Part 1: Will the real Veronica Compton please stand up?
Curator and writer Amy Mackie interviews artist Nina Schwanse as Veronica Compton.
One of a two-part series, this fictionalized interview is presented in conjunction with Schwanse’s exhibition "Hold It Against Me: The Veronica Compton Archive" at Good Children Gallery. Schwanse, posing as Veronica Compton, responds to the following queries as Compton might have in 1993, while serving a 22-year prison sentence in Bellingham, Washington for attempted murder.
Note: This interview contains some graphic description of sexual violence.
Amy Mackie: Very little is known about your early life. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood? I read somewhere that you were physically and sexually abused, is this true?
Veronica Compton: I grew up in Los Angeles, in the Hollywood Hills, with my father who was an artist and I did experience some abuse by a relative, not my father. I think a lot of women who have violent or criminal tendencies have experienced some form of abuse as children.
AM: Were you close with your father?
VC: Yes, he inspired me to be an artist, but as a teenager I lost myself. I distanced myself from my father as I sought other forms of authority and control.
AM: I understand that you were primarily interested in pursuing a career as an actress and writer. You wrote a play entitled The Mutilated Cutter. Can you tell me about the plot and what inspired this story?
VC: The play was inspired by a man named Kenneth Bianchi, also known as “The Hillside Strangler.” He was getting a lot of media attention at the time [in the late 1970s]. I became interested in his motives and in the women who were being violated. Women in Los Angeles were terrorized by these mass murders and, well, I thought it would be interesting to write a play based on this story with a female lead, a feminist twist. The Mutilated Cutter is the story of a female serial killer who lures women then inseminates them after murdering them. Essentially it is all about inseminating a woman without the man.
AM: Wouldn’t it have been more feminist for a female serial killer to kill men? Why would she want to kill other women?
VC: I was more interested in inhabiting a male persona than in actually identifying with female victims.
AM: So you were most interested in the pathology of a male killer and the control that a man might have over a woman?
VC: I’ve always been drawn to that kind of violence and that kind of personality, one that is more masculine.
AM: Did you intend to play the lead role in The Mutilated Cutter?
VC: Absolutely. I wanted to kind of embody “The Hillside Strangler” or at least my idea of him based on what I was reading through the media coverage.
AM: Did you have an interest in serial killers prior to reading about “The Hillside Strangler”?
VC: He was the first serial killer I felt drawn to and his crimes were taking place where I had grown up, so there was something very glamorous about that. And following the Manson murders, there was a sort of celebrity attraction to serial killing. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of fame.
AM: So you realized that you didn’t have to necessarily become famous as an actress or writer, but that there were other means of achieving celebrity status?
AM: Let’s talk about your relationship with Kenneth Bianchi, who along with his cousin Angelo Buono, was responsible for a string of murders in the Hollywood Hills in the 1970s. They both were eventually caught and convicted of raping, then strangling at least ten young women. How did you first get in touch with Bianchi?
VC: Well, I wrote to Kenny in prison. He was in Bellingham at the time, in Washington. I was doing research for my play and I really wanted to understand the mind of a serial killer so my script could be more accurate. I sent him a draft and I waited to hear back from him. Apparently he was getting a lot of mail at the time, but I managed to get his attention in other ways.
AM: What do you mean?
VC: I’m a photographer and I took some photos of myself and, you know, I’m not so “hard on the eyes.” I think he was attracted to me. And I was very persistent in getting Kenneth’s attention. I really wanted his input.
AM: What was his reaction to the play?
VC: He said he loved it. I think he was flattered that he could inspire this work of mine.
AM: What was your first impression of him?
VC: Oh, he was charming and so handsome. And he really just lured me right into his trap.
AM: Did you think it was a trap when you first met him?
