I sat on the couch under a white knitted blanket, my swollen hand propped up on the armrest with ice packs keeping the pain at bay. My husband, Eric, was holding the remote and clicking through the TV guide trying to find something that we both wanted to watch. We were on round four of binging Friends from beginning to end, and while he had been a trooper, he was kindly pleading with me to watch something else, anything else.
But anything else felt risky. Friends was familiar. I had already seen every episode. I didn’t have to worry about surprises. There wouldn’t be sudden loud noises piercing through the TV speakers. I didn’t have to feel nervous when I pressed play. And I was nervous. It had been six months since a gunman had walked into the college I worked at and, out of misplaced anger and frustration at the world, pointed a gun at me and pulled the trigger.
I was battling scenes of horror and darkness inside my own mind, replaying what had happened to me over and over again. So on TV? I wanted happy, easy, carefree. I wanted something that could remind me that the whole world wasn’t terrifying all the time. In that moment, the idea of changing the channel instilled in me a sense of panic. I just wanted to feel comfort, and watching Ross and Rachel argue about being on a break for the fifth time had been doing it so far. But even I had to admit that it was getting old. So when Eric asked if we could watch something else, I said, “Sure” — and tried to make it sound more convincing than it felt.
I watched him as he landed on Dateline and looked over to get my approval. “We used to watch this all the time, remember? Every Friday night.” I nodded and thought back to all of the Friday nights in my college apartment when we would make taco salad and sit on the couch to watch the newest episode. But that was before I had two bullet holes in my hand.
He noticed my hesitation. “If it’s too much, we can change the channel,” he said. I said it was OK, and he pressed the button on the remote that took us to the Investigation Discovery channel. It was 2013, before podcasts like Serial and documentaries like Making a Murderer had taken over the cultural imagination. NBC’s Dateline and ABC’s 20/20 were the kings of the true crime world, and you could find them 24 hours a day on Investigation Discovery.
Dateline started and we watched from the couch as the familiar formula played out. Crime, investigation, justice, overcoming. I felt my body tense up and instinctively I pulled my shoulders closer to my ears. This was a bad idea, I thought to myself. I thought of all the triggers that were about to be thrown at me. It felt like I was walking through a field of land mines, holding my breath as I bypassed each one. As the minutes ticked by, slowly, I began to breathe again. And then it hit me: I was experiencing the show in a different way.
Someone had been shot. I had been shot too.
People were talking to detectives. I had spoken with detectives too.
The victim was on the news. I had been on the news too.
The victim was afraid of everything. I was afraid too.
Victims were giving their impact statements to the court. I’d have to do that too.
The victim felt alone. I felt alone too.
I sat up straighter and leaned forward to concentrate, the way you do when you’re driving and you’re lost and you inexplicably turn down the music to see better. The noise I felt all around me was fading, and somehow I was seeing more clearly. I didn’t feel anxious anymore. The show wasn’t scaring me; it was comforting me. The show wasn’t triggering me; it was calming me. I wasn’t just watching someone else’s story; I was watching my own. They were different, of course, but they also were the same.
At the end of the show, the perpetrator was found guilty and the judge sentenced him to the maximum punishment. The victim recovered, and they showed her with her family, doing things she loved, living a normal life. It was, for lack of a better term, the perfect ending. And it was real. It made me think that maybe I could have a good ending too.
I didn’t know anyone else who had been the victim of a violent crime, much less a school shooting. My late night Google searches for “shooting survivors support group near me” always turned up empty. None of my friends knew what it was like to have a gun pointed at your face or to hide in a closet with blood pouring from your wounds, wondering if you would survive until help came. The harder I tried to find people in my life who could understand me, the more alone I felt. A man had used a gun to build a wall that separated me from everyone else, and it was up to me to figure out how to break it down.
It became clear to me that while the round-the-clock viewing of feel-good shows like Friends and Parks and Recreation offered temporary relief, helping me relax enough to fall asleep, they also reminded me of a time and a life that didn’t feel like my own anymore. Everything about them felt so far away from me and my experience. I didn’t have a pretty bow tied up around my troubles at the end of each episode like they did. My problems were going to take longer than 23 minutes to fix. True crime shows, though — by the very name of their genre — were real. Often sensationalized, sure, but at their root was reality: real people and real pain, just like my own.
