I Am Bleeding a Trail Through the Lens: On Watching Women Die

By Madeline Kennedy

title credit:  The New Pornographers , image: author’s own

title credit: The New Pornographers, image: author’s own

In the morning, I do my makeup to songs about murder. This is likely no surprise to anyone who’s ever known me. There’s an old folk song I continually come back to, detailing the plight of a man who kills his lover by accident, having improbably mistaken her apron-bound body for that of a swan. My favorite version is by Peter, Paul and Mary—they’re contrived, yes, but their harmonies make my stomach sink in a way I can’t easily resist. Though it happened nearly fifty years ago, I learned relatively recently that Peter once pleaded guilty to “taking indecent liberties with a fourteen-year-old girl.” For some reason, I find myself bothered by this refusal to state specific damage. I have spent hours wondering what exactly “indecent liberties” might mean here; like “sexual misconduct,” it’s a phrase seemingly designed to encompass a lot without articulating much-- a result, perhaps, of our cultural tendency to mask the depths of pain, of violation. 

Dwelling on the worst kinds of wounds comes easily to me; this is a fact I’m not thrilled with, but it has never felt like a choice. If I sit with this for a minute, I can see it: I can see a hotel room, I can see backstage. I can see drapes, a television, a bed. I read somewhere that the girl’s sister was with her—each of them, perhaps, too scared to go in alone—but maybe she has left now. Maybe he seems nice. Maybe he asks about her life. Maybe he doesn’t take off all her clothes. 

What is the narrative? What happened to her? In asking, deep down, I realize I am looking for us both.

* * *

I think of my youth, try to recall all the times men followed me home but somehow never touched me. In my online adolescence, I read the Xanga blog of a woman, Jill, maybe ten years older than me, whose screen names would reference birds or bitterness. I watched her write about her life, and about her rapes, the details of which I still remember: a man’s name, the kids in the other room, the coat hanger. And I return, often, to Toni Keller, whom I met at a party and barely knew, who had a pierced nose and sunflowers etched into her chest, who left for college three months later and died on the prairie: raped, murdered, and burned, left almost unrecognizable. She was missing at first, the poster shared by a friend on Facebook. Eventually, her killer was apprehended, and though he is solely responsible for the destruction of a life, he received a prison sentence of only 37 years. As part of the plea deal, the original, additional charges of arson and sexual assault were dropped, as if it makes no difference how thoroughly Toni was violated, both in her last moments alive and in her death.

These stories stay with me not only because I knew these people (if only briefly, or through a screen), but because I am painfully aware of how easily their stories could have been (or could still be) mine. I struggle with what to do with this: how to think and write about the worst things that happen to women, especially at times when those women are not me, but close. Since childhood, I have been pulled by the magnetism of true crime narratives; namely, those of women who kill, or are killed, or live through something horrific. The women of my pop cultural life are often ones who die: Natalie Wood, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Tate. This interest in the macabre has been, I suspect, a product of my anxiety about how to be (and stay) alive, as if knowing every way the worst things might happen would mean they’d never happen to me. I have sought out the worst that men have wrought, learned their names, listened to Ted Bundy interviews in fever dreams of summer days. In this way, and in others, as Judith Butler writes, “my existence is not mine alone;”  I am haunted by an awareness of my body and survival as things to be negotiated, impacted by the actions and beliefs of men in power on every conceivable level.

A heavily pregnant Sharon Tate, photographed by Terry O’Neill three days before her murder.    Image Source

A heavily pregnant Sharon Tate, photographed by Terry O’Neill three days before her murder. Image Source

There’s an element of eroticized, exploitative consumption that is perhaps inherent to true crime, reminiscent of what historian Karen Halttunen has described as “the pornography of pain.” What does it mean that I buy into this, the presentation of women’s suffering as a thing to be taken in recreationally? Does my critical engagement with this kind of spectatorship make my participation any more acceptable? As a feminist, I understand the problems involved in watching the hunt for a woman’s killer with all its commercial interruptions, yet I remain drawn. On TV, she’s pretty and missing, then neither, weighed down but washed up where the water ends. I see myself in her, and I see cultural patterns, age-old narratives about who deserves to hurt and why. And let’s be clear: there are women (often cis, often straight, often white) whose pain becomes a point of intense media interest, and then there are women whose pain becomes buried, vanishing swiftly into the deepest part of the night.

