It Happened to A Girl

Loving true crime without hating myself.

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My love of true crime has always made me feel dirty. There are people who spend their lives avoiding darkness, who are dedicated to happy endings and lighthearted narratives. I am not one of them. I am the opposite, drawn to darkness rather than repelled by it. I’m like a child turning over a rock—I know that the insects wriggling underneath will make me recoil, but I want to see them anyway.

This past year, my interest in true crime grew into borderline fanaticism. It was the year I spent two weeks of my summer compulsively consuming every episode of the podcast My Favorite Murder, even though doing so meant I would lie awake at night, would always be looking for shapes in the trees when I was out jogging. There were other podcasts, too: Someone Knows Something, Stranglers, and Accused. It was my year of true crime television and film, of Making A Murderer, Amanda Knox, OJ: Made in America, Highway of Tears, The Detectives, and The Witness.

I do not think it is a coincidence that 2016 also felt like a particularly brutal year, marked as it was by terror attacks, mass shootings, police violence against people of colour, rape apologism, and the mainstreaming of misogyny, white supremacy, and demagoguery. I feel a connection, a tension, between the brutality of the world and the brutality of my entertainment. I think I have been turning to true crime narratives for respite from a reality that feels both vicious and volatile. I have the sense that I am seeking something, that I am in pursuit of comprehension in the face of the incomprehensible. There are times when violence feels so close at hand. At the very least, I want to know what I am up against.

I moved to New York City in 2005 to begin my first semester as an undergraduate at NYU. Over the next few years, there were a handful of highly-publicized murders of young women—women who met their murderers in places I knew, spots I had been to. The murders weren’t linked, but there was a symmetry to them that seems meaningful to me now.

There was Imette St. Guillen. Murdered by the bouncer at the bar where she was drinking, 12 blocks from my dorm room. Her body was found in East New York, in an area characterized by the press at the time as a swampland. She was left on a derelict stretch of road in the middle of winter.

There are times when violence feels so close at hand. At the very least, I want to know what I am up against.

There was Laura Garza. Last seen alive at a club I had been to many times. In court, the man who murdered her described how he did it. He made it sound like an accident, like he only put his hand over her mouth to get her to be quiet. He left her body in the woods in Pennsylvania. And she stayed there, undiscovered, for close to two years.

There was Jennifer Moore. Found in a trash bin in New Jersey. She was 18, had come into Manhattan from her home in Jersey to go clubbing in the Meatpacking District. The New York Times noted that she wore a miniskirt and a halter top. The NY Daily News quoted a witness who described her as “toasted.” Moore wandered away from her friend. She walked alone up through the West Side. After the murder, much was made of the fact that she had been out drinking even though she was underage.

I was 19 at the time. I had a fake Florida license I paid $120 for, and I used it to spend my nights partying in the Meatpacking District. I wore short skirts and halter tops. I got toasted, too. There were times when I wandered off, too.

I don’t mean to imply that it could have been me or one of my friends, but there are times when I cannot resist the impossible accounting of the nights we may have survived only by chance.

It makes me uncomfortable to contemplate the fact that I like true crime. That I do not endure it. I do not subject myself to it. I enjoy it. And I worry about the extent to which my enjoyment of the genre is an extension of my privilege. I am a white woman who grew up upper-middle class in Canada and the U.S., and that makes me statistically less vulnerable. In Canada, indigenous women are murdered at a rate six times that of non-indigenous women. In Los Angeles, one man went on killing for 25 years because his victims were young and black and female and, in many cases, sex workers.

There is a question I return to again and again: how do I tell the difference between bearing witness and allowing myself to be entertained?

All this violence does not feel theoretical to me. As a woman, I live with the sense that my body is under constant threat. When women are killed, their gender is often the target, and that makes the risk feel greater. Women’s bodies are subjected to constant surveillance, and that makes the threat feel ever-present. So no, all this violence does not feel theoretical to me, but I know that my privilege makes it more so for me than for others.

Not wanting to become a victim myself is, perhaps, central to my preoccupation. People speculate that we gawk because it makes us feel safer, and I wonder why that’s true—if it’s because we can create a distance between the victims and ourselves, an illusion of safety. Maybe we can reframe violence as a thing that happens to other people. Not to us. Not to me.

In her book The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial murders committed by Ted Bundy, Ann Rule writes, “When I began writing fact-detective stories, I promised myself that I would always remember I was writing about the loss of human beings, that I was never to forget that. I hoped that the work I did might somehow save other victims, might warn them of the danger.” Indeed, as I read her book I find myself taking mental notes of situations to avoid, reminding myself not to let my inclination toward politeness be exploited, and making sure I check that the back windows are locked, that no one has climbed in and hidden himself in the apartment, waiting for the moment I fall asleep.

