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True Crime, Part 1: Making Sense of My Complicated Relationship with True Crime

I have a conflicted relationship with true crime. I go through phases of consuming it voraciously, reading books, listening to podcasts and binge watching mini-series. I will also take long breaks from it, often after a story leaves me with a particularly bad taste in my mouth. Like many others, I am drawn in and transfixed by stories that tap into the dark side of humanity. In recent posts, I’ve talked about the appeal of horror and crime fiction. The experience of true crime strikes me as similar, although it can be even more immediate and arresting. Getting this intense perspective on humanity, oscillating between highs and lows, is why I keep coming back for more. But I also have reservations about consuming other peoples’ pain for entertainment. In this post, I’ll examine what I find so satisfying in my favorite true crime writing, as well as the elements that give me pause.

The first true crime book I remember reading was Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot, which tells the story of the 1993 Robin Hood Hills child murders in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the subsequent trial and imprisonment of the three teenage defendants who came to be known as “The West Memphis Three”. Reading this is the first time that I can remember being totally consumed by the details of a case, many of which have stuck with me for years. The story was also my introduction to the time period known as “the Satanic Panic”, the ripples of which can still be felt today. Aided by the publicity from Paradise Lost (a series of three documentaries, made over the course of 15 years), the case sparked public outrage, leading to decades of protest and appeals[1]. While I still feel passionately about this case, it’s important to recognize that this kind of reporting is often quite sensationalized. It’s been shown that evidence is often intentionally withheld from popular stories’ coverage[2] in order to elicit this kind of passionate response. While I know that deep investment is precisely what avid fans crave, I would say proceed with caution.

More recently, I’ve read a few books which have reignited my love for true crime and have opened me up to think more critically about it. Few 20th century crimes have received more attention from the media and public than the murders perpetrated by Charles Manson and his followers in the summer of 1969, specifically the Tate-LaBianca murders. The crimes were the subject of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, the best-selling true crime book of all time[3], which was adapted multiple times and has been responsible for the popular narratives surrounding the murders. Tom O’Neill’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the secret history of the sixties is a very different kind of book about the crimes, primarily investigating the loose ends of the prosecution’s famous version of events. O’Neill’s decades of exhaustive research (including interviews with witnesses, law enforcement, Manson family members, and Manson and Bugliosi themselves) lead him down many winding paths of inquiry. Making connections to the CIA’s MK Ultra experiments and the Kennedy assassination, the author doesn’t jump to conclusions, but lays the evidence bare and lets the pieces fall where they may. The narrative is refreshingly transparent, describing relationships with interviewees, acknowledging potential errors in judgment, and admitting what he does not know. As O’Neill himself admits, he gets more questions than answers, but the sprawling research uncovers enough corruption to poke sizable holes in widely accepted accounts of the crimes.

Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: one woman’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer is an equally impressive work of investigative true crime, with the author beginning as an online sleuth and becoming a trusted confidant and consultant for law enforcement. Equal parts investigation, history and memoir, the book chronicles the search for a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s and was never identified. The narrative is intricately woven but unfolds at breakneck speed as the search intensifies. Its haunting prose, atmospheric description and vivid portrayals are captivating, terrifying and heartbreaking, while always “dogged, insightful, and humane”[4]. Part of the reason this bestseller is so captivating is because of how personal it is, with McNamara detailing her history and fascination with true crime. This contributes to the book’s thoroughly empathetic and victim-centered approach. Sadly, McNamara died suddenly in 2016, and the book was finished by co-writers. It has since been adapted as a mini-series.

For many, “true crime” conjures up certain associations. It may seem to be synonymous with violent crime, dealing exclusively in stories about murder or serial killers. In terms of tone, some people think of the genre as being salacious or tawdry by definition. In contrast, the anthology Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession approaches true crime “along the broadest possible spectrum,” addressing how the genre “interacts with culture and itself”, shifting the focus to criminal justice and society, and exploring a wider variety of cultures, topics, and demographics than has been typical in the past[5]. Some of these essays cut to the core of my true crime sore spots. In “The End of Evil”, Sarah Marshall discusses the issue of approach and tone in the genre, including the tendency to cast things in binaries and people as being wholly good or bad (“pure evil”, or “psychopaths”). This problematizes the retributive attitude common in a lot of coverage, providing a moving argument for the necessity of nuance. While I believe it’s possible to tell true crime stories with compassion for everyone involved, many see this issue differently. In the self-reflective “The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime”, Alice Bolin interrogates so-called “prestige” true crime, arguing that it has “only perfected a method of making us feel less gross about consuming real people’s pain for fun”. This piece hit close to home for me, as it made me question the feelings of righteous anger and indignation that true crime often stirs up for me. This anthology would serve as an excellent introduction to the genre, as it includes writing on classic cases from a contemporary perspective. I would also recommend it to any hardened true crime fans, for its criticism of recent trends in reporting and interrogation of the culture surrounding true crime.

All of which brings me back to the question of that bad taste in my mouth. The power of true crime is summed up nicely in the introduction to Unspeakable Acts, where the author writes that, compared to fiction, “a true story of human cruelty engages and implicates the reader in a more profound and unsettling way”[6]. Being deeply affected in this way does seem to be the point of consuming true crime. But being unsettled can quickly morph into being irked or grossed out in a less desirable way. For me, this feeling usually comes up when it seems that people involved in a story are being dehumanized[7]. This is often a result of a lack of empathy in the narrative, but can also be external to the writing itself. Some fans describe true crime as a means of self preservation, seeing it as some kind of ‘how-to guide’, to avoid becoming a victim themselves. This kind of approach can be a slippery slope from empowerment to victim blaming, and also “may leave listeners with mistaken beliefs about who’s really vulnerable”[8]. I realize that being a straight white man certainly affects my feelings on this, as I’m far less likely to be a victim of violent crime or of the justice system than most. True crime does provide catharsis for many readers, including many who live with the reality or fear of physical violence[9]. Regardless of outlook, personal preference or thresholds for certain kinds of stories, true crime fandom can also mean being part of a community which provides a platform to examine these exact issues.

There’s certainly a lot to unpack, which is why I’m going to come back with a second post on true crime. Next time, I’ll talk about books on cults, criminal justice, and even some “lighter” content like white collar crime, arson and armed robbery. This will also take us into territory on the fringes of the genre, and which overlap with social justice, politics, public affairs and investigative journalism, but which all still scratch that same true crime itch. See you next time!

[1] I first heard of the case through benefit albums which funded appeals for the defendants.

[2] Kathryn Schulz, How “Making a Murderer” Went Wrong

[3] David Stout, Vincent T. Bugliosi, Manson Prosecutor and True-Crime Author, Dies at 80

[4]Gillian Flynn, Introduction

[5]Sarah Weinman, Editor’s Note

[6]Patrick Radden Keefe, Introduction

[7]Sounds Like A Cult podcast episode: “The Cult of True Crime”

[8]Raichel Monroe: How true crime became self-help

[9]With Friends Like These podcast episode: “My Least Favorite Murderer” with Rachel Monroe