Bodies Murder Nights
It was as if I needed a third surgery, a reconstruction. I needed the surgeon to rebuild what he tore out.
Late at night, when I’m bored or broken or raging inside, I bring out the snacks and turn on true crime TV.
Like the players in the clear-cut moral universe of Investigation Discovery programs and Forensic Files , my favorite sources of gore, the food is either wholly bad (sugary, salty, fattening) or wholly good (organic, rich in nutrients).
Standing in the kitchen, I pack away calories during commercial breaks. Back on the sofa, before things get messy on screen, I perch on the edge of the cushion, gulping soy milk and crunching handfuls of Lay’s potato chips. Squeamishness and guilt prevent me from eating while crime scenes are on display. Once thawed, frozen strawberries look like guts, squishy and limp in their ruby-red puddle of juice. And shoveling forkfuls of apple pie straight from the tin feels like mocking the dead: I’m scarfing junk food, and you can’t have any.
Next to my stack of unread books, a table lamp provides the only light in the room, except for the quick-edit flashes from the TV.
The moment the corpse appears, I go from consuming to being consumed.
I am electrified by the sight of stab wounds and ligature marks. My heart beats faster, harder. I let in the violence that seeks my violence, devours the sorrowing anger I can only feel in the dark.
Sometimes, I take a throw pillow and lie back on the carpet in front of the screen, my field of vision filled with the larger-than-life world of the dead.
While I’m devouring and being devoured, Andy, my partner, is upstairs, reading. In our first years together, we read side by side in bed before turning out the light. In the months after I was treated for thyroid cancer, I told Andy I needed time alone to read or do yoga or write in my journal before trying to fall asleep. He balked at first, but he couldn’t do much except retreat, nurse his rejection for a while, and eventually come to appreciate uninterrupted internet sessions in my office and the quiet of our spare, white-walled bedroom.
I did not tell him I also needed time alone to cry, or to curl up on the sofa staring at the carpet, struggling to figure out what came next after empty.
More than a decade after the cancer, he knows what I do on certain nights, in the hours that mark the edge between one day and the next.
True crime death is not what often passes for death on Law & Order : some model-actress resting elegantly in a pool of what looks like raspberry puree, carefully made up to appear bruised. It’s much more real, much more gruesome—though not gruesome enough for a voyeur like me.
The level of realness varies. Network newsmagazine shows like 20/20 and Dateline , which perpetually rerun on Investigation Discovery (ID) and the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), use courtroom footage as well as interviews with police, lawyers, accused and convicted perpetrators, victims’ tearful family members, and the occasional survivor. They display crime scene photos as heavily pixelated blurs, disturbing to me in their own way for what is left to my imagination.
ID’s original programs, like Deadly Women and Fatal Vows , don’t pretend to be news. The act of murder and the unveiling of its aftermath are portrayed in stylized recreated scenes that might seem like Law & Order at first glance, but the violence tends to be more explicit and the crime scenes bloodier. The actors are not the polished performers of dramatic series, nor are they models; they resemble the ordinary people they’re portraying. But the face of an ID corpse is still that of an actor playing dead.
Most ID shows are presented in hour-long episodes. On Forensic Files , a program on the CNN network HLN (formerly Headline News), they only have half an hour, so they get right to the point. These stories were news, after all, and I suppose the brisk manner of storytelling preserves the illusion for many viewers that this is still news, not entertainment, as if that were a meaningful distinction. Recreations are brief and minimalistic.
The show’s distinguishing feature is the use of actual crime scene photos that display the mess left by frenzy: Blood in every shade from crimson to carmine, fresh and partly dried and long dried, splashes and puddles, trickles and specks. Bodies with splayed limbs and gunshot wounds shown clearly. But even here, the faces are pixelated, their goggle-eyed expressions presumably too much to take.
Whether I’m watching an actor or staring at an evidence photo, I want to see the faces of the dead. I want to see myself in them. Once, long ago, I nearly died by my own hand. After that, diseases threatened my life, and the treatment of those diseases felt like being brought to the edge of death.
