REVIEW; Savage Appetites; Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe (Review by Katie Glanz, Ph.D)

In Savage AppetitesRachel Monroe argues against a single explanation for women’s interest in true crime and instead gives a series of reasons women might be attracted to stories of violence and murder. Monroe skillfully weaves together her personal narrative and the stories of four other women, who are, like her, fascinated with true crime. While Monroe’s book challenges the single-narrative approach to women’s interest in true crime, the stories she tells subtlety repeat the reductive idea that women’s fascination with true crime comes from an identification with typical feminine archetypes of mother, victim, wife, and monster. 

Monroe divides her book into four different accounts of women who identify, consciously or unconsciously, with true crime characters: the detectiveFrances Gessner Lee; the victim, Alisa Statman; the defender, Lorri Davis; and the killer, Lindsay Souvannarath. These women’s stories slip into parallel stories about the Mother, the
Victim, the Wife, and the Monster. The detective, Frances Gessner, “the mother of forensics” (41), works to improve crime scene investigation practices and acts as a maternal figure for the policemen who learn from her carefully crafted murder-scene miniatures. Alisa Statman, the by-proxy victim, is obsessed with Sharon Tate’s murder and becomes deeply embroiled in the lives of the surviving Tate family members. Lorri Davis, the defender committed to freeing Damien Echols of the West-Memphis Three, ends up devoting her life to and marrying Echols. In Monroe’s account, Davis seems to follow a path of wifely starry- eyed devotion.

Lindsay Souvannarath, a highly intelligent depressed teenager, identifies with the paramilitary aesthetic and anger of the Columbine killers and plans a mall massacre with her online boyfriend. Souvannarath appears monstrous in her callous discussion of mowing down strangers, but Monroe rightfully argues that Souvannarath’s active imagination and her rage and pain are highly familiar to many American teenage girls who are expected to just “get over” the grief and anger that comes from living in a society that dismisses adolescent mental illness as normal teenage angst. 

Monroe’s investigation, while admirable in its scope, storytelling technique, and consideration of race and privilege, is propelled by an essentialist undercurrent. She frequently describes her own and other’s consumption of true crime shows, podcasts, and books as “binging” and “gorging” (6), as an act of feeding a monstrous hunger. Behind her language lurks patriarchal rules of femininity that require women to repress or control their disturbing appetites for food, sex, and pleasure. While Monroe admits true crime archetypes, “brilliant detectives and sinister criminal masterminds; the tragic victims and heroic defenders…are compelling in part because they are so reductive” (232), she seems to overlook her own narrative use of more basic feminine archetypes. Monroe’s archetypal characters and her use of food-shaming and diet-centered language reinforce problematic ideas about femininity—its irrationality, passivity, and monstrosity. While Monroe challenges familiar explanations for women’s attraction to true crime, discussing the many ways women might relate to stories of violence, she falls short of pushing beyond tropes of women as ravenous for violence, obsessed with victimhood, and drawn to the false sense of security provided by a remarkably unjust criminal justice system. 

Monroe’s stories of archetypal identification overshadow the insightful points she begins to make about the draw of true crime’s dramatic enactment of reparative relationships and societal failures. True crime stories offer more than experiences of identifying with victims, saviors, and perpetrators. Women’s interest in true crime may also stem from a desire to see life continue for the survivors of violent crime, the families, friends, and communities that pick up the pieces left behind by unspeakable violence. What might it look like to consider women’s attraction to true crime as a form of imperfect healing from the racist and misogynistic legacies that go into acts of rape and murder? 

Savage Appetites is available now from Simon and Schuster.

Katie Glanz, Ph.D. is a professional writer and researcher based in Austin, Texas. Her writing focuses on women’s worlds, psychology, and social justice. She publishes academic articles on political theory and psychoanalysis and is a contributing writer for a number of magazines and blogs. She loves cooking, gardening, true crime, and croissants.

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