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True Crime: Our Obsession With the Dead Girl

True Crime: Our Obsession With the Dead Girl

The Gabby Petito case has revealed the underbelly of our toxic, often unhelpful, relationship with true crime. Poet Olivia Gatwood offers some insight.

The investigation surrounding Gabby Petito’s disappearance coincided with my re-reading of Olivia Gatwood’s second poetry collection. Gatwood introduces Life Of The Party with an observation on how we, as a society, interact with true crime. Notable quotes include: “it becomes increasingly difficult to call the murder of women ‘rare'” and “it is a privilege to have your body looked for.”

My roommate sent me an Instagram post by Gatwood with an excerpt from her poem about JonBenét Ramsey, composed with lines from People magazine’s 1997 coverage of her murder. The piece analyzes not only how we talk about missing and murdered girls, but who we talk about. Gatwood calls attention to the almost-feral need for violence and gore in the murders that gain media traction. There’s a public obsession with the complete and total destruction of female-presenting bodies.

Victims of public outrage

In both her poem and caption, Gatwood talks about selective public outrage. The JonBenét story is not unique. The Gabby Petito story is not unique. Our unfortunate reality is that the usual suspects in a girl’s demise are the men she was close to.

In most famous unsolved cases, the blame is on the father, brother, boyfriend, husband, male co-worker, ex-lover. It is not at all uncommon for men to kill the women they love. And as a woman, the person most likely to harm you isn’t following you down a dark alley, he’s living in your house. You met him once at a party. You go to the same school. He’s in your third-period class. He’s your brother’s best friend. An unfortunate amount of the time, he’s your partner. You know him.

All this to reiterate, the Gabby Petito case isn’t rare. There’s so much tragedy in her death, of course, but also in that statement “not rare.” Tragedy should be rare. When I think of tragedy, I think of mass bombings and malfunctioning rollercoaster rides and children dying in freak accidents. I don’t think of young girls whose lives were cut short, because I see it all the time, and I’ve made ‘tragedy’ synonymous with ‘infrequent.’

Selective media attention in true crime cases

If Gabby’s case isn’t rare, why did it bring about a media whirlwind?

The women we choose to spotlight are thin, white, blonde  most importantly, white. Women like Gabby disappear at much smaller rates than say, Native women, but white women’s stories continually cause a media frenzy and public uproar. As Gatwood wrote, “it is a privilege to have your body looked for.”

People want to put a face to the term “innocence,” and faces like Gabby’s are the ones they choose. They want a poster child for women who don’t deserve to get murdered  which I would argue is all women, but I digress. They want to know who killed her and how he did so they can plaster it onto every lamppost and corner of the internet to proclaim this is what evil looks like.

Even stranger, they want to watch that innocence be pulverized in the form of a bloody autopsy. They want the information public. When they Google these girl’s names, they want to see a body.

And it doesn’t really matter to them that the victim’s family will be confronted by photos they can never scrub off the internet, or have to listen to their dying relative’s most vulnerable moments memorialized in a YouTube video, it just matters that they have a common enemy, the father, boyfriend, ex-lover, whatever.

Even in death, we cannot let women escape their trauma. We consume it until it makes up every part of their memory. We all collect the social currency afforded to us by having a new, fresh, hot true crime case to discuss over dinner.

The victim’s family will reap none of the benefits of near-identical posts detailing the horrors their relative endured, but hey, at least you spread awareness, right?

Exposure therapy

True crime is like exposure therapy. We look at the ways men disassemble and torture and mutilate women so if, God forbid, it’s ever us, we know what to expect. We won’t be around to see the aftermath, but we’ll know what it’ll look like. There’ll be a bit on the news about us, and we can already pick out the key, recycled phrases about how we lit up every room we walked into. We can visualize the picture our family would choose to put on the missing poster, or the information they would offer about our regular haunts.

I can see myself through the lens of a hotel security camera, stumbling down the hall with my key card in hand, never to be seen again.

As anxiety-inducing as that is, there’s some kind of sick peace in over-preparedness.

Our collective consumption of true crime

We want to be desensitized to our possible demise, but I think our efforts turn sour in the form of TikToks of people doing their makeup to an audio detailing a brutal murder, referring to a serial killer as their ‘favorite,’ or indulging in something reprehensibly named ‘cookies and crime.’

