- I grew up watching “Murder, She Wrote” and “Law & Order” with my family.
- But when my best friend from high school was murdered, it put the true crime genre into perspective.
- It is impossible for me now to watch series like “Law & Order”, and I miss it every day.
I was waiting for coffee at the drive-thru at Dunkin’ Donuts when I found out my best friend from high school had been murdered. A friend had called with the shocking news. When I answered the phone she was sobbing and could barely utter the words.
“What’s wrong?” I asked panicked.
Through tears, she told me what had happened. Viv had disappeared days before. When she failed to show up for work, her colleagues alerted the authorities. Police went to the home she shared with her boyfriend to question her, but he denied knowing where she was. Two days later, he committed suicide at a relative’s house. When the police returned to Viv’s house, they found her body in a closet. Eventually, his cause of death was ruled as blunt trauma. Viv’s boyfriend had murdered her.
I had grown up watching true crime, but after Viv died, it all felt too real.
In the years leading up to Viv’s death, we had lost touch. I didn’t even know she was living with someone. At her memorial service, I learned that her relationship had been rocky and there had been a history of domestic violence. Viv had planned to leave him — and move to New York — but like many abuse victims, she never got the chance.
From a young age, I grew up watching murder mystery shows. My mom’s favorite TV show was “Murder, She Wrote.“Every Sunday night, I’d crawl into my parents’ bed and watch Angela Lansbury piece together an unsolved mystery while Mom folded the laundry. As we got older, we watched ‘Law & Order’ together as a family. One of reasons I continued to watch the series as an adult because the show reminded me of my home.From the safety of my living room, the predators and rapists who roamed the streets in general seemed to be a world apart.
But after Viv died, I stopped watching cop shows. What happened to my friend could have easily been scripted for an episode of “Law & Order: SVU”. Suddenly, every female victim looked like Viv, and every terrified scream made me wonder what her final moments were like. The scenes with grieving family members and friends felt too real, and the storylines were too close to home.
Viv and I met the first week of our sophomore year of high school. I was a new student, having just moved to our small town in Vermont, having transferred from another high school the previous year. Within weeks, we were both inseparable. Viv introduced me to “I Love Lucy” – her favorite TV show – and I can still imagine her laughing as we watched together, snuggled up on the couch in her mom’s living room.
Viv was a voracious reader and a brilliant writer. She wrote about the house; hers was quiet and a bit lonely. Mine too was alone. At the time, my parents’ relationship was strained. My dad hadn’t moved to Vermont with us, and my mom had to raise three teenage daughters on her own. Both of us recognized a sadness in each other, a sadness we didn’t yet understand about ourselves. But knowing that I had a friend like Viv made me feel less alone.
After high school, Viv went to a big college in Boston while I went to a small liberal arts college in Connecticut. A few months before we graduated from college in June 2002, I saw Viv for the last time. We met for drinks at a bar in Boston and discussed life together, but I went to New York instead. Over the next few years, we lost sight of each other. I always thought we would reconnect, but we never got the chance.
There’s a reason we’re drawn to the genre – but I can’t watch anymore
It’s no secret that our society is obsessed with the true crime genre. Some of the most popular shows in recent years have been true-crime documentaries, such as “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” and “Making a Murderer.” Many people even confess to falling asleep to murder podcasts. Why is our culture so fascinated with rape, homicide and the dead female body?
Interestingly, a 2010 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that female respondents liked true crime more than males. Women seem particularly interested in the motivations of killers, especially when their victims are female. Researchers have linked this to our most primitive evolutionary mindset: survival. Many of us watch a true crime to better understand criminal behavior and possibly reduce the risk of becoming a victim ourselves. Although these shows tend to heighten feelings of anxiety while watching, they ultimately bring viewers a sense of relief because they have escaped danger. The audience feels like they have control over the outcome.
Some scientists think our desire to see people get murdered has something to do with emotional validation. As humans, it’s natural to want to feel things, like sadness, outrage and, perhaps most importantly, empathy. Experiencing a horrified reaction to a brutal crime assures us that we are not bad people. But, too often, these shows exploit — and dehumanize — women’s bodies to elicit this kind of reaction from the viewer.
In the United States, statistics show that one in four women age 18 and older has experienced serious physical violence by an intimate partner. There are many different reasons a person stays in an abusive relationship, including fear, financial constraints, and shared children. But in most cases, the longer a person stays, the more isolated they become.
It is common for abusive partners to cut off their victims from family and friends. I often wonder what I would have done if I had known what my friend was going through, and the survivor’s guilt is real and endless. It plays and plays like a reel in my mind, repeating itself: I should have reached out more. I should have done something.
To me, Viv wasn’t just another victim; it is not just a statistic. She was a lively young woman, full of potential. Watching destitute family members on screen becomes less abstract when you’ve seen real people mourn the loss of a loved one to an act of violence. I can’t watch the true crime genre anymore for the same reason I don’t watch breast cancer shows. After my diagnosis, I have a deep understanding that life is fragile and can be cut like a thread. I still feel that initial sense of horror and outrage about what happened to Viv – but most of all, I miss her every day.
I often wonder what would have happened if Viv got on that bus to New York. Would we have reconnected with the city and would we have become roommates? Would we have sailed through the chaos of our twenties together, like an episode of “Friends?” I like to think that Viv would have become a famous writer or a successful businessman. But I’ll never know – she never got the chance to write her own ending.