Why We Love—and Need to Leave Behind—Dead Girl Stories

"The Way We Tell Them Gives Us Permission to Look Away from Obvious Patterns"

By  Kristen Martin

Like every young American woman, I grew up among dead girls. The most prominent dead girl of my youth was JonBenét Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty queen who was bludgeoned and strangled in her home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996. I was a year older than JonBenét, but she looked much older than me: a My Size Barbie floating on pageant stages with a frozen smile. The tension between her precocious beauty and her horrible death made her murder a story. Absorbing that story through snippets of TV coverage, I could scarcely imagine her as a peer, let alone a human. Her name became a synecdoche for innocence lost; she disappeared underneath the prurience of her death and the breathless suspicion it aroused.

As I entered adolescence, the dead girls around me compounded and diversified. I watched Unsolved Mysteries and Forensic Files, trying to understand why girls and women were murdered. But the more I got sucked into these stories, the more I lost the thread of the victims themselves, who were eclipsed by the hunt for evidence and the murderer’s motive. As with JonBenét, their lives were germane to the narrative only insofar as they could be symbolized to explain their deaths.

The only dead girl tale I encountered that avoided this trap was a fictional one, told by the dead girl herself. In Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones, Susie Salmon is dead when the book begins, raped and murdered at 14 in a cornfield in 1970s suburban Pennsylvania. Narrating omnisciently, Susie maintains her agency, telling us about the life that was taken from her and watching it proceed without her, tracking the impact of her murder on her family and others in her town. Reading The Lovely Bones as a teenager, I was finally able to see dead girls as more than just the missing centers to stories about murderers who embody unfathomable evil, more than just flattened, perfect victims like JonBenét. I felt real empathy for Susie, and I understood that what happened to her could happen to me, too, if I came across a man who wanted ultimate control over me.

But even in fiction, as Alice Bolin reminds us in her debut collection Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, the archetypal dead girl story is not Susie Salmon’s, but JonBenét’s, or that of another blonde beauty queen—Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks. In a “Dead Girl Show” like Twin Peaks, the girl ceases to be a person and instead becomes a body, a body that is, as Bolin writes, “both a well-spring of and a target for sexual wickedness,” a body that becomes “a neutral arena on which to work out male problems,” almost always a white girl’s body that is at once the subject of “worshipful covetousness and violent rage.”

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In the book’s opening essay, “Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show,” Bolin zeroes in on the discovery of the body as the inciting incident in all of these dead girl stories. Since the young woman is found murdered at the start of the show, the show isn’t about her, but the search for who killed her. That search elides the obvious answers. In Twin Peaks, for instance, it’s easier to believe in the supernatural demon BOB taking over Leland Palmer and forcing him to rape and murder his daughter than it is to confront the utter commonality of familial sexual assault.

We’re drawn to Dead Girl Shows, Bolin posits, because they present a narrative that we can live with, “externalizing the impulse to prey on young women . . . depict[ing] it as both inevitable and beyond the control of men.” Rather than face what Bolin calls the “flags as red as blood” that men raise, we prefer to believe that “murder is something on the air, like a demon,” something we cannot fathom and thus cannot prevent. In Dead Girls, Bolin interrogates the tropes of true crime and crime fiction, unpacking what our obsession with Dead Girls reveals about our culture’s relationship to women and narrative.

We are all complicit in consuming the Dead Girl—even now, as we are hearing from women about the ways men have abused their power to control them, and women are wresting that power back. True crime—a genre in which women are often completely controlled, because they are dead—remains exceedingly popular.

Over the past few years, shows like Making a Murderer and podcasts like Serial have lent true crime an intellectually serious veneer, broadening its reach. More recently, Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which obsessively explores the Golden State Killer case, has spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, boosted in part by the recent arrest of a suspect more than 30 years after his last crime. The arrest re-sparked theorizing around how he did it and got away with it—it being raping 50-plus women and killing at least a dozen people.

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Untangling the stories we tell ourselves about the murder of women is central to Bolin’s project. Writing about her upbringing in Idaho, Bolin notes that “the idea that northwestern landscapes hid some sinister, almost literary meaning” was at the heart of stories like Robert Lee Yates’ murdering of at least 13 sex workers in Spokane, Washington. Killing women was, once again, depicted as an element of fate, something that thrives uniquely in the isolation of the Wild West. This overlooks the real culprit, which Bolin states bluntly: “Men are the problem.”