I could have been a corpse on the autopsy table. But I’m not looking for just any dead body. I’m looking for women murdered by men. I need to see dead woman after dead woman. I need to imagine myself in their places. I need to be silenced with guns, hammers, ropes, knives. Especially knives. Again and again.
I study the aftermath—the female body grievously wounded, stilled by a man. And then I have to see the bad man pay. The killer hunted down, trapped, and locked up forever.
I want to see the faces of the dead. I want to see myself in them.
When I was thirty-five, my thyroid was removed in two surgeries, three weeks apart—first one half of the gland, in which they found cancer, and then the other half, in which they correctly assumed there was also cancer.
To my eyes, the twice-opened incision at the base of my throat didn’t look as if my grandfatherly surgeon had performed an act of mercy. It looked like he’d tried to kill me. Yet I had given my consent for the procedures. The surgeon had saved my life. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel grateful toward him. How could I be angry at him? Why did I feel unsafe in my body after the cancer was gone?
It was as if I needed a third surgery, a reconstruction. I needed the surgeon to rebuild what he tore out. Not to replace the thyroid; I was told I could live without that. What else did he take, exactly? Whatever was lost besides flesh when the throat was cut. Whatever was wept out silently in the blood.
I tried to imagine myself on the operating table, the surgeon and his team standing over me, but it didn’t seem real. I was under general anesthesia; I couldn’t see the cutting, the blood. There was no conscious memory of anything, only blackness, stillness, silence. It seemed that I died for an hour, and then came back. Twice.
I was alone with the breathlessness of slipping past death—the cold, sick feeling at the back of the neck. Unable to explain the mess inside my head, the dread that ran through my veins. My body and mind were completely spent from bracing for the next sharp edge. A weariness that felt permanent, though I knew it couldn’t be. Bed to couch, then back to bed.
I wrote long rants in my journal, then scribbled over them and slashed the pages with the point of my pen. I threw hardcover books across the living room, tossed forks and knives clattering into the sink, slammed the bathroom door. I pounded my thighs with both fists. Nothing touched that dark cavity inside me that only understood violence.
But I wasn’t a victim. No one hurt me. Jesus, no one took anything from me except cancer. And my thyroid, but who cared about that? I was not really this angry. If I was this angry, I must be crazy. If I was crazy, no one else was to blame except me. Maybe I was to blame for the cancer, too. Look how horribly negative I was. Did bad thoughts turn cells black? Was I trying to kill myself every day with my sarcasm, with my tendency to dismiss everything and everyone as stupid?
Fury was a growth devouring me cell by cell. I would have grabbed a kitchen knife and excised it with my own hands if I could.
Too late. It was in my throat. Blood, lungs, hair, brain. The blackened walls of my atria and ventricles. The exploded red star of my solar plexus. At night, tears and small, stifled screams, writing it down all-caps furious.
Nothing could kill this motherfucker. Not until the day something finally killed me.
The fury was a ball lodged in my windpipe, exactly where my scar lay. I couldn’t speak because of the fury. The bright pink scar spoke for me. It said, All better now . I am small and neat, proof of the surgeon’s skill and efficiency.
Even Andy looked at the fresh incision and marveled, “It hardly looks like anything happened.” I thought it looked like I’d been attacked.
They told me the scar would fade over time. I wanted it to fade so that no one could ever spot it and say, “Oh, my God. What happened to you?” I did not want anyone feeling sorry for me. Of course, no one had ever commented on it. But what if someone did? What would I say? That my sweet jolly-grandpa surgeon left the mark of a predator?
It wouldn’t make any sense. He was not a predator or a thief. But still, I imagined a thief running his knife along the edge of a window screen and slipping in through the incision. I meant slit . No, I meant hole . He would take what he could in the dark and leave the way he entered.
Next morning, a woman would wake and find the cut screen. She would wheel around. Nothing would appear to be missing. How could she call the police? How could she explain that she felt something invisible was gone? She couldn’t describe what had been taken. She couldn’t even give it a name.
