"You can't see the totality of a person": more from a conversation with Sarah Weinman

I spoke with Sarah Weinman a couple weeks ago about her latest anthology, Evidence of Things Seen; updates in the LISK/Gilgo Beach case; travels in Kansas; and what she's reading. Catch up with the first part of our conversation, or dive in here, where we're wondering about Robert Kolker's next move. 

Sarah Weinman: And since we're still very much at the beginning of what's going on here, we know that [alleged killer Rex Heuermann] was arrested and charged with three of the murders. And probably the only reason they didn't charge him with the death of Maureen Brainard-Barnes is they were worried that he was gonna strike again. He was buying a burner phone. And they had him on camera; they arrest him in Manhattan, not at home. So they either figured he was gonna flee or do something.

 Brainard-Barnes, L, with her sister Maureen Cann


Sarah D. Bunting: Right.

So hopefully they will or they'll have enough on Amber Costello, Megan Waterman, and Melissa Barthelemy to at least proceed. But that doesn't necessarily help all the other potential victims. Those were very -- I think a lot of about the probable Asian trans woman, in part because she is consistently misgendered. And that leads to another large issue with true-crime reporting and investigating, which is if you either identify as trans or you know, you've gone through the gender affirmative surgeries and you die -- as unfortunately trans people tend to die, at a much higher rate than other groups. And then your body isn't discovered for however long and then when it is discovered Right. They're going by biological characteristics, not who you actually are. Right. So what are you missing out? 'Cause you can't see the totality of a person. 'Cause they're just bones.

So these are questions I think about maybe too much, but it's hard not to because I want to know, who was this person? Like if you had bodies of nine women in a given space -- and a toddler. And then you have someone who's identified as an Asian male. So just take a step back and think about this a little bit? Especially when the description is dressed in women's clothing, it's like, hmm, let's do some deduction here! Maybe this is a trans person. Or someone who is identifying as trans -- you know, so why not make that leap? Or at least be like "probable" if you have to hedge it. But don't call this person a guy because probably they weren't. And also consistently, why would there be one person who's identifying as male among a group of women? Just look at the bigger picture.


Yeah. And look at, you know, proportions of trans people in sex work, and dangers to trans people in sex work, and traps set for trans people in sex work...like, you work in law enforcement, aren't you supposed to know these trends? But they don't always, it's "weird."

Right. And at least, at least in this case, one of the searches that this guy did was about, like, "Asian twink" something -- and I was like, why now? Especially since he's clearly going back and reliving his crimes. So I hope that some of these other victims can be identified. I hope that their family members can -- I never say they can find closure. I don't believe in that.


No; there is none.

But I hope that they at least get some tangible answers that can alleviate some of their suffering, but it can never alleviate all of it.


Yeah. I mean, part of the trauma I think is the not knowing, and I don't think knowing is easier, but it's a different kind of hard that's a little more manageable through therapeutic means, sometimes. 

So it's like, if you don't know, you can't grieve. If you do know, you can grieve, it doesn't make it less awful --


You're still grieving. It's just like, you can start the process.

Right. So if it's in suspended animation for years or decades -- I physically cannot imagine what that does to a person. But it does a lot of bad things.


Yeah. And especially, I don't know, realizing what really did happen and having to think about the last terrified moments of your loved one's life -- that's not pleasant, but you've probably been imagining that for decades anyway.

I sold the only copy of [Robert Kolker's book] Lost Girls that I had on hand to a regular who had somehow not read it. Oh wow. And before it went out, like, it was pristine, but I carefully reread the last bits, and it holds up. Like, he did it perfectly so that it was like, this story isn't about having an ending. The story is about these stories.

I'll be really curious. I haven't talked to Bob that much. I texted him when the story --


Yeah, what a weird place for him to be right now.

[laughs] I mean, I think I just sent him, I actually heard about it from Elon [Green]. He sent over the news story and I was like, what? And I just said, I wanna hear from Bob. So he I think texted Bob and just said, "Good morning! What's going on?" And Bob's like, ha. And I said, "This news." He's like, yeah, it's, it's been a little nuts. And he was working on the piece that the Times later published, which was excellent, about just remembering the women.


