True Crime’s Deceits: The Genrefication of Tragedy




ONE MAY MORNING when I was 12, a rumor spread among the children at my neighborhood playground. The park was four walls of high chain-link surrounding a basketball court, next to a faded blue-and-orange jungle gym in a pit of wood chips. It was situated high on top of a hill overlooking the Boston skyline.

Someone had found a baby by a dumpster at the bottom of the summit.

The rumor transformed the visual kinetics of the park. Clusters of rapt conversation, dribbling in place instead of active play. Groups of preteen girls huddled by the right angle of the fence to enclose their whispers. Kids on rusted low-riders were flagged down to get the news.

This hill was ruled by a motley assemblage in hand-me-downs, ranging from near-babes to teens. We lived at different elevations: the higher up you were — usually a vinyl-clad Victorian — the better off your family was. There were good sides and bad sides — faces — of the hill, safe zones and sketchy ones. Everyone knew the difference, especially, if we came from the lowlands.

The baby was somewhere down there, on the way to the convenience store that bordered the highway overpass. You’d walk there with a girlfriend or borrow a set of wheels to buy some hot fries and a soda. It would have been unusual to go into the shadow of the overpass without backup.

Something was finally happening. We possessed a secret knowledge that we could hold over grown-ups. Once confirmed, adults would steal jurisdiction. Who was going to see it? The clock was ticking, but not because anyone worried for the baby’s welfare. Rumor was, the baby was already dead.

Unmistakably so by the description. The baby was now an it, a distancing pronoun that kept this precarious game afoot. But until it was proven fact, there was intrigue. There were arm punches, queasy stomachs, faked confidence and expertise, and wide-eyed smirks. A round of dead baby jokes ensued among the teenaged boys for good measure.

The storytelling had already begun. What had happened to the baby? Two younger girls had brought the knowledge as an offering to their older, popular counterparts, to which I was simply an awkward tangent. The gory details played well at this elevation, far away from the dumpster. Was it a serial killer? I spent nearly every summer day at this same playground my entire childhood and rarely witnessed this level of enthusiasm or existential intrigue.

Who was chickenshit and who was going down to see the baby?

The absurd cruelty of the scenario and the likelihood of it being untrue made it a delicious, inherently safe expedition. You might be mocked, but it was still fair game to turn around at any point and run back up the hill.

My friends were going to investigate. But in this moment of communal bonding and unbound revelry, a familiar feeling of isolation overtook me. I worried I wouldn’t be able to hide it. I was not excited. I felt an almost serene sense of looming dread. Serene because I was accustomed to it.

I had no desire to see it. I wasn’t squeamish and I wasn’t afraid, not of seeing the baby anyway. I wasn’t curious or titillated. I had zero reason to doubt that this far-fetched gossip — the younger kids were known to exaggerate for attention — was true. In my experience, if someone heard about a body dumped somewhere, there would be a body. If someone went missing, they didn’t come back. The other kids were going to solve a mystery. I would just be staring at a dead baby.

I did not begrudge them their excitement. It was only natural. I had seen this reaction in adults before. Violence and death, so long as they didn’t touch you, induced excitement. To be up close to a tragedy without making contact was a thrill, a narrow skirting of misfortune. It was safety in numbers. Because it seemed unreal, because it was down the hill, because it was someone else’s tragedy, it was safe.

I was the outlier. I already knew what I would see if I went to the shadows. I would see her.

The herd ascended the chalk-laced asphalt in a pack. Was I coming or not?

¤

In the last decade, as the collective interest in true crime has risen, I’ve felt that same childhood isolation, the familiar aversion and detachment. Only now, instead of childhood whispers and elusive secrets, this genre of violent tragedy is popular consumption. It’s fodder for the well-educated, yuppie moms at that same playground in my now gentrified hometown.

I’ve observed this most recent wave in true crime’s long, social-climbing history mostly from the sidelines. Despite my love of mysteries and my work as a nonfiction writer and journalist. The podcasts, the docuseries, the hit movies, the Netflix binges, even the thoughtful literary treatments — they are pitched to me but they are not for me. Given its widespread appeal, the genre has become both pop culture and high culture, albeit still dividing along socioeconomic lines.

I don’t like true crime. It doesn’t entertain me or hold me in titillating suspense.

At the most basic levels of recreation and diversion, I don’t enjoy it. This is not meant as an indictment of the genre or its many followers. While it can be problematic in its treatment of sensational themes and even offensive to secondary victims, I can’t nobly say that I’m opposed to it solely on artistic or moral grounds. It’s not too graphic or too violent for me. And it’s not because I don’t want to enjoy it — I’ve tried. I have consumed it as media, have written it, have participated in its growth.

