Maybe don’t

(Major content warning on this one, friends: r*pe, murder, misogyny, stalking, serial killers)

Jenny Diski was lots of people’s favorite writer. She published many books of fiction and memoir during her lifetime, though I haven’t read most of them—I only knew her from the essays she wrote for the London Review of Books, where she was a frequent contributor. After she died a few years ago I bought a copy of Don’t, a collection of book reviews and personal essays she wrote for the magazine, and I spent some time today re-reading it. 

One of the first pieces in the book, in a section titled “Looking at Monsters in the Dark,” is a review of a lurid-sounding book called The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, which came out in 1993, a year before Dahmer died in prison. I was a young teenager when Dahmer was caught and his crimes were revealed. I remember being horrified by him, but at the same time somehow comforted by the knowledge he had preyed on boys and men, which was new information to me, a surprise. I filed the information away: Men harm other men, too. It’s not just women and girls who are in danger. It is always the men doing the harming, though, it seemed. That part was not a surprise. 

When I saw this essay in Diski’s book I had the same reaction to it that I always do to articles or films about serial rapists and murders: I don’t want to read it. I can’t look at it. / I have to look at it. I have to read it, every word. Typically, after I read or watch the thing, I will get sick to my stomach or have at least one very bad night’s sleep, but I continue to do it occasionally anyway. Am I interested in these subjects, or am I punishing myself for something? Am I trying to keep myself safe, or to understand something about human nature? Or about myself? Or is all of those at once?

So I read the Dahmer essay, along with the rest of the book. I deeply enjoyed the essays. This is writing about many areas of life—reportage of a kind—by someone with a truly interesting mind, as well as a wonderful sense of humor. Diski looked at Dahmer the way she looked at the book written about him, and about subject she addresses: Not only does she not look away, as I was tempted to do, she looks inward as well. She does not shy away from the horrible things that happen in the world or from her own dark thoughts, and by letting all these exist together on the page she makes room for the, shall we say, fullness of the human experience. Even still, by the end of her essay she admits that she might not see much need for books about people like Dahmer, agreeing with something he once said about himself: “This is the grand finale of a life poorly spent … How it can help anyone, I’ve no idea.” 

But old Jeffrey Dahmer has a way of popping up again and again, doesn’t he? All these guys do, these serial killers everyone is so fascinated with, along with all the other kinds of violent crimes that are splayed all over the news. They won’t go away and so occasionally, I guess, we feel compelled to take a look. 

When I was in my 20s and working at a Barnes & Noble, a sweet but possibly creepy guy I worked with there asked me to get the book he’d ordered from behind the register, and when I saw that it was a biography of Jeffrey Dahmer I felt truly skeeved, I can’t lie. As I handed it to him I gave him a look that said Why?, trying to cover my discomfort by teasing him. He just looked embarrassed, and I remained afraid of him until I quit the job a few months later.

But then, I was a young woman, and I was afraid a lot of the time. Even specifically at that job: There were a few men who would pester the young women who worked at the store, asking for us by name even though they were strangers to us. One man in particular came in looking for me after we’d spoken on the phone when he called to ask about a book. He then stood there in front of my register (and a bunch of other people) and told me what a “soothing” voice I’d had over the phone, gazing at me with a truly demented expression in his eyes. I often worked the store’s evening shift, which meant I had to stay until it closed at 11, help do all the closing-up stuff, then leave to walk out into the dark, empty parking lot at midnight and walk home alone. The whole time I worked there I nursed a low-level fear that the soothing voice guy would be there waiting for me, and yet this feeling was indistinguishable from the at-least-low-level fear of all men that I carried around with me all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever even considered that particular anecdote important enough to tell anyone about before now, though I’ve thought of it often over the years.

A few years before I had that bookstore job, I was in college and living in downtown Philadelphia, when the so-called Center City Rapist was at large. He lived, it turned out, in an apartment just a few blocks from the one I shared with my best friend K. Several times over the course of a few years, he slipped out of the bed he shared with his girlfriend in the middle of the night to break into women’s apartments while they slept and rape them. He murdered one of them, a woman named Shannon who lived a few blocks from where I lived at the time. (All of these crimes were committed within a few blocks of where I lived.) She was 23, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania while I was an undergraduate there; I was 21. The Philadelphia Police Department’s habit of underplaying, ignoring, and mishandling crimes of sex crimes has since been reported on widely, though at that time my friends and I did not know this, and didn’t need to know it to realize we were deeply unsafe. We already had the much larger knowledge that most women have always had—that we were on our own with this stuff.

