Rachel Monroe's Savage Appetites Examines the Complicated Reasons Women Love True Crime

Rachel Monroe's Savage Appetites Examines the Complicated Reasons Women Love True Crime
Photo:Emma Rogers

In Rachel Monroe’s book Savage Appetites, she describes something called a “crime funk.” It is when you might find yourself binge-watching Law & Order: SVU episodes back to back or when you’ve decided to read every Manson girl memoir after quickly gulping down Helter Skelter.

Like Monroe, I’ve often found myself in one crime funk after another, clicking through grotesque Wikipedia pages on serial killers or opening up multiple tabs for unsolved murders on the community Websleuths. Recently, I reminded my boyfriend that an idyllic California town we were vacationing in was the site of a famous murder, recounting the grisly details of the death as he tried to relax.

“It’s like that feeling of staying up really late and kind of zoning out and you’re half numb but also freaked out,” Monroe says. “I understand why people want to be in that half anxious, half numb place that I think going down a crime rabbit hole can take you.”

It’s easy to get trapped in a crime funk, but lately, it seems like it’s especially easy for women to live in one. From podcasts to Lifetime movies to conventions or Investigation Discovery marathons, true crime is largely consumed by women. In Savage Appetites, out August 20, Monroe dissects why women find themselves drawn to crime through the stories of four obsessive women who fulfill distinct archetypes: Frances Glessner Lee, the Detective, who created crime scene dollhouses to train homicide investigators and Alisa Statman, the Victim, a Manson-murder enthusiast who wormed her way into the Tate family to become an advocate for their daughter Sharon. There is also Lorri Davis, who fell in love with Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, the book’s Defender, and the young wannabe mass murder Lindsay Souvannarath, who crushed on the Columbine murderers, is the aspiring Killer.

Monroe takes a sweeping, meta-approach to these stories, which go far beyond these women and the murders they’re drawn to and into the laws and policies they created. It’s a book about true crimes, but also how people consume, politicize, and shape the public narratives of these crimes, often to the detriment of the vulnerable people at the center of these stories.

She spoke with Jezebel about biases in crime reporting, amateur detectives trying to solve murders online, and why you should never make a podcast about her if she goes missing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: You write in the book you know you’ve been collecting these stories of women drawn to crime, who can’t claim these crimes for themselves, for ten years. How did the structure of this book, the categories of the detective, the victim, the defender, the killer, come to you?

RACHEL MONROE: The idea of writing about crime stories and the draw that they have, and in the way that particularly women feel compelled by them, that was something I’d been interested in for a long time. I was also feeling really unsatisfied with a lot of the answers that I saw out there. There’s been a lot of really smart writing about true crime but I felt like in the same way women’s appetites are both literally and metaphorically policed, it felt similarly with this realm of interest. People would either be like this is good or this is bad. This is permissible, this is not permissible.

The other thing that frustrated me is that these stories were often talked about as a monolith. I started realizing that there are these different women whose stories I had just been following as a curious person and that they could, in the diversity of their experiences and their interests, get at the different ways this plays out. I realized that they slotted into these categories, that they each sort of seemed to identify with a different subject position. I remember sitting at a bar with a friend of mine talking about Francis Glessner Lee and how she was a wannabe detective. In that exact moment, I was like, oh, she wanted to be the detective, and this other woman kind of wanted to be the victim. They were so different because they imagined themselves in these different roles.

You write in your chapter on Alisa Statman, the woman who became close with the Tate family and eventually a sort of advocate for the family, about the victim being kind of the only major role available to women in a lot of true crime stories. Did you feel like this book in a way was kind of a corrective to those stories?

I was interested in both the roles that women play in the stories but then also in real life. Another data point that struck me really early on was how many women were, for example, entering forensic science. That profession is overwhelmingly female and that’s something you wouldn’t expect because it’s a STEM field. I knew that women were drawn to [crime] both as fictional stories, as real-life stories, and as a profession, but it seemed like the narrative hadn’t caught up in terms of reality. I quoted some of the articles but it was so annoying to me when I was reading about the female forensic students, it did feel like literally every article that I found in 2012 when that was being written about a lot mentioned high heels. It is so condescending to think that these women or girls are studying this field because they saw it on TV.

A lot of the discussion about women and crime was similarly incomplete, that motivations weren’t being given they’re adequate due. I think that’s because there is a discomfort with women who are interested in creepy things or having proximity to death or violence. The one storyline, that it’s for the victims or it’s to avoid being a victim, is one that gets trotted out a lot—it allows us to maintain our sense of virtuous womanhood while explaining this draw of violence.