But true crime can never be my guilty pleasure because it’s a part of my history.

When I was 10, my cousin Deanna was found murdered in an alley a block away from her house in our hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts. It was four days after her 17th birthday. Deanna was my idol. Beautiful, witty, funny, tough — she was all the things I felt I wasn’t and aspired to be. She was also kind. Deanna laughed at my dumb jokes and joined in our puppet shows after school. She did more than accept me for the awkward little weirdo I was — she encouraged it in spades.

Deanna would issue a quick, smart-ass retort to a bully, or hop a fence without tying up her waist-length blonde hair. At 17, Deanna had some understanding of the harsh realities of our world, more than I did. I didn’t then know how she had come to this knowledge, but it was there somewhere behind her speckled green eyes. It didn’t shake her. Nothing did. Like all murder victims, she had the complexities of a dynamic human — a loved being — and she was taken, strangled, and left partially naked behind a housing complex. Someone made her an it.

In the days and months that followed, I watched this act of violence lay waste to my family and community. It seemed like her murder consumed the story of my childhood. This went on for years and extended beyond Deanna’s parents and siblings — the secondary victims hit hardest by the destructive weight of this unimaginable loss. My single mother of five became a kind of prison guard. My own freedom dwindled, my only reprieve those trips to the playground, now calculated and fraught. Everyone knew why. My mom had been the one to identify Deanna’s body at the morgue.

In those first months, I watched the media consume and regurgitate Deanna’s story. It was my introduction to true-crime mythology. One day a reporter came to the front door, having found my mother by the same last name she shared with Deanna. As soon as she realized he wasn’t a nice Mormon boy, she grabbed her Louisville Slugger and chased him off our crumbling brick stoop as if he’d been a rabid raccoon. I learned about the stories that we tell about people once they’re dead — some distancing, closing the door on a memory; others self-aggrandizing, with tragedy junkies placing themselves at the scene they had no proximity to. I watched the unspoken fight that ensues over ownership of someone’s memory.

I became a different kind of kid. I talked less, calculated my actions more. There were fewer dumb jokes, less carefree play. I retreated into introspection. My awkward tendencies were given free rein, smothering my spunk and charms. I became jaded and lost faith in institutions — the cops who didn’t catch her killer and the media who misreported details. I eventually found that the only way out of this darkness was through action and purpose, by burying myself in schoolwork.

The true-crime genre — the way it purports to be reality-based — is both too close and not close enough to the nuances of reality for me.

It’s too close because it’s triggering without feeling productive or cathartic. It’s impossible for me not to think of Deanna when I’m watching or listening or reading it. It doesn’t offer me the same titillating, morbid escapism it delivers to many consumers. Murder, after all, is the foregone conclusion in these pre-spoiled plots. The grisly details are swallowed whole by desensitized viewers, igniting the senses while making you hate yourself. What may be a quirky, dark obsession for some can be dangerous — cliff-like — for me. I assume the genre helps many consumers escape life’s small tragedies by basking in the glow of a big one. A giant fire lit to suck the oxygen from their many small ones. For them, it’s an escape from reality, whereas for me, it sucks me helplessly back to it.

True crime’s binge-worthy, blockbuster approach to presenting cases of murder doesn’t hold my interest. As with any narrative, there is organic and contrived erasure. What has been left out for our entertainment? There is typically a beginning, middle, and end — a resolution or at least a culminating pause in a lurking mystery, possibly to prompt a sequel. Unsolved murders like Deanna’s complicate these reductive tropes. The suspense and realism falter under the weight of lived experience. The tropes and tricks stick out too much. It feels performative and invasive. I can’t consume it as a voyeur. It can never be my pop culture or my casual Friday night, only an unwanted, awkward pulling at my strings.

It’s not that I always need entertainment culture’s claims of reality to be validated by evidence. My tastes run the gamut and include reality television — like the Real Housewives franchises, which I consume with obsessive delight, all the while knowing that the lives they depict have been filtered and staged. But with true crime, the curtain of illusion has been distractingly pulled aside by my own lived experience.

Like many, I find more empathy and truth in fiction that deals with tragic events — where relief comes at an illuminating distance. Stephen King’s 1982 novella The Body — adapted into the popular 1986 film Stand by Me — captures kids on the threshold of adulthood who go in search of a gruesome discovery. It epitomizes the feelings at that Somerville playground on the day of the baby rumor and those that surround my memories of Deanna’s death. Reading the novella and watching the film moved me.

