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Love In a Time of True Crime
Women are taught to fear the bogeyman. The real threat is closer to home
Last October, I married a Swede. The wedding, which took place the day after the New York Times broke the first Harvey Weinstein assault story, was a Viking whirlwind in a posh Icelandic Airbnb whose claim to fame is that the Biebs once stayed there. The honeymoon was a sun-dappled stay in Portugal. (There were castles. So many castles.) And eight days later, clad in my freshly espoused skin, I found myself smack in the middle of suburban Stockholm legally wedded to a man I didn’t know very well.
Stockholm in late October is an uninterrupted iteration of gray. The sky is gray, the silvered tree bark is gray, the tarmac is gray, the buildings are infinite shades of Brutalist gray. Gray as a bloated corpse fished out of Slussen, Stockholm’s landscape lends itself to eldritch imaginings, and mired in this gray, newly wedded and alone in the Stockholm ’burbs, I got hooked on Dirty John.
Dirty John, in case you aren’t one of the podcast’s more than 10 million listeners or one of the Los Angeles Times article’s many readers, tells the story of a vicious serial con man named John Meehan who romanced, occasionally married, and bilked a multitude of women. The series, which depicts the many ways Meehan preyed upon women, shows the escalating devastation a bad man can cause — and the ease with which we women can believe that the worst guy is actually Mr. Right.
The plot centers on Deborah Newell, a fiftysomething SoCal interior designer who met Meehan on Our Time, a dating website for people of a certain age. Like Newell, I am also fiftysomething, and, as she had, I met my man online. Listening to Dear John, hearing the details of internet courtship, I took notice of Newell’s words. As she told her story, one part of my brain racked up similarities between her story and my own: how John had seemed perfect, how he swept her off her feet, how he made her feel loved — utterly, completely, and thoroughly loved. I listened, and I waited for the other shoe to drop. This wasn’t, I knew, a love story. It was a true crime story, and therefore someone, somewhere, was going to get hurt. I wondered if maybe it would be me.
When the chalk outline on the floor is around a woman, the heart of the crime is usually love.
“Getting married is maybe the most important decision of your life, and yet it’s often the least rational,” Chris Goffard, the author of Dirty John, said to me in an email. He is not wrong. In English, we fall in love, and this metaphor is telling. We don’t step mindfully into love. We don’t wade, stroll, amble, or walk in love — we fall, a verb that conveys love’s loss of control, potential for pain, and unknowable depth.
Who we love — especially when we’re women — can be a question of life and death. In 2017, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of all American female homicide victims died at the hands of intimate partners (worldwide, that rate is 38 percent). By contrast, nearly 78 percent of all U.S. homicide victims are male, and less than 10 percent of all murder offenders are women.
TL;DR: When the chalk outline on the floor is around a woman, the heart of the crime is usually love.
Dirty John was a smash hit, but it’s not alone. In all its bloodstained forms, true crime abides, whether your poison is podcasts like Serial, This Is Criminal, All Killa No Filla, or My Favorite Murder; television series like Dateline, Snapped, or any of Investigation Discovery’s many shows; documentaries like The Jinx, Making of a Murderer, or Capturing the Friedmans; or books like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Fatal Vision, or Killers of the Flower Moon. True crime is so popular that the Oxygen network went (almost) all true crime (almost) all the time a year ago. Just last month, it expanded its true crime roster further, with 10 new programs.
True crime is bloody revenge without the mess.
This is notable. Oxygen, the channel with the tagline “television for women,” knows what it’s doing. While true crime as a category is robust across most demographics, its core audience is women — and most of them fall into that tasty 25-to-45 advertising demographic. Chances are that if you’re reading this piece, you’re a woman, and I see you, my sister. I love true crime in all its permutations, trashy or high class, starkly factual or glossily reenacted. (My passion is true crime that features women criminals, but really, I’m a small-c catholic true crime devourer.)
Women like me are drawn to true crime for multiple reasons. We like the emotional closure of a solved crime, because many crimes with female victims go unsolved, or we like the ambiguity of an open-ended true crime story for the same reason. Women like true crime because, like horror, true crime feels good, spiking endorphins and adrenaline. We also like it because we can revel in the schadenfreude of a criminal’s capture or the relief of a criminal’s comeuppance.
Most immediately appealing to me, as the audience, is that I may move freely between identifying with the victim and identifying with the criminal, allowing me to safely experience a range of emotional experiences, from primal, clenched-throat fear to visceral, rampaging violence. True crime is bloody revenge without the mess.
But above all, true crime, for all its guts and gore, imbues its female audience with a sense of power — and that power is knowledge. Most women are smaller, weaker, and less violent than men, and women’s knowledge of our physical limitations is reinforced not only by daily life but also by most narratives. When a woman wins a physical battle against a man, it’s because she’s a literal superhero. True crime allows women to safely learn from the experience of others. Lucky or lamentable, all true crime victims become teachers.
