Vulnerability and Privilege: PW Talks with Rachel Monroe

In Savage Appetites (Scribner, Aug. 2019), journalist Rachel Monroe examines why so many women find stories of true crime alluring, through the experiences of four individuals, each of whose lives were affected by crime.

What drove you to write about the fascination that women, specifically, have with true crime?

If you think of it in a demographic way, the world of violent crime is very male, but the true crime genre has a female audience. I became curious about what that stems from, but the answers I found seemed a little shallow. Those answers treat it as a singular phenomenon, in which we all have the same motivations. Some said, “Well, women like it, so it must be feminist.” That felt reductive and unsatisfying. I wanted to consider it more thoughtfully—in terms of the things I think are compelling and the things that trouble me about my own interest.

Why did you choose the four women you profile as your way into the true crime phenomenon?

They were so different from each other. Each was drawn to a different archetypal figure in the true crime narrative—detective, victim, lawyer, or killer. Treating women’s fascination with crime as this one phenomenon seemed wrong to me; the idea that women fear becoming victims is such a limited way of thinking about it. Crime stories are a way for women to articulate real feelings of vulnerability or to talk about things such as rage or injustice that maybe we aren’t allowed space for in our daily lives. Part of the reason they’re so compelling is because, to find these stories so fascinating, you have to be vulnerable and you have to have the privilege of safety. It makes sense that we’re having the true crime boom when the violent crime rate is at historic lows. You have to be both vulnerable and safe, and a lot of women I know who are interested in these stories are both of those things.

What role did crime play in the lives of the women you write about?

Frances Glessner Lee made crime scene doll houses in the 1940s and was crucial to the development of forensic science. Alisa Statman was drawn into Sharon Tate’s family after the Manson murders. Lorri Davis became involved with a member of the West Texas Three and married him; she worked tirelessly to get him out and served as his lawyer in a lot of ways, even though she wasn’t trained. Lindsay Souvannarath identified with the Columbine shooters; she became involved in the online fandom as a way to manifest her own rage at the world and sense of inferiority, and ended up planning a mass shooting of her own.

A lot of discussion about true crime centers on the moral boundaries of the genre. What are your thoughts?

We can slip into these tropes that reaffirm old, familiar story lines about bad guys and good guys, that don’t linger in that moral gray area—things are oversimplified and reassuring. Am I using these stories for escapism or to think about the world and its complicated questions? Am I using them to turn my brain on or turn my brain off? I came to feel while writing this book that I needed to be really honest about how I consume true crime. I noticed I was using these stories as a form of escapism or numbing. That’s when things become problematic.

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A version of this article appeared in the 03/25/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Vulnerability and Privilege