Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
Guilty pleasures: "True Crime" and the narratives of criminology 
16th-Jun-2012 10:33 am
ws: castabella
I apologize for the overly academic subject line, but it kind of did write itself. Y'see, I was recently in New Orleans for a week and a half (day job--trade show--nothing to see here, we are a hedge), which of course meant I had access to cable and occasionally a spare hour or so, when FRIED TO THE BONE after work, to watch it. Which meant, in turn, that I had the opportunity to watch trashy true crime tv shows. Case in point: the Oxygen Channel's Snapped (which specifically labels itself a guilty pleasure in its current opinion poll).

Snapped is kind of the epitome of my aversion/compulsion relationship with "True Crime" (a label which is in itself kind of iffy, as I'll get into below: the hysterical insistence on truth merely emphasizes the inherent falsity/fictionality (and do we think those two words are synonyms or antonyms or exist in some other relationship to each other entirely?) of the whole damn enterprise). I find it deeply, deeply problematic for its penny-dreadful sensationalism, its exploitation of both victims and murderers (and the double exploitation inherent in its chosen focus on women murderers, even though, if the sample I watched was representative, it has a little trouble finding women who actually committed murder themselves, as opposed to being accomplices before or after the fact--and please note that the show is not interested in why women commit murder; it just wants to wallow in the emotionalism of Women! Murderers! It's the Human Interest Story run amok). And then there's the whole thing about "reality TV" and how utterly repellent I find it.

And yet, I sat there for two hours and watched Snapped, and I would have kept watching if I hadn't had to be up at 6 a.m. the next morning.

I've been wondering, in a kind of appalled by my own bad behavior way, what the draw is--why I will stop channel surfing for true crime, even when I know it's morally questionable trash with which I have severe ethical problems--and this morning, as I was driving the hour round-trip to take a urine sample to the vet*, I think I figured it out. Or, at least, part of it.

(Part of it, you see, I already knew, because the character traits that make me a horror writer also make me fascinated by violence and death and, well, penny-dreadful sensationalism. You have to dance with them what brung you.)

The thing that fascinates me about true crime is the chance to see storytelling in its rawest form. Snapped is actually a brilliant source for this, because they do their best to interview both sides, so you get the alleged murderer or the defense attorny or the alleged murderer's family (or some combination thereof) and you get the prosecutors and the cops and/or the victim's family. Snapped doesn't make any effort to decide which story is true (and they're very bad about not giving the whole story, which drives me nuts), but they present both sides. And you can watch the competing stories being constructed.

Sometimes, the alleged murderer isn't articulate enough to put a good story together. Sometimes, you can only see what she's told her family and friends in the reflections she casts. Sometimes you get a smart, articulate, even funny alleged murderer, and she can tell a really compelling story. And then on the other side, you have the cops and the prosecutors, who are telling a story based on the evidence they found (and, in some cases, on the obviously prejudiced opinions they have formed). And on both sides, it's the same thing: here are the facts presented by the crime scene and the documentable behavior of the people involved. How do we explain them?

I love this stuff. I love it even when it's annoying me by how badly it's done or how manipulative the genre is. True Crime is, with rare exceptions, an utterly manipulative genre: the cards are always stacked before you sit down at the table. And that's because it's a forensic genre (to make another pun); if it isn't just sensationalism, à la Snapped, it's the case for the prosecution--as, for example, the essays in The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper--or the case for the defense. You can see the storytelling happening, even in very good true crime, and in bad true crime, you can see the storytelling fall apart.

Someone's Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe, by Silvia Pettem, is a good/bad example. I bought the book (because it was on sale, used) because it's all about a fifty year old cold case and the use of modern investigative techniques to . . . well, to not quite solve it. Or to maybe solve it. Or something, because that's where Pettem's narrative-building ability fails. What Pettem wants to do is write a story about how her search for the truth about the Jane Doe found in Boulder, Colorado, in April 1954, and never identified, changed her life and the life of the officers who agreed to reopen the case and the people who contacted her wondering if her Jane Doe was their missing cousin/niece/friend and on and on and on, rippling outwards in a beautiful Random Acts of Kindness sort of way. The truth won't go there with her, and she's not dishonest enough to force it, but she's not . . . what's the word I want? brave enough? clear-sighted enough? to let go of her cliché and either write a piece of existentialist despair about the people who go missing in America every year and are never found or write a straight up piece about the investigation of a cold case, how a theory about the victim's identity and the murderer's identity can be constructed, and about how tenable, or tenuous, that theory is. (Or, you know, no need for the false binary, a book that did both would be stone cold awesome.) Pettem, I think, really wanted her search to end with definitive answers, and when it didn't, she didn't quite know what to do with what she had.

ETA: also, as it turns out, her theory about Jane Doe's identity was wrong. The same year Somebody's Daughter came out, Pettem's candidate was discovered living in Australia and Jane Doe was positively identified as Dorothy Gay Howard.

