Here at True Crime Index, we are especially interested in the intersection of true crime and memoir. The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick (Simon and Schuster, 2018) is a text I was drawn to because it is so interested in combining these two genres. The Hot One is so much more than its salacious tagline, one that claims this is book is “A memoir of friendship, sex and murder”. Murnick’s voice reached through the lurid details of a murder and connected with me genuinely, thus marrying true crime with memoir in a meaningful way.
Murnick tells the story of the 2001 murder of her childhood best friend Ashley Ellerin by Michael Gargiulo, nicknamed the “Hollywood Ripper.” At the time of Ashley’s death, she and Murnick had become estranged, and the reality of Ashley’s murder led Murnick down a long path of attempting to understand not only what happened to her friend, but what happened within their relationship that caused distance to grow between them. Murnick recalls that when she found out about Ashley’s death: “I felt detached, numb. The time-appearing-to-stop thing you hear about, that was there. The feeling of floating on my back in the middle of a cold lake, staring up at the birds chirping in the trees above my head but not being able to hear them—that was there, too” (9). In true crime texts, we are often told about the moment where a family member or friend finds out about a victim’s death. We are less often given details like these ones, all the messy and abstract feelings of grief that washes over the next of kin. I was struck by Murnick’s bravery for not only sharing these raw feelings but sharing what her friendship with Ashley was like at the time of her murder. In her chapter “The Last Weekend,” we get insight into the crumbling of that friendship. In this chapter, Murnick hosts Ashley as she visits New York. Though they both put on a brave face, it was clear– at the very least to Murnick– that they had grown apart:
“Ashley was still next to me on the C Train, but I was already taking stock of the aftermath: …The girl I’d used to paint pictures and play piano duets with was now a stripper and an escort, and being around her made me feel like shit… I felt as though my self-esteem were at an all-time low…[t]he train pulled into her stop. I stood up, and we hugged in the middle of the car, right before she slipped out of the closing doors. Watching her walk away, I felt as if a tornado had blown through my life and turned everything I knew to dust” (53).
Murnick struggled with the version of Ashley she used to know and the version that stood in front of her. Her complicated feelings about Ashley’s chosen profession only widened the gulf between them. As a reader, I appreciated being let into this eternal struggle. Instead of being led to focus on the “how” and “why” of the crime, I was being led to focus on the aftermath. I was being asked to seriously consider what violent crime leaves behind. Murnick still manages to maintain that focus even in her chapter “210 Grams”, one of my favourite chapters in the book. It is in this chapter that, after realizing that she needs to learn as much about Ashley’s last moments as possible, she gets a copy of Ashley’s coroner’s report. Murnick interlaces her childhood memories of Ashley with the terse language of the coroner’s report, attempting to fill in what the report leaves out. The details of the coroner’s report was devastating to read through the author’s eyes. Murnick skillfully does not let her reader off the hook. These were her friend’s lungs, her friend’s heart, and her friend’s throat that the report is referring to. We are never for a minute allowed to forget this.
Murnick’s journey to understand what happened to Ashley continues as she attends the preliminary hearing and trial of Michael Gargiulo. We as readers watch through Murnick’s eyes as the defense brutally slut shames and victim blames Ashley as the courtroom looks on. For Murnick, these comments from the defense lawyer as well as the comments that appeared online “seemed to underscore the sad fact that Ashley’s life no longer belonged to her in an especially cruel manner” (135). She continues:
“It made my protective impulses flare up in a new way…[t]hey could call her whatever they wanted in open court, and all that could be said was ‘Objection!’ Not to mention, so what if she had slept with a lot of guys? Did that make her less entitled to live her life without getting murdered? Did that make the loss of her less painful for her family and friends?” (135)
Murnick’s memoir answers a resounding “no” to these questions as it simultaneously forces its reader to consider the impact that the theatre of the courtroom has on a victim’s family. The rest of the memoir sees Murnick struggling with various aspects of Ashley’s life both in and out of the courtroom: she visits the house where Ashley was killed, she visits the strip club in which Ashley once worked, and she debates about staying in the courtroom to view the crime scene photos. In this way, we are given perspective into Murnick’s journey through her grief. Being a fly on the wall throughout these experiences forced me to pause. The brutality of the murder and the subsequent investigation were not the focus of my attention. Murnick’s perspective was.
There are some clumsy moments as the book comes to a close where Murnick discusses the male gaze, feminism, and the way these things potentially affected Ashley before her death. It would take much longer than the space Murnick had to really unpack the way these things circled her friend, and the brief attempts were distracting to what I felt was the main thread of the book, which was Murnick’s experience. That being said, there are moments where Murnick more effectively calls upon these issues—most notably at the end of the text. Murnick concludes her book while standing in the spot the killer potentially stood, watching Ashley’s house, the crime scene, the place her friend lived and died, from across the street. The significance of this complicated moment is not lost on Murnick as she states:
“There is no power in being a woman whose first best friend was murdered. There is no power in embodying the male gaze that fixed on Ashley all those years ago in this space, a perverted version of the gaze she had probably felt for most of her life. But perhaps there is power in standing in all of that and realizing that I am here, bearing witness, and that I am not alone” (236).
Although Murnick concludes that there is no empowerment to be found for her in the connection that she has to this violent crime, she does find her power elsewhere, and she bravely invites her reader along while she discovers it.
About the writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature.