| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life Can Fiction Help Solve the Ethical Problems of True Crime?
True crime wants us to believe that our monsters are individual, not systemic—the errant serial killer rather than a violent and inequitable culture.
“Make it spooky.” My daughter’s bubblegum-toothpaste breath tickles my cheeks. She lowers her voice, wiggles her fingers. “Make it super spooky.”
We are curled up on the gray upholstered recliner I bought before she was born. At four, she likes to hear about “grampires” and witches, mummies and zombies and ghosts. Her fawn eyes widen, and she stares at the middle distance as scenes unfold in her mind. She wants bony fingers shifting sand as they prod up from the earth. She wants sharp teeth.
Until she doesn’t. “Okay, okay,” she says, laughing. “Too spooky.”
I gather her close and veer the story toward a silly ending, a pilot performing an emergency landing. We’re back in her quiet bedroom with its closet door half-open, a river of light across the carpet.
In 2016, researchers at universities in Durham and Lisbon published a study using phylogenetic comparative methods—borrowed from evolutionary biology techniques—to trace the history of shared stories, discovering that some common fairy tales, such as Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin, trace back some 4,000 years , older than the earliest literary records. When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm popularized fairy tales like Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White in the nineteenth century, the brothers—who were also philologists and cultural researchers—argued that the stories weren’t new. On the contrary, they said, many of them dated back to the inception of the Indo-European language family, as far back as the Bronze Age.
I’m fascinated by the enduring power of these fairy tales, familiar themes and tropes repeated across different cultures. I’m compelled, too, by how many of them are, at their hearts, horror stories. The original Brothers Grimm tales, since sanitized by Disney, often featured brutal violence toward children and women in order to frighten kids into obedience: Listen to the rules; fulfill your role; don’t succumb to the temptation of the unknown because in that darkness there is no freedom, only pain. For thousands of years, we’ve listened to versions of these stories—yet, alongside the fear meant to deter us, we’ve found something else: pleasure.
Like my daughter, I gravitated toward spooky stories as a child. At the B. Dalton bookstore we visited most Saturdays after lunch, I presented my mom with piles of Goosebumps titles, then Fear Street. When I was maybe ten, I had a small spiral notebook with an opalescent cover in which I wrote about a hungry Venus flytrap, its glistening pink mouth dissolving whole hands and arms of people who thought they could touch without consequence; an eyeball the size of a house, rolling down hillsides, seeing inside every window. I read those stories to my younger sister in her dark bedroom. She, too, enjoyed being a little scared.
These stories incited in me a different kind of fear, one rooted in my own vulnerability.
I felt differently when I watched the true-crime series Unsolved Mysteries with my parents. I remember one episode about two boys laid unconscious across train tracks, helplessly waiting for wheels to devour them; one about a woman driving home from work when the truck in front of her stopped, the driver emerged, and shot her point-blank in the face, seemingly at random. These stories incited in me a different kind of fear, one rooted in my own vulnerability.
When I was about twelve, metal-mouthed and knock-kneed, a friend and I were walking from her house to mine. We lived in a safe neighborhood, pecan trees dropping their nuts, the occasional waft of jasmine. The first time the truck passed us, slowly, we rolled our eyes. Already we were accustomed to honks, a boisterous “’Ey, ch ch” from the driver’s seat, just because we were girls. When the truck looped back around, approaching from behind us, my friend and I exchanged a nervous giggle. When it circled a third time—this time no longer passing us but following, creeping—we leaped over hedges and bolted to a stranger’s front door, just as my mom had once recounted doing as a girl, under similar circumstances. The truck sped away. We waited a long time before walking again, silent now, a bristling awareness between us. That was the first time I can recall feeling like a rabbit, dusty ears twitching, dumb prey. Nothing pleasurable about it.