* * *

Clearly, girl-trauma can be commodified, made marketable and uncomplicated, taken hostage. But displays of pain, whether visual or written, can also be glittering, balletic, bad-romantic. Is that problematic, too? Girls turn themselves inside out, show each other their scars. I write poems, tie my trauma to the moon, the womb, other conquered things. Part of the experience of womanhood, I think, is being elevated and made mythical, being made to watch your body become a sacred space for someone else. But this kind of visibility can be crushing; to be desired can also mean being despised and dismissed, and knowing that the feeling can shift within a moment, that one thing can lead to another, that they will bleed together and blur each other’s lines. Like Leslie Jamison, I wonder how to talk about women dying “without corroborating an old mythos that turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship.” And if “being a woman requires pain,” that it is the “prerequisite of female consciousness,” I wonder: who would I be if I wasn’t so sad?

When I’m not soundtracking my own subtle aesthetic transformations with murder ballads, I tend to favor mid-century takes on the ultra-saccharine: Twinkle, the Ronettes, the Five Satins, the Shangri-Las. Of course, despite appearances, this sonic realm is equally brimming with suffering women; the genre’s interplay between pop and pain is, for me, so much of the appeal. Nowhere is this contrast more notoriously illustrated than in 1962’s “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” a song that shimmers and aches in equal measure. Produced by convicted murderer Phil Spector, written by Carole King and then-husband Gerry Goffin, and performed by the Crystals, the world of the song revolves around its titular act of domestic abuse, lifting the violence up with astonishing clarity, its backing vocals like a chorus of ghost women who were beaten to death by their boyfriends. In this space, the pain feels eternal, overwhelming, almost otherworldly in its eeriness.

An even stranger, distinctly 21st-century approach to female pain as entertainment is the true crime subgenre of ASMR videos. In general, ASMR utilizes myriad methods to attempt to relax viewers--softly spoken roleplays, soundscapes of singing bowls or bath bombs--and is largely made by women, who typically appear on camera in their own videos. In true crime ASMR, then, we see women whispering about other women going missing or getting murdered, ostensibly to help strangers on the internet unwind. The videos are startling in their intimate descriptions of violence; I watch them and wonder what they mean, particularly for female viewers. Women have long held complicated relationships with true crime, and in particular, with recitations, symbols, and threats of their own impending demise; for proof, one might consider the women who write love letters to imprisoned necrophiliacs. Granted, women’s interests in true crime are only rarely linked to arousal in such a severe, explicit sense, and female consumption of true crime material can certainly be both non-sexualized and highly intimate in ways that merit serious consideration. Is my insistence on immersing myself in unspeakable tragedy a symptom of my trauma, or a cause, or an attempt at a cure? When I watch a woman in a full face of makeup talk quietly about her dead friend, when I bookmark the long-unsolved murder of a Harvard grad student who died from blunt force trauma, what is it that I really want?

From video by Peace and Saraity ASMR. Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzb9IItAqcI

From video by Peace and Saraity ASMR. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzb9IItAqcI

“Sometimes we are too fragile” to do feminist work, Sara Ahmed writes; “we cannot risk being shattered because we are not ready to put ourselves back together again. To get ready often means being prepared to be undone.” Following Ahmed’s tendency to dive into and around the meanings of words and phrases, I am interested in further consideration of what it means for women to get ready. I think of the common complaint that women take too long to do it, the accusations of vanity and self-consciousness that live inside that criticism. I think of how men give themselves permission to look at women in any manner of ways, endlessly, and how women are not granted the same freedom to look at themselves, especially as an act of self-love. I think of the ways I have felt before going out into the world, or before letting someone into mine, and how frequently those feelings have been deemed unacceptable (or at least foolish). I look at myself and I look at my life, wonder whether I should bother with eyeliner or if I’ll ruin it by crying today. I realize I’d forgotten that Peter, Paul and Mary were in my youth, too--”Puff, the Magic Dragon” on cassette, a song that’s either about soft drugs, or the profoundly melancholic nature of mortality, depending on your take. I’m not sure I know how not to be sad; I don’t always know how to sidestep the black holes of female trauma I build for myself, or that are laid out before me. I dream a lot about dying, dancing, a porch with wind chimes. An episode of Dateline where the woman survives.