“It’s not doing us any good to keep rehashing these stories if we refuse to pay attention to the ways our culture is complicit in killing women.”

Any consumer of true crime knows that men are the problem, but that doesn’t stop us from tuning into each new Dead Girl story as though it presents a fresh mystery. Bolin questions this stance in “The Husband Did It”—an essay whose title acknowledges a truism that has become a trope “true crime fans roll their eyes at,” no matter what the numbers show us: nearly three women are killed by current or former intimate partners each day in the U.S.

But we want mystery, plot twists, a story. We love the Dead Girl, Bolin writes, because “her death is the catalyst for the fun of sleuthing.” And that’s the problem with Dead Girl stories—the way we tell them gives us permission to look away from obvious patterns. It’s not doing us any good to keep rehashing these stories if we refuse to pay attention to the ways our culture is complicit in killing women.

So how do we avoid becoming Dead Girls? Stay sexy and don’t get murdered, of course—or at least that’s what the My Favorite Murder podcast’s tagline says. A chirpy “true crime comedy podcast” hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the show’s appeal lies not in heady thoroughness but in an unapologetic reclamation of taboo. The hosts adopt a breezy tone as they take turns telling each other the story of a “favorite”—i.e. so bizarre or grisly as to be memorable—murder. Fans who appreciate the tension between tone and content see themselves as a sisterhood of “Murderinos” who can’t stop listening to what others might plug their ears against. The show draws up to 19 million listeners each month, sells out live recordings worldwide, and has spawned a Facebook group with more than 200,000 members.

I started listening to My Favorite Murder while I was reading Bolin’s Dead Girls, having heard about it from a friend who shares my morbid fascination with true crime. But since Bolin had me interrogating that fascination, I had a hard time zoning out to My Favorite Murder the way I used to zone out to Forensic Files, when I would get so caught up in piecing together bloodstains that I forgot a woman’s murder had created the puzzle. I found that Kilgariff and Hardstark often reproduced the worst kinds of Dead Girl tropes: stories in which the victim disappears and the murderer is mythologized, stories that take pleasure in sleuthing while largely ignoring the patterns of male grievance that commonly put women in danger.

In the first episode, before getting into their favorite murders (JonBenét for Hardstark, and the Golden State Killer for Kilgariff), Kilgariff explains her motivations: “I just want to collect information and hear theories and stories . . . so that when I see that one thing’s out of the knife block, I’m ready.” Hardstark quips, “I feel like a law of physics is that the more you know about something, the less likely it’s going to happen to you.”

“I found that Kilgariff and Hardstark often reproduced the worst kinds of Dead Girl tropes: stories in which the victim disappears and the murderer is mythologized.”

The paradox here is that women are most likely to be killed not by strangers or serial killers—as in most of the murders told on My Favorite Murder—but by acquaintances: in 2015, 93 percent of female murder victims were killed by someone they knew, and 64 percent were killed by intimate partners. We can prevent intimate partner murder if we educate and intervene. As Bolin points out in “The Husband Did It,” domestic violence killings follow patterns: they’re more likely to occur in “moments of upheaval”—when women try to leave their abusers, when the abuser is unemployed, or when abusers feel a loss of control.

At the end of that first episode, though, Kilgariff declares that she wants “nothing to do with” these kinds of stories, where “a husband killed his wife.” Hardstark agrees that they’re “so boring” because the “why” is obvious. They’d rather fixate on bizarre details. Recounting the Golden State Killer case, researched via Michelle McNamara’s blog True Crime Diaries (the precursor to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), Kilgariff dwells on the “creepy” detail that the suspect was supposedly photographed at a town hall held to discuss his crimes. They’d rather see murderers as genius monsters than as banal.

My Favorite Murder seems most interested in fostering the subculture it has created, where women have claimed the right to discuss these dark topics flippantly in order to face their fears and process their anxieties.

