The bottled-up pleasures, the ones we associate with shame. The enjoyments that don’t make sense. How we indulge, collectively, in terror as entertainment. The unpalatable, what we seem entranced by like pigeons swarming a piece of moldy toast, what we cannot quite admit to liking.
Mine: an obsession with true crime. Serial killers. Netflix grinding out content to feed this embarrassed monster, a genre swallowing us all: men (almost exclusively white) fucking shit up. Doing awful things. Committing the “unspeakable.” Or what I like to call “brutality-gazing.” Instead of eyeing our own selves we watch Ted Bundy wrangle excuses, watch him convince himself of his own innocence and brilliance. We watch Penn Badgley play the part of murderous stalker in You; we watch families and neighbors say, but how could he! about a “normal” neighbor’s pedophilia in Abducted in Plain Sight. We fixate and groan and shudder and sometimes laugh with disbelief. We can’t comprehend this avalanche of terror, how it seems to encase our society, how someone as human as us could impose such evil so nonchalantly.
We watch anyway. We ask for more.
How to reconcile these selves: the overzealous feminist and the girl who stays up into the edges of the night watching documentaries about monstrous men, whose victims are almost always women, these white men who get the titles of Charismatic and Charming rather than unequivocally awful.
I know better. Most of us know better, but we gaze on. Instead of prioritizing the violence terrorizing marginalized communities—women, queer people, immigrants—violence inflicted by yes, our government, by “normal people” every day, we shift our eyes to these men.
In Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty she writes, “Misogyny, when expressed or explored by men, remains a timeless classic.”
A cultural iconography is concocted: we amplify their violence and harvest entertainment from it. Male art fixated on the inferiority of women clogs up our artistic canons, sacrosanct; Charles Bukowski’s books include rape like it’s as everyday as the weather, which I suppose it is in this world, but he writes it with glee, aggression as a Bunsen burner to male self-comprehension.
In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, in which a forty-year-old Allen has a sexual “relationship” with a seventeen-year-old girl—AKA rape—the abuse of power only serves as the vehicle for Allen’s odyssey toward self-awareness. Or music blustering with women-spite, songs we—including women—scream hard at concerts and hum the words to in the shower. There is no shortage.
I sit in the dark and watch Ted Bundy work his “charisma.” His “intellect.” I don’t quite see it. The scaffolding around his unoriginality, unremarkableness, self-absorption, is his privilege.
Who gets to express the cruelty and perverse, self-serving darknesses inflicted upon women—who gets to make art about it without critics rolling their eyes, saying, in one manner or another, this story isn’t universal enough; it’s “gender issues” fodder, it’s too political and angry, trauma porn. Who wields immunity from generalization. Who gets to commit cruelty without all “people like them” becoming synonymous with cruelty, their violence individualized rather than collectivized.
Brutality is a sport only white men get to play—without society damning them all. If gender is performative, there must too be performative whiteness, and these men—Bundy the prime example—seem the compendium of performances dancing hand in hand, not quite self-aware enough to seem secure in their own movements. When I fixate on their cruelty, even in the gruesomeness, I know it: they’re full of shit. There is no question: privilege may not be the only perpetrator of brutality but it is the skin it sleeps in. Maybe in a cell, but still, sleeping.
I feel drained of blood, veins filled with lighter fluid. Every step, every movement in womanhood highly flammable. Anger pushes through me and hangs in my stomach. I impose salves upon my fury, powder myself in self-control, in writing rather than screaming, rub politeness deep into every cell, try to appease the achy dark I have no other name for. It never quite works.
This landscape of unfettered cruelty, then, might in a way be a coping mechanism, a balm for that dark I cannot release, because girls aren’t supposed to. Simplified, anyone who is not a white man is not supposed to. A co-opting of anger. Still:
I buy into it.
I know the freeze frame that composes fear.
five years old, in the hospital cafeteria, my mom in contractions upstairs, about to birth my brother, my dad and I in line, a wobbly cheesecake on my plate, a man behind me, a growl low and wet, a knife in his open bag, voice like peeling a callus from your palm, get her away from me or else I’m gonna hurt her.
the press of him (always a him; interchangeable) against my backside, standing in the subway, dug into me like a fishhook, and all that empty room he could take up instead, me, a gutted fish, me, a fog of resignation. Afterwards, the violence lunging up my body, wanting to project and throw the marks I’ve tallied up in my bones, wanting to pretend I haven’t lost count.
I know the way their eyes slime across my bare flesh, how their voices scrape my brain walking around a city. I know what it is to pause, to say nothing, to freeze.
The worst, that terror-scrubbed, gigantic, tentacled worst, the worst that can be done to people, to women, it lingers in me always. I watch so that maybe the worst won’t be the worst anymore, so that I can introduce all tangles of violence into my normality, so that I will know rather than stay shaken, head turning in the dark.
Violence is usually narrativized by men. The rope that lassoes male-inflicted horror into story is mainly wielded by men. Maybe that should bother me, maybe that should nudge me into hey, these people aren’t stories, they’re murderers, but it doesn’t stop me from watching. Transfixed.
