Gone Girls

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession BY Rachel Monroe. New York: Scribner. 272 pages. $26.

In her 2017 memoir After the Eclipse, Sarah Perry describes preparing for the trial of the man who raped and murdered her mother, Crystal, while twelve-year-old Sarah was asleep—and then not asleep—in the next room. It was twelve years before a DNA match prompted a suspect’s arrest and prosecution. Faced with the prospect of justice but also of reliving her unfathomable trauma, Perry started to run. She wanted her body sleek and strong; she wanted to show the killer her mother’s face, alive, unbroken. She logged regular hours at a gym where a row of treadmills faced a bank of televisions tuned either to food shows or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Each episode of the latter, she writes, “featured a woman’s splayed corpse, lengthy discussion of her rape and murder. I tried not to look, but I always caught a pale limb extending from under a tarp, or tangled hair cast over a face.” Choked with anger, she would glance at the figures alongside her, “girls with long strides and bouncing ponytails, and other women marching along, faces tense with what looked like desire.”

The image suggests a vested female impassivity: motion and stillness, fury and focused calm. Perry wonders which of the women might have experienced the kind of violence the show enacts, whether others “might also be struggling to breathe, keeping their faces neutral and stoic.” Trapped in a culture that produces and consumes depictions of sexual violence as mass entertainment, the one in five American women who have been raped must “pretend outward calm and enjoy the show.” Perry keeps running. She won’t look away. “Even to change the channel would have been to admit weakness. Instead I tried to enjoy the plot lines, the well-written dialogue. Be a normal person.”

“I love that show,” Cameron Esposito says of Law & Order: SVU in her 2018 stand-up special Rape Jokes. “We all do.” This fall marked the series’ twenty-first season, making it the longest-running drama in television history. “That’s how committed all of us are to watching and figuring out—tallying up all the different ways it could happen to us,” says Esposito, who reveals her own assault over the course of Rape Jokes. She also watches SVU while on the treadmill at the gym—it keeps her quick, she says, in touch with the thing she’s running from.

Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe’s probing, recursive study, per the subtitle, of “women, crime, and obsession,” attempts to explain to themselves and the rest of us those women running in place while fixed on a master broadcast of ritual female destruction. A magazine writer known for her laser-cut dissections of cresting cultural phenomena, Monroe brings a rare form of joy to her reporting: Her best pieces combine a focused effort to nail down a good story and a more expansive instinct toward unraveling, questioning, showing her work. Writing about social-media hucksters, dating-app con men, and new-old wellness elixirs, she exhibits a gift—perhaps prized even more by editors than it is among journalists—for the precise interval at which a sort-of thing is ready to become a full-on thing, to be caught mid-microcurrent, skillfully examined, and released into the slightly wider waterways that now pass for the mainstream.

If it remains somewhat mysterious, the true-crime boom that serves as an impetus for Savage Appetites has been hard to miss. The US violent-crime rate has fallen by half since the early 1990s; in recent years the demand for true-crime stories has hit peak after peak. The model forged by ’90s tabloid shows like Dateline and 48 Hours has proved portable, flexible, endlessly generative: Jeffrey Dahmer iPhone cases and enamel pins of Ted Bundy’s car could now be found for sale on Etsy, Monroe writes. “There were approximately a million new podcasts, and they all had something to investigate.” New formats sought to refresh a reliable arc: Young, preferably white, beautiful woman disappears; her sexual assault and murder present a mystery encoded with a rigid set of aesthetic cues, narrative beats, and moral implications.

Less expected, and more to the point: A majority of the audience driving the current mania for violent crime stories are women. Monroe counts herself in this number, the “we” who find pleasure and even comfort in “bleak accounts of kidnappings and assaults and torture chambers.” Though she refers to this tribe as “the crime minded among us,” Monroe’s elliptical, wide-ranging account of how four women’s lives were shaped by an obsessive yet strictly hypothetical interest in crime suggests a more embodied relationship to stories of peril, cruelty, and vanishment. Whatever is being worked out in the exchange, reason and intellect appear to have little to do with it.

In her introductory chapter, Monroe presents a narrator who stands at once inside and outside the phenomenon she describes. At CrimeCon, a true-crime fan convention, she is confronted with the terms of her attraction to the genre and the excitement (and tacky T-shirts) of the many women who share it. She notices that none of the advertised stories involve the populations most at risk for homicide: “sex workers, the homeless, young men of color, trans women.” She considers a Wall of Motives, on which CrimeCon guests are invited to write their reasons for attending (“to not get killed”; “girls trip #cupcakes”; “murder is the new black”), in thrall to an appetite so gross it could only be human. But was it in fact mindless, devoid of meaning? And what, if anything, made it female?

