“I Know What I Want Is Impossible”: The Contemporary U.S. Murder Memoir and Protective Mechanisms in True Crime

Jess H. Anderson


A new form of life writing has emerged in the literary market within the last several years. Marketed as a higher-brow form of true crime memoir, these texts focus on the investigation of a murder. Running parallel to this investigation is an attempt by the author to interrogate their own trauma, usually from childhood. I call this genre the “murder memoir” in order to differentiate it from other forms of true crime memoir: for example, memoirs by serial killers’ acquaintances, such as Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me (1980), or memoirs of catching a killer, such as Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974). It is important to note from the outset that the murder memoir is not entirely a “new” form—isolated examples of the genre from previous decades include Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart (1994) and James Ellroy’s My Dark Places (1996). However, the popularity of the genre amongst publishers has increased in recent years, with the publication of murder memoirs markedly increasing in the 21st century. In this article, I investigate the sudden increase in popularity of the murder memoir within the context of the so-called “true crime renaissance.” I also show how the emergence of murder memoir demonstrates that contemporary true crime is more self-aware than ever, and is thus produced amid increasing anxiety about its own consumption and production. This results in the genre’s demonstration of a structural and narrative phenomenon that I call the “protective mechanism.” Whilst I contend that the protective mechanism is not a new feature of the true crime genre—indeed, I see it as a fundamental part of the structure of the genre itself—the introspective nature of the murder memoir throws the protective mechanism’s workings into sharp relief.


true crime; memoir

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