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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 55-80

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Living to Read True Crime:
Theorizations from Prison

Megan Sweeney

How much of this right here are you gonna take out there and pass along? [. . .] I mean, if you don't listen to what people are telling you, what are you fighting for?
—Rae, North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women

Women in prison read, in authorized and unauthorized ways. I've learned a great deal about prisoners' reading practices from speaking with a number of incarcerated women—in Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—about their practices of reading sensational paperback "true crime" books. In the words of Melissa, a twenty-seven year-old Native American woman incarcerated in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, some women in prison "live to read true crime." Employees in the North Carolina prison library estimate that 75 percent of library patrons come in search of true crime books. Because overuse and theft continue to diminish the library's true crime collection—which is replenished only through donations—true crime fans who can afford to do so order books directly from publishers, while fans of lesser means borrow books from others' personal collections.

In order to explore what it might mean for imprisoned women [End Page 55] to "live to read true crime," this essay draws on individual interviews and group discussions with seventeen women incarcerated in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. 1 Ranging in age from 22 to 47, ten of the interviewees are African American, four are white, two are Native American, and one identifies herself as white and Indian. Their criminal charges range from drug sales to first-degree murder, and their sentences vary from three years to life imprisonment. 2 Some of the women had only an eighth-grade education before coming to prison, while others had taken college-level courses; many have pursued further education in prison.

Imprisoned women's enthusiasm for true crime books invites further consideration given the genre's largely vilifying and racist nature, and its overwhelmingly white, middle-class female readership. Bearing titles such as Sins of the Mother and Cruel Sacrifice, true crime books usually take the form of a clearly-defined battle between noble law enforcement agents and an evil criminal protagonist, most often a male serial killer or an "All-American housewife" who kills her husband or children for purely selfish ends. The racial economy of the genre relies on a distinction between the exceptional, shocking criminal acts of its almost exclusively white protagonists, and the assumed, un-noteworthy criminality of black and brown people. The only African American men featured in true crime books include Wayne Williams—the man falsely accused of the Atlanta child murders, and O.J. Simpson and George Russell—two men whose successful immersion in white culture facilitated their alleged rape and murder of white women. African American women never appear as protagonists of true crime books. They occasionally surface in the most sensational collections of mini true crime stories, but only if they have served as accomplices to white criminals or if they are marked by a titillating quality such as lesbianism. Furthermore, true crime books frequently foreground the troubled childhoods and dysfunctional family backgrounds of the protagonists as evidence of their deep-seated pathology, while at the same time undermining such evidence as clichéd attempts to invoke "the abuse excuse" (Dershowitz 4).

Critics as Philip Jenkins, Edward J. Ingebretsen, Karen Haltunnen, Mary Jane DeMarr and Bryan Morgan Kopp have analyzed how true crime books divert attention from existing political and domestic arrangements by featuring aberrant criminals as the source of social ills, yet no existing study addresses how variously situated readers engage with true crime narratives. 3 I argue, in this [End Page 56] essay, that incarcerated women's practices of reading true crime books merit critical attention because they illuminate the crucial work that women perform with the scarce resources available for literary and intellectual life behind bars. The constant drone of the television now pervades what little common space exists in prisons, and...


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