Marfa writer Rachel Monroe recently published her first book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession (Scribner), a nonfiction work that combines reportage, reflective first-person essays, and cultural criticism. Monroe, who has written for Texas Monthly and the Atlantic and works as a volunteer firefighter (full disclosure: she recently recruited me to join her in the latter endeavor) has cast a wide net in this book. Her subjects range from Frances Glessner Lee, an early-20th century debutante and detective, to Lindsay Souvannarath, an internet troll who planned a mall shooting with her online boyfriend in 2015. This interview has been edited for length, clarity, train sounds, and small-town gossip.
Texas Monthly: A lot of the women in your book are really unusual for their time. Now that crime shows are on every channel, and bachelorettes attend true crime conventions, is an interest in murder and mayhem still the mark of an outsider?
Rachel Monroe: That was something very notable at CrimeCon [an annual true crime convention covered in the book]. There was a visible minority of people who presented as goth, with edgy piercings, big crazy boots—the sort of thing you would maybe associate with people who are really into serial killers. But the vast majority had that standard girl-at-Starbucks affect, much more sorority-inflected—to the point that some of the gothier people seemed to feel weird. Like, “Sorry guys, you got elbowed out of your own subculture!”
But as long as there has been mass media, there have been people interested in crime stories, especially women. There were a ton of women at Lizzie Borden’s trial in 1893.
TM: I was interested in your decision to include autobiographical pieces in the book that delved into your personal relationship to true crime. You write about what you call “crime funks”—periods when you gorged yourself on true crime content to cope with adolescent depression and the pressure of growing up female in a culture “fascinated by wounded women.” Did these personal threads happen organically, or did you splice them in from other essays?
RM: They were always there because they seemed really crucial to the project. I think people like true crime because it can be reassuring. You can identify a person as bad or problematic, and then distance yourself from them. Like, “That monster, that f—ed-up family, that tragedy is over there, and here I am. This could never happen to me.” And that’s a way you can dodge your own complicity in the systems that make it all possible. I really didn’t want to do that. But I also had to excuse myself early on from writing about problems with the contemporary criminal justice system, because that’s its own book, its own curriculum. I felt I could use the “I” as a bridge figure for a reader who might be turned off by the prospect of trying to identify with the complicated women I was writing about. An interesting thing that has happened in some interviews that I’ve done is that people will be like, “How do we know if this book is an example of virtuous true crime?”
TM: Is there such a thing?
RM: I don’t know if there’s virtuous art at all. It seems like there’s a lot of denial in that question and that there has to be a recognition that there’s something in the mess of true crime, in the ugliness of it, and in the moral ambiguity of it, that is useful and desirable. Accepting that, looking at that, saying that out loud doesn’t make me feel good as a reader but—
TM: That’s reality.
RM: That’s why I have such an allergy, I think, to the writers who sidestep that and make what they’re doing into a virtuous thing, like, “I’m just honoring the victim.” People have this strong sense of their own intuition, like “I’m the only one who can see through the case,” either in their ability to solve it or in their ability to tell the story. Unless you’re writing about the interior of your own brain, you’re writing about other people, and it’s not fair. It just isn’t. Which is not a license to do a terrible job, but in some ways being a writer is just a greedy profession.
TM: I was really struck by a line in your book about “the terrible privacy of murder,” about how true crime reporting often hinges on the murderer’s point of view, and how that can be another kind of violation of the victim. I’m thinking particularly of the story of the missing girl from your hometown, where detectives called up ex-boyfriends to corroborate her murderer’s story that she had died while engaging in a specific kinky sexual act.
RM: There’s a strong impulse to simplify the people in these stories into archetypes. For the victim that’s “the sweet baby angel” and then there’s a corresponding monster. I think that doesn’t do anybody any favors. People talk a lot about how they want true crime stories to be more “victim-centric”; they want true crime to be more ethical. But I think it’s not quite that simple, because in many cases turning the spotlight on the victim would almost create a sense of cause-and-effect: What did she do wrong? What could she have done better?
And there is that terribly unfair thing that happens when people become a victim of a crime. The public has a real sense of entitlement to information. There’s a sense that if something is being held back, or withheld, or not released, that that is in itself somehow suspicious. And so these peoples’ lives get opened up to the world and treated like they’re public property.
TM: People think of forensic science as this highly technical thing, almost to the point of being magical. And a lot of that has to do with CSI making it seem like you run some fingerprints through a computer and there’s an instant solution.
RM: Forensic science is all just probability. There’s a very strong split between people who feel it’s definitive and people who think it’s trash. The problem is when you have forensic science trying to talk to the legal system—you have a science that is about probability and doubt, and a legal system in which any expression of doubt gets weaponized.
TM: An interesting point in your book is that the American legal system comes from the British legal system, which dates back to the Magna Carta and the property rights of the king. So it’s this archaic framework that has progressed exponentially in the past hundred years, but isn’t all the way there yet.
RM: If your eyes are open at all, you know that these systems are not going to save you. But there’s still this desire for some larger power embodied by science or the courts to fill that void. And rage when it doesn’t.
TM: This book made me think of a handful of murders that have happened here in West Texas. Have you noticed any difference in the way that a small town processes those sort of events versus, say, the JonBenét Ramsey murder, where people are very nationally tuned in?
RM: I remember thinking when there was a school shooting in Alpine three years ago that people seemed to be giving the family [of the shooter] a lot of privacy and space. When you’re embedded in a community, it’s impossible to depersonalize these things enough to treat them as content or entertainment. After the body of a Sul Ross State University student named Zuzu Verk was found that same year, I found some online message boards about her. I didn’t know her at all, but there was something very odd about seeing these people from Ohio or Montana speculating about her death. It was all very respectful, but it did feel strange.
TM: Do you find it hard to live in such a remote place and do the kind of writing that you do?
RM: It’s hard to live here logistically sometimes; it’s annoying to get to the airport. I was just talking to an editor in New York City about doing a story somewhere in Texas that would be a ten-hour drive from Marfa. He was all excited, like, “It’s in Texas!” I had to explain that it would involve me driving to El Paso, flying to Houston, then flying to South Texas, and then renting a car and driving some more. It was a total bafflement to him. And so in that way it’s hard. But it’s also a great advantage too. It’s an advantage to not have too many people doing what I’m doing around so that I don’t feel anxious and competitive, until I go on Twitter. Not being in a major coastal city means that my understanding of peoples’ realities is different—and I say that as a white, college-educated woman, so they’re not that different. But even just the fact of living in rural Texas is a novelty. It means that I’m attuned to different things. I can find my way into stories differently, find different stories, find different stories interesting. People relate to me in a different way. And, for me, this has just always been a good place to write. Knock on wood.