Alice Bolin’s nonfiction has appeared in many publications, including Elle, The AWL, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Vice’s Broadly, The Paris Review Daily, and The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. She currently teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis. You can follow her on Twitter here: @alicebolin
As a kid, I found myself as a second-hand viewer of the Dead Girl show, meaning it was always on in some capacity and was grooming me to be well-versed in the dangers of the world. I felt little to no desire to watch, but I knew the Dead Girl show loomed in the living room. In a tweet by comedian Jen Lap, she points out, “It’s weird how women (myself included) are obsessed with true crime shows, considering we’re typically the victims. That’s like if chickens loved watching Top Chef.” So, why are we drawn to stories of our victimhood?
This is a question that writer Alice Bolin explores in her debut collection, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. Bolin artfully exposes the macabre tropes of the crime genre, provides the reader with a syllabus of pop culture references, and weaves in personal essays of her coming-of-age in Moscow, Idaho, and Los Angeles. With X-Acto-knife precision, Bolin articulates everything a girl growing up in the 90s has internalized such as Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time,” Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation, and of course, Dateline NBC. I was thrilled to speak with Alice over the phone on a chilly November afternoon. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Natalie Tombasco: In pop culture, the body of the Dead Girl is depicted as grotesquely beautiful, as if lifted from a Renaissance painting. You point to the body of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer by writing of her “river-wet hair slicked around her porcelain face, blue with death but still tranquil, lovely” Why is the Dead Girl depicted in this way?
AB: There are a lot of potential answers to this, but I do connect it to images that haunted Western culture and antiquities. I think of the virgin martyr and other totems of female purity and death that send this message of dying being the greatest vocation for women, or the highest accomplishment one can achieve in this way that’s honorable or infamous.
NT: You examine the Dead Girl’s purpose by writing, “Just as for the murderer, the detectives in True Detective and Twin Peaks, the victim’s body is a neutral arena on which to work out male problems.” I began thinking about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and how she exists as a catalyst for the male’s coming-of-age and lacks any depth in terms of narrative or desires. Do you think there is any similarity between these tropes?
AB: Of course! Absolutely. What I was trying to do when writing the book was not only think about obsessions with violence or social issues but these narrative tropes that are repeated over and over again and keep our storytelling in this stagnant, boring place. I think any trope where you have a man—often a privileged, white man—at the center of the story and women exist to push his story along, or lead him to revelation or redemption. It’s like whether the woman dies or not, or whether it’s a love story or a murder story, you still have this sort of flattening of experience—the kind of experience we deem noteworthy. So yeah, I totally connect them.
One thing that I’m annoyed by, or frustrated by, is this prevalence of “Prestige TV” that has earned critical praise, where the stories and characters, to me, feel so similar. It’s always this bad dude/anti-hero, some kind of criminal element, and women serve to either hold the guy back, or push him forward, but it’s just this thing that’s repeated ad nauseam. Even beyond my feminist issue with the Dead Girl in particular, I also have an issue with the replication of boring stories in general.
NT: Another trope that I find to be important in the true crime genre is the Attractive Psycho Guy. I’m thinking of Norman Bates’s “boy next door” appeal, Patrick Bateman’s chillingly rigorous skin-care routine, and current films like You and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. America’s infatuation with these figures is incredibly timely considering cases like Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh where men with a certain appeal get away with hideous actions. With all the red flags in culture, why are viewers intrigued by, or sympathetic to this archetype?
AB: Well, the way I think about it is sort of the opposite. Because we have these archetypes in fiction, then we can easily forgive the actions of random, privileged men who get away with horrible things. I think that’s the reason we re-create this story about the hyper-brilliant and charismatic serial killer or con man, who is monstrously charming and clever because we want to believe that. We want to believe that people who get away with crimes are smarter and better than the rest of us in some way, and not that we have a culture that’s set up to benefit them. I mean, because then we would really have to examine ourselves, and our justice system.
