The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion True crime always risks exploitation. But it can still make the world a better place.

Jonathan Groff as Holden Ford in “Mindhunter.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

Sarah Weinman is the author of “The Real Lolita.”

In an early episode of the excellent second season of Netflix’s serial killer investigation drama “Mindhunter,” the FBI profiler Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) reviews the awful details of the deaths of the Otero family: a husband, a wife and their two youngest children. They are the first known victims of the serial killer who dubbed himself BTK, for “bind, torture, kill.” While Tench is the main character in this subplot, what haunted me was the surviving Otero children. They came home from school to the carnage inflicted by a killer who would not be caught for 30 years, during which he became something of a cultural phenomenon. What might they think of seeing their trauma served up as entertainment?

I’ve spent my whole life dwelling on crime, first with a child’s fascination and later with an adult’s need to contend with the complexity of violent death. I’m not alone: True crime has long been popular, more recently with an added high-culture gloss. But the more I create narratives out of the lives and deaths of real people, the more sensitized I get. Increasingly, I cannot block out the feeling that I’m claiming the right to tell a story that isn’t, and maybe shouldn’t, be mine to relate. 

To me, this is the more humane response. I don’t want to reduce trauma to bite-size beats before a mattress commercial. I know violent death is messy, and real life can never neatly fit into a tight narrative structure. But I also see how shaping that pain for the edification of a larger audience can be helpful, even cathartic. Stories like that of BTK can reassure the audience that justice delayed is not always justice denied: In 2005, Dennis Rader was arrested and pleaded guilty to 10 murders, including those of the Oteros. My way of coping is to accept the discomfort rather than to evade it.

What’s good about the current true-crime moment, now about five years old, is the room it has made for harder-to-shoehorn narratives that defy conventional three-act structure.

American Public Media’s “In the Dark,” which in its second season explored the six prosecutions of Curtis Flowers, helped lead to the Supreme Court reversal of Flowers’s conviction on the grounds that prosecutors had improperly selected an all-white jury. In 2016, crime writer Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” helped revitalize interest in the Golden State Killer case, which had gone cold during the 1980s. A former police officer was arrested and charged with the crimes in 2018, linked to the cases by DNA evidence.

But these more elevated, compassionate narratives compete with the schlock. The true-crime craze has tipped over into the tasteless at conventions such as CrimeCon, where greeting cards featuring a birthday message from the Manson girls are available for purchase. Even more off-putting is the recently announced “Murder House Flip,” a “true-crime home renovation” show set to air on the new streaming network Quibi that promises to “remove the stains of the past and take these homes from morbid to marvelous.”

As Rachel Monroe notes in “Savage Appetites,” her brilliant, book-length exegesis of the current true-crime moment, “We can use [true-crime stories] as opportunities to be more honest about our appetites — and curious about them, too. I want us to wonder what stories we’re most hungry for, and why; to consider what forms our fears take; and to ask ourselves whose pain we still look away from.”

The discomfort I felt watching that scene in “Mindhunter,” with Tench in the basement, paid off as the second season continued. There is no shying away from the pain of a mother of a victim of the Atlanta Child Murders pleading for law enforcement and the media to take her anguish seriously. There is no masking the sense of incomplete justice she and other parents of the murdered children feel when a killer is apprehended but never held accountable for the children’s deaths.

There’s good reason to blanch at the most exploitative aspects of the genre. Reading, watching and writing about murder can be the perfect metaphor for late-stage capitalism. When true-crime stories are bad, victims’ stories become easily upstaged commodities, and empathy is shunted aside by a palpable relief that we are alive another day when others are not.

Even the best true-crime stories evoke some of these sensations: There might be no way to consume and create true crime in a purely ethical fashion. But when we center the lives of the victims and their families rather than obsessing over the quirks of killers and accept the costs of being more sensitive to victims’ pain than we are thrilled by murderers’ transgressions, true-crime stories can make a small contribution to making the world a more just, more empathetic place.

Read more:

Sarah Weinman: There’s much more to Linda Fairstein’s story

Sonny Bunch: ‘True Detective’s’ most recent season poked fun at its craziest fans

Radley Balko: Journalists need to stop enabling junk forensics

Megan McArdle: Jussie Smollett’s story was theatrical. We should have been cautious from the start.

George F. Will: The ignored story of ‘America’s biggest serial killer’