Font Size: A A A

Advertisement

A True Crime

Melissa Chadburn
After murder came with shocking suddenness to my small town, I started questioning the storytelling ethics of a genre in which I myself had a stake.
A snowy road in San Bernardino County, California

Melissa Chadburn

Southern California, December 30, 2021

I live in a small town. There’s only one four-way stop, a population of roughly three thousand, and all mail and packages are delivered to the post office. It’s a fresh-baked-apple-pies-out-on-the-windowsill sort of town. There’s no local law enforcement. In our busy season, the hardware store often hires someone to help direct traffic.

Here’s where I share a bit about myself. Over the years, I’ve been an avid consumer of true crime; more than, some might say—a producer of true crime, too. In February 2020, I appeared in a docuseries on Netflix that detailed a horrific incident of filicide involving numerous failures within the LA County child welfare system. I was one of the experts, a talking head, but I was also a surrogate for the viewers: cataloging my thoughts about the possible motivations of parents who’d killed a child of theirs.

This is a trope of the genre, I’ve come to realize: the questions I posed place the viewers in league with the producer; they have their answers to those questions, the producer is simply articulating them. In our efforts to solve a crime, true-crime devotees often seek clues that confirm what we already feel we know about the case.

Another thing. I’m sober. I’m sober, and I go to AA. About a month ago, a friend of mine began showing up to meetings. I knew both him and his wife because all of us volunteered at the local pet rescue in town. The wife was exceptionally nice. She offered to visit my mother-in-law when my wife and I moved her to our town about a quarter of a mile from our home. “I love old people,” she said. From what I knew, she loved animals, old people, and babies, especially babies. They helped raise a neighbor’s kid and still took him in every summer.

The husband, his laugh always sounded so sincere in its jolliness. He looked like a biker Santa: a long beard, flat top, big middle, and long legs. He had a fatherly way of squeezing my shoulder as he entered and exited the room. 

In AA, we celebrate and mark our lengths of sobriety with small plastic chips. The day after Christmas, he stood up and claimed a thirty-day-sober chip, thanking us all for his new lease on life. Then he left, got drunk, went home, and murdered his wife. He shot her dead. Apparently, he’d been drinking all along, and she’d been harping on him about his drinking, and he was one of those Jekyll and Hyde, blackout kind of drinkers.

There’s something about a murder in a small town. I’m looking out of my office window onto our empty cul-de-sac. The tree branches stretching to the clouds, rooftops covered in snow, a small bright pink ribbon of light cutting through the center of the sky. Everything seems much more silent in the snow. I can hear a little bird’s feet three yards away on the street corner. Is this really happening?

I might in one instant see a gaggle of quails zipping along and then at the next instant remember, Oh, yeah, that happened. I awake in the morning, ready to begin my normal routines, and then I remember and feel the world shrink into its new, strange shape. 

Initially, my reflex was to try to learn how it could have happened. I became a web sleuth: Did he have any priors? A history of domestic violence? Where was he being held currently, and what was his charge? When was his court date? I refreshed my social media page looking for articles on the story, in hopes that if I had more information, I might feel connected with other people who were seeking answers to similar questions. It’s hard to shake the urge to make the unfamiliar familiar, to make sense out of no sense. That she’s not here and the world is still beautiful. There was a loving, doting couple, and then there was violence. These things don’t make sense.

*

There have been cases in which consumers of true crime have played an active part in solving a crime and determining who ought to be punished for it. For example, amateur sleuths on Reddit tracked down clues in the case popularized by Sarah Koenig’s 2014 podcast Serial. They pored over court transcripts and reviewed cell tower records, forming a posse of investigators that picked up whatever Koenig put down. Because so many of the investigative tools she used were also available to listeners at home, some took that as an invitation to play along. Amateur detectives abound on sites like Websleuths, Reddit Unsolved Mysteries, and Reddit Bureau of Investigation, trying to solve deadly mysteries from home.

Advertisement

The whole genre of true crime, but especially the newer cachet of true-crime offerings, raises ethical questions—particularly about the potential to interfere in actual criminal cases and in people’s lives. In recent productions, the creator or producer acts as the subject, or at least as a character in the story, and includes commentary about the process of researching and reporting the story. The viewer (or listener) can disengage at any time and assume the stance of the voyeur, a dispassionate observer. The thrill of terror without danger, as we take in the story safely on our daily commutes, sipping our lattes. Edmund Burke’s sublime: the notion that a feeling of fear paired with a sense of safety, and the ability to look away, can produce a feeling of delight.

