Generations How Reading True Crime Stories Helps Us Face Our Own Fears
“Not thinking about these things doesn’t make them go away. So, instead, I choose to look. It is staring into a dim room and letting my eyes adjust to the dark.”
He stashed them in the trunk. He hid them under a sweater, an old baseball hat, deep in the back of his car. He tortured them to the point of rot and decay. He held them tightly. He broke their spines.
The Godfather. Black Mass. Underboss. Boss of Bosses. Hitman. Ratman. Rifleman. Whitey. Anything by John Grisham. These are the titles that my grandfather, Puppy, loves––worn paperbacks, sometimes held together by a rubber band, always about crime, that he reads in the car, waiting for my grandmother inside the supermarket or TJ Maxx. This is how I picture Puppy: in the driver’s seat, sometimes listening to the Red Sox game on the radio or an old cassette of Prairie Home Companion, but usually he has a crime book.
For a long time, any title that fell in the genre of “crime”—whether true or fictional, mystery or thriller, historical, or contemporary—I called “Puppy books.” I associated different books with different family members. Even if they read widely, I paired a genre with a person: nature books with my dad, novels by women with my mom, Nicolas Sparks with my sister. And, of course, crime books with Puppy.
Growing up, I loved animal stories, fantasy, and realistic fiction—the Poppy series by Avi, dragon books by Patricia C. Wrede, everything by Lois Lowry, Sharon Creech, Beverly Cleary, Gary Paulsen, Jean Craighead George. In high school and college, I became pretentious—falling for Zadie Smith, Anne Fadiman, Vladimir Nabokov, ultimately majoring in Russian literature. And when I was getting my MFA in nonfiction at Columbia, I became obsessed with essays and memoir—Eula Biss, Margo Jefferson, Roxane Gay, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine. I thought I was too good for crime books. Never would I be caught reading a book that the supermarket sells in the checkout aisle next to People magazine. Never would I read a mass-market paperback .
Then I started my MFA thesis. For all the new things I was reading, all the different books I was taking in, when writing, I was drawn to the familiar: Somerville, the city next to Boston, where my grandparents grew up. Currently, Somerville is one of the most desirable places to live in Greater Boston. An easy commute to downtown, the city exploded with good restaurants, hipster bars, and folk concerts. But when my grandparents were kids, smoky factories and junkies filled Somerville’s Union Square, not artisanal doughnut shops where a dozen costs forty dollars. Somerville was home to the notorious Whitey Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang. The men that were part of Whitey’s group were my grandfather’s contemporaries: Puppy was born in 1934, Bulger in 1929. Puppy grew up on the edges of their crimes. When my grandparents and I drive around Somerville, Puppy points out spots where Winter Hill Gang members were gunned down.
I started researching how Somerville evolved from hard drugs and violent crimes to expensive brunches and craft cocktails. I began writing about my grandparents, who had worked hard to escape Somerville for the suburbs, and me, who spent Saturdays back home barhopping at former drug fronts. I called my grandparents to ask them questions about the Somerville of their youth, and one day Puppy said, “Pal, I have some books that might help you.” Then there they were: out of his trunk and onto my desk.
I picked one up, feeling the worn edges and tracing my finger along red and black lettering. I studied the mug shot on the cover of another. I cracked the yellowed pages, the smell of musty car trunk puffed out. Under a harvest moon, FBI agent John Connolly eased his beat-up Plymouth into a parking space along Wollaston Beach. Wollaston Beach, I thought. I’ve been there. Behind him, the water stirred, and further off, the Boston skyline sparkled. I knew that skyline. I wanted to know what had happened at that beach, a place I thought of as just a pretty spot for an evening stroll with my boyfriend. What was hidden underneath? As I read, something nagged at me. I thought I didn’t read these books, but the darkness, the violence, the fear felt so familiar. Maybe I had been reading crime books all along.
As a child: My favorite Gary Paulsen? The Rifle , about generations of a family who own a pre-Revolutionary War gun, which ends up killing a child. My favorite Sharon Creech? Walk Two Moons , about a girl researching her mother’s sudden and gruesome death.
In college: Isn’t all Russian literature about crime and its consequences? Hello, Crime and Punishment . Nabokov was my favorite: I read Lolita three times, trying to grapple with the horrifying logic of a pedophile.
In grad school: I worshipped Maggie Nelson, who has written not one but two books about her aunt’s murder. And what was I writing about? Somerville’s violence and crimes.
