Talking true crime for the holiday season with author Sarah Marshall

Sarah Marshall wrote Remote Control, an essay about Tonya Harding and the image of female criminality and victimhood in popular culture that blew minds when it appeared in The Believer last year. It is finding new attention and life this year, as it appears in this year’s The Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. At present, she is writing an essay regarding popular notions about psychopathy and Ted Bundy. Marshall is admittedly obsessed with Bundy’s case, and I am fixated on the 1982 murder of Dominique Dunne, and in addition to Nightmare on Elm Street, Silence of the Lambs, and other random odds and ends these are things we discuss in several hour phone calls about every other month.

Seeing my annual Maine-made gift guide, she joked that we should put together a true crime gift guide considering we’re both interested in the oft-derided genre. I took her up on the offer. What follows is the list of suggestions we came up with, and then the meandering interview which reveals how and why we selected what we did.

[Further Reading: I interviewed Marshall last year when her essay was originally published. Also last Halloween we collaborated with designer Sabrina Volante to explore the political leanings of our favorite horror movies.]

The List:

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The Interview: 

STEED: So let’s get this out of the way first. You are an emerging respected literary type, so where does an interest in a genre that was long written off as exploitative and trashy come from?

SARAH MARSHALL: When [Canadian serial killer] Paul Bernardo was arrested in 1993, the police took note of the fact that the home he shared with his wife was crammed with true crime books. His wife, Karla Homolka, was the reader of the two, and her familiarity with stories of rape, abduction, and murder would, in the media fracas that followed, be called up countless times as proof of her evil. I think about this detail a lot, mainly because I wonder what someone might think if they saw the true crime library I’ve amassed. I feel guilty even killing the fruit flies in my kitchen (I leave wine out so they can die a happy, drunken death), but I have competing stacks of paperbacks on Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy beside my couch, and Fatal Vision is splayed on the floor beside my bed. The fastest way to bond with me at a party is to tell me what your favorite Ann Rule book is.

I’ve been reading true crime since I was a teenager, first for the thrilling transgression of it, and then because I realized the genre helped me to make sense of the most shocking narratives imaginable. In an era of endless true crime-themed cable programming, lurid headlines, and online hot takes, true crime books remain uniquely capable of providing readers with not just information, but insight. If you’re writing a book, lurid details will only sustain you for a few dozen pages. After that, you have to start searching for truth, and giving your reader a chance to do the same.

STEED: Okay! Fantastic start. So what’s on your list?

MARSHALL: So I have What Lisa Knew by Joyce Johnson, and it’s about the Joel Steinberg tapes. It’s this case about this couple—they are white, educated, living in Greenwich Village in 1988 or 89. It came to light that they had illegally adopted two children and then essentially they weren’t married, but the male partner Joel Steinberg had beaten the little girl to death while the woman [Hedda Nussbaum] sat by and didn’t do anything. She ultimately called 911, but only after something like eleven hours of the girl lying on the bathroom floor.

It is one of the cases that I think complicated American’s ideas about how much we’re willing to let women get away with when they’re victims of domestic abuse, because the case that kind of broke that narrative open was the burning bed case with Francine Hughes. You know, they made that into a movie with Farrah Faucet, where the woman sets her husband’s bed on fire while he was sleeping to kill him and save herself and her children.

Hughes was totally embraced, and then what happened with the Steinberg case that was interesting is that we start to see the limits of that logic. It’s where we stop having this “let’s make a TV movie about it” public support sort of thing if it’s not just the woman who has suffered, but that she has helped the suffering of a child, or a bystander. And it’s actually well written too, cause Johnson is a real writer.

STEED: Is there a sub-section of when “real” writers write about true crime? I feel like it should be. And what defines the feeling or aesthetic of the true crime narrative? 

MARSHALL: I think true crime as also being related to romance novels too, because those are the two big embossed cover genres. I don’t know though. It’s funny, when I was putting together this list, I was like “Okay, we can’t put In Cold Blood or Executioner’s Song on it, because those are those books that the New Yorker types always cite. That’s not true crime. I feel like a book like Columbine [by Dave Cullen] is a really well written and thoughtful book, but it’s also a true crime book. Like, it’s about a breakdown of the hours and minutes, here’s what happened, here’s who did what. I feel like it’s right on the edge, but I would put it in the true crime genre. Would you put it there?

STEED: I would. I don’t have a ton of knowledge of true crime recently, but it has that “this has been this guys life for a while” feel. Like, he nails the mechanics and atmosphere and demystifies this time and place, but it is also very clearly evident that reporting this was very much his life for a decade. 

