Unspeakable Acts (2020) edited by Sarah Weinman

Perhaps one of the most fascinating and self-aware collections of true crime writing to date, Unspeakable Acts (2020) is an anthology that is not to be missed, perfect for both the earnest true crime scholar and the casual reader who prefers shorter, episodic stories that capture the essence and moral/emotional/political crux of a crime and its wider implications.

I first encountered Sarah Weinman in her book The Real Lolita, which I cannot recommend enough as a text that recapitulates what we think we know about a famous American novel. At the same time, the book tells the previously untold story of a real girl whose suffering cannot be understated. When I picked up Unspeakable Acts, I expected that Weinman would treat the stories she helped to tell as an editor with the same thoughtful redress and rumination that The Real Lolita brought to readers, and I was right. This book is an effective contemplation on why/how/when we consume true crime, and how that media has changed over the years to reflect shifting sensibilities around the ethics of consuming people’s real suffering.

In his introduction, Patrick Radden Keefe identifies this shift perfectly when he writes that while “crime writing has historically favoured certain sorts of characters (white female murder victims, to take the most glaring example) to the exclusion of others,” we’re seeing a shift in that representation—or at least in our awareness of a bias in true crime (xi). Indeed, this is an awareness that has complicated ethical issues. As Keefe writes, there is a “subtler danger” in focusing on particular individual narratives, because “the greatest crimes, now and always, have been systemic, and systemic stories are harder to tell” (xi). It seems as though this anthology is attempting, in part, to contemplate the intersection (and tension) between these systemic stories and individual stories. Weinman points out that true crime has changed in the last few years, becoming “different. More highbrow. More participatory. More investigative. More in the public interest. More reflective, critical, even postmodern” (xiii). This change, for Weinman and the essays in the collection, is critical because it changes the bent of true crime towards more victim or memoir focused narratives that counter the “wish for justice” with the “hangover of trauma” by pushing true crime beyond a contained narrative and toward a more interactive one (xiv). This interactivity pushes the genre beyond the narrative bubble and out into the real, investigative world, which is then linked to Keefe’s notion of a painful, systemic story.

Weinman’s carefully curated anthology showcases writers that, in Weinman’s view, change the genre (xvi). According to her, these writers

“centered the victims as human beings rather than rely on the trope of beautiful white dead girls. They widened the storytelling lens far beyond the individual to the collective. They explored different subcultures and communities. They paid attention to stark topics like inequality, poverty, housing, and addiction, all of which affect and are affected by crime. They were women and people of colour. They were unafraid to call it the problems inherent to what I think of as ‘the true crime industrial complex,’ which turns true crime and murder into entertainment for the masses” (xvi).   

Weinman’s identification of this shift in true crime writing is something the collection attempts to showcase, choosing stories from these kinds of new and innovative writers in the genre, divided up into three categories that both represent ‘classic’ elements of true crime and potential new directions of writing these kinds of stories.

Part 1, “Narrative Features,” deals with classic crime stories, contemplating newer/previously unnoticed issues around murders any true crime reader knows well. Michelle Dean’s “Dee Dee Wanted her Daughter to be Sick, Gypsy Wanted her Mom Murdered” tells the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, contemplating the intense psychological states of each person involved in this now-famous series of crimes, and wonders not only how and why someone could commit the various crimes involved in this story, but where the survivor (Gypsy) is now. The essay is a fascinating look at the tension between Blanchard’s status as victim/perpetrator/survivor that perhaps we haven’t seen until recently.

Pamela Colloff’s “The Reckoning” absolutely kicks your legs out from under you with its powerful depiction of a tragedy and a years-long journey toward resilience and recovery. Although it may lean toward the individual victim story that Keefe warns us about, it underscores what one person can do in the face of gun violence and the laws that permit it. This is perhaps one of the most necessary reads in this collection for its stunning power and vivid narrative.

Also in this section is “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge” by Karen K. Ho and “The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t” by Rachel Monroe. Ho’s article blends the genres of memoir and true crime, inserting her own perspective of some of the key persons in this story—Ho’s former schoolmates—into the narrative. However, this seems to give Ho more social and cultural insight into this story, pinpointing the contentious nature of Pan’s crime. Monroe’s essay is also poignant, contemplating the ways in which society genders victimhood and what kind of victims are seen as more valid than others. At the same time, Monroe showcases the solidarity and community found in a group of victims.

