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When Murder is Entertainment

Recently, I listened to an interview on a true crime podcast with a representative of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children ( As both a survivor of violence and a writer of mysteries, I was especially intrigued by the POMC's "MINE" ("Murder is Not Entertainment") project. I immediately hoped the program might be an opportunity for helpful dialog between both those worlds. After looking over the project page on their website (which has not been updated in quite a while) I was instead disappointed to see which works and events they were choosing to condemn and protest against.

Many are obviously exploitative, such as this shirt complete with bullet holes. Others, however, were far more innocent. For instance, the MIME Alerts called out numerous murder mystery dinners and puzzles and a few cozy theatrical comedies similar to Arsenic and Old Lace. One alert item, a deliberately tacky t-shirt sold as a fund-raiser for the Bakersfield Police Department "boasting" about Bakersfield's high murder rate, is another one of those times when the sensibilities of the mainstream conflict with the infamous "black humor" of first responders. The fundraiser itself was for a memorial commemorating the deaths of fallen officers; clearly they know how violence tears apart the lives of surviving friends and family.

I still believe that this kind of dialog between writers/producers and victims could be a wonderful thing, but I don't see the MINE project as currently functioning being a tool for that communication. Even though the program's not especially active at this time, I sent the following message to them. It's been a couple months and I've not heard back, but I suspect that's because the group is staffed by volunteers. Or, perhaps, they just don't want to talk about it. At any rate, I believe these are matters creative people dealing with violent themes and plot elements should unpack and contemplate, especially if we do not want to be in the exploitation business. My intention now, as then, is to try to build a bridge between survivors of violence and creatives who deal with violence in our work.

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To: the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children

Just some thoughts about MINE:

I agree and disagree. I am a survivor of violence and a writer of mysteries, so I'm coming at this from (at least) two directions.

There are plenty of works, written and filmed, in games and comics and movies, etc. where violence is in essence just another form of lazy pornography and that deserve all the scorn and warnings possible. However, I would not put many of the items you've issued alerts on in that category. Some of the MINE alerts I absolutely agree with, but the cynical desensitization of pornographic ugliness like printing bullet holes on tee-shirts is directly at odds with reassuring, ultimately compassionate events like a mystery dinner party where the bad guy always loses and participants get to play at finally fighting evil and winning.

In some of the MINE alerts you're condemning events or promotions that are obviously in the "cozy" subgenre, where victims are always Bad Guys/Gals and justice always triumphs. Here's a description from writer Janice Hardy: "Character development may be as important to the cozy mystery as is finding the killer. This is true not only in creating a protagonist with depth -- admirable qualities as well as flaws -- and friends, family and a community that are more than background, but it is significant for the reader getting to know and love the amateur sleuth and her life. Perhaps this is one reason why the cozy mystery is usually a series, not a stand-alone. Readers want more of a person they come to see as almost a good friend. Tone and an underlying optimistic philosophy accompany the serious issues in many cozies. The writer always reminds the reader that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that everything will turn out right."

In many ways, cozies are about preventing cynicism and trivialization of murders & violence; they're a way to reinforce belief in justice and to help those who wonder if they're the last non-violent person on the planet to feel less alone. Here's Margaret Loudon in Crimereads: "Cozies bring order to a world that is currently very chaotic. In cozies, crooked politicians always get their just rewards and there are no mass shootings or serial killers. That’s not to say that social issues aren’t touched upon in cozies—they are—but with a light hand." Cozies do not add to the desensitization of the culture; they help chip away the calcification that threatens all of our hearts.

The alerts also don't acknowledge that in many works of fiction, death in all guises serves as a form of concentrated plot, a shorthand that invites identification from a reader/viewer. Fictional works frequently use the most powerful of human experiences as metaphors -- births, love affairs, adventures of all kinds as well as encounters with violence. For instance, if I tell the story of a woman murdered by an abusive husband, I can do so relatively briefly and can include her story as an element in a larger work. On the other hand, if I wanted to avoid talking about “murder,” I would have to show the abuser violating a woman over forty years of marriage and slowly sucking the life out of her. The murder-free version would wind up being a lengthy, devastating, mournful work that ultimately ends in tragedy. This might well be worth doing if this were the only story I wanted to tell. (Angela’s Ashes comes to mind, but even in this work the surviving sons keep the story from being only about tragic suffering.) However, despite my best efforts, the daily description of the husband's vampire-like sadism could well ultimately prove more cynical, more pornographic than using the metaphor of the husband as the wife’s murderer, especially to less than careful readers.

Should the existence of weak minds be allowed to silence those capable of more subtle understanding?

Even in more graphic works, the lines are hard to draw. There's that passage in The World According to Garp where Garp wrestles with how to write a biography of a victim of sadistic violence without simultaneously entertaining the sadists. Should the existence of weak minds be allowed to silence those capable of more subtle understanding? I myself had a story published last year ["Golden Hour"] where (in my opinion) the main character betrays his best self and personal ethics by engaging in violence. To save what he loves he betrays what he values and loses what he loves in the process. To me, it is a tragedy. But, some more cynical readers could see his actions as justified, especially if they're not reading closely enough. Should I not tell this story, of a character who in many ways is like me (we both come from violent families who never tried to climb out of that cesspool) just because some people might default to the most cynical version of the story possible? I recently had a debate online with people who want to ban all copies of Sapphire's Push (on which the film Precious was based) because it describes the rape and violent abuse of a child in graphic detail. The story is told from the POV of the victim. I have experienced some of the exact same events as portrayed in that novel and in my opinion she nails it. She exactly portrays the feeling of being sexually and violently abused as a child. Not fun, not pretty. Surely not safe reading, but by God it helps to be seen and heard. Not only is the book not child pornography, it is anti-pornography. It gives the victim a voice instead of the criminal. Yet, there are those who want that crucial victim's voice silenced. Age restrictions and parental controls, of course. Content warnings, absolutely. But, outright banning? Destruction? Burning? Why should victims be forced into silence? Why should we be censored because of the acts of criminals against us? Why should we be forced to remain invisible?

I suppose I'm writing here because I was hoping that the MINE program would be more subtle in its selection of targets. I was hoping (am still hoping?) that there would be opportunities for dialog between survivors of violence (like myself) and creators of media (like myself) that sometimes includes violence. Right now, honestly, I'm not sure at all what you want from we writers, film makers, etc. Fiction is about people, and many people experience and survive violence. Your organization is proof of that. Yet, I can see in your alerts the possibility that you might well condemn even a story told by one of your members. Do you really want to silence us, even as you might be silencing yourselves?


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