The Women with an Appetite for Murder
In "Savage Appetites," journalist Rachel Monroe delves into four very different women and their obsession with true crime
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Rachel Monroe has spent a great deal of time carefully considering aspects of American culture most would prefer to forget. In particular, she’s focused a lot on murder.
In Savage Appetites, the Marfa, Texas-based journalist writes an exacting study of four different women and their unique relationships to crime: an early pioneer of forensic science from the 1940s, a Beverly Hills woman who enmeshes herself in Manson lore, a selfless advocate for a man wrongfully convicted of murder, and a Columbine-obsessed twenty-something who plots a mass shooting via Tumblr. It’s equal parts engrossing and disturbing.
As Monroe delves into the dark world of true crime, her investigations include not only the people incorporated into the narratives but also the people who consume them. Accordingly, she examines herself, looking at her own predilection for a culturally ascendant genre comprising a unique set of myths and suppositions.
Andru Okun: You start your book writing about American women being enthralled by murder-related media, but you also point out how this fascination coincides with the U.S. murder rate nearing historic lows. What do you make of these contrasting realities?
Rachel Monroe: I think it speaks to how the stories, particularly those that are categorized as “true crime,” have an element of fantasy or unreality. They almost feel like fables in some way in that they purport to be telling us about the world, but they’re telling us more about our fears and our dreams. The fact that people who are statistically at a very low risk of being murdered are fascinated by murder is actually not that surprising to me. I was just reading a book about the Weimar Republic. During a period when crime rates were dropping around World War I, there was also this culture that was really obsessed with crime. There were obviously reasons that people might have felt that their world was spinning out of control or heading into a frightening direction, but when there’s something else that you’re afraid of—something that’s more ineffable or huge and structural—then maybe crime stories reinforce that feeling of anxiety but with a more narrow target.
AO: Why do you think so many women are fans of the true crime genre?
RM: I think there’s a lot of aspects to it. That’s why I wrote this book with four different sections, because every time I start to try and theorize about why, I feel a little stuck. There are so many reasons why somebody might find these stories fascinating. I think that women have a complex relationship with their own vulnerability and the culture is obviously preoccupied with female vulnerability, particularly white female vulnerability. Not everybody gets to be vulnerable in the same way. I think growing up in a culture that’s informing you about how at risk you are, about the dangerous things that can happen to you, you develop a really complicated relationship to those stories.
AO: Your book addresses how popular accounts of murder tend to exclude and ignore marginalized communities. What do you think is the cumulative effect of these more common narratives?
RM: I’ve been asking people what percentage of all U.S. murders do they think are committed with a male perpetrator and a female victim. Seventy or 80 percent is the standard guess; really, it’s 25 percent. Male violence against women is obviously a huge problem that needs to be addressed, but in fixating on these particular storylines, what other storylines are we leaving out? Native women have the highest rate of sexual victimization, but you never hear about it. Thinking about watching Oxygen or going to CrimeCon, those stories are not the stories that get to be emblematic of true crime. I’ve been wondering about what gets to fit into the genre, and what gets excluded, and whether it has to do with the fact that stories about black people, brown people, or native people are coded as political. True crime is something else—it’s about psychodrama and relationships, and it’s not political. Which is of course ridiculous. Everything’s political and these stories are particularly political because they’re mobilized and politicized. But when someone says “a victim of crime” cultural conditioning would have it that the image that pops up in your mind would be a white woman, which is statistically not representative at all.
AO: This fits in with what you write about regarding the politics of empathy: “Pain that looks more like our own pain is easier to imagine as real.”
RM: Totally. With the Quentin Tarantino movie [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] coming out, I’ve been thinking a lot about Debra Tate and the conversation I had with her. To me, she was such a fascinating example of this. She was of course Sharon Tate’s sister, and she’s become an advocate of victims’ rights and the way that she talks about crime and criminals… she’s a charming lady, but we disagree on a lot of things politically. The way that she talks about crime is very hardass, lock-em-up. For her, if people break the law they should be punished for it. But as soon as I started asking her about someone she knew, Roman Polanski, who broke the law and raped a young girl, there was all this nuance and there were excuses. “Oh, he didn’t know,” or, “Oh, this was fine in France,” or, “The judge was crazy.” It was such a stark contrast to me, how when we think of a criminal as an other, we’re willing to take all these extreme measures. When we flip that narrative and realize any of us could be in that position of victim or victimizer, we think about it in such a different way.
AO: Debra Tate was someone I was hoping to hear you talk about more about. You write about being Mason obsessed at an early age, finding a copy of Helter Skelter on your parents’ bookshelf. So you grow up, become a writer, and find yourself meeting up with Sharon Tate’s sister for coffee. What was that like?
RM: That was a really fascinating and complicated moment. I had spent so much time, not just in this book but elsewhere, thinking about people who were obsessed with Manson. That’s a world that I found really interesting. The Manson murders were such a huge cultural story that defined the way that people think about the era. In some ways I think that I too have come to think about the Manson murders in a slightly abstracted way, thinking about what they symbolize and how they function culturally. Then to actually talk to this person who was a teenager when her sister was murdered, and how that shaped the rest of her life… so much of the book is about people who identify with murders that didn’t happen to them, but she was someone who was directly impacted. It was good to bring me up short and think of all these people who feel entitled to these stories in a way, to think of what impact that has on the people who actually lived through them. She was a really interesting lady.
AO: How so?
