For the past few years, as the US murder rate has approached historic lows, stories about murder have become culturally ascendant…whether our tastes tended toward high-end HBO documentaries interrogating the justice system or something more like Investigation Discovery’s Swamp Murders. (Or, as was often the case, both. True crime tends to scramble traditional high/low categorizations.)
Journalist Rachel Monroe is obsessed with true crime, an obsession that, I would argue, isn’t experiencing so much a resurgence as it’s just become more acceptable to admit. For a decade she’s “been collecting stories of women who were drawn in by crimes that weren’t theirs to claim — that is, crimes that didn’t impact them directly, but to which they nevertheless felt a deep connection.”
In Savage Appetites, she examines the lives of four women with intense involvements in crimes that weren’t theirs, incorporating commentary on women’s roles in the current moment’s saturated true crime landscape. Each woman fits what she calls “archetypal crime figures” — “the objective, all-knowing detective; the wounded, wronged victim; the crusading lawyer, battling for justice; and even the dark, raging glamour of the killer.” She argues that focusing on these examples of archetypes reveals greater truths about the culture and state of the world around them, including why the media and public fixates on certain crimes or murderers.
The murder stories we tell, and the ways that we tell them, have a political and social impact and are worth taking seriously. Lessons are embedded within their gory details. When read closely, they can reveal the anxieties of the moment, tell us who’s allowed to be a victim, and teach us what our monsters are supposed to look like.
The detective is Frances Lee, a rich, upper-class older woman in the 1940s who spent her time and money making dollhouses with miniature crime scenes recreated down to the smallest detail. The purpose of the “Nutshells” was to help law enforcement learn to analyze crime scenes for easily overlooked but telling details.
She’d been forced into a traditional role that didn’t suit her, and cultivated a then-unconventional interest in forensics. Interestingly, “a century after Lee was denied a college education by her father, the field she found so fascinating – now definitively referred to as forensics – became one of the few science careers where the vast majority of students were women.”
The victim concerns the story of Alisa Statman, a woman who got uncomfortably and suspiciously close to Sharon Tate’s family (she of the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson cult). Monroe makes a compelling point about the nature of victimhood, covering what the long-suffering and harassed Tates went through, concluding “I thought about just how many victims there are in this story, and how if you started to count them, you might never stop.”
The “defender” is Lorri Davis, a landscape architect who married Damien Echols, one of the wrongfully accused West Memphis Three. Monroe professes annoyance at the trope of women romantically obsessed with murderers and inmates, arguing Davis doesn’t fit this mold through her position as a staunch advocate for justice in Echols’ case.
The “killer” is Lindsay Souvannarath, a Columbine-obsessed teenager who planned a (thwarted) mass shooting with a similarly-inclined boy she met online. Souvannarath never actually killed anyone and it’s unclear whether she would’ve gone through with it. This was an interesting choice since there’s no dearth of female killers Monroe could’ve analyzed, but instead she explores the perceived “glamour” that a potential killer saw in the act and its notoriety.
Monroe also explores the online world of “Columbiners,” an unsettling community that revels in the school shooting and obsesses (romantically) over the two perpetrators. I was stunned this was a thing. “For some girls with their own wells of pain, this famous crime was a useful metaphor — operatic in its intensity, flattened by media overrepresentation into something not precisely real. It provided a language, and a set of shared reference points, to talk about end-of-the-world feelings: apocalyptic despair, unacceptable rage.”
This is where Monroe is strongest: placing these smaller-scale profiles into context and explaining their significance, and what they indicate about the psychology of the women involved. She also interrogates her own fascinations and participation. I found her role in the narrative to be tolerable although not particularly meaningful. Monroe is a greatly compelling writer and can usually make her experiences and observations relatable or at least relevant.
Weaker is any overarching concept, like those archetypes. The entire book is written in a way that hints at a big thesis, something tying together women, violence, and obsession, but it never quite materializes, or at least not cohesively.
Still, shortly after reading this, another young woman obsessed with Columbine made the news on the tragedy’s 2019 anniversary — traveling to Colorado, buying a gun and making threats. I felt informed about the nature of the online community thanks to this book, and it was interesting to see even news anchors struggle to put her actions into context, some of them also having no idea what “Columbiners” are.
Although some archetypal elements of women interested in true crime and reasons why are thoughtful and well argued, these are extreme examples. Even if a reader does feel the need to interrogate their interest in true crime, I can’t imagine that most would see themselves, in whole or in part, here.
She acknowledges that these women are outliers, and argues that the characters populating detective stories make compelling archetypes “in part because they are so reductive” in terms of “narratives of virtue and vice populated by good guys and bad guys.” So I guess it’s worth examining extremes? There is an interesting general link between women and crime stories, which Monroe dips into by describing what Crime Con and its predominantly female attendees are like, but it’s not in-depth enough to contribute much.
It’s compelling reading though. I felt unsatisfied when it didn’t go deeply enough and when links to make bigger points seemed missing. It also doesn’t say explicitly, but rather generally circles, the idea that a recent upsurge of interest in true crime is something new, which always bothers me.
The ideas and theses feel somewhat flimsy, but the storytelling is top-notch, and even on well trodden ground like the Tate-LaBianca or West Memphis Three cases she still finds new angles to approach. Thoughtful meta-true crime, analytical but not academic, with wide appeal for those familiar with the genre. 3.5/5
Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession
by Rachel Monroe
published August 20, 2019 by Scribner
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.