OCTOBER 31, 2019
MURDER IS AMONG the most ancient of human stories. Take just a few steps east of Eden and you stumble right into murder: Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden and, the next thing you know, there is Cain raising his hand against Abel in the fields. Cain initially denies his guilt, but has little chance against the detective assigned to his case. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he queries of God, in a weak attempt to beat the rap. Western literary and political and legal texts have been wrangling with the question ever since.
But as archetypal as the Genesis tale may be, murder is anything but ahistorical. Who is allowed to be a victim? What do monsters look like? Can there be justice after violence? These are the questions that Rachel Monroe explores in her new book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession. Monroe confesses she has always been “murder minded.” She recalls, as a “gloomy child,” filching a copy of Helter Skelter from her parents’ bookshelves and scrolling through the Columbine killers’ online manifestos. Later, in graduate school, she would seek solace from jangly nerves and a shaky post-2008 job market by bingeing back-to-back Law & Order: SVU episodes. Blending memoir, investigative journalism, history, and cultural criticism, Savage Appetites sets out to explore what gives tales of murder and mayhem their enduring power in the United States.
Each of the book’s four sections — Detective, Victim, Defender, Killer — focuses on a single criminal or crime-obsessed woman. Monroe introduces us to Frances Glessner Lee, Gilded Age heiress and unlikely pioneer in the field of forensic science, who turned her genteel hobby of making dollhouses to the more macabre purpose of constructing miniature murder-scenes, a training-aid for aspiring detectives. Next up in the book’s carefully curated rogue’s gallery is Lorri Davis: mild-mannered landscape architect who, obsessed from afar by the possible wrongful conviction of Damien Echols for a 1993 trio of satanic child murders, gave up everything to become his legal advocate and eventually his wife. In the role of killer, Monroe follows the case of 23-year-old Lindsay Souvannarath, whose pact with cyber-crush James Gamble to carry out a Valentine’s Day mass shooting was foiled by police in 2015.
Monroe’s ostensible aim is to unpack women’s peculiar relationship to, and fascination with, true crime. Yet the scope of Savage Appetites is actually much more wide-ranging. Each chapter analyzes how crime stories are products of their historical moment and, properly interpreted, record that moment’s economic, political, racial, and gender power relationships with the accuracy of a dusted fingerprint. By zeroing in on the media through which crime stories are consumed — pulp fiction novels and newspaper headlines, true crime television series and Court TV, internet chat rooms and social media — Monroe reads America’s “true crime” obsession as stark testimony to some of our nation’s most enduring and murderous historical legacies. Savage Appetites becomes, in its own way, a neat piece of detective work: Monroe unearths what has to be buried in American crime storytelling in order to produce tales that are easy to consume and guaranteed to turn a profit, both economic and emotional.
Typical of the laser-sharp detective work that guides the book is Monroe’s novel retelling of Sharon Tate’s 1969 murder as a catalyst for the rise of the victims’ rights movement in the 1980s and ’90s. The Manson family murders captivated the nation with their potent blend of celebrity, drug-fueled ’60s flower-power, and sheer brutality. Sharon Tate made for a particularly sympathetic victim, serving as the prototype for future victims from Lady Di to Laura Palmer. “She should be a little sexy and a little sad,” Monroe details, sketching a portrait of the “perfect victim” that could double as a dating profile. “If possible, she should be white and blond. Her face should look good on a tattoo or a T-shirt. Dying tragically transforms her into an icon; she’s more legendary, more ubiquitous, but she’s also flattened. The more upsetting the circumstances of her end, the more beloved she’ll be.”
Sharon Tate’s grave became a pilgrimage site, regularly littered with yellow roses and clumps of weeping mourners for decades following her death. In the early 1990s, a young woman named Rosie Blanchard began sending Doris Tate, Sharon’s mother, Mother’s Day cards. Then, one day, she came knocking on the Tate’s front door and introduced herself as Doris’s murdered child, reincarnated. She would later change her story and claim, instead, to be Sharon’s child: the unborn Paul Tate’s twin who had miraculously survived the stabbing, and been spirited away from Sharon’s lifeless body by men in black suits. Rosie eventually met and married William Garretson, the hapless caretaker of 10500 Cielo Drive who claimed to have slept through the murders. “[H]e was the only one who could empathize with my pain,” Rosie offered by way of explanation.
And Rosie Blanchard was far from an anomaly. Scores of more run-of-the-mill Sharon groupies buzzed in the margins of the Tate family’s lives for decades after her murder (like “unslappable mosquito[es],” Monroe quips). Monroe tracks down and interviews Sharon’s surviving family, including her sister Debra, as well as a number of Tate-adjacent obsessives. We meet Alisa Statman, an aspiring actress who rented the caretaker’s bungalow at 10500 Cielo Drive and, from there, befriended and moved in with a recently divorced Patti Tate to help her raise her teenage sons. We meet Bill Nelson, Bible-toting Orange County native and self-described “researcher” and victims’ rights advocate with a self-published book (Tex Watson: The Man, the Madness, the Manipulation) and a history of feuding with Statman over access to Tate family documents.
As entertaining as these characters’ tabloid shenanigans are, Monroe’s deeper gift is teasing out how these personal tales of obsession and grief intersect with, and are fueled by, larger cultural narratives. By 1979, Sharon Tate’s mother, Doris, had begun channeling her grief into victims’ rights activism. The timing was right. After decades of liberal-leaning prison reform, by 1980 the criminal justice pendulum was swinging back toward tough-on-crime policies. California was among the first states to backpedal the rehabilitation trend with its 1982 passage of Proposition 8, or the “Victims’ Bill of Rights.” The new law sought to support victims of violent crimes in no small part by limiting the rights of the accused or convicted, curtailing the use of plea bargains and the insanity defense, and instating “sentence enhancements” (a forerunner to three-strike and mandatory minimum sentences) for repeat offenders.
