Thoughts About Capital Punishment as Inspired by the Film "Monster."


Directed by Patty Jenkins, the film “Monster” makes a strong statement against capital punishment and for a more sensitive understanding of the phenomenon of violence.  Charlize Thereon received the Oscar for her role as Aileen Wuornos, who committed suicide by execution in Florida on October 9, 2002.  The paper makes an effort to distinguish between the statement of the film as work of art with persuasive bias and the value of the film as a case-study in ethics.  Referring to the socio-economic environment that Wuornos finds herself in, the title of the film focuses on a sympathetic understanding of the murderess, not on a get-even sense of justice.  What is unique to the film and to literature in general is that one can conduct a Gedankenexperiment that focuses on the “good will” and the “intentions” of the ethical agents, something which otherwise is possible only through introspection and an understanding of oneself as an ethical agent.  Despite epistemological limitations of such a method of aesthetic empathy, works of fiction and particularly of popular fiction are excellently suited to developing moral awareness.

"Monster" as a Case Study in Ethics

Frequently, I suggest that my students visit contemporary film to contemplate ethical issues.  With such an assignment, I can be  certain that I have effectively avoided many a temptation to plagiarize since evaluative discussions by critics of films tend not to be fully developed enough nor skewed enough toward discussing ethical problems that a student would find these sources worthy of stealing.  In addition, I make such essays due no later than four days after students have seen the film, with a ticket stub attached as evidence.  But one wonders whether films can work as case studies since they generally are persuasive or didactic art that attempts to communicate the particular viewpoint of the director.  But conveying one’s viewpoint may also be effectively or not so effectively done.  I want to examine the film “Monster” by Patty Jenkins in light of editorial bias.

 A significant difference between news stories and fictional accounts is the proximity to the main character.  News stories report the events and the appearances, not the underlying motivations.  And this is so for the obvious reason that we ordinarily do not know the motivations of people.  The common-sense view is that people “make choices,” nicely lampooned by Selby’s aunt in the film “Monster.”  She says, “People make bad choices, and they have to pay for it.  Street-people and such.”[1]  The world, in that view, has already achieved moral balance in a self-corrective and automatic way.  I suppose this view is a simplistic variant of Social Darwinism.  The poor and the homeless are beyond any justifiable help.  Moral adjustment is necessary only where people act “unnatural.”  Selby, after all, is in Florida because she tried to kiss a girl in her church; her parents have sent her to Floridian relatives to have her cured of her homosexuality.  The son of the foster parents is apparently clued in on that effort since he reports on Selby’s relapse when she kissed Aileen Wuornos (f)[2] in the skating rink.

 These attitudes toward the poor, toward “making choices,” and toward sexual wrongness are obvious parts of US-American popular culture; we need no research to establish their plausibility.  However, we don’t know the extent to which Selby, Selby’s family, and Selby’s cousin were researched.  Patty Jenkins does reveal researching all available transcripts, letters, high-school friends of Wuornos (r); but any interviews with the real Selby or her family are absent.  So, much of this reconstruction of Selby appears to be conjectural through hearsay.

 What is also largely conjectural is the feelings and intimate thoughts of Wuornos (f) as reconstruction of Wuornos (r).  The film does use the narrative voice of Wuornos (f) and so attempts to let the viewer go into the thoughts of Wuornos (f).  Charlize Thereon’s mother had killed Charlize’s father in 1991, so violence on the part of beloved people places Thereon into a position of greater empathy with Wuornos (r).  The outburst is not necessarily the entire person in that view whether of Thereon’s mother or of Wuornos (r).  Thereon speculates that Wuorno’s (r) actions come from desperation.  “When children get abused,” she says, “they get twisted.  They get damaged; they don’t get stronger. We see only the outbursts.” And Patty Jenkins comments, “She [Thereon] wanted to show the person when you look harder.  Of course, people never try to look harder.”[3]  This comment from Jenkins picks up on the common-sense US-American attitudes of “free choices” that are “wrong” at times and for which people must pay—an interesting metaphor of a capitalist mentality.

Interviews with Thereon and the scene in which Wuornos (f) kills her last victim show how deeply Thereon attempted to identify with the character of Wuornos (r).  At the end of the take, Thereon walks over to several people—apparently disoriented—and hugs and obviously seeks comfort as a way of returning to herself from the character she plays in the film.  Jenkins comments on that intimacy between the actress and the character: “Somehow the other human being [Wurnos (r)] shows up and takes the life out of her [Thereon]; then she walks away with that person’s reality dragging her down.”[4]

Despite the deep empathy, however, much of Thereon and Jenkins is in the character of Wuornos (f).  Perhaps I should also mention that this film was produced by Andreas Grosch and Andreas Schmidt of Medienfonds Filmproduktion A.G., a German group.  It is probably no secret that the Europeans are horrified by US-American barbaric attitudes in the matter of capital punishment.  So, probably a significant portion of European attitudes is here also, the Europeans seeing violent behavior more as a symptom of underlying psychological currents, rather than a free but wrong choice that needs paying for.