But I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that day at the playground and indulge in communal suspense. And I can’t seem to do that now.

There will always be an ejection point on my childhood, a before time and after time. Slowly but effectively, my memories of the aftermath of Deanna’s death grew to outnumber the few memories of her alive. I have to safeguard them like brittle artifacts of a sacred time.

Even if I don’t happen to enjoy them, I can still recognize that not all true-crime offerings are the same. There have obviously been many thoughtful, even victim-produced narratives that complicate the standard tropes. My personal history makes me inherently, perhaps unfairly biased against true crime despite being the exact target demographic for it — white, a woman, and, for the first time in my life, financially middle class.

There have been many thoughtful takes on women’s cultural obsession with true crime, particularly its popularity among white women. Some argue that lower murder rates have created a safe space to finally explore stories of violence. Others claim that it can be cathartic, after lives of inequity and fears of violence, for women to see these stories given their due at a safe distance. Humorous takes like the comedy podcast My Favorite Murder can take power away from perpetrators and give it back to women. All are valid explanations that I seem to evade.

Like many women, I’ve spent an unfair amount of time trying to avoid violence against my person. And unlike my BIPOC counterparts, I know that the police would come if I called. The recent case of Sarah Everard has brought the daily threats faced by women to public consciousness, sparking hashtags like #ReclaimTheNight or #Shewaswalkinghome. Deanna, too, was said to be walking home the night of her murder, but the details are still contested. I can relate to this collective sharing of fears and stories of near misses and frightening encounters with men. But from the time of Deanna’s death, the threat of violence had come to seem less a distant fear or worst-case scenario than an inevitability. Not only because it happened to someone I love, but because it happened where I lived. The perpetrator was never caught. There was and is a very real person out there, waiting. He might even know my name. He might be reading this now.

Deanna was and is, in many ways, perfect material for a true-crime treatment — beautiful, white, mysteriously stolen. Her story fits with what sociologists have called the “missing white woman syndrome” — our cultural obsession with the sad fates of the relatively privileged, which often involves ignoring the everyday violence suffered by victims of color. It was impossible not to recognize this pattern when, years later, a young Black woman, Charline Rosemond, was found murdered in the busy city square at the bottom of my neighborhood hill. Also unsolved, the crime continues to receive a fraction of the attention Deanna’s murder did.

But even the true-crime allure of Deanna’s case wasn’t enough to sustain the media’s attention. For one thing, Deanna was poor: she came from the wrong side of the tracks in a town already called “Slummerville” by surrounding Boston-area communities. The realities of an unsolved case, a story without an end, with all of its messy details, complicated the narrative appeal of a simple story. And then a more salaciously gruesome murder followed Deanna’s, shifting attention and resources away from the “dead end” case. The lionization of law enforcement that characterizes so many true-crime narratives falters when it comes to Deanna’s story. And the voices that might volunteer to speak about the case wouldn’t necessarily be the most reliable or intriguing. Real-life murder is messier than its true-crime counterpart.

¤

I remember very little about trudging down the hill to the sketchier side of the incline. The street from the playground curved down like an orange peel until it was intercepted by a one-way street that shot directly down to the apartment complex and its dumpster. In my mind, the scene is overcast, the whole landscape on that side of the hill one big shadow. I had no desire to see the baby. But I went anyway. A pack of girls in messy high buns, their sun-kissed legs in short-shorts and feet in well-worn gray Keds, chomping on bubble gum — I was part of something, even if I didn’t quite look the part. That’s the thing about other people’s stories — they can pull us out of ourselves.

No one made me go. Mostly I just didn’t want to attract further attention, being an awkward and introverted tomboy. There were already enough factors alienating me from my friends — the overprotective mother they all feared, the gay dad whose secret I kept to myself out of concern for our mutual safety, and the fact that I was the one with the dead cousin. The only thing keeping us together was the playground and neighborhood we shared.

What we saw at the bottom of the hill already didn’t matter.