Angela Strassheim, Evidence No.2, 2009, ink-jet print, 48 × 60".
Angela Strassheim, Evidence No.2, 2009, ink-jet print, 48 × 60".

The bulk of Savage Appetites comprises four chapters, each one devoted to a woman Monroe identifies with a different crime archetype: “the objective, all-knowing detective; the wounded, wronged victim; the crusading defender, battling for justice; and . . . the dark, raging glamour of the killer.” Through her subjects, Monroe traces a series of rough and cumulatively persuasive chronologies, moving from the 1940s to the present day. Those decades encompass the development of criminal forensics, the rise of mass incarceration and the victims’ rights movement, the proliferation of visual media and the dawn of the internet, and two quintessentially American massacres. The chapters are discrete, linked chiefly by their interest in the context Monroe expands by a sort of narrative stealth, broadening with each stroke our sense of the world within which women in particular might seek not just entertainment or relief but purpose in a carefully wrought proximity to crime. Seeking to reinvent themselves, her subjects found “personal meaning through other people’s tragedies,” using those tragedies “as a way to live out other kinds of lives, ones that were otherwise unavailable to them.” Monroe maintains her implication—and her reader’s—in what she describes, layering her chapters with personal anecdotes and alluding to a shared familiarity with the true-crime story’s potent admixture of myth and intimacy, realness and simulacrum, chaos and clarity, violence and comfort.

Monroe’s “detective” is Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago socialite who came of age at the turn of the twentieth century. Forbidden by her father to pursue a degree in medicine, Frances married and had children. An ultra-wealthy heiress by midlife, Lee developed an interest in the burgeoning practice of forensic science. Having funded Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine, she sought to help define the field, and eventually applied her interest in miniature-making to the creation of a series of tiny crime-scene models. Intended for use as teaching tools, they came to be known as her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” Although the department closed five years after Lee’s 1962 death, forensic science resurged in the 1990s, when its promise of a world of complete visibility proved irresistible.

Monroe’s lithe critical intelligence is the chief binding agent of chapters that wander and digress. Lee’s story opens onto a reflection on the literal and more philosophical dangers of forensic science—of seeking perfect answers to muddled questions, including why someone like Lee was so drawn to death. Monroe finds in her life “a warning against easy solutions”:

The detective inside each of us may wish for the world to be transparent, like a dollhouse cut open for our viewing pleasure—but if we’re genuinely seeking truth, we must account for everything we can’t see, our blind spots and biases, how much we willfully misunderstand, all the things we don’t yet—and may never—comprehend.

In “The Victim,” Monroe considers the story of Alisa Statman, the woman who leveraged her fixation on the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate and four others into a role as Tate family spokesperson. Through Statman, a Hollywood hopeful who in 1990 moved onto the LA property where Tate was killed, she teases out a larger fascination with archetypal victimhood and the “right and wrong ways to inhabit the role.” Tate was indeed the perfect victim: blonde, gorgeous, an ingenue married to a famous director and pregnant with their first child. Her murder at the hands of a hippie cult “seemed to almost have too much meaning, to be too dense with symbolic portent.” The too-muchness of the Manson slayings—the nature of their hold on the nation and on individuals like Statman—forms a sort of cultural cold case, one that puts Monroe in touch with her inner detective. Was Statman just an interloper with a tragedy fetish, someone who wants to wallow in Sharon’s murder, as her sister Debra says, “like a pig”? Or was she a selfless avenger, the height of radical empathy? “It got messy for a little while,” Monroe admits, “navigating all that grief.” Statman found purpose in her attachment to the Tates, and that may be all we need to know. Monroe wrings something deliberately short of meaning from the murders and their deathless chemtrail of influence.

If the elusiveness of motive is part of the point, Monroe draws an implied link between Statman’s fixation and the victims’ rights movement, which Sharon Tate’s mother, Doris, helped pioneer. Beginning with Doris and through the 1980s, families of victims began to demand a say at parole hearings, and to issue victim-impact statements. The results were mixed at the level of public policy and even messier in the realm of popular imagination. Her affiliation with the right kind of victim gave Alisa Statman a sense of self and, ultimately, the means to insinuate herself into the Tate family. Meanwhile, “grieving mothers and their heart-wrenching stories were mobilized to justify a number of tough-on-crime policies. . . . In the name of victims’ rights, politicians passed laws that locked up more people, for longer stretches of time, and that made prison a more unpleasant place to be.”

