The short answer
The long answer
Yesterday, the sister of a toddler murdered in 1964 by a serial killer you’ve never heard of emailed me. The slaying had been a family secret, closely guarded by the child’s mother, even when later children asked about strange pictures of a little casket in a hidden memory book.
The sister, now a fortysomething, had learned only days ago what happened to her never-known brother. Her life was upended. She scoured the Internet and learned that I had written about her brother’s killer. She immediately reached out.
The guilt and pain carried by those parents for more than 50 years must have weighed a million tons. My first question was, “Why?” And then others tumbled out of me. The sister couldn’t answer them, but I wanted to write it all down … because that’s my urge ever time I feel pain around me. It’s as if the ghosts must be captured to be exorcised, even if I know it doesn’t work that way.
I have no special interest in mass killers of any kind. Even though I write about them. Even though people ask me random questions about them. Even though well-meaning friends send me memes about them. Even though everybody thinks I write crime because killers fascinate me.
They don’t. They are merely the catalyst for unimaginable suffering—gas in the engine of extraordinary human stories. And a lifetime of telling stories tells me that’s the moment where important things are learned. Whether it’s in a war zone (which I’ve covered) or a crime scene, I see innocent people at their best and worst in those unexpected places. Their stories must be told because their stories can be used by all of us. Serial killers’ stories cannot because they’re too random and too perverse to predict anything useful except that they exist among us.
Yet fascination with serial killers—not the people who unwittingly cross their paths—persists. If you don’t think so, find a social-media true-crime conversation and mention John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos, BTK, Zodiac, or Jeffrey Dahmer is your favorite serial killer. There will be an argument. Trust me. You’d rather wear a MAGA hat to the Democratic National Convention.
I’ve even seen some serial-killer fangirls discussing which of them might be the best date.
Yes, I have written about serial killers like Derrick Todd Lee, Richard Ramirez, and Henry Lee Lucas—and so many more—but only as a way to write about their grotesque effect on survivors, cops, families, and whole communities. Many—maybe most—of my crime-writing friends feel precisely the same way, despite what sordid true-crime TV episodes would have you think.
I find the people who die, who chase them, who survive them, and who are shamed by them to be far more interesting.
That’s why I don’t care about Ted Bundy.