Sold My Soul to True Crime

Ego, Ethics, and the Alleged Treachery of Authors

Maggie Dunlap, “MS VHS7 (selection from the True Crime series)”

It was down in Texas that I first heard about the Bandera County Killer. San Antonio’s outskirts contain the southern fringe of what local folk call Hill Country, where the roads weave between karst columns of limestone, desert dust kicks up in the throttle of a truck tire, and Medina Lake tapers off at fifteen percent from a drought that just won’t quit. There are wild boars and coyotes, and other critters that creep through the overgrowth of Spanish oak and mountain laurel. The air is balmy, the temperature pushing toward triple digits, leaving your skin sticky with sweat—and yet there’s always a breeze, whistling across the undulating landscape. It’s a temporal presence with just enough force, like the flick of a match, to set the cedar trees ablaze.

            In full disclosure, the killer’s name isn’t really the Bandera County Killer. His name isn’t anything at all. (I say “his” because statistically, when dead bodies start turning up, one can assume a man is involved.) I gave him this title myself, because I’ve found that the most infamous killers go by some sort of pseudonym—the Zodiac, the Unabomber, the BTK. Only the most renowned get to keep their given names—Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy. The rest require something snappier.

            What had brought me south in these unrelenting summer months was my girlfriend. More specifically her brother and sister-in-law, who had just finished work on their new home. They’d built the structure from the ground up, in a year’s time, on a parcel of land in a gated community dubbed Dancing Bear Ranch (bears are not native to Bandera, dancing or otherwise), and were now gathering us to share in their ingenuity. I had never built a birdhouse, let alone an actual house, so I was interested to see what could be done with one’s hands, besides leafing through books and writing sad little stories. I had learned not to be particularly self-conscious about this, as the family always welcomed me with open arms—arms open just wide enough to embrace someone with a Fine Arts degree and a habit of saying “Oy!” in response to bad news.

            I’m a curious specimen in Texas. I arrive with my Moshfegh novels and my predilection for single-origin coffee, and next thing I know I’m aiming a crossbow at a can of Michelob Ultra. I start saying “y’all,” and adopting a Southern twang usually reserved for bad Broadway plays. I start holding open doors, nodding politely, and laughing at jokes that belong in CBS sitcoms. I start to think—God forbid—that buying might be better than renting.

            It was on our second day at Dancing Bear that Megan, the sister-in-law, first mentioned a spate of recent murders rattling the region. She was driving us to a barbecue joint called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, AC cranked against punishing heat. Megan’s Tahoe is the size of my New York apartment, but she took the twists and turns of their development gracefully before accelerating onto FM 1283, the main drag into town. “We’ve got a serial killer running around,” she said in her typical chipper tone. The nonchalance with which she shared this took me by surprise. But then again, I wasn’t sure how one was meant to convey a fugitive on the loose.

            “A serial killer?” I asked, perking up. So far all we had talked about were property lines and supply chain issues.

            The specifics soon emerged. Two girls had gone missing in the past few months, both last seen near the Country Club Bar over in Lakehills. One had since been found dead; the other had simply vanished. What’s more, the victims were remarkably similar: both were young and petite, with dirty-blonde hair, hazel-brown eyes, and multiple tattoos. According to Megan, a third body had also been found, rolled up in a tarp on the side of the road. “So people are saying it’s a serial killer,” she shrugged, guiding us into a gravel parking lot. “They’re scared. Nothing like this ever happens down here.”

            I’d like to claim that my first thought upon hearing this was that it sounded awful. Young girls abducted after a night out at the local bar, their remains either absent or found strewn about the arid brush. But I think that I, perhaps like most people these days, approach anonymous death with a kind of regrettable abstraction. It’s terrible, but so are the melting ice caps, forced labor camps in Siberia, and whatever occurred during the Dark Ages. I am unfortunately the type of American who, constantly informed of intangible horrors, has become somewhat deadened to their implications. It helps if I envision someone I know affected, but I find it’s best not to do this, so as to get through the day. I’m left with sympathy, but not always empathy. It’s hard to fully feel what doesn’t concern me.