So, unlike Wuornos (r), Wuornos (f) gives evidence of philosophical reflection.  When Wuornos (f) is being led to her death, we go into her thoughts as she contemplatively says: “Love conquers all; every cloud has a silver lining; faith can move mountains; everything happens for a reason; where there is life, there is hope.” And then, with a characteristic shake of her head to put her hair back, she reflects, “Hmmm. They got to tell you something.”[5]  This analysis of the slogan-driven US-American commonsense philosophizing is dead-on, but it also seems out of character for what appeared to be a fairly simple-minded Wuornos (r).  Wuornos (r)’s decision, for example, to fire her lawyer and to commit suicide by execution was pragmatically motivated.  In documentary footage, Wuornos (r) says, “What can an attorney do for me?  I’m confessing.  What can an attorney do for me?  There is nothing.”  She does not appear to be aware at all of the “game” and the “contest” features of the US-American judicial system.  Jack Matthews writes in the review of Nick Brownfield’s “A Murderess Most Fouled” published in the New York Daily News of January 8, 2004, “Until the late 1990s, Wuornos had maintained that she'd shot her victims in self-defense. Then, at her last appeal hearing, she suddenly confessed that she killed in cold blood and demanded that Gov. Jeb Bush sign her death warrant immediately.—Wuornos repeated her confession to Broomfield's camera, but when she thought she was no longer being recorded, told him that she was changing her story only to get her execution over with.” And with a sideswipe against Broomfield ’s sense of media ethics, “What did Broomfield do with this information? Why, he put it in his movie - that's all.”[6]

This suicidal impulse is not uncommon, according to Robert Anthony Phillips, who writes in “Volunteering for Death: The Fast Track to the Death House,” quoting Amnesty International’s statistics: “Since 1995, 409 convicted killers have been executed in the United States, with at least 61 of those volunteering for death, the rights groups says. Overall, the study by AI reported that volunteers have accounted for one in eight executions in the United States .”  He continues, “But there has been renewed interested in the volunteer phenomena due to McVeigh's execution and a recent spate of voluntary trips to the death house. During a seven-week period from March 1 to April 21 of 2001, five of the 10 men executed in the United States were volunteers, including two on the same day in California and Oklahoma .—In some states, it is difficult to be executed unless you are a volunteer. Of the three executions in Washington State since 1993, two have been volunteers. In Nevada , eight of the nine executed were volunteers. Of the six executions in Utah since 1977, four were volunteers.”  He also gives a chilling example of Sebastian Bridges, who insisted to handle his own defense, refused all appeals, and, while accusing the system for its injustice, went to his death.[7] 

If Phillips’ data are correct, they would largely take the wind out of the sails of any death-penalty advocate who still suggests that deterrence is likely as a consequence of the many appeals on the part of people on death-row to avoid the death penalty.  One of the most recent cases was that of Blackwelder on death-row in Florida .  He confessed to an in-prison murder, yet staunchly denied the crime that put him in prison.  One inmate’s testimony would have cleared Blackwelder, the inmate reporting that Blackwelder had in fact not done the in-jail murder at all.  Yet Florida ’s Jeb Bush signed the death warrant nonetheless.

Jenkins and Thereon’s film is entitled “Monster.”  Most reviewers and critics equate “monster” with Wuornos (r).  But that is a misreading of the film’s symbolism.  “Monster” refers to the Ferris wheel at Wuornos (r)’s hometown’s 4-H fair.  One scene has Wuornos (f) and Selby in a Ferris wheel.  And a moment of reflection has Wuornos (f) stand in front of a merry-go-round.  None of this information and backdrop scenery is accidental since we are dealing with a construct of fiction here.  So, what’s the point?

In the Ferris wheel scene with Selby, Wuornos (f) shares the information that she made money by selling sex to support her siblings, who, incidentally, reject her later as a whore and a hooker.  In front of the merry-go-round, Wuornos (f) reflects, “People look down on you because the assume that you took the easy way out.  They have no idea how much it took . . .”[8]  The wheel as wheel of fate or fortune, as image of life and society, is traditional in literature.  I am sure that fate, fortune, life, and the inevitability of the cycle are basic themes here also. 