I didn’t want the scar to fade. I wanted it to say what I could not. I wanted it to grow pinker until it was full saturated scarlet. Until it bled again. Blood frightened everyone. That was its purpose. The precision of the cut was irrelevant.
When I developed blood clots in my leg and lungs, sixteen months after the cancer, I gave my consent for additional procedures at the hands of male practitioners. Again, I felt invaded. Threatened even more by the treatment than by the disease itself.
Sometime after this second round of interventions, I found myself drawn to true crime television—to the most horrifying stories of women brutalized, women’s lives extinguished. Stories of sexual assault followed by murder answered a particular urgency, a fury in me that cried out to be vanquished.
Before my medical procedures, I’d avoided explicitly violent TV and film content. I had long been a Law & Order fan, but that program’s more graphic episodes prompted me to turn the channel. The show’s promo spots touted episodes that were “ripped from the headlines,” making me uncomfortably aware that there were real-life counterparts to the fictional crimes. The unrealistic pools of blood were at that time plenty real to me.
I was especially unnerved by stories of murders involving sexual assault. It seemed to me that such episodes catered to men with sick fantasies, yet these stories were often written by women. I wondered why beautiful young actresses were willing to play the violated dead on autopsy tables, clad only in sheets, or to portray tough-talking detectives, trading quips with their male counterparts over the shapely, motionless bodies.
Fury was a growth devouring me cell by cell. I would have grabbed a kitchen knife and excised it with my own hands if I could.
Ignorant of the challenges—and the horrors—women faced in Hollywood, I couldn’t understand why so many participated in the desecration of their gender. It was as if they had never lain awake, alone, thinking that the faint, mysterious noise they could barely make out was the sound of their front door’s lock being picked. Never mistakenly perceived a man’s figure in a darkened corridor as they frantically felt for a light switch. Never imagined that they would suffer through unspeakable acts in their last moments alive. But then I had always feared being raped by an intruder to a degree other women found excessive.
When I was a teenager, my mother unwittingly terrified me with details of rape and murder from the true crime books she read avidly. She did not intend these to be cautionary tales—she shared them with me because she needed an audience. Mom was a lonely housewife, her life further constricted by addiction and by the chronic illnesses that plagued her for decades. I begged her not to fill my head with images of shootings, knife attacks, and sexual assaults, but she would not be denied. She had to tell someone.
She was hooked on the violence that enlivened her days as surely as she was dependent on alcohol. In the ’80s, there were no 24-7 crime networks on TV, few programs with melodramatic narrators to draw you into a world of death, to make you feel you weren’t completely alone in your lurid tastes. My mother had to get her fix through the silence of text. Ann Rule, with her precisely detailed psychological studies of criminals and her blood-soaked descriptions of their crimes, was Mom’s favorite author.
Once I was deep into my own true crime obsession, I began to understand why she so urgently needed to relate these tales. I wanted to tell someone about the strangely captivating images of ruin I absorbed in the late-night hours, the same hours my mother had devoted to drinking and watching old sitcoms. But I was much too ashamed to tell anyone of my viewing habits, even Andy.
Had my mother been alive, I would have discussed with her the scientific breakthroughs of Forensic Files , the love triangles of ID’s Deadly Sins . I would have felt guilty about sharing my enjoyment of other women’s tragedies, but I don’t think I would have been able to resist making that connection with her. I had grown up believing my mother and I had nothing in common, and only learned differently after she was gone.
But if my mother planted the seeds of my obsession, why did that obsession take two decades to emerge?
Since I was a young child, Mom suffered from gastrointestinal conditions that required invasive, painful procedures. Today, I imagine asking her if she thought her many tests and surgeries led to her fascination with criminal bloodshed. She was not an introspective person. I think she would have rolled her eyes at the very idea.
My mother’s relentlessly self-examining daughter couldn’t see how crime linked to medicine either, not for years.
It didn’t occur to me that the body doesn’t know the difference between a surgeon’s scalpel and a murderer’s knife.