            But the fact of the matter was that this did concern me, or at least intrigue me. I couldn’t help but see an opportunity here. When it came to that Fine Arts degree and my sad little stories, murder was big business. Multiple murders was even bigger business. It certainly helped that the location was apt—rural Texas, the land of firearms and cowboy hats and Ted Cruz’s mealy jaw—with me as a fish out of water stumbling upon this unsolved case. Careers had been built on less. Come to think of it, Megan was young and petite, with dirty-blonde hair. I wasn’t sure about her eye color or tattoo situation, but one had to assume that the killer wasn’t always so discriminating. If she were to become the fourth victim, that development would solidify this as a bona fide hit. I of course didn’t want Megan to die. But, from a literary perspective, the plot was foolproof.

            I shared my musings with the climate-controlled Tahoe—now this was a goddamn story. Often I am asked what sorts of things I write about, and I never have the heart to admit the truth: mostly embarrassments from high school, or movies I’d loved as a preteen. But this was the sort of thing I could write about, and, perhaps most crucially, sell. Provided, of course, that Megan was willing to give her life for the sake of creative nonfiction. We all had a good laugh at my corrupted profession, then went off to enjoy some brisket and collard greens.

            It wasn’t until later, after guzzling a thirty-two ounce Dr. Pepper and inhaling my pulled pork sandwich (which, I can report without irony, delivered in a way that northern minced meat never has), that I began to feel a bit queasy about that initial impulse. At some point, something in me had changed. Maybe it wasn’t discernible to the naked eye, or even to those closest to me. but it had never been more apparent than in this example. Not long ago I would have arrived in Texas ready to square dance and bull ride; now I was envisioning a family member’s death for the sake of glorified clickbait. In this way I felt a little like a parasite, taking what was useful and disregarding the rest, calling it survival when really it stemmed from someplace more sinister. Perhaps it wasn’t such a big deal—not enough to constitute a moral reckoning. But it did feel like it had gotten worse in recent years, as I started writing less for myself and more for others, and possibly, one day, for a living. This was only natural, of course, and hopefully forgave some of the egotism inherent in personal narrative. But that inclination had been replaced by a subtler kind of selfishness. And this, in addition to the ethical repercussions, had to do something to a person. It had to color the lens through which you view the world. What happens when your identity as a writer starts to take precedence over your obligation as a human? If everything arrives as material, how do you know what’s off-limits?

            In a sense, I got lucky. Southern hospitality, plus a lack of the dorm room philosophizing that governed most of my daily interactions, made implementing this in practice a lot less fraught than considering it in theory. Months later, when I finally called Megan up to find out what was going on down there, I delivered a long speech about how I would never include anything she wasn’t comfortable with—how my girlfriend read everything I wrote, and it would never go beyond her eyes if she didn’t deem it respectable. I had spent the day hand-wringing over this dilemma, and so I was startled when Megan immediately waved me off. “Oh, I don’t care about all that,” she said. “You can write whatever you like. Hell, you can say I’m the murderer if you want!”

In Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman (a thinly-veiled proxy for Roth himself) pens a short story based on some recent familial drama—a dispute that ended with his aunt breaking a stranger’s hand with a hammer. Zuckerman promptly sends the story to his father, who is alarmed by how his family is portrayed, and, more significantly, how Judaism is portrayed. He sends it to a well-respected judge, in an effort to stop Zuckerman from publishing. (“With great talent come great responsibilities,” the judge patronizes before inquiring: “What in your character makes you associate so much of life’s ugliness with Jewish people?”) Zuckerman balks at the reply, but never once considers a retraction. “Literary history was in part the history of novelists infuriating fellow countrymen, family, and friends… but still, writers weren’t writers, I told myself, if they didn’t have the strength to face the insolubility of that conflict and go on.”

            Roth isn’t the best moral compass (crack Portnoy’s Complaint to any page and you’ll see what I mean), but Zuckerman’s lack of internal strife over this standoff is indicative of the way many authors view their vocation—a career that places more importance on literary output than on practical concerns, i.e. other people. “My duty as a writer is to make the best record of life as I understand it and that duty takes precedence for me over all these other considerations,” John Updike once said. Joan Didion put less euphemistically in her introduction to Slouching Toward Bethlehem: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” “I have held every human I’ve ever met upside down by their ankles and shaken every last detail that I can steal out of their pockets,” Lauren Groff tweeted in response to the Cat Person controversy of 2021. “All writers betray all of their characters,” says Alexander Chee in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “done to reveal the ways in which they are human.” And Janet Malcolm infamously states in her opening to The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Among readers, or among writers at least, there seems to be an understanding that if you let the wolf in, you’re going to get eaten—even if the wolf is a frail woman in bulbous sunglasses.