But even when told well, stories like the ones featured on My Favorite Murder aren’t good to steep oneself in. While working on I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara became consumed by her research. Her husband, Patton Oswalt, recalls that she once “swung a lamp at his head” after mistaking him for an intruder as he was creeping into bed. He said “she had overloaded her mind with information with very dark implications.” McNamara died in April 2016, before finishing the book, due to an undiagnosed heart condition and a mixture of the drugs Adderall, Fentanyl, and Xanax. Oswalt believes she took the drugs to cope with the stress and anxiety that her research produced, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark contains a meta-narrative about the emotional toll the project took on her.

Reading The Lovely Bones as a teenager, I saw the dangers of identifying too closely with Dead Girls. When Susie’s “soul shrieked out of Earth,” she accidentally grazed a girl named Ruth, who saw a “pale running ghost.” Ruth becomes obsessed with Susie, writing poems for her, dreaming about being buried in the earth like she was. As she enters young adulthood, she spends her days sensing the spots where other girls and women were killed, so consumed with bearing witness that she does not live her own life.

If consuming Dead Girl stories can cause us to envelop ourselves in fears that belie the ways men are most dangerous to women, or risk our becoming ghoulish Ruths, then why are women as hungry as ever for true crime stories? Writing for the Los Angeles Times recently, Megan Abbott—the author of You Will Know Me and several other crime novels—posits that true crime allows women to confront the parts of our lives that we’ve long been encouraged to keep silent about. True crime, Abbott writes, is “the place where women can go to read about the dark, messy stuff of their lives that they’re not supposed to talk about—domestic abuse, serial predation, sexual assault, troubled family lives, conflicted feelings about motherhood, the weight of trauma, partner violence and the myriad ways the justice system can fail, and silence, women.” This seems like a more substantive reclamation than that of My Favorite Murder—an acknowledgement that true crime stories often reflect back to women “the world they live in,” as Abbott puts it.

In another recent piece, “How True Crime Helps Us Process Our Fear,” Chelsea G. Summers makes a similar argument about why women are unlikely to stop saturating themselves with true crime stories any time soon: these stories confirm that the fear women feel is real. “Culture raises women to fear strange men and to trust the men they know—the men who, the cold facts tell us, are most likely to harm us,” Summers writes. But many true crime stories—the ones where The Husband Did It—“want to tell us that our suspicions are correct: We are in danger, and the call is coming from inside the house.”

In seeing ourselves as constantly in danger of becoming Dead Girls, though, Bolin believes we’re feeding a trope that cages us in. As she said in an interview for Tin House with Elissa Washuta, while she agrees that Dead Girl stories validate women’s fears, they also “police women by saying, ‘Don’t be like her.’ Because ultimately it isn’t like, ‘Let’s stop men from acting that way.’” If we’re not reckoning with the fact that men are the problem—and if we’re not trying to fix that problem—we’re reinforcing the sense that murder is an evil we cannot comprehend, an inevitable danger for women.

That white women are so often at the center of Dead Girl stories, despite the fact that, as Summers acknowledges, they are “statistically the least endangered” makes our continued obsession with these tropes even more troubling. Early in the collection, Bolin writes “clearly Dead Girls help us work out our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women in our culture . . . The white girl becomes the highest sacrifice, the virgin martyr, particularly to that most unholy of narratives.” There is something seductive about seeing oneself reflected in this kind of victim.

But these stories often cause collateral damage. In “Accomplices,” the final essay of Dead Girls, Bolin considers Joan Didion’s “Sentimental Journeys,” her essay about the Central Park Five case, and how the white female victim at its center became a “cudgel to punish those whom the city has always punished most”—poor people of color. White female victimhood, often imagined, was also used to justify the lynchings of black men in the south through the late 19th and mid-20th century. Bolin writes, “It is difficult for white women to take responsibility for our faces . . . and the aims we’ve allowed them to be deployed for.” In Dead Girls, though, she takes responsibility. Reading Bolin’s book, we are forced to consider why we want to keep hearing and telling these stories, and the oppression—of ourselves and others—that we keep alive by doing so.

Kristen Martin
Kristen Martin
Kristen Martin is working on a collection of essays that meditates on grief, death, and life. Her personal and critical essays have been published in Hazlitt, Catapult, Real Life, Guernica, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University, consults with writers at the Columbia University Writing Center and teaches first-year writing Baruch College.





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