The Empathy of True Crime

Rachel Monroe discusses the radical empathy of true crime.

In her first book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, Rachel Monroe explores our fascination with true crime on both personal and collective terms.
In her first book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, Rachel Monroe explores our fascination with true crime on both personal and collective terms.

Rachel Monroe is not letting herself off the hook. Her book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, may address women’s fascination with crime, but her first object of study is herself. “Over the years,” she writes, “I’ve read thousands of pages about various varieties of Killer (Zodiac, Green River, BTK, Lonely Hearts) and Strangler (Hillside, Boston); don’t even get me started on the time I’ve devoted to goofy little Charlie Manson. My brothers can have entire conversations just tossing baseball statistics back and forth; certain friends and I do the same thing with serial murderers.” The book is funny, unflinching, and brilliant. Ultimately, Monroe’s examination yields a surprising outcome: an unsentimental empathy for crime fans, victims, and even the killers themselves.

How did you come to write this book?
It started with my curiosity about myself. I didn’t understand why these stories were so compelling to me. It was interesting to think back—really, it was around puberty when I first became fascinated by true crime. As a teenager, why did I want to learn about women being kidnapped and assaulted? And why did it persist when I was an adult?

In the book, you wonder if there’s an inciting incident for your subjects’ fascination with murder. What’s the inciting incident for all of us?
For a long time, I felt sort of guilty there wasn’t an inciting incident in my own life. I’ve been a young woman, so, of course, plenty of times I’ve felt vulnerable, but not in any way that reached the level of criminality. Certainly, when we’re talking about vulnerability, we need to acknowledge that some populations are more vulnerable than others. But growing up as a girl in our culture, no matter who you are, you receive a lot of messages about your vulnerability—what people might do to you, or want to do to you, or be thinking about doing to you.

The fascination with true crime often arises around puberty. Flannery O’Connor says, “Anyone who’s survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” In the same way, by the time we enter puberty, girls have taken in enough messages about threat to make it loom in our minds, even if the actual physical presence hasn’t been there.

You write about wanting to be inside the victims’ pain—where does that come from?
I can speak for myself and the period when I became fascinated with Taylor Behl [a teenage girl who was murdered in Monroe’s hometown]. It had to do with the sense that my pain wasn’t enough, so I identified with someone who had a larger, more spectacular, visible trauma. Thinking about what happened to her somehow gave me space to explore my own pain. Which is a really messy and not uncomplicated dynamic. But thinking about a victim’s pain can open up the space for empathy and also for projection. It can be about solidarity, putting the pain in context. It can also be about a kind of identification, rescuing the other, more famous victim from her loneliness, which can also be a self-rescue, a form of compassion.

In the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, preschool teachers were falsely accused of widespread abuse. Does that connect to Pizzagate or the pedophile cult–QAnon conspiracies of today?
You see many of the same themes and language in both cases. A lot of those kids who were inventing these wild stories of satanic abuse probably had in reality been victimized in some way. But somehow that idea was unspeakable, so the crime had to be projected onto these satanic figures—it was almost preferable to think that there was this legion of witch teachers.

In the case of Pizzagate and QAnon, there does seem to be a kind of psychosis in its meaning making, and yet there’s this kernel of reality: Jeffrey Epstein. The usual story of powerful men exploiting young women with impunity.

So why do we love true crime?
In our current moment, there’s a hunger for virtuous consumption—people are afraid they’re bad, so they want their goodness reaffirmed. They want a good kind of true crime, a vitamins-and-minerals true crime. But the power of true crime is that it speaks to our shadow selves and our death drives and the parts of us that are uncomfortable. I think it’s important to avoid a sense of consolation, avoid making it all feel good or solved.

I do think stories of other people’s pain can turn us inward and make us want to lock our doors and pass laws to lock up bad guys forever. Or it can open us to various kinds of pain and vulnerability and trauma in the world. That’s what I want to see: an opening, not a closing.


• By Rachel Monroe
• Scribner, 272 pages, $26

Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses and Love and Trouble.
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