I tried to solve a murder – and almost had a nervous breakdown | Arwa Mahdawi

Admit it: you have listened to so many true crime podcasts that you think you could solve a murder.

That was how I felt, anyway. Several years ago, when true crime was at its peak, I developed a severe case of an affliction blighting millennial women around the world: amateur detective syndrome. I had immersed myself in so many murder mysteries that I figured it couldn’t be that hard to investigate one. I have written about the ethics of true crime, but I didn’t think much about the ethics of my decision to embark on a true crime crusade. I just wanted to find a juicy story.

And I found that story. In March 2020, I spoke to a man who told me where a body was buried. A woman had been missing for almost three decades – she was presumed dead, but a corpse had never been found. This guy told me who did it and the details of why he had never been convicted.

Why would I trust a random guy? Because he wasn’t just a random guy – he was a well-respected public figure who was intimately acquainted with the case. One of the missing woman’s friends, who had been fighting for justice for years, put me in touch with him.

After speaking to him, I was hooked. For the next few years, I spent countless hours and thousands of dollars investigating. I sued the police for the victim’s records; it took 18 months and a couple of appeals, but I finally won. I chased every lead. I combed through files at the dead woman’s brother’s house. I got a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. I felt so much like a detective that I almost bought a fedora.

So, you may be thinking, where is the story, then? Did I turn up with a shovel, unearth a body and crack the case? Is this column a coy way of announcing that I am a hero?

Unfortunately, no. After all the time I spent investigating, I didn’t get justice. The only thing I ended up with was a crisis of conscience that pushed me close to a nervous breakdown. On a personal level, the story took a toll. True crime can take you down an unhealthy rabbit hole. Several years ago, the late journalist Michelle McNamara became obsessed with finding the Golden State Killer. She did brilliant work, but the stress seriously affected her health.

I felt consumed by an ethical dilemma: I had a compelling story, but I couldn’t find a way to write it without ruining someone’s life. There was a 90% chance that a certain individual was responsible – but what if he wasn’t? Was it worth upending the lives of the living in the hope of getting justice for the dead? The missing woman’s brother wanted the story out there. The missing woman’s son, who had been young when she disappeared, didn’t. He wanted to move on with his life without lurid details about his mother coming up whenever someone Googled him.

I kept asking myself: if I went missing and the world forgot about me, would I want someone to try to get people to care again? Or would I want them to respect my child’s wishes and keep the past in the past, even if it meant someone getting away with murder?

I didn’t know what to do, so I ended up doing nothing. Every now and then, I go back to the story and try to write it in a way that feels interesting and ethical, but I haven’t managed it.

Some people have pulled it off. There are instances where amateur sleuths have succeeded where the police failed and secured justice for those forgotten by the justice system. True crime can be a force for good, but it rarely is. For the most part, particularly as the genre has become crowded with people hungry for podcasts and Netflix deals, it is exploitative, turning people’s pain into entertainment.

But it’s raising awareness, some people claim; it’s getting new attention for old cases. It’s a convenient line, but, as I have come to realise, attention isn’t enough.

Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

The Guardian

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