Q&A: Caroline Crew Discusses MMA, True Crime’s Purpose, and Fire as a Metaphor

Other Girls to Burn is a collection of essays that explores the relationship between women and violence within such contexts as the 2014 Isla Vista shooting, early Christian virgin martyrs (discussed in relation with modern true crime stories), mixed martial arts, and rape culture. The following is a Q&A with the author, Caroline Crew, about the key topics of the book and her thoughts on some of their broad implications.

1) Other Girls to Burn includes essays that have been published previously in Missouri Review, Quarterly West, Seneca Review, and many other publications. How far back were some of these essays written? And when did you first get the idea to gather them into a collection?

I play around with genre a lot, but one consistent truth in my writing is that I inevitably end up in rear-view mirror projects. What I mean by that is I’ll noodle away at something for a while—in the case of Other Girls to Burn about 7 years—and all of a sudden it becomes clear I’ve been working on a project the whole time! These essays began as research notes for a chapbook of poems inspired by female saints—until my own marginalia was far more interesting than the poems themselves. “Collection” is such a daunting and accurate descriptor of putting together this type of book—collecting your thinking, seeing the throughlines. The notion of it being “collection” as noun rather than verb came with the final essay, “A Case Against Pathology.” This was also the last essay I wrote, and I think it’s the place where I really came to understand why saints and mystics are important to me. In this essay I argue for the similarities of true crime and hagiography, and defend women’s love of true crime. Figuring out that continuation of how women have always and continue to find genres to confront violence felt like the light at the end of the tunnel—knowing why these saints appealed to me meant I could finish my searching with them.

2) Your essay “Vacation” deals with barriers in allyship and the issues of a feminism that defaults to white women over others. Considering the police brutality that sparked nation-wide protests during the pandemic, what are some key ideas you hope allies will take away from your essays in areas like feminism, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality?

This is a really tough question! I think what I hope to offer is a model of thinking, reading, and observing widely, and putting yourself under that critical inspection. It’s nerve-wracking to put out a book of essays that, in some ways, are already an aging portrait. My thinking has evolved on many topics! And as you say, in some ways the world has changed entirely since these essays were written. I’m not sure this notion is centralized in the book, but I’ve come back to this question several times and want to underscore being wrong and committing to learning as the most key of ideas.

3) Throughout Other Girls to Burn, the idea of fire and burning is repeatedly connected with gender violence, sexuality, and religion. These ideas pop up in very memorable lines throughout the collection (e.g. “I could make church candles from the unacceptable fat in my ass” or “The truth is that no one burned at Salem. The truth is that we want to remember witches burning” to name just two examples). How and why did fire get tied to detrimental depictions of women and sexuality, particularly in Christian imagery?

Personally: Lindsay Lohan. I came of age in the early 2000s, an era that’s depiction of women is currently being reexamined as sparked by the Free Britney movement. All of this to say: I was a tween and a teen girl reckoning with womanhood against tabloidism of “Fire Crotch” Lindsay Lohan.

The media’s treatment of Lohan and this figuration of her as the messy redheaded temptress didn’t come out of a vacuum—fire itself seems to have a rich and varied history as a metaphor: as divine presence, as divine punishment, and all shades in between. What interests me is less exactly where the origins of that imagery lies, but why the longevity and why the misremembering? Why do we want witches or martyrs to have been burned? I think the answer is annihilation. A hanged woman is still a body, a corpse. A burned woman is ash: absolute annihilation of the body. The power of metaphor is that it honors our physical response. Your brain ignites in the same region when confronted with literal rotting fruit as a metaphor in which I describe my hope as rotting fruit. So while Lindsay Lohan might not have been burned at the stake, that urge to annihilate her body—to make it spectacle and destroy—that’s still there when instead of her name, she’s reduced to a redhead joke.

4) In your essay “Union”, you talk about the dangers of narratives drawn from both marriage and whiteness. What purpose does the institution of marriage serve now? Is it worth preserving?