My books fell into other genres—historical fiction, classic literature, poetry, narrative nonfiction—but their core was the same as my grandfather’s crime books: a fascination with darkness, fears about what can be, what has been, what could have been. At the heart of every crime book isn’t gore, violence, or the gruesome nature of the act. It’s not even a smug pat on the back, thank god that wasn’t me . No, at heart of all of these books is anxiety.
Photo of the author with her grandfather
I inherited a lot of things from Puppy—his nose, height, use of the word “pal” to show affection—but I also inherited his anxiety. Puppy has spent his life working as an insurance agent and a driving school instructor. He thinks about worst-case scenarios professionally: car accidents, fires, floods, hit-and-runs. Don’t get him started on motorcycles. When Puppy was teaching me to drive, he drilled safety. Take your time. Go slow. Never have less than half a tank of gas. Lock your car doors as soon as you get in. Always wear a seatbelt. Puppy worries constantly; my whole family does. We arrive at airports five hours before domestic flights, we call each other to make sure everyone gets home safe, we go to doctors and get second, third, and fourth opinions, we suffer from nervous stomachaches. Each of us handles our anxieties in different ways—by going to therapy, by taking Tums, by sending tell-me-when-you’re-home texts. But one thing we have in common is we don’t ignore the things that scare us: we think about them constantly. You’d think that anxious people would want to stay far away from the things that scare them. But, instead, we get close. We watch news reports about kidnappers, discuss cancerous moles over lunch, and, at least Puppy and I, read books about killers.
For that’s what reading crime books is all about: staring down your worst fears. For Puppy, his fears were about drugs and violence, gangs and the mafia. As a young man growing up in Somerville in his era, those were the things that could get him. Puppy tells me that he is the only one of his childhood friend group not to go to jail . My grandfather finished high school, attended college, owned two businesses, made smart investments. He can afford new cars and vacations. In 2014, when he took me to Russia, we stood on Red Square and he cried: “I never thought a kid from Somerville could make it here. ” He got out. But he might not have.
By reading crime books, Puppy is peering into the darkness. He is seeing what he escaped, reminding himself no, these things didn’t happen to you. It’s calming for an overactive imagination. There are so many bad things out there, so many what ifs , that, in a way, reading about concrete atrocities is soothing. These things happened. But they didn’t happen to you. Be safe, be grateful, appreciate that you’re okay, but don’t forget those who were not.
For me, my fears are about rape and murder, kidnappers and serial killers. As a young woman growing up in, well, any era, those are the things that can get me. For a long time I thought that reading crime books was something just my grandfather did, staring into the void of what could have been , but I was starting to realize that a lot more people were interested in crime books than I thought, and, I was shocked to realize, most were not old men from Somerville. They were young women, like me.
Three years after I sat at my desk reading Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill instead of writing my M.F.A. thesis, I accepted that I was into crime books. I read The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule and My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf; I read The Girls by Emma Cline and Columbine by Dave Cullen. I was thirty years old. I had figured out a lot about myself, and I realized that my interest in this darkness had been following me my entire life, and not just when reading. As a child, I watched episodes of Unsolved Mysteries when home sick . In college, I procrastinated from studying by reading Wikipedia articles about Zodiac. In grad school, I watched Law and Order: SVU marathons on Sunday afternoons. I learned that I wanted to know the awful details. I wanted to look into the darkness. I had accepted this was part of how I dealt with the world, but, still, I kept it quiet. I was embarrassed. I thought there was something wrong with me. The crime books weren’t the ones I carried around in my bag, the ones I read on public transportation. Those were the books I read at home. After a deep dive into serial killers on Wikipedia, I cleared my browser history. It seemed too dark, too creepy, too wrong.
But I wasn’t alone. “What are you reading?” a friend asked, and, without thinking, I mentioned Columbine . Great , I thought, he’s going to think I am into school shooters . Instead, he surprised me by saying it was his favorite book. When joking with another friend about how I was tired after staying up late reading about murderers on the Internet, she looked at me, wide-eyed, and said: “I thought I was the only person who did that!”
