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True crime is one of the most popular genres of podcasts—some attest it has revitalized the medium with shows like Crime Junkie, My Favorite Murder and Counter Clock. Each episode often delves into the mystery of a violent crime and ponders questions like who did it? and why? Amateur sleuths lean in, eager to hear the sometimes gruesome and juicy details of a crime they’re far removed from in the safety of their home or car.
This preoccupation with sensationalized mysteries is nothing new. Just look at Agatha Christie who was writing about people being killed off on trains back in 1934 and readers were eating it up. Of course, “Murder on the Orient Express” was fiction. Still, there’s nothing wrong with getting pulled into a story like that, right?
Where True Crime Misses the Boat
Most homicides are committed by someone the victim knows and, specifically when women are killed, 36 percent are murdered by a husband or boyfriend according to FBI crime statistics. But when we listen to true crime podcasts, how many of these hosts are making the connection between the murder and the relationship that preceded it?
In other words, are we taking the time to recognize murders arising from domestic violence that’s escalated to a fatal point? And could those victims have been saved if we’d seen the signs earlier?
It’s true that many people don’t tune into true crime for educational reasons — they come for a story. But when we turn an epidemic of violence into a form of entertainment, we risk becoming desensitized to how we got here—how one in three women in her lifetime will experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.
Ginger McPhee is executive director of the Chrysalis House Association in Nova Scotia, Canada and host of the 8-part podcast Somebody Must Say These Things about violence against women in Nova Scotia. The podcast was a Purple Ribbon Award winner in 2022. She has a hard time with the true crime genre, she says, because of the myths it perpetuates about abusers.
“Anytime a woman is murdered, the first thing the media does is interview a neighbor or a buddy at work to talk about how he [the perpetrator] was such a good guy. People have this perception that, if he was an abuser, he’d be a bad guy. But abusers are charming and charismatic. You don’t get to see the duality,” says McPhee.
The way victims are portrayed in true crime stories is also often not through a lens of domestic violence knowledge. Victims are scrutinized—what they wore, how they reacted and their general dispositions. Could anything they did contribute to their own demise?
Look at the story of the murder of Dana Alotaibi on July 20, 2022. The 27-year-old was stabbed to death on the side of the highway in Honolulu by her Marine Corps husband after Alotaibi repeatedly reached out to the military to report his abuse. Yet the few who told this story publicly didn’t hesitate to lead with the fact that the victim was a model for an adult website, leaving the discussion open as to whether or not that could have contributed to her death.
“If people are listening to the podcast and caught up in the sensationalism of it, think about how the language is being used to perpetuate the myths around domestic violence and blame the victim. Is that language actually describing what happened or is it just making it more palatable for [the listener]?” poses McPhee.
These myths include that survivors should share some responsibility for ending the abuse, or that their reaction to the abuse makes them culpable as well, or that they should feel shame for being in that situation in the first place (all false, obviously).
“That’s one of the main reasons victims don’t speak out,” says podcast host Misty Chaviers of victim-blaming. “I won’t tolerate it on my podcast.” Her podcast, I Am a Survivor, is another 2022 Purple Ribbon Award winner. She says true crime podcasts often miss opportunities to save lives by not including information around the connection between domestic violence and murder.
“That’s what leads to murder when it’s a spouse—[the perpetrator] was likely a domestic abuser.”
She points to Gabby Petito’s story as one example of a missed opportunity to tie this one incident with what turned out to be a history of abuse.
“I do think there’s a missing link,” she says of other podcasts. “They just get to the specifics of a story.” Chaviers started her podcast in 2019 to first tell her story of surviving horrific abuse starting after she became pregnant at 17 and married at 18 to a man she says started as a dream and then quickly became “very evil.” But not having an education around domestic violence contributed to her feeling confused and ultimately trapped.
“I never even heard the word domestic violence. I didn’t even know that’s what I was going through. I grew up with this expectation – you stay married because that’s what the religious community said we do, and you get the white picket fence.”
Three months into her marriage, Chaviers’ husband began to throw things at her in anger, at one point stabbing her in her eye with the sharp corner of a book.
The abuse went on for three years until Chaviers found herself on her knees in the bathroom of her trailer, praying.
If you get me out of this, God, I’ll never look back.
She was ultimately able to flee with her daughter and start a new, safe life. In 2019, she began her podcast in order to give a voice to other survivors.
