True crime fails when it treats trauma as entertainment. But there's a better way.
True crime has a problem, and it looks like a glass of chardonnay and a top 10 list of the most “famous” and “bone-chilling” murders. It’s easy to forget, in a world glutted with reality-based entertainment, where most of us are tweeting and instagramming our lives in real time, that not everyone wants their life turned into media. When we consume other people’s tragedies and trauma as entertainment, it doesn’t just titillate, shock or educate us, it impacts the people who are still dealing with the psychological fallout of their own worst day.
It can be hard to imagine what this is like if you haven’t been at the center of a true crime “story” as I have.
This has happened to me more times than I can count. There’s the awful Lifetime movie that painted me in a rather negative light. There’s the Fox television series "Proven Innocent" (now canceled, and I can’t say I’m disappointed), which was pitched as “What if Amanda Knox became a lawyer?” There’s animated YouTube shows, podcasts, and several books dissecting my life. There’s even a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book theorizing about why people misjudged me. I didn’t choose any of this, and I couldn't stop any of it from happening even if I tried. When a case is high-profile enough, the laws regarding public interest strip victims, perpetrators, witnesses and even lawyers, of their right to privacy.
It can be hard to imagine what this is like if you haven’t been at the center of a true crime “story” as I have. But try to imagine that tomorrow, you discovered a new eight-part docuseries dissecting your parents’ divorce, who cheated on whom, the claims of emotional distance, the lies, the fights in front of the children. And the showrunners never consulted you or asked your permission. It hardly seems in the public interest, but what makes the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in the public interest? Just because it’s shocking?
I would like to suggest something that may sound radical: None of us are entitled to revel in other people’s tragedies, no matter how shocking, confusing, unresolved or bizarre they may be. Unfortunately, the massive true crime genre is so popular precisely because it packages up tragedy and trauma as cues for armchair detective work, moral outrage and the gleeful chill of horror.
This isn’t to say that there is no value in discussing real-life crimes. Some victims — and alleged perpetrators — want their stories told, and there are real insights to be gained from these stories, about human nature and about how to improve our justice system. But we have to approach such stories with humility, compassion and empathy. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with my fiancee Christopher Robinson in our podcast “The Truth About True Crime.” In season three, we explored the conviction of Jens Soering for the double homicide of his girlfriend’s parents. Soering has long maintained his innocence, and Chris and I believe him (along with many prominent supporters, such as Angela Merkel and Martin Sheen). It was important for me to get to know Soering as well as I could through the prison phone system. It was equally important that I avoided flippant speculation about the character of his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth, who pled guilty to accessory to murder, but who chose not to speak with me.
In our latest season, about vigilante justice, we looked at many cases, and each time I made it a point to approach the story first and foremost with an eye to who has the most at stake. When talking about Gary Plauche, for example — who killed the man who was accused of sexually assaulting his son Jody — I spoke with Jody himself, who’s been dealing with the fallout of his dad’s actions for the last 30 years.
Even when true crime goes beyond encouraging casual, gleeful judgment, it still so often treats the people going through the worst experiences of their lives like characters in a morality play — a play for which the curtain closes with the final verdict, and the characters remain neatly frozen in their roles: victim, offender, prosecutor.
The people at the center of true crime stories exist outside of whatever narrative is packaged for our bingeing.
But of course the people at the center of true crime stories exist outside of whatever narrative is packaged for our bingeing. And they suffer the consequences of waxing and waning public interest. Because although the cameras go away, the stigma of being a character in the true crime genre doesn’t. I’m going to be talking about what that’s like with Lorena Gallo (formerly Bobbitt) this November during a live podcast episode in Washington D.C.
Lorena’s life, like mine, has gone on since the events that brought her into the public eye more than 25 years ago. She is more than a character in the international morality play that has served as entertainment for millions, whether in mocking SNL skits, or in a thoughtful doc series like the recent Lorena on Amazon. Even the nuanced stories end up trapping a person in relation to their own trauma.
But if we don’t tell these stories at all, we risk making the same mistakes over and over in our justice system and our media. Telling these stories with integrity means, first and foremost, respecting the figures at the center of them, being aware of the impact of our storytelling, and interrogating our own consumption of their tragedies. With every story I tell, I feel a duty to question my own motives and my own assumptions. I want to be sure to never treat the subjects of the stories I tell in the flippant way I was treated — and continue to be treated.
And here’s the thing: Approaching a story with the idea that you are entitled to tell it, to judge the “characters” in it, is a terrible way to get at the truth. The best way I’ve found to really understand why justice goes awry is with a mindset of compassion and humility. I had to learn this lesson from being on the wrong side of bad storytelling. But you don’t. You just have to set down your glass of wine and remember that your favorite murder is someone else’s worst tragedy.
Amanda Knox, with Christopher Robinson