Wuornos (f) bears this out.  She says to Tom (Bruce Dern): “You think I’m a fuckin’ bad person and all I do is try to survive.”[9]  Tom acknowledges her being in a position of feeling “guilt over something you had absolutely no control over.”[10]  Her position is one of absolute powerlessness and so she really does not have control over her life, certainly not enough to make “free and wrong choices.”  This powerlessness if further highlighted in the scene where she tries to get work at a lawyer’s office and where she is accosted on her way by a cop for sexual favors.  She is powerless to the point of being prey to anyone else in the society.  At a gut level, this view of shared powerlessness must be part of the sub-culture of the Last Resort biker bar in Daytona Beach .  Owner of the bar, Al Bulling comments in an interview, “We don’t judge nobody.”[11]  Of course not, if we are all helpless passengers on a ride that is going in circles.  Wuornos (f) justifies her actions, claiming that people kill each other every day.  She sees herself as not unusual.  And in a case of making herself morally superior, she says, “I’m not a bad person; I’m a real good person.” And, “There’s a whole world of people killing and raping, but I’m the only one killing them”—“them” referring to all those killers and rapists.[12]  So, that’s the Jenkins-Thereon theory of who or what Wuornos (r) is.

Part of that theory is also the progression of Wurnos (f)’s victims from a clear case of what all of us will recognize as self-defense by several deteriorating gradations in her motivations all the way to a murder where money is dominant and the killing is quite completely undeserved.  But none, except Wuornos (r), knows clearly who those men were and why she killed them.  Since she earned a living as a prostitute, there must have been others whom she did not kill.  The Jenkins-Thereon theory is that her killing became money-oriented by virtue of the demands that Selby, Wuornos (f)’s lover, makes.  We also don’t know of the degree of Selby’s involvement since Selby succumbs to the prisoner’s dilemma and goes free by turning evidence against Wuornos (f), a scene which is researchable and probably parallels Wuornos (r)’s true predicament.  Another possible contrast between Wuornos (r) and Wuornos (f) is implicit in her final reflection.  Going into her thoughts, we hear, “I wish there were a way that people could forgive you for something like this . . . but they can’t.”[13]  In contrast, her outburst against the judge at sentencing: “May you rot in hell for condemning to death—a white woman.”[14]  The racism implicit in this outburst was not developed at all in the Jenkins-Thereon theory, but is well borne out as part of the philosophical reality of lower-class whites.

Clearly, the film fictionalizes and thus practices advocacy of a position that opposes capital punishment.  And it does so effectively, despite minor inconsistencies.  My students, affluent and many with roots in the military, tend to support capital punishment.  Of about forty students in a section, I rarely get more than one or two who are opposed to capital punishment.  Of the students who saw the film, all reported either that they are now not sure of the rightness of the death penalty or that they had great sympathy for the character portrayed.  Particularly interesting, one student wrote an essay expressing many sympathies for the powerless position of the main character and, almost as if by force of habit or by superimposition of a memorized ethics, insisted at the end that she deserved the death penalty—a clear unwillingness on the student’s part to take the facts of the film to their logical conclusion where they would have an impact on his ethical thinking.

Literary works of fiction—including film—are not value-neutral as an ethics case-study might attempt to be, perhaps. But the conjecture about a violent person’s psychological make-up is most relevant to understanding morality at least from a Kantian perspective, where the intention or the good will is indeed part ethical reflection.  Forms of fiction are Gedankenexperimente in ethics, and one of the greatest errors in the administration of the death penalty is that, as a society, we deprive ourselves of a more complete understanding of violence by killing those who would help us toward such an understanding.  And I do not want to advocate an instrumentalizing or a reification of violent persons since the counseling process that might help us understand them is also a process that would help them understand and perhaps overcome themselves. 

In my instructions for students who wanted to write about “Monster,” I asked whether anyone had ever had the feeling of being so angry that they found themselves standing outside of themselves while observing themselves act in ways that they found surprising and startling because motivation seemed to be automatic without any reality-checks.  A surprising number of people had had such experiences of completely externalizing from their sense of being that which Fromm had referred to as the continuous super-ego. 

When our options are not sufficiently developed, we must expect violence.  If our social and economic system represses more than it develops options for all individuals, we should not be surprised when, of all countries in this world, the US has the greatest numbers per capita inmates in jails.  “Monster,” in the Jenkins-Thereon theory of Aileen Wuornos (r), is not the murderess at all; it is the monstrous socio-economic set-up that created her and Ferris-wheel-like takes her for a ride from which there is no escape.  And I quite agree.

[1] All references—unless otherwise noted—are to the film “Monster” by Patty Jenkins, starring Charleze Thereon as Aileen Wuornos.

[2] I will use a parenthetic “f” to indicate the fictitious Wuornos in the film and a parenthetic “r” to indicate the real Wuornos.

[3] Comments are from interviews with the cast and crew of the film published as part of the DVD version of the film.

[4] From the interviews.

[5] Transcribed from the film.



[8] Transcribed from the film.

[9] Transcribed from the film.

[10] Transcribed from the film.

[11] Transcribed from the interviews

[12] Transcribed from the film.

[13] Transcribed from the film.

[14] Transcribed from the film.