MARSHALL: Yeah, I feel like that is kind of what makes is true crime, the way it sort of takes over your life for a while.

Like you said, it’s really clear that this did become his life for ten years and how there are all these moments that he could’ve glossed over in trying to dissect. Going through all of Dylan Klebold’s journals, and going through these years of kind of fantasy and the minute aspects of their childhood and adolescences that I think an author less committed to this would’ve skipped. Cullen reveals what he does by just being obsessively attuned to all the minute details, not just of their lives but the community and this high school, the relationships between the people that he’s talking about. Based on the belief that if you leave no stone unturned then you may find something or give your reader access to something that would’ve otherwise been lost. And I think that reading that book actually helped me to learn about how to approach anything about crime and how glossing over something, no matter how innocuous it seems, could foreclose a potential revelation.

I also looked for material that wasn’t just about the standard narrative so “A Beautiful Child” by Matt Bertbeck. Basically this man [Franklin Delano Floyd] abducted this girl [Suzanne Marie Sevakis] when she was a child and then raised her as his daughter [as Sharon Marshall] and abused and molested her. They are then married, or live as a couple, which is revealed after he killed her in a hit and run accident when she was 22. The book is based on the beginning of the investigation of her death. Her son goes to a foster family, and then he kidnaps the son and kills him, and this all comes to light at the trial for that murder. 

And so we’re looking at this girl who the author has no way of knowing first hand because she’s dead but also who wasn’t this existence where she wasn’t really able to know anyone or talk to anyone; she didn’t really open up to anybody. And she has this one friend from high school who knew her, but didn’t know the truth about her circumstances so it’s like how do you paste together someone’s existence if you just have very vague testimony from people who knew her and she’s the only one who can really know the truth of what she was going through. But it’s like, working from just a complete lack of knowledge, and I think Bertbeck does that really interestingly.

And then I have Polly Nelson’s Defending the Devil. Having read a million books about Ted Bundy, this one was the first one that sort of presented a different view compared to others that I’d read. It’s an amazing book, and she’s very honest about the emotional pull that the trial put on her and the way that she regarded him and how she consciously avoided reading about the details of the murders. She felt protective of him as her client, but also really horrified by the things that he’d done. And I think the fact that she’s just honest about that emotional state was really rare. Because she could’ve written this book and just sort of talked about the actual legal maneuverings of it and not been so raw about her emotional state as she was.

STEED: Backing up a bit, it seems there’s the New Yorker writer who writes true crime, then there’s true crime where it consumes a life, and then there’s people being like “I was close to it in this way, and here’s how it actually affected my life.”

MARSHALL: And I think you have to be honest about it, because if we pretend we don’t bring any baggage to something like this and it just blocks any kind of an honest view of it.

As “I was there” narratives go, there is Child of Satan, Child of God, which is the book that [Manson associate] Susan Atkins wrote. It was ghostwritten by this guy Bob Flosser. It such an interesting one, because it’s just her describing what she remembers about the Manson murders and she’s so boring. This is kind of the opposite, where you would really expect her to get it up and pretend to have more feelings than she did, but she kind of preserves this affectlessness, that you realize a lot of these people would have to have for any of this to make sense. She’s like “and then we broke in house and wrote ‘helter skelter’ on the walls in blood and it seemed like a good idea at the time and we did it”, and it’s like “No, I don’t think you really could’ve possessed a normal capacity for human emotion in that moment. I don’t think you could’ve been operating with all your emotional capabilities at that time.” She just kind of describes when she’s pregnant and she goes into labor and she’s like “maybe sitting on a horse will help”, and so she’s sitting on this horse having this baby, and eventually gives birth. And she’s just like “and then I had a baby”, it’s just the way she’s recounting it.

And she says that she didn’t actually kill anyone, which I’m inclined to believe, because she so honest about her lack of emotion in her other accounts. It felt so weird trying to figure out what makes you trust someone, or trust someone’s account of events.

What have you got?

STEED: One is Let the Fire Burn, a documentary that is meticulously crafted but not necessarily great. It’s about MOVE, which was this super interesting radical, black liberation, vegan collective group based in Philadelphia. And they lived in a neighborhood and they had a big compound, it was them and a bunch of their kids. They agitated the neighborhood and eventually the police, so after a number of exchanges of force, the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb onto the collective and killed a number of the members, including children. Burned them to death. It was in 1985, and the documentary is flawed in trying painfully to take an unbiased stand. I don’t want it to take like a Michael Moore stand, but also it feels falsely clinical in providing clinical measure to both sides. What is most important to me is that I don’t think most Americans’ realize that there was a time in which a police force literally dropped a bomb on a radical group and killed them in our history, so it feels important from that perspective.