            But there’s a difference between mining one’s life and the lives of others for meaningful material and simply sniffing around for a scoop—the difference, say, between Gitta Sereny interviewing Franz Stangl to try and understand the atrocities of the Holocaust and TMZ trailing Ben Affleck to record his Dunkin’ Donuts route. It’s just that this difference isn’t always defined by a line, and it typically depends on who you ask. Stangl died of heart failure hours after Sereny completed her interviews. Affleck still seems to enjoy his iced coffees.

            I emailed an old professor to ask if he had an opinion on the matter, and to see if he might point me toward any helpful texts. He took the occasion to kill two birds with one stone: “I have no advice to give on the alleged treachery of authors,” he wrote back, besides referencing a short essay in one of his books. I bought the book and found the essay, where he had written: “Befriend only people too poor to hire lawyers to sue you.” I was glad to receive this wisdom, having thankfully steered clear of finance bros all my life.

            In any event, as Ernest Hemingway once said, the bill always comes. Countless times writers have found themselves at odds with their subjects (I’m speaking here about nonfiction, though the façade of fiction often does little to assuage angry targets), usually because the image we have of ourselves is vastly different than the one that ends up on the page. Recently, Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker investigation into the accusations of plagiarism against Iranian director Asghar Farhadi resulted in a terse statement by Farhadi’s legal team: “Ms. Aviv creates high melodrama around ordinary contractual matters and misleading anecdotes… [She] seems to have given in to the temptation of a sensational headline over objective journalism.” Some go even further, penning oppositional works in response to the purported slight: Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, about her survivalist/extremist childhood in rural Idaho, was met by her mother’s competing memoir, Educating, in which the latter attempts to reframe Westover’s arguably abusive and decidedly dangerous upbringing as one of freedom and independent thought. (“It may make my daughter mad,” the elder Westover coyly told the Herald Journal.) Many irked marks take their complaints to court, suing writers for libel; in one particularly brazen case, the journalist Richard Lloyd Parry was challenged by Joji Obara, who at the time was facing criminal charges for serial rape and murder (Parry was acquitted, and Obara later convicted). Even Malcolm, the patron saint of in-depth reportage, was brought to court by an embittered subject, all while reporting on another libel case herself. Malcolm vehemently denied any wrongdoing, and was ultimately found not at fault, though nevertheless felt the accusations left her “tainted—a kind of fallen woman of journalism.”

            For emerging writers, such conversations can appear premature. Better to wait until someone wants to read your work before worrying they might sue you for it. But the moral quandaries are still pertinent, so much so that it’s not unwise to start thinking about them before you’ve put time and energy into a project you later find ethically dubious. And it strikes me, in a Kantian kind of way, that intention may be of import. If I have a genuine experience that I feel compelled to express on the page, in the fairest and most magnanimous way possible, I might be more willing to weather the collateral damage. But if I sense an opportunity, one that piques my interest mostly for its potential marketability, I might not be able to consider myself the writer, and the person, that I do.

            A few months before our trip to Texas, I was reading in Central Park when I noticed people hurrying toward the reservoir. I followed their lead and came upon a middle-aged woman treading in the waves. Three police officers stood by, as well as a small crowd trying to coax her back to the shore. “Over here, Natalie!” they called. “We love you!” She yelled a few obscenities in reply but mostly stayed silent, breathing heavily, glancing wildly, struggling out of her hoodie. We watched as it sank like a specter to the bottom of the pond.

            Ambulances and fire trucks arrived, then tactical units and news crews. Two scuba divers entered the pool; the woman easily backstroked out of their grasp. Soon they were indistinct dots in the middle of the basin, the captivated audience clinging to the fence. “This is happening more and more regularly,” said a posh lady beside me. “One last April as well.” “I don’t think she’s all there,” said a woman to her daughter. Two teens ambled over, giddy with excitement but quickly quieted by reality. “This is why we need better funding for mental health services,” said the taller boy before pulling the shorter one away.

