Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession     by Rachel Monroe Scribner, 2019

In early 2017, the American cable television network Oxygen officially rebranded and started featuring almost exclusively true crime programming. The channel had always been directed toward women, but network executives noticed that the lifestyle shows they were airing weren't connecting with a viewership who was busy inhaling increasing amounts of crime stories through movies, podcasts, and books. Their ideal audience had caught the crime bug, and they figured it was time they got a piece of that action.

The choice to change lanes with their brand was clearly a financial one as they chased on the heels of the true crime trend, but they showed little interest in precisely why this type of content was resonating so deeply with today's women. That question may not have intrigued the Oxygen network, but it went on to inspire journalist Rachel Monroe to tackle the mystery of the appeal of mysteries in her new book Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession.

Monroe unfolds the true crime enigma like a map, which she divides into four quadrants. In each of these, she describes a female archetype connected to a crime: the detective digging into the details of a case, the victim's loved one yearning for resolution, a tireless advocate defending the wrongly accused, and salaciously, even the killer plotting their hateful crime. She uses a true story to embody each of these four roles, immediately scratching the reader's probable itch for crime drama, even when it's within a book that is itself a larger discussion of exactly these kinds of stories.

The women chosen to be under the spotlight in this book don't have any blood on their own hands, yet crime shapes a part of each of their identities. A crime scene miniaturist insists on being involved in improving a police force, although perfectionism gets under the skin of many, including the first FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. A former tenant of the guest house adjacent to the location of the Sharon Tate murders becomes so enraptured by the case that she elbows her way into a relationship with the Tate family. A documentary inspires a woman to believe unquestioningly in a convicted murderer's innocence, eventually establishing a written correspondence with him and falling deeply in love. And finally, a young misfit asserts her inherent superiority over others online, growing an admiration for the Columbine shooters and planning her own massacre with her Internet boyfriend.

At the heart of each of these stories is the powerful throbbing of obsession. It drives each of their actions, but to very different ends. This theme touches nearly every talking point, challenging readers to rethink their own mental image of fixation. Merely hearing the word “obsessed” within a crime story causes images of dark figures, swaying ominously outside artificially-lit rooms, to creep into vision. When really, the emotion wears drastically different masks and each of these women have their own style of it. While the reader may be able to be critical of some of the actions of these four, complete condemnation will be challenging. These ladies may have fallen down their own rabbit holes, but so have the crime obsessed media-bingers among us. 

The author is far from a judgmental outsider.  She doesn't attempt to pretend she's peering into the fishbowl: she's a crime junkie herself and, like many others, can't help but wonder if society is correct in thinking that ladies like herself, who find themselves absorbed by such dark material, must have something deeply corrupted inside. Interspersed throughout the book's compelling true stories are our author's descriptions of her own history with the genre and her connections to the same archetypes she's outlining. It allows a steadfast vein of relatability to run through the entire work, especially as Monroe describes her own bizarre experience at Oxygen Network's three-day crime dramatization spree, CrimeCon, during which she never seems to know if she is actually enjoying herself:

I wasn't sure how to feel about CrimeCon – or this so-called true crime boom. Being surrounded by other people who shared my most morbid interests should've made me feel at home. Instead, it made me uneasy for reasons I couldn't put my finger on.

It's this internal contradiction that fuels the central discussion. Slowly and quietly through this book, Monroe ruminates about what might motivate today's women to consume such a media diet. As an attempt to explain the fervor for the horror, a whole array of theories are spread out, buffet-style for the reader. Is it a woman's flair for the dramatic that draws her into a scandal? Does she get an emotional high off of the aching empathy she has for the victims? Is she trying to learn by example how best to avoid being the victim of such a crime? Perhaps the compulsion to consume these crime stories isn't any one of these things, but something unique for every individual. Could it be that, similar to the way that psychologists argue that adult romantic relationships are the arena in which we seek to resolve lingering traumas from childhood, crime stories are a way to help define our own roles within society?

Regardless of which explanation for these violent crime story obsessions will seem most plausible to the reader, the book thoroughly entertains. Monroe is the perfect guide through these well-researched stories, using personal experiences, psychological insights, and historical context to direct us. True crime fans, guilty pleasure and unapologetic readers alike will want to dive into this book to try to determine what inspires their own love of the genre. In an enormously satisfying way, this book has just the right recipe to become the crime fanatic's newest obsession.

Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at living in Pittsburgh.