Lady Killers and Our Obsession with Murder: Talking with Tori Telfer

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In her first book, Lady Killers, Tori Telfer tells the true stories of unknown female serial killers. The book, investigates not whodunnit, but rather who is she? Each chapter attempts to strip the sexism, racism, fetishism, and all the isms off of these deeply troubled and problematic women and their crimes and tries to see them for who they are.

It’s a daunting task, but the book belies none of these labors. The writing is fast-paced, often funny, and never flippant. I spoke with Telfer over the phone about the origin story for her book, the art of the murder hustle, and the reason more women don’t murder.

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The Rumpus: I understand your book had an interesting genesis. I’d love to hear the story.

Tori Telfer: My book began as a column for The Hairpin in 2014. Basically what happened was, I was just starting out as a freelance writer. I had left my MFA program and I was discovering this world where people would pay you to write. They wouldn’t pay you very much, but they would pay you. That was really thrilling after the world of literary fiction.

In my mind, what I wanted was a column that was when you know you’ve made it. Carrie Bradshaw taught us that valuable lesson: We can live off one column, once a month. So, when I saw that The Awl had a call out for historical essays. I said, “Great. That sounds fun.” I just thought about what sounded fun to write about and serial killers popped into my head. I like creepy things.

So, they said, “We like this, but it would be better for The Hairpin.” Which is sort of hilarious that they were like, “This is about women.”

Rumpus: They pink ghettoized your pitch! But The Hairpin was and is such a great site. And in 2014 they had Jia Tolentino, Emma Carmichael, Mallory Ortberg, and Nicole Cliffe, and their comments section was so amazing.

Telfer: It was just so fun to have my column on The Hairpin. The Hairpin readers are so nice. I read the comments for the first and only time in my life because I realized just even if the readers had little corrections, they were constructive and it was wonderful. So I did two columns for The Hairpin. Interesting tidbit: I was starting out, so I didn’t even get a contract. I just didn’t know that world. I thought I wasn’t getting paid from them at all.

So the first column was 5,000 words long and I was like, “I guess I’m just doing this for free.” Then a couple months later I got a check. It’s such a learning curve.

Rumpus: Then you moved over to Jezebel?

Telfer: Yes, Emma Carmichael was hired by Jezebel and she took the column with her. I did two more columns for Jezebel. It was a very short lived column because I started getting interests from editors right away which was just so crazy. It made me feel so spoiled. Pretty quickly it was like, “Oh I think I should probably try to focus on this book thing and not do the column anymore even though the column is really fun and good publicity.” It’s so much work because each one is so much research.

Rumpus: So you were contacted by editors and got an agent and the rest is history?

Telfer: I just feel really lucky. It just happened pretty smoothly.

Rumpus: Some of the stories in this book are very obscure; did you have to travel for the research?

Telfer: I did a lot of the research online. God bless people who scan old newspapers to the Internet. I did some library research. I didn’t travel for the book, although I did end up going to Budapest with my siblings on a spontaneous trip.

The first woman, Erzsébet Báthory, is from Hungary. So I tried to go into the Hungarian National Archives because there’s this rumor that she had a diary and it was in the archives. Thankfully that’s not why I went to Budapest because once I got there, I found out that it was just a rumor. There’s no diary in the archives.

Rumpus: There is also a story in the end about the town of Nagyrev, where women, led by a midwife, kill their husbands. Did you travel there?

Telfer: No, I didn’t go there. In that chapter, I mention an academic book by a Hungarian scholar named Béla Bodó. He had translated all these newspaper articles. He really laid out the social climate. The town was just the perfect atmosphere for murder.

Rumpus: Perfect atmosphere for lady killers.

Telfer: Exactly. This terrible melting pot of all these things that men murder for all the time, in this tiny town with no railroad.

Rumpus: This whole book made me wonder, why don’t more women murder? I’m not being flippant. We’re abused, we’re beaten way more than men are, so why don’t we murder more?