As such, the genre perpetuates an in-group/out-group mentality. The reporter is an amateur detective, the web sleuths are vicarious investigators, all self-dramatizing characters in someone else’s noir. One example is Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (she died of an overdose while writing the book, about a serial murderer she dubbed the Golden State Killer). McNamara also founded the website TrueCrimeDiary.com. She’d hang out on the site late into the night in her daughter’s playroom and exchange tips with other web sleuths. In her book’s prologue, she writes, “I was on the hunt, absorbed by click-fever that connected my propulsive tapping with a dopamine rush. I wasn’t alone. I found a group of hard-core seekers who congregated on an online message board and exchanged clues and theories on the case.”

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote: “The appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.” It’s this thin veil between witness and a fantasy of witness that above all makes me uneasy—about the way we express horror at images of suffering, the way we make some elusive connection with the victim, as if we knew them in some way or knew their pain—and then, swoosh, we conveniently plop back into our lives to rattle off our own gratitude lists, so that the other’s trauma becomes a catharsis for us.

As the author and visual culture studies scholar Kimberly Juanita Brown writes, “We look. We look because it is our right as Western observers of everything othered. We look because it is a ritualized practice of shifting recognition.” Like those sitting in the gallery of a courtroom, the true-crime consumer, the amateur web sleuth, straddles the space between witness and spectator. This work, this seeking vengeance or what many call justice, mainly serves those who mourn the victim/survivor. But what kindof witness, what kind of recognition, do victims/survivors want and need? What kind of recognition would they want when they’re not there to tell us?

*

Before this happened, I knew my AA-going friend was an impassioned gun rights supporter. He’d often gripe on his Facebook page about California’s strict gun laws. I didn’t make too much of it—it was something he had in common with so many others in our small town. But last year, the US was grappling with not one but three public health crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, a major increase in domestic violence, and a rise in gun violence. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020 marked the deadliest year for gun violence in the last two decades: 45,000 people were killed. It also was a time when an estimated 23 million guns were purchased—a 65 percent increase from 2019.

That aside, many people in our town have placed this story in a box labeled Domestic Violence. Yet this makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know if any one container can get at the full story—is it possible to recognize the unfamiliar and disruptive in a true-crime storytelling praxis? It seems that the question to ask ourselves can be: What are the differences between listening for what we already know and listening for what we don’t know?

Highbrow true crime often involves testimony to an exceptionally dark moment, in which, characteristically, the writer or producer has witnessed some catastrophic circumstance that occurred in the past or elsewhere, some remote geographical place (a small place called Shit-town). These stories, though, usually center on some sort of aberrant behavior or an individual’s dysfunctional pathology; they’re rarely about chronic, systemic problems, such as racism, income inequality, lack of access to adequate health care. What the scholar Lauren Berlant called “slow forms of killing” are not the stuff of true crime.

The day after the killing happened to be the guy’s birthday. Someone who presumably hadn’t heard the news posted well wishes on his Facebook page. Someone else posted his arrest record and said, “He’s a murderer.” Someone else posted a comment asking people to please not post information like that and to respect the family’s privacy. Others told that person to shut the fuck up.

Advertisement

I tried to resist the urge to place him in too neat a box—I was, and am still, very much in mourning for his wife, and I think that in my desperate attempt to preserve her memory, it’s become important to me that she is not remembered for the worst thing her husband did. I wasn’t shocked to learn he’d been drinking while in AA. No sober person is ever shocked to hear that.

The owners of the pet rescue built a memorial on the small sidewalk out front, a kind of altar, painted blue with calla lilies, that protects and houses a platform, where people leave tokens of remembrance: framed photos, many of them showing her kissing a dog. The townspeople gathered at the rescue, stood in the dark, cold night, and held candles. We told stories that we thought she’d want us to tell, about how she’d volunteered there every day of the year without once missing one.

Afterward, we walked to the park, the same walk she took the dogs on each morning. People who had adopted dogs, dogs they saw while she was walking them, came from all over. Dogs I’d previously met, bony and abused, now looked plump and pampered, wearing sweaters and pink tutus.

Every day now, since her death, I walk the dogs at the pet rescue. The dogs she walked. I feed them chicken and hot dogs and talk sweet to them. It’s on my daily walks that I feel closest to her. I hear her voice at times. There’s so much I don’t know, but that she would want the dogs to be walked and loved seems certain. The walks are my wake work.

Both wake work and true-crime storytelling can share an interest in caring for the dead. Storytelling, like memorials, can be a living tribute. We can form a community practice that attends to death through shared grief and rage. True-crime storytelling can offer a provocative alternative to mourning and memorializing violence. Ultimately, in this loving and care, the true work takes place.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 20,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

© 1963-2022 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.