The New True Crime: a case for empathy over voyeurism
…the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.
– Edgar Allan Poe
I am swimming in a deep dark sea of terrible stories.
I’ve been doing a deep dive into true crime and 2020 has found me buried in books, physical and virtual, plus essays, journalism and podcasts (so many podcasts).
Bound up in brutality, violence and other people’s trauma, I’m beginning to wonder: what are the consequences of immersing in a genre obsessed with dead women and girls?
I started by downloading the audio of three of the most popular modern crime books, figuring I could get things done while being ‘entertained’.
Recently, I have listened to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (14+ hours), Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Kurt Gentry (26+ hours), and Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer winner, The Executioner’s Song (a whopping 42+ hours).
These audio books were my company during months of sleepless nights and domestic tedium, and over time they began to fuse. When trying to pick them apart however, I saw all the ways they dovetailed with each other.
In what is considered his classic prototype of the genre (despite controversies over the fluidity of the author’s treatment of ‘truth’), Capote allots just enough time to give an outline to the lives of the all-American Clutter family before their brutal and random slaying is detailed for maximum horror.
(Reading Casey Cep’s brilliant Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019), I learned it was in fact Lee, Capote’s creative conscience, who urged him to make his victims more rounded.)
Yet despite his fidelity to small-town details, Capote’s allegiance to (and apparent identification with) one half of the bad boy murder duo carries the moral weight of the narrative. When Perry Smith is eventually hanged, the transgressive relationship between reader and criminal is complete.
As chief legal prosecutor in the Manson family murder investigation and trial, Bugliosi’s ear is tuned to the criminal justice process and his crucial role in its being properly played out. His attempts to deepen the characters of the slain (beautiful, wide-eyed actress; sad little rich girl; creepy European auteur; hardworking family) swing from the banal to the excessively titillating.
Ultimately, the Tate-LaBianca murders are the framework through which Bugliosi invites us to safely ponder the dark lure of the ‘Mephistophelean guru’ who orchestrated their deaths… a man for whom the author is unable to conceal his fascination:
I believe Charlie Manson is unique. He is certainly one of the most fascinating criminals in American history. And it appears unlikely that there will ever be another mass murderer quite like him. (Helter Skelter, Bugliosi & Gentry, 1974)
Typical to the genre, the most violating scenes are served to us up front, then revisited over and over until the reader/listener goes numb. Yet I felt no urge to fast forward or sit still. Instead, I pottered about the house doing chores, passively registering the number of times Sharon Tate and her friends were savagely stabbed.
By contrast, in Tarantino’s movie remake of the Manson murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which subverts Californian history, envisioning an outcome where the residents of the Tate/Polanski home survive, and the hippy invaders are executed), the final act of violence is a spectacle of obscenity so amped up I had to close my eyes.
In his colossal paean to the notorious criminal Gary Gilmore, Mailer gives voice to every individual who ever crossed the man’s path, yet each long and winding plotline lead me back to one place. His victims, family, lovers and friends are the supporting roles to help us better understand the trials and tribulations of Gilmore himself—a violent murderer, a bone-deep racist and misogynist—whose three-dimensional folk hero status is all but assured by the time he is executed.
(Though we never learn how news of his death was received by the shattered families of his victims.)
Bugliosi’s book remains the best-selling true crime publication in history, only slightly pushing Capote’s from the top slot. All three of these texts have resulted in one or more movie adaptations. Yet, months of consuming these carefully mediated encounters with the evil that lurks left me wanting, as if something was still missing.
What’s more, this male-authored canon continues to be the template by which this genre is still defined. And it continues to influence not only the genre’s form, but the enduring cultural phenomenon that is true crime.
Amidst these claustrophobic and domineering voices, I sought space for my own thoughts and feelings.
I learned from a young age how to keep my head above water.
An ear-condition from birth meant I learned to swim without the sea getting in.
Easy enough in the lacklustre coastline in southern England where I was born, but much more of a challenge once I’d moved to Sydney’s mercurial shores. But I made it work. Sporting my prescription sunnies and awkwardly arcing my neck above water, I cautiously glide through the shallows of calmer ocean pools, looking like a retired formation swimmer.
It’s a talent which has served me well.
For many years I worked inside a current affairs documentary unit that reported challenging stories for Australian audiences on corruption and crime, injustice and violence. It offered the kind of steady exposure to drama and tragedy that could punch a hole in one’s resolve. But after a while I acclimatised.