Actually, I once read a book about Jeffrey Dahmer myself. At the library one quiet afternoon, looking for something good to read, I found a graphic memoir by a man who’d gone to school with “Jeff.” He wrote about Dahmer’s crimes as well as his memories of him as a teenager, and how those did, or did not, line up with what later happened. It’s a very sensitive and powerful book—it was later made into a film, which I haven’t seen—but it scared me so badly that I regretted reading it with the same intense energy one usually feels for regretting having done something, not simply having read or looked at something. If only I could take it back! Some things, once you’ve seen or heard them, do not go away.

I want to say here that the current wave of fascination with murder, which as far as I can tell has been spurred on if not created by podcasts and the Netflix’s serial killer documentary machine, leaves me very cold. I don’t find the “fandom” of well-known murders funny, and I don’t think being preoccupied with stuff like this makes a person interesting. I wish it would all go away. The violence, and the glamorization of the violence. Just make it stop. A line from one of my all-time favorite shows, Six Feet Under, comes to me now. When his coworker starts describing the M.O. of a serial killer they’ve agreed to embalm after he was executed by the state, the undertaker David nearly shouts: “Don’t tell me. It’s bad enough things like that happen. Do we have to talk about them too?”

But—I think sometimes sometimes we have to talk about them. Last year, during a period when I was feeling extremely disturbed after learning about an act of sexual violence that had happened to someone I love, I watched Conversations With a Killer, a four-part, nearly four-hour documentary Netflix produced about Ted Bundy and the journalists who managed the rare feat of interviewing him while he was on death row. I was hungry for this story, and not in my usual, guiltily self-harming way. It felt important for me to try to understand the reason a person might hurt someone for pleasure. I have to conclude that a hunger for understanding is the reason people write books like the one I read, and the one Diski reviewed, though I can’t say that in the case of this documentary I really gained much wisdom beyond an astonished sort of appreciation for the depths that people can sink to. 

(And yes, like it or not, these are people, not monsters. There’s no such thing as monsters, I’m afraid. In a song on Tori Amos’s album American Doll Posse—one of the funny, spooky little ditties she does so well—she sings: “Devils and gods, now that’s an idea / but if we believe that its they who decide / that’s the ultimate detractor of crimes / cuz devils and gods, they are you and I.”) 

One of the details from the Bundy film that haunts me the most, a year after watching it, is something one of the journalists said, something about regret. He was a tough old-school newspaper reporter and didn’t seem the type to be scared by much, but he talked about how thoroughly disturbed he was by Bundy, how he felt that by spending time with him he’d been infected by his essence. He described bringing home with him a darkness that has gnawed at him more, not less, as time has worn on, and he said he wished he’d never done the interviews at all. 

Touching from a Distance

(Other titles I considered for this post: “Closedown”, “Haunted When the Minutes Drag,” and “Shake the Disease”)

Well, it’s official. We’ll never have fun again.

The city of Philadelphia announced last week that gatherings of more than 50 people are cancelled until February 28, 2021. That means no club nights, no dance parties for another six months at least. I think this is honestly the only approach to the pandemic that makes any sense, and I’m proud to live in a place where the leadership has responded to it (mostly) appropriately. And I know it was unlikely that I’d feel safe going to parties even if the city started allowing them before then anyway. But wow, did it feel bad to hear this.

One of the best things Joe and I do together is go out to one of our “goth nights” and dance till our thigh muscles are twitching with exhaustion. Putting together the perfect outfit is, for me, just as much fun, and just as important, as the music we dance to. Goth and its various offshoots, interpretations, and related genres (industrial pop, darkwave, synth pop, post punk) are pretty theatrical subcultures, and participation in them is a kind of performance. You dress up like you belong, then go to the places where the people who matter will see that you look like one of them, that you are one of them. Getting it right is a rush. 

It’s already been four months and I miss this, badly. All of it: The cheesy drinks, since I’m too old to give a shit who’s gonna think my Red Bull cocktails are tacky. The music, of course, that feeling when a song you love comes on at top volume. Why is it so much more exciting when the DJ surprises you with a song than when you put it on yourself at home? (It’s the surprise, I guess. But it’s the community of it, too—everyone gets up and stomps to I’ve! Got to Say! That it hurts! When your favorite songs are everybody else’s favorite songs, that’s when you know you’re home.)