MARSHALL: I had no idea. Speaking of objectivity in documentaries about crime, have you seen Dear Zackary? I watched this for the first time a few years ago and I ended up watching it again the other night. It’s made by the friend of a guy who was murdered by an ex-girlfriend in 2001. It turns out that the ex-girlfriend is pregnant with his son, and so it’s about how do we memorialize the people that we love and he’s sort of doing this as a letter to his friend’s son. Then the ex-girlfriend flees to Canada where she’s from and the grandparents are trying to get custody, and the extraction process, and all these other new events that the documentary sort of folds in, so what was originally a tribute becomes this much more complicated thing about the legal process. It’s really wonderful. And it doesn’t make any attempt to be objective, because it’s made by a circle of friends of the murder victim. But I think it’s very subjective but by being aware of it’s subjectivity and working within those parameters, I think it works really well. It doesn’t claim to be anything that it isn’t.

STEED: My other contribution is John Water’s essay about his friendship with Leslie Van Houton. It’s from his book Role Models and it’s really great. It does such a good job of humanizing this former Manson girl and it does well by humanizing her by putting her into the context of all other more notorious family members. It helps to make her three dimensional and illustrates this repentant figure who got into a bad situation and has been in jail for 40 years since. It also reveals how crazy the parole board process is. It does an interesting thing from the Waters perspective in that he does care about this concept of justice and rehabilitation. Listening to how crime has been treated in the past forty years, it feels like rehabilitation used to be a real goal. That seems quaint in retrospect. The present age feels like Robocop by comparison. When Leslie finds herself in jail the concept of rehabilitation was still on the table, and over the course of forty years attitudes have turned toward retribution and containment. So that’s something I’m interested in.

And then the last thing—and I am really breaking the “no New Yorker writers” goal—is Girl of the Golden West, Joan Didion’s piece on Patty Hearst. You can find it in either After Henry, or We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. It’s really Didion’s reflections on and reaction to Hearst’s memoir. It’s funny having come up in the 90’s as a teenager, because by that time the 70’s nostalgia machine has selected what all of it’s tokens were. It was like bell bottoms and “three dog night” and peace signs and afros and the iconic image of Patty Hearst. So between that and John Water’s movies, that was really my only understanding of who she was growing up. I have this very bizarre thing where when I’m at antique stores or flea markets, I buy any old magazine I can. You’re usually getting People, Time Life, Newsweek, etc from like 65 to 89 are basically the magazines you’re most likely to find. Some mention of Patty Hearst is ever-present. I like Didion’s perspective, especially since she is someone who very clearly has countercultural sympathies but is somehow at the same time very conservative. She didn’t appreciate the aesthetic of chaos and so her mediation on Hearst and what that meant at the time is worth spending time with.

MARSHALL: I feel like a lot of the interesting areas of true crime are when we get into those slippery places. Like looking at someone like Patty Hearst, who definitely did have a lot of sense and was this huge media fixation because she was like this human Rorschach test. You saw her differently based upon where your political leanings and sensibilities were. So it was one of those figures where we saw more about ourselves than who she actually was. I saw an interview with her in an old issue of Playboy, which was actually great, where she said “we all had to share one toothbrush and it sucked.” It sounds like that would suck.

STEED:think it’s interesting to examine where public sympathies have ended up over time. I have great sympathy for people who were kidnapped and raped for days and days and then converted into bank robbers, or even just wayward people who were swept up by the charisma of some crazy drug-hippie. That’s what’s most interesting to me and worth spending time with, and I feel like to some degree what’s interesting to you is these are three-dimensional situations in their various perspectives and what’s been interesting is being into true crime in one way or another. I know a lot of the people that I grew up with that were into it as a genre, they weren’t really into ambiguity. They weren’t balanced people or reformers, they were just like “Oh, there’s evil and I wanna know everything about it.”

MARSHALL: This is an odd genre for people who have any sense of moral complexity to hold dear.

I have to add The Run of His Life, Jeffrey Tubin’s book about the OJ Simpson trial. I really like that one because I think this trial has so many misconceptions about it, because this is just like a play by play starting with the murder and going up through the jury selection, the trial and the verdict, and all the actualities of that case. I really liked reading that after only knowing the trial from SNL sketches, like “Oh, that’s what that sketch was about.”