Some of the more painful episodes still linger—the father who killed his children to punish his ex-wife; the video of a journalist murdered on-screen by terrorists—but a membrane too thin to be called a callous began to form over the years. This has protected me sufficiently since, permitting me to remain at least knee deep in rolling news long after I left the job behind.
These days, when asked why I chose such a dismal topic of research, I reply that I might be immune.
But it turns out that’s not entirely true. I have found the writers who have sharpened my faculties.
There is a growing body of true crime content which could be laying the foundations for new ways to talk about unimaginable things.
Stories told by those who have been personally impacted by crime and violence.
I discovered this miracle work inside a slender book of poems written by the genre-busting Maggie Nelson.
Jane: A Murder (2005) is compiled of diary excerpts, news archives, court transcripts, dreams, and remembered or imagined dialogue, woven together into a powerful chronicle of the life and murder of Nelson’s aunt, who was shot and strangled to death in 1969, before the author was born.
Her book is a study in the complex and long-lasting legacy of misogynistic violence on survivors and families. It also serves as a kind of meditation on the types of crimes and victims society is fascinated by.
She opens with a prose poem which invokes the potent imagery of an act of murder as might be experienced from within the mind of the victim:
…light cast out from the centre of her forehead, and another shaft streamed behind her.
‘Is this the light of the mind? Is this the light of my mind?…
Now what can I do with it? If I could find a lampshade, someone could read by it. I might illuminate entire rooms, entire dungeons, I shine so bright.’
But in fact she was losing the light; it leaked everywhere, unstoppable. (The Light of the Mind (Four Dreams))
I was so moved by the way Nelson vividly conjures the complex persona of her living aunt Jane without the need for a nostalgic or sentimental lens.
The careful depiction of the crime scene—Jane’s body ‘propped up on a grave’; ‘right arm stretched above her head, left arm over her eyes’—felt almost tender. The sudden blow of Jane’s violent extinguishment like an intolerable offense:
Two slugs turn the light of the mind into dull meat. (The Argument)
In 2007, Nelson published a follow up work of nonfiction called The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, in which she dives further into the reverberations of Jane’s murder on the discovery and trial of her killer, 35 years later.
Here she includes courtroom interrogations, crime scene photos and the usual simulacra that have come to symbolise crime and justice. Yet Nelson takes on the part of an emotionally invested observer. Neither Jane, Nelson, nor her family fall into line with the archetypal roles assigned to victims and their families by a media obsessed with (certain) dead women. Nor does Nelson show any interest in demonising or personifying Jane’s killer, whose story she has not signed up to tell.
It is Jane’s murder that interests me.
His crimes do not. (Mail Order)
Moreover, there is no justice or restitution to be found in these pages. The killer’s trial results in a respectable sentence, but we understand this will not heal all wounds. Nor will it put an end to her need to know more. For Nelson, there is only the Jane-shaped space which her words are trying to fill.
As Helen Garner did in her true crime works, Joe Cinque’s Consolations (2004) and This House of Grief (2014), Nelson is openly wrestling with another way to write about violence and its aftermath without falling into beleaguered tropes or getting bogged down by the boundaries of genre.
It’s the kind of writing that can enrich the language of loss and further our understanding of the long term and intergenerational effects of trauma. Nelson’s is a lesson in ethical storytelling, offering new pathways by which other crime writers may go.
It’s well known that women dominate true crime audiences. Psychologists and journos have posited a few theories as to why. These following are commonly cited: seeking survival tips; relating to victims; desiring justice and gaining insight into criminal archetypes.
But there is something else.
I deliberately shocked myself by reaching for Jess Hill’s essential work on domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do (2019), for more answers:
- In 2017, 50,000 women were murdered worldwide by someone they knew
- In Australia, one woman each week is killed by an intimate male partner
- Australian police respond to one domestic violence matter every two minutes
If these grim statistics are anything to go by, it is unsurprising that stories exploring gendered violence beget the audiences for whom such experiences feel the most real.
Has all this darkness left its mark?
Recently, my partner suggested I’m seeing everything through a skewed lens.
I hope this means I am increasingly alive to social injustices and silenced voices, instead of so many chalk outlines.
What I have noticed is a thirst to learn more, hear more and feel more from the books I’m reading. An urge to move away from the impoverished language and filters through which stories of violence have long been told.
These days I’m tracking down a truer crime—one which favours empathy over voyeurism.
Ruth C. Fogarty is a digital content maker and writer, researching women’s complex and creative relationships with true crime storytelling. Ruth tweets @ruthchitsa