My least admirable trait is that I am a pragmatist. So even if hypothetically, I say, “No, let’s get rid of marriage,” how would that happen? How would that be enforced? What is the link between vision and living? Now, I am married, and largely happily. But my marriage was highly incentivized by bureaucracy: a cheaper and easier immigration process, health insurance, a tax break, recognition of my labor for this man. So I think the short answer is that marriage remains the bureaucratic tool it was designed to be, and while theoretically who can use that tool has been widened, well let’s just say: give me an anvil and I will not suddenly have the skills of a blacksmith. I don’t know if marriage is worth preserving in itself, but until we have better models to provide healthcare and recognize the largely gendered work of caretaking and homemaking, we’re stuck with it.

5) In “The Shoot and the Show”, you confess your not-so-proud pastime of watching MMA. Do you have a favorite MMA wrestler like Jon Jones, or do you not root for any one fighter?

MMA, like any art, has multiple models of praxis. And I love that! Jon Jones is perhaps the definition of “problematic fave,” but he’s still a fighter I try to convince skeptics of the sport to watch because he moves like thought! There’s no body/ mind split, just absolute intent. But, you know, we can’t just have heroes who are absolute geniuses. I’m a huge fan of journeyman fighters—like Donald Cerrone or Miesha Tate—who perhaps don’t have that hall of fame, Michael Jordan type of elite fighter, but whose success comes from the grind, from hard work and remaining a learner even at the top of your game. In fact, I have a screenshot of Miesha Tate finally getting her championship belt above my desk in my office. I am not a genius! I can’t make myself a genius! But I can keep going. And that is something we should all be rooting for.

6) In addition to violence against women, you’ve also written about recent instances of mass killings along with a few famous serial killers from the 20th century. How do you see people like Elliot Rodger and Edmund Kemper? Do they come from a similar place psychologically? How are they different?

Absolutely a similar landscape: American masculinity. A difference of degree, not kind.

I don’t have much elaboration here, except to say that this kind of violence is domestic terrorism, and that the radicalization of straight white men is a threat to us all. Patriarchy hurts everyone, men included.

7) Your last essay “A Case against Pathology” deals with the recent popularity of true crime and its focus on an overwhelming audience of women. You contemplate true crime’s potential, including preparing women for violence in their own lives, providing a form of therapy for trauma survivors, or perhaps nothing at all. In your eyes, does creating and consuming true crime serve a greater purpose? Or does it just exacerbate the inequities that still plague modern society?

We’re in such an exciting reconsideration of true crime as a genre! Books like Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl and collections like Sarah Marshall’s “Unspeakable Acts” and podcasts like “Affirmative Murder” are not only challenging the genre’s whiteness and questionable ethics, but really offered new models for how to write and discuss crime. To answer your question, though, frankly I don’t know! I don’t believe that art of any kind requires a higher purpose, or a purpose beyond itself. On the other side of your question, I don’t believe that representation of a crime necessarily exacerbates our failings as a society, but as a genre true crime certainly contributes to upholding white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. But perhaps there is a middle ground—an acknowledgement that the urge to examine, discuss, understand or even just look at the violence we inflict on each other is deeply human. Accepting this urge as morally neutral seems to me a good place to start in terms of moving towards an ethics of true crime.

8) Your hamster MoneyShot makes frequent appearances on your Instagram and twitter. What’s he been up to recently? What’s the worst crime MoneyShot ever committed?

Thank you so much for including my true muse! He’s had a lot of exciting adventures this summer– driving from GA to NY and then back to NC. A brief history of MoneyShot’s crimes: eating my avocado toast, escaping his tank, being obsessed with living in the suitcase closet instead of his palatial hamster mansion, destroying yoga mats, escaping again (and again), and taking up the entire back seat while moving interstate and cutting our potential storage in half. Currently he’s enjoying his twilight years by shoving peanuts in his mouth and taking sandbaths, as he’s now a bit elderly for the life of a criminal escape artist!

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