            The commotion reached its apex when the FDNY lowered a speedboat into the water and finally towed the woman to safety. By then it had begun to rain. Sirens and lights blared as they wheeled her through the grass on a stretcher, her body shrouded in white towels. The crowd fell silent, putting away their phones, shamed by their voyeurism. They loaded her into an ambulance and left for Mount Sinai.

            The whole ordeal had lasted two hours. I walked away shaken but with an undying sense that this was worth investigating. (Maybe the cameraman radioing back to ABC7 headquarters tipped me off.) Unlike some of the other stories I’d considered, this one actually seemed noteworthy. Wasn’t there something utterly disturbing and yet uncannily relatable about what I’d just observed? It reminded me of the countless times I’d felt disheartened in Manhattan but with nowhere to turn, no means by which to shield myself from the invasive isle—the countless times I’d seen people crying on the subway, or yelling at buildings, pushed to their limit in a way that other cities can’t push you. What was leaping into the reservoir if not a symbol of this powerlessness, a method of drawing attention to one’s madness while also obtaining some kind of relief? Or perhaps the woman had another motive, one as equally mystifying, the illumination of which might help us to understand her, and in turn understand ourselves. What had caused her to do what so many of us had contemplated?

            I could ostensibly find out: get her name, track her to the hospital, ask why she’d done it. But then I remembered I’d already had the opportunity. I’d seen her minutes before submersion, loitering too close to my bench while she lit up a cigarette. I remembered she looked frantic and harried, and I’d wished instantly that she’d leave me in peace, the way I feel during most encounters. I remembered she’d turned to me and said, gruffly: “Have a great day,” and I’d retorted with that noncommittal nod we offer when we want to be rude but don’t want to get called out on it. She’d walked off and jumped in the reservoir. I had her right there, but it never crossed my mind to ask her anything. She meant nothing to me until she became a story.

In even fuller disclosure, it’s worth admitting that the Bandera County Killer isn’t really a serial killer. There have been no cryptic letters to the press, no composite sketch of a shadowy suspect, no telltale sign at the scenes of the crimes. The police maintain that the deaths are unrelated, five now in total—and I’m inclined to agree, despite certain peculiarities and the fact that locals are convinced of a connection. I can’t quite tell if their assuredness is an effort to make sense of the senseless, or if they really believe something is sinister at play.

            The first two victims have the most similarities, as originally claimed—Jordan Tompkins, 25, and Brittany McMahon, 33. Tompkins was the first to go missing, in April of 2022, last seen on PR 37 after the Country Club Bar closed (the name is somewhat misleading; it’s a standalone shack that serves cheap beer and overstuffed plates of beans and grits), wearing bright pink tennis shoes and a wig. The latter item was recovered four months later, not far from the scene of her disappearance, leading investigators to suspect she might still be nearby. “We believe that she’s in the immediate vicinity, somewhere within five miles of this area,” said Dennis Fitzgerald, a P.I. working the case.

            McMahon’s abduction the following June proves even more flummoxing. She was last seen not near the Country Club Bar, as previously stated, but a half-hour north on Old Loop 173, where she was staying with a friend. “She said, ‘Mom, my suitcase is in the woods, I’m hunting parts for a truck,’” Susan McMahon told reporters—a quotation that raises more questions than it answers. When Susan arrived at the woods, she found Brittany’s belongings but no sign of her daughter.

            Two weeks later, a man was out in his yard when his dog came trotting out of the forest with a human skull. The man soon located Brittany’s remains, not far from where she’d last been spotted: picked-over bones and what looked like a spinal cord, the rest consumed by scavengers. She was tied to a tree via a cotton clothesline, her white sunglasses left overturned in the dust.

