Suzy is an adolescent girl who lives in an abusive household. She is routinely molested by her mother, and while he elder bother Lim withstands the pressure to join in, he does little to help. Her dog Moses has long since been killed by her mother. Her friend Alice is kept locked up in the basement, Suzy’s only means of communicating with her being a ventilation shaft in her bedroom. To survive, Suzy falls back on her preferred form of escapism: True Crime magazine.
She is particularly captivated by a photograph showing the body of a blonde woman who was strangled with an appliance cord. “The photo left little to imagination and aroused an excitement in me”, she says; “something similar, I imagined, to a young boy seeing his first centrefold.” She stresses, however, that this comparison to pornography should not be taken too literally: “I didn’t get a sexual thrill from looking at her. There was nothing climactic or conclusive about my obsession with her corpse. It just felt good.” When she is abused by her mother, Suzy finds strength by imagining herself in the position of the cord-wielding murderer.
Finally, Suzy takes action. She smashes her mother’s head with a glass ashtray before persuading a reluctant Lim to finish the job using a cord – just like the man who killed the woman in the magazine. The two then burn down the house and head off on the road together. But heir journey never takes them far from murder and abuse: their mother was neither the last person to prey upon Suzy, not the last to die at the hands of the runaway siblings.
When reading the latest batch of extreme horror stories, one question will inevitably arise: what is all of this violence for? In some stories (Jon Steffans’ The God in the Hills springs to mind) the violence will be for its own sake, its victims so thinly-drawn that all brutality can be neatly detached from the consequences that would follow in real life. At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, we find stories where the consequences are placed under the microscope – and this is where Samantha Kolesnik’s debut book True Crime fits in.
Granted, the book does contain harrowingly detailed scenes of violence and abuse, but these tend to be short and carefully-placed. Much of Suzy’s ordeal at the hands of her paedophilic mother is confined to the novella’s backstory, with the main emphasis being on the psychological ramifications.
It would be easy to say that Suzy has been broken by her experiences, but a more accurate summary would be that her perspective on the world has been broken. As she acts as narrator, we watch her attempting to piece together a complete picture of life, one that turns out to be warped not only by the abuse committed by her mother but also by her subsequent encounters. The story makes a point out of portraying abuse as a cycle, one that is not easily broken: this concept is graphically illustrated when the characters meet a young woman named Lena. A pregnant rape victim, Lena tries to kill Suzy when the latter stumbles across the buried corpse of Lena’s rapist; Suzy and Lim end up killing her in self-defence, leaving Suzy with still another mental wound:
I felt silly and ashamed because Lena was dead and her baby was dead, too. This hot chocolate wasn’t going to do them any good; it was going to sit and warm my ungrateful monstrous belly, a belly that didn’t hold a baby. A belly that held nothing by a monster’s intestines. I wished someone would just rip them out already and put me out of my misery.
Because we see the events of the story through Suzy’s eyes, the supporting characters often appear distorted and ambiguous. Her brother Lim is a good example of this: hulking, odd-looking and intimidating, Lim is written off as a scary weirdo by those outside his family, but Suzy forms her own picture of him that does not entirely tally up with the events as described.
She sees Lim as a heroic figure because an incident when he attacked (and possibly killed, the details are vague) a predator with designs on Suzy, an incident that had the knock-on effect of keeping bullies away from the family; yet he failed to stand up to their abusive mother until Suzy too initiative. Elsewhere, Lim derides his sister as “sick” for her obsession with true crime magazines, despite his own proclivity for violence. The ironies pile up when Lim is blamed for his mother’s crimes and enters serial killer mythology, even ending up on a t-shirt worn by a morbid teenager. With idealised and demonised Lims dreamed up by Suzy and the public respectively, the reader is left to form their own impression.
Another ambiguous-bordering-on-amorphous character is Alice, the kidnapped girl and Suzy’s only friend during her time with her mother. She is callously killed off early in the story – neither Suzy nor Lim bother to free her from the basement before burning the house down – yet her presence continues to haunt the narrative. Suzy adopts Alice’s name as a pseudonym during her travels; she dreams about Alice, and imagines Alice’s face on missing-girl posters talking to her; and she talks Lim into taking her to a pig-show as a means of honouring Alice, whose favourite book was Charlotte’s Web (quite a contrast to Suzy’s preferred reading matter) and yearned to enter a pig-show like that novel’s heroine.
So bizarre is the relationship between Suzy and Alice that, for much of the story, it is tempting to infer that Alice was actually an imaginary friend, or perhaps even the product of disassociation: the girl Suzy had been before her abuse, when she read Charlotte’s Web rather than True Crime and dreamed a typical child’s dreams. When the story finally confirms that Alice was a real person all along, this comes as an even heavier blow than her death.
