An interview with Savage Appetites author Rachel Monroe.
In Rachel Monroe’s new book Savage Appetites, she explores the lives of four women and our societal fascination with true crime.
Weaving in her own personal narratives and fascination with the world of true crime, Marfa, Texas-based author Rachel Monroe shows how women like the “Mother of Forensic Science” contribute to our cultural understanding of crime stories.
The Manson Family murders, West Memphis Three and Columbine shooting all play a part in Monroe’s exploration of women, violence and obsession.
Her first subject is Frances Glessner Lee, who after growing up in a wealthy family during a time when crime novels were being popularized due to Sherlock Holmes, devoted the latter half of her life to understanding and developing better approaches to solving crime. Divorcing her husband in her late twenties, Lee began making miniatures, a project that she would continue to adapt in her approaches to better-solving crimes, as her life progressed in a series of unsolvable dollhouse miniature crime scenes called “The Nutshells” that still are a foundational tool in teaching. Lee was also instrumental in setting up the first national organization for forensic science.
Moving into the guesthouse of the home where Sharon Tate was murdered, Alisa Statman becomes increasingly obsessed with the crime itself and befriends Tate’s sister. As her obsession grows, Tate’s sister, Patti, becomes isolated, almost solely in the company of Statman. Amid mother Doris Tate’s growing activism for victims’ rights, Statman takes over as spokesperson for the Tate family despite their dislike of her invasion into their personal life.
Lorri Davis, after seeing a documentary about the West Memphis Three, begins writing to Damien Echols, and through these letters, they grow close. She quits her job in New York and moves to Arkansas to be closer to him and visit him. She continues to devote her life to his exoneration and, ultimately, with the help of supporters all across the country, Echols is released on an Alford plea.
Lindsay Souvannarath becomes heavily involved in the school shooter subculture online and meets James. They grow closer through plotting a bombing. Souvannarath and James finally solidify their plans to meet in Halifax, where he lived, in order to act on their plan. Souvannarath is apprehended before she even meets James in person for the first time, and he is found to have committed suicide after realizing the police wanted to question him.
Through interweaving the stories of these women with her own experiences, Monroe allows the reader to understand the motivations of each of these women—and how they all contribute to how women and true crime are perceived in our world today. Vika Mujumdar interviewed Monroe by email about Savage Appetites and her writing process.
Vika Mujumdar: How did you decide what specific narratives to include in the book?
Rachel Monroe: So, I guess in some ways the women that I write about in the book, I have been, in almost all cases, following their stories or thinking about them for a while. I have a friend who’s an artist and she described it as the things that you keep in your sketchbook. But it wasn’t until I realized what they all had in common, which was that they all had this fascination with crime stories, that I shared with them. So, in some ways when it started, it wasn’t planned. I thought that I wanted to write about women who are obsessed with crime and then when I saw I sort of already had, it was one of those things that—I don’t know if you have this experience, but you’re interested in something you’re not quite sure why or where it’s going until it finally clicks into place?
VM: Were there other narratives that you followed that you were particularly drawn to that you didn’t include?
RM: There was a moment when if I had had maybe another six months or something to work on the book, I think it would have been really interesting to include a chapter about Ann Rule, the crime writer. I could totally imagine this book having a section that was about the writer. She has a really fascinating story, but as a person who was fascinated by crime and then made a career about it, and her relationship with Ted Bundy, but I just sort of didn’t have the time and she had recently died before the book came together. So, I didn’t end up getting to include her, but I think that could have been really, really interesting to think about.
VM: That’s really interesting. Why do you think women today are still so drawn to these studies?
RM: You know, I think there’s probably many layers of reasons and some things that apply to some people more or less than others. But I mean, broadly speaking, I think that these stories are a way of understanding our own vulnerability and working through questions and concerns. I think if you grow up as a woman in this culture, you end up absorbing a lot of conflicting messages about what you’re supposed to do and how to stay safe and how to protect yourself. You know what danger looks like and where danger lies. And so I think these stories allow people to kind of think through those things, because it’s not about your own life. Like there’s some distance there. I think there kind of have to be distances and sometimes that can be problematic, but it allows people to think about their own lives through stories of other people’s tragedies.
