the United States. Her name will be forever branded for the infamous crimes she committed as well as her violent, outspoken persona, which have been documented in newspapers, docudramas, and a feature film. This essay will discuss the biological theory and the social control theory to explain the causation of Aileen Wuornos' crimes.

Abandoned by her teenage mother and father, Wournos and her older brother were adopted by her maternal grandparents in 1960 where she lived in an environment plagued with neglect and abuse. During her elementary school years, a teacher recognized Wuornos’ inability to hear during class. When the potential existence of a disability was brought to the attention of her grandmother, it was ignored.

Former neighbors testified in a 2001 appeal hearing that Wuornos was beaten by her grandfather, a heavy drinker, and she regularly abused LSD, marijuana, alcohol and mescaline. One witness stated he had sex with Wuornos, on various occasions, when she was only 10 years old. She was known amongst her peers for trading sex for money, drugs, and alcohol during her preteen and teenage years. In 1969, Wuornos' father, a convicted pedophile and sociopath, hanged himself in prison. It was then Wuornos learned that her maternal grandparents were not her biological parents. She then began to exhibit a violent temper (she attempted to stab her siblings on separate occasions) and frequently carried a knife while hitchhiking locally.

At age fourteen, Wuornos became pregnant and claimed her brother fathered her child. After putting her son up for adoption in 1971 (and after the death of her grandmother later the same year), Wuornos' and her brother became wards of the state of Michigan. Before completing her freshman year, Wuornos dropped out of high school. Although she returned after the birth of her son, she dropped out again at age 17. Within two years, her brother and grandfather died; she had married and divorced (within 30 days) a 69 year old man; and began her life as a hitchhiking prostitute across the United States.

Between 1974 and 1986, Wuornos' illicit crimes escalated from prostitution to include disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, drunk driving, assault, shoplifting, trespassing, armed robbery, breaking and entering, forgery, resisting arrest, unlawful possession of a firearm, and theft. She traveled from her birthplace, Rochester, Michigan to Colorado, back to Michigan and hitchhiked to Florida, where she continued to prostitute along the Florida highways. In 1986, she met and entered into a lesbian relationship with Tyra Moore. The two traveled together for four years while Wuornos continued to prostitute and rob the men she solicited.

Between 1989 and 1990, Wuornos killed six men (possibly seven), all of whom she claimed she killed in self-defense. Wuornos contended that all of her victims had sexually assaulted her during their encounters. The personal belongings of several victims were pawned, and Wuornos stole all of the victims’ vehicles, later abandoning them. She was caught in January of 1991. While imprisoned, Wuornos was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) by a prison neuro-psychologist. This diagnosis, coupled with her possible undiagnosed hearing problem, could classify Wuornos as disabled. Untreated for BPD with the addition of years of drug and alcohol abuse, physical and sexual abuse and abandonment shaped Aileen Wuornos’ personality and character. She was executed on October 9, 2002 and cremated.

From a biological perspective, theorist Lombroso recognized a genetic connection between the brain and a person’s predisposition to act out deviant behavior. He also maintained that regardless of the social factors which existed in a person’s environment, a person was “born” to be a criminal. Biocriminologist Clarence Ray Jeffery maintained that the biological theory of crime causation makes certain basic assumptions which include the direct neurological link between the brain and behavior. Aileen Wuornos was born with a mental disorder, most likely inherited from her father. In addition, she was genetically predisposed to impulsivity, violent temperament and deviant behavior.

Conversely, Michael Edmund O'Neill upholds the belief that the connection between the brain and behavior is taken for granted. He supports his argument by stating the difficulty in recognizing and creating a connection between biology and action. Furthermore, he believes behavior can be the source of an array of causes and, equally, many factors can cause a collection of behaviors. However, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence which suggests that, when abuse – specifically violent maltreatment – of a child exists, the child becomes an abuser.

In fact, a study done by the Social Science Research Council found a large proportion (70%) of 47 mothers who were abused were currently mistreating their children. Altogether 33 mistreated their children, of which 16 were clear cut abuse cases, 3 were being taken care of by someone other than the mother and 14 were providing borderline care (i.e., were suspected of maltreating their child). In 1991, the United States Department of Justice reported approximately 31% of women in prison state that they had been abused as children. Approximately 95% of teenage prostitutes have been sexually abused.

The affects of drugs and alcohol on the brain of an adolescent can be damaging and have long-term effects. Temperament, IQ, and the brains ability to process information are severely affected. This self-induced damage through drug and alcohol abuse certainly compounded the development of Wournos’ deviance. Because Wuornos not only lacked the familial support necessary to guide her through the traumatic experiences of her life and her disabilities, she learned – through modeled behavior – how to be a violent abuser.

