The more I read about Caril Ann Fugate, the more intriguing her story becomes. Her ordeal was high profile, to say the least, and it was replicated repeatedly in books, movies and songs. But the most interesting thing to me was reading the emotionally charged reactions that so many people have towards her. Writers, psychologists, internet commentators — all these people so insistent on her guilt that when her husband crashed his car in 2013, killing himself instantly and leaving 70 year old Caril critically injured and hospitalized for months, there were those who swore she must have orchestrated it. There‘s been a great deal of anger ever since she was released from prison, despite the fact that she had served 18 years without incident and remained a model citizen since her release. The father of her ex-boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, insisted that she should have been on his lap when he was executed.
The remarkable thing is that Caril was just 14 when she was arrested. The vitriol directed at her even then is telling of the way that we view teenage girls and the way we demand they meet our expectations. Yes, girls younger than Caril have committed heinous murders, and we regularly see couples draw out violent impulses in one another, so its not an impossible scenario, but is it even a likely one? Are we so sure that this is what happened with Caril that we're ready to publicly condemn her?
It took a bit of digging to discover that the state never actually claimed Caril took part in any of the murders. The entire case against her was based on her attitude. Yes, as astonishing as it is that a conviction could be obtained based on feelings or “gut-instinct,” 14 year old Caril was deemed guilty because well, she seemed like she could have been. Essentially, they decided that because she didn’t act like a proper kidnapping victim, she couldn't possibly have been a kidnapping victim. She must have gone along willingly, enamored with the older, forbidden Charlie. Surely her parents put a stop to the relationship and she gleefully watched as he slaughtered her entire family. The fact that there was no proof, the fact that everyone else claimed Caril had ended the relationship on her own, the fact that only Charlie was supporting this romanticized version of events, none of that meant that the prosecution's telling of events couldn't be true in theory. No one could prove that Caril didn't assist in the murders, and therefore, she was just as guilty as Starkweather. The only thing that saved her from the chair was the fact that she was only 14. She was sentenced to life in prison, but released after 18 years for good behavior. She has always maintained her innocence.
I must say, I’ve never seen any instance of a young girl committing murder where she had developed the skills to lie so convincingly and never once admit her guilt. Young people like to talk, and they lack the same understanding of consequences that we develop with age. A longing for the twisted romanticism of the killer couple will always be pervasive in our society — in fact, just the other day on the radio, I heard two modern songs that made Bonnie and Clyde references. Caril Ann had another thing working against her, though: our insistence to see young girls as much older than they really are. Once the slightest hint is given that a girl may not be 100% pure & innocent, the general public is ready to pounce. There is a reason we have “jokes” about when a young girl will become “legal.” And that underage perversion aside, this obviously raises another problem when it comes to women like Caril Ann. We see her as a grown woman, just waiting for the law to give us the O.K., so we feel as if the law should treat her like an adult. What’s more, we expect her actions to be in line with the decisions an adult would make, so we fail to see the poor and bizarre choices she makes as simply the choices of a confused child.
I believe it’s clear how that would have an impact on a jury’s decision.
See, Charlie initially insisted that Caril had nothing to do with the murders. This was her story as well. After some time in a jail cell and hours of questioning, he was reportedly told that Caril was claiming he’d kidnapped her. This revelation apparently did not sit well with him, and he changed his story to say she was a willing participant. When Caril was first arrested, the warden claimed she was so broken up to hear that her family was killed, there was no way she could have known. At her trial, he changed his story and claimed that when she was arrested, he found newspaper clippings describing the deaths of her parents in her jacket pockets (apparently he had either completely forgot this piece of information, or lied at some point.) No one questions these inconsistencies, but we’re more than ready to poke holes in Caril's character.
In theory, yes, Caril had opportunities to escape, and no, she did not play the proper victim role. But her guilt was decided on flip-flopped stories and witnesses recounting her behavior. At the very least, it’s a case that, even if “in your gut” you feel like she did it, there was no suitable evidence that should have been able to win a conviction.
In this series, I’m obviously not portraying a 14 year-old Caril, and I must admit that her age made me hesitant to tackle this story. But I think it’s important to call attention to the way that we, as a collective society, view teenage girls. There’s this insistence on perceiving young girls as older than they are, & if she’s not hysterical and wildly sympathetic, she must be up to no good. There is no “in-between” the young, sweet, innocent stage, & all the expectations and scrutiny that come with womanhood. I think it’s important to note that grown women will only garner the same sympathy if they’re deemed helpless (i.e. childlike) enough; but behaving as Caril did — in a calm & collected manner that likely had more to do with shock than anything, is a surefire way to be perceived as cold and uncaring.
This must be confusing for teenage girls, particularly when you’re raised to put everyone else’s happiness before your own, which we often are, regardless of whether of not its our parents’ and teachers’ intention. We learn to present ourselves in ways others expect of us, but attempting to behave like a grown woman when your brain is still operating as a child’s can have disastrous effects on one’s development. For Caril, her efforts were both tragically futile and catastrophic as she attempted to placate the very dangerous Starkweather in what she saw as an effort to save her family.
She was likely trapped with an abusive ex-partner who didn't know how to let go and also happened to be a homicidal maniac. She did the best she could to keep him calm, forced to take care of her captor out of fear he'd kill those she loved. She showed remarkable resilience considering her age and inexperience, and when she finally tried to get help, the law refused to believe her and instead sided with her kidnapper. The fact that his words carried any weight is astounding: one’s fate should ever be decided on by an angry ex, and that’s something I’m sure we can all agree on.
Miss Arsenous Apple Pie