Then, speaking of moral ambiguity, The Case of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny is really good. This ten year old girl in Newcastle killed two toddler boys in the 1950s. This is a really good one, because this woman covered this case at the time it went to trial and wrote a short book about it and then she revisited it thirty years later and had extensive interviews with this woman as an adult. They talk through revelations that Bell has had about what happened, and her time in prison, and her relationship with her mom. It’s like the Columbine book in that it gets very deep in the details and it doesn’t discard anything.

The stuff I end up liking is the stuff that is really detail oriented, which I like to think with the popularity of [the podcast] Serial might be having a renaissance.

STEED: Speaking of podcasts, I need to make a plug for Criminal, which is pretty excellent. One episode they’ll explore the story behind a murder ballad and in another they’ll explore the complicated relationship between a police officer, his retired K9 partner and his new dog. It’s so great. And then there is also the Sword and the Scale, which is occasionally okay, but ultimately incredibly frustrating. Its made by this guy who you have to admire for putting so much work into putting out these hour long podcasts, but very clearly needs the oversight of an experienced producer or an editor. He also contorts all over the place to overemphasize trends that don’t exist, and repeats a bunch of stuff that never requires repeating. It is frustrating to listen to in that in his good moments, it’s really food and so you just want it to be better. But I’m reserving hope for it in the long run.

What else have you got?

MARSHALL: Another good one is Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz and that’s about the town in New Jersey where a group of popular sports playing boys at the high school gang raped a mentally challenged girl. It took seven years to go to trial, and the sentences that these teenage boys ultimately got were like less than the time they’d spent waiting for the case to go to trial. Again, it’s kind of like Columbine. This author clearly develops a fascination for this case and the first half of the book is obsessive documentation of who these guys were, what their families were like, what the social situation was like at school, this ongoing pattern of the guys being the princes of the town and being able to misbehave and do whatever they wanted and not really have to deal with any consequences for their actions. And trying to deconstruct the socialites of this high school, just all the minutia of these kids lives in order to make sense of the case. Which works, because it breaks it down into not  this one thing that happened on this one day for no apparent reason, but the combination of the lives that these teenage boys had been living and the world that they existed in.

I also have the Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, which is about Joe McGinniss writing Fatal Vision about Jeffery McDonald. McDonald was found guilty of murdering his wife and daughters and framing it on a Manson-like cult. And when he was brought to the hospital he said that this group of hippies had walked in and started stabbing people and they said “acid is groovy.” I was like “Really? Write better fake dialogue for hippies.“ So anyway, this is really interesting because it’s about Joe McGinniss. To write “Fatal Vision” he had to accompany McDonald to his trial for this murder. Had access to all the defense teams materials and was allegedly writing from their side and became convinced that McDonald actually had murdered his family, so with offering all these false assurances to Jeffery McDonald, writing him letters saying “I’m on your side, it makes me sick what’s happening to you” and all this time had already made up his mind and was gathering materials to write this book that would basically make the argument that he had killed his family. And then Jeffery McDonald sues him when this book comes out.

Janet Malcolm talks about this trial and how in her perspective, which I think she argues for pretty well, journalists are seen as such bottom feeders in American society that in this trial Joe Mcguinnes comes off less sympathetic than the guy who’s killed his wife and daughters. So murderers are sometimes preferable to journalists in America.

Finally, the last one I have is called Perfect Victim by Christine McGuire. I read this for the first time because I actually went through and found a list of forty books that Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were found to have in their home at the time that Paul was arrested. This was one of them. It’s actually a really well done true crime book. It’s about this couple in Northern California in the 1970’s who abducted this hitchhiker [Colleen Stran] and kept her captive in their trailer in a box underneath the bed for years at a time. And brainwashed her and convinced her that she was being watched by this organization that would kill her family if she ever tried to escape and that she had been bought by this guy—like she legally belonged to him. “They did so effective job of completely brainwashing her and that when this finally goes to trial they have a really hard time getting the public and the media and the jury to believe that this girl had been brainwashed so effectively. Because people kind of looked at this case and were like “Eh, I dunno, she seemed into it,” and it’s like “Really? She seemed into living in a box under the bed? For three years? Like that was a consensual thing?” So it’s this really interesting thing where you can see that people want so badly to believe that they can’t as adults be brainwashed or made to act differently and abused into losing their sense of reason. Rather than admitting such a thing is possible for the human psyche to undergo, they choose to believe that a young woman chose to live in a box for years on end. It’s astounding that people don’t talk about this case constantly, it’s really horrible.

STEED: Thanks for going down this incredibly macabre road with me.

MARSHALL: Any time.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.