I am not innocent in the consumption of true crime. I’ve binged Criminal Minds several times over. I’ve made myself comfortable in my grandparent’s bed as we jointly speculated on the murder details of a Snapped episode. Still, I carry pink pepper spray in my tote bag. My location is never off. I’m nice to the men that hit on me in places where they have access to my information, or where it’s loud enough that people might not hear me scream.

So, I have a complicated relationship with true crime. I’m sure most women would agree that theirs is, as well. But I think it’s possible to analyze our relationship with true crime without disrespecting victims and their families — or even possibly hindering a murder investigation.

Media pressure  Helpful or harmful?

Gatwood says it best in her caption, “[Regarding murdered and missing women] why does this outrage so often look like excitement? […] The hard truth is that, in the minds of many internet sleuths and armchair detectives, Gabby is not a person. She is a project, and that project can only exist as long as she is dead. Yes, these people can play a major role in helping solve these cases, but it does make me wonder, did they really want her to be found alive?”

Gabby Petito was not found because of the people who showed up outside her fiancé’s parents’ house, nor was she found because some true crime TikToker packed their van for the week and traveled across the country to yell mean things at Brian Laundrie.

I am in absolutely no place to formally speculate on whether or not Brian or his parents had any involvement. Of course, I don’t mean to say that I’m some kind of saint who hasn’t discussed the details of the case with my friends, but to be so bold as to show up outside his home is something I consider counterproductive.

Worse, people have been wondering if the intensity of the media pressure is what caused Brian to flee. He probably acted irrationally to the public’s rage. He is currently on the run from the FBI. I’m sure a slew of arm-chair detectives outside his house weren’t convincing agents in keeping Brian under observation until the investigation could proceed.

The public fascination with the missing girl

There’s a lot of intricacies involving media pressure. I’m happy that, this time, it led to the recovery of Gabby’s body. I can only hope that her family will find peace, that they don’t have to endure the disrespect that follows a lot of notorious cases.

While the public wanted gore, Gabby’s family wanted Gabby back. They wanted their sister, their daughter. I can’t possibly imagine what it feels like to have people rooting for the discovery of your loved one’s body, rather than her safe return.

We have to examine where we put our emotions. There’s so many to have here, so many compartments to put our frustrations.

I’m heartbroken that someone lost their loved one. I’m frustrated that media attention primarily goes to white women. Native women go missing at a much higher rate than the national average, why aren’t we looking for them? I’m angry with Gabby’s fiancé who  regardless of whether he had any involvement in her death  left her alone and traveled home without her. I’m scared that the men in my life will hurt me, too. 

None of these feelings are definitively bad or more valid than another. But where do we put them? On the lawn outside Brian’s house? In a murder investigation that we can’t properly assist in because we don’t have the education or experience? We could volunteer our time at a women’s shelter, donate our old clothes, makeup, toiletries, essentials. We could donate to missing girls’ families to aid them in investigation. But would that be as rewarding? Would you be able to come home after your cross-country trip to protest on a suspect’s lawn and tell yourself you did a good thing?

Would any of those things conjure up the excitement that a dead body does?

Addendum II to No Baptism

In Gatwood’s collection, Life Of The Party, she dissects the topic of true crime, often through girls who are still alive, such as herself. In one of my favorite poems, Addendum II to No Baptism, she laments on the anti-climactic nature of something she calls “half-remembered tragedies.”

I should mention that I don’t know 

if his hands ever touched me, though they did.

This distorted fact might also be a reason

I leave out the ending. Another rule

to good storytelling is that no one wants

a half-remembered tragedy. You must

know the width of the knife and how 

it ruined you, name the organs it kissed.

A lot of living women are walking, breathing examples of true crime. Collectively, we have so many experiences that aren’t consensual, whether we choose to identify them as assault or not. Our experiences shouldn’t have to be bloody or gory or even fully-remembers to mean something. Every instance is a particle that makes up the whole of true crime.

There are tragedies that people don’t want to consume because they aren’t “big enough” to peak their interest. When we engage with true crime, we hope for the dead girl, so that the tragedy can be followed with “that poor girl,” instead of “well, what were you wearing?”

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