It was so good. So yeah, I've got to track down Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills, who did that series --

Oh yeah!


-- and I have their emails somewhere...

I might actually have Josh Zeman's email somewhere.


I always thought he doesn't get enough credit, period. They don't get enough credit.

No. I mean I actually had a meeting with him once. All I wanted to talk about was Cropsey.

 Killer Legends


Oh my God, it's so good. And Killer Legends, which got the dumbest goddamn name. I'm like, "I'm not watching that" -- and then I realized who it was from and I was like, "How have I not watched this 50 times?" And it was really a cool idea. They should have made it a series. I did interview them about [the LISK] series and how they sort of felt that it got...A&E'd, but --

-- but what are you gonna do? It is A&E.


Yeah. I think they're mostly happy with it, but I don't think anybody has necessarily, that I've read, reached out to them about that.

I'll be interested to see what -- how Bob revisits it; he might not have to in book form, but I feel like it needs more than another afterword?


Mm, yeah.

But maybe it doesn't need a whole other sequel. But at the same time, I don't know if I want anybody else working on this story, other than Bob.


I don't think I do either. But also let's, and I was thinking this off of something that you said earlier about a completely different topic, but -- having read a bunch of monographs recently, basically it's like, there's kind of no way to package or market it that's not gonna be too cutesy. But I feel like, pocket books or monographs with a nice cover on it, like a nice heavy card stock, that could be an answer. Because I've been reading a lot of those that they used to do in the previous century all the time.

Like this is what they should have just made John McPhee do most of the time, when he's like, "So about long distance hauling trains," and they were like, buddy, noooobody cares.



Although his one on the Pine Barrens, they did make him turn it into a book and then it is just, like, this doorstop. 

Unlike Janet Malcolm, who just pretty much straight transcribed her articles in books.


Yeah, perfect!

Exactly -- like, they didn't need to be any longer. You don't want The Journalist and the Murderer to be a 600-page doorstop.


I don't understand why Vanity Fair books don't do this; definitely go through it again and update with anything that you know now, but...the only one I can think of that wasn't a complete padded disappointment, and even that did have a little padding, was My Friend Anna --

Ohhh, right!


-- after the Anna Delvey thing, that I thought [Rachel DeLoache Williams] -- I mean, Vanity Fair was basically trying to its money back after this con, which is fine, but it was quite well done, it was structured well, there was some stuff that wasn't in the original article, but so many times Vanity Fair is like, well, we need to get to whatever folio, like, after 300 pages. And it's like, do you? Elon's like, I did this, here's my footnotes, bye. 175 pages. Thank you.

[laughs] Well, I think his new book is gonna be a little bit longer than Last Call was. Right. But, you know, speaking of true crime that really does it right, it's not just the book, but the doc, that to me feels like a model and anybody else who isn't doing that kind of work and care should just be laughed out of the room. Like, I don't wanna see true-crime media that isn't like Last Call! Because it's putting the victims first, it's looking at the larger picture, it's showing how the LGBTQ community was completely shafted and ignored and overlooked. And yet again is, especially with respect to trans people. So we keep repeating the same old shit. And this is showing what happened and why.

I mean, I know it's been cited in reviews, but that scene where the, the director asked the cop, is there anything else that I haven't asked you about? And he's, what's up with the gay thing?


Yeah. "Why does it always have to be about gay stuff?"

You know, just, it just lingers as everybody gets uncomfortable. That's great.


Truly. That they still, like, they were quoted in the book, they know what this project is and they seem completely resistant to reflecting on the way that they speak about --

I don't think they're capable, because -- the whole idea of doing detective work is you have this tunnel vision of working on a case. And then you have to move to another case and another case and another case. So I don't think there's any real time to do that kind of reflection. And then they're done with their shift and they either do another shift or they go home and start all over again. So no wonder, I think, you get a kind of tunnel vision or a sense of, well, we, we pursued the leads.