Questions to Ask When Listening to True Crime Podcasts
There’s nothing wrong with being a true crime fan, but if you want to be a responsible listener, ask yourself the following when you’re settling down to hear a story of violence and murder.
- Do you hear victim-blaming language (questioning what the victim wore, said or did)?
- Is there any mention from the victim’s surviving friends and family or journal entries that mentioned the victim was afraid of their partner? Often times the narrator doesn't give accurate scenarios as to why the victim stayed, instead leaving the listener to assume they didn't want to leave or that they just weren't smart or brave enough to do so. Some may even go so far as to paint the picture that they were staying for some superficial reason like money, sex, etc.
- If the crime involves an intimate couple, can you notice the escalation of control over time that ultimately leads to a homicide?
- Is the assailant being described in flattering terms (charming, suave, a “knight in shining armor”), and is it being used to minimize their crime?
- Does the podcast try to propose that violence is a rarity in that particular area, even though statistics tell us 1 in 3 women will experience rape, physical violence or stalking in her lifetime (though domestic violence is a vastly underreported crime)?
- Are you hearing terms like "collapse of a marriage," "messy divorce," "toxic relationship," "tumultuous," "explosive," etc., which make it sound as though the abuse or violence went both ways? This is called nonaccountable language.
- Does the story talk about infidelity but doesn’t mention how many abusers often use this as an abusive tactic?
- Is the story starting by describing a so-called “perfect life” that all of a sudden turns deadly out of the blue? This is rarely if not ever the case. There is an escalation of abuse that ends in murder.
- If the perpetrator or accused is interviewed, do they come across as cool, calm and collected, even concerned, making the listener doubt that they could have been capable of violence? Abusers often come off as charming to the outside world, which is a tactic of gaslighting.
- Does the host insinuate that if there were no police reports, restraining orders or other documentation of abuse that it simply could not have been happening?
- Is the host questioning a lack of motive for murder? When it comes to abuse, often times the motive for physical violence is as simple as maintaining power and control.
- Are any resources being shared with the listeners? It's rare that podcasts end with information about how someone who is experiencing abuse can get help, and this is a vital step to helping potential future victims.
It should also be noted that, oftentimes, the stories being told by podcasts are the ones that receive the most news coverage when they happened since there is more source material to write the story. But there are thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women whose stories never make the local headlines. Consider seeking out and listening to these stories as well.
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True Crime Podcasts That Also Educate on Domestic Violence
In our opinion, these podcasts below are some that balance true crime and responsible advocacy well. Take a listen.
Narcissist Apocalypse is a storytelling podcast that gives a voice to survivors of abuse. Through the power of story, our community helps educate, heal, and make you feel less alone.
I’m a Survivor
Most of survivor Misty Chaviers’ podcast episodes are under 30 minutes, perfect for finding inspiration as you commute to work or school. Check out this episode where Misty talks with Theresa's Fund/DomesticShelters.org CEO, Ashley Rumschlag.
Shatterproof: Thriving After Domestic Abuse
A survivor-created podcast about changing yourself after abuse “from the inside-out.” Creator Mickie Zada interviews survivors about how they reinvented themselves after escaping an abusive partner.
Spotlight: The Podcast for the Domestic Abuse Sector
Interviews with advocates and experts on important domestic violence issues like support for LGBT survivors and how homelessness and abuse intersect.
Targeted—True Crime: Domestic Violence
This one may be difficult for some survivors, but fascinating to others. This true crime podcast delves into real-life cases of family violence, examining how similar crimes might be prevented in the future.
Another that may be tough for some survivors to listen to, but this captivating series features inspiring survivors of all types of trauma telling their first-hand stories of perseverance.
PAVE: Professionals Against Violence Podcast
Listen as experts from all corners of the world speak about preventing all types of family violence. Listen to this episode on the Safe Child Act featuring Barry Goldstein, expert advisor for DomesticShelters.org.
The Domestic Violence Discussion
This podcast is a discussion about domestic violence, from the perspective of a survivor. Episodes cover everything from what domestic violence is, what it looks like, and how it affects not only survivors but the community they live in.
Understanding Today’s Narcissist
Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist, speaker and author is dedicated to separating fact from fiction when it comes to dealing with a narcissist in your life.
What happens when toxic masculinity goes unchecked for far too long? In this true-crime podcast, DomesticShelter’s editor-in-chief Amanda Kippert (and this article’s author) along with co-host Jenna Brandl shine a spotlight on the men who have chosen to abuse more than just their male privilege.
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