This Book and Podcast Examine How We Consume Stories About Dead Girls
“Sadie” and its tie-in crime podcast “The Girls” show different aspects of how women’s difficult stories are told
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Courtney Summers is a master of the bitch. For ten years, she has written nuanced, wrenching stories about angry girls, unlikable girls, girls we now call “nasty.” Summers uncovers the stories behind them, explaining why they are the way they are without apologizing for it; her books deal with grief, poverty, trauma, and often, the aftermath of sexual assault. In her newest YA novel Sadie and its podcast tie-in, Summers examines how we consume stories about girls, and how we consume girls themselves.
The book follows nineteen-year-old Sadie, who leaves her hometown to find the man who murdered her younger sister Mattie. In alternating chapters, we read the transcripts from a radio producer named West who starts a Serial-style podcast, The Girls, to find Sadie and bring her home. It’s a harrowing, feminist thriller: Will West find Sadie? Will Sadie exact her revenge? Will she die trying?
Summers’ publisher Macmillan created the podcast in real life using selections from the audiobook as a pre-publication marketing tool, released over six weeks to drum up anticipation for the book. It could be written off as a simple teaser campaign, but it shouldn’t be; listening to the podcast in conjunction with the book, it becomes its own interesting artifact. Both Sadie and The Girls show how we tell stories about girls, but they do it in markedly different ways.
The Girls consists of six 20-minute episodes, and it explains itself thus: “It’s a story about family, about sisters, and the untold lives lived in small town America . . . And it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl.” Spurred by Sadie and Mattie’s surrogate grandmother May Beth, West retraces Sadie’s road trip through depressed Colorado towns, always a few steps behind. He interviews acquaintances and learns that the sisters’ mother is an addict, largely absent, and that Sadie essentially raised Mattie on her own. The show ends on a cliffhanger, about two thirds of the way through the story, but there are additional West chapters in the book.
When Summers listened to The Girls, it felt like a real podcast to her, separate from the narrative she’d created.
“I just listened to it on repeat over and over and I couldn’t believe I had written it,” she says. “It’s truly an adaptation so it made me feel one step removed from my own book, and I feel like I got as close as I could be to a reader of my own work.”
It could be written off as a simple teaser campaign, but it shouldn’t be; listening to the podcast in conjunction with the book, it becomes its own interesting artifact.
Even though it’s all part of the same book, certain themes become more prominent in the audio telling. From the beginning, West is reluctant to tell this story, not because of its tragedy but because it isn’t interesting enough. “Girls go missing all the time,” he says. “Restless teenage girls, reckless teenage girls, teenage girls and their inevitable drama . . . I wanted a story that felt fresh, new and exciting, and what about a missing teenage girl was that? We’ve heard this story before.” To West, Sadie is just another emotional runaway, unremarkable, as if all women who make choices he doesn’t agree with are the same. As if girls taking control over their lives is reckless.
As West tells it, girls are all of a type. After he learns that Sadie pulled a switchblade on someone, he goes back to her grandmother:
West McCray: Was Sadie a violent person, May Beth?
May Beth Foster: No. No! Never. I mean…she could’ve been, but in the way we all could be. It wasn’t something she was.
West seems to think that violence defines a person, not that Sadie may have been pushed — by anger, by trauma, by a need to protect herself — to brandish a knife. Later, he interviews a hitchhiker Sadie picked up, and dismisses her too: “Cat, in a lot of ways, is what I expected Sadie to be. Restless, reckless, dramatic.”
Eventually, talking to Cat about her own experiences as a runaway is a turning point for him. “It all suddenly, and belatedly, felt too real, and I didn’t like it,” he says. By the end of the podcast, West comes around to being truly, personally unsettled by Sadie’s story, and Cat’s, and all the stories of violence against women before and since, though it’s frustrating for him to have to come around at all. Still, he’s telling the story, producing it for an audience.
“I thought West would be the perfect vessel to pose those questions and to come to those realizations because he’s someone that is producing content, even as he realizes that, he still has to make this the way that people want to hear,” Summer says. “So he’s forever caught in that place of knowing something and feeling it and then also realizing that he’s an entertainer, he’s a host, he’s still gotta do his job. And it’s completely conflicting with his emotional response to Sadie’s story.”
Reading the book, West can be forgiven all this, but there’s something about actually hearing him say these things and not hearing Sadie’s voice as counterpoint that makes it feel so much more dismissive, more judgmental, and, frankly, more male. Of course, Sadie herself is absent from the podcast, even though it revolves around her. What’s more, Sadie has a stutter — audio wouldn’t be the best medium even if it were allowed to her — so she’s especially distanced from this mode of telling her story.
The book explores the idea that true crime podcasts may capitalize on the pain of victims, and creating an actual podcast with a true crime conceit brings those issues into relief. For Summers, it’s a complicated question.