That Suzy allows her only friend to die comes as a surprise, but it is soon shown to be entirely consistent with her character. The story’s protagonist knows of no existence outside of abuse, violence and homicide, and so has no impulse to escape that world. All she can do is re-shape that violence into her own terms, as we see with the morbid urge Suzy expresses upon meeting a sex worker named Jamie:
I had a strange desire to see all of her I wanted to see her vocal cords and how they danced as she spoke, I wanted to see how blackened her lungs were. I wanted to reach up between her legs and shake her innards around. She was beautiful.
The perverse admiration shown here is in stark contrast to Suzy’s attitude towards another woman she meets, Carol:
I did not want to hurt Carol, but a part of me raged that she could be so weak and yet alive. That she should be so fragile and so sheltered.
While Suzy’s desire to see inside Jamie appears to stem from warped curiosity rather than violent hatred, some of Suzy’s compulsions show a more overt bloodlust:
[A]s I looked at those noisy, fat ducks, part of me wanted to smash their quacking heads in. There was no amount of sausage and eggs, no small comfort of middle-class living, that could take away that urge, or so it felt to me.
Throughout the novella Suzy expresses a complex philosophy of abuse. This begins when she articulates her emotional response to the abuse that she has endured. “Other girls talked about how they wanted their breasts to be bigger and all I wanted to do was cut mine off”, she says at one point. Elsewhere, her account becomes still more graphic: “Certain memories emerged whenever men or women made sexual gestures at me. I always felt like my body was up for grabs. I didn’t want to have it anymore. I wanted to cut out all of the entrances. I wanted to shut my body down. If there were an option to sew myself up forever I would’ve taken it.” Her surrounding culture affords no role models: “There was never a woman who I wanted to be. The movies didn’t show any women worth emulating. Just lumps and mounds, colors and shapes. Heaps of flesh you could make into chaos.”
Suzy’s time staying at Lena’s farm causes her to contemplate the role of violence in the relationship between humans and animals: “I came to realize cows were docile creatures and therefore it didn’t surprise me men killed them in droves.” Agriculture, too, becomes a metaphor in her philosophy: “All men did was rape, kill, eat, and fuck, as far as I could see, and it’s not like the fields knew any different. The world was just an echo chamber for man’s sin.”
Her experiences have left her with a world-weary cynicism that she is able to fit into succinct observations. “Everyone called you sweet before they defiled you”, she remarks at one point “Nobody kept their hands of a woman because a woman didn’t want it”, she observes elsewhere; “there was always some man who loomed in the distance threatening something.” Gender is a recurring concern in Suzy’s worldview, although as to be expected from a person whose principal abuser was her mother, Suzy’s understanding of the topic is more complex than a simple matter of male predators and female victims: “There was no evil in the world that was not man’s work. And there was no man in the world that was not woman’s work.” Suzy’s mother, of course, looms large in her musings:
If I could tell a parent one thing, it would be this: you can be the best damn parent in the world Monday through Saturday but if you hit your kid on Sunday, that’s all the kid will remember. Your hand and the hurt, the anger in your eyes. I always remembered Mama’s hands. I rarely remembered baking muffins.
Throughout all of this, Suzy maintains a code of ethics, albeit a warped one – for example, even after she and Lim kill Lena, Suzy never reveals that Lena had killed her rapist as to do so would be to break a promise to the dead woman.
Suzy’s philosophy receives its first full-on challenge after she encounters a clergyman. Although she scoffs at his religion (“I never understood why Jesus did what he did in the stories and all. I never really got what the point of it all was. It seemed like a lot of pain and for what? The world was still a shithole”) this man of faith remains sympathetic and, in an effort to give her a productive place in the community, introduces her to an elderly fellow named Mr. Lorry. This character, in turn, expounds a philosophy of his own:
“This is important. You have to understand this.”
“That even though it feels like God to kill another human being, you are the opposite of God. Every foul word you speak about another person, every item you soil, every person you harm. That is not the work of a God, but of a maggot […] And this world has lots of maggots. They multiply and feed on the vulnerable as though it were their natural right. Your brother is a maggot. And you, hell. You might be one too. Who am I to say?”
I wanted to feel angry. I looked at my hands and studied the dirt gathered around the cuticle beds. My eyes welled and I tried to fend off the wave inside of me.
“My wife and daughter were taken by the maggots. The destroyers. Maybe you’ve read about it in your true crime rag. And what’s it worth to you to read the sordid details? They said my daughter was still alive, blood pumping to her heart, when they—“ and his voice cracked. His spine seemed to break in four places, his posture was so odd, so overcome with grief was he. The agony that poured from his flesh flooded my own and I found myself on my knees looking for something. But I knew there was no God. There could not be a God.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” I said. At least I thought I’d said it. I thought the words, but I was so paralyzed with the old man’s sorrow that it’s possible I remained silent. It struck me that his sorrow was mightier than mine. There was something sacred about his anger, as if he had let it ferment over time.
True Crime is above all a character study. It pushes its protagonist to extremes, not only in terms of the abuse that she endues by also the abuse she justifies meting out upon others. She has been warped by the world, and responds by creating a warped little world inside her own head – a world that we, over the course of the novella, are forced to share with her. As with any tragic figure, we come to understand her all too well.