“True crime is in the toilet.”
That’s what I was told in 1997 when I signed my first true crime book contract. The speaker didn’t mean that true crime was swirling in the toilet bowl with … well … excrement. She meant it wasn’t selling, though certainly many people believe the genre is bathroom bowl worthy.
Despite that toilet statement, my first true crime book hit the New York Times best-seller list. And since then, in total, my four true crime books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
But while writing my fourth book, I decided to get out of true crime. I didn’t get out of true crime because my sales were in the toilet or because I thought the genre was toilet-worthy. I got out of it because I was exhausted from all the tragedy.
In fact, here’s what I wrote about that exhaustion in an early version of my memoir Secret Sex Lives:
I’d spent the better part of ten years writing about real life murder, sitting with the grieving friends and family of homicide victims, listening to their stories, memories, regrets, loves, and rages as they talked about the ones who had passed on too soon. I was worn out from it all, which sounds absolutely ridiculous. I wasn’t the one who had lost someone I dearly loved.
It’s that last line I want you to pay attention to, a line that I cut from the final version of Secret Sex Lives – “I wasn’t the one who had lost someone I dearly love.”
That statement is only partly true. One of my favorite high school Sunday school teachers was murdered during a bank robbery. But when it happened, I hadn’t seen her in years, we lived states apart, and that emotional and physical distance made my grief easier to bear, though it was there and I still think about her.
So the fact remains that I do not know what it’s like to have a loved one brutally murdered and then have to deal with media and public outcry over that murder. Some people, perhaps many people, would object to my use of the word “outcry.” They would prefer the word exploitation — the media and public exploitation of that murder.
We hear a lot about that exploitation these days – Jodi Arias, George Zimmerman, and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and Sandy Hook school shooters. After Aurora and Sandy Hook, many people, especially those in the television media, righteously announced that they would not use the killer’s name because they wanted the victims to be remembered, not the killer, despite the fact that they continue to and repeatedly invoke the names of Arias and Zimmerman.
Alas, I’m not that righteous. I’m not using the Aurora and Sandy Hook shooters’ names simply because I can’t recall them off the top of my head. I’d have to Google them. Maybe the TV reporters’ name ban worked. I don’t know. I just know that when I think of my book Wasted that I immediately think of Regina Hartwell, the murder victim. Then I think about Kim LeBlanc, who was instrumental in her murder and the attempted cover up, but was never tried. And finally I think of Justin Thomas, the convicted killer.
I do, however, think of Stephanie Martin rather than Chris Hatton, her murder victim, when I first think about my book Wages of Sin. I don’t like that. And I’m not sure why I do that. Because I never felt like I truly knew Chris? Because he showed such different sides of himself to different people that it was impossible to really know him? Because he hadn’t yet had time to figure out who he truly was so he didn’t really know himself? Or because I spent so many hours with Stephanie trying to figure out why she did what she did so that we can learn a lesson from her.
I know that in the Author’s Notes for Wages of Sin that I tried – unsuccessfully – to learn a lesson from that murder, and I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for that as people mistakenly think I bought Stephanie’s stories.
I also know that I believe there were powerful lessons to be learned from Breaking Point, my book about Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned her five children. Look how I wrote that sentence – mentioning Andrea first, then her children. Does that mean I remember Andrea over her children? I know it was her children’s voices I used to hear in my mind as I tried to go to sleep at night. I know it’s the chapter about the children’s funeral that most effects readers. But it’s from Andrea that we learned the lessons about mental illness, specifically lessons about postpartum depression and psychosis and the shameful way insurance companies handle mental health claims.
So what is my point of this rambling? Rolling Stone magazine and its controversial cover featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. (For those who object to my use of the word alleged, legally, I must use it until he is tried and convicted or pleads guilty.)
Maybe I’m an insensitive jerk. Certainly members of Chris Hatton’s family think I am and have let me know that over the past few months. And they have the right to believe that because they are HIS family members. But with the exception of the people of Boston and the friends and family members of the bombing victims, I don’t get the outrage over the Rolling Stone cover, because, let’s face the truth, when we want to learn from a horrendous murder, we can. We can CHOOSE to. Or we can attempt to sweep it to the recesses of our minds by painting the murderer as 100 percent evil and ignoring how he can look like your kids’ or even your friend — because that’s the way murderers usually are able to accomplish their crimes … by looking “normal” — and allow similar crimes to happen again. Personally, I, like most true crime writers and readers, choose to learn from it.
As I also wrote in Secret Sex Lives:
I proclaimed to the public that I wrote true crime so that we could learn from what had happened – that denial of sexual, physical, emotional, drug, and alcohol abuse destroys lives and that mental illness is a real disease, not a weakness that can be healed by simply thinking positive thoughts. If we recognize these facts and deal with them rather than ignore them, we can prevent such tragedies from happening again. That’s what I preached over and over again. And I truly believe what I said. I believe it with every cell of my heart and mind. I still believe it. But I needed to laugh. Desperately needed to. And sex made me laugh.
Once again, I’m hearing that true crime sales are in the toilet. And this time, I fear it’s the truth. I’ve heard, though I don’t know that it’s fact, that one of my publishers has reduced their true crime titles from 12 a year to seven a year. And I don’t know if any other publisher is picking up the slack. If no one is, that’s a shame, because TV shows and networks, no matter how righteous they are or dedicated they are to telling true crime stories, don’t have the time to go in depth like the best true crime books.