            This is the part of the story with the most discrepancies, and the most inspiration for local chatter. Police soon ruled the case a suicide, claiming she hanged herself before the line snapped; decomposition of the body rendered it impossible to confirm another cause. McMahon’s mother refutes the claim, and has reason to: Brittany’s arm was broken at the time of death, which makes it hard to imagine her climbing a tree, tying the rope to both a branch and her body, and then jumping off. What’s more, there is some disagreement about how she was tied: some say her wrists were bound, which would imply another actor; others say the rope was around her neck, though if her skull was removed I’m not sure how this could be verified. Some go further, arguing that the police’s ineptitude is proof of complacency, if not involvement; some believe the killer is inside the force. With this mass of pet theories, it’s clear that residents remain unconvinced, and that the details available indicate a case closed too hastily. “It should be investigated as foul play,” said Fitzgerald, the P.I.

            The other three deaths are less alluring—a callous thing to say but nevertheless the case. Because they don’t fit the victim profile, and thus don’t support the unified theory of a serial killer, they lead us away from the more enticing narrative. The third body was indeed found wrapped in a carpet ten minutes north of the Country Club Bar, but the victim was a fifty-six-year-old man named Sean Duffy, and evidence found at his home suggests that he was shot there seven weeks earlier. Even odder is the fourth deceased, sixty-three-year-old Norma Espinoza, who was known to walk with a cane and never leave the house alone, but was found nearby after a month-long absence. (Her cause of death is listed as undetermined, though authorities assume no criminality.) The fifth victim, Dimitri Perez, hardly warrants inclusion: the twenty-five-year-old was recovered fifty miles west of the others, in Leakey, but has nonetheless been lumped in. One suspects that any questionable death in the area might now be linked to this chain.

            Still, there are abnormalities. All the victims knew each other—were “friends,” according to McMahon’s father, and “associated quite a bit”—though in a rural setting that’s not out of the ordinary. All were involved with drugs—paraphernalia was found in Duffy’s home and Espinoza struggled with addiction after her son’s death—though again, not unheard of in a county crippled by substance abuse. (Megan referred to the region as “Pipe Creek,” which I had assumed was a local nickname implying drug use until I realized that the town north of Lakehills was actually called Pipe Creek.) But one cannot deny the surprising numbers, because stuff like this just doesn’t happen in Bandera, a place where the sheriff’s main duty is removing stray horses from the road. It’s easy to compare small towns to urban ecosystems, where crime and murder are harsh realities of everyday life. But one of the luxuries of Middle America is that it affords a reprieve from this type of violence: not domestic violence, or these days mass violence, but the type of anonymous violence that leaves you scrambling for answers. Megan and her husband had relocated to Sleeping Bear precisely to avoid this kind of terror: to carve out a space for themselves, where their future children could roam free and explore. It’s a place where you can plant your shovel in the dirt and build something that has all but disappeared in this country: white picket fence, two weeks vacation, sunsets on the back porch. People don’t go to Bandera for five deaths in as many months.

            In a sense, this case begs to be pursued. Reading over the specifics, one’s fingers begin to twitch with possibility, the heart rate rising, the writer’s antennae signaling a live wire. One can practically see the barren panorama, taste the heat-choked air, draw the contours of characters—especially Fitzgerald, the P.I., who appears so ready-made he’s impossible to resist. There’s a reason I’ve been quoting him, and it’s because he does a lot of talking: he’ll speak with any relative, any reporter, and it takes a little while to realize he’s not there in any official capacity. Fitzgerald seems to be drawn to the creative arts himself: the sixty-four-year-old self-professed arbitrator/mediator/investigator is working the case pro bono, writes self-help essays and cowboy articles under the pen name Colt Kaufman, and has acted in both No Time to Run (2020) and Vixens & Villains (forthcoming); his film reel is a fifteen-second clip of him in a truck calling: “Preacher, whatchu doin’ out here in a dark alley like this all alone at night?” and his Linkedin biography reads: “I usually carry a gun and a credit card in case I need either.” It’s places and people like these that drag you toward documentation, like a sweet shop window you just can’t pass by.

            But where would it get me? And what would it cost? Even in this essay I’ve already finagled the narrative to fit my own purposes. I’ve used the particulars of these disappearances to make them sound more shocking—more mysterious, more titillating—than they probably are. I’ve turned Fitzgerald, a man I’ve never met, into a humorous caricature by the use of his own biography. I’ve crafted a premise—something about the American Dream, the idyllic country versus the inhospitable city—from a situation I’ve only begun to understand, in a way I’m not even sure I fully believe. And now I’ve admitted it, here on the page, as if doing so absolves me—as if confession allays the fact that the people portrayed might still be affronted or hurt, contorted into archetypes they don’t recognize in the mirror. But this is what writers do. They lay a framework over that which refuses it. They may sell you out, but they also sell you a more interesting version of yourself.

