I cannot tell you what to make of your own true crime consumption, but I can tell you what mine means for me.
Increasingly, true crime takes three steps too many for me. It doesn’t just relish the relief of feeling a little bit safer, it seeks a pound of flesh, some measure of punitive retribution for whoever it sees as having been wronged. It doesn’t just celebrate the end of violence, it conflates prison sentences with justice — as if some wrong could be truly righted by simply locking someone away. And in failing so frequently to discuss race, these true crime sensations create a warm Petri dish for their fans’ subtle racism to grow, cells dividing and multiplying with frightening speed, until we are awash in its bacteria.
There are crucial opportunities for conversation in true crime that are too often overlooked, and that fuel the blissful ignorance of so many white listeners to the realities of the criminal justice system. I find myself increasingly concerned by the passive, joyful reception of prison sentences. I find myself deeply disturbed by auditoriums full of people cheering for death penalties, applauding the impending murder of anyone marked criminal.
More and more, I am troubled by the investment that true crime can foster in the prison system, even as it points out its vulnerabilities. And I worry that too often, true crime finds us reducing the very real lives — of offenders, victims, and the families of both — to a spectacle for sport, a two-dimensional plot with surprising pop ups and satisfying twists. Suddenly, so many lives torn asunder become hobbies.
Too often, true crime regards the stories of incarcerated people with suspicion, the fact of their residence clouding our perception. That suspicion is readily fostered in audiences, who regard the real people in real prisons with all the gravity of a murder mystery dinner party. True crime disconnects us from the real and deep suffering caused by every facet of the criminal justice system. And I worry that my friends who love true crime so dearly do not know the rolling waves of sadness, the tsunami of grief and pain that sweeps me away when I step inside a prison.
Too often, true crime fans like me and my friend at the baby shower haven’t heard from people who have been incarcerated, or from their families. We leave the story when the mystery is solved, only rarely requiring ourselves to grapple with the painful and often counterproductive truth of life for incarcerated people, and the devastation that can cause for their families. We learn whodunit, indulging our own gendered and racialized fears and leaving the story when it becomes most inconvenient to us: when we are forced to confront the impact our retributory impulses has on the people who are then incarcerated, sometimes even sentenced to death. Any unsettling truths we may learn about life in prison, we decide, are the fault of the prisoners themselves. He should’ve thought of that before he did it. If you’re going to do the crime, you’ve got to do the time.
We engage with the criminal justice system uncritically and unquestioningly because most of us have been taught that the job of police is to protect and serve us. And overwhelmingly, our experiences bear that out. As white women, so many of us have stories of calling the police to complain about neighbors, and being believed, quietly becoming our own Permit Patties. So many of us have friends who were caught high or drunk while underage and were subsequently never charged by the police who found them. Many of us know someone who has driven recklessly or under the influence, only to be let off with a warning. We believe we can trust police — and as white women, we often can.
But we do not seek out the voices of people of color, immigrants, people without housing — those who law enforcement is more likely to target than help. We change the channel when faced with the stories of Black people who have been shot by police, or sentenced to cruelly long prison sentences. We eagerly take in the mystery until it is solved, then turn away when the narrative challenges us to reckon with the impact of our media consumption, our unchecked desire for a pound of flesh.
We do not seek out the voices of those who have been incarcerated, and we tune out tales of inhumane prison conditions. We do not seek out the voices of the families that prisoners have left behind, left to fend for themselves. And when their voices are offered to us, we haven’t listened. We have politely, quietly sidestepped the pain, complexity, and trauma that threatens our good time.
I do not want to believe that I need to see real trauma of real people laid bare in front of me to feel entertained. I bristle at the thought of myself as some Roman emperor in a coliseum, watching men fight to the death for sport, demanding destruction to feel amused. But in my heart of hearts, I know that true crime fosters that in me.