Doris Tate proved an inexhaustible advocate for murder victims, making the rounds of talk shows and radio shows, serving on the boards of dozens of victims’ rights groups, and lobbying politicians in between. Sometimes she combined these roles: in a 1986 appearance on The Phil Donahue Show, Tate lambasted sitting California Chief Justice Rose Bird for her anti-death penalty leanings. In keeping with the populist tenor of her host’s show, Doris gave a folksy, rough justice paean to capital punishment as the swiftest means of countering recidivism. “[B]ecause the guy that goes to the gas chamber,” she drawled to audience applause, “well, my dear, he’s one less we have to worry about.”
The grassroots victims’ rights movement thus coincided with, and helped to reinforce, the increasingly draconian “penal populism” of the Reagan era. “One does not have to be attacked to be a victim,” Reagan sermonized in his 1985 State of the Union address. Generalized anxiety among whites in response to the momentous social and judicial reforms of the Civil Rights decades had delivered Reagan the White House in 1980; over the next two decades, it would also be usefully tapped to support a wide range of reactionary — and racist — policies, from dismantling the social safety net to the War on Drugs.
The racialized subtext of tough-on-crime and victims’ rights rhetoric was at odds with the sociological and demographic data on crime during this period. “[D]uring the heyday of the victims’ rights movement — and still today — the people who were actually the most likely to be harmed by violent crime were young black men from low-income neighborhoods,” Monroe notes. She explains that “[s]tudies of victimization find over and over again how similar victims and perpetrators are, but in the new rhetoric of victimhood, the world was divided up more neatly.” The more populist imagery of us against them, of good against evil, circulated ceaselessly on evening news reports and in political stump speeches. It worked to enshrine and institutionalize long-standing socioeconomic and racial divisions in the United States: the innocent middle-class white woman, the dark-skinned “inner-city” “thug” or “superpredator.” By the time crime rates dropped precipitously toward the end of the ’90s, the pattern had already been set. Mobilized in defense of a fictional white woman victim, tough-on-crime policies in fact oversaw the mass incarceration of millions of low-income black men, mostly for minor crimes.
Monroe’s analysis is always nuanced, never polemical. She is far from castigating the victims’ rights movement and its founders, including Doris Tate. On the contrary, she portrays them with deep empathy: as grieving women of murdered children who found in activism a way to productively channel their pain. She illuminates the way Doris Tate and others’ concern for murdered and battered women drew much-needed attention to the traditionally taboo topic of intimate partner violence. They played a crucial role in fueling rape crisis centers, shelters for female survivors of domestic abuse, and a host of other progressive measures aimed at protecting women. But Monroe also illuminates the way that these victim-centered narratives could be pressed into the service of some of our nation’s most shameful racist legacies.
Monroe does not exempt herself from the seductive lure of the dead white girl trope either. She intercuts the story of Sharon Tate as archetypal victim with her own passing acquaintance with a murdered white woman in her native Virginia. Eighteen-year-old Taylor Behl had last been seen at the Village Café in downtown Richmond on September 5, 2005; Monroe obsessively followed the unfolding drama in the media. She only realized later that the news cycle on September 5 also included coverage of the US Army Corps of Engineers finally pumping water out of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “revealing hundreds of drowned bodies in attics, in nursing homes, on street corners.” “Nearly two thousand people died throughout the Gulf Coast, and I don’t know a single one of their names,” she comments soberly. “Despite […] the scale of the tragedy, Katrina didn’t impress itself on my mind with anything like the intensity of Taylor Behl’s murder.”
Crime stories are at once titillating, a kind of voluptuous guilty pleasure, and a narcotic: they offer temporary relief from real-life worries. Of her grad school crime binges, Monroe recalls jogging away entire afternoons on a treadmill at the campus gym, eyes glued to Law & Order playing on a loop. “I ran until my shirt was soggy with sweat, without getting anywhere at all,” she confesses. “I craved the rhythm of the show rather than any one plotline. […] I got in pretty good shape not because I liked running, but because I didn’t want to go home, where I might have to think about what I was doing with my life.”
By the end of the book, it becomes clear that Monroe’s opening image of watching crime procedurals on a treadmill (running “without getting anywhere at all”) is an allegory for the dangers of allowing obsessive cultural narratives to distract us or, worse, lull our critical faculties to sleep. Monroe recounts her experience at the Oxygen cable network’s annual CrimeCon in 2018, and her mixed feelings about attending an event that gathered so many giddy women (women make up the overwhelming majority of true crime consumers) to spend a week immersed in murder. At one panel, audience members voluntarily donned blindfolds and wrist restraints as a cheerful criminologist read aloud from a serial killer’s diary, inviting participants to imagine his victims’ pain and fear. Monroe balks. “How long was I going to be trapped inside this terrible narrative,” she wondered, before realizing she had it in her power to pull the blindfold off. Popular crime narratives, in order to gain their hypnotic force, exploit their audience’s blind spots. In Savage Appetites, Monroe has her eyes wide open.
Ellen Wayland-Smith is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table and of The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (forthcoming April 2020). Her essays and reviews have appeared in Signature Reads, Catapult, The Millions, and Longreads.