Open the Closet. See the Monster.
Open the Closet. See the Monster.
Hidden Side Effects of True Crime in Life and Television
There are rare times in life where we long for reality to imitate art—to find stability in a structure we’ve experienced time and time again on screen. We lean in for our first kiss and have a flood of memories of other first kisses from film and TV. They are framed in moonlight, dripping with suspense, set to perfect music and serving as a template for what we can hope ours will someday be. We take for granted the comfort provided by these examples, or that is, we take them for granted as we do anything else, until we reach for them and find nothing to hold on to.
I’ve probably consumed more content in my life that is one way or another about murder than I have any other subject. All eight hundred thousand episodes of Law & Order are about murder. All of John Grisham’s basic cable dominating films are about murder. In various ways the bible is all about murder. The Lion King is about murder for fuck sake. Everything is about murder. And when murder crept into my real life, I reached for art and art was gone.
For the purposes of this piece let’s call him my Uncle Jack. That isn’t his real name of course, but it conjures the image of the cool uncle that a lot of us have. And he was the definition of the cool uncle. He was tall and charismatic and rough around the edges. He had a temper, loved great music and had seen everyone from Jimi Hendrix on down in concert. He worked in restaurants most of his life and had the swagger that some men get from a life spent in that industry. He was averse to authority and took us to hockey games where he would spend a solid third of the time screaming his voice hoarse at the referees.
He was murdered at 10:30 in the morning on a Friday. I was fifteen. I was working on a school project with a friend when his mother got a call from mine saying she’d be coming to pick me up. It was dark and raining and my mother didn’t drive in the rain. So it was obvious something ranging from bad to awful had happened. When I got in the car my whole family was there. My mother, my sister, my dad, the dog…this was obviously a crisis of some sort.
My mother said, “Uncle Jack was killed in a robbery at a bank.” And I felt the time stop. This part was cinematic. Everything was dark and silent except the rain. Everyone in the car knew that this was the beginning of a new and worse reality.
The first day is like a movie. Because movies always show the first day. People fumble around making coffee. Everybody’s eyes are bagged and swollen. My grandfather who was in his 80’s at the time picked up Washington Post and found the death notice somewhere in the middle of the Metro section. He read it twice and tossed paper down on the coffee table. He wiped his eyes and with a perfectly timed crack in his voice said, “Well I guess it’s true then.”
This would be the point where any fictional version with a sense of narrative would switch to act two where we’d pen the closet and seeing the monster; presenting us with a compelling, emotionally complicated killer with a layered and nuanced reason for doing the unspeakable thing he did. But that would have to wait. For 16 years….
My mother said that after her brother was shot to death she would never be able to watch Law & Order again. It was no longer entertainment to her because it provided no escape. Her pledge to abstain was short lived in no small part because Law & Order is an ideal escape for people dealing with an actual murder case. What could be more comforting than to believe in a system that cares as much as it does in that universe? To believe the ends can be tied up so nicely? Anybody who has experienced violent crime will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. The explosion of so called ‘true crime’ content with marquee titles like Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Jinx provides a more complicated art vs. life dynamic.
Let me just say first that I adore this genre and have watched more true crime content than almost anything else over the last few years. As much as there is fair criticism of the medium being exploitive and a form of gallows entertainment, I think there is also an enormous upside. When I was a freshman in college and the Virginia Tech shooting happened, myself and many of my classmates attended a vigil and the one thing I remember the chaplain saying was, “We can all imagine what it’s like to lose someone to an act of violence, but less of us can imagine losing someone we love for committing violence against others and so we must also pray for the family of the shooter.” And as someone who had carried the mysterious weight of a murder around in my mind for years that sentence nearly knocked me on my ass. The idea that a pain equal to or worse even than mine existed on the other side of the gun was a shocking revelation and in the strangest way a relief.
The hidden benefit of true crime programming is that if forces people into this mindset whether they acknowledge it or not. Take Making a Murderer for example; even if you think Steven Avery is as guilty as sin, you cannot as a human watch that series and not feel enormous empathy for his mother. A woman obviously haunted by the idea that her son is either a deranged murderer or being incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit for the second time in his life. And if he didn’t do it, a vast majority of the other suspects are also in her family. The emotional burden that woman carries is so obvious to the naked eye that it demands empathy. And empathy for the mother of a monster doesn’t grow organically.
A common criticism is that these crime shows and documentaries give too much time to killers and not enough time to victims. And the argument certainly has some validity. I’ve watched hours upon hours of content on the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and I know almost nothing about either one of them. It’s a hard thing to say, especially for me, but one thing you learn going through this process is that killing someone is much more interesting than being killed by someone. Fred Goldman, the father of Ron Goldman who was allegedly killed by OJ Simpson, is one of the most relatable characters in any of these stories for just this reason. His naked rage, quivering in his every facial feature, is so apparent and the reason is obvious. His son was murdered. It’s the most excruciatingly painful thing he has or will ever experience. His family as he knew it will never exist again. And nobody gives a shit about it. His son might as well have been struck by lightning. He was in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. When that happens all you can do is shake your fist at God and beg for mercy to the agonizing why.
