Why did a wealthy debutante devote her life to recreating bloody crime scenes in miniature? What made a stranger feel such kinship with the late Sharon Tate that she insinuated herself into Tate’s family? What led a promising landscape architect to ditch her career and marry a man on death row? And how did a bright, socially awkward young woman become so obsessed with the Columbine killers that she plotted her own murder spree to continue their mission?
In “Savage Appetites,” Texas-based journalist Rachel Monroe explores how a vicarious interest in violent crime transformed the lives of these four women — and how our collective interest in such crimes has shaped American culture. Because while these cases seem aberrant, Monroe points out that anyone who has ever binge-watched police procedurals can at least relate to their curiosity. Who among us isn’t transfixed by a sordid true crime tale?
The mysteries Monroe sets out to solve are as riveting as detective novels, but the angle is different. These are not whodunnits but whydunnits: Monroe points her magnifying glass at motive. What makes some of us “murder minded,” as Monroe has been since childhood? And why is true crime a genre that overwhelmingly appeals to women?
There’s no simple, universal answer, since, as Monroe points out, “ ‘woman’ is not a simple, universal category.” The reasons for becoming obsessed with murder are as varied as the motives for murder itself. The common thread is that for each of Monroe’s subjects, this obsession opens up a world that would otherwise have remained off limits, offering newfound power and a sense of purpose.
The book’s four sections revolve around the archetypal true-crime character each woman most identifies with: detective, victim, defender, and killer. Monroe’s “detective,” Frances Glessner Lee, grew up privileged at the turn of the century, but was denied a college education because her parents deemed it unladylike. Instead, she applied her intense intellect to the creation of elaborate, dollhouse-sized dioramas she called “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” Her microscopic version of crime scene investigation, Monroe writes, represented the “shrunken ambitions” of a woman deprived of agency in life’s big decisions.
Lisa Statman, the “victim,” was working low-level gigs on Hollywood film sets in the 1990s when she became fixated on Sharon Tate’s 1969 murder by followers of Charles Manson. After befriending, then moving in with, Tate’s sister Patti, Statman penned a tell-all book and began making appearances as a self-appointed Tate family talking head, despite the objections of other relatives, who felt she was appropriating their grief. Even if Statman’s motive was pure empathy, Monroe’s account exposes the perils of such an intrusive expression of fellow feeling: When you feel someone else’s pain so intensely that you make yourself a part of it, you write yourself into a tragedy where you don’t really belong.
Landscape architect Lorri Davis discovered a similarly all-consuming empathy for Damien Echols, one of the so-called “West Memphis Three,” wrongfully convicted of the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas. Davis’s obsession, at least, had a silver lining, since she channeled it into tireless efforts to secure Echols’s release.
Lindsay Souvannarath’s story, on the other hand, is a deeply troubling one — the kind that tends to trigger mass panic and the shuttering of online communities like the one where Souvannarath and her fellow “Columbiners” glorified what was once America’s deadliest school shooting. That panic is largely unfounded, Monroe notes: Although surprising numbers of young women profess their admiration for mass murderers online, few ever make waves outside the virtual realm
More worrisome is the effect that a fixation with true crime can have on the average addict. Monroe points to studies showing that the more media we consume, the more likely we are to see the world as a grim, dangerous place. When we focus on the crime blotters, we risk developing an even darker view of reality. This helps explain what Monroe describes as the “low-key, ambient paranoia” that makes her compulsively note where the exits are in public buildings. It could also explain why Americans, when surveyed, tend to report that violent crime is rising, when in fact it has been on a steep decline since the early 1990s.
On the other hand, crime narratives could be the antidote to this vague, ever-present sense of threat.
Part of their appeal, after all, is that they turn a brutal act of violence into a tidy little puzzle. When all the facts are knowable and every crime is solvable, murder loses its ability to terrify. For Monroe’s singular subjects, obsessing over true crime may have been a way to find meaning and agency in a world that belittled, ignored or misunderstood them. But for many of the murder minded, it may just be a way to get a handle on what scares us.
SAVAGE APPETITES: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession
By Rachel Monroe
Simon & Schuster,
272 pp. $26