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Emails to my Therapist

The Wicked Allure of True Crime and Celebrity News Today

Dear Nicholas, I’ll lose some readers by admitting this. But not everything one emails to one’s psychotherapist is admirable. Here it is: I am fascinated by true crime stories (why would anyone do such a thing?)  And one of my first crucial morning questions to myself is: What’s the celebrity news today? In that second category, I enjoy relationship updates but do tend to focus on scandal.

These two prurient interests combine to make a time-wasting, titillating, not very uplifting habit. I’m not ashamed of it: we all have our little quirks. But it eats up more time than I want to admit to myself.

My Teenage Self Would Be Appalled

I wasn’t always this way. I was a very high-minded teenager. Once when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen, the magazine Modern Screen started arriving at our house with my name on it. I was both uninterested and insulted.  Who could have possibly given my name to those people? Who could imagine that I’d be interested? (Perhaps my parents were secretly suggesting I lighten up?)

Also as an adult, I stopped reading true crime for about ten years.  That habit was interrupted by my experience of violence within earshot in Varanasi, India, while I was there researching my novel Sister India.  Days after my arrival in the city, riots broke out in a long-running Hindu/Muslim dispute.  The city of a million people was put under full-time curfew that lasted, with the exception of a few open hours often in alternating neighborhoods, for two weeks. An entire population was sent to their rooms, all businesses closed.  One of those afternoons, I was on the rooftop patio of my building and heard gunfire. That and the balcony-to-balcony stories of gruesome violence nearby put me off the genre for roughly a decade. Violent crime had come too close and felt too real. Reading about more of it was not entertaining.

Interest Resurged

Then the curiosity crept back over me again. I remember then closely following a local murder trial with disgusting zest; I even sat in the courtroom one day, telling myself it was research for my fiction (I did get one good detail out of the day–a look in the eyes of the charming villain senator in Cobalt Blue) Once at a break in the proceedings, a mike was lowered between the accused and the family member he was talking with. My friend and I sitting several pews back gawked at this seeming violation of privacy. Turned out that the guy with the mike was working for the defendant, making a documentary. And a news photographer shot a picture of that happening, which appeared the next day on the front page of Raleigh’s News & Observer with my friend and me  sitting prune-faced behind them showing our righteous disapproval. Made me think of the vengeful Madame DeFarge in A Tale of Two Cities, knitting while to the guillotine the tumbrels rolled.

Husband Bob said to me about my avid interest in this: “Peggy, people are being hurt!” I knew that. I know that. And it still hasn’t stopped me from slowing to see the wreck.

People Who Need People

My following of celebrity stories probably began with People magazine and grew slowly. The Internet made my interest catch fire.

I do want to be clear; this is not what’s called “celebrity worship.” It’s an appetite, a craving, for gossip.

Right now, of course, cyberspace is rich with terrible stories, which is no doubt why this is on my mind.  I don’t want these allegations of sexual harassment to be true, especially of a couple of men I have long admired. I am saddened by what I read of Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. I also want the truth to come out and the harassment to stop. I feel too that the accused are paying heavily without benefit of trial, with their cancelled shows wreaking damage on a lot of other people; and I fear that the door is open for false accusations. Even so, most important, it’s obviously vital to get the truth out and the situation radically changed. Eventually, I hope that the world-wide shaming of the guilty will die down and that some chance of redemption will be possible.

None of these feelings deter me from falling on my laptop every morning and ransacking Page Six, Huffington Post, England’s Daily Mail, and even TMZ for fresh information.  And I check further later in the day. Won’t count how many times.

So true crime and celebrity news seem to have converged, not for the first time.

Why? Why? Why?

I’d love to know why I’m so interested in any of it, a question I don’t ask myself about, say, my preference for caramel ice cream. But this craving for gossip, for news of the dark side, is so intrusive of me, so–I hesitate to say it– unkind of me. Given the amount of coverage I see, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one; but that’s no consolation. I would welcome interpretations.



(Further confession: one reason I’m saying all this now is that today is the day for me to go back to revising my current novel-in-progress after several weeks away from it gathering feedback. Writer John McPhee has characterized the moment of moving from the physical world to the writing as crossing an electric fence. I’m procrastinating, delaying that jolt, distracting myself with weaker jolts.)

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  • Peggy Payne
    November 10, 2017 at 8:43 pm Reply

    Yep, took less than five minutes to get a: “PLEASE unsubscribe me…” email.

  • Mary Moore
    November 10, 2017 at 9:08 pm Reply

    Peggy, I can SO relate to this post! I, too, have a big appetite for true crime and celebrity scandals. There’s no doubt that this stuff can eat up too much time, but I don’t feel (terribly) ashamed (most of the time). Writers are interested in secrets, in getting below the surface, in motivations that may even be hidden from one’s self. True crime delivers . These days we have our choice of excellent crime stories in print, podcasts and movies. And of course many scandals have been made into great art, too (though I can’t really defend some of the junk that distracts me online).

    p.s. I’m miffed and honestly puzzled to hear about your unsubscribe request. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine NOT being drawn to crime and scandal.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 10, 2017 at 9:37 pm Reply

      And you seem like such a good person, Mary! How am I to believe this?

