savage appetites and empowered victimhood

NOVEMBER 10, 2019 BY
Digital writer Christina McBride sits down with Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Apetites to discuss the nuances in visibility, whose story gets told, and who gets searched for. Monroe’s book explores what it means specifically for women to become obsessed with crime.

“Perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us,” Rachel Monroe, Savage Appetites.

Rachel Monroe’s debut novel, Savage Appetites, follows the stories of four women, across time and place, who become obsessed with crime. The women each fall under a separate category: “The Detective,” “The Victim,” “The Defender,” and “The Killer.”

“The Detective” made intricate miniature crime scenes, “The Victim” weaseled her way into the Manson family, “The Defender” fell in love with and helped release Damian Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, from prison, and “The Killer” unsuccessfully planned a mass murder inspired by the Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris manifestos.

Monroe tracks women’s interests in true crime and investigative stories from Harriet the Spy, to the Discovery network’s Swamp Murders, to the Tumblr fan base labeled the Columbiners, a faction of users obsessed with Klebold and Harris.  

Savage Appetites is a culmination of Monroe’s interests: crime stories, stories about people obsessed with crime stories, and personal experience. Monroe grew up reading Harriet the Spy, the ultimate childhood observer and possibly the reason why many women, myself included, started writing, or kept writing. Monroe quotes and refrains Harriet’s desire to know “everything, everything.” And what better way to know everything about everyone than to dissect the darkest real-life stories?

In an interview with ROCKET, Monroe explained that she decided to write the novel when she realized “there’s a gendered component to interest in crime stories.” In 2015, the Oxygen channel raised its viewership 42% when it started broadcasting Crime Time, a dedicated true crime spot. Two years later, Oxygen rebranded to be “all crime, all the time.” The only show that survived the shift was Snapped, a series that recreated bizarre cases of female murderers.

Women are listening to My Favorite Murder, that first season of Serial, they’re watching the Ted Bundy tapes, Making a Murderer, Unbelievable. Women are consuming crime stories more than men. The reason for that, Monroe offered, is “women are more primed to think about their vulnerability than men, and that makes the stories appealing. By reading them, we’re working through something, working with something, working something out for better or for worse.”

But who is primed to think so much about their vulnerability, and is also empowered by seeing it represented on screen?

Monroe visited CrimeCon, a convention where true crime fans could go to events like “Wine & Crime” and buy merchandise themed with various famous murderers. There, she writes, she “didn’t hear a single story about the people who are disproportionately at risk of homicide: sex workers, the homeless, young men of color, trans women. Instead, there were more teaser-trailers for TV specials about murdered moms, or moms who murdered.”

The missing white woman trope is common in news coverage. There’s a scramble to find and defend missing white girls and women, as they fall into a damsel in distress stereotype. Meanwhile, as Jada L. Moss writes in the William & Mary Journal on Race, Gender, and Social Justice, “in 2016, African-American missing persons cases appeared amongst the remaining older and open cases four times as often as the cases of White and Hispanic missing persons.” There is disproportionate media coverage on missing white girls, even though they are more likely to be found than missing Black girls.

This mainstream representation of white female victimhood supports the idea of the empowered victim. White women hold power, we’re related and married to powerful white men, we vote for politicians who keep our spouses and our race in power (hello, 52%!). There’s an incentive to keep ourselves attached to the powerful, no matter if they also oppress us.

“That’s the tricky thing about being a white woman,” Monroe said, “You’re a woman, you’re disempowered and disenfranchised in various ways. But also historically, politically, we’ve seen how white women have totally upheld systems of power that benefit them. And being able to hold those two things in your head at the same time, that they could both be true, that people can be marginalized and also oppress at the same time, I think that’s really important and hard to do.”

One of the only roles women are offered in crime stories is as the victim. Consistently seeing ourselves as victims reinforces the idea that we must be aware of our vulnerability, that we should be afraid of the world around us because something could be out there. In this same vein, white women’s anxieties can be used to oppress: think of Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant or all the different iterations of BBQ Becky.

When we think about crime, we put people in boxes. We think about victims and perpetrators. Defenders and prosecutors. The perpetrators in these stories are, statistically speaking, mostly men. The ones we canonize are white men: the Columbine shooters, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, BTK, and the Zodiac Killer (never confirmed but the police sketch looks white to me). Ted Bundy became almost a sex symbol at the time of his sentencing, and this was recently reinforced by Zac Efron’s performance in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. We do not idolize murderers who are men of color in this same way, partly because homicide is largely an intra-racial violence and we do not cover as many stories about victims who are people of color. It is worthy to note the current media coverage on Samuel Little, a black man convicted for the murder of 8 people and claiming to have killed over 90 more. The FBI reported that he is the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.

We allow killers the status as otherworldly figures, as not human, as smarter than human, as evil geniuses, as monsters: “We sort of want serial killers to be these fascinating, godlike figures, when they’re often just like really kind of banal. Or depressing,” Monroe said. The truth is that these are human crimes committed against human people, and we are responsible for telling the stories in all of their truths: “Lots of people who commit violence are themselves victims of violence. Any story that we tell that denies that reality is an incomplete or incorrect story—that doesn’t confuse anyone’s violence, but it puts that into a more honest context,” Monroe added.

Drawing the line between victims and perpetrators is dangerous; we have to tell these stories in their complexity. It’s important to think about how we, as a society, have failed those victims. How did the system fail? How did these perpetrators get into positions where they had the power and ability to commit such crimes? Where are we at fault? The stories we consume affect the way we interpret the world around us and how we act within it.