Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Is It Possible to Fix True Crime?

Women historians and investigative journalists are hoping to tell stories about women and violence in a more ethical way.
Is It Possible to Fix True Crime?
Illustration: Angelica Alzona/GMG
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When I was 17 years old, I babysat for a murderer. She wasn’t a murderer at the time—just a recently separated single mother in a work uniform with dark circles underneath her eyes who never failed to politely thank me for keeping her kids during my afternoon shift at the Methodist daycare where I was employed my senior year of high school. Sometimes, her compulsively grinning boyfriend would pick up the children. In the five or so months that I saw either her or her boyfriend five days a week at pickup time, I never met the man she would later kill.

I try to reconcile what I know about that woman, which is truly next to nothing, with what Snapped and Dateline’s “Killer Women” series say happened next, forcing my disparate ends of the same story into a disjointed narrative that never really connects in the middle. About six months after I left that job, the nice but tired woman who had gotten engaged to her boyfriend during the fall—a development her child seemed excited about during our hours together—followed her estranged husband to his home and shot him until he was dead. According to the narrative I saw on television, she was a checked-out, hard-partying woman who had both abandoned her family for the boyfriend and was also so obsessed with the estranged husband I never met that she followed him home from a bar and murdered him. In exchange for immunity, her boyfriend with the big, permanent grin would later testify that he and another friend had helped her bury the body in a scrubby bit of woods off a deserted part of the highway. I think about her all the time, wanting the story to make sense in the ways that decades of crime-as-entertainment in the form of books, TV, and now podcasts had assured me that it should.

As a genre, true crime has always been more about the novelization of a crime that occurred in reality than good faith attempt to disseminate the details of a tragedy for the public good. The first true-life tragedies I ever loved, I found in middle school and had read to tatters by college: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. Even though The Amityville Horror takes the murder of a middle-class white family and spins off in a supernatural direction, they are the same, really: There’s something wrong in these white people’s houses. The stories are intended to shock, not because they’re brutal, but because crime isn’t supposed to happen to these people.

In the early ’90s, these stories became a highly lucrative, multi-media business, and the true-crime bubble has never really burst, just shifted from tabloid coverage that spawned books that turned into TV movies to magazine articles that become podcasts that become television shows. And in all these years, the stories almost exclusively follow the model of those nonfiction books I read so often, making crime, primarily murder and primarily the murders of white women, into a novelty, rather than making any effort to explore the fact that murder is a leading cause of death for American women, particularly American women of color. But in 2021, as marginalized groups increasingly cry out for leaders and their more privileged neighbors to realize that crimes are committed against them regularly and with impunity, the idea of consuming true crime for entertainment purposes feels less like a “guilty pleasure” and more like a way to gawk at misfortune without asking any meaningful questions about what is actually wrong inside the house.

Nearly all true crime is based on this premise: that crimes, like narrative stories, have a clearcut beginning, middle, and end, tied up neatly by a single, simple “why.” But this is a frame placed on these crimes in retrospect by the storyteller and too often have little bearing on the actual, much messier, realities of “true” crime. The result is crime that entertains in the same way a novel, movie, or television series would, making it easier to consume without dwelling uncomfortably long on the ethical questions around consuming real-world human misery to pass 30 minutes on the elliptical or an hour in the car. It’s a formula that’s easily consumable but nearly always leaves out harder questions—which is why a new wave of mostly women podcasters are hoping to appeal to a massive true crime audience with stories that are about wider, systemic issues. These include Connie Walker’s Stolen: the Search for Jermain, which examines the sweeping, systemic abuses of indigenous women, and Emma Courtland’s Crime Show, where she takes a deep dive into the systems allowing for, rather than the motives of, a single crime in each episode.

Courtland, who studied oral history at Columbia before creating and hosting Gimlet’s Crime Show podcast, says audiences naturally want a story, but that experts, like police, also craft and shape those narratives with their conversation, lending an air of objectivity to highly subjective subject matter. She recalls interviewing a detective for the podcast who said he observed suspicious behavior that sounded, to Courtland, completely normal. Courtland realized during the interview that the detective was telling her the story as he would present it to a courtroom with the added benefit of knowing the outcome, a convenient way of parsing difficult information. She suspects her audience might also be listening for these convenient tellings as well, but those clear, uncomplicated motives provide a satisfaction that she doesn’t believe responsible crime reporting should always be compelled to give.

