Difficulties in Writing True Crime as a Parent

A while ago, I came across a post from Kate Dawson on the Crimereads blog.

In it, she describes the difficulties of balancing the life of a true crime writer with parenting. She raises some interesting points.

It’s a struggle I am intimately familiar with. From a young age, I was shaped by violentcrime in form or another. I was born in a small town the week that a serial killer was killed during an attempt to arrest him. My mother had been in many of the same places as his victims at the time they were abducted. The palpable fear and tension of those events would shape her as a woman and a mother, and would influence the way she would parent her daughters.

I think it also shaped her in other ways. My mother was fascinated, if not obsessed, with true crime literature. As a teenager, one of my fondest memories (as weird as that sounds) is of scanning the titles in her true crime library. I read about Dahmer, Gacy, and others. I read In Cold Blood. I absorbed countless tales of blood, horror, and death. I became a repository for information of the darkest corners of the human experience.

In his afterword to Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Patton Oswalt talks about his late wife’s uncanny ability to recall crime trivia the way some people recall sports statistics. My husband laughed when he read that – it’s a trait that I’ve acquired through the years. Anytime we watch Crime Files, Investigation Discovery, 48 Hours, or any of the hundred other true crime programs out there, I will almost immediately pipe up. “I know this case.”

“Of course you do. Why wouldn’t you,” he’ll quip playfully.

I can’t help it. Some people like sports. Some like comics. My family can tell you that. My mother, my sisters, my kids, and my husband are all privy to that side of my nature. I can’t tell you how many books, articles, and documentaries they’ve sent me over the years. I collect true crime books like others collect Precious Moment figurines and baseball cards. I often joke that if the FBI ever checked my internet history, they’ll see me as a deviant in the making.

Not in the sense that I enjoy the tragedy, but in that I feel strangely connected to the people involved. I am intensely empathetic, often to my own detriment.

I am a mother. I have teenagers, and I have toddlers, and I am constantly terrified for them. I know what’s out there. I’ve exposed myself to it voluntarily for most of my life. It has not come without its own price. There are times when I live in constant fear of what lurks in the shadows at the end of the street. I often find it hard to trust people, contrary to my empathetic nature, because I know that you can never truly know what is going on in someone’s mind. You don’t know if that father of three is out picking up diapers, or if he is out hunting for his next victim. Crime, violence, and death can be as random as walking into the wrong gas station at the wrong moment.

My husband is a medic, and he comes with all the cynicism and jaded world view that comes from that field of work. He often says that he doesn’t trust anyone, and that he assumes everyone is out to do him harm, because that is the only way to keep himself and those that he loves safe. He can be darkly pragmatic and nihilistic. In the last five years alone, he has been called to over two dozen murders, ranging from domestic disputes, drive by shootings, and gang executions. He has seen men, women, and children with bullet and knife wounds. He has seen child abuse, and death and dismemberment on a daunting scale. He used to like to tell me that he was okay with that, because he compartentalizes well. To some extent, he’s right. On the job, he’s able to push his emotions and feelings into a box and lock them up in a way that I could not even imagine having to do. Even he, though, has finally had to admit that he’s growing weary of the constant darkness weighing on him, and that is has affected him in more ways than he would ever have admitted before. He now has to take antidepressants, and the damage has bled over into his life here at home with us.

As Friedrich Nietchze once wrote, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

My husband is a huge fan of the podcast from a former Navy SEAL named Jocko Willink. He’s told me that Jocko refers to what he calls “the darkness” of humanity, and that some people have to be willing to open themselves up to it, to bring a little bit of that darkness into themselves so that they can try to shed a light on it. I find that a very fitting and appropriate metaphor. But what do you do if that darkness latches on to you and wraps itself around you? How do you shed it? How do you keep it from spilling out onto your children? When do you expose them to it?

There is a scene in Mindhunters, the incredible series from Netflix about the FBI’s early forays into criminal psychology, that I think perfectly illustrates this point. In the seventh episode of Season 1, FBI agent Bill Tench comes home to find that his babysitter has quit after finding a bloody, graphic crime scene photo under the bed of Tench’s adopted son. Tench’s wife cannot understand why he has the photos at home, or why he spends his time obsessing over them, and she loses her temper. In response, he begins throwing down photo after photo, revealing to her the weight of his job and the darkness that he carries with him constantly, unable to escape. He tells her that this is his burden he carries for trying to protect people.

It may just be a fictional scene, but I think that it is very revealing of the nature of people who do this kind of work. People are often bothered by the fact that police officers, paramedics, journalists, and others are, for lack of a better term, fascinated and intrigued by such vicious and terrible things. I think it is important to note that few of them do this because they enjoy it. You cannot be around death and darkness without it leaving its imprint on you. They do it because someone must. They do it because they can carry that burden, at least for a while.  In order to understand humanity, one must examine the times when people seem the least human. Only by knowing what we are not can one truly know what we truly are.

I think that is ultimately what drives me. I started my writing career with the intentions of being a poet and a novelist. In my poetry, I sought to explore every day life, as well as the things that link us to our past and how they shape us. I have been a student of human nature all my life, and now I have become a student of a more primitive side of it. I do not know what makes these people think this way or act this way, and I want to understand why. I want to understand how the empathy that I feel can be so lacking in others.

I hope that by studying the monsters, I can avoid becoming one.

I hope that by writing about their bones, I can bring a little life back to those that have been lost, and give them a new place in the memories of those who have forgotten them. I want to empower them over those who have taken their power away.

As Jocko Willink says, “know the darkness.”

It’s good advice for a parent, and I think that, ultimately, it is important to show your children the darkness, too. When to do that is an individual choice, but I think it’s imporant for them to know that there are bad things out there, and to be wary of them. But don’t forget to show them the light, and remind them that there are those out there who are willing to shine that light into the dark places of the world.

Check out Kate Dawson’s awesome post on Crimereads here, and buy her book here.

Buy Michelle McNamara’s amazing book here.

Check out Jocko Willink’s podcast on iTunes, or find more information here.

Go to Netflix to catch up on Mindhunters before Season 2 is available!

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