RM: I read a lot about her mom Doris, who died a couple of decades ago, who was this famously fiery force. She had a great steely drawl and could boss around politicians. She was a badass but also a badass that helped pass some laws that I feel uncomfortable with. You can see a lot of that in Debra—she has this kind of brassy, no-nonsense demeanor. Her life has been wild, she was still dealing with these health effects from when she was a mail carrier and there was a mad bomber at large. And she had some story about a horse that Ronald Reagan had given her that was stolen. She was just full of these wild stories and was super frank. I appreciated that I could tell her that I disagreed with her.
AO: I identified with the way you describe mass incarceration in America as a “bleak normality.” I’m 32. I think you have a few years on me?
RM: Yeah, I’m 36.
AO: So we’re both of this generation that’s grown up in a world where prisons are part of the status quo, but the substitution of punishment for reform and rehabilitation is relatively new. How would you say that the victims’ rights movement impacted criminal law and incarceration in the U.S.?
RM: The victims’ rights movement has a fascinating history, arising out of the feminist movement in the ‘70s. It started out doing these really amazing things that needed to happen, like educating police officers about sexual assault and creating rape crisis centers. But then around the ‘80s it took this hard turn, as much of the country was doing, and it became all about being “tough on crime.” These rare stories of the white woman victimized by a stranger were mobilized, used as something like a cover story that people could hold up when they say that they’re afraid. These stories became the impetus for all of these scary, rigid, punitive laws that we’re still dealing with now: three strike laws, parole denial, minimizing the use of the juvenile justice system. All of these things have led to mass incarceration, done on behalf of victims, even though victims as a group are obviously a wide and diverse one and what victims might want out of the justice system or what they think justice might look like is not one thing. But the “victim” as a political archetype became this wounded white woman who needed protection at all costs.
AO: Columbine is a longstanding fascination of yours. It’s included in this book, and you’ve written about it previously. You once almost visited the school, only to be overwhelmed by an impulse to turn around instead. Can you talk about that?
RM: I think anybody that is interested in these crime stories, if they’re self-aware at all, will run into these moments that edge up against a kind of voyeurism or exploitation, something that just feels unsavory. I didn’t want to just shut it down, to say this is good and this bad. There’s a policing of women’s appetites that happens a lot. When things are deemed problematic, that seems like a good reason to look at them more closely, not necessarily as an endorsement but just to understand them rather than close it off to further inquiries. But it’s hard and it shifts. When are you honoring something and when are you feeding off of it? I’ve gone through phases where I was really fascinated and horrified by Columbine and I read a lot about it, similar to a lot of these girls on Tumblr, people who call themselves “researchers” because they don’t want to identify as fans. It frames it as intellectual, but in practice it does look a lot like fandom. When I was visiting family in Denver I saw the highway exit and I thought, “I’ll just go look at it.” Thank god for all the traffic that slowed me down enough to ask myself, “What am I really doing here? What am I looking to get out of this? Am I trying to provoke a feeling in myself?” That just didn’t seem like a good enough reason to turn somebody else’s tragedy into a tourist stop.
AO: There’s an interesting thread in your writing related to the internet and crime—the discussion ranges from amateur sleuths in the dial-up days to serial-killer obsessed teens on Tumblr. How important do you think the internet is to the cultural obsession with crime?
RM: It’s so important. I mean, I don’t think it’s necessary—people have been fascinated by crime and crime stories as long as there has been media, and probably even before that. But it is striking that the woman that I wrote about who came into this world before the internet, Frances Glessner Lee, making her doll houses in the ‘40s, she was wealthy enough that she could subscribe to all these journals and collect all these old books. She was influential enough that she could schmooze with the big players in early forensic science. Now the internet allows more access to information, so it democratizes things and people can find what they want. And I think often what people want in these obsessive communities is primary source information. They sense that the official story from the newspaper, the prosecutor, or the police is incomplete. The internet allows you to access full documents directly, and that can really lead people to go deep with these stories. And it creates communities, that’s the other thing that’s interesting. A lot of these worlds are social worlds.
AO: Why do you think this online community of “Columbiners” is mostly teenage girls?
RM: That community has shifted so much and it’s so hard to talk about what young people do on the internet because as soon as you look at it it has shifted and changed. When I first wrote about the Columbiners in 2012, it did seem to me that it was young girls, teens and tweens on Tumblr, overwhelmingly female. I sort of built up an idea in my head of what they were doing based on that. In the way that a lot of teen girls use their crushes to say something about themselves, a crush on a famous violent misfit is maybe telling us something, expressing feelings without owning it. But when I first heard about Lindsay [Souvannarath] and I’d heard that members of the Columbiner community had actually planned a shooting, it really did give me pause and made me want to go back to that community and question whether it was as harmless as I originally thought. I think in the vast majority of cases it really was, but Columbine fandom has a complex history. Before it was on Tumblr it was a big YouTube thing, and that was mostly boys who identified with the shooters rather than girls who wanted to love them. Checking back in with Tumblr, I realized that this world had shifted a little bit and that with some of these people there was more of an adulation of violence and proximity to Nazi imagery and racialized violence. There’s a lot of different strains in that community that ebb and flow and it’s become a very elastic myth that people apply if different ways.
AO: You write that television programs about violence can be soothing. Why?
RM: The one that gets talked about a lot is Law & Order: SVU. There’s also the more formulaic crime programming on Investigation Discovery. A lot of people will leave that on all night. There’s something about fear being stoked, but in this familiar shape with familiar characters. If you listened to the podcast “Running From COPS,” it makes it really clear how some of the police officers in that show are acting how they’ve seen other police officers they’ve seen on TV. It’s this feedback loop the producers are helping achieve. I think the television programs are soothing when they fit into a known category and the beats are familiar. It’s a contained fear.
AO: Would you say it also validates some of the overblown fears people might have?
RM: Yes, exactly. It gives them a face and a shape, validating what you already thought that you feared.