True Crime's Messy, Interactive Renaissance

True Crime's Messy, Interactive Renaissance
Photo:Ty Bergman

In the midst of true crime’s boom, when people have hundreds of articles, prestigious TV shows, and shoddily reported podcasts to choose from to get their crime fix, Sarah Weinman’s new collection aims to cut through the noise. In the new book Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession, author and reporter Weinman brings together over a dozen of the best true crime stories in the past decade or so from writers like Rachel Monroe, Pamela Colloff, and Michelle Dean.

There are stories about the horrors of US Customs and Border Protection and how misguided blood-splatter technology became legitimized, plus engrossing narratives about victims of gun violence and con artists. And rather than stick to scandalous stories about violent serial killers and battered dead girls, Unspeakable Acts moves the needle closer to a version of the genre where crime is systemic abuse, baked into the work of institutions designed to protect us.

Jezebel spoke to Weinman about how she chose the stories in Unspeakable Acts, the importance of messy crime narratives, and reimagining what makes a true crime story. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JEZEBEL: How did this collection come together?

SARAH WEINMAN: I’ve been thinking about a collection like this really since I think 2016 when I wrote a piece for The Guardian, which I reference in the introduction to Unspeakable Acts, talking about what was going on with what I would characterize as the “true crime boom.” I wanted a collection that best represented the text pieces that were coming out of the so-called boom, which I date to when the first season of Serial, the podcast that Sarah Koenig did about the murder of Hae Min Lee and the possibility that Adnan Syed didn’t do it, became such a cultural phenomenon and an audience that didn’t think of itself as a true crime audience was really responding to it. As is often the case with cultural phenomena, it spawned other books, documentaries, podcasts, and feature articles.

I think what I felt, especially as a crime writer myself, [is] that the pieces that I most responded to were not necessarily sticking to traditional true crime narratives. They were kind of bleeding the lines a little bit; they were not so linear, they didn’t necessarily follow a Law & Order narrative, they didn’t prioritize the trope of the dead girl. They were talking about bigger issues, systemic issues of criminal justice. I wanted to put together my dream anthology and I was lucky and able to do that.

Serial was so interesting because, as you said, it was unconventional crime reporting. It didn’t have a definitive end, certain sources weren’t even available, and it was kind of personal and intimate because it was a podcast. What do you think accounts for this true crime boom? Why are people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as true crime consumers are gravitating towards the genre?

As long as this country has existed people have had an appetite for crime stories. It sort of waxes and wanes in terms of highbrow and lowbrow. With books, people keep coming back to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and with documentaries, I think they go back to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. What’s different now—and I think Serial really drove this home—is that there was this real participatory, interactive element to it. You had all these message boards and Reddit subthreads and people going by the houses of possible suspects and inserting themselves into the narrative. There was this real interplay between what the professionals were doing and what the so-called amateurs were doing.

I’ve been watching the HBO documentary version of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark which is a retelling but also an extension of Michelle McNamara’s book published posthumously. She herself was a very talented and gifted crime writer who was able to gain the trust of law enforcement professionals, but she also was part of a community of amateur sleuths and they trusted her as well. She was kind of the nexus point between the professionals and the amateurs, all with a communal interest in solving this heinous spate of serial killings. As we now know, the culprit was apprehended and has now pleaded guilty. Even though it wasn’t perhaps a direct result of McNamara’s work and her book, I do still feel like all that work was a catalyst.

as long as this country has existed people have had an appetite for crime stories

When I think about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, it’s the perfect, ideal example of an amateur sleuth. She didn’t work as a professional journalist but she gained the trust of all these sources and did incredible research. But there are so many podcasts and sites like Websleuths where people are trying to solve cold cases and thinking of themselves as being detectives. That interactive connection to true crime that so many readers or listeners have right now, do you feel like it’s changed the role of true crime journalists? Do you think that journalists have had to reevaluate their role in telling these stories now that so many people are pursuing these topics almost as a hobby?

I think what amateur sleuths have and continue to do is incredibly valuable, but I also think that the downside that we have seen is that there can be some pushing of boundaries. When you’re a journalist and you talk to a source about a really sensitive topic, let’s say sexual assault or murder, it takes a lot of time and a lot of care to talk to sources and to gain their trust and to clue them in about how stories get reported and what they should expect. I know on more than one occasion I [have been] talking to sources and [saying], “okay, you’re telling me about the worst thing that ever happened to you, and it’s really important for me not to screw this up.” I’m going to try to be as honest and transparent as I can, but also in putting together an entire narrative of a story there may be certain things that you may find to be less comfortable than hoped for.

Talking through this stuff with sources, which is something I had to sort of learn as I went, I just feel like it [creates] better reporting and more empathetic reporting. I want to be clear that I was also, when I was younger, a devotee of crime message boards. I know these communities and the desire to be part of something greater. But I also think it comes back to respecting the boundaries of victims and giving them the space to essentially tell you what happened and how they’re dealing.

What kind of stories were you looking to highlight in this collection?

The anthology is structured in three parts. The first part, I wanted stories that could be narrative features that concentrated on characters. It’s not so much that they set out to be entertainment, but you could read them as standalone pieces that were difficult to put down. One of the first pieces that I wanted to reprint was Michelle Dean’s Buzzfeed piece which became the basis of the television show The Act, “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered.” Pamela Colloff is one of the greatest crime journalists we have and the reason I love [her story] “The Reckoning” so much is that on one hand, it was about the aftermath of a heinous mass shooting in the 1960s, but it was really about the life of one of the survivors and how her life transformed, but also how she transformed herself. It’s as much about crime as it is about living.

when we think about true crime, how big can we get?

