Law and Order (whether it was Special Victims Unit or another variety) played on the TV in my parents’ bedroom most evenings during my child/preteen-hood. Though the show featured fictional crimes, many of them were “ripped from the headlines.” In other words, they were based on true crimes.
Thus marked the start of my obsession. True crime was fascinating, everything from the criminal profiles to the victims’ backstories and the investigators’ tactics. I was hooked. I read up on all the major serial killers, from Albert Fish to Jeffrey Dahmer. In fact, I recently finished a beautiful graphic novel about the latter, illustrated and written by John “Derf” Backderf, a cartoonist who went to high school with the future repeat killer.
Documentaries about true crime play as I go through my many tax documents (oy), and I hear the voices of two, badass ladies from Los Angeles discussing real life murders as I wash dishes to my favorite podcast, “My Favorite Murder with Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark.” (Aside: Karen grew up Catholic and Georgia was raised Jewish. They openly discuss mental health and therapy, where they process their culturally-ingrained guilt. For all the murder talk, it’s actually a really healthy podcast.)
As a kid, I thought about how cool it would be to don the smart pantsuits and tight-fitting turtlenecks that Mariska Hargitay wears in Law and Order: SVU as the formidable Detective Olivia Benson. I loved investigating, and I’d developed a passion for true crime. All the main ingredients were there for a dream career.
In reality, I have always hated turtlenecks, and my personality doesn’t lend itself to threatening criminals and hardline questioning victims. So I found myself, as an adult, volunteering on behalf of crime victims instead. As a patient advocate/rape crisis counselor, my job is to be on-call at least one night a month, and if anyone comes to the Emergency Department after experiencing sexual assault or intimate partner violence, I go in to help them navigate the aftermath.
Looking at the world of crime from the social work perspective made a lot more sense to me than scrutinizing it through the lens of law enforcement. The victims we work with aren’t “victims,” they’re survivors. They’re people who have survived the “heinous crimes” that I grew up watching dramatized versions of on TV. As advocates, we’re hearing these survivors’ stories and (ideally) empowering them to determine their own endings.
Herein lies my dilemma. As a true crime connoisseur in my personal life, I take in stories that sound not unlike those that survivors tell me at the hospital. Reading, watching, and listening to true crime stories means being a voyeur of strangers’ most harrowing moments. And that can feel, for lack of a better word, icky.
At the hospital, advocates are never voyeurs (and I’ve never felt like one in that position). We are there as helpers, period.
Still, reconciling my true crime obsession with my role as a crime survivor advocate hasn’t been easy. Frankly, it feels kind of fucked up.
A recent weekend forced me to examine my true crime love affair. On Saturday night, I fell asleep to the dulcet Valley girl tones of Karen and Georgia’s murder podcast. The case to which I fell asleep concerned an, I think, Italian man who fetishized washing women’s hair. His fetish only turned violent once, when he picked up a woman who was hitchhiking and consensually brought her back to his place to wash her hair (I think it might have been in exchange for some travel money?), where he washed for so long that both he and the woman fell asleep (I know, improbable). Long story short, when she wakes up, she’s tied to the chair she fell asleep in, and he’s “washing” her hair with everything he can get his hands on since he’s run out of shampoo — mayo, honey… I honestly forget the specifics. He ends up suffocating her in the process.
I had some creepy dreams, nothing that shook me up too much, and the next day rose early to attend a patient advocate training. I spent the bulk of Sunday helping teach aspiring volunteers how to advocate in the Emergency Department for people who have undergone rape, torture, etc. The only time the podcast really crossed my mind was when I thought about recommending it to a fellow advocate — but then thought better of it. It felt too exploitative to talk about true crime for fun when we were there to talk about the real people whose lives it can upend.
I’m not the only patient advocate who enjoys fictional and nonfictional crime stories. My friend, a former advocate who first told me about the program, is also obsessed with “SVU,” and we’ve spent many a hungover Sunday together binge watching. (For the record, “SVU” has turned into a soap opera. I would only recommend watching the older seasons.)
Passion for, or at least interest in, true crime appears widespread not just among those who work with crime survivors, but also women in general. Speaking to a female private investigator for a story I was researching last month, we discussed this proclivity. “I think it interests the female mind,” I remember her telling me. Both she and I know very few men as intrigued by true crime as the women in our lives.
In a piece for HuffPost, Anne Donahue also ruminates on her infatuation with murder stories, specifically the “My Favorite Murder” podcast. Donahue suggests that by devouring true crime stories, women “combat feelings of helplessness” as a part of the population that tends to be more vulnerable (most patients I see in the hospital identify as female — though that is of course not to discount survivors with other gender identities). A bunch of women into true crime creates a community, and communities offer protection from outsiders, those who may seek to do us harm. This view allows us to reframe our interest in gruesome, dark stories from something exploitative to something empowering.
As a survivor advocate, empowering patients is the goal. It’s hard to empower others if you don’t feel empowered yourself. I’ve learned that whatever makes you feel empowered, whether it’s reclaiming true crime or wearing your boots with the loudest heels (something I do at the hospital to help police officers and medical staff see me as an authority figure — I feel like it works), is worth doing.