"Now it's time to start asking more questions": a conversation with Sarah Weinman

I met with Sarah Weinman recently to get some books signed -- and to ask her about her latest anthology, Evidence of Things Seen: True Crime in an Era of ReckoningWe drank rosé and talked about which pieces seem to get the most play, the recent arrest in the Gilgo Beach case, why I don't do Pride promos at Exhibit B., and much more. The first part of our chat is below; it's been edited for clarity and flow.

Exhibit B. Books: So how's it going so far? How's promo? How are you feeling about the response to it?

Sarah Weinman: I mean, I feel pretty good. I did a little book tour -- I was in Brooklyn on the 11th, and I moderated a panel with contributors at the Brooklyn Public Library branch over in Brooklyn Heights. It was lovely. It was great.


I was so mad I couldn't go to that.

You know, life happens. And then I was in Western Mass, specifically South Hadley, which has Odyssey Bookshop. And that was also lovely. Various friends, even family showed up. Then the next day I was on a flight from Bradley Airport out of Hartford -- it's like a smallish international airport that's actually manageable. So I flew there to DC for the event at Politics and Prose, and that one, weirdly, was the one I was most nervous about, just because I didn't know Jonquilyn Hill. I've just been a fan of her work. So, for true-crime people, you might know her as the host with the podcast Through The Cracks, when she still worked at WAMU; she is now hosting The Weeds at Vox, which is like a weekly political and policy podcast. So I got to the green room and we were introduced, and within like five seconds, I was like, okay, it's gonna be great.

So that's been my little tour, and then I go back to DC for the National Book Festival next month, and there may be some other things coming happening in the fall, which I'm still finalizing.


So the subtitle, of course, is "True Crime in an Era of Reckoning." Have the conversations that you've had, or interviews that you've done for this one, shifted since Unspeakable Acts and --

Yeah, I would say so.


I mean, that felt like there was definitely a similar focus on accountability in true-crime narrative, but it wasn't as explicit as in this one. I don't know what is cause or what is effect, but do you want to talk a little bit about that shift, in questions you're hearing or convos you're having?

Well, I think the shift reflects the change in focus, which is that with Unspeakable Acts, the first part was sort of more traditional true-crime narratives. The second part was interrogating the genre. The third was, well, what topics do we even consider to be true crime? And how can we kind of explode that out? So Evidence of Things Seen took that third part and made it the whole anthology basically. We gotta interrogate everything, and we have to look at true crime in the most systemic and the broadest possible way – without saying "this isn't true crime." Because I think it's pretty clear that I never want to be the person who says I'm not part of the genre. I've been part of the genre my whole life.


Yeah, don't – don't Berlinger that.

Don't Berlinger that, don't say "transcend the genre," don't do any of that shit. The genre is, but to take it in the most expansive possible way means you can fold in a lot of different topics, and think about them in a much more thoughtful manner. And that also, I think, leads to what I've said a lot on the press circuit, which is that if the genre has been asking, has been looking for answers all this time, now it's time to start asking more questions.



So if we think about true crime in the context of larger societal stuff like poverty and the unhoused and racism, and systemic communities where people are missing and murdered -- especially those that are particularly marginalized; if we think about how crime works in those contexts, I think we can just ask better questions.


Do you think that there's a general shift that true-crime reporting and reviewing is also undergoing in the last three to five years? What proportion of this is sort of your, like, physically shifting the focus, and what is the whole genre kind of stepping over and looking at things from a different angle?

I mean, it would be amazing to say that I am the one shifting focus.


I just mean, like, between the two books.

I mean, look at what has happened in the last three years. Obviously when Unspeakable Acts came out, we were deep in the early pandemic and nobody…I still get the sense that we didn't really know what we were doing. And everybody was still very freaked out, and publishing Evidence of Things Seen three years later, I think we still don't fully know what we were doing. And we're still really freaked out, and acting out in ways that are particularly destabilizing.

And just looking at what has happened: yes, we had social justice protests in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. But we've also had significant backlash, where all of these efforts to defund police or do significant reform, some of it has happened on a small scale, but most of the larger scale ideas have kind of, you know, fallen by the wayside. It turned out people really love cops, almost like in an addictive way -- and they can't quite shake that addiction. And don't want to. And it's frustrating because there are really more meaningful ways to address rising crime, which by the way, isn't even rising anywhere!


So it's just, like, getting at some of the more stubborn myths about crime narratives, and why we love cops when so many of them have proven themselves to be like murderers of black people, especially unarmed black people, [and to be] obsessed with the military and keep getting these military contracts to outfit themselves. And frankly, like cosplay -- a dangerous cosplay?


Right. "Cosplay," Jesus.

It absolutely is!


