Looking back at Nina Schwanse’s 2013 exhibition at Good Children Gallery, Amy Mackie talks to the real Veronica Compton about the Hillside Strangler, life after prison, and the terror of having your identity taken away from you.
In 2013, I interviewed Los Angeles-based artist Nina Schwanse, who was then living in New Orleans, about her exhibition “Hold It Against Me: The Veronica Compton Archive” at Good Children Gallery. The show wove together fact and fiction in an unconventional archive based on the life of Veronica Compton. It included photographs and a video in which Schwanse bears a strong resemblance to Compton, re-creations of Compton’s letters to and from serial killer Kenneth Bianchi, a mock version of her play The Mutilated Cutter, and drawings made in her style. It was an imagined version of Compton’s experiences and history, and it is not a stretch to say that, at the time, Schwanse was attempting to channel Compton, creating work as her. For that reason, when I interviewed Schwanse for Pelican Bomb, I did so twice—once in the artist’s voice and, as an extension of the exhibition, once in the voice of her subject-cum-alter-ego.
Years later, Compton (now Compton Wallace) discovered Schwanse’s project and the two interviews and reached out to Pelican Bomb. Shortly after, she agreed to an interview with me. A writer, artist, and musician who also lives and works in Los Angeles, Compton Wallace was convicted of attempted murder and incarcerated in 1981 as a result of her relationship with Kenneth Bianchi, a.k.a. the “Hillside Strangler.” She served a 22-year sentence in Bellingham, Washington. Since Compton came into the public sphere before the Internet, a quick Google search readily brings up Schwanse’s likeness, often before Compton Wallace’s own, a disorienting consequence of image construction in the digital age.
This series of interviews reveals multiple viewpoints and the layers of history and perspectives of one woman’s life—and challenges the way her history is and has been written, told, altered, and edited. I am grateful to Compton Wallace for sharing her story and to Schwanse for bringing it to my attention.
Amy Mackie: Was it upsetting for you to discover that Nina Schwanse made a body of work inspired by your personal history?
Veronica Compton Wallace: First, I want to thank Pelican Bomb for this opportunity to respond to the work by Ms. Schwanse in which she depicted me. When I learned about it, I felt distressed and anguished over it for some time. And while that piece is a work of fiction, it reads like non-fiction because my name prefaces the commentary and can easily be mistaken as my words. I found many remarks inaccurate.
AM: Schwanse and I took the idea of a fictionalized account of your life a step further through the interview that was published on Pelican Bomb: “Will the real Veronica Compton please stand up?” In that conversation, Schwanse responded to my questions as if she were you. It was followed by the interview “Will the real Nina Schwanse please stand up?”, in which Schwanse explained her process and connection to the project. How do you feel about these interviews? Can you discuss any correlations to the events that actually transpired?
VCW: While I recognize that art is a necessary and vital right for a society to protect and respect, when the pen writes mistruths about me, it hurts. However, I am an artist who is committed to fighting for this right, as I did in prison.
I found that I was represented personally at times in a distorted and false light. It was a bitter pill to swallow. I think that when a writer creates images of a living person, which propagates damaging falsehoods about them, it can be very destructive. For example, the idea that I was inspired to paint deceased victims is untrue, and other statements presenting me as callous and superficial hurt.
AM: How do you feel now about your complicated relationship with Kenneth Bianchi and the crime for which you were convicted?
VCW: I was crazy for a time while under a drug-induced psychosis. The after-effects can really turn your head upside down especially because I did not know at the time that drugs could alter the mind to that extent. It wasn’t until years later when I was diagnosed by specialists that my life really turned around. I was living for years with the false assumption that, although clean, I could still, at any time, fall into insanity again, and that is the most terrifying fear to live under. The diagnosis gave me my life back and came as the greatest God-sent gift. This eureka moment psychologically shifted my perspective by validating me as a potentially worthwhile person. The rest was up to me. I could be who I wanted, not the monster of my past.
AM: Schwanse was inspired to create this project in part because much of your past is unknown to the public. She thought it would be interesting to imagine your experiences and attempt to channel your voice. Was she accurate? If not, can you tell me a bit about your personal history?
VCW: My history has been difficult. As a child I was born with kidney problems and was frequently hospitalized. I was kidnapped at 11 and held for months where I was severely tortured. I finally managed to escape, very ill but alive. I was mute for a time. By 15, I had many surgeries and treatments for cancer and was told I would have to have a hysterectomy and double mastectomies. I stopped treatment and got pregnant before it was too late. Unfortunately, the father of my child was abusive and I was repeatedly hospitalized as a result of his severe beatings (one of which consisted in partial facial reconstruction). I was forced to stay with him until three of his friends helped me escape.
Eventually, I returned to Los Angeles to live with my father and family. Subsequently, I had an arranged marriage at the insistence of my father. He was a local celebrity of sorts and a well-collected artist and he attended many society events and emceed them as well. I enjoyed the lifestyle, but it came at a high price. I had to either remedy my illegitimate son’s status or remove myself from public events. That was why I agreed to the arranged marriage even though I was not in love with the man. We ultimately separated.
AM: Can you tell me about your experiences in Hollywood as an aspiring actress and model in the 1960s and ’70s?
VCW: My father arranged an interview for me at the then-esteemed acting studio The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. I excelled and quickly began writing and producing my own plays and musicals. I was also being cast in lead roles of studio and local theater productions. I made many fast friends in the industry and began dating a few prominent producers and directors. Cocaine was, at that time, not thought to be dangerous as only the wealthy could afford its addiction. I worked as a screenwriter for a Beverly Hills production house and at a studio in Hollywood, and I modeled for Hiram Walker’s Two Fingers tequila campaign. Things were going very fast, and I used coke to stay ahead and keep up with the lifestyle of my famous friends. This was the beginning of my eventual slide into drug-induced insomnia and madness.
AM: Did you meet Kenneth Bianchi during this time?
VCW: My relationship with Bianchi began just as my near deadly use of drugs escalated. I completed a play entitled The Mutilated Cutter prior to beginning my research on Kenneth, and, no, I did not write it for him. It was just a vehicle I had hoped could make money.
AM: Can you tell me about your book Eating the Ashes: Seeking Rehabilitation within the US Penal System that was published in 2003, the year you were released from prison?
VCW: I committed a crime and served my time. Prior to my release, I wrote that book. Eating the Ashes is more academic than not and is used in colleges for criminology studies. All of my proceeds from the book are donated to the county to assist in supporting abused children. Likewise, some of my paintings have raised funds for children’s hospitals and correctional activities. Much of my art depicts political themes and women; I do not do pornography, nor have I ever.
VC: My two albums of music are probably my most personal work. My song, “Bottle of Gin” depicts men who exploit vulnerable women and children. It is a warning:
Girl wake up don’t makeup. He can never love you when he puts himself above you - you’re better than that, make the switch you’re nobody’s bitch, pick yourself up, you’ve had enough - Get Hip.
“Going Down” describes the tragic life of addicts, and “Gladiator” expresses the public’s lust for violence and the callousness of entertainment. The song “I’m Not Open Anymore” has elements of the serial killers I have known and warns to protect oneself:
I’m not open anymore. I’ve locked and sealed every door. Check the alley. Lock your car. He’s a thief, pretends to be a star. Blinds your eye then picks your pocket, has Grandma’s ring and makes you hock it.
There is much more I could say, but perhaps another time.