Author Sarah Weinman writes in The New York Times:
During the end credits of the recent film “Boston Strangler,” which dramatized the real-life efforts to crack
that criminal case, there’s a notation that addresses the fate of a convicted
murderer named George Nassar who, the movie states, is “still in prison in
Massachusetts.” I’ve long been fascinated with the Strangler case and Mr.
Nassar’s connection to it, so this detail caught my attention — since I was
pretty sure I recalled an interview from a few years back in which he announced
that he had terminal prostate cancer. As it turns out, Mr. Nassar, who told authorities
that his cellmate had confessed to being the Strangler, died in
2018 at a prison hospital in Jamaica Plain.
As a writer and editor of true crime, I might be
more sensitive to these sorts of factual errors than most people. But they are
part of a troubling trend. Errors like the one in “Boston Strangler” threaten
the integrity of true crime, which as a genre has grappled with whether the
stories it tells about crimes are, in fact, true.
True crime has always had a volatile relationship
with facts. A century ago, tabloid newspapers routinely hyped up the most lurid
aspects of a crime, even if there were few verifiable facts to be had. One
reason the Hall-Mills murders of 1922 remain unsolved is
that the press trampled all over the crime scene, literally and metaphorically.
Truman Capote, who is credited with inventing the
modern true crime genre with “In Cold Blood,” radically expanded its creative
possibilities — even as he resorted to making things up for effect. The book’s
final scene in the cemetery, in which the detective visits the Clutter
family’s graves with the daughter’s best friend? Invented out of whole cloth.
Capote even landed in jail after he refused to take the
stand because, according to a death-row prisoner, Capote would have had to
reveal that he’d lied about their interview. The crime journalist Jack Olsen
once said of Capote’s book that it “made true crime an interesting, successful,
commercial genre, but it also began the process of tearing it down.”
Accuracy is not the only challenge that true crime
practitioners face. Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” famously
explores the inherent ethical dilemmas in earning a subject’s trust —
especially if it’s a story of violence, trauma and tragedy. Malcolm wrote that
“the writer-subject relationship seems to depend for its life on a kind of
fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose.”
Given this fraught history, you’d think that modern
true crime practitioners would proceed with utmost care and caution. In
reality, the opposite is true, plunging true crime into a credibility crisis —
thanks to the pressures of a voracious market for documentaries, docuseries,
podcasts and movies purporting to be based on real events.
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The variety of lapses are as plentiful as the
examples are. HBO’s blockbuster 2015 documentary series “The Jinx,” about the
murderer Robert Durst, was lauded for its shocking twist ending — which
was later revealed to be the product of editing that manipulated
the timeline for maximum impact. “Making a Murderer,” a Netflix series which
debuted the same year, stirred public outrage over an apparently unjust
conviction — and then it came out that the show had omitted evidence that supported the prosecutor’s case.
Beyond factual lapses and questionable techniques,
the rush to feed the true crime beast has led to all sorts of slippery
practices. The limited series “Dahmer” on Netflix retold a well-documented
story with a new, exploitative gloss — over the objections of family members of Dahmer’s victims, who protested that the series was “retraumatizing over and over
again.” As the market becomes more competitive, true crime filmmakers have
raced to lock down exclusive access to sources, preventing other journalists
from reporting out a story, as happened in the case of a film about the
women R. Kelly assaulted.
The proliferation of true crime podcasts has led to
some honorable examples of investigative journalism, such as “In the Dark,”
which won two Peabody awards for its re-examination of mishandled murder cases.
But for every podcast like that, there are 10 (or more) in which so-called
experts speculate on infamous mysteries with far more eagerness than authority.
These slipshod approaches have real-world
consequences. Richard Walter, an expert criminal profiler whose testimony led
to many convictions, was recently revealed to be a fraud. That’s particularly
disturbing not only for those wrongfully imprisoned thanks, in part, to his
faked credentials but for the way his fakery hid in plain sight for decades.
Walter had become a hero to some in the true crime community, lionized in books
that were more interested in chronicling his dramatic exploits than in the
authenticity of his expertise.
Given a figure as egregious as Walter, it may seem
ungenerous to call out an error in a film like “Boston Strangler” — after all,
we tolerate, and even expect, a certain level of embellishment in our
entertainment, even in those works based on real events. But this misstep
illustrates how, increasingly, stories of tragedy (and, ironically, stories of
dogged journalistic reporting) have become simply another form of intellectual property to be put through a
churn of repackaging and reselling.
It’s become a familiar cycle: A criminal case
becomes a book, becomes a podcast, becomes a documentary, becomes a scripted
series or a film, becomes another, more sensational film. There are now
even true crime cookbooks. But somewhere at the start
of it all an actual crime took place, leaving behind not just facts but victims
and survivors. Where does a true crime cookbook leave them?
At its best, true crime grapples with what can and
cannot be uncovered and verified about the past, and even incorporates those
challenges into the story. I’m thinking of two recent books, Alex Mar’s
“Seventy Times Seven,” a compassionate account of mercy for a teenage girl on
death row, and Roxanna Asgarian’s “We Were Once a Family,” on the heartbreaking
failures of child foster systems to prevent senseless deaths. Both demonstrate
the impact that great true crime can have. They give a full accounting not just
of the details of the crimes but of the lives of those affected by violence,
exploring whether the legal system can truly provide justice.
But if the facts aren’t there, or they’re flatly
wrong, or they’re twisted beyond recognition, then true crime transforms into
something closer to lurid fiction — and the entities cashing in on it are
making a cynical, shortsighted bet. If creators want to benefit from the
frisson of a “true” story, they must honor the truth — it’s that simple. If
true crime practitioners give up on doing better and succumb to the temptation
of exploitation, that would be a crime in and of itself.
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