Pettem and I were, unfortunately, fascinated by different aspects of her Jane Doe. I couldn't care less about the wonderful people Pettem met over the internet because of her search; she's not very interested in either the way people fall through the cracks or the forensic/historical grunt work of creating a pattern out of the facts that have randomly survived fifty years of entropy.

But the thing that compels me is still there, even encumbered by somebody else's narrative: Here are the facts. What can we make of them? And that's while I'll watch true crime, mesmerized, even when I'm appalled at myself.

*Tangentially, because I know people worry, the urine sample is from the Jellicle Ninja. She's actually doing extremely well, for a kitty with Mysterious Kidney Problems (she has gained! weight! and is now actually, once again, on the chubby side), and the sample is mostly just to see how that whole urine conentration thing is working out for her.
16th-Jun-2012 05:20 pm (UTC)
When we had cable (2009-2011), particularly on weekends when I was vegging out, I would watch Snapped a lot (I also watched the America's Top Model marathons, so have a very skewed view of what television was like), and I agree: there's something about the double narratives that's fascinating.

(I used to buy the Ann Rule books regularly, and then leave them in the hospital/rehab center, when I was visiting Soren. Now I get them from the library. The stories are all very slanted, but still intriguing, in part because of the almost-desperate need to make sense of everything.)
16th-Jun-2012 07:34 pm (UTC)
I've never seen Snapped, but given that my exposure to murdered has been hitherto mostly filtered through my serial killer obsessed flatmate (female) and good friend (male) who are primarily interested in men who kill women (though they don't appreciate me pointing that out), I'm intrigued by the idea of a focus on Women! Murderers!
16th-Jun-2012 07:56 pm (UTC)
You've really hit on a lot of why I like true crime so much; thank you. I keep reading Ann Rule books even though I can recite her trademark descriptions (the women are always pretty, the men are always dashingly handsome, unless they're the perpetrators in which case they're ugly, just like in some versions of fairy tales.)
16th-Jun-2012 09:27 pm (UTC)
This is why I tell my nieces (and told my son) fairy tales in which the ugly witch could turn out to be the heroine, and the beautiful maiden could turn out to be an evil heartless harridan. The best stories for getting 'beauty can hide a depth of ugliness' are Snow White (of course, the step mother is very beautiful too, and the dwarves in original depictions were quite frighteningly ugly, but saved Snow White) and the really eery "Baker's Daughter," which hardly anybody tells anymore. (Mentioned in Hamlet: "they say the owl was a baker's daughter. We know what we are, but not what we will become.") I think we should start a campaign to redeem ugliness!

Edited at 2012-06-16 09:28 pm (UTC)
16th-Jun-2012 09:37 pm (UTC)
I've never been able to buy a book of true crime in a bookshop... it's the same kind of feeling I had when I was what, twenty something, and bought an 'erotic novel' to read with my husband. (and it took us forever to finish it... never did get more than a few pages at a time without something coming up.) But I recently ordered "the Judas Kiss" over the internet, because I'd seen the film based on it "Murder Most Likely." (Yes, yes, I'm sad... it is because Paul Gross was in it.) And... I have to say, it was the oddest thing, both watching the film, and reading the book, for the very reasons you say.

The film seems almost consciously aware of the fact that it's playing with narrative (actually, no, it IS consciously aware of that fact.) And it presents different versions of the crime, and the alleged murderers behaviour from the pov of witnesses, the investigators, family members, and even the perp (though not as much as you'd expect.) You see the alleged murderer trying on facial expressions to see what would have the most impact, and the final effect is incredibly chilling. You even have a key witnesses being interviewed on an American talk show, being egged on by the host and the audience to tell them 'the truth.'

I've not finished the book yet, but though thoroughly researched, it doesn't seem as aware of the genre it is in.
17th-Jun-2012 12:07 am (UTC)
Yup. This. I get positively disgusted with myself, but can't wait to find another one to watch.
17th-Jun-2012 08:44 pm (UTC)
I went to school in a building next to the cemetery where Jane Doe (Boulder, CO) is buried. I keep looking at Pettem's book sideways, and haven't been able to read it yet, but know she had to write an epilogue when new leads were brought up after publication.

The juxtiposition of an applied narrative to surroundings and a mystery that I know "in real life" produces just the wrong kind of cognitive dissonance for me, and yet the applied narrative and sensationalism seems to be (to me) the only way such topics get broached beyond those directly effected.
17th-Jun-2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
And also, as addictive as I find Snapped, it makes me miss American Justice and City Confidential. Not any less problematic with the constructed narrative, but something about them made me feel less sorry about being enthralled.
18th-Jun-2012 03:19 am (UTC)
I think you'd find Andrew Vachss's books equally addicting; he's a lawyer in Real Life and he defends children rather than adults.

You'll find his work pretty grim though, just a fair warning.
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