“At Crime Show we do not hypothesize about people’s motives,” Courtland says. “In some ways, listeners need motive to protect them. Without motive the world feels scary.”

Courtland is part of a wave of academics and investigative journalists who are attempting to use the more expansive format of podcasting to tell stories about crime that are more complicated than those pat explanationsthe kind that so confused me about the much more complicated story I observed at 17. These new, primarily women narrators are using stories about a singular crime to tell a bigger story about a culture that allowed for, and sometimes erased, that crime.

By most accounts, the biggest market for stories about crime are women, who consume the majority of true crime content, be it television, books, or most recently, podcasts. Experts generally agree that women are absorbing all this crime to make their worlds paradoxically safer, ostensibly taking lessons on how to avoid victimization from each terrible misfortune they encounter. Just as women made Investigation Discovery the third most-watched cable network in 2015, women are driving the true-crime boom in the podcast industry as well. Though men listen to more podcasts than women, nearly 75 percent of true crime listeners are women, according to a study published in The Journal of Radio & Audio Media in 2018, with that number possibly even higher now; as Spotify recently found that women’s consumption of true crime podcasts rose 16 percent in 2019.

As it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that women love to listen to endless details about the goriest shit that happens in our culture, be it televised or piped in through earbuds, little caveats from psychologists reminding the audience that consuming all this crime is probably okay, a public good even, have begun to become run-of-the-mill when publishing figures around women and true crime.

“My research suggests that women are drawn to true crime because of the information they can learn from it, even if they aren’t aware that that may be the reason they are listening!” Amanda Vicory, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University who studies women and their “attraction” to true crime, told Spotify during a marketing push around a spate of true-crime offerings that came complete with its own trigger warning for descriptions of suicide, murder, and abuse.

This messaging, that women are consuming true crime at an unprecedented rate for their own good, provides a safety blanket with which to wrap our collective obsession. “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered,” is the tagline of the wildly popular My Favorite Murder true-crime podcast, in which hosts Karen Kilgarif and Georgia Hardstack couch the gory details of crimes they’ve Googled and offer advice to listeners such as, “If you have a bad feeling, do what you need to do and apologize for it later. Steal the car and drive off, apologize later if it turns out he wasn’t going to kill you.” But while the premise of My Favorite Murder rests on the idea that women need to know about brutal crimes, of which women are most frequently the victims, the real crux of the show is entertainment. In its praise for My Favorite Murder, Vulture once said of the show that “murder can be funny.”

In America, homicide is the fifth leading cause of death for women ages 20-44, but studies consistently show that while media coverage of homicides and missing persons cases focuses primarily on white women, Black, Latina, and indigenous women are killed far more often and that those crimes are far more likely to go unsolved. A 2015 CDC study found that Black and indigenous women were far more likely to be murdered than any other group, while a 2016 study found that cases of missing persons cases involving a Black victim were four times more likely to go unsolved.

Centering white women and constantly turning conversation back to a case like JonBenet Ramsey or the college-aged women Ted Bundy murdered in the 1970s so often that we can now devote highly-rated comedy podcasts to rehashing those details is a convenient way for listeners to remove themselves from horrific realities. There are currently 2,306 missing Native American women and girls in the U.S., and 1,800 of those women were killed or vanished within the past 40 years. The majority of those cases remain unsolved. If podcasts are really to be a pipeline for women to get information about crimes happening right now to other women, it’s this information that most deserves to move to the forefront. But these stories are hard to tell in a way that feels sensitive to the collective trauma of so many who have or are currently suffering, and they’re not easy to hear.

One of the most memorable details of the court trial of the murderer I babysat for is that the friend who helped her bury her dead husband’s remains asked for a McGriddle on the witness stand while giving the testimony that would send her friend to prison—a fact I’ve laughed about with anyone who’s ever seen the true-crime television shows that featured the case. And it’s not just her story from which I can automatically pull funny little details. There are hundreds in my head at this point. Mainlining murder directly into my ears via podcasts has, in the five years since Serial made murder big business in the podcasting world, become my primary method of consuming it.

