Rachel Monroe has always been murder-minded — prone to falling into what she calls “crime funks” — captivated from childhood by Manson “family” stories and People magazine articles about killers and kidnappers. As an adult, she watches true-crime TV or spends hours online, further nursing her obsession. These binges, she confesses in her new book, “Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession,” depend on how she is feeling about her own life:
There are plenty of women like Monroe. Women make up the majority of true-crime readers, online sleuthing forum participants and attendees at CrimeCon, a yearly gathering sponsored by Oxygen, the woman-focused cable channel that saw its ratings spike when it shifted programming from dramas to true crime.
The irony of the female tilt in true-crime fandom, Monroe writes, is that the majority of killers, victims, homicide detectives and attorneys in criminal cases are male.
Why are women so into true crime? Is it voyeuristic entertainment? Feminist empowerment? The prospect that crime stories may, somehow, help you avoid being a victim? An essayist and longform journalist known for plumbing the deeper meanings of transgression, deception, utopias, obsession and obsessives, Monroe brushes off these theories as facile.
Instead, she offers up an examination of how four women reinvented themselves through their crime obsessions by identifying with archetypal true-crime figures: the detective, the victim, the defender and the killer.
I am not myself a crime junkie. But I once did fall under the sway of a crime obsession, with the 2002 rape and murder of Christa Worthington, a Cape Cod single mother and fashion journalist. Her body was discovered with her 2-year-old daughter clinging to her.
The man I was about to marry knew Worthington, and his circle of friends was in mourning. I was fascinated by her backstory. After a long period of despair over entering her 40s with neither a partner nor a child, Worthington, scandalously and unexpectedly, conceived her child in an affair with the local shellfish constable, who became a person of interest in her murder.
Worthington’s story reflected back the defining fears of my life: remaining childless and, paradoxically, having a child, now a real possibility with my husband-to-be. After years of self-absorbed independence, I would take that central, irreplaceable role in a tiny being’s existence, a being that would be sent into a primal panic should I meet a cruel and sudden end.
My long-ago preoccupation with Worthington plays right to Monroe’s guiding premise: that crime obsessions are meaningful. “Through crime stories, we can talk about the violence that’s been done to us, or to people we love; we can tell difficult truths and work through our anxieties,” Monroe writes. “These accounts of the worst parts of human experience open up conversations about subjects that might otherwise be taboo: fear, abuse, exploitation, injustice, rage.”
In the case of Lorri Davis, a landscape architect who fell in love with convicted murder Damien Echols, crime obsession is redemptive. However unsettling the phenomenon of women who court and marry prisoners may seem, Davis gains genuine heroine credibility in her archetypal defender role, working tirelessly to expose the wrongful conviction of Echols and his co-defendants in the West Memphis murders of three young boys. Frances Glessner Lee, a Baltimore heiress who identifies with the detective archetype, is also intent on doing good, creating intricate crime-scene dollhouses in an effort to bring more objectivity and rigor into forensics.
The other profiles are morally troubling. Alisa Statman ingratiates herself with the relatives of Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1969. Lindsay Souvannarath, immersed in all things Columbine, is a wannabe killer who plots with her long-distance online lover to shoot up a shopping mall.
Even when I’m put off by what Monroe’s subjects do, I’m riveted by her storytelling. In the tradition of Joan Didion and Susan Orlean, Monroe narrates in first person, breaking the rules of conventional journalism by using her own reactions as material.
After Nichols is released from prison, Monroe spends time with him and Davis in New York City; the couple lives in Harlem. They go for ice cream, and Monroe revels in how “free and alive” the pair seem. The moment “felt like a flicker of the small and flawed and rare thing we call justice.”
But the moment passes quickly. Monroe considers the scores of other innocent people who remain in prison and those who are consumed with pursuing justice for them: “I sat and let myself be overwhelmed with the thought of all the work that remained to be done.”
She fluidly shifts between a tight focus on the particulars of her crime obsessives’ lives and a wider angle on society. Statman’s disturbingly intimate entanglement with the Tate family — Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister, believed that Statman’s interest in Sharon’s death was “disproportionate, verging on fetishistic,” Monroe writes — also illuminates the history of the victims’ rights movement, which transformed criminal justice by making the impact of violent crime on family members central to sentencing and parole hearings.
However important the change, Monroe keeps broadening the frame of her reporting until we see what’s gone awry. The victims’ rights movement, which dovetailed with tough-on-crime policies, also advocated for tougher sentencing laws and led to the decline of higher-education programs for inmates and other rehabilitative approaches. The end result is a worldview that pits victims against criminals, the two sides “locked in a zero-sum game where any concessions made to criminal defendants were seen as a loss for victims, and where supporting victims became equated with being tough on crime.”
Monroe’s keen observations and probing journalism keep us from the satisfying feeling of closure that a good mystery novel or a true-crime documentary can provide. Rather, we’re left with the feeling that virtually everything about how we contend with violent crime as a society is woefully misguided. No investigation is truly over, grief ripples forever and justice falters at every turn, scarring the innocent and doing little to rehabilitate the guilty. Monroe does what true obsessives do: show us what is unresolved, what is unending, what might never be possible — and how important it is to try to fix it anyway.