True Crime Mama

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Why Murder Fascinates Women: Rachel Monroe

Rachel Monroe is a freelance writer and volunteer firefighter who lives in Marfa, Texas. In 2019 Simon and Schuster published her first book, Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession. It was named Best Book of 2019 by Esquire and received Honorable Mention for the Chicago Tribune’s Best Books of 2019. An NPR review described the book as “Necessary and brilliant.”

Monroe writes about diverse topics; her articles have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2018, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine.

She generously agreed to be interviewed on June 15, 2021:

SK:  Thank you so much for your time, Rachel. I love your book Savage Appetites. It is the analytical book about true crime readers that I have long hoped someone would write. What precipitated your writing it?

RM:  It began with my own interest. As an adolescent I used to sneak my mother’s copies of People– not to read about celebrities, but about murders. It was the language of love between my mother and me, a subject that deserves its own kind of analysis.

As I got older, I saw that this interest was not mine alone. Many women shared it. I wanted to know why.

SK:   You centered your book around four women who were obsessed with crime, each representing a category of enthusiast: Detective, Victim, Crusader/Defender, and Killer. Did you choose the categories first, or begin with the women?

RM:  Actually, it was a little of both. For 10 years I’ve been collecting stories about women who followed crimes they had no direct connection with. I began to realize through my research that women had different motives for their obsessions. They weren’t all attracted by the same thing.

 My perspective in reading true crime also shifted depending on what was going on in my own life. Sometimes I wanted to solve the crime, other times I identified with the victim. Some cases just demanded advocacy. Less often I focused on the killer. I wanted to know what motivated him (it was always “him”).

SK:   In the book, talking about Frances Glessner Lee’s collection of miniature crime scenes, the Nutshell Cases of Unexplained Death, you said “I like things that are small and things that are macabre; those interests don’t usually overlap.” That statement stunned me briefly. This spring I posted a piece on my blog site about the Nutshell Cases, and I said at the time that they combined two of my favorite things: miniatures and murder. So, you see, you are not alone in that! Maybe there is some unconscious connection between the two?

RM: That’s interesting. I saw the Nutshells in person and something in me relaxed there in the room with them. There is an accuracy and precision in most miniatures that is deeply satisfying. Glessner-Lee’s tiny scenes, however, destabilize that sense of comfort. Among the perfect little tables and lamps and carpets and bedsteads are murder victims, blood, disorder. Domesticity is undergirded with malice.  Regardless, I felt that those mysteries were on a scale that I could handle. –Maybe if I examined them closely enough, I could figure out what happened and why.

SK:   You make me think of your whimsical comparison between your own true crime obsession and Harriet the Spy, the children’s book character, who has a passion to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”

RM:  That may be the wish, but in reality, we have to consider our blind spots and biases and the facts we will never have access to. We may never find the answer to “why.” There is another aspect to women’s obsession with these crimes. CrimeCon is a national weekend conference sponsored by the television network Oxygen. Not surprisingly, most attendees are women like me. As we listen to presentations by detectives and forensics experts and psychologists, watch the video clips, and participate in the “victim” exercises, we are not there—as many experts hypothesize– to learn how not to become victims while maintaining a safe distance from real danger. We find pleasure in these dark accounts of kidnappings and torture chambers. You can tell by the way we describe the experience in the language of appetite, bingeing, and obsession.

SK:   I remember that part in the book. Let me find it… You end the paragraph with “A different, more alarming hypothesis was the one I tended to prefer: perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.” I don’t like to face it, but I think you are probably right about that.

 RM: Another fact about the conference: None of the cases were about the people who are proportionately more at risk of homicide, like sex workers, young men of color, trans women. Most stories were about white women, most of them middle class mothers.

SK:   Race seems to matter in murder as it does in everything else in America. I used to wonder why there were no black serial killers, but now I realize that they are perhaps just not covered the way white victims and perpetrators are. It seems to me, though, that I just read somewhere that the most prolific serial killer in the U.S. was a black man.

RM:  You are right. His name was Samuel Little. He confessed to killing 90 victims, although, like some other serial killers, he may be inflating that number. His victims were not so visible because he chose people whose absence was less likely to be noticed or reported, like sex workers.

The definition of “victim” is socially determined, and it changes over time. Black and brown people and the violence done to them is considered political and so undercounted statistically in homicide cases, at least those with no obvious motive.

SK:   Are black and brown victims featured more openly and with more sensitivity since the murder of George Floyd and the prominence of Black Lives Matter?

RM:  I think they will be, and similarly I think the #MeToo movement has increased awareness of women who have been treated less sensitively in the past as well.

SK:   I could interview you all day, but I think our time is up. Just one final question: Is there another book in your future?

RM:  Yes, there is, but I am not ready to talk about the details yet.

SK:   I’ve enjoyed your journalism on many subjects besides true crime, so whatever you write next, I’ll be eager to read!

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