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Jonny Auping | Longreads | August 2019 | 14 minutes (3,848 words)
While reading Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites, there will probably be a point when you’ll think to yourself, “This person is obsessed.” You might be referring to any one of the book’s real life characters who took their obsession with violence to its most illogical extreme. You might actually be referring to Monroe herself, who doesn’t shy away from the notion that she might still have been digging deeply into these stories of bloodshed even if there were never a book to tell them through. Or, you might realize that you planned to sit down and read for only 20 minutes, but it’s been over an hour and you can’t tear yourself away.
Questions about the nature of obsession permeate Savage Appetites, which tells the stories of four women whose connections to violent crimes — either as investigator, killer, defender, or victim — became the obsessive center of their universes. Monroe, whose stories have been featured at places like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Texas Monthly, also weaves in personal experiences and historical context in order to take a macro-view of the true crime genre. What are the causes of our obsession with violent crime and, perhaps more importantly, what are the political and sociological consequences of it?
Monroe took some time to speak to Longreads about her reporting process, why women drive the true crime genre, and guarding herself against feeling like an actual detective.
Jonny Auping: Your career as a magazine writer prior to this book has included stories on all sorts of subjects outside of true crime. When the opportunity or the notion to write a book came about did you already know that you wanted to write about true crime?
Rachel Monroe: I had been thinking about writing a book in the abstract for a long time, probably pretty soon after I started writing professionally. But that was always an abstract idea. Like: “I’d like to write a book. I would like to be a person who has written a book.” I’m really glad that it didn’t end up happening earlier than it did.
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People always tell you when you’re writing a book that you need to write about something that you won’t get sick of because you’ll be steeped in it for so long. I had written enough crime stories where I had this feeling where you write something about this terrible tragedy that happened, and the more you write about it the more you realize that it fits into this larger context, and there’s a lot more to say. There’s not space for all that usually in a magazine piece. I think, more than anything, it was inspired by that feeling of writing these magazine-length pieces and feeling like I had so much more to say. There was so much more I wanted to think about and complicate.
Once you pass a certain amount of words written you sometimes realize how much more there is to write about a subject.
Exactly. Which is a good feeling. It’s a good-ish feeling.
The book is divided into these four sections that cover these four different women who were connected to violent crimes as an investigator or a victim or a defender or a killer. Each section goes well beyond their stories, but when you were selecting these women to write about was their a singular quality in each of them that made you want to build these sections around their stories?
I was interested in that quality of obsession and fascination and people who built their lives around somebody else’s tragedy or trauma. It was one of those funny situations where several of these women I had been following for a long time. I think I’m a writer because I’m a curious person, and I have these things that I collect over time not really knowing why. Several of these stories were things that I had been collecting. It was later when I realized that they all had this obsessive quality that I kind of shared. It was a really exciting moment. I remember being out for drinks with one of my friends, and I was talking about one of these stories, because I knew that I wanted to write about it further, and discovering as I was talking about it that there were all these connections. I was like, “That’s why I have been following these people all along. They do have this link and it is linked to me in that way.”
It was one of those cool things where I didn’t set out with this project in mind. I just had these people that I had this ongoing fascination with, some of them for as long as a decade, and realized that there was this thematic link.
I was going to ask what came first for you: the women or the structure? Did you create the structure based on what you knew about those women or did you know you wanted to write about these four different potential archetypes?
It definitely started with the women, who I found fascinating without really knowing specifically why I found them fascinating. I knew I found them fascinating as individuals, but I didn’t, at the time, think of them in terms of this larger schema. It was interesting trying to put together the theme of this book, discovering these resonances and also points of departure where they resonated or differed from each other but also resonated or differed from me.
You can sense books out there that started with a very clear idea and went to find examples of that idea. This book is, in some ways, hard to talk about because the ideas arose from the people. It didn’t arise from a thesis. I find it very hard to elevator pitch. Maybe everybody feels that way about their book because it’s your baby and you can never boil it down to a few sentences. For me, it felt much more like a process of discovery and revelation and surprising connections and intuition more than knowing what I was after and seeking out answers.
One of the things that made the book so engaging, at least to me, was how much you were in it. On one hand, you bring the reader with you on your reporting and let us know what you’re thinking at each step, but it’s also full of these personal interludes about how you’ve reckoned with, or been connected to, or been obsessed with violent crimes at different points in your life. From the conception of this book, did you always know that you were going to insert yourself as a character or was that a decision you had to make?
I think I knew that that had to happen, because these women are extreme cases, right? They totally upend their lives. One ends up in prison. One spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on phone calls to prison. They got so involved in these stories that the very direction of their lives changed dramatically. The good thing about writing about people who make such extreme decisions is that when things are magnified like that you can see them more clearly. But the risk is that people read about them and they’re like, “Wow, those people are so intense. I would never be like that.” Their very intensity kind of forecloses identification.
I knew that I would have to allow myself in there as sort of this middle ground for the reader to see, “Maybe I’m not so different from these people.” These women took things to an extreme degree, but there are parts of my life that maybe overlap with that or resonate with that. There’s some affinity there, which might be unnerving, but I think it’s interesting and important to look at.