That’s part of the appeal of the trope of the dead white woman; she can’t speak for herself so other people can speak for her.

Something I think about too—and you mention this in the book with Glessner Lee since she was reclaimed a feminist after her death, as well as your recent review of the My Favorite Murder book—is this line of thinking that women are obsessed with crime or obsessed with murder because it’s somehow empowering.

I think it’s only part of the story and I guess that’s why I feel frustrated when the story stops there. I do think that broadly speaking people who have been raised or socialized as female absorb a ton of messages about our own vulnerability—obviously, those messages are not distributed equally. Black and brown girls are portrayed as more sexualized and less vulnerable than white girls. But there is a cultural fascination with wounded women and I think that taking that back and owning that obsession can be a way to try to control or rewrite something that you find troubling.

There’s been writing about horror movies and how for people they can be a way to safely confront fears or have them validated and I wonder if something similar happens with consuming crime.

Or just their general anxiety validated. Thinking about my own life it wasn’t so much that I turned to true crime in my life when I was fearing crime, it was when my life felt out of control or dangerous in other ways, like economically precarious or in a relationship way. I think that’s because they provoke a similar feeling of fear or anxiety or being out of control, but the danger is externalized. It’s one individual person, it’s a bad guy, and then the bad guy is dealt with. I think that in order for these stories to work on your brain you have to have this interesting mix of vulnerability and privilege; you have to be attuned to vulnerability to be interested in them at all, but you have to have enough privilege to have it not feel like your daily reality.

In the Statman chapter, you break down how harmful good and bad narratives of victims and perpetrators can be, especially if the victim is a virtuous white woman like Sharon Tate and especially if that victim is then used to enact tough on crime legislation. What drew you to include that story?

That was one of the earliest stories in terms of my interest in meta-narratives of crime obsession. I had been fascinated by the Manson family for a long time and then fascinated by people who were fascinated by the Manson family. I think that a lot of people talk about the famous Joan Didion quote about the Manson murders being the end of the ’60s and it’s always kind of associated with this hippie era, but I also knew that it had a cultural resonance that went beyond that into the ’80s and ’90s. I remember in early 2012 picking up Alisa Statman’s book that she wrote about the Tate family and the victims’ rights movement and finding it really fascinating and shocking. I guess that’s the theme in my writing, when I feel like a story hasn’t fully been told or that something’s being left out I’m really drawn to it.

I just started doing a lot of research on the victims’ rights movement which grew out of the feminist movement in the ’70s and then in the ’80s became co-opted or mobilized in these really right-wing ways that led to a lot of the problems that we have now with mass incarceration. It just seemed to me that a really crucial part of the story is the way that certain victims are used as spokeswomen because they are useful. I started to feel really creeped out by that the way that they’re useful to politicians in part because they can’t speak for themselves. That’s part of the appeal of the trope of the dead white woman; she can’t speak for herself so other people can speak for her.

I think that when we as reporters insist on this unreal, kind of sanitized, idealized presentation of victims, we think that we’re doing them a favor but

I’m interested in your thoughts about the idea of “useful” victims, because it seems like when reporting or writing a story it can be hard to get away from those ideas of making a victim useful in the sense that you’re trying to tell a bigger story beyond their death. How do you navigate usefulness when you’re telling a story about a victim?

I think so much of it is allowing people to be complex. I think that reporters too can fall into the trap of the innocent victim. I read a lot about this really pernicious idea that if a person isn’t “innocent” then somehow they deserved what happened to them. And I think that when we as reporters insist on this unreal, kind of sanitized, idealized presentation of victims, we think that we’re doing them a favor but it actually does a huge disservice to that victim and to every victim. It detracts from people’s reality and people’s real experience of victimhood. It’s why so many people are hesitant to speak up if they’ve been a victim of a crime because they’re afraid they’re going to get blamed.

You mentioned this idea of incompleteness being a driving force in your work. It’s interesting because there are obviously so many communities online or on Websleuths driven by similar impulses who are dedicated to “completing” stories or solving crimes. When it comes to a murder mystery what makes for a good search for completeness and what makes for a bad one?

So, this is a roundabout answer to this, but the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries were big detective eras, and one of the theories is that as populations became increasingly urbanized there was a real sense of disruption and dislocation. It was strange to be in a city surrounded by all these people and you felt both invisible in this mass but then also hyper-visible because you’re on the streets and everybody can see you. The detective novel was a way of taking that feeling of alienation and making it into a mystery, and then it becomes solvable and gives you sort of a mission and a purpose.

