Read at The Wheeler Centre: Next Big Thing Event (12 September 2016).
I’m in the process of researching a true crime podcast project that’s both the story of a crime but also an investigation into our fascination with true crime as a genre across popular culture. While not trying to sound too academic, this is very much a feminist project, a deconstruction of constructed narratives that inform the female – that is marginalised, feminised – experience. It’s called FATALE, after the coinage Femme Fatale, but with more emphasis on the literal; on fatality and the female experience than the long-legged image of vamp, the evil woman, presented in film noir.
I’m not trying to be overly moral with this project because, if anything, I find true crime texts as interesting and engaging – not to mention addictive – as the next person. This project began when I wrote a piece about SERIAL, the super famous podcast that looked into the murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent incarceration of alleged killer Adnan Syed. Published in SPOOK, I wrote:
Beyond reasonable doubt, we’re all guilty of a cultural obsession with dead girl dramas. Stories about pretty girls in shallow graves strike fear in our hearts and captivate our suspicious minds. Like countless others, I participate in this fascination; Twin Peaks, True Detective, Top of the Lake, Gone Girl – I’ve collected them all.
I stand by this statement. The crux of my argument in this short piece was not trying to be a Janet Malcolm rip-off about journalistic ethics, nor was it a condemnation of true crime as entertainment per se. My argument was more an exploration of these ideas, and why I too, as a woman, was so interested in this literary, televisual, filmic, audio form. And why so many other women are as well (being the main audience and market for true and fictional crime literature).
I was more nervous publishing that piece than any before; but supportive editors and colleagues can inspire a will and voice that help overcome most apprehension. Upon publication, I was surprised to find the short piece shared across the internets, quoted by the likes of Forbes, Salon, Digg and sampled on Longreads blog. I was less surprised to find damning statements provided by friends of friends on Facebook pages or the comments section below the article itself. Certain comments on the now defunct magazine page claimed I was “overthinking it”. Others that some of the language and quotes I used, ironically, knowingly, were “distasteful” or that, overall, in this 1300-word commentary, I presented a flimsy argument.
These responses were clearly from fans who maybe couldn’t handle that, in internet speak, their ‘fave was problematic’. And as an avid listener of SERIAL, reader of true crime, Twin Peaks nutcase, I was coming to terms with this myself. Likewise, I’m the first to agree that yes, my argument wasn’t as strong as it would have been say, if I had spent years building up an argument as an academic researcher or if it was an essay rather than part of the inevitable online cultural commentary churn that has a life cycle as long as a mayflies’.
I also agree that I might have been overthinking it. But I don’t think this a flawed approach. I’m actually proud of this tendency. At times overthinking might send me spiralling through a maze of anxiety attacks and medication, but it also means I can surround myself with books on or around an idea and that I’m open to any and all tangents related to the matter. It often takes an external party to tell me to stop reading and investigating and to start writing.
Essentially, what we watch and read and consume is shrouded by an invisible layer of assumption and dominance that I constantly question. It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the work I’m analysing. Obsession often leads to creativity, as well as amateur sleuths.
Admittedly, I am prone to kneejerk rage and ego-driven deflation too. So after rationalising these negative comments about my SERIAL article, my political and social identity outgrew my position as an insular and insecure writer. It was then I noticed that each of the criticisms flung at me by cis-gender white men. And I saw red. There’s no simple binary here: I’m not right and they’re not wrong. While these men were defending something they enjoyed, it was how they were defending it and, in essence, missing the point that made me angry and impassioned.
Hence here I am. Discussing the origins of the podcast project I hope to develop, that is responding to my personal – and our general – interest in this genre. True crime, like all other artistic genres, in whatever form it takes, is steeped in tradition and that tradition has been shaped by historic and cultural ideas and ideals of gender representation, race and class.
So what is the podcast idea?
A year or so ago, while researching for my PhD in TV criticism focussing on dead girl stories, my partner and I decided to take a long working weekend away, somewhere out bush. So we booked an affordable AirBnb, about an hour and half out of town, and off we went. But it turned out to be the opposite of a restful or productive weekend. The entire time we stayed at this cute bush retreat, I was set on edge. I hardly slept and I was scared to look in the many mirrors dotted around the place. It wasn’t just that I was reading and writing about death, that I was analysing our fascination with gender-based violence in pop culture, it was something else: I felt violence in my body, psychically. I supposed I had what professionals would call the “heebie jeebies”.