So, in some ways, it actually bothers me when Ted Bundy is played by Zac Efron in a movie and people say he was “handsome,” or that he was smart. I mean, was he? These are just characteristics that we replicated and then they become true. I don’t think we have any evidence that that’s true. It’s the same with Brett Kavanaugh or Brock Turner—there’s nothing special about them. What’s special about them is their privilege and wealth. Then, they start to fit in with these stories that help us to forgive unforgivable actions.
NT: Right. Yeah, we kind of humanize them, too.
AB: Yeah, or even super-humanize them. There was a story in Steubenville, Ohio, where a girl was gang-raped at a party and the coverage was like, “These football players’ lives are ruined. They can’t go to college.” It wasn’t that this girl’s life is ruined. There is this humanizing element, but also the desire for our villains to be superhuman. Another example is the Dirty John podcast, where the main character is a con man who repeatedly uses women in awful ways, and everyone was like, “Oh, he’s a monster!” But, is he? Or do men get away with crime?
NT: I’d like to transition to the more memoir-centric essays. The first being “The Place Makes Everyone a Gambler,” where you ask: “If the open road is an American totem of independence and escape, what does it mean when the road is actually a closed circuit?” This essay embodies W.B. Yeats’s quote, “the centre cannot hold,” as it attempts to bring order, or “connective tissue” to the collection. Can you speak more on how you feel the Dead Girl theory works alongside the “humdrum danger” of driving and “apocalyptic weather” of L.A.?
AB: The collection really came together when I moved to Los Angeles, or that’s where it germinated. Part of it was because there are so many famous noir stories that take place in L.A.—the Black Dahlia or Raymond Chandler novels—where L.A. noir was such a trope. Once I moved there, I really understood the mood of those stories because there’s a feeling of dissonance. Sometimes it’s so sunny that it gives you a migraine. The weather is excessive—mild, yet swings between extremes. You can live below the radar in a way that you can’t in most major cities because it’s so spread out. There are so many pockets and secret places.
The super-rich and famous people were there, and I’d even see them sometimes, but that’s not the lifestyle of a huge majority of people who live in L.A. They have nothing to do with the entertainment industry, so that was dissonant as well. For me, the Dead Girl story has to do with secrets and what’s left unsaid about society. Once I moved to L.A., I kind of got it. I understood that tension because I lived it, and because of the kinds of lifestyles that were available to me.
NT: Investigating your father’s pleasure for macabre mystery novels in “The Daughter as Detective,” you admit to the reader, “I thought I was reading them in a quest to understand him better.” While this is telling, I began wondering if you were a daughter to someone else. As a literary descendant of Joan Didion, did you consider writing Dead Girls as a way to connect, or understand Didion’s desire to make sense of the turbulent times in her collection The White Album? Where do you see yourself in the tradition of memoir?
AB: Definitely. I wrote the book trying to think about my place in the nonfiction and personal essay genres. Seeing Didion as the patron saint, or the matriarch, of that form, and one of the people who invented it as we know it today. As a young person who just started writing nonfiction, she was so formative for me. But there’s some irony, too. I’m thinking about the Oedipus complex in the book and trying to kill your mother in order to create your own identity.
That was definitely a conscious connection with Didion. I wanted to understand how she fits in her times, her failings to understand her times, and to gain insight into what she documented in The White Album. I wanted to understand what we need to keep and renovate about her. It frustrates me when people want to say, “Oh, ya know, Didion’s not that great,” and throw out the baby with the bathwater. She was a product of her times and an endlessly fascinating, contrarian figure, which is common to great, nonfiction writers because you have to pull yourself away in order to really write about, document, and analyze cultural phenomena.
