In each of the twelve stories in The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, readers are asked to imagine the answers to questions like: What makes it possible to fall in love with a murderer, a rapist, a eugenicist? How can someone not see the evil present in someone so close to them? When they do see it, how can they ignore it and even play a role in committing nefarious deeds alongside these titular so-called “bad men?”
Woollett introduces us to women who were romantically or sexually involved with people like Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, Raymond Fernandez, and Kenneth Bianchi. She offers their stories from their perspective in creative nonfiction that blends facts with imagined retellings.
Every story expertly makes use of language and setting, the way that Eva Braun’s story plays with a capitalized He when she’s referring to Adolf Hitler. It’s a device that works beautifully to craft Eva’s shifting perception of him through their early courtship to their eventual joint suicide. It’s this masterful use of language, which Woollett uses in every story, that ties the reader emotionally to each protagonist’s journey.
The storytelling Woollett uses works from both a thematic and a plot perspective, as she’s tying together individual women’s stories into a collection that asks larger questions about morality, romance, love, naivety, ignorance, and what it means to be evil. Some stories, like Karla Homolka’s, are told from the past tense, showing the reader remorse and grief after the fact, while others, like Jan’s, are told in the present tense, exposing nerves and decisions that need to be made in the moment that can leave a wake of devastation.
This collection draws much of its strength from the nuance with which each woman is portrayed. Woollett explores ideas of culpability, particularly with protagonists who aided directly in the crimes their men committed, and victimhood, all well drawing out women who are well-rounded, complicated, and very real. Societally, we’re quick to demonized women for lesser crimes than many of the men in this book have committed, and even quicker to demonize women for being involved with these men—even in situations where abuse and rape were determining factors. What Woollett has done with these stories is give these women agency that few pieces of media will allow.
Fans of true crime will enjoy this collection, even though there aren’t any surprising facts or new reveals, and Woollett is careful to allow readers mystery in some cases of whose story we’re being told in each chapter. It’s a gripping and chilling fast read that at parts, you might feel compelled to skip ahead (there’s some dark power behind being invited to these women’s fictionalized vulnerabilities), but you’ll want to turn back, if only to use the book as a guide to understand your own complexities. You’ll find yourself asking the question: What have I done for love, and what would I do?
Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the Melbourne-based author of a novel, The Wood of Suicides (2014), and a short story collection, The Love of a Bad Man (2016). Her work has appeared in Elle, Literary Hub, and Prairie Schooner, among others, and she has been a guest at literary festivals in Australia, India, and Indonesia. Her latest novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, will be released by Scribe Publications this August.
Find her at: lauraelizabethwoollett.com
Alaina Leary is an editor and activist based in Boston, MA. She is currently a social media editor and internship grants associate for We Need Diverse Books. She has an MA in publishing from Emerson College. When she isn’t busy reading, you can find her at the beach or curled up with her girlfriend and their two adopted literary cats. Find her at alainaleary.com. Twitter & Instagram @alainaskeys