When the police arrived, the yellow crime-scene tape — the bat signal of true-crime rubbernecking — went up. The dead child made the news one night, but the story didn’t dominate. The whole episode seemed like a narrative blip. Enough people — people who mattered anyway — couldn’t say they knew that baby to make it interesting and keep the story going. The details were murky: “an immigrant of some kind,” and poor, had thrown her newborn from a window in a bag, or had killed it first and then thrown it out. There was no mention of mental health issues, postpartum depression, or abortion in the neighborhood whispers or TV segments. No one tried to unpack the fact that little attempt had been made to hide the child’s corpse. The fact that the mother had lived in our neighborhood, but no one seemed to know her, gestured at the invisible societal segregation. No one learned the mother’s name or country of origin or what happened to her afterward, but the story was that she was sent away. And not to prison. Whatever the truth of this tale, it didn’t hold public attention long enough to warrant a true-crime treatment, never mind an effort to get at the real truth. It was too uncomfortable, too distant, and so was relegated to the realm of urban legend. A dead baby without a good backstory doesn’t make for good TV.

We were all milling around with the neighborhood latecomers. Someone said they had to puke, but never did. Even though the rumor had been true, the shrugs and tepid responses indicated that the whole venture was a bust. The cops told us to keep moving, so we did. We moved right along with our lives. And instead of bonding over a shared experience, I felt more alone than before. Some faint awareness of the active narrativization of tragedy was taking place for me, tinged with a vague irony.

The same highway overpass that lurked over the building where the baby was found stood next to one of the only billboards in the city. This billboard featured a giant photo of Deanna smiling in her floral summer dress, with the caption: “Reward for information: $10,000.” Her marketable beauty and her whiteness seemed the only cards available to play when her murder was already being shunted aside, increasingly forgotten by a gentrifying city. A changing population was “discovering” Slummerville and making it their own, trying to forget the working-class city’s troubling past. Stories like Deanna’s didn’t do wonders for property values.

¤

In trying to avoid the true-crime bandwagon, I’ve somehow still obsessed in a different way. I feel the dramatic pull of the genre as a kind of debt. It’s like a taskmaster, a ticking clock. It’s drawn me to an art consumed by death.

But instead of watching or listening to stories of dead or forgotten women, my catharsis comes from investigating them and writing their stories. Our relationship remains all business, productive. I love these women, but we’re not friends. Already dead, they can’t be murdered. The more I write, the more I realize I am writing the same story. In school, I studied history, focusing on the long dead and not the freshly killed — the further removed from my life the better. But as a writer, I returned to the stories I knew best. It was years of doing this before an outsider, a poet, told me: “You write elegies to dead women.”

I’d like to think that it’s an edifying use of my trauma. But maybe that’s what everyone thinks when they first join the bandwagon.

That’s the narrative pull of violence. Its insidious allure makes hypocrites of us. I can’t begrudge true-crime fans their obsession just because I don’t enjoy it. I see how it serves as relief and compensation. None of the kids at the park that day had particularly easy lives.

I’m guilty today of the same sins I was at the playground, telling tales of anonymous babies detached from their humanity. Perhaps unfairly, I take ownership of their stories. All the more damning, I have become­ a journalist and writer, the false authorities I grew up distrusting. To talk about a nameless child is easier than to talk about Deanna.

It’s been 26 years. Deanna’s murder remains unsolved. Unsolved murders leave us with moments of terror — real, inescapable trauma, not lighthearted exploration — and, interspersed amid the numbness and void, the painful work of societal erasure. The stories of the dead and the lives of the secondary victims are placed in limbo. Each year, another person close to Deanna, a memory holder, is lost to death or addiction while another tragedy seeker is born, pulled toward cases like hers. Another writer looking for a story.

So, I will never be “true crime, glass of wine, bed by nine.” The realities of mourning a real crime prevent it. Not for me the Pinot and popcorn and Netflix binging, but rather police records and therapy and bumping into unwanted faces in the same forsaken town that took her. I could leave, but I won’t. It’s all far worse for her mother and siblings who must live daily with the cruelties committed against her.

Despite the marks of violent hands on Deanna’s body, my family still insisted on an open casket at the overcrowded wake — not just for saying goodbye, but to send a message: This is what happened. Somebody did this. A child is gone. Not to look at the violence, that would have been an easier, more palatable story to tell. To me, that’s what true crime feels like: a closed casket. A superficial barrier.

Murder isn’t meant to be watchable.

¤

Gabriella Gage is a writer and journalist from Somerville, Massachusetts. A 2019 James Merrill House Fellow, she holds degrees from Harvard and McGill. Her work has been featured by The Boston Globe, Ploughshares, The Globe and Mail, and Longreads. Her website is gabriellagage.com.

¤

Featured image: “Crime Scene Do Not Cross” by Hubert Figuière is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.

Banner image: “Moreland Street, Somerville MA” by John Phelan is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.

 

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