VC: No, but he was very controlling. I could understand how it was easy for him to draw those women in who he eventually killed. He had such amazing sex appeal, a cocky, confident, alpha male persona that a lot of women go for. Once we actually developed a relationship, he really took control of me. I think he recognized how desperate I was. He started telling me what drugs I should take and sort of dictated what my life should be like. And I absolutely welcomed it because I was looking for someone to be that dominating authority figure in my life.
AM: Did he make you feel safe?
VC: He did. He made me feel more emotionally safe. I was completely out of control on my own. By that time, I had lost touch with my friends in L.A. He said he would take care of my son, but what ended up happening is that he used the premise of The Mutilated Cutter as a plan for me to help get him out of prison and exonerate him.
AM: What was the plan?
VC: The plan was for me to lure a woman into a hotel room and strangle her, kill her in the same way that Kenny killed his victims, and then put his semen on her so it would look like “The Hillside Strangler” was still on the loose. So we smuggled his semen [out of prison] in a rubber glove that was tied with the string of a rosary. The plan went wrong when I was unable to go through with it. I couldn’t kill that woman.
AM: Do you think if you had been able to kill her you would still be in a relationship with Kenneth Bianchi?
VC: Well, now I know that Kenny was just using me.
AM: At what point did you discover that?
VC: When he broke off ties with me after I failed to go through with the whole plan. When I testified in his trial, I still didn’t testify against him. I said that, to my knowledge, he hadn’t killed any of the women in Los Angeles or the two women in Bellingham. It took me a long time to fall out from under his spell.
AM: Can we rewind a bit and talk about your artwork? You’ve taken photographs primarily of yourself, but can you also tell me about your paintings and other artwork?
VC: My father was a painter. I was always around art. I’m a very artistic person, very creative. Always making things. When I first started reading about “The Hillside Strangler” in the papers, I found those images of the naked women splayed out on the grass so beautiful, so I began making paintings from the photographs. I was so drawn to the images. It was almost erotic.
AM: Did you ever wish you were one of his victims?
VC: I didn’t so much want to be one of his victims, as I was fascinated by the sexual violence that he inflicted. I think I wanted to be him. I wanted to vicariously live out my own fantasies through this incredibly powerful person. I was more interested in being his partner in crime than his victim.
AM: But in the end, you did become a victim didn’t you?
VC: Absolutely, the longer I knew him, the more he took psychological control of me. He knew about my issues with abuse and abandonment and he used that knowledge to manipulate me. He twisted my words around, invented things, to make me feel dependent on him. At the same time, he made me feel like he needed me and that I was the only one who could help save him and get him out of his situation.
AM: Can we talk more about your obsession with the pathology of a killer? You were attracted to Kenneth Bianchi in part because of the media attention, but if this had been 10 years earlier, perhaps you would have been interested in Charles Manson or another serial killer who has been in the public eye.
VC: Kenny was very unique. I was very moved by him the first time I saw him on television. I felt like we were soul mates.
The times I spent visiting him in prison, those were some of the most intense conversations I’ve ever had with anyone. I revealed so much of myself because he really made me feel like I could trust him. I thought he was revealing himself to me in return, and the sexual tension was just so insane, really intense.
AM: Did he talk about how he felt when he was engaged in these acts of violence?
VC: Yes, he did and I think that was part of why I was so attracted to him. He went into great detail about the emotions he experienced while he was raping and strangling those women…the feeling of looking into someone’s face as they’re dying.
AM: You’ve been in prison a while now [since 1981] and you have some distance from Kenneth Bianchi and this experience. Are you still interested in serial killers and this kind of violence?
VC: No, since I’ve been in prison, I have realized the extent to which I was manipulated and how common this experience is for women who come from backgrounds of abuse. I have had a lot of time to come to terms with that reality and understand why I ever got involved with a person like Kenneth.
“Hold It Against Me: The Veronica Compton Archive” on view until July 7 at Good Children Gallery (4037 St. Claude Avenue) in New Orleans.
In the second interview in this series, Amy Mackie interviews Nina Schwanse on the creation of Veronica Compton and her archive.