Application of the social control theory at it relates to crime causation in Aileen Wuornos case, incorporates the aspects of containment (internal factors which pull individuals away from deviant behavior) and neutralization (external factors which push individuals toward deviant behavior), can be applied. Wuornos lacked the sociological bonds necessary to develop internal factors (positive self-image, tolerance, ethics, self-motivation) which prevented her from her acting out her deviant behavior. Factors which aided in her participation in deviant behavior include physical abuse from her grandfather, the incestuous relationship with her brother, sexual promiscuity, and drug and alcohol abuse. These experiences directly contradicted the positive external factors necessary for Wuornos to pull away from her desire to exhibit deviant behavior. Aileen Wuornos did not have positive role models, community and familial support systems and strong moral values.

Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD, is defined as “pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, emotional adjustments, and marked impulsivity demonstrated in a variety of contexts”. Had the BPD been recognized by the Florida court system, Aileen Wuornos’ life could have been spared. She would have been labeled has mentally disabled, treated and counseled for the remainder of her life in prison.

Although the cause of BPD is unknown, both environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a role in genetic predisposition. Studies reveal many (although not all) patients with the disorder report a history of abuse, neglect, or separation as young children. It is believed the disorder is caused by environmental stresses, neglect or abuse, and a series of triggers. .

Neuroscience research is revealing the connection between the brain and its link to negative emotion, impulsivity, mood instability, aggression, and anger– all emotions and traits seen in people with BPD. Tests show that people “born” to exhibit spontaneous aggression have impaired brain function and that a small almond-shaped structure deep inside the brain regulates negative emotion. Under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or stress, studies show this might be more pronounced.

Wuornos could have been medicated with serotonin, norepinephrine and acetylcholine to regulate her emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety, and irritability. These “mood stabilizers” work much like medicines to manage high blood pressure or diabetes.

According to Hirschi’s social control theory, Wuornos’ disability put her at a higher risk to become a substance abuser. When the four elements of social bonding (attachment, commitment, involvement and belief) are examined, the depth of neglect Wuornos experienced is clear.

Sexual promiscuity degraded her image, and her incestuous relationship with her brother was common knowledge in her community. These factors would cause her ability to bond with healthy members of her community difficult if not impossible. Wuornos’ lack of self-motivation and self-esteem, as seen in her unwillingness or inability to successfully graduate from high school, her failed marriage, and her failed romantic relationships. She lived her life as though she believed she was useless and had nothing to lose. And lived her life as though she felt detached from the society in which she lived. The feelings of detachment would make her vulnerable to engage in illicit drug use and alcohol over-consumption.

The element of involvement centers around the idle time Wuornos spent when she was not involved with some person or activity. As an uneducated, mentally disabled person already engaging in deviant behavior through prostitution, Aileen’s “idle time” was spent engaging in deviant behavior by drinking and using drugs. She did not practice convention in any aspect of her life, so the boundaries between her structured and idle lives were non-existent.

Belief, or belief system, for Aileen Wuornos certainly did not exist by the time she was tried and imprisoned. However, the belief system (values and norms) of those around her who recognized she was disturbed were probably relaxed out of guilt, pity, or fear. The incidents which involved Wuornos attempting to stab her siblings without being removed from the home or counseled extensively is evidence of the lack of consistent standards which would have been necessary to curb Wuornos’ deviant behavior or prevent it from escalating to serial murderer later in life. Instead, concessions in the values and norms of those around Wuornos’ enabled her to continue to behave violently, run away, and return to start the cycle again.

As the facts in this essay reveal, the life history of Aileen Carol Wuornos constituted a genetic predisposition to have a penchant for deviant behavior, however, her many years of neglect, abuse, untreated illness and lack of positive social relationships it was sealed her fate and pushed her to become a deviant serial killer. Her neglected mental health, drug abuse and progressed her social failures. Aileen Carol Wuornos was 46 on the day of her execution.


Alston, Reginald J., Harley, Debra, Lenhoff, Karen (1995).

Hirschi's Social Control Theory: A Sociological Perspective on Drug Abuse among Persons with Disabilities. The Journal of Rehabilitation, Vol 61.

Author Unknown (Date Unknown)

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Preston, Christine (February 24, 2001).

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DellaSanta-Percy, Cynthia (2003).

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Conner, T.O. (November, 2005).

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O'Neill, Michael Edmund (2001).

Stalking the mark of Cain. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol 25.

De Gruyter, Aldine (1987).

Child Abuse and Neglect: Biosocial Dimensions, 262


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