What these women, the victims of these crimes, must’ve felt, what these men havocked upon them, how they broke into their lives, it stays unimaginable. Still, brutality swells in the bloodstream of womanhood always. Not defining it; but the potential for the worst-worst sticks to us like bubble wrap, latent in every aggression.
When I watch these men, I’m not playing the victim anymore. They are locked up or dead, they remain trapped in digitalization, distance exists between us. Sometimes the fear of trauma too pulpy and seething to hold forces me to take up residency as observer rather than the observed. Just for an hour, an episode. They are caged, there, and made summarizable.
I manage the thought of death by accelerating its presence. Intensifying it to top volume.
In Paris, I visited a tiny museum in a police station. Separated and discrete, you climb the stairs to get inside, you choose to go up and look around. You make an effort. This museum: relics of terror. Of violence: guillotines, torture devices, blood-browned blades, photographs of murder scenes, glass cases crammed with murder weapons, guns and rocks and knives and mirrors, anything heavy or sharp enough.
I must contort the terrifying into the tangible, graspable, containable. A species I can watch graze its blood-soggy grass in front of me, separated by glass. It can’t touch me.
To carry around the brutal. What I seek in this brutality-gazing looks something like get it out of me and off of me. I want to never hurt anyone like this and I want to purge myself of the ways I’ve already been hurt, violated by the everyday traumas of girlhood. I watch horror movies for the same reason, to fictionalize the unspeakable, to give it a monster face and a house to occupy. I say, become a ghost rather than this quarry of emptiness in me;find shape in exaggerated monstrosities rather than in the snarls squeezing my head.
I want to be afraid of something rather than everything.
If I can predispose myself to the Worst-Worst, I can prepare myself for its onslaught. If I can view men that terrorize women, I cannot be surprised if that terror comes looking for me.
Reading Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power unfolded a secret. There are other ways of looking at violence. At girl-pain. Like the women in the book: I wish I had a skein etched into my collarbone, a lick of electricity I could control through my fingertips every time men take what they have not not asked for.
Alderman writes: “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”
In watching I make these men small. Their crimes never cease to horrify but at the same time, it’s the same-old, same-old, repeated, sensationalized. Why do we focus so narrowly on these heinous white men rather than giving a shit about the people dying every day, the kids shot in their schools—or, the women stalked, abused, assaulted, and murdered by their husbands, brothers, boyfriends, bosses? We somehow don’t connect the dots because these stories are more interesting than everyday misogyny. In watching I take the wealth back.
When people ask me about my tru- crime fascination, its blank-facedness, I fight the urge to laugh: none of this is that new to me. Brutality at the hands of certain privilege is nothing new.
In Anne Elizabeth Moore’s book Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes, she writes: “What I offer for your consideration is this: that perhaps what scares men most—as evidenced by the fears we are given to consume as entertainment in the horror genre— may often be things that women have just learned to work through.”
There lives a fundamental cruelty in brutality-gazing: we forget that there are victims. Mystique is for the brutalizers, their “wealth” of hurt eclipsing those they brutalized in the first place.
At twenty, Kathy Kleiner survived Bundy coming into her dorm in the dark of night, after sexually assaulting and killing other young women, hitting her hard enough to break her jaw in three places, making her pass out. Of the Bundy obsession she says, “I think it’s good for people to read books about Bundy. I really do. They need to know that there’s evil out there, but they can control it.”
Carol DaRonch, also a survivor, said in 1989, “I’ve decided to try and block it from my memory. You can’t live in fear forever.” These women transcend their trauma and still, acknowledge it; trauma borne in public is knotty and vicious, watched, dissected, made a feast for those who don’t have to actually touch its rotting teeth. The survivors of brutality like this should get their own articulations, if they choose them, their experiences not merely antioxidants for our entertainment.
What I’ve come to grasp is that gazing at the brutal is not necessarily subversive, even if you are a woman, even if you are queer, even if you consist of an identity often brutalized—but perhaps it needn’t be. Sometimes I watch hell ripple for the sake of calming myself the fuck down, for knowing that hell ripples and knowing it may especially ripple for me. There is something in so explicitly naming the beast, even giving it such a narcissistic voice: at least we’re acknowledging it at all. These documentaries and reenactments almost reassure me that I am not imagining the weaponized masculinity entrenched in our every institution, our everyday lives. This brutality-gazing suggests that there is a brutality at all to those who’d rather not see it in themselves.
They distance themselves from these “monsters” when monsters actually live in your bed, your house, your heart. Some monsters sleep next to us and touch us tenderly sometimes. Some monsters we think we know and love. We disconnect them from the monstrous men we watch onscreen, tell ourselves they’re different.
They are and they aren’t. It’s a spiked tightrope, the walk of distinguishing the monsters from the men. I can’t pretend it’s not, and when I watch interviews with killers, when I watch the stories of the egregious, of the “charming” and “unexpected” men doing terrible things, I realize I’m right.
By Sofia Sears