At home, I’d burned through the Nancy Drew series years earlier, then the cozier mysteries of Mary Higgins Clark, before discovering Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels. They were my first foray into adult crime fiction, and I read them ravenously. I liked the horrifying bluntness of the books, how they didn’t attempt to protect a child’s sense of security. In one, The Body Farm , the victim is an eleven-year-old girl named Emily whose body is found naked, gagged and bound, sexually assaulted, flesh missing—killed, after all this, by a bullet to the back of the head. I probably wasn’t much older than Emily when I read it, and though it was fiction, it had the same impact true crime would eventually have on me: the sense that Emily was a version of me, of all girls; if she could be brutalized, so could I. That terrifying truth, though, was balanced by the reassuring presence of medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
In Rachel Monroe’s book, Savage Appetites , which explores our cultural obsession with true crime, she writes of the Scarpetta series: “They acknowledged the sexualized menace of the world, but also offered a way to navigate it. In the room with a corpse—a dead woman, naked, her neck purpled by ligature marks—Cornwell has Scarpetta peer closely at her skin, looking for fibers. In the face of paralyzing horror, she’s active instead of passive. She’s got a job to do.”
To me, Scarpetta was the grown-up Nancy Drew. She revealed to me the violent secrets that cozy mysteries obscured but offered a similar kind of catharsis: Through her we could, if not undo the murders, at least solve them.
I came to Savage Appetites several years ago when I was drafting my debut novel, More Than You’ll Ever Know . The novel is about a South Texas woman, a mother, secretly married to two men at the same time in the 1980s, and the aspiring true-crime writer who becomes obsessed with telling her story in 2017. By then, I—like the rest of the country—had fallen headfirst into Serial , and then a seemingly endless proliferation of true-crime podcasts, from Sword and Scale to My Favorite Murder . I’d watched Making a Murderer and The Staircase and read every installment of Dirty John as it was published in the Los Angeles Times , then watched both seasons of the scripted series on Netflix.
My fascination with fictional crime stories had bled into true crime stories with astonishing ease, but it came with a new sense of discomfort. As a child watching Unsolved Mysteries , it had never occurred to me to think of the real people left behind after the crimes—relatives and friends confronting a lurid reenactment, their personal trauma fed to viewers like a fireside ghost story. But as I watched Making a Murderer , I couldn’t help noticing how the woman at the heart of the docuseries—Teresa Halbach, whose burned remains were found at the firepit behind Avery’s home—seemed to disappear. I googled her family, wondering how they felt now that Avery and Dassey had become a kind of cause célèbre.
According to Newsweek , the Halbach family told WQOW, a news station in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, “Having just passed the 10-year anniversary of the death of our daughter and sister, Teresa, we are saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss. We continue to hope that the story of Teresa’s life brings goodness to the world.”
Their statement tapped into the root of my discomfort with my own appetite for true crime, particularly when the stories centered on women’s sexual assault and murder: First, true crime is an industry with many players who do ultimately capitalize on making violence entertaining; second, it’s not often the victims’ lives that are emphasized, but their deaths—gruesome, demeaning, and undoubtedly unbearable for anyone who loved them to encounter. As cultural critic Alice Bolin points out in her book Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession , the dead girl at the heart of each of these stories doesn’t get to speak. Instead, her corpse is used as a lens through which other people—often the male detectives or killers—tell their stories.
So what appealed to me—and to so many other women, who are true crime’s most voracious audience—about stories that opened with a woman’s dead body or a woman missing? In Savage Appetites , Monroe suggests most of us relate to one or more of four central archetypes in true crime: the victim, the detective, the killer, or the defender. Women consume these stories, she argues, for the vicarious thrill of danger or mystery solving, as cautionary tales, as reflections of their own experiences with violence, or because our culture has long represented killers—particularly serial killers—as fascinating creatures.
What appealed to me—and to so many other women—about stories that opened with a woman’s dead body?
