How To Get Away With (Writing About)
There’s a scene in the television show Criminal Minds that I love.
The show is a trashy murder-of-the-week drama that follows a team of specialist FBI investigators as they fly around the US catching serial killers, and in this scene the head of the team berates an agent they’re working with for putting her ambition ahead of their case. She names a famous serial killer and in response he recites a list of names, to which she shrugs. Those are the names of his victims, he says.
“Nobody remembers the victims, everybody remembers the killer, and that’s exactly what happens when an agent puts the story ahead of the case.”
It’s a rare and slightly dissonant moment of reflection in a show that otherwise relies heavily on the serial killer industrial complex. Every episode depicts an increasingly far-fetched variation on the theme of the serial killer’s mind being a mystery that must be unravelled, equal only to the genius of the team that work together to catch them.
The point, that the story of the serial killer often eclipses justice for their victims, is designed to endear us further to their mission. But what it ends up doing, at least for me, is casting his question back at the viewer. What are we looking at when we tune into crime stories? What, or who, did we come here for?
As consumers of crime stories, these are questions worth asking ourselves, and ones I’ve been thinking about a lot since finishing The Five by Hallie Rubenhold last month.
The Five tells the story of the “canonical five” women killed by Jack the Ripper. Rather than dwelling on the identity of their killer, the book plots the course of each of the women’s lives, scrabbling together details from what documentation survives to us.
I liked The Five. It was compelling and frequently moving. It wasn’t perfect – one of Rubenhold’s central theses is that much of the Ripper mythology is based on inaccurate assumptions about his victims, for instance that they were all, or even mostly, sex workers. Though the case she presents is clear and no doubt important to dismantling the Ripper mystique, the book does unwittingly, and I think possibly against its own will, lean into the idea that to decouple these women from their associations with sex work is to absolve them of something.
Still, I enjoyed the book. I thought what it was doing by recentring the victims was interesting, even radical. In the epilogue, Rubenhold writes of the ferocious backlash to the book from (mainly male) “Ripperologists”. Not only do they object to the specific suggestions she makes, for instance that the killer attacked women while they were sleeping, but seemingly to the whole idea – of giving the victims any more than circumstantial importance, of reclaiming these women’s stories from their murderer.
I was reminded a lot while reading The Five of Michelle McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. It was published posthumously in 2018 and focuses on the author’s obsession with finding out the identity of the Golden State Killer, a rapist and murderer who terrorised suburban California in the 1970s and 80s.
Unlike Rubenhold, McNamara dwells at length on the details of the crimes, but in doing so she centres the experiences of the victims. She illustrates with searing empathy the lives that were interrupted or ended by the killer’s pattern of violence, and prioritises the hunt for details that could lead her and her fellow investigators to his identity, and to justice.
These books feel unusual to me because they do not hunger for an explanation of or from the killer, nor stoke this hunger in their readers, for instance like a show like Criminal Minds. But why is this hunger the default when it comes to telling stories of serious crimes in the first place?
To some extent, the interest in the perpetrator of a crime might be warranted. A crime, particularly a murder, is a rupture in the social fabric. We want to see it closed; we want resolution, atonement, justice. The model that we have for what that looks like dictates a specific set of consequences, and we want to see the murderer suffer those.
Putting aside the carceral system that this model upholds however, I’m sceptical that this perpetual focus on the evil of the murderer stems necessarily from a fascination with justice.
Kathy Kleiner, survivor of Ted Bundy’s attack on a sorority house, said to Vice that “People want to hear about the gore, but with the gore, there are also victims. We’re not part of the story for them.” This can be seen clearly in the perspective that is brought to many crime and police procedurals, the indulgence of a ghoulish fascination.
But I also think that there’s a narcissistic element to our fascination with serial killers, to do with the way we imagine ourselves into stories. We do not – we cannot – imagine our own annihilation, and that creates an imaginative distance between us and the victims. Though morally we align ourselves with them and seek out justice on their behalf, in the stories of their deaths we view them through the eyes of the killer, because they alone walk out of the story alive. To continue living is to control the story, and perhaps this is the perspective we privilege when we become obsessed with killers’ psychology.
This strikes me ultimately as a failure of imagination. We do not like to think about the fact that before the victims were victims they were just people – women, a lot of the time – living their lives, doing the same things that we do: dating, seeing friends, talking a walk alone. Thinking about the future we believe will come but have no evidence for.
Against this prospect, perhaps the figure of the killer is simply too compelling an object for imagination. Maybe what makes the storytelling style of The Five and I’ll Be Gone possible is that the cases are (or were) unsolved; the distraction of the killer’s past – the bump on the head at six years old, the prolonged pyromania – is hidden from view. With an unsolved case, the story begins and ends with the victim: they are our way into it, and before we can find our way out we must grapple with the difficulty of what has happened to them.
But I hope not. I think there is a mode of storytelling out there that can admit the complexities of violence and justice, and I think that we as readers have the capacity to combat the storytelling that fails to do this. Whether it’s a true crime book or an episode of Criminal Minds, I think it’s worthwhile asking who I’m being asked to think about. What would it be like to be the person behind the chalk outline, hearing my story told like this? What messages am I getting about the investigating force? And what might justice look like within this mesh of perspectives?