That’s one of the things that I thought was hard to do in a magazine-length story is implicate yourself as a participant in the true crime economy. I wanted to make sure I was not just writing about this thing that happened to other people or that other people consumed, but something that I was a participant in.
I think it underscored how casually we can become engrossed in crimes that we might not have any connection to.
There just aren’t that many other subjects that people talk about with this heightened language. It really is so often the language of appetite.
People don’t talk about sports stories that way. In our current political moment, there’s a sort of binging, addicting quality to certain kinds of news coverage that has a similar tenor to it. But it’s this compulsive feeling that seems a little bit out of your control. It’s not just that you’re interested. You’re obsessed.
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A point that you make in the introduction is just how much women drive the true crime genre in terms of consuming it at a higher rate than men. I don’t think that’s something that really crosses people’s minds very often. Why do you think that fact is sort of unspoken?
I think that there is an unspoken sense that media that appeals to or targets or finds an audience in women can sometimes be devalued. So maybe there’s an aspect of “We don’t want to come outright and say this is for women because that would lower its market value.”
Or some people still have a very old fashioned idea of what women are interested in. The idea that violence is a male world and women exist in a separate sphere.
I guess the reason I bring that up is I’m still sort of wondering if you have a theory to why women are drawn to true crime when so many other gender norms are just the result of marketing stereotypes.
So many crime stories are about women. Specifically young white women. I have this fun thing that I do at parties now where I ask people, “What percentage of murder is a male perpetrator and a female victim?” People invariably say 70 percent or 80 percent. It’s actually 25 percent. That’s shocking to a lot of people because so many of the murders that we consume in media — the murders that make up the bulk of our cultural imagination — are with female victims.
Women grow up in this culture too, right? When there is this larger cultural fascination with the violation, particularly the violation of attractive white women, some people cope with that with a strange fascination. You hear these stories of what could happen to you and it exerts a pull. People respond to that in a number of different ways. That’s why the book is divided into different sections. That’s, to me, a number of different responses that people could have: Master it through learning more information or through advocacy or through identifying with the perpetrator. But I do think that the way that these stories have been sold to us and the broader fascination with violated women just gets in your head in a weird way.
That’s something you definitely touch on; the idea that certain demographics make up the template for what most people consider to be true crime. It’s often young, attractive white women being killed in an unusual way. I feel like a lot of people who read a story of an African American child being killed in, say, a drive-by or a some random occurrence wouldn’t think to call that a true crime story even though it by definition is.
True crime is a vast genre, and a lot of things can fall into that umbrella. So we’re talking in generalities.
But in terms of popular true crime it is often the way the stories are told, especially in shows like Investigation Discovery or on Oxygen, as a psychodrama between these individual actors. The political dimension is totally left out of it. That’s sort of wild to think about because crime is such a politically activated topic. So much of crime bears an immediate relationship to political situations.
If it’s a black child in Chicago or even an indigenous woman, that story is slotted into the category of a “political” story because those people’s lives are political or politicized. But then with a white woman, somehow that is a space that is not political. This goes without saying, but that is a false distinction to me and something that I’m trying to mess with or explode in this book; the idea that any of these stories are not political.
You wrote about how when you were a young girl you would read crime novels and daydream about being a detective. I know it’s not quite the same, but writing about true crime is probably closer to being a detective than most people ever get, and it probably allows for more personal introspection than the actual job. Do you find that you enjoy the reporting the way the younger version of you might have imagined?
Totally. I have this very vivid memory of one of the stories that I was reporting on about a murder that had happened in Big Ben National Park. I remember going down to the park and getting access to their files after having just done a bunch of interviews with people who were involved. I remember driving away that night thinking, “I understand this story more than anyone else in the world.” I had this high. I had read all the police notes and the investigator’s file. I had talked to various people who were there and people who maybe had never talked to each other or hadn’t talked to each other in years. I had these different angles on this thing. Even the people who were there only had their one particular slice of it. I remember having this total puffed up feeling. This high from feeling like I knew this better than anyone else. I had to catch myself like, “Whoa there, don’t forget that there’s still a lot that you do not know.” But it was like this whiff of the detective’s high. This feeling that I’m omniscient somehow. Like I’m outside of this thing and I can see the whole thing and nobody else understands. Like I had mastered it.
It was a really striking moment for me. It’s good to think about it. Because that’s a trap. That’s a real trap that we as reporters can fall in.
One of the most complicated topics that I think you do a really good job of articulating is how victims of murder don’t get a chance to tell their own story. Their point of view is often at the mercy of an interloper who comes in and tells the story with his or her own interpretation. When you’re talking to family members or sources close to the victim do you ever think about how they can’t really know the thoughtfulness with which you intend to tell the story? They have to trust you and part of them probably worries that they shouldn’t.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Speaking less about the book and more about the reporting that I’ve done in general, sometimes in certain situations it can work in your benefit as a reporter because often when people feel they have been burned or misrepresented by a story it’s because that story came up shortly after something sensational happened. I try to tell people I have a lot more space so I can tell a more complete story. I have a lot more time so I can really look into this. I don’t have to write this by tomorrow. Once a story is already out there people can be receptive to that because they’re already familiar with how the story can go wrong and they now want it to go right.
