I was all set to publish a story about an unsolved murder that happened in South Lake Tahoe in 1968 this week when an article by Sarah Weinman landed in my inbox. Sarah is a respected true crime writer and reporter whose work I enjoy both for its thoughtfulness and attention to detail. Her latest piece for Buzzfeed, The Future of True Crime Will Have to Be Different, is no different.
I’ll return to the Lake Tahoe murder next week but today, I’d like to discuss something that’s been on my mind and might be on yours as well. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery (to name only a few) and the protests they sparked make it impossible for me not to examine my own writing with regard not only to the topics I choose to write about but, also, to how I write about them.
In the Buzzfeed article, Weinman writes: “The scales have fallen from the eyes of true crime consumers. Murder and violence as entertainment were always difficult to stomach, but there was the hope—and I certainly felt this—that the ethical thorniness could be counteracted, by centering victims and de-emphasizing traditional law-and-order narratives. It seems clear that true crime hasn’t gone nearly far enough.”
It’s hard not to see myself, untrained as a journalist or an investigator, as the “amateur sleuth” who could easily misstep.
A couple of things stand out to me in this paragraph. First, it’s hard not to see myself, untrained as a journalist or an investigator, as the “amateur sleuth” who could easily misstep. Mistakes are to be expected and can often be forgiven, but with such delicate content I must be extra careful. Second, the idea of exploiting someone else’s intellectual property is concerning to me. True crime content relies, at least to some extent, on previously published information. Last year, a popular true crime podcast was called out for not crediting original sources. When I write about a true crime, I pull from many sources, but they are still mostly previously published news reports. I weave in any firsthand information I’m able to get, such as interviews (conducted by me) or police reports. Is that enough? Maybe not.
Furthermore, I always ask myself, “Is this my story to tell? If so, what is the best way to tell it?”
When I moved back to Northern California in 2014, I learned about a series of murders of young girls that happened in my hometown in 1984 (I was then 16) and became consumed by it. I briefly attended high school with one of the victims and yet I don’t remember ever hearing about it. How was that possible? It’s a small community and, at the time, my dad had contacts with local newspaper staff who were covering the trial. It seemed impossible that so few other people I knew remembered it either.
I learned about a series of murders of young girls that happened in my hometown in 1984 (I was then 16) and became consumed by it.
Thus began my deep dive into the lives of the victims, family members, and the surrounding community. I wanted to write about it, but I had to pause. What was the purpose of bringing this case back into focus when the killer, convicted in 1985, sits in California’s death row? Did I have anything original to say?
I concluded that it’s not my story to tell, and even if it is, there is no appropriate way to tell it. My only connection to it is that I lived in the same town and was about the same age as the three victims. If I had some recollection of its toll on my own life, it would be different. But given the circumstances, writing about the events that occurred nearly 40 years ago could be distressing to friends and family members who are still living and I don’t want to be the person that causes that pain.
Finally—and it’s the main reason I’ve chosen to tackle this subject in this newsletter—is Weinman’s contention that “the comfort narratives of true crime can’t hold when we’re shown, again and again, how the criminal justice system doesn’t work for untold millions of Black Americans.” She’s right. Mainstream true crime is overwhelmingly white, and as such, provides a typical narrative where there the victim is young, Caucasian, and female (more points if she’s beautiful). There is a clear perpetrator and eventually, justice is served.
For me, as a white writer, the question of “whose story is it to tell” looms large when the subject of race is involved. Aside from the fact that I’m not a journalist, I’m simply not qualified to write authentically about crime from any other perspective than as a white bystander whose heart is in the right place. But that doesn’t mean I’m beholden to the standard tropes that exist in the genre or that I can only write stories about white people. I am free to find my own voice and tell the stories that are meaningful to me, taking care to understand my limitations both as a writer and a cis-gender, heterosexual, white woman.