All the Dead White Girls in the Woods

Why are we obsessed with the murder of young white women?

When I was a kid, I loved horror movies. In college, I migrated to moody foreign and indie films like Betty Blue, Paris Texas, and After Hours. But the accretion of my own adult problems and my awareness of the world’s perennial suffering soon led me away from dark films to what I’d call Escapist Feminism: Thelma and Louise, My Best Friend’s Wedding (where Julia Roberts gives up the mile-wide smile for real human foibles), and the perfectly crafted Muriel’s Wedding. After that phase, I simply sought beauty, whether visual or emotional. So Amelie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and more recently I Am Love and The Place Beyond the Pines made it onto my list of favorites.

Lately, I find myself drawn back to more sinister territory of real-life murder mysteries and the procedurals and dramas that imitate them.

At first I was afraid I was turning into my mom, who watches Law and Order daily. Then I read that Patti Smith is also a huge fan of procedurals and thought, “Hey no problem, I’m just turning into Patti Smith.” Actually I don’t like Law and Order. It’s too procedural, right down to the signature one-chord note, the musical equivalent of a judge’s gavel. The action takes place in broad daylight. It deals with dark crimes but the mood is sterile.

I’d rather The Killing, with its watery indigo landscape and aerial shots of the untamed forests surrounding Seattle. Or The Fall, in which ice queen Gillian Anderson hunts down a serial killer through the murky streets of Belfast. Better yet, give me a true story: Making a Murderer, The Jinx, or podcasts like Serial or Up and Vanished. I don’t seek out tales of murder; I just let the most popular ones make their way to me.

Several weeks ago, I started watching The Keepers, a documentary series about the 1969 unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun. The upshot is that the young nun, Cathy Cesnik, was about to confront her Catholic diocese about the sexual abuse dozens of her high school students were enduring at the hands of a priest, Joseph Maskell. There are numerous suspects including Maskell himself — unfortunately now dead. But the strongest impression I took from The Keepers was of Maskell’s favorite victim, Jean Hargadon, a soft-spoken, devout teenager whom the priest began regularly raping after she went to confession asking for his help with the guilt she carried about long-term molestation at the hands of her uncle.

Let’s pause a moment to really take that in. Jean Hargadon’s uncle molested her for years. She told no one in her large, otherwise-loving Catholic family but went into the confessional and asked a priest, who was also her high school counselor, to help her. Instead, he commanded her to describe the abuse while he took his dick out from under his cassock and masturbated to the details. From then on, he regularly called Jean’s name over the school’s PA system, ordering her to report to his office, where he raped her and brought other men — allegedly even police officers — to do the same.

When it became clear to Sister Cathy that Jean and several others were being raped, she assured one of them she would “take care of it.” Shortly thereafter, she was transferred to another school, and two months later she was dead. Then, because there is apparently no end to the evil that dwells in the hearts of men, Maskell dragged Jean out to the woods to show him Cathy’s maggot-strewn body, telling her, “That’s what happens when you say bad things about people.”

To me, The Keepers is more about Jean Hargadon than Cathy Cesnik, if only because Cesnik’s involvement in this nightmare was so relatively short, while Hargadon has spent most of her life uncovering, processing, and speaking about her memories, trying to get justice from the Catholic Church and the courts. Seven episodes of The Keepers convinced me that Jean Hargadon is one of the strongest people on earth, enduring unimaginable psychic pain and abuse while never turning that pain on others — her husband, her children, even her adversaries in the self-serving legal and religious structures that turn a blind eye to the damage they’ve done.

But the story probably would never have come to light if a dead nun hadn’t been found in the Baltimore woods. That’s how most of these stories begin, with a dead girl in the woods, or at the bottom of a lake, or gone missing — which we all know means she’s somewhere in the woods, her flesh turning to ash as she is forgotten by everyone except her immediate family.

Twin Peaks: Who killed Laura Palmer, wrapped her body in plastic, and dumped it in the river?

The Killing: Who killed Rosie Larsen and left her in the trunk of a car at the bottom of a lake?

The Night Of: Who stabbed Andrea Cornish to death in her bed, soaking her sheets in blood?

The Fall: Who killed Alice Munroe and Fiona Gallagher, bathing their corpses, painting their nails, arranging them into elegant poses?

True Detective: Who killed Dora Lange and left her kneeling naked against a tree wearing a crown of twigs and deer antlers?

The true stories are only slightly less fanciful:

Serial: Who killed Hae Min Lee and buried her in a shallow grave in a corner of Leakin Park?

The Keepers: Who bashed in Cathy Cesnik’s skull, then dumped her topless body in a landfill?

The Staircase: How did Kathleen Peterson end up in a pool of blood with a lacerated skull in her own house while her husband was at home?

Up and Vanished: Who killed Tara Grinstead and burned her body without leaving a trace?

The Jinx: Who killed Kathie Durst and hid or destroyed the body so well it’s never been found?

Who killed Laci Peterson and dumped her pregnant body into San Francisco Bay, weighing it to the sea floor with homemade cement anchors?

Who abducted 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her mother’s home and strangled her to death?

Who killed 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey and stuck her tiny body in the basement?

Who cut 9-year-old Amber Hagerman’s throat and dumped her into a Texas creek, so that we now get what are called Amber Alerts on our phones when a child goes missing?

The great majority of murder victims, 77 percent to be exact, are men. And more than half of those male victims are black. A third of female American murder victims are black. In fact, being a white woman makes you less likely to be murdered than being a white man, black man, or black woman. But for some reason, it’s the killing of young white women (forgive me, I’m using “white” loosely here, to mean non-black) that captures the collective imagination and becomes fodder for Emmy-winning television series, documentaries, and podcasts.

Why don’t we make more 20-episode podcasts or Netflix series about men who get killed, especially black men, or for that matter black women? Is the killing of black people too real and insidious to be made into a thriller? Do we tend to focus on female victims because male-on-male violence has become almost mundane? Do we subconsciously feel a need to over-remind white women of horrific (if relatively rare) dangers because, in the hierarchy of identity, they sit second only to white men, and are possibly gaining on them?

I don’t know the answers, but I’m really interested in the questions.

There’s something about getting older that makes me more curious about both death and moral failing, and murder is the point at which those two phenomena intersect. In middle age, we sense the beginning of the end. We can see that life usually doesn’t turn out the way we plan, and as losses begin to accumulate just as time begins to shrink, there’s a cruel math to be done upon waking each morning. Maybe that’s why people like my mom and Patti Smith and apparently millions of others are obsessed with murder mysteries — stories of one life ending, while another goes as wrong as a life can go, karmically speaking.

Since most of us can’t imagine killing someone, we’re naturally intrigued by those who have crossed that ultimate line, one from which I assume there is no return. We’re even more fixated on the bodies of the women they annihilate, especially if those bodies are light-skinned, especially if they are young and beautiful—especially if those pale, lovely bodies are juxtaposed against the darkness of a basement or landfill or forest, or the bottom of a cold dark sea.