When we arrived back home, back to tall buildings and the internet, we discovered from a little googling, that thirty-years prior a woman had been killed in an act of intimate partner violence on the property where we’d stayed. I was shocked but in hindsight shouldn’t be: women are killed, most often in acts of domestic or intimate partner violence, on a weekly basis in Australia.
So I started wondering: why did this story come to me? This sensation from a place—a connection to the walls of the cottage and trauma of the lands—was that something others felt? Should I tell this story, and if so, how? Is it even mine to tell?
And so, since that time I’ve been developing FATALE—my podcast about gender based violence, a podcast about podcasts, about true crime, about dead girl stories, about whether it’s possible to use this fascination—because we are fascinated with the macabre—is it possible to use it for good? Is it possible to tell a true crime story ethically?
I have spent the last ten weeks of my Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship developing this idea: reading widely, bookmarking extensively and thinking thinking thinking. I’ve listened to a stack of podcasts, watched countless movies and eyeballed a tonne more Dead Girl shows. I have pottered around bookshops and libraries mining for morbid research gold.
The ideas presented here will eventually (hopefully, one day) take the form of a podcast series but also some writing around these ideas and the culture I’ve consumed so far. I’ve started drafting a lyric essay which I’ll read now. The essay is called “Seeing Red”.
The most influential texts I’ve read so far are by the inimitable poet, essayist and teacher, Maggie Nelson. In 1969, before Nelson was born, her mother’s sister Jane Mixer, was murdered by an unknown persons. Nelson mentions this case in the book she’s most renowned for, The Argonauts, describing how after the earlier release of a prose text Jane: A Murder and a non-fiction book The Red Parts: A Memoir about the case, she was stalked by a man who would tell her that Jane, her aunt, got what she deserved. The Red Parts was initially released in 2007 and was re-released last month with a slightly altered title The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial.
Nelson’s book is an inherently vulnerable, feminine response to a true crime, the impact of grief and violence. The red parts Nelson refers to are both literal – the images of Jane’s body offered in the trial – and metaphorical. Nelson describes “murder mind” the creative affliction she suffered from while making Jane: A Murder. She writes: “During this research…I would work all day on my project with a certain distance…but in bed at night I found a smattering of sickening images of violent acts ready and waiting for me.” She anticipated that the release of Jane: A Murder would release her from “murder mind”, but I’d strongly recommend everyone reads The Red Parts to see what actually happens. At this point in my research, I am yet to encounter “murder mind” in full. And perhaps, given I’m not researching the brutal killing of my relative, I won’t share the same affliction – after all, it was not my literal blood shed and shared. But I am seeing red everywhere.
I go to a bookshop with my partner and browse the true crime section. The spines and faces of all the books are splattered with vermillion hues. We snort that so many books claim to be the “case that shocked the nation”, like they’re documenting a horserace. As I’m looking to pursue this project with a sensitivity that is often overlooked in this field, I continue to research, research, research instead of contacting the family of the victim and case that will feature at the centre of FATALE. I do the work that’s at once peripheral and central to the task: I register a domain name. I apply for residencies. I commission a logo: one different, distinct from all the other true crime podcasts out there. Black and white, perhaps shades of grey. None of them work so I’ve started a Pinterest instead, collecting visual influences that seem to look how the audio concept should feel. Just today I encountered a new true crime podcast, Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer. The logo of which is an “A”, the font is scarlet and marked by a finger print. The synopsis, title, of this project looks to be about the criminal rather than the victim. A literal scarlet letter that ignores the potent gendered connotations of such an exercise. I see red.
Red is a deeply powerful colour, beside black and white, it is the first of significance across antiquity. My partner is Jewish and describes to me how the in the Old Testament Hebrew children would rub blood on their doors so that the Angel of Death would pass over their home. A home with red on the door was protected. The domestic setting is the core of my project. A feminine threshold warding away death. And I see red.