Erin Lee Carr, a true crime documentary director and producer, says, “A lot of the violence that happens in our society is against women or people of color, so it’s women practicing if this were to happen. There’s a part of all of us that’s like, ‘What would I do if I was in the alley? What would I do if I was put in that situation?’ I think it’s practice.”
Sarah Weinman, author of the upcoming book The Real Lolita, agrees. “Women live their life, whether consciously or unconsciously, dealing with fear,” she says. “Women are always having to make the calculus” — the best ways not to get raped or killed, she means — “and it’s running as a background process all the time, 24 hours, seven days a week.”
True crime, then, can function as a kind of mental training for what to do when the time comes. This is part of the appeal of the wildly popular podcast My Favorite Murder. The hosts, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, close each show by saying, “Stay sexy. Don’t get murdered.” This slogan — so popular that fans bond over its acronymic, SSDGM — distills the show’s spirited essence. “Don’t get in that trunk,” goes one of My Favorite Murder’s prime pieces of advice. They are indeed words to live by.
True crime gives its female audience a handy-dandy, easy-peasy way to recognize dangerous behavior. “Some have said this series will save lives because it can maybe alert people to the sort of techniques a con man like John Meehan uses,” Goffard says of Dirty John.
“I think that women in general are always looking for signs,” says Lisa Levy, freelance writer and contributing editor at CrimeReads. “They look for good signs, they look for bad signs. And I think reading true crime is a way to hone that skill.”
Perpetrating a crime displays a human heart’s most primal impulses.
Reading, watching, or listening to true crime, in short, affords women the luxury of putting themselves in danger without physical risk and the headspace to prepare themselves without pressure. You can curl up in your vintage velour tracksuit with a glass of buttery chardonnay, turn on Investigation Discovery, and absorb survival skills, almost as if by osmosis.
Thus it was almost natural that Dirty John caused me to scrutinize my relationship with my new husband. Holding the whole of our history like an orb in my hand, I looked for flaws, for cracks, for inconsistencies, for untruths. I made a mental checklist of John Meehan’s many “tells,” like the way his rumpled clothes didn’t match his claim to be a doctor, his running out of cash when the dinner check came, and his needling comments that pried Deborah Newell away from her friends and her family.
I cross-checked Newell’s narrative and found…nothing. My husband, for all his very human flaws and superhuman beauty, seemed to be the man I married. I exhaled, and I moved on, and I continue to love both him and true crime.
Perpetrating a crime displays a human heart’s most primal impulses. Experiencing a crime — even vicariously — provokes a human body’s most primeval reactions. And solving a crime requires a human mind’s most rational reasoning. It’s a holy trinity of emotion, sensation, and logic. True crime hits a sweet spot that, like dating, was just waiting for the internet. “True crime is a very hot genre in part because of the internet,” says Levy, the CrimeReads writer. “The other thing that does well on the internet are personal essays. You could just say that people have a real desire to read about other people going through bad things, which I think encompasses both genres.”
When I imagine a Venn diagram of true crime and personal essays, I see a female audience in the middle. Whether by nature or by nurture, women tend to enjoy sensation, and the genres of both true crime and personal essays pull at human emotions and push at human bodies, creating a symphony of feelings, both mental and physical. Both command a largely female audience — and both are denigrated genres. Finally, both personal essays and true crime have mushroomed because of the internet, because of dating apps, and because of our symbiotic craving for and access to deeply intimate personal experiences.
“So much of true crime stories are about how love transmutes into rage, and how rage then leads to murder, but it’s also about wildly unrealistic expectations,” says true crime writer Sarah Weinman. “If you meet somebody online, or it’s exacerbated through text messages or instant message, it creates this world that is both part of the real world but is also removed from it.”
The phrase “both part of the real world and apart from it” is an apt way to encapsulate the experience of any romance, as much as it is a way of explaining our lives on the web.
The junction of crime and the internet animates the work of documentary filmmaker Carr. Her two documentaries — Thought Crimes: The True Case of the Cannibal Cop, which explores the story of Gilberto Valle, a former cop who is obsessed with killing and eating women, and Mommy Dead and Dearest, which tells the twisted story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who killed her mother with the help of her boyfriend — are both Extremely Online. Valle used fetish sites to explore his gory obsession, while wheelchair-bound Blanchard found her boyfriend on a dating site.
Neither Valle’s nor Blanchard’s crimes could have happened without the internet — and without the internet, we probably wouldn’t know they had. “Now it’s really hard to commit a crime without the internet being involved,” Carr says. “So, as a voyeur, as a curious person, I think it’s amazing to uncover how people thought about these things and then executed their plans.”
Carr says of her films’ two subjects, “They couldn’t truly reveal who they were, so they create these [online] avatars of themselves that represented what they actually desired sexually.” On the internet, as the classic 1993 New Yorker cartoon says, nobody knows you’re a dog.
