The Gendered Love of True Crime

I’ve been thinking about true crime a lot lately.

It’s a strange genre, one that people aren’t quick to admit that they love to read or watch and yet, its fans are some of the most passionate out there. Maybe it’s the changing of the seasons and the hint of death and darkness in the air that has made me pick up some true crime books and (finally!) start watching Hannibal but, I have to admit, this interest isn’t anything new.

I think most teenagers go through a serial killer phase.

At least, my friends and I did. We weren’t what the media at the time would’ve labeled “goths” and we weren’t troubled. In fact, we were painfully good kids who just delighted in reading dark deeds and sharing macabre factoids about Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein with one another. But like most interests of your teenaged years, we grew out of it.

I was, nonetheless, distressed to hear about the passing of Ann Rule this summer.

I honestly don’t recall a time where I did not recognize the pleasant-seeming author who looked like your friend’s mom. My own mother had spent trips to the beach or family vacations with a copy of one of Ann Rule’s Crime Files or, if a particularly interesting criminal had crossed over into popular culture, one of her larger tomes, like Green River, Running Red in hand.

I even read Rule’s most famous book, 1980’s The Stranger Beside Me on serial killer, Ted Bundy, as a junior in high school. I have a particular memory of ignoring my elderly history teacher and reading in the back of the classroom as my best friend would lean over and ask, “How goes Ted?” I’d grin and act like what I was reading wasn’t in the least upsetting. After all, I was a privileged teenager who had yet to go off to college and study gender issues and learn that every single day, three women are killed by a former or current partner, that for every five women, one will report (not just experience but actually report; how many experience, we do not know) experiencing rape at some point in their lives or that every nine seconds, a woman is beaten in the United States.

Nonetheless, I admired Rule and was disheartened by her passing, not only because it meant the end of her twice-a-year publications but also, because of the manner in which her death was reported in the media.

As Michelle Dean of The Guardian pointed out, Rule received plenty of obituaries but few eulogies:

My own adolescent bookshelf held battered paperback copies of some of her books – I must have read The Stranger Beside Me and Small Sacrifices at least 10 times each – and I was hardly alone: she was the kind of writer whose sales counted in the tens of millions.

In other words: she was doing something that inspired devotion. It just wasn’t the kind that people have been willing to cop to, now or ever. Even I wouldn’t call myself a “fan”, exactly.

I never regarded myself as an Ann Rule fan either but that didn’t stop me from flipping through her paperbacks at bookstores and libraries, peering at the grainy black and white photos of smiling families before they were torn apart by death and violence. I also encountered several people (all women) purposely going out and buying several of her books after her passing, speaking about her in wistful tones as if she was a friend they had lost touch with over the years.

She obviously will be missed by true crime readers and yet, like so many other popular authors, was and will most likely continue to be treated as a curio by serious critics. Rule famously told the Los Angeles Times in 1990 that “financial success is critical acceptance” and unlike her compatriots in the commercially popular but artistically ignored book club, she never seemed to care about literary greatness.

But she was great because she did something that no true crime writer had been able to do before her: transform the genre from the lurid tabloids to a viable and respectable subject matter.

Yes, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood came first but that was more of a romanticized love letter to the dark side of humanity and a sick obsession for the two perpetrators. The victims, the Clutter family, seem incidental in the novel (and yes, it’s more a novel than a piece of non-fiction): they were background noise to the story of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

In Rule’s hands, however, the victims were not ignored or overlooked. They were just as, if not more, important that the criminal and for hundreds of dead and battered women, Rule gave them a voice, a chance for their stories to be heard and not forgotten.

I was therefore especially disturbed by the manner in which Rule’s obituaries tended to begin. More often than not, the lead would begin the same way: “Ann Rule, friend of serial killer Ted Bundy, died today…”

Once again, I saw a woman whose entire lifetime of work was pushed aside for a man. These obituaries were implying that Ann Rule was not important; her relationship with Ted Bundy was and is the only thing worth remembering about her. Women of import are all well and good but how can a media run by men relate to them? After all, who was Ann Rule but a friend of one of America’s most famous serial killers, the one even she had described as handsome and charming? She probably just fell under his spell like so many other women, including the ones who would later write to Rule gushing about their love for him.

But the truth is, as always, far more complex than this straightforward and sexist narrative. Ted Bundy was simply a fellow volunteer at a suicide hotline center with Rule for several months in 1971. According to Rule, “He was one of those rare people who listen with full attention, who evince a genuine caring by their very stance.” Worried about his thinness, she brought him cookies and snacks and admitted to her readers that he would’ve been a wonderful match for herself had she been younger or her daughters had they been older. Luckily, they were not.

Yet, like co-workers do, they drifted apart once they left the crisis center and aside from an occasional Christmas card, they did not stay in close contact.

Rule’s obituaries would have you assume they were having weekly teas during the height of his killings. Instead, as a former police officer and now crime reporter, Rule was following a series of brutal killings in the Pacific Northwest and had no idea that they would eventually lead to her former co-worker. When the clues pointed towards him, she was shocked and horrified, as anyone would be. Nonetheless, she attempted to reason with him, even admitting to him in 1976 after he had been arrested that she did not believe in his self-proclaimed innocence.

Bundy simply replied, “That’s okay.”

Yes, things get a bit morally vague after this; Rule sent him money while he was in prison and even did what she could to spare his life:

I tried, literally, to save his life. I began to phone Washington state agencies to try to arrange something that would allow Ted to confess to me, and, through plea bargaining, to be returned to Washington for confinement in a mental hospital.

It didn’t work and he was executed in Florida in 1989.

But even with this and other controversial moments in her career (defamation and libel lawsuits occasionally plagued her), she still was for many, the voice of the voiceless. Yes, her firsthand knowledge of Ted Bundy made her career take off but she spent the remaining years of it almost atoning for this. It is particularly upsetting, therefore, to discover that the woman who exposed so many horrible domestic crimes was herself the victim of several.

According to an article by the Huffington Post, Rule’s two sons were charged with stealing over $120,000 from the author, who allegedly took advantage of her failing health and impaired faculties. She was even granted a protection order against her eldest son while her younger son’s rages frightened both her and her caregivers.

One can’t help but wonder who will write her story or if, like so many other women, it will simply be washed away.