I started to sort people by genre again. This time: those who like crime books and those who do not . I began skimming bookshelves at friends’ apartments, noticing the Ann Rule, the Richard Lloyd Parry. I noticed who had marked I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara as “to read” on GoodReads. I figured out who was down for six hours of SVU and who would rather watch Mean Girls. And, as I was sorting my friends into these categories, they were doing the same to me. Sometimes all it took, it seemed, was a look, and you knew. One friend suggested I listen to a true crime podcast by two women named Karen and Georgia. Until then, that friend and I had never talked about our mutual interest in crime books; she just sensed it. “You’ll like the podcast,” she said. “I just know it.” She was right—I listened to fifty episodes in one month. As I devoured the show, I learned about the other listeners of the podcast—others who also read about Ted Bundy at the beach or studied Black Dahlia facts for fun. I began to love the podcast not just for the show, but for the community that surrounded of it—90% women, all anxious and not afraid to talk about the time they spent staring into the abyss. The podcast listeners formed Facebook groups, shared recommendations for crime books, talked about anxiety and mental health issues, and had fundraisers for causes like RAINN and End the Backlog to help victims of the crimes we read about. There were so many people like me—people who like to poke at the bruise, pick at the scab, and see what is underneath. People who worry about what is in the dark, but who would rather go outside with a flashlight and a can of mace rather than hide inside pretending everything is fine.
Because it is always the question of if. Women think about this constantly: if I don’t give my number to that guy, if I walk through this parking garage at 10 p.m., if I go to the bathroom alone. Constant risk analysis, continuously assessing worst-case scenarios. All women are insurance agents.
Four years after I sat at my desk reading Black Mass instead of writing my MFA thesis, I had not only accepted that I was into crime books, but that it was okay for me to be obsessed. The true crime podcast community helped me find my crime books people. When I started working at an independent bookstore outside Boston, one of my bookseller coworkers followed me on Instagram. On it, I saw a photo of her wearing a t-shirt branded with a quote from the podcast. The next day I cornered her in overstock, and we spent the rest of our shift discussing serial killers. We became instant friends; we a shared language.
“When people don’t get it, they think you’re weird,” another crime books friend said to me over drinks, after I had given her a copy of Lady Killers by Tori Telfer for her birthday. “But when they get it,” she smiled, “it’s the most bonding thing ever. ”
It seemed inevitable that my bookseller friend and I started a crime books book club. Now, once a month, over alcohol and snacks, I gather with a group of women to talk about books, both fiction and nonfiction, about the worst possible things. We read The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. We drink wine and talk about our fears. We discuss insomnia, anxiety, and celebrate victories to overcome those things. We are there for each other in and out of book club. On April 25, 2018, it was book club friends that texted me updates about the capture of the suspected Golden State Killer.
Not everyone gets it, and that’s okay. A friend of mine (who is solidly in the not crime books category) has said she thinks liking true crime is fucked up. She is not alone in this view: many see an interest in true crime as finding entertainment in other people’s tragedy. And this may be true for some people—they love being a voyeur to the horror. They want to stare and then go back to their safe homes and forget. But for me, at least, it’s not quite that.
I have imagined terrible things happening to me. I know people who have had terrible things happen to them. One in six women in the United States are the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Over half of American women murdered are killed by a current or former romantic partner. In 2015 alone, 1,600 women were murdered by men. Already eight transwomen have been murdered in 2018. To not acknowledge these victims, to not talk about them, to not think about them is to deny reality for over half the world’s population. To read these gruesome books is not out of salacious fascination—but, at least for me, it is a way to honor these victims. Remember her. Don’t let the world forget. Bring awareness. Create community: people who look out for each other and work to end the cycle of violence.
My boyfriend is not a crime books person. While binging the true crime podcast, I told him about a terrifying and realistic dream I had about a home invader. “Maybe you should cool it with that murder podcast?” he asked, concerned. He had all the right intentions: it seems I should avoid hearing and reading about the things that scare me so much. Don’t think about it.
But what I explain is—I’ve always had these dreams. Even if I stop listening to murder podcasts, even if I stop watching SVU , even if I stop reading crime books, I will have nightmares about alleys and vans, knives and rope and guns. Not thinking about these things doesn’t make them go away. So, instead, I choose to look. It is staring into a dim room and letting my eyes adjust to the dark. It’s taking a moment in the basement to realize that menacing shadow is a treadmill or that thing that looks like a face is a lampshade. Not to say you get used to what you see—you shouldn’t, you should never grow numb to the horrific content of crime books—and sometimes the menacing shadow turns out to be worse than you think. But knowing what’s there helps, for me at least. Jordan Foster wrote for Tin House about how she grew up reading crime books in the back of her mother’s mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon: “ . . . the more I read, the more comfortable I became with the dark,” she writes. “Because it’s there. Always. ” Pretending these awful things don’t happen won’t make them go away. So take a look. Press the bruise. Peer into the dark. Let your eyes adjust. I learned this from my grandfather.