Telfer: Women all over the world do have those reasons to murder. I think something that’s very special, very particular about the town of Nagyrev is that there was a large group of women all in it together.

But it’s not just women I wonder about; I sometimes think when I’m walking on the street with a bunch of other humans, why aren’t we all just killing each other all the time? The world is so dangerous, like cars. How scary are cars?

So, we’re just walking down the street and there’s this social contract that we’re not going to kill each other. Most people are abiding by it. Sometimes that strikes me as absurd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy that we all agree not to kill each other. But there’s something like… it feels like only this very tenuous film of social accountability is keeping us from chaos. I’m envisioning this balloon, like saran wrap, this transparent saran wrap.

I think in Nagyrev that film was punctured so the murder just rushed in. I guess that’s my answer to why women don’t.

Rumpus: And all it took in Nagyrev was for that one midwife to puncture the saran wrap of society and then all the frustrations, and everything just came out. Part of the reading experience of this book, was having to deal with the parts of me that were rooting for these women. Like with the midwife in Nagyrev. It’s not great, I understand. But also there is something so perfunctory about it. Okay, he’s beating and raping you. Here, murder him.

Telfer: He beats you with a chain.

Rumpus: Here’s some poison.

Telfer: Give him this cup of tea.

Rumpus: Is that why you picked older stories, because the distance of the past gave a little bit more narrative space?

Telfer: First of all, I don’t know if this is of interest to other writers, but people were telling me getting an agent is like dating. You feel out for that spark, whatever. I totally found that with my agent, and the thing that I can sort of pinpoint what made me fall in love with her, is when she said, “I think you should keep the book just vintage killers because it’s spooky and Victorian in a way that modern killers aren’t.”

Hearing her say that, it was like this weight was lifted off my chest that I didn’t realize was there because there was part of me that didn’t want to write this book because I didn’t want to write about Karla Homolka.

My agent was the one who articulated this. But it was what my heart was telling me all along. I was really happy that that was built into the structure of the book in the beginning. Yes, it gives you distance. It makes it feel okay to discuss it. I just think it’s interesting, too, because to look at these completely different time periods when you can get arsenic at the drugstore, or when you’re husband died and people thought you were a witch. It’s just interesting. That’s not what happens now if you kill your husband.

The third thing is, I just was reading this bio of this writer who wrote about a recent serial killer, a man, I can’t remember who it was. She was trying to tell the story and help put policies into place that would help with sex crimes. Her heart was in the right place. But also understandably the victim’s family was totally unsupportive and appalled.

Rumpus: But a danger of distance can be that they are too shrouded in the past to become real. In the chapter about the Egyptian murderers, Raya and Sakina, you mentioned that the stories can get so wrapped up in sexism and Orientalism or colonialism that the truth is hard to access. Did you ever feel like you actually knew the truth about these women? Did you ever have a moment where you were like, oh I actually see this woman through the mythology?

Telfer: Elizabeth Ridgway, who was from the mid to late 1600s I think. There were only two sources on her. But I did feel like I truly saw her in a way just because through little anecdotes in the sources, her personality really came through. We all know an Elizabeth Ridgeway. Someone who when she is in a really bad mood, she’s kind of a psychopath.

But there was a huge language barrier with Raya and Sakina. Most of the sources about them were in Arabic.

Rumpus: To be fair, this is a struggle with modern murderers as well. We mythologize and contextualize their violence in a way that it almost makes it feel like any female killer completely unknowable.

Telfer: I think Aileen Wurnos is one of the biggest examples of that. Everyone was trying to claim her for their cause or to use her to prove something, which is so frustrating. I wrote about her a little bit in an essay that I was working on and I was struggling to put my finger on what annoyed me about feminists trying to claim Aileen.

I was like, Okay, am I being anti-feminist? Then I read this quote, unrelated but I can remember. It was in an essay and it went like this: if Hamlet is about anything, it was about Hamlet. It’s not about the alienation of man or whatever. It’s about Hamlet.

