Between podcasts, documentaries, and books, the true crime genre is more popular and prolific than ever. Women account for nearly 75 percent of true crime podcast listeners and in 2019, organizers of CrimeCon reported that approximately 80 percent of attendees were women.
There’s been plenty of speculation about why women gravitate towards true crime — compassion for the victims, wanting to learn more about motives, the desire to solve a real life mystery. And more recently, some people have noted that certain survivors of sexual violence are especially drawn to true crime, with some even taking their interest a step further by pursuing podcast and book projects in an effort to raise awareness about certain cases.
Katie Kurtz, age 48, tells CrimeReads that it’s not so much that she “developed” an interest in true crime—rather, she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t aware of it. Kurtz grew up in Seattle when the Green River Killer was active. She is also a survivor of sexual violence, and her own experiences occurred against the backdrop of a period of violent crime in the Pacific Northwest.
“Aside from the Green River Killer’s victims, it’s really no exaggeration how often dead girls were found in the woods during the 80s and early 90s,” says Kurtz. She knew some of those girls personally and she recalls that she began thinking of them after listening to the “hometown murders” segment of the podcast My Favorite Murder.
Kurtz is one of the 30 million monthly listeners of My Favorite Murder, which was launched in January 2016 by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Gilgariff. Over the past seven years, the true crime genre has gone from low-brow entertainment to one of the hallmarks of prestige TV and podcasts. It started with the podcast Serial which launched in 2014, quickly followed by docuseries The Jinx on HBO and Making a Murderer on Netflix in 2015. True crime media has an investigative element, whether it’s a reporter attempting to crack a cold case or help exonerate a person who may have been wrongfully convicted.
After listening to the My Favorite Murder episode about her own hometown, Kurtz felt compelled to research the murders of her classmates.
“I started thinking about two girls from high school who I knew were murdered. I always assumed one was the victim of the Green River Killer and the other was killed by a boyfriend but when I looked up their cases, I learned they were both unsolved,” she tells CrimeReads. On a hunch that there might be other victims, Kurtz posted in her high school reunion’s Facebook group to ask her classmates about other cases. Someone posted the name of another girl who was murdered.
“I researched [the victim] several times and when I finally came across an article about her, before opening it, I said out loud, ‘Please don’t be unsolved, please don’t be unsolved, please don’t be unsolved,’” Kurtz recalls. “When I learned that it was unsolved, too, I felt like I’d been tapped on the shoulder and given an assignment.”
Today, Kurtz is working on a true crime book that focuses on her classmates’ murders and weaves in a historical narrative about Seattle in the 1980s and early ‘90s, an era that she describes as “particularly hostile to teenagers.”
“The underlying question for me has been: How did I survive?” says Kurtz.
She’s hardly the only sexual violence survivor who has become consumed by true crime. Although it’s unclear why certain survivors gravitate towards the genre, some interesting theories have been posited.
After the finale of the HBO docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, inspired by Michelle McNamara’s book about the Golden State Killer, reporter Jen Chaney noted the connections in an article for Vulture. McNamara herself was a survivor of sexual assault. Melanie Barbeau, a source of McNamara’s who also survived sexual abuse, speculated that true crime can be a form of self-medication. “I think sometimes maybe living vicariously through other situations or dealing with this case, that it’s helped me forget my own traumas,” Barbeau told Chaney. Chaney also noted that “true crime provides women with a sense that justice will prevail, even though we know it often doesn’t.”
McNamara died in 2016, so it’s impossible to know whether her own assault contributed to her tireless devotion to seeing the Golden State Killer apprehended. It’s also worth noting that she frequently said her obsession with murder began when she was a teenager and a 24-year-old woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in McNamara’s neighborhood. The 1984 murder remains unsolved.
Is there a connection between surviving assault and consuming true crime? Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic, licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who researches and writes about sexual violence, emphasized that, due to the absence of academic studies on the topic, there’s no empirical evidence indicating that sexual violence survivors are more likely to be drawn to true crime. It’s also important to note that plenty of survivors are either not interested in true crime or actively avoid it because the details are triggering — there is no “one size fits all” response to trauma.
But for survivors who do consume true crime, some may be in search of narratives in which victims fight back because their stories may provide “survival tips” or the confidence that they could fight back if attacked again. For the many survivors who experienced a “freeze” response during their attack and feel ashamed for not fighting back, it could provide comfort to know they’re far from the only victims who didn’t physically resist their assailants.
Dr. Jeglic shed some more light on why survivors may be interested in true crime. “Anecdotally, some people are drawn to the study of psychology in order to understand themselves and heal themselves. We have many people in psychology programs who have a history or active mental illness,” she says. “Similarly, I think it might be likely that people who have a history of trauma might be drawn to true crime to kind of re-experience those traumatic situations in a safe environment where they have more control.”
Exposure therapy is a common treatment method for trauma. The patient confronts frightening stimuli in a safe environment and describes the traumatic event in detail. Although research shows that it’s an effective treatment method for PTSD, it’s also incredibly difficult to re-live the most terrifying moments of your life and survivors may be hesitant to engage in this type of therapy. “[True crime] might be a safer way for victims to expose themselves to trauma without going to their own personal trauma, which may be overwhelming,” says Dr. Jeglic.
When I asked Dr. Jeglic about the theory that survivors may immerse themselves in true crime to help get justice for others, she said it’s certainly worth studying further. For some survivors, Dr. Jeglic says it’s certainly possible that they want to help solve unsolved cases when they can’t get their own justice because so few cases of sexual violence are prosecuted. “It could be that seeing perpetrators brought to justice could give some closure for your own case,” she told CrimeReads, noting that these are all empirical questions that need to be asked as psychologists research the link between sexual violence survivors and true crime consumption.
For Kurtz, the connection was clear. She says she immediately knew that she wanted to write the book because she connected it to her own trauma and because she was “doing a lot of the same things as the girls and in most cases, way worse.” She recalls beginning to drink and get high in middle school, running away from home a couple of times, and meeting up with older men. Kurtz was also a good student who was involved in school sports and student council. “Like my classmates, I was generally a good girl who was sometimes a ‘bad’ girl and not equipped to recognize much less get myself out of dangerous situations,” she explains.
When Kurtz’s book was in its early stages, she described it to a Baby Boomer whose first question was, “What kind of girls were they?”
“[It] goes back to the culture and mindset that victims are somehow deserving of their fate because of their circumstances borne out of decisions they either had to make for survivability or thrust on them by uncaring or inattentive family members,” says Kurtz. “‘They were like me,’ I finally told her. Her question has served as a kind of touch point for me throughout the writing process.”
Because of what is known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” the vast majority of missing and murdered women were ignored by the media. The true crime genre has given a platform to cases we likely would never hear about otherwise, especially when it comes to victims of color and people of lower socioeconomic status. For example journalist Connie Walker, host of the podcast Missing and Murdered, focuses on the cases of indigenous girls and women. Sarah Turney, host of Voices for Justice, initially launched her podcast, as well as a social media campaign, in an effort to get justice for her older sister, Alissa, who vanished in 2001. As a direct result of her persistence, their father is currently awaiting trial for Alissa’s murder. Turney has continued her podcast and now focuses on other cases—specifically, she seeks out unsolved murders and disappearances that haven’t received media attention.
Kurtz says that, having survived, she feels a sense of responsibility to her classmates whose murders remain unsolved. But she emphasizes that bringing their perpetrators to justice is only the tip of the iceberg. “I’m interested in a larger justice for victims of violent crimes and for all the survivors who, as a friend put it, have ‘technically’ survived but still live with all the after-effects,” says Kurtz.