It's like, no, you didn't actually take the deep time to think through some outside-the-box stuff because cops aren't writers -- cops aren't filmmakers, cops aren't journalists. So, you know, one of the advantages I have as a full-time writer is that I can just spend a lot of time thinking -- but how is a detective gonna do that? You know, if they daydream for two hours, then they're not working. So that doesn't necessarily mean I have extra sympathy. I just think I understand how tunnel vision can go.


No, I'm really more talking about like in a talking-head interview when you are a retired detective who worked on this case, that it's like, you must have like kids or grandkids who are like, "Poppy, you can't call people 'flamers' anymore." So they'll get that far? Like they'll, they'll use inclusive terms?

But they won't really understand what you mean.

 detectives in the Last Call docuseries


Yeah. It's sort of floating on top of their brains a little bit. And when this guy, like, he sincerely was like, "I just don't understand why everybody has to focus on the gay angle." And it's like, because --

Because that was the case! It's like, yes, a number of gay men are being killed and they're last seen at a gay bar. Maybe understanding the culture that they were part of would help you solve the case. But this, you know, it didn't just happen in New York, it happened in Toronto with that serial killer --


Sure. Boystown. Yeah. Yeah.

It's happened anywhere that there have been LGBTQ people murdered, or gay-bashed, or whatever, if you have cops who just don't understand these communities -- but it's not just the LGBTQ community, it's any marginalized community that if they don't understand the forces that create these communities and at least try to do a good-faith effort. If they can't, then other people should be.


Yeah. Or get a community lease liaison or, I don't know, go on Web Sleuths. ...How has it been alternating between anthologies and, like, single-player projects? 

I Iove the idea of a non-fiction book that I wrote is a single player project. [laughs] Which means an anthology is, what, a multiplayer? Wow. I have to ponder this. I mean, I love writing and I love researching and I love reporting, and so I'm always gonna be doing that. And as a result it's just, you know, these are rich books that I try to work on and just deal with -- you know, this is a hundred percent mine, as much as any book can be. I have a fact checker and an editor and --


Well, yes. Any book is --

It's always a collaborative effort no matter what.


Sure. But especially in this genre, I'm wondering if like, sort of spreading out the lift a little bit is a relief, or just a different stance for you about think about things?

Yeah, I think the events that I did really highlighted how much I love editing anthologies. Because what a privilege it is to be able to seek out great pieces that I love, and have the means and opportunity to reprint them and pay some emerging writers, a little bit of cash.


And very nicely mentioned a certain newsletter which got its own whole page!

[laughs] I didn't know they were gonna set it as its own page.


I'm on vacation, I'm, like, leafing through; I made a sound. [My husband's] like, what happened? He assumed it was, like, a cat video that was especially good. I was like, oh no no no, much better. Check it out! "Right, uh h- oh, that's you!" It was so exciting. Thank you so much.

I mean, I said what I said! But your newsletter gives me a lot of information and delight. So why not share that with everybody? 


Well, thank you.

Which is the point, is that if a piece provoked a real emotional response, and I had the ability to reprint that, and kick in some cash. Especially, you know, younger writers who really maybe have never been anthologized before.

Like, I know with Unspeakable Acts, Elon had never been anthologized before and this was viewed as a really great thing in advance of Last Call's publication. And there were a number of other writers who I haven't mentioned, but --


We still refer to that Doodler piece.

Oh my god.


Like, weekly.

Well, you know, that's actually the story of how Elon and I became friends -- because that piece published and I'd actually looked into that case, but I just couldn't make any headway with it. And I'm always of the belief, if somebody writes a piece on a case that I have either, you know, tried to report out or whatever, I will always give it the time of day. And usually if it ends up being really good, I'm like, hell yeah. This is great.

So I remember tweeting about this. I'm just going, this is a great piece and I, you know, it's something that I was looking into but I couldn't do anything. But this is great. And then Elon emailed me and you know, for certain personal reasons, I'm little wary of him, but then I explained where I was coming from, and he had read my Real Lolita piece -- and then we were like, okay, we're friends now. Now we talk like every day!


He will be in our comment section, and sometimes I think other commenters think that it's just someone else who, like, picked [Elon Green] as their username --

Sometimes I comment too. I just forget. But it's, you know, it's a good robust comment section. That's what you want!