Yet as much as the web has been a boon for criminals, it has also been a godsend to true crime fanatics, allowing us to watch real-time Twitter reactions to Jodi Arias’ murder trial verdict in 2015, read true crime blogs, or take deep dives into serial killers’ Wikipedia entries. But even more, the internet has gifted people with ways to get actively involved with true crime. Some true crime fans do more than passively sit on their couches absorbing lurid stories — some, like the late Michelle McNamara, the author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, start blogs; others join message boards; and still others begin movements like #MeToo.
True crime’s potential for evolution is especially meaningful for women because, while we are less likely than men to be murdered, we are more likely to be raped — and rape is one felony that has yet to be folded into the true crime lexicon as a stand-alone act. Rape, to be treated as true crime, still has to be appended to murder. However, Bill Cosby’s recent conviction on three counts of sexual assault gives true crime a juicy opportunity to recover this glaring omission, as does Weinstein’s recent arrest, and as do the unfolding revelations about R. Kelly, Charlie Rose, and myriad other powerful men.
“So what does a rape have to do to be a true crime story?” Lisa Levy writes in her April 2018 CrimeReads piece. The answer is a depressing mix of “be a good victim” and “be a victim of a serial rapist,” but often even the story of a perfect victim in a string of brutal crimes isn’t enough. Because, as Levy points out, rape stories are almost always women’s stories.
“I started reading books about rape,” Levy says, “and what I discovered was there were overwhelmingly memoirs, and I found that to be very interesting. It seemed to be a way to either downgrade rape and sexual assault as a crime or to say: Well, these stories that women are telling, they’re just stories. It’s just autobiography.” He said/she said, it seems, retains its power imbalance, even in literature.
Perhaps women are taught to be afraid of the wrong men, and perhaps true crime allows women the space to recognize that.
Purists might object that memoir is not true crime — that the genre requires an objective, outside observer who documents with a cold, calculating, and uninvested eye — but true crime has often made room for the first-person narrative “I.” Michelle McNamara sprinkles her book with her own experiences and feelings. Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, a book about serial killer Ted Bundy, is as much a eulogy to her friendship with Bundy as it is an investigation into his crimes and capture. Even the hallowed father of serious true crime, Truman Capote, plays with narrative point of view in his classic “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood. The male writers who followed in his footsteps, people like Gay Talese, James Ellroy, and Dominick Dunne, are all palpable presences in their true crime stories, too.
The problem, then, is not so much that it’s the women themselves telling the stories of their own experiences and sexual violation. It’s that, in addition to not often getting to trial or to conviction, sexual violence isn’t taken as seriously as homicide or being conned out of cash.
In the genre of true crime, the crime matters as much as the voice — and true crime has not taken women as seriously as women take it.
So why, in the great gray of Stockholm October, did Dirty John resonate so deeply with me? Why did it wake me at night to wonder about the past, hidden lives of the man insensate beside me? What about this story of a California con man rang so true? And how does this con’s story feel inextricable from the onslaught of #MeToo stories that flow like an endless sludgy river?
I’ve turned this mental Rubik’s cube over and over, trying to understand a connection between my suspicions, my feelings, and the haunting specter of my marriage. Sitting here in the hot light of the Stockholm May sun, I look at last winter’s anxiety, and I see the slow, burbling recognition of something that I’d felt — but never allowed myself to articulate — was true. And that is this: Perhaps women are taught to be afraid of the wrong men, and perhaps true crime allows women the space to recognize that.
Women — especially white women — are statistically the least endangered, yet we are fearful (a phenomenon called the gender-fear paradox). Women are afraid because, while both little boys and little girls are taught “stranger danger,” boys get to drop that fear as they become men; women do not. Women are taught to be afraid of every man we do not know (and even the rustle and the crackle in the dark that could be the men we don’t know). Raised with the specter of the bogeyman, we carry our keys between our fingers, stash our headphones the moment we step off the subway, and learn that regardless of whether you wear unflattering overalls or a tight skirt, it’s somehow your fault. The gender-fear paradox is real, but so too is the fear.
Culture raises women to fear strange men and to trust the men they know — the very men who, the cold facts tell us, are most likely to harm us. Women are brought up to #marrybestfriend in a #friendshipmarriage as our #relationshipgoals, we’re bred to be deferential to our bosses, and we’re reared to be reverential to celebrity. Our trust in men is as unearned as it is unreciprocated — yet it’s expected. And this is where true crime’s real value lies: Unlike love songs, unlike rom-coms, and unlike romance novels, true crime has no interest in telling us to trust men. Unlike politicians or bosses, it doesn’t seek to gaslight women.
True crime, unlike just about every other genre that we women clasp to our collective breast, doesn’t want to sugarcoat the world. It wants to tell us that our suspicions are correct: We are in danger, and the call is coming from inside the house. Only true crime tells us what we need to know to survive the men who want to love us to death — and this hard, glinting truth may be the reason why women love true crime, until death do us part.