Watching a 1996 documentary about a triple child murder in Arkansas, Brooklyn landscape architect Lorri Davis saw a victim in Damien Echols, one of three young men convicted in the 1993 killing of the three little boys. The prosecution framed Echols, a heavy-metal fan who dressed in black and dabbled in witchcraft, as the lead perpetrator of a satanic ritual. Davis is Monroe’s “defender”: a comfortable, slightly bored thirty-two-year-old whose will to purpose is catalyzed by the image of a weird, terrified, clearly innocent teenager on the witness stand. As with Lee, Davis herself proves less interesting than the meticulous scaffolding Monroe erects around her, including a history of the satanic panic of the ’80s and ’90s, the internet-driven efforts to keep attention on the so-called West Memphis Three, and the documentary projects that both furthered and hindered efforts to right their subjects’ wrongful convictions. Monroe describes leaving unasked her more “cynical” questions for Davis, who married Echols in 1999 and devoted herself to his exoneration: “Isn’t having a huge and tragic love the oldest and most limiting path to female glory? Do you at all regret that the great story of your life is fundamentally about someone else?” The story’s apparent happy ending offers a “flicker of the small and flawed and rare thing we call justice”; in this telling Davis’s obsession generates a similarly modest light.

Following the 2007 conviction of her mother’s killer, Sarah Perry heard from numerous true-crime show producers. She agreed to an interview with Forensic Files, a TV series that aired from 1996 to 2011 (and was recently revived as a podcast). “They insisted that their show wasn’t sensational,” Perry writes, “that they would focus more on the triumphs of DNA evidence and other technology than on the lurid details of the crime itself.” Perry agreed in part because it all still felt unfinished: “I had a sense of the inadequacy of the trial, of wanting to say more.” She hoped the show might satisfy her lingering need for shape and clarity, something closer to the full story. When the episode was ready, a producer asked if Perry wanted to see the on-air version “or the ‘family edit’—the softer, less bloody cut.” Feeling “like a traitor,” she declined to watch either one.

The consumption of true crime is tinged with decadence: Who but the untouched, untouchable, or otherwise benumbed could get even cautionary thrills from real-life tales of trauma and slaughter? For years, the genre traded in a fairly limited aesthetic: crime-scene photos, reenactments, lecherous voice-over, talking-head witnesses and detectives. As Monroe details in her chapter on would-be mass shooter Lindsay Souvannarath, internet culture did to true crime what it did to most everything: pursued its aesthetics to the point of implosion. Meme- and image-driven online communities remade true-crime obsession as a particular social currency, a purely meta concern with its own cheerily debased visual syntax and winking grammar of moral incontinence.

An isolated college student from a wealthy Chicago family, Souvannarath discovered in 2014 a Tumblr subculture centered on school shooters and serial killers. Soon she was adding to the fun, “reblogging mass-killer memes and various celebrations of gore, alongside images of cool-looking shoes from fashion week.” A Canadian named James Gamble liked one of her Columbine memes, an online relationship bloomed, and over text their common enough appetite for murder stories and Tarantino references tilted into madness. Key to what ensued between them, as Monroe writes: “Their aesthetics were a match from the start.”

Of all the doomed things James and Lindsay plotted together, their desire to penetrate a realer world stands out. They longed for true, anarchic release, but got most excited about the prospect of going viral; their fantasy of shooting up a shopping mall, of finally feeling alive, was bound by the terms of their unreal lives online. Monroe’s account of Souvannarath’s hyper-aestheticized mind suggests a grotesquely distended version of something familiar. Not so unlike the treadmill women, this “killer” appears locked in a predicament she can’t define, a sort of cultural endgame rooted in paradox. Lindsay, who is biracial, is at once too insulated and too vulnerable, the cross of privilege and impotence the internet seems designed to accommodate and exploit.

Back at CrimeCon, in a room full of other women, Monroe dons a blindfold and raises her arms in the air. White women in particular occupy “an uncomfortable middle space,” the author said in a recent interview. “Relatively privileged, relatively safe, and yet at the same time relatively at risk, relatively vulnerable,” they might find in true crime a confirmation of their dilemma, if not a release. That duality’s morbid grip on Monroe loosens as she endures an exercise devised to evoke a murder victim’s fear. In a small act of refusal, some more basic survival instinct breaks free.

Michelle Orange is the author of the essay collections This Is Running for Your Life (2013) and Pure Flame (2020, both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).