No, it absolutely is. And on top of that, it's like, there's the venality and then there's the ineptitude. And as with so many politicians, I always find myself asking, like, "Which is worse? ...I'm not gonna choose. They're both horrible."

So it's also just impossible to divorce true crime from what's been happening at the Supreme Court, and the rights rollbacks. Especially reproductive rights, where things that would not have been considered to be a crime now are -- and that's also fascinating to me, especially looking at it from a larger historical lens to see what was considered to be a crime, say a century ago, that we would never think of as a crime anymore. And what wasn't considered a crime that people really, really – like, I think there are certain factions that would love reading to be a crime, and that's why you have book bannings. And certainly they want to criminalize pregnancy. And abortion. They want to criminalize birth control.

And this is getting ahead of myself, but working on my next book, which is about a spousal-rape case, it's hard not to see this all in a kind of semi-linear trajectory of rollbacks. That if you take away abortion, move towards taking away birth control, move towards taking away no-fault divorce -- well, what about taking away the idea that a person can rape their spouse? So thinking through all of these ebbs and flows and pushbacks and backlashes and, uh, progress, it's dire. But that's kind of where we have to be thinking.


Which pieces [from Evidence] are getting the most play in the press and the interviews that you're doing from this one?

Yeah, the ones that, I mean, probably the best review that I got was from the Washington Post, which was from Elizabeth Held, who you know very well. I was really glad to see that review. I think she really got the book. But also, I'm like, "Wait a minute, you're a friendly reviewer. I know what this is about." But I think what she really got was what I was trying to articulate in terms of this larger systemic thing. And I think the pieces she particularly highlighted were May Jeong's piece from Vanity Fair on the Atlanta spa shootings -- May was one of the panelists at the Brooklyn event along with Amelia Schonbek, who wrote the restorative justice piece, which was not a direct restorative justice piece. It was what was called surrogate restorative justice, where a woman who had experienced sexual assault and a man who had sexually assaulted, but not each other, could be in the same room and go through the points of, of reparation –


Like parallel mediation, kind of.

Kind of, yeah! It was really like, when I reread it in advance of the panel, I just was reminded how just stark, but also kind of moving the whole thing was.

People also have been bringing up the Amanda Knox piece. And obviously that piece grew out of a tweet thread, so it's written in a way that's a little bit, I think, more pointed as a result, since it was initially intended to be 280 characters at a time. But I think it does work as a standalone essay of who gets to tell a story about a person. Especially someone who has been in the public eye as long as Amanda has, who has gone through wrongful conviction and who the media still -- too many in the media and outside circles still look askance at her, like she had something to do with this, but she did not. And this will unfortunately be part of her life's work.

Now Amanda is also well situated to contend with it. I don't know about handling it, but contending, because she is now a public figure, not just as an exoneree, but also as a podcaster and a media person who is also trying to interrogate what's going on in the genre.


Yeah, I think she's found really effective ways of taking what she can use from the experience and leaving the rest, which under the circumstances is really quite extraordinary.

It's extraordinary. And I don't know how many other people could do it. And in a way it's kind of like using her, you know, pretty white woman privilege for good.


Which she has said on the record. I'd said in my review that that was such a, like, if I thought about it too much, that Möbius would just give me a migraine -- that the essay was like, "Here is this narrative in which I object to my life being…a narrative." But this is how you have to do it. Like, hold up two mirrors at exactly that right angle so that people are like, "Ohhh." Because that's the thing that will remind people every now and then, this isn't made up. This is true.

Which is also why it's been interesting to see another strategy she's been employing on social media where she'll just post almost gallows-humor tweets. And especially if it's about people who've been wrongfully convicted or people who've been in situations of --  I think there was one which really went viral where someone was talking about Italian vacations and she just commented something [laughs]…


I have seen and liked those tweets many times. I just love -- it's very dark.

Humor is also part -- like, we can't totally throw out the humor in the genre.


Also the word "gallows" is right in there. Let's just all be where we are.



Anything else unexpected in the conversations that you've been having about the book? I feel like nothing would surprise me in terms of people's or interviewers' reactions to certain pieces. May Jeong's in particular, I sort of sat with it and was like, "It will take me six hours to sort of flip this tapestry over and explain to myself why it works. So I'm just gonna have to ellipsis it and go on to the next thing. I have other jobs." But it was extraordinarily effective. And the piece about corporate crime --

Oh, Mike Hobbes's piece, yes.


That is the one that I've really been thinking about a lot in the last few days.

It's hard not to think about it, especially as a certain former president is probably facing indictment number three as we speak. And there may be more. And I think that is really more emblematic, less of the political stuff and more of, white-collar crime never gets punished in the way that if you're black and brown and poor, you are really going to get punished. It's almost like that is overkill, and with white collar folks, it's more under-kill.

