Long Reads

True crime is changing, but is it for the better?

For far too long, true crime podcasts, documentaries, TV shows and books have told their stories from the perpetrator’s perspective. But with a slew of new real life stories telling their tales from the viewpoints of the victim, is the tide finally beginning to change?

When it comes to the real-life serial murderers’ hall of fame, Jack The Ripper is up there with the worst of them. 

Despite the murders taking place in 1888, our fascination with the serial killer remains. Ripperologists (people who want to uncover the mystery of the Ripper) continue to try and unmask his true identity, but it seems likely that he’ll remain a murky figure haunting the poorly lit alleys of Whitechapel. The only thing that everyone knows for certain, and has done since the early newspaper reports of the killings, is that Jack the Ripper’s victims were all prostitutes.

Except… they weren’t. 

jack the ripper
True crime: An artist’s impression of police discovering one of the Ripper’s victims from French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, 1891.

In her remarkable, award-winning book, The Five: The Untold Lives Of The Women Killed By Jack The Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold shares these women’s stories in detail for the first time. 

A historical detective, she pieces together their lives and examines the brutal conditions in which they lived. Back in the 1800s, many poor, working class women walked the streets of the East End at night – not because they were soliciting sex, but because they couldn’t pay for even one night’s lodging. Rough sleeping was feared, but it was feared marginally less than the workhouse.

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Thanks to Rubenhold’s book, we now know that only two of the five women were actually prostitutes – and of course, that label describes only a fraction of who they really were. As Rubenhold points out: “The police and newspapers saw only another victim… a drunk, degenerate, broken-down woman… These impressions, when set in typeface, would become fixed and for the most part unchallenged”. 

In this book, we have at last a hell of a challenge for Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary-Jane.

True crime: Netflix's Unbelievable focussed on the stories of the victims, not the perpetrator.

Fast forward to more recent times, and the victims in real life crime stories are finally being given a voice. Netflix’s Unbelievable, based on the real life story of a series of rapes in the USA, is both extraordinary and brilliant. 

The story is largely told from the point of view of a teenager called Marie, a former foster child who is part of a social services program for troubled teens when she is brutally raped. Two male police officers think she’s lying and charge her with filing a false report. Nobody around her supports her. 

Meanwhile, two states away, female detectives are hunting a serial rapist and interviewing his victims. The stories start to join up – Marie’s rapist is the same man. The difference between this mini-series and most other true crime dramas is that, despite examining the rapist’s modus operandi and the police attempting to find his identity, the show doesn’t concentrate on him. Instead, the story’s focus remains with Marie and the other women he’s attacked. It makes for compelling, powerful watching.

In 2015, a young woman was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner as she lay unconscious behind some bins near a fraternity house. Two Swedish students on bicycles chased after him. The media dubbed it the ‘Stanford Swimmer Case’, in reference to Turner’s swimming career.

The judge gave Turner an absurdly lenient sentence of just six months in prison (of which he served just half) because of ‘the role alcohol played’, and his father’s character reference (he said his son should not be punished for “20 minutes of action”). We haven’t moved far from Victorian London in victim shaming. However, what happened next was remarkable. The victim, known only as Emily Doe, took the unprecedented move of reading a victim impact statement in court. 

It begins: “Your Honour, if it is all right, for the majority of this statement, I would like to address the defendant directly.

“You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Her full statement, posted online, was read 11 million times in four days. And then, in September 2019, she relinquished her anonymity to publish a book called simply, Know My Name. The astonishing introduction reads: “My name is Chanel. I am a victim, I have no qualms with this word, only with the idea that is all that I am. 

“However, I am not Brock Turner’s victim. I am not his anything. I do not belong to him.”

Chanel Miller’s book demonstrates that she’s a gifted writer, as well as an artist, a close sister and a loving daughter and granddaughter. She’s warm and angry and sad and wise. I particularly like the part she wrote about the cyclists: “I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another.” 

It resonated with me particularly after the recent London Bridge attack, when we were all moved by that Narwhal tusk, a symbol of decency and courage.

Chanel Miller
True crime: “When you are assaulted, an identity is given to you. It threatens to swallow up everything you plan to do. And be. I became Emily Doe,” says Chanel Miller.

Three years ago I had an idea for my own book – a novel. I knew it would begin with the headmaster of an English rural school being shot in the corridor. I saw two teenagers bravely grabbing him and dragging him into the library where they would barricade the door with books. Fiction would be a literal protection against violence.

But then what? Whose story should I tell – the teenagers trying to look after their badly injured headmaster? The drama teacher continuing the rehearsal of Macbeth in the relative safety of the school theatre? The little boy hiding, alone and terrified? The parents gathering, desperate for news, going on social media to find out what is happening to their children?

In the end I decided to tell all of their stories. The thing that mattered, I realised much later, was that I was writing the novel from the victims’ point of view, and not the perpetrator.

Chanel’s book rightfully stormed up the bestseller lists, and she has been interviewed by Oprah and photographed with Barack Obama. Unbelievable has been watched by over 32 million people. The Five has been picked by everyone from Oprah to The Sunday Times and is a bestseller. 

Perhaps we’ll always have a fascination with criminals, but it seems as if things are finally shifting, so that we now want to put the victims centre stage. We want to hear stories that are uniquely intimate, involving and powerful.

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Images: Unsplash, Getty, Netflix, Penguin Random House