            Never is this more apparent than in true crime, perhaps because you don’t have to convince anyone that homicide is interesting. The grisly action, the grieving family, the gumshoe (or oblivious) detectives, the puzzle waiting to be solved—all of these elements fall so neatly in line that we often forget the line is anything but neat, and that tangible people and pain enable our entertainment. The docuseries The Staircase, which originally aired on French television and was later revived by Netflix and HBO, reportedly cast a long shadow over its participants: Margie Ratliff, the daughter of accused murderer Michael Peterson, only appeared onscreen at her father’s request, and has spent the last twenty years living with the ramifications—she once walked in on her coworkers discussing it at the water cooler. (“I’d like to be stripped from The Staircase,” she said recently, though she has no legal recourse to do so.) Netflix’s show Dahmer –Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has been strongly condemned by the victims’ families, who claim the show fetishizes their experiences for profit: “When I saw my name come across the screen, and this lady saying verbatim what I said… it felt like reliving it,” wrote Rita Isabell, the sister of victim Errol Lindsey. “It brought back all the emotions I was feeling then.” (Lindsey’s cousin was more pointed: “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”) Even Peacock’s series Paul T. Goldman, which allowed its subject creative involvement, ends with Goldman and director Jason Woliner backstage after the premiere: “This is not the original show I envisioned,” Goldman tells Woliner. “People are gonna hopefully see that it’s just the story of a real person, not a character. Is that what you were after?” The director nods in reply, but he seems unsure. He’s aware that, despite his best efforts, this depiction will now change the trajectory of Paul’s life.

            My interest in true crime is not in why we consume itthere are plenty of psychologists on the case for that one—but rather how we consume it: that is to say religiously, and without much thought. I recall viewing one such documentary, the blandly-titled American Murder, in which a man kills his pregnant wife and daughters before disposing of their bodies in an oil tank. The film is mostly footage of him feigning concern and despair until he ultimately confesses and receives a life sentence. And for a long time after this film haunted me, though not necessarily because of its content. It haunted me because I watched it alone on my laptop on a Monday night; then I closed my laptop and got on with my life, with nothing to show for it except eighty-three minutes of gruesome entertainment. Nothing had been conveyed to me beyond the depths of our sinfulness and my own proclivity for the grimmest of stories. I realized that I’d watched tons of these films, sometimes in groups, sometimes with popcorn. And I could no longer square my appetite for depravity with the reality portrayed.

            This isn’t to say that all of true crime is iniquitous—that the genre is poisoned at the root. There are several examples of works that gesture toward a greater theme rather than a single heinous act. In Cold Blood provides such a stirring, provocative portrait of both an individual man and an individual community that the binary of good and evil ultimately collapses in favor of something that can only be described as human. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing traces the ways in which silence and fear echo across generations, and the crimes that some consider permissible in the face of a supposedly greater good. Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx details how power and wealth lead to such hubris that one’s ascent can only end in ruin. They’re stories of people, mainly, and how they deal with the horrors they’ve committed—as well as those they’ve experienced—within the context of a larger, more complex world.

            In the case of the Bandera County Killer, then, some notion would have to be conveyed beyond another tale of unsolved murder—some grain of truth that justified trotting out someone else’s misery and pain. And yet so far all I’d been able to glean was my own insidious instinct to filter every occurrence through a prism of the self. And didn’t all of my work essentially do that? All of writing? All of life? Was it possible to tell a story that didn’t in some sense reflect back on the teller—their vantage point, their biases, their potential gain? How many times had I defended my essays by claiming: “It’s not about x, it’s about me”? Was it even possible for it to be about anything else? And if it wasn’t, who the hell would want to read it?

