This is a guest post by Ingrid Nelson.
I started reading and collecting true crime books when I was in college. I’m pretty sure my interest was first piqued by John Waters’ Shock Value. The chapter called “All My Trials” was all about his experiences as a trial buff. He attended the Manson trial, Patty Hearst, Angela Davis, all the most famous trials of the 60s and 70s. I am a California native, so those were all crimes I grew up hearing about, along with the Lindbergh baby, the Zodiac, Jonestown, and the Milk/Moscone assassinations.
The way John Waters talked about true crime, it was like a guilty pleasure: sordid but entertaining. I thought it was hilarious at first, then I went through a phase of feeling guilty about it. Then I started thinking seriously about why I was drawn to these stories, and I decided it was a natural human reaction, and not something I needed to be ashamed of. I am fascinated by people and what makes them tick, so of course I want to learn about what happens when people go horribly wrong. It reminds me of when I was studying anatomy and physiology in nursing school. I always found cardiology sort of confusing — until we studied congenital heart defects. Learning what happened when the heart didn’t work properly was how I came to understand normal cardiac function.
I am now unapologetic about my love for true crime, but I try not to joke about it anymore. If you read John Waters now, it’s obvious that he went through something similar. He has befriended some notorious killers, visits them in prison, even advocates for their release if he thinks they are rehabilitated. He has cast Patty Hearst in some of his movies. He has taught film classes inside prisons. He is careful to avoid any hint of exploitation, tasteless jokes, or gratuitous violence when he writes about it now.
Like so many “This American Life” listeners, I have been completely obsessed with the “Serial” podcast. But I was struck by how many fans said they felt guilty or embarrassed. I went through that process years ago, I have made my peace with it, and I am here now to help you all embrace your love of a good crime story. I have formed some serious opinions about how to distinguish good true crime from bad. I look for books that are well written and thoughtful, that are unflinching and honest without being lurid. I look for moral complexity, for writers who try to analyze and understand the horror, but not excuse it. And of course, one of the most important skills is an eye for which case will make a good book.
So, for my fellow “Serial” fans, I present: Ingrid’s True Crime Top Ten. [Read more…]