The second section I wanted pieces that were sort of more essayistic. [There is] Alex Mar’s piece comparing and contrasting the “Slenderman” case to the earlier, Parker-Hulme murder case, which took me on a journey that I wasn’t expecting to go on. Elon Green’s piece on the “Lost Children of ‘Runaway Train’” was another piece that I had in mind while putting the anthology together because it was truly a “where crime meets culture” story.

And then the last section on justice and society, that’s where I feel like things open up and break the mold in terms of what we consider to be true crime. [In] Jason Fagone’s “What Bullets Do to Bodies,” which tracks an emergency room surgeon as she’s treating patients who are victims of gun violence, we really see the toll of what she endures and what the system can endure. And it goes even more broad with “Checkpoint Nation” by Melissa del Bosque because it’s a history of Customs and Border Protection and if anything I feel like children being separated from their parents at the border is the ultimate crime. So when we think about true crime, how big can we get? Can we think about the recent protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black and brown and Indigenous people? Of course we can, and we should.

The last section of the book feels especially important because so often stories about police brutality and about border control, they don’t fit into the typical idea of serial killer-driven ideas of “true crime.” Given the period in which this book is coming out, when people across the country have never been more critical of the criminal justice system and how the police function in this country, where do you see true crime writing going?

I feel like we’ve reached some kind of inflection point. [With] the protests and calls for defunding the police and having much more comprehensive conversations interrogating systemic racism, I’ve really been trying to reflect on my own limitations as a crime writer, limitations as an editor of crime stories, and what we’ve all been missing and how maybe true crime has been too narrowly defined. If we just privilege entertainment and narrative at the expense of larger systemic issues, we have a real problem here.

It’s no accident that this anthology doesn’t include a Black writer. How hospitable has true crime as a genre been to black writers? So I would like to see that change, but I think in order for that to change we have to really reflect on what current true crime narratives privilege. For example, so many shows and books and documentaries and pieces essentially take the word of the police as gospel, essentially viewing them as reliable narrators. We know that’s not true. If we flipped that script, what do we get?

I think I’ve always been a writer and editor who, as uncomfortable as things may get, I prefer to live in that discomfort over just accepting comfortable narratives. That just makes me inherently suspicious. I don’t want to say it’s a teachable moment, but I think it’s a moment where true crime can really grow out of its current constraints into something much more interesting.

when women are able to tell their own stories, it’s breathtaking.

In Karen K. Ho’s story about Jennifer Pan, a young woman who hired people to kill her parents, Ho also writes about knowing Pan growing up. There is this personal connection to the subject. You were talking before about this interactive element to true crime, but where do you see memoir fitting in?

That’s been one of the more interesting and positive developments of this true crime renaissance is how memoirs, especially by women, are at the forefront. Karen’s piece really merged her own personal story with this much larger tale of not only murder, but how it affected this particular Asian American community in and around Toronto. But there are also books by Leah Carroll, Sarah Perry, and a book coming out this fall by Debora Harding, who had been a victim o kidnapping when she was a child and then many years later she confronts her kidnapper. I just feel like when women are able to tell their own stories, it’s breathtaking.

Another one that I am really looking forward to reading though I have not yet is Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford, where she talks about an assault that happened to her at high school and the ways in which the school and other systems just completely failed her. It’ll be interesting to read that and also think about Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, which was just another outstanding true crime memoir. We don’t necessarily think of them as true crime memoirs; they’re memoirs but crime is a window into how people act, how they behave, and how society functions.

Especially considering as you said before there is this previous reliance on the “dead girl” narrative. There are decades of reporting where reporters don’t approach victims with sensitivity or give them humanity. To then get this wave of memoir feels like a corrective.

I think also that true crime has privileged stories that have a natural beginning, middle and end, but I don’t think that crime really works that way. I think it’s this nonlinear thing, because it’s this abrupt rupture to people’s lives and then they have to reckon with that rupture with the rest of their lives. Some of them do so in a way where they can function and some cannot. I think narratives that better address the sort of asynchronous nature of how people actually do become victims and how they live with what happened, that’s much more of interest to me.

I’m much more interested in film, TV, and podcasts that are a little bit messy because life is messy and crime is definitely messy.

There’s a true crime journalism boom, but there’s also a true crime entertainment boom where you’re seeing many of these stories being made into movies and TV shows. Do you feel like that kind of demand from the entertainment industry can kind of keep true crime journalism in that beginning, middle, end arc that you mentioned?

The demands of journalism and the demands of Hollywood sometimes overlap, but they’re not necessarily co-mingled as much as people think. I’ve been sort of personally fascinated with how stories end up published and then adapted in multiple mediums. There are all sorts of jokes about exploiting IP, but really it’s just that in entertainment spaces a known quantity, let’s say a viral piece, can become an even more known quantity as a podcast, which can then become an even greater known quantity as a documentary or a scripted TV show. It’s all about how many more people will be exposed to the story itself.

But with each successive adaptation I think what can be lost is the initial reason for pursuing this as a story in the first place. If Hollywood in particular is so wedded to traditional narrative arcs, then what is cast aside is some degree of messiness. I’m much more interested in film, TV, and podcasts that are a little bit messy because life is messy and crime is definitely messy.

At the end of your editor’s note, you write that consuming and creating true crime is an ethically thorny endeavor. How do you personally approach the ethics of true crime, consumption, and creation?

I’ve always tried to approach stories that I write or work on from some sense of moral culpability. It’s almost like I have to anticipate not just the worst-case scenario, but that it is a real gift and privilege that I have to be working on these stories [and] to invade the lives of people who have endured such suffering and such trauma. I can’t be cavalier about it. If you don’t have empathy, there’s just no point in doing this work.

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