      Actually I’m glad to know you’re an equally avid scandal consumer. Good to be in your company.

      And the unsubscribe thing– I usually lose a few folks when I write about something that sounds superficial, like shaking the McDonald’s sweet tea habit. I don’t view these things as superficial. In fact, I’m not sure that anything is merely superficial.

      • Peggy Payne
        November 11, 2017 at 12:07 am Reply

        I do like your thought, Mary, about writers liking secrets and stories. Doesn’t everyone?

      • Mary Moore
        November 12, 2017 at 1:59 pm Reply

        Right on! (and write on, too, of course) – xo

  • Kenju
    November 10, 2017 at 10:26 pm Reply

    My husband has developed a habit of watching the cops shows, instead of the local news. I am appalled by the people and the cops, and I can’t imagine why someone with s college education would be attracted by that type of show. But I must admit that they are a big titilating.

    I am also appalled by the recent revelations about Kevin Spacey. Why such a good actor would put himself in jeopardy like that is a mystery to me. It is disgusting.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 10, 2017 at 10:47 pm Reply

      The local news seems a bit heavy on wrecks and robberies to me, kenju. I watch those shows occasionally–though I often close my eyes when they show anything gory. I’m watching to understand why somebody does what they’ve done and how the cops go about figuring out who did it. And no doubt for a glimpse of the dark side that’s foreign to me.

      Hearing these harassment stories– I feel saddened about some of these guys the way I felt when James Gandolfini died.

  • Kenju
    November 10, 2017 at 10:27 pm Reply

    Sorry for the typos. My phone keyboard appears to be getting smaller.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 10, 2017 at 10:42 pm Reply

      Typos–no proglem!

  • Lynne
    November 11, 2017 at 12:30 am Reply

    Celebrity scandals not as interesting to me as they once were ..don’t even know some of the new celebs , but am a complete Dateline addict. .. intrigued by how these people seem one way but are living with such lies and of tmy few must see tv shows then to make matters worse lol go online after to see feedback from viewers on the verdict.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 11, 2017 at 1:33 am Reply

      I’ve never seen Dateline, Lynne. I will swiftly correct that, sounds intriguing.

  • November 11, 2017 at 12:53 am Reply

    I strongly suggest to my clients the self-protection of not listening to or reading the usual news, especially the BBC – who needs to know about all that unnecessary, sensational horror and pain, especially throughout the wide world? And who wants the emotional consequences and drain of constant reminders of everyone’s deep emotional insults and injuries? To me it seems like emotional pornography.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 11, 2017 at 1:38 am Reply

      Wow, “emotional pornography.” That’s pretty strong, Bob. I don’t listen to all the news of violence in the world. That strikes me as pretty different from celebrity scandal, though there’s a tragic feel to some of what’s coming out now. But the scandal news in general does act as a sort of porn, not so much emotional, but titillation based on something observed from a distance. I will ponder this further.

  • Ron Perkinson
    November 11, 2017 at 2:04 am Reply

    My disappointment in your post is that you seem to think you have a problem. My mother, dead for 17 years, could sit in the middle of a restaurant in a strange city and provide you with detailed information on the people at the three closest tables. This while eating appropriately and conversing with those at her table. I considered that ability to be a gift, not a problem. I think the use of the word “gossip” causes an unneeded negative. It only means what people are talking about. In fact, a good bit of it is true. If we were required to talk and write only about what we personally have experienced, I fear the world of literature would be much poorer.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 11, 2017 at 3:10 am Reply

      The only way I see it as a problem, Ron, is that I do more website-checking than is productive. Like too much checking of email. Clearly your mother was admirable, and no doubt her skills led to your own ability to read people and mediate.

  • Ron Perkinson
    November 11, 2017 at 2:42 am Reply

    I’m disappointed that you find your interests disappointing. I think the use of the word “gossip” is an unnecessary negative. Gossip is what folks are talking about. It has a reasonable chanc of being true. If writers were limited to to their own knowledge literature would be the loser. As to a predilection for celebrity trash, a doctor once told me that we eat fast food tacos and burgers because they taste so much better than an an undressed beet salad. Makes sense to me.

