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Book Review: Savage Appetites: True Crimes of Women, Crime, and Obsession

I don’t remember how Savage Appetites found its way onto my reading list–social media recommendation? Tweet? Maybe someone suggested it in my crime junkie book group? Whatever the path, it was the subtitle that really caught my attention: true stories of women, crime, and obsession. One research question that’s always top of mind for me is: Why are so many true crime fans female? This book provided great insight.

About the Author

When I read non-fiction, I typically start by learning a bit about the author’s background. More than what they choose to disclose on their book jacket, I look at what they’ve written and what’s been written about them. In the case of Rachel Monroe, here’s what I found.

  • She discloses on her website that she has been both interviewer and interviewee in the true crime space. While being on both sides of the mic isn’t “must” for me, it’s definitely a plus. It tells me she’s interested in being part of a conversation; a follower and a leader.

  • Her focus is clear; she researches and writes about culture with a heavy interest in crime and unethical or questionable situations. She strikes me as the kind of person it would be interesting to have a drink with because she is informed, has an opinion, but seems able to still hear and discuss other viewpoints.

  • She is identified most often as an author first (as most people with a book typically are) and then as a contributing writer to a few impressive publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic.

  • She’s active on Twitter and I couldn’t find a scandal or complaint against her.

Admittedly, I don’t do a deep dive into an author’s background. I just want to understand where the author is coming from, what may have influenced them, and any potential bias I should keep in mind as I read their content.

What’s Savage Appetites about?

The book is wonderfully designed into four sections–detective, victim, defender, and killer–providing an engaging and easy-to-follow flow. With each transition, Monroe shares a new story. The highlights?

  • Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies. I thoroughly enjoyed the history lesson on how this early investigator not only broke into a professional world dominated by men, but the reveal of the creative teaching tool of the nutshells. The nutshells, crime scene dioramas, are still on display today and continue to stump amateur and professional investigators alike. Most importantly, as a teaching tool, they support effective investigative practices.

  • Lorri Davis, defender and now wife of Damien Echols. Monroe’s telling of how Davis became interested in the West Memphis Three, the evolution of her relationship with Echols specifically, and their life today is nothing short of eloquent. It is a strange story–a true crime fan who marries the person at the center of a case she was following. But it is an interesting story of advocacy as much as it is a unique love story.

  • The continuous discussion of why women are drawn to true crime. The book begins with the introduction of multiple theories about why the true crime community is largely female when, on the surface, the topics covered are violent and terrifying–and usually victimizing women! There are ones we’ve all heard (to learn survival tips, because a person has been a victim themselves and are drawn to others’ stories, etc.), but she dove deeper and left me thinking about additional possible ideas. It is a research path I will pursue, and she provided me with excellent points to consider.

The book was enjoyable, and I have no doubt that other readers would identify different highlights. It’s the kind of book that I would expect people to connect with in different ways because of the depth and breadth of the topics covered. If you’ve read it and had different (or similar) takeaways, please share them in the comments.

Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths

Monroe has only written one book, but you should check out her website for direct links to true crime interviews and articles. I’d especially recommend the page that organizes and links her long-form content. There are some amazing stories in there–a few that I was shocked I hadn’t heard of.

And if video is your learning format of choice, there is a 90-minute presentation available on YouTube about The Nutshell Studies. I only briefly previewed and got the sense that it is a presentation as opposed to a documentary, but it does appear to provide interesting insight for anyone looking to learn more.

In addition to Lee’s nutshell studies, Monroe also referenced the book Michelle Remembers – but don’t run out and buy it. I think the opening of the Wikipedia entry about the book says it best.

Michelle Remembers is a discredited 1980 book co-written by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his psychiatric patient (and eventual wife) Michelle Smith. A best-seller, Michelle Remembers relied on the discredited practice of recovered-memory therapy to make sweeping, lurid claims about satanic ritual abuse involving Smith that contributed to the rise of the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic in the 1980s.

The discredited book was an interesting callout for me because it drew attention to how different ideas can take root. When I think about what had to happen for Smith’s story to catch fire, it’s amazing. She had to meet the right person, at the right time, and tell the right story – an improbably series of events that occurred and negatively impacted more innocent people than we will likely ever really understand. It’s a sad example of how much damage we can do with the words that we say.

Ending on a lighter note, if the romantic in you would like to read about Lorri Davis and Damien Echols, I’d recommend A Death-Row Love Story, a New York Times piece about the couple.

And, as always, if this post reminded you of a great related resource, please drop it in the comments!

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