I used to wish I had a better tolerance for true crime. There’s something fascinating about the circumstances that drive people to drastic behavior, not to mention the ingenuity of forensic science. However, there’s just one problem: I have the constitution of a sleep-deprived rabbit.
I know plenty of people who are fans of the genre. My roommate spends plenty of time on Cult Analysis YouTube. My friend has an encyclopedic knowledge of true crime podcasts, and even my ninety-nine-year-old grandma watches Forensic Files every week. Most recently, I was having lunch with some of my coworkers, and one of them mentioned how she binged Netflix’s new Dahmer show.
Curious, I watched the first half of the pilot episode in which Jeffrey takes home a man named Tracy Edwards, and they have a long, tense conversation over the soundtrack’s low drones and dissonant strings. After realizing Jeffrey’s intentions, Tracy escapes and finds two police officers. The show cuts back to the hallway of Jeffrey’s apartment building, the policemen questioning Jeffrey on the other side of a door chain. Under yellow lighting, the policemen dismiss Tracy’s interjections and listen to Jeffrey’s explanation.
I was familiar enough with the case to know that two men escaped from Jeffrey’s apartment, one who lived and one who didn’t, but I wasn’t familiar enough to know which one was Tracy Edwards. I couldn’t bear to see for myself. I turned it off.
But my coworker talked about this show like it was any other, shrugging as she munched on her Caesar salad. I alluded to my aforementioned wimpiness, and she simply said, “That stuff just doesn’t bother me that much.”
The other people at the table echoed sentiments like, “Wow, you’re really tough” and “I watched it, but I could never do it alone.” I echoed a few myself but felt a flare of jealousy.
In my mind, a tolerance for spooky things is emblematic of a toughness I will never have: it’s the toughness that endures difficulty because very little penetrates its armor. You don’t need to recover from blows that never landed. Meanwhile, I find The Office unbearable because I feel terrible for the minoritized characters that have to deal with Michael.
Then a couple weeks ago, I was considering writing about true crime adaptations for my post this month, and I texted my friend with the encyclopedic podcast knowledge to ask why she liked true crime. Instead, she told me why she quit.
“There’s this idea that because these stories are public, we deserve all the answers,” she said, “but it should be about the victims.”
We went on to talk about how the point of true crime is to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, to analyze weaknesses in the systems we live in so that we can fix them. Yet, too often, people treat these cases like stories that they have all the answers to.
It occurred to me that true crime adaptations are engineered to make you forget that these were real stories. Between the stylized sets, colored lighting, and ridiculously hot actors, then the dramatic soundtrack, close-ups, unrealistic dialogue, and tidy endings, it makes you forget that all of the victims are actually dead, and their families’ grief is real. After all, the ultimate goal for a TV studio is to make money first and entertain second. They wouldn’t have hired the creator of Glee to make this show if it wasn’t about sensationalizing true crime, and they would have talked to the victims families first if they cared about the case.
After speaking to some more friends about it, I realized that the people most sensitive to true crime were the people who thought through what every person must have been thinking, and they were also the most empathetic people I knew. To see through the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood’s intentional deception requires a tremendous amount of empathy, and that’s something to be proud of. I know that my empathy helps me anticipate people’s needs.
For example, my uncle was sick earlier this year. He and my aunt needed some help with the house and with my two cousins, so they scheduled a rotation of relatives to visit for a week at a time. I was the fourth to stay with them, and as my aunt walked me through their routines, I thought about how exhausting it must be for them to explain this to a new relative every week. So when I had some down time, I drew up a guide to how to use their coffee machine, where they kept the kitchen utensils, and so forth. Once I was done, I sent it to the person who came the week after me, and she sent it to the two people who came after her. My aunt and uncle thought this was hilarious, later thanking me because it made the transitions easier. I don’t know how helpful most of what I did that week was, but if nothing else, I’m happy I made one thing easier.
I still believe in the merit of not letting negativity affect you, but I’ve always been too quick to dismiss my softer nature. I don’t know if I will ever be tough, but I know that this is my strength, and there’s no reason to be ashamed.
Tiffany Kajiwara graduated from Calvin in 2022 with majors in literature and writing. Now, she continues to live in Grand Rapids and works at Baker Academic Publishing as a marketing assistant. In her free time, she enjoys crocheting, thrifting, and psychoanalyzing cartoon characters.
If you ever decide to dip a toe back into true crime, I highly recommend the podcast Criminal. I’m not a true crime junkie and have backed out of several other shows that were too gleeful or sensationalized. But Criminal tells very human stories about people who commit, experience, research, or investigate crimes. There are episodes about lottery cheaters, whiskey theft, courtroom sketch artists, diving for evidence in the La Brea Tar Pits, and more. It’s definitely one of the more empathetic and kind explorations of true crime I’ve ever found.