As the obsession with true crime envelopes most Americans and has become a billion dollar industry, there are an increasing number of articles deriding our voyerism and even fictional crime plots that illustrate the dangers of our obsessions (The Equalizer). They argue that we are harming families who are now constantly bombarded by armchair detectives and every person who wants to write a book, film a movie, or otherwise capitalize on the stories of horrific crimes. And they are not wrong. The more famous a murderer, the more publicity and thus intrusion the survivors must deal with. It is terrible. Our diet for serial killers and tragedy is insatiable. (Perhaps when crimes become infamous, our DAs should provide the survivors with lawyers to help them fend off researchers and consolidate and sell their story rights.)
There is a positive side to all the publicity though. Smaller, less known crimes suddenly have an audience who cares. An audience who can be leveraged to fund exhumations, DNA tests, and even detectives. An audience who can share clues, put pressure on government agencies. The draw of America's Most Wanted was the promise of solving unsolvable crimes. And it did help solve many crimes. And so true is the new popularity of true crime novels, documentaries, podcasts, and TV shows. The Shrink Next Door started as a podcast before AppleTV turned it into a show. Because of that podcast, Marty Markowitz's complaint to the New York State Department of Health was finally taken seriously.
Someone's Daughter is another example of the good that can come from our obsession with crime and the people it happens to. (And it is a fantastic read.) Silvia Pettem became intrigued by the grave of Jane Doe, and being a historian looked into it. The story of a murdered young woman buried by a caring town, but without identity or justice moved her. And so she pushed to have her case investigated in the modern era. And along that way, so many people missing family members from the mid-1950s reached out in hopes of closure. Some of them, compelled by Jane Doe's story, started looking for their long lost aunts, sisters, mothers. Some of them found their missing people - though the stories, the reasons for running away, were rarely good. Others died not knowing. But the story of Jane Doe is one that gives us hope. Hope that our family mysteries will be solves. Hope that somewhere someone has done right by our missing/murdered relatives. Hope, that a historian or writer or documentarian might become interested in our mystery and help us solve it, even if it isn't our family member, but a friend, or babysitter, or neighbor.
True crime novels, movies, podcasts, etc. uphold our civilization's promise that each of counts. And that is really important.
*The book ends before the case is solved, but Jane Doe's identity has been found (google it after reading the book.)
Back of the Book:
In 1954, two college students were hiking along a creek outside of Boulder, Colorado, when they stumbled upon the body of a murdered young woman. Who was this woman? What had happened to her? The initial investigation turned up nothing, and the girl was buried in a local cemetery with a gravestone that read, "Jane Doe, April 1954, Age About 20 Years."
Decades later, historian Silvia Pettem formed a partnership with law enforcement and forensic experts and set in motion the events that led to Jane Doe's exhumation and eventual identification, as well as the identity of her probable killer. The new Kindle version includes an Epilogue––with updated information on how the mystery finally was solved.