The theme of Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s debut short story collection could be a Nick Cave concept album: each of the stories in The Love of a Bad Man fictionalises a real-life sexual and romantic relationship between a woman and a ‘bad’ man – from conmen to serial killers, Jim Jones to Charles Manson: a veritable litany of the twentieth century’s worst abusers and sociopaths, possessed of a variety of violent tendencies or personality disorders. The narrators seduce these men, marry them, bear them children, protect them, write to them in jail, help them entrap their victims, run cults with them, aid them in torturing young girls, help them evade the police, hide their smoking guns, and clean their bloody knives.
Woollett explores the darkest corners of human behaviour, names and crimes ripped from the headlines and late-night true-crime TV specials. But a disconcerting alchemy occurs when these predators are viewed through the loving gaze of wives, girlfriends, and mistresses: they become knowable, comprehensible, charismatic and frighteningly human. Through the seductive prism of their lovers’ perspective, the aspects of these men’s characters that might horrify outsiders—their amorality, their intensity, their hyper-masculinity—are eroticised, while their criminal acts become a sidenote, or even an asset, in the relationship. “He is telling me that I’m good,” thinks one woman about her lover, “but what thrills me is the thought that I’m not. If I look up at his face now, maybe I’ll see something terrible.”
Notorious criminals and their horrific acts offer a voyeuristic thrill to the public. Think of the media circus that surrounded the discovery of Joseph Fritzl’s basement family, or the glamorisation of Bonnie and Clyde’s outlaw lifestyle in popular culture.
A gifted and unscrupulous author can manipulate their readers’ interest in transgressive acts by turning the revelation of sickening torture or an act of violence into a salacious plot point. This is something for which Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life was much criticised; in her review for The Guardian, Sarah Churchwell writes:
Eking out Jude’s memories of elaborate tortures has the unfortunate effect of turning sadistic tales of child abuse into narrative payoff, while the ever more baroque punishments to which he is subjected begin to resemble martyrdom at the hands of an author, rather than the thoughtless brutalities of other human beings.
This technique is particularly effective in short fiction—the eventual revelation of an act of violence can be a Dahl-esque sting in the tail—but Woollett avoids it. The two stories narrated by women involved with Clyde Chestnut Barrow and Charles Manson, respectively, are told without gratuitous reliance on the horror of these infamous figures and their infamous murders. Many of the stories end as the central love affair is at its peak, just before the worst of the crimes begin. A chillingly brief, frank appendix summarises the facts of the narrators’ lives and crimes. In bypassing or stopping short of moments of horror, Woollett instead conveys the totality of smitten tunnel-vision: her girls are fixated on their men to the exclusion of all else.
The inherent solipsism of romantic relationships is magnified by the skewed morals of Woollett’s characters (and often, implicitly, their mental illnesses). The narrators’ obsessions with how the men make them feel often eclipses the magnitude and significance of their crimes. The experience of love inflates the women’s sense of self, while its withholding can radically diminish them. In one story, a woman called Karla has been held in a psych ward after conspiring with her lover to rape and murder several young girls, including her own younger sister. Feigning repentance in the hopes of eventual release, she reflects:
I’m the most miserable woman in the country.
I told that to Dr. Voigt yesterday, and he looked sad and asked if I couldn’t think of anyone more miserable than me. I saw what he was getting at and said those girls’ parents, I guess, even though I didn’t mean it. Whatever they’re going through, it can’t be as bad as the crap I had to go through with Paul.
Another protagonist, Martha, is keenly aware of the symbolic power of her partner’s affection. When she discovers a stash of love letters from the previous victims of his scams, the evidence of his unfaithfulness “made me more ashamed to be a woman than all the flesh on my body.” His attention, when it is bestowed, shines a light on her otherwise invisible strength, “strength that wasn’t Ray’s, though he might’ve brought it out with his loving.”
I’ve loved men who did bad things to me or in the world (though they were mostly boys in emotional capability, if not in age). There was the one who broke up with me via MSN Messenger on the day my dog died, which was also our anniversary; the one who punched a window next to my head; the one who invited me to his housewarming party, fed me two tabs of acid, then took another woman into his bedroom and abandoned me in an unfamiliar place with strangers. Men with no ambition, men who were expert emotional manipulators, men who dismantled my boundaries because they were an inconvenience to them. Men whose ex-girlfriends contacted me with warnings about what was to come. Men who only took yes for an answer.
These transgressions and betrayals still make me furious: they are categorically “bad” because of how they made me feel, because I disagreed or disapproved, because they hurt me.
But these man-boys’ badness also derives from the (sometimes retrospective) imposition of my own value system. If I were a different kind of person, or not the person to whom the act had been done, I might not feel so strongly. I might not care at all – well, I would care for the person ducking their head next to a broken window, but I might think the dumping-via-instant-messenger story was clichéd but amusing, or the housewarming night a wasted opportunity to enjoy free drugs. Were my values more closely aligned with these bad men’s (a)morals, had I worshipped them enough to forgive their indiscretions and go on forgiving, as Woollett’s women do, the problems could have ceased to exist.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche set out his moral philosophy: that people are not inherently good or evil, rather, that both qualities are inventions of our moral consciousness. All human nature contains aspects of both, and, depending on your perspective, the demonstration of traits that would once have been labelled as “evil” is in fact an expression of the innate striving to reach the highest possible position in life – the will to power.
Nietzsche’s philosophies have infiltrated modern thought, and many of us might now agree that people are not inherently bad, but rather it is their actions deserve that label. “How perfect Paul was when he wasn’t being a bastard,” thinks one character wistfully of her husband, a serial rapist and murderer. To the modern, secular mind, those sorts of good/bad dichotomies are relics of an era where the infinite battle between God and the Devil provided a comforting sense of structure to underpin the uncertainty of daily life.
Through Nietzsche’s framework, the lines demarcating acceptable human behaviour become blurry. The obvious next rhetorical step in this chain of thought is to start asking questions about Hitler – was he evil? Did he believe he was evil? If he believed he was doing the right thing, how can any of us feel certain of our own beliefs? The Führer is, incidentally, one of Woollett’s bad men; her characterisation of the teenaged Eva Braun is a study in beguilement and cognitive dissonance. At one point Eva admits, without concern, “It’s so hard for me to keep track of what’s good and what’s bad, I’ve given up trying.”
Woollett explores this predicament through her narrators; the extreme cognitive dissonance that is required for an individual to witness damage being done, either to others or to the self, then choose (consciously or not) to continue loving the perpetrator of that violence regardless. She raises unnerving questions about the nature of desire: about why any of us are drawn to people who are bad, or bad for us, and why we stay with them. That she refuses to answer them is not to the detriment of The Love of a Bad Man, and in fact ensures that the collection never feels gimmicky or weighed down by its overarching concept. The stories are entirely concerned with conveying the distinctive interiority of the women, with the exploration of their impulses and insecurities. It is by the accretion of these case studies, rather than by armchair psychologising her girls, that Woollett builds her case.
We are unknowable, to ourselves and to each other. When we do glimpse each other up close, we might not like what we find.
Veronica Sullivan is Prize Manager of the Stella Prize and is on the steering committee of the inaugural Feminist Writers Festival. She has written for publications including Overland, Archer, Going Down Swinging and Right Now, and was until recently Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings.