The first time I really devoted myself to amateur sleuthing I was 11 and a neighbour in his mid-20s had fallen from the 15th floor and landed in front of our apartment. My family lived on the ground floor of a high-rise and while we were at school, my mom watched him make impact in front of our balcony after he leapt from his own. By the time we got home most of the evidence of this tragedy was gone, save for some remaining red-coloured snow. I remember peppering my mom with a million questions and being overly fascinated with the physical reminders of this person along with the whys. When the snow melted my sisters and I went on a search for clues about what was left of this mystery man who had left such a mark on our last days of winter.
We bagged and tagged a few things, a tooth, some bone fragments, which we very soundly, according to our young minds, kept in the freezer in some Ziploc. It was being held there in case it turned out he had been pushed and somehow these forensic keepsakes would be the keys to closing the case. Eventually, though, spring turned into summer and I forgot about the bones in the freezer and all the leftover red snow was gone and the memory of that man was relegated to the occasional school yard brag about that one time I almost saw a real life dead body.
That was also the summer I became acutely aware of my vulnerability as a young woman. There had been a note about an abduction attempt in the neighbourhood and not long after that note I was followed by a rust-covered car on a foggy afternoon. I'd stayed late at school finishing up a project and when I finally left the usually bustling building, the five or six blocks home were completely empty. The fog was so thick I couldn't see more than a few kid-sized steps in front of me. At first it made the boring walk home seem magical. The park between school and my house became enchanted, enveloped in a thick, white mist that made everything surreal and beautiful instead of regular and dull. Then on the final stretch of sidewalk before our house I heard a honk. I slowed but didn't stop. Another honk. Finally, I turned to look and saw an older car with an older man, waving me over. In the fog, it seemed like the car had merely appeared like in a dream or through osmosis. I hadn't heard it following me. For a small moment I wondered if it was one of my relatives coming to find me because I'd been so late getting home. But the face in the windshield didn't make sense to me. So I ran. I don't know if I made a single sound or took a single breath all the way home, I just remember running.
It felt like something important that demanded the same kind of circumstance and ceremony as the dead body that had been on our patch of grass not that long ago. But we called the police, they took a report over the phone and that was it. Everything stayed the same except for me. Suddenly, I was very aware of the strangers around me. Conversations between my parents and their friends were no longer just garbled adult nonsense, but ominous hints at the dark world of grown-ups. I would hear them talking to each other about the dad who maybe lingered too long at the park. About which teacher they never did quite trust. About sleepovers and the safety of small bodies and slowly I felt like the fog of childhood, the belief that we're impervious to the destruction of life that surrounds adults, had permanently lifted.
The vulnerability of our female bodies, once discovered, never leaves us. It's why I took that early interest in collecting bones and finding clues and turned it into an obsession with true crime, with the goriest tales of murder and madness and the banality of man-made evil. It's why I've committed every single episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to memory, devoured every season of Forensic Files and taken in every CSI spinoff, even the wildly boring CSI: New York. If I could figure out the formula, the random chaos that separated me from these fictional victims, then maybe I could avoid what seemed like any woman's fate.
To be a woman is to never take one's safety for granted. And it's this awareness, this need to understand what's hiding in the shadows and the fog that drives our attachment to serialized death.
A few years ago Time Magazine asked if "murder shows are the new soap operas" after the launch of specialty cable channel Investigation Discovery, devoted to blood and gore. It quickly became clear women were driving ID's immense viewership. Since then podcasts like Serial, My Favourite Murder and Missing Richard Simmons have capitalized on that obsession. As have classes like, "How to Identify a Body" recently hosted at Toronto's Action Potential Lab, a science and art lab which focuses on teaching a variety of sciences through immersive art. The course on body identification was taught by Dr. Tracy Rogers, a nationally acclaimed forensic anthropologist who worked on the Pickton murders as well as the recent Tim Bosma case. I signed up for the class immediately, expecting a handful of other weirdos to attend. Instead I found nearly 20 other women, as immersed in sleuthing as I was, all trying to understand their own vulnerabilities.
"I think part of it is that we know our own lives are more at risk than men are so it's almost like a self-education, what can I do to prevent a crime? What do I need to know to outwit the predators that are always coming after me, at all times? Or maybe it's like a sick obsession with a dark future that could but hopefully will not happen to you," Paige Dzenis, a fellow attendee told me, as we poked and prodded at human skulls, learning all the ways the police will try to identify your body if you go missing and only part of you turns up.
And we're not just consumers of these shows, as Dr. Rogers pointed out, women are also leading the way in the field as well. "It's a trend we see in the forensics science programs, most of my fourth year course is women. I've thought about it at various points, about why that might be. I think one of things in particular that women are interested in are stories. And cases are stories, the story of somebody's life, the story of somebody's death. There's a whole story there waiting to be told if you know how to read the evidence," she said.
And while the pretense of that body identification class may have seemed macabre, a course in how to find and name the missing, the reality of it was almost a clinical class in how to be found. I learned I need to update the information on my driver's license, tell people who my dentist is, so that if the worst were to happen I could at least hope to make my story known.
They are stories we've told each other since we could talk. In hushed tones, in murmurs, we tell our friends, our sisters, how to stay safe, who to avoid. Who will have one too many drinks and suddenly raise their expectations of your friendship. Who will pledge their solidarity only to turn around and label you a bitch, a prude, a psycho if you reject them or defy them. And so in these dramatic retellings of rape and assault and murder, we play out the worst-case scenarios of our stories and we say, "see." See us, see what can happen to us, see what you have done to us. And we feel less crazy and less alone.
Follow Amil on Twitter