The same weekend we were down in Bandera, a film called Vengeance was released in theaters. Written and directed by, and starring, B.J. Novak, the movie tells the tale of a New York journalist who travels to Texas for the funeral of an ex-girlfriend and becomes convinced by her family that she was murdered. He promptly does what any New York journalist would in his situation and starts a podcast about it. Hijinks ensue. He eats at Whataburger, rides in a dune buggy, gets a finger gun from Ashton Kutcher. His Prius explodes and he’s told he should be thankful it wasn’t a “real car.” Much is made of the family’s idiocy (when asked how she takes her coffee, a sports bra-clad teen replies incredulously: “In the mouth?”) and Novak’s stick-up-the-ass rigidity (“So, like, as a personal boundary, I don’t avenge people”) before he eventually learns that his hoity-toity East Coast view of the South is woefully misguided. He realizes he has more in common with these yokels than initially thought, and likes the fit of a cowboy hat on his head.

            The film is the sort of rudimentary take we’ve come to expect from a liberal elite probing the heartland for content, from a guy whose out-of-touch worldview is matched only by his tone-deaf remarks during Vengeance’s press tour. (He recently sparked debate by saying his Harvard degree has been largely detrimental to his career, calling it the “worst thing to have on a comedy resume,” though perhaps he found it less detrimental that his father wrote books with celebrities like Nancy Reagan and Magic Johnson.) It’s a reductive narrative through line, made all the more troubling by how easily I could see myself falling into it. When I first began visiting Texas, I was surprised to find such pleasant people—kind, hospitable, generous, easy to get along and converse with. It wasn’t until later that I felt embarrassed for having assumed anything different, that I’d bought into whatever stereotypes exist in the culture. Over time, however, what’s come to discomfit me is how willing I’d been to stop here: to take Novak’s resolution at face value and go about my merry way. The truth of the matter is that people in Texas can be just as terrible as any place else. They can be compassionate and selfless as well, but sanding away their rougher edges denies them all intricacy. I’d also wanted to put them in a box—a box I’d been too ready to label good instead of bad. I’d crafted a whole redemption arc before I even got there.

            And this, ultimately, is what gives me pause when it comes to taking on a story like this. It’s one thing to cash in on the murders of strangers; it’s another to cash in on the quirks of your loved ones, people you’ll surely have to answer to at some point. I didn’t want to betray Fitzgerald or the McMahons, or any of the other victims or bystanders, but I most of all didn’t want to betray those who had led me to their doorstep—those who had opened their hearts and welcomed me into their home. There was a time when I would’ve done anything for literature—crossed any line, burned any bridge, rationalized any choice. But at some point this changed as well, and I realized I wasn’t willing to live in a world in which I was unwelcome at Christmas. For this reason I’ve chosen to mostly leave my girlfriend’s family out of this account, apart from what Megan has told me and allowed (excluding permission to name her as the murderer). If, by the Zuckerman/Roth definition, this makes one less of a writer, I suppose I’ll just have to go get a Fine Arts degree in something else.

            Ever since learning about the case, I’ve been hung up on this issue, dug deep in a rabbit hole that every author trips over at some point. I found myself indulging in all sorts of ruminative spirals, a common syndrome for people with too much time on their hands. I thought about what it would look like, literally, me down in Bandera reporting out the story: pestering local law enforcement until we reached a kind of begrudging respect; visiting the Country Club Bar so often that I had a favorite stool; walking in the woods with Fitzgerald while he told me about his podcast (this affliction has unfortunately spread inland from the coast)—I could see myself acquiring their trust while never forgetting my role as a parasite, aware that I’d leave with what I wanted and nothing more. I thought about how Truman Capote never wrote another novel after In Cold Blood, and how Joseph Mitchell stopped reporting after exposing Joe Gould—how both publications extracted something integral from each writer, whereas the true crime industry these days is more inclined to pack up shop and move on with the carcass sucked dry. I even thought about Spielberg’s autobiographical film The Fabelmans, which asserts that the camera—in this case the pen, or the page, however you prefer your metaphor—will always stand between the artist and the world, as a means of interpretation and expression, and this urge is as inexplicable to the creator as their subject. I thought about all of this, and recognized it was the sort of navel-pointed pontification that meant I hadn’t reached the end—that these were just trapdoors I’d toppled into instead of living with the problem, which is another way of saying not all problems can be solved, made peace with, no matter how much we wish it to be so. I remembered that Malcolm had said a version of this in The Journalist and the Murderer, and that if I’d been a more astute reader I would’ve saved myself a lot of time. “Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments,” she explains in her oft-quoted first paragraph. “The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.” (I admit to using all of these strategies, though the latter not as much as I would like.) Less quoted is her final paragraph, though it’s just as insightful: “There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of this book. The wisest know the best they can do… is still not enough. The not so wise, in their accustomed manner, choose to believe there is no problem and that they have solved it.”