That was a piece that actually I decided to include pretty late in the process. I mean, it only took about two months from start to finish to put Evidence together. I think I started April of 2022, and by early July of last year I had all the permissions that I wanted. But that was a conversation with my editor at Ecco -- who's now Sara Birmingham -- most of the pieces I picked and she signed off on. But I think there were just a couple of instances of, wouldn't it be great to have this topic, and what about something about white-collar? And I think all but one of those, the pieces in the anthology are from March 2020 on; [Hobbes's is] the only one that's from right before. But I reread it, 'cause I'd read it at the time and I just was struck at how relevant it was again -- and I think will continue to be so.


And I thought it was a little more, and I don't mean this in a bad way because I am, myself, very bloggy, but it was a little more…not even bloggy, but sort of first-person – like it was a monologue, just transcribed. Like a John Oliver monologue.

If you hear Michael Hobbes on his podcasts – first it was You're Wrong About, then he left, he's now on Maintenance Phase and now If Books Could Kill, which is the one I listen to pretty religiously just to hear him and Peter Shamshiri completely take down these terrible ideas books from the eighties. I mean, every episode has been a banger, but the one I keep coming back to is the Malcolm Gladwell one.


Actually this was my next question -- about process, so thank you for escorting us over there. Can you talk a little bit about the editing process or the sort of collation process, and also how it might have worked differently this time from Unspeakable Acts, if it worked differently?

I think I knew better what pieces I wanted to include. And so from the time Unspeakable Acts was published to preparing Evidence of Things Seen for publication, I had this running list of pieces, and that list pretty much verbatim is in the back of the book. And I would also tally, like, which podcasts and which documentary films and streaming and books and the like. So I wanted to have that back matter almost first, because then I had this long list that I could generate. So from that bigger list, I think I had about 20, because it happened with Unspeakable Acts where I would request permission for pieces; it happened, I think, in one significant case where the writer's agent, uh, said no. And I think in that instance it's because it made up a significant portion of a book that is still not published yet

You know, I get it, it's fine. I was dealing with that same agent for a different piece this time and there was no issue. Everybody feels different about being anthologized at whatever stage they're at in a book process. So, April-ish of 2022 is when I start really diving into that big list and finalizing my choices. I knew that I wanted a piece on mass shootings, that was May Jeong's piece. I think I read it and I knew immediately, I wanna anthologize this. I knew that with Justine van der Leun's piece on women who killed their intimate partners and how they're disproportionately punished.


Oh, that's so good.

What I later learned is that that is going to be part of the book she's working on. She's actually gonna be published by my publisher, but a different editor. Justine also, she wrote a book called We Are Not Such Things a few years ago that was kind of, she inserted herself in the narrative and she was reporting out a story -- and then she did this podcast Believe Her, which is also excellent. So the work she's doing is pretty amazing.

And then there was another piece I knew right away I wanted to reprint: Wesley Lowery's piece on the lynching in the eighties. It just addressed a lot of the racial justice portion. He's a great writer and a really great reporter. And he's just doing work that needs to be done in this space. And also I thought of his comments in a piece I did not reprint, but I think also was clearly hanging over the anthology, which is Elon Green's "The Pernicious Whiteness of True Crime." So, reprinting that would've felt a little obvious; I did reference it, in my editor's note, and he was reporting out, like, why true crime is so damn white -- and I think Wes had a comment in it of, well, it never felt like true crime had a place for black people and that it wasn't really reflecting our experience, and it's like, not wrong.


Yeah. I -- not frequently, but I have gotten enough requests like, "Why don't you, during Black History Month or Women's History Month or whatever, Pride, why don't you highlight appropriate or genre-appropriate work." And I'm like, I think that's gross for me to do, particularly in Black History Month...but then the next question is, "Why don't you highlight writers of color?" And it's like, I try to --

There aren't that many.


It's like, "Oh, here's Bryan Stevenson, there's Marcia Chatelain. Oh, that's sold out. Here's James Baldwin; that's sold out again." I'm trying! I'm trying.

One of my favorites is Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso by Kali Nicole Gross, which is a historical true crime book published by Oxford University Press. It's great because Hannah Mary Tabbs killed people and she was kind of not remorseful, and it's just like a well done, short book. And so I tell people, this hits all of your remarks if that's what you want. And she's a scholar, so she's obviously doing very different things just like Marcia is.


We had an AMA [on The Docket] and it was like, if you could get any true-crime writer to take over for you guys for a week, if you were on vacation, dead or alive, who would it be? And I was like, honorable mention to Marcia because her mind is like extremely nimble, but then the expression is extremely accessible. She must be a fucking brilliant teacher. And she's a brilliant writer and brilliant to talk to --

And also really fun!