  • Lee Grohse
    November 17, 2017 at 1:39 pm Reply

    I’m also a gossip fan. And have an avid interest in murder. I could say I come by it honestly having grown up with a father who was a police detective. Murder was our dinner conversation. Also, both of my paternal grandparents lost a sibling to murder, with my grandfather witnessing his sister’s murder as a child. While I agree with Bob and am one who limits my exposure to disaster and mayhem, particular visual exposure like TV, I do this to avoid absorbing the horror and pain and the violence and death. I have no interest in hearing about the carnage . But in the case of interpersonal murder, I am hugely interested in the relationship dynamics and even more in the motives, feelings, and thinking of the ones committing the murder. Who are they? What led them there? How are they thinking? How do they explain themselves to themselves before and after. On some primitive level I believe that if I can really grasp it, I can understand more about what it means to be human, about people around me, about myself. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, I’ve had the chance to talk to many murderers. Worked in an intake unit in a prison for a while and part of my job was getting and recording the inmates’ version s of their crimes. Also as a graduate student worked on a study that allowed me to interview and do psych testing on adolescents admitted to forensic units for killing or attempting to kill a parent. I’ve also gone to a few high profile murder cases, including Jeffrey McDonald’s, on the days he testified. I have a strong impulse to be there and to “turn on” my pretty impressive intuition (?) about how people’s internal world is structured. I’m interested in that in lots of human behavior and for me murder is just the far edges of that interest. I am delighted to find another non-ghoulish person who shares this interest. You are a writer. You write about passion and you write about the soul. How would you not be interested in knowing about and understanding at some deep level the far extremes of passion and the condition of the soul that murder represents?

    • Peggy Payne
      November 17, 2017 at 4:06 pm Reply

      Fascinating, Lee! We think alike on this, though I don’t have the family history to help me make sense of my interest. I would love to know what you learned from hearing the inmates’ stories about their crimes. Another question: does your intuition tell you pretty accurately if someone is guilty?
      You might be interested in reading Mark Pinsky’s work, if you haven’t; his writing career has focused on religion and murder. Met Her on the Mountain is really good.

  • Lee Grohse
    November 17, 2017 at 7:52 pm Reply

    Thanks for the book suggestion, Peggy. Will definitely read it. Does my intuition accurately tell me if a person is guilty? Well, most the people I’ve talked to had already had their guilt confirmed and almost none bothered to deny having actually done it, although the degree to which “it” was defined as wrong varied interestingly. I certainly would not substitute my intuition for evidence, but I have a fairly high confidence in my intuition in general,.When I’ve been able to get information about whether my sense of what went down in some newly reported murder proved correct, I think my intuition holds up pretty well. I “entertain” my husband with my predictions on such cases. Like yours, my husband does not entirely approve of my interest in such things.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 18, 2017 at 12:31 am Reply

      I feel confident in my gut sense as well, Lee. But then a guy who’d spent time with me in my office working on my computer was convicted of murdering his wife. I’d sensed nothing amiss in him then. That gave me pause. Guess I can’t be right every time.

      Did you find any commonality or any surprising patterns in the murderers you interviewed?

      • Lee Grohse
        November 19, 2017 at 2:29 am Reply

        Oh, I would not think anyone could sense that their computer repair guy was going to kill someone. Not enough exposure to him, the relationship, his impulse control, rage, desperation, arrogance, entitlement, etc. for you to have put together any picture of him. I think people who commit common murders (not Jeffry Dahmer bizarre murders) are acting out of the same set of human emotions and motives that operate in general. They aren’t qualitatively different. Killers R Us. But I think one can construct an understanding of the act for a specific person out of information (intuitive or evidentiary) about their impulse control, comfortableness with violence, sense of desperation, sense of entitlement, level and triggers for rage, how they are constrained, or not, by conscience, and particularly what explanations or thoughts they give to themselves to overcome any of the moral or practical impediments. I guess most of the people I’ve talked to that killed people were alike in that they were not very unusual. One commonality was how little apparent guilt or empathy they had and that they seemed to have ways of thinking that provided adequate justification in their mind. I remember thinking at one time that if you can imagine how you feel angry and singled out and in the right after getting a speeding ticket when you were in fact speeding, then you can imagine how people who murder “live with themselves.” Most I’ve talked to had a comfortable sense of their own lack of bad intentions, lack of other alternatives, sense of others having done worse, unfairness of being blamed for this one bad thing when they so often did good, entitlement to violate the rules because of their superior knowledge of the situation , and aggrievemnt at having been treated unfairly by the cops or courts. In terms of using intuition to get information on this, I would say that I would not be asking myself “Could this person kill someone?” I would be asking “Under what situations would this person be likely to kill someone? Are they in that situation or do they live their lives to be likely to get into those situations?” and “how would they give themselves permission? What do I do see or hear about how they would explain it to themselves.”

        • Peggy Payne
          November 19, 2017 at 1:21 pm Reply

          Your comment, Lee, tells me more than the sum of true crime books I’ve read. The speeding comparison is perfect. Your overall picture of these murderers is a bit dispiriting. It shows “the banality of evil.” And the seediness. Did you see any difference between the premeditators and the ones who struck in the heat of the moment?

          • Lee Grohse
            November 19, 2017 at 4:30 pm Reply

            Yes, I’m sure we can learn much about. the darker side from murder and murderers, and it is interesting stuff to some of us for sure. But it is most definitely not the ground to hunt if one is looking to find any inspiring information about the human condition. Luckily, there are many places in life where one can find those. I would argue that acts of sacrifice and courage also emerge fairly predictably in the most ordinary and non-heroic people when the conditions demand. We can be inspired by the banality of heroism!

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