In addition to encouraging empathy, these shows offer the roadmap that the fictionalized versions don’t and can’t. I can look at Fred Goldman and see what years of obsession with revenge, or even satisfying justice, can do to a man. Even if OJ had been convicted that fire would still burn in him. I know it would. Most true crime shows end on ambiguous notes because most have to. Not everyone confesses on a hot microphone the way Robert Durst does in The Jinx. Even that confession of “killed them all, of course” is only now three years later resulting in trials. The wheels of justice move at a devastatingly slow pace and only rarely ever arrive at a point that most involved would call justice. Another thing true crime gets right is the toll of that waiting. Movies and episodic television shows don’t have the time to show the years people spend waiting, and it’s not that interesting from the outside anyway. On the inside however, the waiting is essential. There is a sense of dread and anxiety that follows you like Charlie Brown’s rain cloud. Any day could bring symptoms or nothing. Any moment a song or face in a crowd could bring it all back. True crime at its best really captures this in silent moments and b-roll of ordinary life. You can’t look at the Avery Family or the Goldman Family without plainly seeing the ghosts they live with every day.
Seeing the Monster
I went to visit my mother recently and as soon as I walked in the door she says, “The cops think they caught the guy who killed Jack.” The news landed on me like a bucket of ice water over my head. It was full flare up of my reoccurring condition. Unfortunately all the details were in a sealed federal indictment. So waiting, again, was our sentence.
Being in possession of emotionally explosive and utterly useless information is, I imagine, an omnipresent symptom of experiencing violent crime. I didn’t need to know for example that the killer left more money in my uncle’s wallet than he took in his bank bags. I didn’t need to know he ran my uncle over on his way out of the parking lot. I didn’t need to know that a handful of eyewitnesses couldn’t put together a license plate number between them. And when they found the killer I would just as soon have not known that either.
By the time we found out when the first hearing would take place the entire family had decided we wouldn’t go. There was no benefit psychologically to seeing the killer in the flesh. Or at least that was the wide consensus. Then at the last minute my Uncle Jack’s youngest son decided he wanted to go and rather than let him do it alone I volunteered to go with him. I don’t say this to assign myself noble intentions; I have a distinct feeling I would’ve found a reason to be there either way. It felt like destiny. I had to see the faceless figure that had haunted me for more than half my life.
I’d never set foot in a courthouse until a few weeks ago. My entire frame of reference was television and film and up to a point it was harrowingly accurate. We walked up to the towering, gleaming oak doors of the courtroom and they creaked quietly as they swung open. The soaring ceiling was probably two and a half stories high and coffered with faux beams. Without speaking we agreed to sit in the back pew and I kept thinking it must be meaningful that it felt exactly as if I was sitting in a Catholic Church.
Depictions do not prepare you for how quiet an empty courtroom is. Once we sat down we quickly realized the killer was twenty feet from us, sitting more comfortably than we were in a leather wheeled office chair next to his lawyer. The only thing in between us was a waist high polished wooden bannister, and for ten minutes as we waited for the judge to arrive we sat in the most intense silence I have ever experienced.
The silence was broken when the FBI agent on the case came to brief us on what we were about to see. He was directly out of central casting—middle aged, shaved head, taut face, sunglasses hanging from his front pocket and a red lanyard around his neck with credentials. I heard the first sentence and a half he said before his voice became a droning buzz distracting me from staring at the back of the killer’s head. He too looked the part although in a remarkably unimpressive way. His beard was graying and unkempt. His bright orange prison scrubs were a size too large making him look like he’d been half deflated. He was overweight and older than I’d expected. I was prepared to loathe this man. I anticipated his very presence would bring from me a blinding rage and fury. The only thing more surprising to me in that moment than the fact that seeing this man I’d fantasized about murdering inspired absolutely no emotion, was that I was disappointed. In my fantasies he was muscular, young, defiant, and worthy of the hatred I’d devoted to him. In person he was nothing, just a fat, poor, in-and-out of jail criminal from North Carolina who provoked no emotion whatsoever….except a still and quiet sadness.
Almost all true crime stories end with relevant text scrolling across the screen telling the audience what had happened since the cameras stopped rolling. This part also translates to real life. I got home and googled the man who killed my uncle. I haven’t been using the word allegedly because as we left the courtroom the detective on the case told us he had confessed on the record to pulling the trigger. Who could this man be and have been to have had not one person present to see him charged with felony murder? What I found online was as unimpressive as the man I saw in court. The killer was in jail for stealing tires and due to be released in December of this year when an accomplice identified him as the man who killed my uncle. He’d gotten to jail by being pulled over without a license and as an obvious master criminal he walked the police officer who took him home to get his license past piles of stolen property. Law & Order fundamentally misled me into believing that pluralities of murderers have a story for why they did what they did, and that that story runs deeper than wanting money. And I misled myself into thinking a story would make it better. I wouldn’t feel any better if the killer had been defiant, or his mother cried behind him and prayed the rosary. In fact I’d almost certainly feel worse.
The night after the hearing I typed the killer’s name into Facebook and the first search result was his name with Jr. on the end. I clicked on the profile and saw a picture of a man my age and his father, who I’d seen earlier that day. The son seemed normal enough. I saw memes he’d shared, posts about fantasy football, pictures of his young daughter and one quote picture from the day of the trial that said, “Nobody on social media should think they know my REAL life.” The symmetry of our situations, mine and this man’s son’s, nearly floored me. I thought I would live the rest of my life not knowing who murdered my uncle, looking over my shoulder and wondering, and when I found out who he was and saw him I felt nothing except more depression. The killer’s son, I imagine, thought his father was getting out of jail in two months for theft and found out he murdered someone ten years before he ever went away for stealing. We’d both had the universe fuck with our expectations in a way that seems almost impossibly cruel.
I went on his page the next day to see if he’d posted anything else and in that moment my mind imagined the start of a new kind of movie or show or documentary about the continuing sickness of trauma. How we attempt to validate our obsession, to validate all the pain and damage that cannot ever be undone by simply not letting go. I closed the page abruptly and I haven’t looked at it again.