So I became a little obsessed. And it was easy to do. With the Investigation Discovery channel at my fingertips, I could watch true crime 24 hours a day if I wanted to. On top of that, every Sunday the Oxygen channel ran a marathon of their signature crime show Snapped.
My family and close friends were concerned about my level of obsession and were afraid I wasn’t healing. After all, who wants to sit around and watch depressing shows about murder and crime all day? They just don’t get it, I would remind myself.
Then in 2014, Serial started a boom of true crime podcasts. Shows like In the Dark, Accused, Criminal, Crime Writers On, Dirty John and Bear Brook accompanied me as I cooked, bought groceries, drove around town, walked the dog or did tasks around the house. The true crime boom extended to TV and streaming documentaries too: Making a Murderer, The Keepers, The Jinx, Mommy Dead and Dearest, Amanda Knox, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, Wild Wild Country, Evil Genius, Abducted in Plain Sight, The Confession Tapes … the list goes on.
I welcomed the popularization, and therefore normalization, of the true crime genre for multiple reasons. First, I was no longer the weird one for watching “murder shows” all of the time. Second, as I chatted with friends about the popular documentaries and podcasts, the discussions often presented opportunities for me to share bits and pieces of my own experience that I hadn’t felt comfortable or welcome sharing before. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea,” they would say. And I felt more known. Third, I found an unexpected community of other victims of violent crime who also experienced a sort of mending of themselves through the true crime genre. After joining an online fan group for a popular podcast, True Crime Obsessed, I found a thread where people were sharing their stories about the things that had happened to them, and about how listening to the podcast made them feel less alone, less different. It’s not just me, I thought.
Nearly six years later, I was sitting once again on our red living room couch, staring at the television. I was about to start another documentary, having recently been the subject of one myself. A reporter from the local news and her cameraman had come to our townhouse. The light they set up shone brightly in all directions. I felt like it might expose all of my deepest wounds for everyone to see. I spoke about what it was like to sit through the sentencing hearing of my shooter, awaiting a fitting punishment — and with it, some sense of justice. I talked about how I might begin to move on, or find a new sense of normal, whatever that meant.
I remembered how surreal it all felt in that moment. By that point, I’d seen so many interviews like this one. It was difficult to grasp that now, I would be the one people were watching. I had a lot of memories like this, where everything felt like I was standing on the outside, watching someone else’s life.
I came back to the present and quickly glanced at the baby monitor nearby to be sure that my 6-month-old was asleep in his crib, and then I pressed play. The documentary We Are Columbine, about one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States, began to play on the TV screen. I felt anxious about what I would see and nervous about the stories I would hear, and what emotions they would bring to the surface for me.
I wanted to watch it though. Part of me felt obligated to. I knew how hard it was to open up about my story and expose those wounds for others to see. If these survivors were opening up to share the details of their most painful moments, then I could honor them by bearing witness. I knew I could watch it in a way other people couldn’t. I could watch not for entertainment, but for solidarity.
The documentary went back and forth from interviews with survivors to scenes from 1999: students filing out of the school, hands above their heads and tears streaming down their faces. I listened to their stories of trauma and loss, as well as their stories of overcoming it. It was a form of therapy. Every face on the TV screen reminded me that there was a group of people out there in the world who felt the same things I did, and even though we would probably never meet in real life, somehow this genre could bring us together.
When I felt isolated, alone and forgotten, I could think of these people, the ones I hadn’t met. Someone out there knew how I felt, and sometimes that could be enough. I didn’t have to feel broken or dysfunctional when I couldn’t walk through the grocery store or down the sidewalk without fearing every strange man I saw. My fears were justified. This was normal, I reminded myself. I felt hopeful seeing survivors leading happy lives and having fun with their children, because that meant I could do that too. I felt less alone at the sight of survivors with physical injuries that hadn’t, and wouldn’t, heal. I was also living that life.
Before the shooting, watching true crime shows was a diversion. Afterward, it is no longer simply a genre to me. A true crime podcast playing through my earphones as I walk my dog isn’t just a way to pass the time; it’s a friend walking alongside me reminding me that I’m not alone. Watching a new episode of Dateline on Friday night isn’t just a way to be entertained for two hours each week; it’s an offering of solidarity from someone who is going through it all too. And some days, that’s all I need.