Any crime will do: the missing mom from Australia, the murder of the beauty queen from Georgia, the kids who realized as adults their dad was probably a serial killer, the perhaps journalistically unethical business of airing hours of a meandering phone conversation with a rural tinkerer right up until the moment he died by suicide, or attempting to find Richard Simmons when it’s possible he wants to be left alone.

Though oddly enough, podcasts have also finally gotten me to think about the ethics of consuming so much crime. Namely, the trigger warnings that come before the podcasts, previewing the horrors to come under the guise of caution. “A quick warning before we start the show,” the podcasts inevitably begin, explaining that the following podcast will contain murder, domestic violence, rape, child rape, kidnapping, torture, animal torture, grooming, sex trafficking, dismemberment, substance abuse, corpse abuse, and any other cruel and painful thing one human can do to another living creature. These trigger warnings have done what years of labels on countless packs of cigarettes have never been able to: Force me to think about what it is I’m putting into my body.

Even if murder can be funny, it almost always shouldn’t be. The problem with true crime as entertainment is that in attempting to tell a story that entertains an audience, the humanity of those involved in the crime often gets lost to the saleability of the story, especially as women’s media outlets attempt to find the next Dirty John, an L.A. Times feature that became a podcast that became a television series.

“A lot of women’s media outlets are trying to tell a wild story that could be potentially turned into something else,” says Justine Harmon, host of O.C. Swingers, who has also worked at Elle and Glamour. “These days a feature in a magazine has to pay for itself in potential for derivatives. Magazines unfortunately really have to be holistic in where resources are going. The old business model didn’t work and this is a sure bet.”

But this new business model involves actual dead people, or in the case of O.C. Swingers, living victims who still have not seen justice for their crimes. And though true crime is often touted as giving voice to the victims and families of those who have been affected by crime, it’s ultimately those creating the content who control the narrative. The distinction that separates faithful storytelling from sellable storytelling is one that worries Harman as well. O.C. Swingers focuses on the yet-to-be-decided case of Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley, a prominent Southern California doctor and his girlfriend accused of drugging and raping multiple women. It’s a story that, even as Harman reports it, has veered off-course as public sentiment and D.A. backing of the case has pendulated back and forth, with the charges nearly being dropped after sympathetic Good Morning America coverage of the case and then, in another twist, being re-pursued after an impassioned plea in court from a victim who is also a lawyer. It’s a horrible story, but also one that involves money, drugs, and what the title alludes to as a “swinger” lifestyle in an affluent part of the country.

On one hand, Harman acknowledges that “true crime gives people permission to drool over something.” But on the other, before O.C. Swingers provided a larger platform to broadcast publicly available facts, such as court records, about the case, it’s possible that the accusations against Robicheaux and Riley would have disappeared, especially after Good Morning America framed their story as a cautionary tale of wrongful accusations and unjust prosecution. “Seven women say something terrible happened to them and perhaps they should get the volume turned up,” Harman says.

But after three decades of “true crime” being sold as a guilty pleasure for majority-women audiences on networks devoted to often salacious crime programming, is it possible to take the genre seriously with a more academic makeover based on podcasts like Serial, which ostensibly take the murder business out of the supermarket tabloid gutter and give it respectable NPR trappings? What’s the hierarchy of “good” true crime versus “bad” for a listener attempting to responsibly hear the details of another person’s tragedy to kill time on their morning commute? For many podcasters, especially those with academic or social justice reporting backgrounds, the difference lies in the intentions of the storyteller.

