Murder fascinates women. We read more crime fiction than men, and we write more. Some of us go a step further and write literary fiction based on real crimes. U.S. writer Joyce Carol Oates suggests that "the most palatable fictions are those that aren't really fictional but rather 'facts' audaciously reinvented in the language of gifted writers." But what is it about certain crimes that inspire women to tell their stories?
In 1995, Joyce Carol Oates published Zombie, written in the voice of mad killer Quentin P. and inspired by the life of serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. However sickening, the novel is nonetheless a compelling read, in part because of Quentin P.'s intimate voice: "I jammed my fingers in my mouth, I was a shy slow-seeming child & wide-eyed & the light of fear always quick in my face." In Zombie, Oates seeks to understand what creates such a monster and we read to find, and perhaps connect with, the remnants of humanity left to him.
While Oates's work is often melodramatic, she does not shy away from violence. Quentin P.'s gestation in the acts of real-life monster Dahmer lends this fiction an authenticity that chills and reveals.
Thirty years earlier, Oates wrote about another serial killer in her story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? based on the life of Charles Schmid, a.k.a. the Pied Piper of Tucson. Unwilling to let the details distract her, Oates merely skimmed the article about Schmid's crimes in Life magazine before writing the story. Schmid, an odd-looking thirtyish man, had seduced his teenage victims, yet when investigators came looking, their friends protected him.
Intrigued by what this dynamic revealed about adolescent culture, Oates shines the light on the victim, Connie, choosing to tell her story over that of charismatic killer, Arnold Friend. Here, Oates does more than try to understand the dangers that lurk for young girls. She asks what it would take for a young girl to let a man without much to offer lure her to danger. Whereas in Zombie, we glimpse Quentin P.'s killer mind trick of dehumanizing his victims, in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Oates empathizes with Connie, observing Connie's vanity and foolishness as acutely as she does Arnold Friend's disturbing sideways boot.
Badly behaved females also intrigue women who write literary true crime. Joyce Maynard's To Die For is based on the story of Pamela Smart, who had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy whom she's convicted of having enlisted, along with his friends, to murder her husband. As Oates did with Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Maynard needed only a superficial outline of the murder to spark her prescient story about a woman whose desire for television fame overrides her conscience.
Most recently, there is Oates's 2008 novel My Sister/My Love, a loosely disguised version of the JonBenét Ramsey murder. Bliss is a six-year-old prize-winning figure skater. Her brother, who survives her, tells her story. Nine at the time of Bliss's murder, now 19, Skylar is a traumatized witness, himself a victim of his mother's emotional abuse and his father's neglect.
Oates is much more familiar with the Ramsey case than she was with the Pied Piper's, though in interviews she has admitted to knowing nothing about JonBenét's real brother, Burke. In The Mystery of JonBenét Ramsey, an essay originally published in The New York Review of Books and posted on her website, Oates asserts that "the subtext of the JonBenét Ramsey case is class and privilege in America vis-à-vis 'justice.'"
Many facts in the Ramsey case have been obscured, beginning with, most notably, the contamination of the crime scene. Since the case has had no legal decision and no justice has been served, the girl's killer(s) has gained what Oates calls a "mythic, demonic significance."
Women have a complicated set of responses to this case: from identifying with the child victim to feeling outrage that a child's murder has gone unpunished, to wishing for justice. It is no surprise that Oates felt moved to fictionalize the murder.
Writing at a time before DNA testing absolved the Ramseys, Oates used information amassed from the actual case to create a plausible explanation for the events in My Sister, My Love, adding some closure to her novel and highlighting her frustration with the lack of resolution in the case's true counterpart. Though the Ramsey case was reopened in February of this year, it remains unsolved still.
In Oates's words, "to write of true crime is to acknowledge one's subject of more significance than one's style in appropriating it, a difficult concession for the literary writer." That said, My Sister, My Love is a pastiche of journals, stories and styles, including Skylar's imaginings of his sister's words from beyond. To Die For is written in a documentary style, combining several of the characters' voices in the aftermath of the crime.
Lynn Crosbie's Paul's Case (1997), a novel based on the murders of Tammy Homolka, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, is a pastiche as well, combining the letters of a woman writing to convicted killer Paul Bernardo in prison, with a chapbook, graphic novel, revenge fantasies, dramatizations, literary, critical and pop-cultural allusions.
Like Oates, Crosbie seeks to know the monster and to understand his role in our culture and as part of our collective identity. Crosbie has said that she is exploring a variety of perspectives in Paul's Case in reaction to her sense that no "truth" came out in Bernardo's trial. Indeed, the book is at its strongest when Crosbie enters the victims' points of view.
Perhaps women write about a true crime to override what really happened as much as to understand it, to create different ways of thinking about victims, to speak the unspeakable, and perhaps master it in some key way. As Crosbie has said when asked about the offensiveness of Paul's Case: "I could be a thousand time more grotesque and not even approach what [these people]were capable of."
Sally Cooper's most recent novel, Tell Everything, draws its story from true crimes.