Yeah, she's rad! But then our number-one choice was Elon [Green] because he would just do worst-stuff lists the whole week.



He actually sent in a question that was like, what's the worst true-crime book of all time? And I was like --

Where do you even get started?

I know. I mean, I actually didn't have to think about it that long.

Wait, who's your pick?


The worst written was, um, Dominic Gugliatto, Lawrencia Bembenek's boyfriend who helped her escape.

Oh God.


I literally threw it in a trashcan after six pages. 

Did he write it? Did somebody ghost it?


I don't remember. ["Per my 2013 review, a Kelly Moran 'helped' write it." - SDB] It's in a landfill somewhere, where it belongs. But the actual worst was For One Sweet Grape, which is the rapist-murderer's memoir published by Playboy Press that --

Oh, I heard about this. I, I can't -- I mean, I have a whole thing about giving --


Naked ladies on the cover! And then his accounts of his crimes where he is taking responsibility, quote unquote, it's just like --

Well, this was a whole thing in the seventies. Right? Like Edna Buchanan's first book [1979's Carr, Five Years of Rape and Murder: from the personal account of Robert Frederick Carr III], which I hope will never be reprinted. And I don't think she ever wanted to, I mean, she's still around, but I don't think she's ever wanted that. But she spent hundreds of hours with this guy in this idea, you know, "the family members of the victims deserve to know the whole truth." And I'm like, do they, though? Is that what they want? Did you ask them?


Yeah. Because a lot of times the "truth" is that these guys are --

Getting off on it!


-- jerking it in the cell, thinking about these women that they've raped and killed and terrorized. 

Which I think also brings me to the case that everybody's asking me about this week and last week is Gilgo Beach.



And I refuse to say his name; I'm calling him The Orange Guy, because one of the anecdotes is --


The anecdotes are so --

They're wild. And it's lending it this weird, absurdist tone. I don't think I like it, but I also don't know what to make of it.


I think I said this in the comments somewhere on Best Evidence, that this case is the apotheosis of how true crime is both horrifying and sometimes really frumpily silly at the same time. And if you look at his internet searches, which are like, "why can't the cops find me"? You're just like, oh my God.

But then you look at his porn searches and they're horrifying! Like, just full of pedophilia! I mean, obviously there's a lot more than --


And the neighbors --

Who is the one that said, "Oh, there must be bodies buried"? And I'm sure there were conversations about, is it bringing down property values for everybody?


Yeah. And people pointedly, like, going over over the property line with the weed-whacker?

That was making me wonder if that was also something he enjoyed. It's like, "I'm never gonna fix up my house because I'm going to, you know, stick it to my neighbors. Which, considering what a rigid personality we're finding out that he was and how incredibly compartmentalized, it's very --


Yeah. And the wife, I mean, that whole situation...

Ohhh, and I mean, that wasn't even his first wife. So I will be very curious --


Where is his first wife?

All I know is her name and I know that there was --



-- an early divorce, as far as I know she's alive. The Times has since done a story about the family, which I still am not sure -- I get why? Because if the second wife's DNA was found on evidence --


Yeah, then she's a person of interest.

She's a person of interest, and even though the cops seem to feel that she had no involvement, probably 'cause she didn't, because she seems, he seems to only have allegedly struck while she was out of town. Which also kind of tracks. Yeah. But I get why she had to be named; I'm still not sure why the daughter, we need to know her name. I know her name because I can look up in databases, but I'm not going out there publishing this information. The New York Post did that within like two hours of his arrest!


Of course the Post did it.

Well, they owned it. It was like, yes, you own a story, but it's so -- the relentless tabloid churn was kind of alarming.

Rex Heuermann's yearbook photo

And when you want to, like, be hashtag first, sometimes people are not stopping to think, is this information that has value, versus harm.

Right. Or how about these are actual people who as far as you know, have no direct involvement in the crime and why are you ruining their lives? Which is also why it's interesting to pay attention to Kerri Rawson's Twitter feed. She is of course the daughter of Dennis Rader -- BTK. It seems like there are some personality similarities between BTK and this guy, so she I think has understandable insight into it, but also just that family members of perpetrators deserve our empathy too.

And anybody who says, you didn't know, how could you not know? It's like, no, that's by design! They set up their whole lives so that they have like double and triple lives, and they get off on that. So, of course!


Yeah. And this is part of coercive control, this control of information flow -- so, totally makes sense.

Stay tuned for Part 2, when we talk about Robert Kolker, detectives' tunnel vision, cold-calling sources, and what Weinman's reading now.

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