True Crime Media Doesn’t Have To Be About The Killer To Be Worth-Watching, and These Works Prove That
Shows, podcasts, and books that focus on the humanity of the survivors and victims, rather than the criminals
True crime is a genre that has long been part of pop culture: long-running shows like Dateline and Forensic Files have always been telling gruesome, gory stories of murderous psychopaths and violated women; films like Zodiac and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile have been released in cinemas to much critical acclaim (or fanfare, in the case of the latter). Beginning in 2014, the genre enjoyed renewed interest after podcasts and documentaries like Serial and Making a Murderer were released. But for decades, true crime has always been about the perpetrator—Dahmer, Bundy, Gacy, Ramirez are names embedded in the public consciousness—and rarely ever about the victim or survivor, save for a few shows like I Survived.
It isn’t always easy to find true crime media that puts the focus on the victim rather than the criminal, or that treats the survivor with the kindness and respect they deserve. Too often, we have no choice but to accept TV shows, books, podcasts, and movies about true crime that sensationalize the murderers and the serial killers. Below, a list of true crime media that does the opposite, and instead shines the spotlight on the girls or women of stories that we know all too well.
The Atlantic called Unbelievable “TV’s most humane show,” and it’s hard not to agree. Based on a series of rapes across the states of Washington and Colorado in the United States, this Netflix drama follows the story of Marie, an 18-year-old girl who reports her rape, but is bullied and hounded by the detectives taking her statement, leading her to recant her original report and getting charged with lying about being raped. Parallel to Marie’s story is that of Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen, the two female detectives who are investigating the string of rapes throughout the two states.
The sexual assault scenes in Unbelievable are hard to stomach, but it’s the carelessness and ruthlessness of the male detectives taking Marie’s statement that are even more unbearable. It is then such a refreshing—and perhaps even moving—sight to see Karen and Grace approach and talk to the sexual assault survivors with such tenderness and thought, and this humanity with which they treat the women is what makes this show revolutionary. The perpetrator is hardly glorified; we spend no time getting to know him—instead, we learn the names and the stories of the women he violated. The audience’s sympathy is directed towards them, rather than the rapist.
In 2015, Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it tells the story of journalists covering cases of systemic child sex abuse from Roman Catholic priests around Boston. The Keepers is similar to that, only instead of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists trying to uncover the truth, it’s a pair of former students from Archbishop Keough High School, an all-girls’ Catholic school in Baltimore, Maryland.
This 2017 documentary follows Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, the previously mentioned former students, as they launch an investigation on the unsolved murder of Catherine Cesnik, a nun at their school beloved by the student body. Operating under the belief that authorities covered-up the involvement of A. Joseph Maskell, a priest at the high school, Gemma and Abbie form Facebook groups, go through archival material, and inspire other former students to come forward and tell their own stories about they sexual abuse they experienced at that school.
The Keepers is a dark and frustrating look at America’s legal justice system, as well as the power of religious institutions and their ability to usurp young girls’ and women’s agencies. The documentary’s seven episodes are dedicated to Sister Cathy’s life, Gemma and Abbie’s investigative work, and the other students that have found the courage to be thrust into the spotlight and be scrutinized and judged by society and even the law.
My Favorite Murder
For many enthusiasts of true crime media, the highly successful true crime comedy podcast My Favorite Murder either reignited or strengthened their love for this particular kind of storytelling. Hosted by comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, My Favorite Murder discusses each of the hosts’—yes, you guessed it—favorite murder, from JonBenet Ramsey to Albert Fish, Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard, and even the “My Way” murders from the Philippines.
Each week, Karen and Georgia tell the story of a murder, making sure not to leave out the goriest bits, while also making sure that they nail the murderer to the cross for their vile actions. They pay respects to the victims and celebrate the survivors as they try to understand why it is that women are so drawn to true crime stories. They believe that’s it to do with self-preservation; that the inherent fear women have about getting murdered or assaulted stem is caused by a patriarchal and misogynist society, and women use true crime to process their traumas and fears.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
In 2018, one of America’s most wanted serial killers, the Golden State Killer (also known as the East Area Rapist), was finally caught, over thirty years after his first crime. Two years earlier, in 2016, Michelle McNamara, author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, passed away. McNamara had spent many years of her life trying to track down the killer—now revealed to be Joseph DeAngelo—and, in the process, uncover the truth and seek justice for his victims.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (the title of which is based on what the killer told one of his victims, Kris Pedretti, as he committed his crimes) barely gives an ounce of attention to DeAngelo. This show is, first and foremost, about McNamara and, by extension, the women that had been victimized by the killer. Like the other entries in this list, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has heart, and it is found in the voices of women. “It was very important to not take that killer’s perspective on a woman and really center the storytelling in the survivor’s point of view,” said director Liz Garbus in an interview with Vulture. “These were conscious choices that we made.”
Lead photos from IMdB