The book explores the idea that true crime podcasts may capitalize on the pain of victims, and creating an actual podcast with a true crime conceit brings those issues into relief.
“I don’t think it’s true for every true crime story out there that it’s coming from a place of negative intent or an exploitative approach, it’s just that the possibility is there and so I think it’s worth asking the question of why we engage with this media, why we create this media. [Sadie’s] not an indictment against true crime, it’s a question of, why do we love it? What’s in it for us? Who does it potentially hurt, if anyone? How careful are we? Who should we be thinking of?”
We do need to read the book after the podcast, though perhaps not in the way that Macmillan’s marketing department expected. After listening to a grown man from New York attempt to tell a poor young woman’s story, it’s so much more important for her to tell her own. The book gives Sadie agency, and West’s stereotypes of girls seem thinner when juxtaposed with the full story of one.
For her part, Sadie also thinks about girls of a type. The girls working the parking lot of a truck stop. The pretty girls on Instagram. The runaway girl who needs a ride. But where West saw a “they,” Sadie sees a “we.” The way she discusses girls is more sardonic, recognizing that she doesn’t fit in with anyone’s expectations, but maybe no other girls do either. When she allows herself to dance with a boy, she thinks, “I let the music own me, turning myself into the idea of a girl, or an idea of an idea — a Manic Pixie Dream, I guess, the kind of everyone says they’re tired of but I don’t know that they really mean it. The girl nobody ends up loving long or loving well, but nobody wants to give up either.” It’s as if she knows her life is a story, and she won’t be silenced from the telling of it.
Sadie also thinks about girls of a type. The girls working the parking lot of a truck stop. The pretty girls on Instagram. The runaway girl who needs a ride. But where West saw a “they,” Sadie sees a “we.”
Every female character in the book, young and old, bears the weight of something — addiction, single parenting, a difficult family life, a dead husband. Summers allows them to feel their feelings and act on them. In Sadie’s chapters, we learn that sexual violence is a part of her story, and her reasons for seeking out the attacker go much deeper than teenage ennui: vengeance for her sister, herself, and for the protection of other girls. As opposed to West’s shock at the possibility that Sadie was violent, the book allows for female rage in a way that the world often doesn’t. Sadie’s story is about a girl following her anger and pain, recognizing and using her strength in a way that young women are rarely permitted. To put it plainly, Summers takes young women seriously in a way West — and much of our culture — doesn’t.
“I really wanted people to confront their own perceptions of teenagers,” Summers says. “We never take teenage girls seriously, do we? As soon as a teenage girl likes something, whether it was Twilight or Bieber or One Direction, as soon as a girl loves something it’s suddenly not worth our time or attention. We just look for ways to dismiss them. And it’s the same with their pain and the real things that they’re going through. We don’t give it the kind of gravity that it deserves because we treat girls like disposable objects.”
Like a meta Ouroboros, a book about dead girls and crime podcasts became a crime podcast about a dead girl. Summers upends the classic dead girl story by giving us both the story and the girl. Mattie and Sadie are fully-drawn characters. The book revolves around them, and Sadie takes control of her own life and her own story.
“I think we’re so used to consuming violence against women and girls as a form of entertainment that this is really an extension of that,” Summers says. “You never have to look too far to find some sort of story that centers on a brutalized girl that we sort of come to expect it as something that will entertain and give back to us in that way. And that’s a very strange thing when you pause to think about it. We’ve normalized that sort of violence and that sensationalism and we’ve turned it into bingeable content. We tune into it weekly on certain shows on TV and once you create that kind of relationship with that sort of media how can you not foster that sort of obsession with it?”
Sadie seems especially of and especially for our current moment, without feeling pedantic or ripped from the headlines. Summers shows men who think of abusers as “not the guy I know,” and much later in the book, West is chastised for explaining that he’s drawn to Sadie and Mattie’s story because he has a daughter of his own.
“You never have to look too far to find some sort of story that centers on a brutalized girl.”
“It’s so upsetting to think that they have to have a personal connection to a woman to be able to empathize and show compassion and care towards what women in the world are going through,” Summer says. “You really have to say, ‘I have a mother, I have a daughter, I have a sister,’ to be able to recognize that heinous crimes against women are heinous? It’s like, really? It was funny — well not fun, but I liked being able to articulate that little jab in Sadie.”
Like Summers’ other books, Sadie is dark. The murder of girls, the dismissal of women, the prevalence of sexual violence. The obliviousness of men, even if they are well-meaning. Characters who are attacked, over and over again. Summers jokes that she revels in making people cry, but she has reasons for hurting her characters, and her readers.
“I think it’s because, first of all, I respond to those kind of stories myself,” she says. “They resonate with me. And I think it’s because I sort of see them as a challenge to readers to pick them up. Like this is something I’m telling that is true about the world and it’s ugly and it hurts, but now what do you do about that going forward. What are you going to put out into your world, because we all have the ability to make positive choices, make positive change.”