Why are so many women obsessed with true crime – and what does it say about our society?
In Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession (Scribner, 20 August), journalist Rachel Monroe weaves crime reporting, cultural criticism and personal essay into a study of true crime and its seductive power.
The book’s subjects include an industrial heiress who revolutionizes American forensic science; a woman whose life becomes strangely intertwined with the victims of the Manson murders; a landscape architect who falls in love with a wrongly convicted prisoner; and a Columbine fangirl who decides to plan her own mass killing.
Your book is both a work of true crime and a kind of meta-analysis of true crime as a cultural phenomenon. How did the book come about?
A lot of the critiques of true crime that I read seemed to come from people who, in a knee-jerk way, found the genre objectionable or not to their taste. It seemed to me that the best critiques came from a position of intimacy or affection, and that’s what made me feel that it was a worthy project to embark on. I wanted to know how these stories have such a hold on me, and on lots of other people, too.
As you point out in Savage Appetites, the consumers of true crime are overwhelmingly female. Why do you think that is?
It’s complex and there’s no single, monolithic answer – in part because there’s no single, monolithic woman.
One common, overarching explanation is that true crime stories allow women to talk about and explore vulnerability. Reading a true crime story about a stalker who murdered his girlfriend might be a way for a woman to process her own anxieties.
But I think there’s a danger in that formulation. It risks replicating cultural ideas about who is the most dangerous and who deserves protection and who doesn’t. One thing troubling about the true crime genre is how disproportionately it favors stories about attractive middle-class white women who’ve gone missing versus stories about the people who are much more likely to suffer violence in our society.
When was the last time Oxygen or Investigation Discovery did a show about sex workers? Or young black men, who are actually the primary victims of violence in the United States? Those victims don’t make it onto those shows.
Something that has come to frustrate me about true crime – or at least much of what we call true crime – is that it focuses so much on individual psychology. The villain is always an individual bad person instead of equally important, but more complicated, structural factors, like the jurisdictional squabbles that make Native American women vulnerable. Yet those are things we could actually fix.
Is true crime inherently exploitative, in the Journalist and the Murderer sense?
I don’t think it’s inherently exploitative. I think it’s inherently emotionally and ethically complicated. Anyone who pretends it isn’t is suspect to me.
But true crime stories can be a force for justice, too, or a quest to understand the world, or vehicle for showing how power works – who gets to exercise it, who doesn’t. When I wrote about Ashlynne Mike, a Navajo girl who was kidnapped, I was trying to use her story to bring attention to a community that gets otherwise overlooked.
Because crime writing is so fraught I think those of us who do this work need to be extra careful. And I think that’s fine. In doing my own reporting I have been surprised at how often I feel so … hesitant, and cautious, in approaching victims and their families.
On the other hand, I’m often surprised at how much they have to say and how much they want to talk. I think that people caught up in these awful situations have a lot to tell us. Plus, for them, the worst has already happened.
As our culture and our politics change, are there crime movies or TV shows or books you used to enjoy that you now can’t? Or vice versa?
There was a period of my life when I treated true crime, or crime entertainment in general, as pure escapism. I watched Law and Order: SVU and read a lot of Ann Rule’s books. I can’t enjoy her books in such uncomplicated ways anymore; I see how beholden she is to her police sources and how consistently pro-law enforcement she is.
But I like my true crime a bit problematic. When the feminist strands bump up against the more conservative, Law and Order strands, I think it’s really interesting and illuminating and revealing, and that’s all there in Ann Rule’s work.
You start to notice how often popular culture uses the “dead girl” as a plot device.
There is something about being a woman – particularly a white woman – where you see your own vulnerability represented a lot. There’s a ton of cultural attention on it. In some ways that’s a privilege – as compared to other groups, whose experiences of violence are treated as unremarkable by the media. But it is awful the extent to which the best way to get on the news, if you are a woman, is to have violence committed against you.
In her book Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Alice Bolin looks at shows like True Detective and Twin Peaks and countless others where the inciting incident for a man’s quest or adventure or voyage of self-discovery is a dead girl.
I think a lot of true crime fandom, especially for women, exists in this zone between privilege and vulnerability. To enjoy it you need to be privileged enough to not live it in your daily reality – if it’s your own life, it’s hard to find entertaining – but also enough aware of your own vulnerability to empathize. It’s always complicated.
In Savage Appetites – as well as a 2012 piece for the Awl – you discuss the phenomenon of “Columbiners”: people, often teenage girls, who idolize mass killers. What is that about?
When I started writing about Columbiners in 2012, I saw them as a “fandom”, primarily a teenage girl fandom, who spoke in a language of “crushes”: “I don’t condone what the shooter did, but he’s so cute, I love him.”
Teenage girls are so self-conscious and self-aware. I wondered: what if they’re trying to tell us something through this language of “crushing”? I was thinking about the internet as a place to play with language and ideas that aren’t quite real.
But while I was researching Lindsay Souvannarath – who actually did go from being a Columbiner to planning a mass shooting – I had to do some reckoning. It’s the same reckoning I think a lot of us have had in the past couple years – that just because something happens online doesn’t mean it’s less real. Ironic online Nazis are still Nazis. There are real-world consequences.
I found it harder to think of Columbiners as engaged in some kind of subversive, ironic “play”. I think it probably is, for some people, but their subversive, ironic play still feeds the valorization of mass killers and encourages them to do what they do. If you are sharing Columbine memes, maybe you don’t really “want” anyone to commit shootings, but you’re contributing to that culture.
Yet I should note that I went back recently, to look for the Tumblr girls I wrote about seven years earlier. Of the ones I found, none were still in that world. None were still doing Columbine posts. Many had become quite politically active. For some, Columbiner culture had been about feeling alienated or depressed or out of touch with the world, and now they are channeling those energies into more productive purposes.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.