The true crime audience skews largely female, sparking some to question why the genre is so popular among some women. But in Rachel Monroe’s new book Savage Appetites, she reverses that gaze, turning the lens toward four women who she thinks embody or challenge four classic archetypes of the genre: Detective, Victim, Defender and Killer.
Frances Glessner Lee, for example, an heiress well-known for her miniature dioramas of crime scenes, became the “Mother of Forensic Science” in the 1940s—well before women had a legitimate path into the field. Writer and assistant film and television director Alisa Statman became deeply enmeshed in Sharon Tate’s family (and the victims’ rights movement) while living in the Los Angeles home where the Manson “family” murders occurred and writing a book about the aftermath of the Manson murders with Tate’s niece, Brie.
Landscape architect Lorri Davis, meanwhile, negotiated for the release of her eventual husband, Damien Echols—one of the so-called West Memphis Three—from death row. And in a story with all-too-much relevance today, in 2015 then-23-year-old Lindsay Souvannarath was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for her plot to commit a mass killing after meeting two conspirators, James Gamble and Randall Shepherd, on Tumblr. The three had connected as part of an online fandom devoted to the two Columbine High School shooters.
A&E True Crime spoke with Monroe about the ways in which each of these crime stories resonates with today’s readers— and the reasons why so many women have an insatiable appetite for true crime.
Frances Glessner Lee became famous for miniaturizing crime scenes into dollhouse form. How do you think her story is relevant today to female detectives and forensic science students, as well as our cultural obsession with true crime?
In many ways, she was a precursor to what we see today, which is that most forensic science students are women. That’s notable in any field, but especially a STEM field, where we normally hear about the underrepresentation of women.
There have been a lot of explanations as to why women are so drawn to true crime and forensics. With Frances Glessner Lee, we see a really clear example of someone who was intrigued by crime in part because she was drawn to it, but also wanted to remain outside and above it. She could almost master this frightening world through her intelligence.
Another thing that’s still so relevant about Lee today is there wasn’t a space to handle a woman who was interested in that [field] at the time. People kept her around as kind of a media curiosity: this grandmother who knew a lot about crime. But when she tried to have a real impact, she was pushed out and made fun of. Things are a bit better now, but forensics investigation remains a male-dominated field in the upper echelon.
A lot of people found the romance between Lorri Davis and Damien Echols surprising, given their very different backgrounds and circumstances. What is your take, after meeting with them?
We do have this cultural fascination with women who fall in love with murderers, and I think Lorri is very wary of that trope. What she would say, first off, is that the person she fell in love with was not actually violent or a murderer.
She spent close to 20 years devoting her life to righting this wrong, this injustice, which makes it clear that it wasn’t just about sensationalism or notoriety, as we might see in other cases. That was one of the most surprising things in talking to her: what a slog this entire process was.
When she fell in love with Damien, he was on death row. The story gets told as a story of romantic devotion, which it certainly is, but it’s also a story of phone calls, paperwork, appeals, fundraising, dogged persistence and all the other things that go into a long fight like this.
People have written about her and her romance, and it always seemed like this beautiful, fated thing. But I always thought, there’s no way that it’s that simple… When I met her, I came to really admire her for her genuine open-heartedness, devotion and tenacity. Part of what surprised me was that there wasn’t some sort of dark twist there, which is not to say that their lives were, or are, easy. But that beautiful story is, on some level, really real.
Unfortunately, in our era of mass shootings, the chapter on Lindsay Souvannarath has a lot of contemporary relevance. What do you think are some of the factors that contributed to this digital subculture around the Columbine shooting?
Particularly with the online fandoms that cropped up around Columbine, we have to own our complicity as a culture. The media did, in some way, make those two young men who killed their classmates and themselves into icons.
We’ve learned a lot; the way shooters are represented in today’s media is very different. But there was a kind of mystique and fame that was afforded to those two killers.
What do you think set Lindsay Souvannarath and James Gamble apart from others in these underground Columbine fandoms?
On one level, there was a lot of irony at play in the way…online ‘fans’ were using this horrific event as a way to look at their own experiences as outsiders.
But when it came to Lindsay, that sense of irony and the actual violence kind of blended together. It became a real fetishization of murder, and the idea of gaining fame and attention through that.
Lindsay and James, the couple that planned this shooting that didn’t happen, didn’t seem all that interested in violence or hurting people specifically. The fetish was the attention, participating in this cultural ritual. And although Lindsay was herself biracial, she also fell into this world of Nazism and white supremacy. It was a fetish for power from someone who seemed meek and powerless, but online, she could pretend to be this other person.
What is one takeaway you’d really like readers to glean from the book?
Sometimes, true crime stories are used as escapism. I’d like to push back a little bit on that.
Particularly, the stories that become social and cultural phenomena can shape our politics and policies—they get into our heads as individuals, but I saw that they also had a real cultural, social and political impact too.
We have to be careful with what we use as escapism, both in the stories we listen to and what we don’t pay attention to. Certain kinds of victims get a lot of attention, and certain victims don’t get enough, especially people of color and other marginalized people. We should be a little more aware as we consume these stories. Instead of using them as a way to zone out, we could use them as a way to plug in more to our culture.