Like many people, I find myself fascinated by books and documentaries relating to true crime. I remember one example of a true crime book I read that I found fascinating which showed the obsessive attempts of someone to solve the crime by collecting and interpreting evidence, a case where the book was popular even if it did not itself solve the crime after the author’s premature death shortly before the crime itself was solved through a mundane case of DNA tracing. One of the more odd elements of much recent true crime writing, though, is the attempt on the part of a writer to avoid recognizing the essential elements of the genre in writing about such cases, which amounts to a massive failure that is also something that demonstrates some of the obviousness of the failures of our own times.
The essential element of a true crime story is a crime. There are many attitudes one can take to writing about a crime. The band Jane’s Addiction, in their song “Been Caught Stealing,” about the lead singer’s kleptomania, takes the approach of humor as they acknowledge the desire to have things but not to pay for them leading to acts of petty thievery. Other true crime documentaries and books seek to uncover the deeper personal motivations of a real or supposed criminal, tying them to crimes and seeking to connect the flawed character of the criminal with the way that a crime was committed. In these cases there is an acknowledgement, however treated, that understanding crime means that we understand the connection between a criminal and the crime that was committed.
In contemporary writing, though, there seems to be an attitude of trying to exculpate criminals of their crime. True crime writing is obviously lacking, though, when one seeks to write about crime without acknowledging the behavior of criminals. Criminals, after all, are those who commit crimes, but when we seek to excuse criminals of their actions, we are left with a hole and a void at the center of our analysis because we seek to cast blame on those who contributed to the criminal’s problems, be they parents who failed or society or government and its failings, without acknowledging that crime does not exist without the failings of the criminals. It may not be blameworthy to seek mercy for a criminal in acknowledging that the criminal was influenced by external circumstances as a means of lowering the punishment that may come, but it is an entirely different thing to make a true crime story while attempting to explain away the criminal’s guilt altogether by pointing to other factors.
For it is without a doubt that failure is a part of human life. Where is the regress of blame to end? We may attempt to explain away the guilt of a criminal by blaming the victim(s) for inciting the crime, or by pointing to the criminal’s untreated PTSD from military service, or the stress and problems relating to living in a natural disaster zone, or looking at the effects of parental divorce and child abuse, or childhood bullying from others, but in all of these cases we have merely removed the guilt and blame one degree from the crime that occurred. And no doubt, if we let such people tell their side of the story, they too would have reason to pass the blame off as well. And so too those who were further away from the crime would have plenty of excuses to make that would excuse them of their share of the blame. Who then will be left to blame for the crime that has been committed? Our hearts burn for justice, but justice requires that someone be punished for the crime. And if everyone we blame for crime can blame someone else, where is the process to be stopped?