But it’s always so different every single time.
I mean this as a compliment: This felt to me like a long magazine story. Did you feel like you had to approach this with a different style or process because it was a book or did you just think, “I’ve done this before, this will just be longer”?
I had never written anything at this length. So just formally it was a challenge to reconceive how you put something together. I think sometimes when I write magazine pieces I’ll find myself going off on a little tangent because something interests me or because something strange came up in an interview that I find amusing or intriguing or fascinating, and I’ll start to write it and catch myself like, “Rachel, you know they’re going to cut that out. There’s no room for that. Why are you going down that weird path?” Sometimes I can’t help myself and I’ll just write it in a little folder or something just for my own interest and amusement. That was one of the real pleasures of the book: When something like that happened I could be like, “Well, it’s a book. I have space. If I want to meander down this weird road and talk about the turn of the century fascination in extremely extravagant doll houses built by adult women I can go a little ways down that path. That’s fine. It’s my book.” It felt like there was more room.
In terms of weaving together a story without losing the momentum I think my magazine work served me well.
To me, more so than even being about the specific subjects and people that you write about, I took this book as being about how society talks and thinks about ideas like victimhood and violence and perceived danger. So naturally how those things are represented in media is important. So with the rise and popularity of true crime, do you think that anyone telling a true crime story has a responsibility to tell that story in a way that’s more than just entertainment?
Yeah. I think one of the reasons these stories are so popular — and they’ve been very popular since long before whatever true crime boom we’re currently in — they’re very emotionally engaging. That’s part of what’s compelling about them. They enact these really primal fears and ideas of extreme experiences. On that level, they really grab people. For that reason they are used politically in terms of passing policies or determining who gets policed or whose vulnerability matters.
Whenever we’re telling these stories we’re participating in that emotional, social, political conversation, whether we want to admit it or not. Towards the end of the book the thing that I ended up realizing I was writing against was that feeling of numbness or checking out or zoning out that sometimes came over me. I’ve heard other people talking about this; sort of zonking out to Dateline or something. Using it to turn your brain off. I think that is really dangerous. Because these stories sort of short circuit the parts of us that know better and have a sense of who is really at risk when you look at the statistical realities of crime versus these stories that make us all feel like at any moment someone is going to come through the door with a knife.
So just wanting to disrupt that feeling of numbness and disengagement that those stories can sometimes produce.
I think this book does as good a job of anything I’ve read in true crime of highlighting that fact, as well as telling these violent stories thoughtfully. In 2019 if someone has a podcast or a place willing to publish them they might be getting ready to tell a true crime story. Do you have advice you would give to someone like that in hopes that they would tell the story in a thoughtful way?
I haven’t actually listened to the one that Neil Strauss did. You know the Pickup Artist guy? But I remember when I saw that he was getting into true crime I was like, “Oh of course he is. Of course he is.”
I think in a lot of these cases the questions are whose story are you telling? Why are you telling that story? Why are you telling that story? What stories are you not telling?
So actually ask yourself those questions?
Yeah, and what do we find relatable and why?
Increasingly, I’m like, “Why do [some of] these stories need to be told?” [laughing]
It will come out after we’re talking but probably before this interview will be published so neither of us have seen it, but the new [Quinton] Tarantino movie [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] is in part about Sharon Tate. It’s not that he’s not great at making movies or that people aren’t allowed to depict her, but my reaction was similar to what you just said. Just like, “why?”
When I was talking to Debra Tate [for this book] he was also talking to her. I know he took steps to get her on board with the project and spoke to her about it and wanted to get her to buy in. So I guess that’s at least a respectful thing that he has done.
But yeah, just the idea that once something terrible has happened to you, you become in a weird way public property. This is what happens when victims become this object of fascination, but they’re in part fascinating because they can’t speak up and complicate the stories that people are telling about them. They become this silent symbol.
What seems really distasteful is when something happens to ordinary people and everybody feels like it’s their property or their right to know. They have a feeling of ownership. I get really creeped out by some of the online detectives. They have this feeling that these stories are somehow their property and they’re entitled to them.
I think often about how these are characters to people who consume them, but if you’re unlucky enough to be a part of a true crime story you then become a character. You won’t think in those terms anymore, but the rest of the world still will.
I wonder if it has something to do with there being so many of these stories available to be consumed on TV, and they’re told in a way that, even if you enjoy those shows, you still know they are being fictionalized in some way. There are so many tropes to those. I’m just thinking of everything on Investigation Discovery or Oxygen. They follow these predictable beats. The stories are short so people are characterized in these broad strokes. It feels sort of fictional in a way. I wonder if that allows people to get in a space where they forget that they are real humans beings involved because it does seem so false or theatrical or overblown or ridiculous in a way that distances you from the real humanity of everybody involved.
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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
Editor: Dana Snitzky