“We’re trying to craft a narrative out of the chaos of life,” historian Natalia Petrzela says about the impetus for creating her latest podcast, Welcome to Your Fantasy, which takes a holistic look at the origins of the Chippendales dancers, a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s. In the podcast, Petrzela explores all aspects of the public fascination with male strippers, tying its genesis to the ways in which women were left out of the sexual revolution but also looking at the lives of the dancers themselves, many of whom feel exploited by their experience. But Gimlet, which produced the podcast, describes Welcome to Your Fantasy as being about “The dark and sordid history of global phenomenon Chippendales.” And the main focus of many conversations around the series is murder; a truly wild story in which Chippendales founder Steve Banerjee allegedly orchestrated the murder of his business partner and attempted to pay for contract killings of three other former dancers.

Crime doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but so much crime entertainment packaged as investigative reporting focuses on a linear path from violence to investigation to resolution, that it’s easy to forget that crimes are born of a time period and culture—a flaw that Petrzela, as a historian, believes that podcasts provide an avenue to correct, perhaps even more than academic research. “Podcasts, more than academic texts, allow enough offramps into the messiness, from racial discrimination within Chippendales, to classroom controversy in Peoria [over a Chippendales exercise video]. The podcast allows enough messiness to show through that life is not one neat narrative.”

Another woman podcaster hoping that she can use the genre to expose bigger injustice is Connie Walker, a former investigative journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Company whose podcast Stolen: The Search for Jermain uses the disappearance of a young indigenous woman in Montana as the impetus to tell the stories of centuries of missing, trafficked, abused, and ignored indigenous women in the region and all over North America. Its eight episodes are difficult to listen to, as Walker interviews Jermain’s friends and family about not only her disappearance but the violence they’ve faced in their own lives—from a teenager being left with no recourse than to punish her own rapist, then being punished for that retaliation, to an indigenous woman held hostage by her ex-husband for days before managing to escape. The violence endured by the women featured in the story is not difficult to take in because the framing of the podcast is unempathetic—it is hard to hear because the podcast chooses empathy for an entire community over a story that zeroes in on a singular act of violence, unlike so much other true crime that allows the audience to forget the larger world is generally indifferent to violence.

To Walker, it’s the difference between what her mentor, CBC host Duncan McCue, called storytelling versus story-taking. “We’re trying to take a trauma-informed approach,” Walker, who is also indigenous, says, noting that so much reporting about indigenous communities, especially on violence against indigenous women, parses the most salacious information from the story and then abandons that community once that sensational information has been broadcast, leaving those featured feeling revictimized by an ultimately for-profit story-taking venture.

“Non-indigenous, extractive-type reporting has done a lot of harm,” Walker says. “We’re trying to give people agency to tell their own stories.” The podcast format allows for months, even years of research, interviews, fact-checking, and storytelling, something Walker feels she didn’t have when she might have gotten 15 minutes to tell a story as a news reporter. And when an issue, like the hundreds, if not thousands, of incidents of missing indigenous women across North America is so much bigger than a singular story, that time means a bigger picture reaches a broader audience:

“It’s a crisis,” Walker says, “Not a new phenomenon. It’s been happening for hundreds of years and has never gotten the attention it deserves.”

The concept of “attention” is at the heart of all true crime. For better or for worse, the horror of a single person’s suffering will always attract more attention than the banal, mass human misery nearly everyone on Earth has trained themselves to look past on a daily basis. For twenty years, I’ve remembered the dark circles beneath the eyes of the woman who paid me to watch her children and then murdered her husband. Her story affects me literally not at all. In 2003, she was sentenced to 40 years in prison after a jury deliberated for just two hours. In 2005, the court declared that decision final at an appeal. But blood splayed across a living room floor in a crime scene photo in a 10-year-old episode of Snapped and the sad-seeming, ordinary woman who splayed it are still both hard to ignore and difficult to understand, a puzzle I can worry for hours, along with millions of my morbid brethren who can’t resist a short peek into the worst moments of unlucky strangers’ lives just for the macabre intrigue of asking, “So what’s going on here?”

It’s the details that have the power to haunt: the loopy witness demanding a McGriddle on the stand, the final, beautiful selfie of a young woman who vanished just hours later. But in mining for those details, the teller entrusted with the story has the responsibility to pull the lens back, forcing the audience to focus on the uncomfortable truths of true crime: a single crime has many causes, many victims, and rippling repercussions. Failure to account for all those facets in favor of the sexier gore is simply gawking.