Over the past decade, the true-crime genre has exploded in popularity, with podcasts like "My Favorite Murder" and “Crime Junkie” topping the charts, and true crime books such as I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara and American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI by Kate Winkler Dawson making bestseller lists. Despite the horrific retellings of the mistreatment, abuse, and murder of predominantly women, women make up most of the genre’s fan base. So why is it that women are so drawn to true crime, a genre that dives into gory detail of the victimization and murder of their own gender?
Women love reading true crime
In an unofficial survey of the Facebook group dedicated to Denver "Murderinos," the self-labeled followers of "My Favorite Murder,” it became clear that much of the interest in true crime came from seeking empowerment. One poster, Beth, said, "Perhaps as the common target for the most gruesome of true crime, women feel empowered knowing details. It also gives me ideas on how I might try to evade monsters."
Lalaena, another poster, agreed, saying, "Acknowledging that I, too, can be a victim of unprovoked violence and rage is scary. But feeling like I know how to survive or better avoid becoming a victim is maybe the most important element of my attraction to the genre." Women are taught not to walk alone at night and to be hyperaware of their surroundings. True crime is a way of acknowledging that this constant anxiety is there for a reason.
True crime enthusiasts are also often drawn to the genre to make sense of horrible acts and understand why someone would commit such evil atrocities. By diving into a criminal's psychology and background, readers hope to find reason within the madness, asking themselves if someone's madness can be threaded back to a particular cause, or if evil naturally exists within each of us, and some people choose to give in to its grasp.
And writing it too
While reading about these cases can give readers closure, the authors who put these stories together say they write about it for the same reason. "I love the task of crawling into another's mind. A mind that, on the surface, seems so abstract. But once evaluated, feels recognizable, similar in many ways. Most of the manuscript focuses on my journey to seek a deeper meaning in a shared history with a serial killer. I found that through writing this and better understanding not only a killer but myself, the action of writing was very healing," says Jamie Gehring, an author currently working on a memoir chronicling her story of growing up in Montana next to domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the “Unabomber." Kaczynski anonymously sent bombs to various organizations between 1978 and 1995, killing three and injuring twenty-four others. She says diving into the mind of a monster has helped her understand what happened and ultimately heal.
"Discovering the true identity of our neighbor was a rollercoaster of emotion. First was denial. He was our neighbor for twenty-five years, and I had known him for sixteen of those,” Gehring says. “He had brought me gifts and had dinner in our home. He was simply ’Teddy, the eccentric hermit."
Gehring says she spent hours poring over FBI evidence with retired FBI agent Max Noel, the Unabomber Task Force Supervisor. Her late father helped in the FBI investigation that led to Kacynski’s arrest and this inspired Gehring to write her book.
But what drives the love of the genre?
In her recent book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, journalist Rachel Monroe seeks to finally answer the question of why women are so drawn to true crime. The book dives into the stories of four different women, all with varying rationales regarding their interest in the topic. In her study, Monroe concludes that there is no singular answer to what drives the love of the genre, but she was able to see some other patterns in the rise of women interested in true crime. In this interview with The Guardian, Monroe points out that the most well-known crimes are committed against white women.
"I think a lot of true crime fandom, especially for women, exists in this zone between privilege and vulnerability,” Monroe said. “To enjoy it, you need to be privileged enough not to live it in your daily reality – if it's your own life, it's hard to find entertaining – but also aware enough of your own vulnerability to empathize. It's always complicated."
It's shocking that the horrible crime stories against women of color and marginalized groups rarely make headlines. In the same interview, Monroe states: "One thing troubling about the true crime genre is how disproportionately it favors stories about attractive middle-class white women who've gone missing versus stories about the people who are much more likely to suffer violence in our society."
It is important to tell the stories of all victims in order to honor their memories. Two books that do this well are Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which tells the stories of the lesser-known, mostly unsolved cases of dozens of predominantly aboriginal women disappearing along a highway in British Columbia, and Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?, which describes the case of eight women, working as sex workers to make ends meet, who were murdered in Louisiana between 2005 and 2009. The case remains unsolved and is plagued by the mishandling of local law enforcement.
The true-crime genre, while gruesome, enables women to explore their vulnerability and make sense of the evil that victims and survivors alike have had to endure. It allows readers to honor past victims and try to stay safe in a world in which they are vulnerable, but women must share the stories of all victims, regardless of race or other marginalized identities, in order to move towards a safer world. Do you read true crime? Tell us why (or why not) by tweeting to us @bookclubdotcom.