Before Making a Murderer, Serial, even the now gone Crime Library website, which I used to browse at three in the morning to “distract” myself from work, I had Calvento Files to thank for developing my early fascination with true crime. It was probably not healthy for a pre-teen to watch a show that dramatically re-enacted gruesome crimes, but it did give me the gift of fear. Coincidentally, that’s also the title of security expert Gavin de Becker’s book, which I’ve read out of faith with Oprah’s seal of approval.
We’ve all felt fear and how it travels like a slow, hot spasm through our gut. Despite the pain and mania it brings, it is a gift, especially to women. Fear makes us more alert and observant—a signal from our gut to pay more attention to our surroundings for our own safety, to keep an eye out on the guy walking a few paces behind us on a dark street instead of keeping our gaze on our phone screens. Years of gendered conditioning, however, have made us immune from the messages that our primal sense of fear would tell us. We’re raised believing that girls are supposed to be nice, pleasant, and friendly, and that no one likes a suspicious b*tch who doesn’t smile on cue. Oh, we’re still taught to feel fear, but what’s drilled into us is the fear of being unlikable—in my opinion, a pretty useless fear to guide our lives with.
“Men, at core, are afraid that women will laugh at them,” de Becker wrote in his book. “And women, at core, are afraid that men will kill them.” In her 1982 essay “Writing the Male Character,” Margaret Atwood shared an anecdote about a casual inquiry she had made on the difference between men’s and women’s fears:
“’Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine…’I mean,’ I said, ‘men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.’ ’They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”
I once tried out the first half of that idea to a guy friend, who responded, “’Yun!” an index finger jabbed in the air for emphasis. A woman’s laughter—directed at a man, and not when he is joking—is the human male’s equivalent of Kryptonite, and what I’d give to live in a world where my biggest fear would be the scorn of other people. As for the second part, I’ve known it to be true since around age six when, for a couple of weeks, there was a series of nightly local news reports about a serial rapist or murderer roaming the streets of Manila. I may be wrong in remembering that his victims were all nursing students, but I know I’m right about his distinct signature: a hollow block smashed on the face of his victims, meant to disfigure and de-humanize them further.
Today, I’m a suspicious b*tch who doesn’t smile on cue. When I was much younger, inundated by true crime stories reported on television and getting acquainted with the fear that seems to be a woman’s lot in life, that primal fear warped my sense of femininity. Back in the ’90s when no one was critical of the pervasive rape culture yet—when no one was even aware of what rape culture is—I had thought that my body would be my downfall, that developing breasts and getting my period would be like a bat signal to sexual predators to begin targeting me. It was an unexpressed fear that cut inward, warped into a feeling of being betrayed by my body, and manifested as bad posture (to hide breasts that were scarcely bigger than mosquito bites) and a distorted view of sexual intimacy. I’m very lucky not to be a victim of a gruesome crime yet—and fingers crossed, I hope never to be—but the terror that men’s propensity to rape and kill still took away a lot from me.
More than 25 years later, I’m still working on both issues, but I’ve learned better how to use fear both as a weapon and a shield instead of as a tool for self-flagellation. I’ve also kept up on reading about true crime stories, but no more tacky re-enactments. No image searches, either, because my imagination scares me enough already.
The sources I choose to find these stories now are respectful to the victims and aren’t simply rehashing their ordeals to thrill readers and listeners. Through the tragic turn their lives took, these victims have taught us who are still alive that between keeping polite and being safe, f*ck politeness every single time. If someone is behaving creepily or threateningly, we can apologize later—if we have to—for shutting them down and leaving the room abruptly. Who cares if I look paranoid, talking to strangers who knock on my door through the thin gap allowed by the chain bolt? I’d rather remain alive and unharmed. And whenever my gut tells me to show anger and make a scene when someone is trying to intimidate or strong-arm me, I’ve become better at following it. Because a reputation as a crazy b*tch won’t kill me, whereas an opportunist looking for a weak spot can.
True crime stories have also taught me how the language media uses in reporting gruesome cases leaves a lot to be desired. For example, if the victim was a sex worker, that detail somehow sneaks its way to the headlines and reduces her life to a single identity: “Prostitute, tinaga!” The law and due process are also rarely on the victims’ side, and not just in terms of meting out justice. Restraining orders can be ignored, domestic violence remains largely regarded by law enforcement as “away mag-asawa,” and in the United States, thousands of rape kits remain unprocessed, largely because of legislative blockage. As important as it is for every woman to be cautious, we should also demand our institutions to protect us better, both in life and in death.
That’s why especially today, I’d like to honor the (too many) women whose lives were taken away from them. In learning of their stories, may I and other true crime enthusiasts know more of how they had lived and not just how they died. And may they rest in peace, especially if justice remains elusive for them and their loved ones.
I’d also like to toast the survivors who, by some grace, defied their attackers’ intent for them to die. History doesn’t lack in badass women, but survivors are badasses on a league of their own. Artist, survivor, and victims advocate Mary Ventura’s story, in particular, still leaves me in tears and in awe every time I remember it. Gotdamn, but…