Over the past couple of decades, the prestige of true crime writing has taken a hit. When In Cold Blood was first published in 1966, Truman Capote was lauded as a visionary who'd pioneered a new type of book, one that told a true story by exploring the human condition through the events surrounding one tragic murder case. Of course, Capote's book is still considered a classic, but something has happened. The prevailing sentiment has shifted. There are those who now look askance at true crime and at those who write it.
Especially since I've started writing fiction, I've had people question why I continue to write true crime. Some charge that I'm making money off the misery of others, even insinuating that I somehow bear a portion of the blame for the tragedies I write about. Yes, I make money, that's true. I sincerely wouldn't be able to afford to write true crime books if I didn't. I work hard and like most folks, I have bills to pay and a family to help support. As for true crime writers being somehow responsible for the crimes, I'm sure you understand that's flat out ridiculous.
When I hear those criticisms, I admit that I sometimes get a bit tongue-tied trying to explain why I write true crime. So I was particularly pleased when a reader sent me a recent e-mail. Her name is Meredith Appel, and she contacted me about my first book, The Rapist's Wife, now published under the title: Evil Beside Her. The book explores the case of Linda Bergstrom, a Houston woman who married a shy factory worker with a terrible secret. That's Linda's photo on the right. Lower left is her now ex-husband, James, holding their daughter, Ashley. What you'll note is what a great guy James appears to be in the photo. He's not. James Bergstrom is a very dangerous man.
The reason I'm sharing Meredith's e-mail is that she explains better than I can why I continue to write true crime. On one level, I hope the books are interesting to read, full of personalities and drama, true stories that take readers inside sensational crimes. But on another level, I know they can do so much good.
With Meredith's permission, here are a few paragraphs from her e-mail:
...I'd written to you once before... when I was reading Evil Beside Her in college. I wanted to let you know more about that... I majored in criminal justice at a small private college, Saint Martin's University, in Washington State. The criminal justice department is expanding to include new types of courses that explore different angles on criminology, and every other semester a course in victimology is offered. The class turned out to be more of a psychology class than anything and even more than that the class was centered on victim impact. More than learning victim statistics, we listened to speakers who had personally survived a crime or were family members of someone who had been victimized.
What we learned is that it is important to take measures to protect ourselves, but at the same time we can't be expected to be responsible for identifying who is capable of committing crimes. In other words, although there are warning signs that are worth paying attention to, the only thing that ultimately determines who is murdered or raped is which person gets in the car with the murderer or rapist, which is something that no person can exactly predict beforehand, since it all depends on the psychology of the perpetrator. I say all that to say this... our teacher used Evil Beside Her as required reading for our class as an example of the impact that a perpetrator's choices have on those around him/her.
Domestic violence was a big section of our studies, and the main reason we read your book was to attempt to gain an understanding of the complexity behind the answer to "Why doesn't she just leave?" The James Bergstrom case and the way you portrayed it was a wonderful example for our class to learn what it feels like for a person to be right in the middle of a situation and to learn that things just aren't as simple as they may look to the objective person on the outside.
As Meredith so eloquently explains, we can learn a lot from an in-depth look behind the headlines, one that answers all the questions, including the all-important "why?" Not all true crime books are good true crime books, but the quality ones dissect the facts from all sides, explaining not only what happened, but what that particular set of personalities and circumstances says about all of us, who we are, where our society is going, what we believe.