            Nearly every non-writer I spoke with about this seemed to think that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Some implied that my fixation was an exercise in vanity more than anything else—self-righteousness flaring up in the face of what was essentially a theoretical construct. It made me reevaluate, because I tend to trust non-writers more than writers, particularly when the subject is writing. But I also thought they weren’t considering it as closely as they might under different circumstances. They were all people I could see myself writing about one day, and even if I thought I did them justice, they could reasonably determine the opposite. None of us see the danger for what it is until we’re under the knife.

            When I was in high school, like most teens in the early aughts who resented not being invited to more parties, I had a Tumblr. I posted photos and jokes and quotes, but I also wrote on it—glorified journal entries that served mainly as the balm to whatever slight I was currently griping over. It got a bit of traction, too, which was nice: twenty-something Brooklynites sympathizing with a suburban kid who would one day become a twenty-something Brooklynite himself. In the infantile days of social media, it was a way of being seen, before we (or at least I) realized that being seen can have unexpected repercussions.

            One night I got a call from a girl I’d seen casually a couple months back. “So this is what you do?” she began immediately. “Go home and talk shit about people on the internet?” She was referring to a blog I’d just posted about the night we’d spent together. We’d driven around after she’d asked to hang, I’d told her I was seeing someone else, and then she’d dropped me back off, where I promptly sat down to write an account of our evening: how pitiful I thought it was of her to reach out after so many months, and how much happier I was with this new girl. I commented on her appearance and weight, and concluded with a nice little line about how real relationships are far more substantive than shallow hookups. And then I hit publish and sat back, until I got a call that said: “So this is what you do? Go home and talk shit about people on the internet?”

            I laughed and hung up. There wasn’t anything especially funny about what she’d said, but I suppose that was just my instinctual reaction, like giggling during an uncomfortable scene in a film. Nevertheless, she called back. “Don’t you dare hang up on me,” she said. “You don’t get to do that.” I believed her, and so I didn’t. She spoke with an authority that I couldn’t refuse.

            “First of all, let’s get it straight,” she continued. “You were some kid I occasionally hung out with, who I allowed to make moves on me.” That wasn’t how I remembered it, but I was in no position to argue. For all I knew that actually was how it’d been—I no longer retained a clear sense of the narrative. I don’t recall what else she said, apart from berating me in a commanding, methodical, and even graceful tone that felt entirely deserved. I imagine she told me I had no right to write about her in that way, or write about anyone in that way, and that I needed to understand that my offensive words had consequences—and this was that consequence. That’s what I would’ve said had I any of the courage that she did. I realized that I’d never respected her more than in that moment, which was likely part of the problem. It’s a wonder to me that at the age of seventeen, when hardly any lesson seemed to stick, this one did—and would, for years to come.

            She then hung up on me. I immediately deleted everything off my Tumblr, posted a note that I’d been exposed, and effectively ended my literary career. The girl graduated and we never spoke again.

            I don’t really think we should beat ourselves up over who we were as teenagers. But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it anyway. I could probably be the richest, handsomest, most successful former Tumblr user imaginable and still feel that guttural twinge upon recalling my past attempts at self-actualization. And I know I feel more shame over this incident than I’d care to admit, over a decade later—a shame I very well may feel again, a shame you don’t know you’ll feel until it’s far too late. You try your best, but Malcolm is right that our efforts are never enough, whether it’s serial killers or adolescent embarrassments. I have no idea where that girl is now, though I hope the memory doesn’t haunt her in the way it does me. I’m one of those wistful people who can’t seem to delete numbers, and so I still have hers in my phone—as if I might one day dial it, wait with bated breath through the agonizing rings. As if I might call to say I’m sorry I deceived you for my purposes, or I’m in need of another detail I can use.

Peter Raffel