MURDER BUSINESS

My soul-crushing year in true crime TV taught me that we aren’t defined by our first jobs

For recent college graduates, crazy first jobs are a rite of passage. But there aren’t too many people who can say that they got their start in the professional world by working in the murder business.

I graduated college back in 2012, just as the US job market was swinging back into action. Like so many young people, I had wildly unrealistic expectations about the world that awaited me beyond my ivy-covered campus. I’d spent the previous four years scribbling mushy love sonnets in the margins of my notebooks and spending hours trying to understand Derridian deconstruction. I’d read The Canterbury Tales three times and could recite The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock from memory. I assumed all this information would be crucially important to getting by in the mythic “real world.” What more could I possibly need?

As it turned out, what I really needed was a thick skin and an iron stomach—at least if I was going to survive working as a production assistant on a true-crime murder show.

***

I still remember how the job was pitched to me during my initial interview. “We can’t offer any time off or health insurance, but we can pay you $400/week,” I was told. I was 22 years old, and a job in television sounded impossibly glamorous. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

 What got to me wasn’t the gore. It was working on a show that profited off of other people’s grief.  And so began a very strange year. The basic format of the show was simple: Each episode, the host would retrace a murder, interviewing the victim’s friends and family along with the detectives and experts who’d helped crack the case. I never knew what a given day would bring. I might wind up ushering a victim’s traumatized family from a Holiday Inn Express in Chinatown to a tiny Soho film studio with the enthusiasm of a Disney theme park employee. I might find myself making small talk in the back of a cab with a convicted felon. I’ve spent countless hours scouring thrift stores for muumuus or judicial robes or acid wash jeans. Once, I lay down in a cold field in the middle of New Jersey for hours while the producers tried to contort my body into the same position as the one in a crime-scene photo.

I understood that I was expected to suffer a certain amount of indignity in my first year out of college. But I still wasn’t mentally prepared to spend days sorting through thousands and thousands of gory evidence photos in order to find one suitable for use on the show. No amount of tragic poetry can prepare you for seeing a person’s brains spilling out of their skull.

What really got to me, though, wasn’t the gore. It was feeling complicit in a show that profited off of other people’s grief.

For the viewing public, true-crime shows are just another form of entertainment. But for our guests, each episode required reliving the most traumatizing experiences of their lives. Our producers chased tears ruthlessly. A father who broke down crying, or a widow so choked up she was unable to speak—this was TV gold.

It was my job to pick up guests on the show and bring them to the studio to talk to our host. Usually, they were from small towns in the Midwest, lured by the promise of a free trip to New York City and the chance to tell their loved one’s story.

 How many portraits of dead women could a person look at before they all began to blend together? I worried my heart was going cold. After the families had met with the host, I would sit with them in the green room while coroners and detectives took turns being interviewed. At first, I tried to connect with the families. I’d carefully sift through their loved ones’ old book reports and class photos. She’s so beautiful, I’d say.

But after two or three months, I had to stop. This one had burned to death. Another was tortured. Another was sexually assaulted. How many smiling portraits of dead women could a person look at before they all began to blend together? I worried my heart was going cold.

On one of the worst days, I helped interview the family of a woman who had been murdered in her sleep. The only witness to the crime was her son, who was five years old, hiding under a bed while his mother was killed in front of him.

The son was now in his mid-thirties and had been sober for years, fighting a drug addiction that was a direct result of the trauma he’d experienced as a child. An hour before the interview was set to tape, our producers noticed that his eyes were bloodshot and his words were slurred. It was obvious he had relapsed just anticipating the interview. I fetched him ice and coffee, trying to make sure he didn’t nod out, and trying even harder not to think about whatever horrific images must be racing through his mind. Our producers were very concerned about his ability to speak, not at all about what this experience was doing to him.

***

Behind the scenes on the sets of true crime TV, there are few moral lines that can’t be crossed. Every episode had to have a red herring for the sake of the plot, so the innocent cousins or neighbors who sat down for interviews in good faith would become lecherous creeps in the editing room. We needed heroes, too, so police officers who’d bungled investigations or forced confessions would be transformed into bastions of justice onscreen.

The story editor on the show liked to ask one question when people came to him with story leads: What’s the headline? He didn’t think any story was workable unless it could be boiled down into an intriguing one-line pitch. Working in the murder business taught me that a murder isn’t a good murder unless it’s snappy.

 After a year, I finally left, thankful to be rid of a job that painted everything else in my life with a macabre sheen.  After a year, I finally left, thankful to be rid of a job that painted everything else in my life during that time with a macabre sheen. I’d come to feel an intense cynicism about people and the world around me. I’d stopped believing in tragic heroes like the ones that populated the pages of my college books. Hamlet’s high-minded speeches about the meaning of death seemed hopelessly naive. Death was something that could be bought and sold. Death was a commodity.

At the time, I was also worried about what a year in true crime would mean for the future of my career. I was so new to the working world that every decision I made seemed to carry enormous weight. I thought that once you started on a particular professional track, there was no turning back.

But since then, I’ve worked in human resources, publishing, and now journalism. Daily pictures of dead bodies are a thing of the past. And my first year of employment after college is now a strange anecdote I tell at parties, not a defining part of my professional life.

College graduates often wind up doing all kinds of unlikely things when we plunge headfirst and clueless into the job market. I had a friend who sold her plasma to blood banks to pay rent during her first year out of school. So it is with relief that I can say my first awkward steps out into the “real world” didn’t determine my life’s path.

But I did learn something important from my year in true crime: You don’t have to love your first job. You don’t even have to stay at it very long. And if you worry that your job is turning you into a person you don’t like or recognize, you may need to leave it in order to find yourself again.

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