There is a question I return to again and again: how do I tell the difference between bearing witness and allowing myself to be entertained? If we are entertained by what is essentially an account of violence, can we still claim that our motives are pure? Is it possible to locate the line between witnessing on the one side, and exploitation on the other? In Cold Blood is a story about violence, but it is also the book that made Truman Capote a household name. Can we say it’s about witnessing if, over time, the Clutter family recedes almost entirely from view? If what we remember is not a family’s slaughter, but a lonely Kansas farmhouse, two killers put to death, and the enduring beauty of the book itself?

Teresa Halbach, the woman whose murder touched off the events documented by Making A Murderer, is not much more than a footnote in that series. She does not even get a Wikipedia page for her murder—only a subsection within the page dedicated to the man who was convicted, rightly or wrongly, of killing her.

I find it difficult to discount the motive behind creating true crime content. There is a podcast I’ve been listening to called Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? Connie Walker, the journalist and host of the show, contextualizes the series, which seeks to answer the question posed by its title within the larger crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. The series spends the better part of one episode examining the legacy of residential schools, a true-life horror show if ever there was one. The trauma is so vast and so deep and so difficult to contemplate, but it seems that, if nothing else, we should stare nakedly at what we’ve done, at what has been done in our names, by people we elected to power. The podcast’s purpose, in other words, feels virtuous.

In other cases, the motivations are more difficult to parse. It’s just a feeling I get. Discomfort, distrust. The sense that someone, the victim, is a prop in someone else’s play for success. It’s the same feeling I have when Hollywood insists on making another blockbuster fictionalization of a horrific event. There’s talk of the victims, of the survivors, of remembering and honouring. But someone always stands to gain. We let them tell us it’s about the triumph of good over evil, even if it’s really about tugging heartstrings to sell tickets.

Recently I watched a few episodes of The Killing Season, a documentary series about the unsolved serial murders in Long Island and, ultimately, across the entirety of the United States. The filmmakers gave an interview where they said they wanted to make a documentary that showed the true horror of serial murder, to demonstrate that it isn’t titillating or sexy like some fictional shows make it out to be.

The Long Island serial killer found his victims on websites like Backpage and Craigslist, and the title sequence of The Killing Season shows images of women posing in sexy lingerie; there is also a slow-motion shot of a woman brushing powder over her cleavage, applying a gloss to her lips. The show takes pains to emphasize the danger the filmmakers are supposedly putting themselves in as they investigate the case. Many episodes end in cliff-hangers. It’s still entertainment, after all. There is still a network, waiting to see a return on investment.

In Maggie Nelson’s book The Red Parts, she recounts the trial of the man who murdered her aunt. Nelson describes sitting in the courtroom and transcribing the events of each day: “all the gory details,” she calls them. “Details which I’m reassembling here—a live stream—for reasons which are not yet clear or justifiable to me, and may never be.” Still, she says, “some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.” I can see the need to speak plainly about how violence is done, to deny the impulse to make these things more palatable than they are.

True crime packages brutality as something I can digest with 300 pages, in the space of 10 hour-long episodes.

Maybe motive, then, is not the thing that matters most. Maybe the act of witnessing is, even if it is too thickly snarled with the act of being entertained to ever really be untangled again.

Perhaps it is easier to come to grips with violence when it is presented according to a linear narrative structure. True crime traffics in facts laid bare. Some mysteries are solved and others are not, but a story always gets told. On our screens, in our earbuds, and in the pages of our books, the horror is brought out into the light, and made coherent in some small way. It may be gut-wrenching to stare the monsters in the face, but in so doing, it’s possible that we make them less shadowy, less powerful.

Maybe what I mean to say is that as a genre, true crime takes chaos and violence and presents it to me in a way I can understand. True crime packages brutality as something I can digest with 300 pages, in the space of 10 hour-long episodes. In the end, perhaps it offers me a narrative I can cling to: the world is violent on a scale that defies comprehension, but maybe if we can do this one thing, if we can see this one murder solved or hear this one story told, then I can, for a moment, believe that I am safe.

American author Joni Murphy’s novel Double Teenage portrays two fictional girls growing up in a town near the U.S./Mexico border where the news of the real-life femicide in nearby Ciudad Juárez colours the landscape. Later, one of the girls moves to Vancouver as the remains of dozens of women are being recovered from the property of a now-infamous pig farmer. Murphy writes:

“What are the chances that the girls would live so close to two sites of the slow-motion mass murder of girls?

What are the chances?

Good I guess.”

Those words come to me sometimes, out of the blue. What are the chances? Good I guess. They feel like a summing up of suspicions long held, of a truth that is somehow intuitively known. Violence close at hand. Violence like a machine. Those words come to me and I think of all the stories I’ve heard, read, watched—stories of women so casually erased. And, whatever the reason, I cannot turn away. Whatever the reason. I still cannot say for sure.


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February 3, 2017