Losing the Victim in the Story

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I’ve been thinking a lot about creating balance in the sort of memoir I’m trying to write.  It’s tricky striking the right mix of focusing on the cold case versus focusing on my experience trying to uncover the details of said case. What triggered my thinking about this was listening to an NPR broadcast about the recent school shootings in Santa Fe, Texas. The medical examiner (ME) was being interviewed, and was giving her thoughts on the tragedy. Here’s an excerpt from the NPR interview:

WANG: She says her mind has been returning over and over to images she can’t shake.

BARNHART: I think honestly the things that I’m – the pictures that I have in my head aren’t things that anybody would want to hear about, that their images that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.

WANG: Barnhart expects to finish the autopsy reports by mid-June, but she says the emotional work for her and her staff – that’s going to take a lot longer. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Santa Fe, Texas.

My issue with the way that she presented this was how much of a focus she put on herself. (I found myself doing memoir math, and counting the number of times she used the word “I”). But in all fairness the story is about the toll the shooting has taken on the ME. She also discussed the fact that she was required to go to the scene of the crime which is almost unheard of in her line of work. Along with the fact that the victims were teens, all the components of the crime taken together were almost more than the ME could absorb.

I found myself wondering what the right balance of interjecting yourself into a story would look like. This, I think is especially true when writing about real life crime. The emphasis should be put on whom I feel are the rightful owners of the story — the victims, or in the case of my memoir, victim. 

There’s also the phenomenon whereby victims often get second billing in true crime television series that are based on their own stories. It is not unusual for the name of the criminal to get the top spot on the marquee. At times law enforcement is quick to remind the viewer that the victim had a name and a story, and that he or she should not get subsumed into a narrative that puts the perpetrator front and center.

It is all too easy for the media to place the emphasis on the perpetrators of the crime/s while the victims fade into the background. This is primarily true of serial criminals. They might easily become household names, especially if the details of their crimes are salacious. Most of us who could rattle off the names Ted Bundy or Charles Ng, would be hard pressed to come up with the names of even one of their victims. Unless a victim is a household name already — a celebrity, or politician say — chances are their names will get lost in the shuffle.

Part of what came up for me was that in the case of the Santa Fe, Texas school shooting, there was no backstory on the ME. I found I cared little that she’d need a long time to emotionally process what she saw. I think it’s a given in her job that she is going to experience some level of trauma because of the nature of her duties. It was difficult to empathize with her assuming she knew full well what she was getting into when she took the job. Again, to be fair, she was asked to do something outside of her normal duties — show up to the crime scene. 

This made me think about the importance of providing at least a few details of a person’s life to create some sense of identification for the audience. Maybe if the ME threw in one sentence about, perhaps, how she struggled to succeed in her field from the beginning because she wasn’t able to steel herself to the exposure she had to death and suffering. Or maybe a sentence about how the converse was true. It would’ve helped me identify with her, or at least sympathize with her a little bit more.

I was watching a new series on the Investigation Discovery last night called “Dead North,” and I had a similar experience, asking myself “who cares?” when the detective was the focus. I found myself asking why so much emphasis was placed on the detective? Why did the audience need to spend so much time with her? 

The camera followed the main investigator over a chunk of time while she described how emotional she was when she discovered the remains of a victim whose case she was working. There was a scene during which she turned away from the camera, so the crew wouldn’t film her crying. This was after finding the jaw bone of the victim accidentally while filming the show, the documentary she called it. She’d found the skull of the man, much earlier during the actual investigation, and stressed that she was more able to cope after finding the skull. 

I found myself first, not really feeling too concerned about her reaction, and secondly wondering why exactly discovering the jaw should be more “real” to her. Maybe her backstory wasn’t needed per se, but an explanation of this reaction would have been nice. Maybe she’d thought of the case as finished, had boxed up the file in her head, so to speak. And this discovery of his skull was an unwelcome reminder of a case she’d put away long ago. 

To give credit to the “Dead North” crew, they did give more than equal time to the victim’s story, interviewing his sister about her struggles with her brother’s death and the subsequent investigation. 

There was plenty of backstory about the investigator — she met the love of her life during the investigation — so I felt a bit more empathic towards her than the ME on the NPR story. Still, she might have described the phenomenon whereby a detective gets emotionally tied up with a victim during an investigation. The piece needed a little telling along with all the showing. 

Once, a detective in another true crime series got especially caught up in the investigation because a little girl the same age as his own had gone missing. Those are the details I feel should be included, so the viewer can get an idea of what drives the emotional responses of detectives who have no real connection to the victims.

So, even though I wanted to use my blog to provide a place for friends and families of homicide victims, I also decided I could throw my thoughts out about my struggles writing about the cold case. (And some draft chapters of the memoir itself!) The extent to which I insert myself into the story has been a struggle from the beginning. I’d like to find a good balance between walking the reader through my emotional landscape, and focusing on the story of what happened to my friend Patty.

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