NT: In “The Poetics of Joan Didion’s Journalism,” Mark Z. Muggli argues, “What sets Didion apart from most other journalists is her dependence on an extreme form of metaphor that moves along a spectrum beyond the symbol to what we might call ‘emblem.’” I feel as if your Idaho home being a “green-engineering experiment” is emblematic of a place for refuge from the “feral and morbid childhood pretends.” What poetic qualities do you admire in Didion’s work, and how important was it to make Dead Girls sing?
AB: Everyone talks about Didion’s sentences, which is such a writer thing. I do think her sentences changed over the years. They became longer and more circuitous, more studded with semicolons because she was trying to make a sentence that can encompass all of these ideas in an interesting way. Well, okay, I have my MFA in poetry. And actually, I find lyrical prose to be quite tedious because it’s like, “I’ll just read poetry.” Sometimes I like to keep it separate in a certain way. To me, it was more about keeping my sentences precise or enacting a kind of style that I see in Didion. More than being lyrical or poetic, she is just so stylish and has these signatures to her voice.
That idea of an emblem, or a long-running metaphor, is something I think about. Actually, I was telling my students about this and calling it a “watchword,” for when you have an idea that holds the piece together. There’s something really satisfying about that, even if it’s just through association. Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed is one that does that the very best. She’ll talk about birds or other kinds of images, that’ll recur in ways that are surprising and pleasing. Batuman was someone I thought about while writing Dead Girls.
NT: “A Teen Witch’s Guide to Staying Alive” was an essay that I ate up with a spoon. It delves into the fairytale realms of Toni Morrison’s and Helen Oyeyemi’s writing, the woman’s domain being “the kitchen, the cellar, and the garden,” and her dysfunctional relationship to food and body image. You write, “Eating disorders are a kind of penance and a kind of fortification and a kind of disguise.” Food is a loaded metaphor to be used as nourishment, as protection, as punishment—a means to control or adapt. It gives the book an interesting facet. Can you speak more about the convergence of food and witchcraft?
AB: The teen witch section was the most frustrating for me to write and revise and I actually thought about cutting it because I kept asking myself, “Does this fit with the rest of the book? Is it cliché to write about witchcraft?” In the end, witchcraft was important because it deals with survival and how girls grow up and find ways to control and maintain an inner life in a violent and misogynistic culture. I think controlling or fixating on food is one way that girls find control, even if it may be a harmful or pathological one.
I’m very interested in personal rituals and secret habits that girls have in order to maintain their dignity and identity in the face of a culture that wants to control them. There is an abundance of witchy images within all these Dead Girl stories that present the power of women. When you hear about the Dead Girl it’s always, “Oh, she was so beautiful and so kind. Everyone who met her was mysteriously drawn to her.” There is a certain amount of fear of this semi-magical of teen girl sexuality.
NT: If you are what you eat, Dead Girls consumes, or binges, every guilty pleasure in its path—from Lolita to trashy MTV reality shows. With a keen eye, it articulates what being an American girl in the 1990s and 2000s was like, internalizing the Lana Del Rey persona of “bored, sexually mature suburban teenager” or the shaved-head version of Britney Spears. How do current pop singers, for example, Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, relate to the Dead Girl?
AB: Interesting. I’m not sure. The late-90s were this sort of children’s and teen’s monoculture, where everything was centered around this TRL moment. You had Britney, the Backstreet Boys, and this insane explosion because Millennials are the largest generation ever. Once we became consumers everything was directed towards us. The culture of young people now, I think, is much more atomized and niche. My little cousin who is thirteen likes all these musicians on SoundCloud who I’ve never heard of.
Now, there’s something interesting about the split personality of pop radio. Billie Eilish is kind of emo and drowning in baggy clothes, Ariana Grande is a classic throwback of a 1960-ish coquette, and Lizzo has her own thing going on, where she’s older than them and has a totally different persona. I do see it as being much more diverse than when I was growing up and everything was centered around this one idea of the pop star. It was almost literally cookie-cutter where from The Mickey Mouse Club you had Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson. It was as if they were being manufactured by their respective record labels to have identical personas.