Part 2, “Where Crime Meets Culture”, is a chapter that looks “at how true crime interacts with culture as well as itself” (Weinman xviii). This is perhaps my favourite section in this anthology, with so many innovative and beautifully written essays. Alex Mar’s “Out Came the Girls” and Sarah Marshall’s “The End of Evil” are essays that will leave you blinking in bewilderment, reflecting on yourself and your cultural moment. I loved these essays and what they had to say about crime, culture, and stories in relation to the real circumstances of tragedy. In particular, Marshall’s work on Ted Bundy is a shockingly refreshed take on a crime about which it seemed everything had already been said.

“The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime” by Alice Bolin is perhaps the essay wherein I had the most questions, which is perhaps more positive than not, because the piece takes on a different tone than the others around it. The essay’s argument is more contemplative about true crime as a whole. Bolin makes the case that highbrow true crime essentially works to obscure its relationship to tragedy in many ways or attempts to elevate itself above ‘lowbrow’ true crime. I’m fascinated by this notion, and by the other elements of Bolin’s argument. I think it is important to criticize the way true crime and those who view it thinks of itself/themselves. However, I would have liked to see a different direction taken in this essay to interrogate the consequences of this elevation. I loved the distinction between the similarities of the two genres, even though what Bolin designates as ‘highbrow’ true crime attempts to see itself differently.

Rounding out this section is Weinman’s own essay, “The True Crime Behind A 1970s Cult Feminist Film Classic” and Elon Green’s “The Lost Children of ‘Runaway Train.’” Both focus on specific media outputs and their links with famous/not-so-famous crimes that helped and hindered the investigation and narrativization of these crimes. These essays truly examine the way that culture can interpret and use crime in different ways that are sometimes more lasting than the crime itself.

The last section is a gesture toward where true crime is heading, assuming its not already there. “Justice and Society” examines “broader issues of criminal justice and society” (Weinman xviii), through a number of different lenses within social systems. Although it is not my favourite section of the collection, it is perhaps the most important because it identifies those systemic stories that Keefe says are so hard to tell. And yet, these essays attempt to tell them through microcosmic lenses in the form individuals and their perspecitves. “What Bullets do to Bodies” by Jason Fagone, “Checkpoint Nation” by Melissa Del Bosque, and “How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like A Virus” by Leora Smith all interrogate systemic problems couched in systemic poverty, border services, racial bias, and court system’s junk science. All of these essays are a powerful look behind the curtain at the regulations that allow these problems to be perpetuated and the social problems that enforce them. Each essay is brilliant and definitely has a different narrative feel than the previous essays.

The last essay, “‘I am a girl now,’ Sage Smith Wrote. Then She Went Missing” by Emma Copley Eisenberg is perhaps the most tragic in this section—maybe even in the whole collection. It depicts just one of many instances of violence against black trans women in the United States (and in the world). This essay juxtaposes the relationship between two similar crimes and the ways in which they were investigated, the resources that were deployed, and the systemic racism that both consciously and unconsciously motivates those decisions. A stunning gesture toward what is new and forthcoming in true crime, the last section ends this anthology on a strong note.

Overall, this collection is a must-read if you love true crime, memoir, and excellent writing. It’s a fascinating touchstone that interrogates the direction of true crime over the last ten years and each of these essays has something thoughtful to put forward about our complicated ethical and cultural position as readers of this genre. What’s important to note is that this book doesn’t come to any definitive conclusion about this position, but it does identify a cultural shift that cannot be ignored for its significance within this community.

Please add Unspeakable Acts to your Goodreads shelf, and follow Sarah Weinman on Twitter or visit her Website. Click through on the names of contributors in this anthology to follow them on Twitter as well.

Don’t forget to follow True Crime Index on Twitter and please visit our Goodreads for updates on what we’re reading! You can find Rachel on her personal Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

About the writer:

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every queer novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

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