Q&A with Rachel Monroe, former editor of Baltimore Fishbowl and author of ‘Savage Appetites’

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“Savage Appetites” is a book about women who love crime, or at least stories about crime, and author Rachel Monroe is one of them. “I was a teenager storming with hormones when I pulled Helter Skelter off my parents’ shelf,” she writes. “When I learned that the Columbine killers’ journals were online, I read those, too.”

Monroe’s debut work of narrative nonfiction opens at Opryland in Nashville, where she’s attending CrimeCon, a fan gathering hosted by the “all crime, all the time” cable network, Oxygen. The conference is attended almost exclusively by women, the main consumers of the true-crime genre. She stands in front of a Wall of Motives, where attendees have stuck post-its with their reasons for being there–“justice and rage,” “morbid curiosity and sisterhood,” “cupcakes and patriarchy battling,” “fear and revenge”–and thinks about her own.

Monroe is not just obsessed with crime, she’s obsessed with women who are obsessed with crime, and her book introduces four of them–ones who went too far, who paid a price, at the same time “reinventing themselves through other people’s tragedies.” Culled from stories collected over a decade of research, Monroe profiles women she calls The Detective, The Victim, The Defender and The Killer, whose obsessions range from crime-scene forensics and death penalty activism to Manson and Columbine.

As a squeamish reader with an aversion to this entire genre, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Monroe makes herself such a fascinating character, and is candid about her own “savage appetites”–the book is about a quarter self-reflective memoir. Another quarter is fascinating cultural and sociological analysis.

Published in August, the book is making a splash–on LitHub, the literary aggregator and book-world equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, its average is “rave”–and Monroe’s book tour has included appearances with luminaries like Leslie Jamison and Skip Hollandsworth.

Monroe’s success was foretold years ago when David Foster Wallace, whom she had studied with as an undergraduate at Pomona College, wrote her recommendation for grad school at Johns Hopkins. Word has it that he called her one of the best writers he’d ever met, and said they were crazy if they didn’t take her. During her subsequent years in Baltimore, she became the first senior editor of Baltimore Fishbowl and continued in this role even after she moved to Marfa, Texas–six years in all.

Given her connection to this publication, Monroe agreed to step off Cloud 9 for a moment and answer some questions.

Baltimore Fishbowl: “In the internet era, if you find a crime funk creeping over you, you can lose a whole evening–or a whole week!–to Wikipedia and message boards, falling down a bottomless blood-soaked rabbit hole.” It sounds like you lived in that hole for 10 years, writing this book. How do you feel now that it’s over? Or is it over?

Rachel Monroe

Rachel Monroe: I used to turn to the genre when I craved a certain kind of… soothing menace, if that makes sense. Unfortunately–or, perhaps, fortunately–one side effect of writing this book is that I’ve ruined my ability to zone out to crime shows (/podcasts/books) like I used to. I can no longer power down the critical part of my brain.

BFB: My favorite part of the book was The Killer, about an online romance whose terrible ending was almost a best-case-scenario, given what Lindsay and James had in mind. I was particularly fascinated by your description of the world of murder fans on the internet, particularly on Tumblr, where girls argue over who has the best serial-killer crush, sharing memes about their sexual fantasies about Eric Klebold and Dylan Harris. You say, “While I knew I was supposed to be shocked and offended by the Columbiners and their Gen-Y amorality, I wasn’t.” Really?

RM: Well, sure–my initial reaction was shock and aversion. But I could tell that the Columbiners were hoping to provoke exactly that kind of reaction–they were so self-aware in their deviance! I could also imagine a version of myself born 10 years later who might have been intrigued by these internet underworlds. It seemed worthwhile not to stop at shock and disgust, but to try to dig beneath it and see what else was there. What were these girls trying to tell us through their very public professions of love for these homicidal boys?

BFB: Tell us about “mean world syndrome” and how it relates to your topic.

RM: Mean world syndrome is the idea that when people consume a lot of media about violence and crime, they come to feel as though the world is a much more dangerous and awful place than it really is. It’s one explanation for why, while violent crime rates have declined precipitously since the early 1990s, Pew polls show that most Americans consistently feel as though crime is on the rise and the world is an increasingly risky place. It’s something we true crime fans have to consider–how are our attitudes about the world affected when we steep ourselves in these stories of violence?

BFB: The Nutshells–19 crime-scene dollhouses created by early 20th-century heiress Francis Glessner Lee–have a Baltimore connection, right? Are we still able to see them here? Didn’t you think it’s frustrating that the solutions to the whodunits they pose are not given?

RM: Unfortunately, the Nutshells aren’t on display–you have to have an in with the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office to go see them. But if you can fit that in, it’s definitely worth it! I actually love that the solutions are largely unavailable because it frustrates our desire for closure—and in real life, we so rarely get closure.

BFB: While reading the Sharon Tate chapter, I couldn’t help thinking of Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which presents a fairy-tale revision of the Tate-Labianca murders. Can you comment on that movie?

RM: I know a lot of people have complained about Tarantino’s depiction of Sharon Tate, but I actually think Margot Robbie did a lovely job of capturing her sweetness and silliness. In the book, I write about how she was transformed into a symbol after her death, and I thought he avoided making her into a doomed innocent, which was what I feared would happen. I was also glad that he avoided further glorification of Charles Manson, who is relegated to a very minor role in the film. But I was a little baffled by the way the film put hippies and cowboys into conflict. Charles Manson totally identified with macho movie cowboys like the characters played by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio; he never really considered himself a hippie.

BFB: Were there any Baltimore stories during your tenure as Baltimore Fishbowl senior editor that would fall into “Savage Appetites” category?

RM: There was obviously plenty of crime, but nothing that seemed to generate quite the obsessive interest that I discuss in the book. I remember following the disappearance of Phylicia Barnes, and feeling as though her case might’ve gotten more attention if she’d been a white 16-year-old honor student (instead of a black 16-year-old honor student).

Rachel Monroe discusses her book on Sept. 19 at Bird in Hand in Charles Village. Details here.

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik

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