[Reader, don't ask how we got from that to Gary Glitter, but after that...]

I don't wanna get into the whole, "What do we do with the artist? He's terrible." It's like, do whatever you want! The art is out there. I still listen to Michael Jackson. I also think he's horrible person who clearly had horrible trauma in his childhood, which does not excuse an iota of his behavior.


Yeah. But both of those things can be true at once. And we're all adults here...

Apparently. Or maybe not?


But it doesn't have to be that binary. 

That reminds me of two things. One, to go back to the [anthology vs. solo-project question], I like, I really like it when someone else can report out pieces that I'm not able to. So I just had read, which had been published earlier in the month, this piece about arguably the longest incarcerated person in American history, Frank Smith. I had looked into that for a really really long time and even got the point of requesting documents from the Connecticut Department of Corrections. And he's 98 years old and in a nursing home; big Tucker Carlson fan; still angry, still believes he was railroaded; he may not be wrong. Somebody actually confessed to the robbery that he was imprisoned for and nearly executed.

And then Annalisa Quinn, who years ago I knew as a books and culture reporter...at NPR. I can't even remember why; somebody mentioned Smith in some context and I Googled and I read it, and I was like, this is exactly the piece I wanted to report! Right. And it was great! I was like, I didn't have to do it. Someone else like did the work! So I love when people do that.


Yeah, me too. And then I'm always like, so can you keep --

Doing more of this? Yeah, yeah. Totally.


Yeah, someone the other day was like, you know, it's really a shame that  Sarah Weinman can't just take over Best American Crime Writing*. I'm like, she basically did. She just doesn't have the IP. She's on it. Relax.

I appreciate that very much. But I also don't think I could do it as an end, because every anthology that I edit has to have some kind of underlying argument; to say just "here are the best pieces," that's not as interesting to me. It's like, I'm not interested in writing quote traditional true-crime narratives either. They have to have some other, deeper thematic question that I can do. Like with The Real Lolita, it was what is the relationship between a great work of art and real life trauma and pain. With Scoundrel, it was, who has afforded our belief and trust.

And with this new book, it's, I mean, I'm still kind of working out what the central thematic question is, but I think it's, why is it that as a culture we were so incapable of believing that a woman could be raped by her husband. And what, even though it's been criminalized, why is it that we're still kind of lagging behind in understanding that this is an actual crime that deserves attention and prosecution and care.


Well, that was my next question, which was: what's next? So what's your current timeline for that project?

The manuscript's not due until next fall. So that's fine. I have a lot of work to do. This is a project that, I have had to fly out to Salem, Oregon to cover a contemporary criminal trial, which I've never done before.


Oh, okay. How was that?



... What are you reading right now?

At the moment, I'm reading a lot of nonfiction for a prize that I'm judging, which I can't really say much more than that. Okay. And I'm also reading a lot of contemporary fiction for the New York Times column, which I also can't really talk about? [laughs]


Okay! Uh, what have you read in the last few months that you can talk about that --

Well, I've reviewed it, so, I mean, I will talk anybody's ear off about Genealogy of a Murder by Lisa Belkin.


Oh, yeah yeah yeah.

And just the way that she reconstructs this family history of the murderer, the victim, and the psychologist who she heard the about the case from. I mean, she wrote Show Me A Hero, so she knows what she's doing.

 Jack Dunphy and Truman Capote


... I'm in the middle of the Jack Dunphy memoir right now.

Oh, I still need to read that! It must be so --


It's such a weird -- he was such a good writer, but the structure is so weird. You just have to sort of give yourself up to this fictionalized part where there's like a priest who brings Capote home from a bar, and then it's interspersed with the, the actual writing. But whenever Dunphy is in the oral history, it's like, why weren't you a much more famous writer? I guess he just didn't think of himself that way, but he had such a way --

It's a question of who's ambitious and who isn't, and God knows Capote was insanely ambitious.

(Everything I've got in stock from Sarah Weinman is right here, and you can follow her on Bluesky -- and Exhibit B., too.)


The series' original editor, Otto Penzler, recently announced the formation of a true-crime publishing imprint.

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