I finally listen to the Accused in full and realise it’s more dedicated, considered addition to the booming genre . In a bonus episode of podcast, host Amber Hunt answers questions from a live audience about their investigation and the project whole. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes interview whereby listeners gain insight into the hows and whys of making the show, and are offered any updates on the particular unsolved crime, the death of Beth Andes in the seventies, that season one pursued. Late into the 110 minute episode, a man stands up and states, with a tone the words themselves convey, the following:
“Amber, the reason I’m here is I sent you a letter some time ago, you didn’t respond. I tried to call you, you didn’t respond. I have left you messages, you have not responded. My question goes in a totally different direction, which is very simple that, I read your section [on the topic in the Cincinnati Enquirer] in full – which is about 45-minutes which I give you credit for because I can read the Enquirer in three-minutes, which at least it gave me something to read. As detective stories go, I’ve read hundreds of them, and I’ve written many over the years – I’m a former reporter – and it was good but not, there was no resolution, you really didn’t have any point towards the end of it. It was a whole 16-page section, which is my main argument with Peter, he an I have discussed this before…”
At this point Amber interjects asking whether he in fact has a question, before dutifully answering it with: “because I’ve spoken with the friends and family in tears because we cared, and I do care, and I will continue to care and I won’t apologise for caring”.
His question, spat with distaste: why did the newspaper waste their money on this “kind of story”?
And I see red.
One of my all time favourite books ever is Lesley Stern’s Scorsese Connection that charts masculine violence on screen and his crimson aesthetic. My creative practice is more that slightly influenced by this work, and by that of Nelson, and the care given by the likes of Amber Hunt: I start to connect all the red I see.
Last week I was bleeding, not life threatening kind rather the biological indication of my ability to bring life into the world. I openly joke that there is roughly one week out of a month I’m not hormonal to anyone who will listen, yet there remains shame and confusion around the fact many — not all — female-identifying people see red every month. Gloria Steinem once wrote: “So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much… The truth is that, if men could menstruate, the power justifications would go on and on…If we let them.” Each month I see red.
There is a major distinction between the books A Murder Without Motive from Martin McKenzie Murray and Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry, and Maggie Nelson’s texts. They are different pursuits — McKenzie-Murray’s an exploration of masculinity in the suburbs of Perth, Chaudry’s an exploration of the incompetence of judicial authority; Nelson’s a look at grief and vulnerability. But in considering a comparative analysis of these texts, grouped under the same ‘True Crime’ banner, I can’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s quote: “For most of history anonymous was a woman”. In this case, I mean as diluted subject and absented voice. Upon reading the book Women and Death: Linkages through Western Thought and Literature, I discover this erasure is associated with women and sex, sex and death. Aristotle aligned women with children and animals. After much deliberation, Christianity determined that women did have a soul – it was just lesser than those belonging to men. In the true crime texts I’m looking at, women are primarily the victim, little more than a narrative tool. The posthumous use of journal entries across the genre is phenomenal – something Nelson herself utilises while weighing up the consequences. Consequences, beyond judicial oversight, are often overlooked in this genre. As the red font across the cover of Chaudry’s book announces: Serial, and her book, are indeed Adnan’s Story. And as much as dedications and quotations can aspire to formulate an image of the victim, Hae Min Lee, she has been erased from this world, of true crime and the one of our own. Lee is no longer alive to tell her story. The case in SERIAL, and all the others consumed and read, are not – to utilise the ironic title of Emily Maguire’s recent novel on this topic, are not – in fact far from – An Isolated Incident.
And I see red.
But I buy the books with the bloody covers. I listen to the podcast emblazoned with a scarlet letter. I rewatch Twin Peaks and The Fall. Studies show that women are the audience most interested in true crime. This would be ironic if it wasn’t for the reasoning behind this. As My Favorite Murder cohosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark explain, this is because women can identify both with the killer and the victim. That it stems from a deep-seated anxiety, from fear, and vulnerability. So here I am today, telling you about my projects – my cheeks red from enthusiasm, nerves, alcohol – saying that I’m also an addict of this genre, but there’s more to it than meets the eye and maybe, at times, those stained and splattered covers or logos leave residule blood on our hands.
Here are some links behind my thinking – like a corkboard from one of those detective movies with a picture at the centre and a bunch of ruby thread and post-its surrounding. And that’s how this process feels, but it makes sense to me at the moment. When I write this into a longer form essay (book?) and release a fully realised podcast (FATALE!), it’ll be stuffed with fully supported ideas; less bitsy, more thorough; not a flimsy argument. And If it seems like I care too much or I’m overthinking it – good. Cos I can’t imagine anything worse than a fate handed to so many of these women, the victims of these stories: the fate of no longer being able to think at all.