VM: The book moves back and forth in time along with your experiences with crime and crime stories, and you use that a framing device to move through these other narratives that you are more distant from. Was this originally how you envisioned the book and were there any previous drafts that employed different structures?
RM: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s really important for me to include my own experience, in part because I think this is a book for me. One big theme of the book is a question of complicity. And so if I was going to be asking the reader to engage in thinking about their own complicity with these stories of societal true crime narratives, I knew that I had to be vulnerable myself and put myself in there and question my own complicity.
And also I think it’s really important, because the women I’m writing about are in some ways kind of extreme, like very extreme in their obsessions and the lengths that they went. It seemed really important to include myself as almost like a kind of bridge figure. So, I didn’t want the reader to come away and just be like, ‘Wow, that’s a story about like, four crazy ladies that have nothing to do with me. They’re just like real intense weirdos.’ That’s exactly the opposite of the way that I wanted the reader to react. And so I figured that one way of inviting that identification between the reader and these people who might be difficult to sympathize with on the surface would be to allow myself to do that. To just highlight the points at which I think I kind of understood where they were coming from even when in some cases their actions were kind of alarming.
VM: Were there any other possibilities you explored in terms of the structure of the book or was this how it was going to be right from the start?
RM: You know, I think right from the start, I really wanted to blend their stories and my story and a larger question about culture and politics like those things all seem really important when talking about true crime. And it seems to me that I just wasn’t finding enough out there that was addressing all of those different elements, the personal and the more political or social, public.
VM: That’s really cool, because I love the structure and how you wove those together amazingly. That was my favorite part of the book.
RM: That’s really good to hear. Yes, because it’s all related. And I think one of the problems that comes up with true crime is that people really don’t take it seriously as a genre. They think of it as trashy or, I mean, just like a lot of genres that appeal to women, it gets kind of dismissed or overlooked or people roll their eyes at it, while at the same time it really does have a big impact on how we understand our world. It seems like one way to kind of give the genre credit would be to take that lens and look at all the different ways that it impacts the culture.
VM: How long have you been working on the book and researching these women with the intention of this becoming a book?
RM: That’s an interesting question because, like I said, some of these women I had been thinking about writing about for a long time, like about 10 years, but not necessarily with the intention of having to write a book. I guess the book started coming together in my mind probably about four years ago. And it just took a long time to come together both to write it and to try to kind of slowly piece it together while doing other work to kind of make ends meet.
VM: OK, so this one is my last question. What’s your favorite true crime show and why?
RM: I’ve been listening to podcasts. I haven’t been watching as many shows. I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but I’m watching this show. Let me make sure I get the name right, but I’ve been really enjoying this documentary about these nuns in Baltimore who were trying to solve the cold case of a nun who was killed in Baltimore. OK, it’s called “The Keepers.”
This is a crime that happened in 1969, a very cold case. And they form a community around trying to solve it. And the murder kind of seemed like there was some level of cover-up or just like official neglect, and they’re trying to right that wrong.
VM: Going off of what you said, what’s your favorite true crime podcast?
RM: I really like the podcast “In The Dark.” It’s more of an investigative podcast. So, there have only been two seasons so far, but it’s really entertaining and offers a good glimpse of the criminal justice systems. You kind of learn a lot along the way, but it doesn’t feel like it’s educating you.
VM: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I loved reading your book and also wanted to say I really liked how you address the intersectionality of the issue and how a lot of this negatively impacted nonviolent offenders and people of color.
RM: Yeah, it seems so crucial to me. It’s kind of like what I said earlier about true crime not being looked at really seriously. And that’s also part of people protesting to ignore the political dimensions and just treat it as these individual psychodramas that happen without realizing that crime of course always happens in this context that is different because of race and class and disability. Too often it is kind of left out of the story because the stories become reduced to, you know, bad guys and victims in a really flat way. But I think if we’re telling a complete and complex story you have to include questions of intersectionality, because they’re always there.
Savage Appetites is out now and is one of our Fall/Winter 2019/20 Reads.