When I was reading about that I was like, wow, this is just like the internet because you do feel at once totally invisible and also hyper-exposed. We’re spending so much time on our computers and so much of it feels frittered and stupid—instead of just wasting your time scrolling you actually have this mission as a [online] detective. The detective is this figure who is kind of underestimated and I think a lot of us think of ourselves that way, like maybe I’ll be able to see something that nobody else has picked up on.

None of those things are bad impulses. I write about the West Memphis Three and one of the first online communities that sprang up around crime. I think it’s just the danger, as we’ve seen a lot with the internet, is that it can be easy to forget that this is real life and that these are real people. In that West Memphis Three case, this guy who everybody just thought was strange, all of a sudden that becomes a reason [for the online community] to think that he has committed murder. It’s so upsetting because the whole thing is about the justice system doing the same thing.

You write about the online adoration among teen girls for the Columbine killers, one of the girls is Lindsay Souvannarath, and this idea of hybristophilia, the attraction to someone who has committed murder. When girls profess their love for serial killers like Ted Bundy or Richard Ramirez or the Columbine killers, how often is it actually hybristophilia and how much is it just teen girls trying to be shocking?

I first wrote about the Columbiners in 2012 when it was a relatively new phenomenon. I felt like my eyes were going to pop out of my head because it was just all these girls using the swooning template of an internet crush to talk about the Columbine killers. At the time I was like, I think this is just teenage girls expressing themselves and teenage girls have long freaked us out with the things that they find appealing. What they’re saying is complicated, right? It’s a big community, they’re not all saying the same thing, they’re not saying that these boys are good. Something about them was drawn to this Columbine narrative as it was presented in the media and the media was obsessed with Columbine. It’s like they were expressing it in a way that made people feel uncomfortable but they weren’t. Their obsession was a reflection of a much wider obsession. But then when I read about Souvannarath’s planned mass shooting, I had to question that and whether I had been a bit naïve in my read of that subculture.

Some of the ways that true crime happens, once a tragedy has happened to you you’re public property

I want to make sure the critique extends beyond just these girls who say Charles Manson is cute or Richard Ramirez is cute and to the larger culture. There’s often this pose like we just need to know what Ted Bundy is saying. There was an article that was really interesting but I found pretty disturbing in New York Magazine where the woman was interviewing [Samuel] Little, who is maybe now the most prolific serial killer. He was like, I’ll recount all my crimes to you, and I was like, this guy’s getting off on this. The reporter is obviously doing this as maybe some sort of service, but I don’t think that this man should get to voyeuristically replay his crimes for an audience.

Do you feel like true crime at large is becoming more aware of its biases?

I think so. It’s a wide swath and there’s so much money and attention to it now, so you see the good stuff getting better and the bad stuff getting worse. I haven’t listened to it yet but when I found out that Neil Strauss, the guy who wrote The Game, was doing a missing woman murdered woman podcast investigation, I was just like of course he is, this genre is dead.

Something that I have been thinking a lot about recently too now is just what stories are told, even the books that are published. What gets put on the list of true crime and what doesn’t? I was just reading this book about Emmett Till and I was like, this is a true crime book. I just read this book by Melissa del Bosque about this cartel scandal with horse racing that’s about the border and was really fascinating. I think there’s still a sense that those books are political and if it’s political, it’s not true crime. Stories about black and brown and Native people are politicized as if all these stories aren’t political.

How do you find your stories when you’re covering crime?

I guess in an ideal world for me, the story will open up a world that has been not covered or will tell me something new about the world beyond the tragedy of this one situation. I’m thinking about a story I did last year about Ashlynne Mike, the girl who was kidnapped and murdered on the Navajo Nation. I ended up learning a ton about how jurisdiction works on reservations. That taught me a lot about structural ways that justice is really complicated as a legacy of colonialism, so that’s part of it.

Also partly it’s somebody inside or close to the story has to want it to be told. There are a lot of stories out there that I think are interesting or really valuable but I think there are also a lot of people who are proximate to tragedy who don’t want any more attention or media than they’ve already gotten. I think it’s so important to respect that and give people that agency. Some of the ways that true crime happens, once a tragedy has happened to you you’re public property, and I don’t ever want to participate in that.

Yeah, I certainly felt that line in your book where you make a note at a crime convention to let a friend know that if you ever go missing nobody is allowed to make a podcast about you.

That’s what I thought when the Neil Strauss podcast came out! I was like, oh my god if I go missing or am god forbid murdered and Neil Strauss makes a podcast about me I will come back and haunt him until I die.

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