That sense of belonging is what I miss the most, I think, the moment when I step through the door and the thudding bass takes up residence in my chest, giddily disoriented while my eyes adjust to the lighting, and the gang’s all here—hair tattoos jackets boots god they’re gorgeous. Joe and I don’t usually feel the need to talk to anyone; just being there and feeling accepted is enough (though we’ll get a little thrill when another regular gives us the smile-nod, or someone checks one of us out in the bathroom). At some point, later in the evening, we’ll need a break from the heat of the club so we’ll go out and sit on the fire escape near the back door and eavesdrop on the smokers’ conversations as we shout to hear each other, ears ringing. Never happier. I am never happier than when I’m doing this.

Given that this is such a participatory culture, I’ve been interested to see that my love for it hasn’t been dampened one bit during the months that I’ve been unable to perform it for an audience. Not even in day-to-day life, like on the bus, when I let everybody take in my outfit as I walk down the aisle, VNV Nation pounding in my ears. No, I’ve been at home all the fucking time, just like the rest of you—but I’ve got my books. And that was actually the point of this post, to tell you about my goth books.

Shall we take a look at them?


Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace, by Andi Harriman and Marloes Bontje

Oh how I love these pictures. I could write a whole essay that’s just about the feeling of fantasizing over old photos, and another one about my fascination with “scenes” that happened before I was old enough to participate in them. There’s something else there too, something about images of youth frozen in time forever, which always turns me on and tortures me in equal measure.

The editors have strung together a really nice history of the early days of goth in collected vintage photos, research, and short essays about the history of goth culture, not just in the U.S. and the U.K. but around the world, including parts of the eastern bloc. This is a gorgeous, hefty book that I do indeed keep on my coffee table, and I’ve gotten halfway decent at making my hair look like the person’s on the cover even if I never was and never will be as beautiful as that human.

I also find myself interested in editor Andi Harriman, in part because she’s young but has such a deep knowledge of the history of goth. I’ve only seen her in photos but there’s a simplicity to her personal style that makes her seem timeless and placeless, like she could have stepped out of one of the photos in her book of some kids hanging around a cemetery in the Netherlands. Well done.

Goth: Undead Subculture, edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby

I brought this big honkin’ book to jury duty last year and clutched it all day like a security blanket. It protected me from having to be friendly to anyone there even if it couldn’t protect me from hearing the details of a fucking stabbing that I might have been, but thank the lord wasn’t, chosen to sit on the jury for.

This anthology was published by Duke University Press and the essays are scholarly ones, which means there’s more jargon and footnoting than anyone needs, but I don’t mind. There are a lot of interesting ideas here—on gender and representation, style and identity—and I still haven’t gotten to all of them. In one fascinating piece, Peri Gothous writes about his time as an exotic dancer at a gay male club in the early 90s, comparing his gothy appearance and the elaborate show he created to the mainstream tanned-and-muscled gym-guy dancers who were the norm at the club and the clientele’s stated preference. His act was an act of rebellion, and even though he had a loyal following his presence wasn’t always well received: “Male goth androgyny threatened normalized homosexuality as well as heteronormativity.”

Another essay, written by Anna Powell, looks at religiosity in goth culture. She writes: “In goth contexts, secular practices such as dancing have the potential to mobilize a sense of the numinous for their participants. According to the mythographer Rudolph Otto, numinous connotes the non-rational mystery behind all religions, evoking awe and fascination.” Totally. I’ve always said it: When we’re all together in the club, dancing to the DJ or watching the band, and we feel moved by the same thing at the same time, our spirits lift and mingle; there’s something else present and suddenly we’re in a sacred space. We’re at church.

Gothic Charm School: An Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them, by Jillian Venters

I’ve been looking at Gillian’s blog for years now—she started writing her monthly advice column in 1998! A long time ago, when I only had my love of dark music and fashion but no community I could feel a part of, I had the internet, and Gillian’s Lady of the Manners essays—particularly her breakdowns of sub-subcultures within the scene—were a real education for me. I follow her on Instagram now and can’t help but feel we’ve both come into our own.

I finally got around to buying her book, and it’s just as likable as the blog and frankly rather useful. A lot of it is quite sincerely about manners, and her insistence that goths, however tender and hurt their feelings may be from a lifetime of getting teased and messed with (ahem), do not need to be snotty to each other or to people outside the culture. I like this. I always appreciated Gillian’s inclusive attitude, especially years ago, when I was lonelier in a lot of ways. It went a long way in making me feel like I might belong.

I also never get tired of hearing her weigh in on goth-adjacent fashion and cultural moments like steampunk and dark mori. If you don’t know what mori is I suggest you get on over to Pinterest and drink that deliciousness in.

“Shake the Disease” has been stuck in my head for days now. Great song, but what’s with the lyrics, actually? Is he talking about social anxiety or what?