If Aileen is about anything, she’s about Aileen. She’s not an icon, she’s not a figure, she’s not a myth. She’s a person who had an incredibly terrible life and did an incredibly terrible thing. That’s Aileen and her story is just about her.

I’m not saying it’s always a fallacy to generalize. But I think, particularly in Aileen case, and in female serial killers more broadly, there is this immediate tendency to just be like, okay, what is this about? Is this is about gender roles clashing or this is about the changing role of women in society? No, it’s about one person and how they go to the point that they are. Aileen had a horrible life, but so do tons of other people who aren’t serial killers. I know that’s an obvious point, but I think people kind of forget it when they try to make her into a figure of something or proof of something.

Violent women are violent because they’re human. And humans are violent. There are a million reasons for someone to become a serial killer. But they’re violent because they’re human. They’re not violent because she’s some special breed of bad woman or the wrong kind of seed was planted in a weird type of soil and that woman spun off. That’s a really crazy metaphor.

Rumpus: What is at the core of our societal obsession with murder?

Telfer: I think it’s a lot of things. I think we are all sort of sick curious as human beings. We are obviously drawn to things that are creepy or bad or outside. That’s more interesting than looking at a picture of a house all day long. We like things that are spooky and weird even if we think we don’t. My answer to this has changed so take this with a grain of salt. My current theory on why I like true crimes: There’s just something elemental to it, like humans at their most extreme. It’s sort of like the most eeriest thing you can do to another person is murder them. It’s just so intense and visceral and such an expression of power. It’s like a destruction of a creation. I think too, we like to identify monsters because it makes us feel better.

Rumpus: You sold your book before the election. So you probably did not intend this reading of it, but reading this book in 2017, it felt a little cathartic. I think the catharsis came from learning about women who punctured that social fabric, that social saran wrap as you called it. And also, it was cathartic because your book is a process of stripping away mythology, of stripping away sexism or feminism or all the isms and just trying to find women at their core, even if that core is rotten.

Telfer: I think that’s why women will like it. I’d honestly be curious to hear if any men read my book. I don’t know their takes on it. I could see men having a very different reaction. I think also there’s just the rareness that’s so fascinating of female criminals and especially serial killers. Which is why we mythologize them. They’re these total outsider freak monster hybrid. We just don’t know how to deal with that and we don’t have the language for them.

Rumpus: The women in your book have an amazing amount of hustle, they aren’t just these beat up women who murder out of desperation. They are go-getters, they have kids, they have jobs, they murder. It’s really impressive. It’s like those ads from the 1980s where it’s like, she’s a mother and she brings home the bacon, she volunteers for the PTA, commits insurance fraud, and mass murders men.

Telfer: And she does it all smelling really fresh.

But, yes, they’re hustling. They have agency; they’re not just reacting to circumstance.

Rumpus: What story did you want to put in the book but couldn’t?

Telfer: There’s this girl named Ella and I think she was 1930s Los Angeles. She was eleven. She said she was a serial killer and deeply wanted to be one. She created all this drama because she had siblings die of natural causes. But she was like, “I killed them Mommy and Daddy. I killed them.” Police got involved and everyone was like, “Do we have an eleven-year-old serial killer on our hands?”

Poor child. Lord knows why she was trying to convince everyone she was a serial killer but it was really intense and super creepy of course. I felt very sympathetic for her parents, the ones who had the biggest emotional swings ever, from “Oh my gosh, our daughter’s a serial killer,” to it’s almost creepy, our daughter wants to be a serial killer. She would have been fun to include. Maybe I shouldn’t say fun. I have to stop saying fun.

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Image credit: Marcy Capron Vermillion


Lyz Lenz is Managing Editor at The Rumpus. Lyz's writing has been published in the New York Times Motherlode, Jezebel, Aeon, Pacific Standard, and others. Her book on midwestern churches is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. She has her MFA from Lesley and skulks about on Twitter @lyzl. More from this author →