I think Monroe is right about these motivators. But as I consumed more of the genre, I also began to notice an unnerving thread: In true crime, the most represented victims aren’t just women, but cis white women. This isn’t borne out by statistics: In the United States, it’s men, not women, who make up about 80 percent of homicide victims . But men are more likely to be killed as a result of drug or gang violence, while the majority of female murder victims (between 60 and 90 percent, depending on the source) are killed by family members or intimate partners, 99 percent of whom are men. And women’s deaths are more likely to include sexualized violence (at about fourteen times the rate of male murder victims, according to FBI statistics for 2019).
Additionally, while 41 percent of all homicide victims in 2019 were white (compared to their share of 57.8 percent of the population), an astonishing 53.7 percent of murder victims were Black, though they only represent 12.4 percent of the general population. These proportions hold true for murdered women: In 2019, about 58 percent of murdered women were white, matching their share of 60 percent of the female population in the United States, while 35 percent of murdered women were Black, though Black women make up only 13 percent of the female population. (Murders of Latinx and Asian women were about proportional to their share of the female population.)
These numbers suggest what may not be immediately obvious if you’re a true-crime junkie: Women—and in particular white women—are not even close to the largest demographic of homicide victims. In fact, they’re dramatically overrepresented in both true crime and fictional crime, while the murders of Black and trans women—who are violently victimized at four times the rate of cisgender people —are dramatically underrepresented in the same media. Obviously, this is a problem.
“The murder stories we tell, and the ways that we tell them,” writes Monroe, “have a political and social impact . . . When read closely, they can reveal the anxieties of the moment, tell us who’s allowed to be a victim, and teach us what our monsters are supposed to look like.”
So much of true crime wants us to believe that our monsters are individual, not systemic—the errant sociopathic serial killer rather than a culture that devalues Black, brown, poor, queer, and trans people. Like the fairy tales stretching back thousands of years, the victims most often represented sympathetically are those whom a significant portion of the population is most likely to view as vulnerable, blameless: straight white middle-class women, the younger and prettier the better.
True crime presents inherent ethical quandaries, both for journalists and consumers. Yet I believe there is profound value in using crime as a lens through which to interrogate human psychology, the justice system, and the often-violent intersections of race, gender, and class—but how to do this without revictimizing the victims and their families? How can victims and their families maintain a level of power in the relationship between journalist and subject?
I thought about this as I was writing my novel. In the book, aspiring true-crime writer Cassie, who is a cis white woman, is jaded by her contributions to a salacious true-crime blog. She wants to write about a woman who is still alive, who has agency. When she finds a potential subject in Lore Rivera, Cassie can break the cycle, she thinks, of publishing stories about dead white women.
She has, in other words, good intentions.
Through her, I was interested in exploring how the desire to subvert the genre could itself be thwarted by a writer’s own unconscious biases, by the way true crime inculcates us to see women as victims. I wanted to play with the power dynamics of true-crime storytelling: The writer may have the power to shape the narrative, but only the subject knows what really happened. Ultimately, Lore has the power.
I was aware, though, that in the present-day storyline, I was actively drawing on the tropes of true-crime storytelling: presenting Cassie as a detective figure who assembles the clues, compelled to understand the heart of another human being. I intended it to be tongue-in-cheek, a way of pointing out both my complicity and the reader’s, the pleasure we take in such a form.
Because, despite all the good that the best true crime can do—reigniting interest in cold cases, like the way Michelle McNamara’s work on what became I’ll Be Gone in the Dark arguably helped bring Joseph James DeAngelo to justice; calling attention to systemic oppressions and giving voice to victims, like Christine Pelisek’s The Grim Sleeper ; or confronting not just individual rapists but rape culture , as in Erika Krouse’s recent Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation— it wouldn’t be so popular if it weren’t also pleasurable to consume.
I think about this when my daughter asks me to tell her spooky stories, when I gravitate toward reading (and writing) books about crime, when I consider the stories we’ve told for thousands of years—this idea that we are, from a very young age, drawn to darkness as much, and sometimes more, than we are to light.
Sometimes things seem truer in the dark.