By Benjamen Noble
When Rachel Monroe began writing Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, she had a driving question that fueled her—why are we, as a society, so enthralled by stories of true crime?
“The book started with my own curiosity about myself, to be honest,” says Monroe of her literary debut, released in August. “I didn’t quite understand why true crime stories had such a hold over me, [and] why I was so drawn to them as someone who is a nonviolent person.”
As she looked closer at both our societal obsession and her own preoccupation, she noticed something unique—a significant number of true-crime aficionados are women. “I started to realize that it was a phenomenon that women were disproportionately drawn to these stories even though most murderers and victims of murder are men,” says Monroe. This inspired Monroe to pay particular attention to women in writing Savage Appetites. “Growing up in this culture as a woman, you receive a lot of messages about your vulnerability,” she says.
A mix of biography, sociology, and personal narrative, Savage Appetites explores the darkest side of human nature while highlighting the ethical complexities of society’s preoccupation with nefarious activities, using the stories of four women whose interests in crime profoundly shaped their lives—for better or for worse.
Monroe uses four archetypes to frame each woman’s story: detective, victim, defendant, and killer, interspersing personal narratives and reflections throughout. “I see little slashes of myself in all of them and that was why it seemed important to include little bits of my own story in the book,” she says.
Throughout the book, Monroe elaborates on the different ways each character’s criminal connections functioned as both self-cultivating and self-destructive—often simultaneously. She begins with the story of Frances Glessner Lee, a Harvard lecturer whose interest in crime scene re-creations led to significant innovations in forensic science during the 20th century. Along the way, Monroe touches on everything from the Manson murders and the aftermath on victim Sharon Tate’s family to the story of the West Memphis Three and their wrongful prison conviction. The book ends with the story of a young woman named Lindsay, whose following of the Columbine massacre led her to formulate plans to carry out her own mass murder.
“Like everything, it can swing both ways,” says Monroe. “A preoccupation with crime can lead to fights for justice and getting wrongfully convicted people released from prison, and at the same time it can lead to much darker places.”
Monroe’s subjects in Savage Appetites are deeply complex. Lee made great strides for the forensic science community during her time at Harvard Medical School, but they came at the expense of many of her personal relationships. Lorri Davis fell in love with one of the members of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, after he had been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of three young boys. While Davis’ support of Echols contributed to his eventual release from prison, the psychological toll and physical stress of being in a relationship with him left her feeling emotionally and spiritually exhausted.
Monroe argues that following crime stories can have an overall beneficial effect. In the conclusion of Savage Appetites, she writes, “These accounts of the worst part of human experience open up conversations about subjects that might otherwise be taboo: fear, abuse, exploitation, injustice, rage.” She suggests that the topic also gives us a chance for self-examination. “I think that in some ways, true crime can be a way to help us reflect on things that happened in our own lives. True crime stories can show you things about your own life through someone else’s story,” says Monroe.
Monroe brings readers into her own inner conflict about her infatuation with crime. “I’m asking readers of true crime to question what’s drawing them to these stories, so I had to do the same for myself,” she says.
Savage Appetites is a thrilling and entertaining draw for any true crime enthusiast. And while readers may be left feeling conflicted about their enjoyment of her book, Monroe says there’s no tidy moral reconciliation. “These stories can function in multiple ways, and so we shouldn’t necessarily talk about them as though they’re all one thing.”
Rachel Monroe will read from Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession at New Dominion Bookshop on September 14.