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‘Carrie Carolyn Coco’ Isn’t Like Any Other True Crime You’ve Read

During the first few years of my teaching career, the first unit for my students was centered around Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. In our true-crime obsessed culture and in my classes focused on rhetoric and the art of argument, I felt the unit worked on a variety levels. Capote’s book would draw them into the work of the class, and it would get them thinking about and discussing issues we’re currently facing as a society: the injustice of the criminal justice system, the horrors of prison and our carceral imaginations, the complicated nature of justice itself, and the exploitative nature of the true crime genre and how it stokes our already ingrained carceral beliefs.

About halfway through the unit, I’d always ask in open class discussion, “So, what do we know about their victims? Who are they?” My students, usually stunned, would quickly realize how little they knew, how the family’s lives were whittled down to a couple of paragraphs in a 300 page book, and how they’d hardly even noticed before I brought it up. Discussion would often lead to class agreement on the fact that creators of true crime content rarely, if ever, care for the lives of the victims before their untimely deaths. We’re always left with the question of who they are, and sometimes, we don’t even afford them the humanity they so rightfully deserve.

While the circumstances surrounding these events are much different, Sarah Gerard’s new book, Carrie Carolyn Coco: My Friend, Her Murder, and an Obsession with the Unthinkable, is not only an exploration of the horrific murder of her friend, Carolyn Bush, in 2016 but also a response to this ongoing problem in the genre and in our culture. This is clear from the very beginning of the book. Before Gerard reveals the events surrounding Bush’s murder, she focuses on Carolyn and her relationship to her older sister, Jenny. Through this introduction, we learn that Carolyn was a writer and intellectual who loved living in New York despite the difficulty of paying for her life there; she attended Bard College but didn’t finish her degree there; she spent much of her time trying to cultivate the community space she and some friends/colleagues started called Wendy’s Subway; she had a close-knit group of friends and loved ones whom she deeply cared about; and she liked to remain a little mysterious despite those tight connections. It’s a move that helps us establish an understanding of who Carolyn was early on and helps differentiate Gerard’s work in this book from an approach to true crime we might be familiar with.

Soon after, Gerard describes what happened to Carolyn. In September 2016, she was stabbed to death by her roommate, Render Stetson-Shanahan. Gerard narrates the circumstances of that night as chaotically as they happened and leaves us with the same questions plaguing Gerard and everyone in Carolyn’s life. Why and how did this happen? What led this man to commit such a grisly act of violence against someone everyone understood to be so kind, loving, generous, and thoughtful?

Although some of the rest of the book does grapple with these questions and attempt to answer them, what follows is much less formulaic and much more intense and surprising than anyone could predict. Gerard launches several investigations simultaneously, the main one being an inquiry into Carolyn’s life from when she was a young child to the time right before she was killed; another examining some of Stetson-Shanahan’s personal history, his artistic ambitions, and his interest in weapons; one that focuses specifically on the history of Bard College, it’s president Leon Botstein, and the many instances of sexual assault, violence, and untreated mental health emergencies that occurred on campus since Botstein became president; and perhaps the most harrowing one, a examination of how her friends, family, and colleagues were impacted by this tremendous loss.

Through these investigations, Gerard provides us with the accounting of all of the facts, factors, and conditions that might help explain why and how this awful murder happened in the first place. But she also gives us so much more than that. It would be a disservice to the unique approach Gerard adopted to produce this book and tell Carolyn’s story to simply compare this work to everything that came before it, but I think it’s important to establish how much Carrie Carolyn Coco differs from everything we’ve come to know. It is a substantial departure from the ways these stories are usually presented to the public. Gerard’s unceasing and meticulous research takes this story beyond the end of Carolyn’s life and exposes us to the life she actually lived, the art and beauty that was born of that life, the communities of people she impacted through the various kinds of work she did and the kinship she provided to them, and the ways in which our patriarchal, carceral, and justice-averse society often fails to protect us from the most awful and brutal acts of violence.

From what she could gather from the people who mattered most to Carolyn, from Carolyn’s internet presence, and many other sources of information, Gerard completely reconstructs Carolyn’s life story from the day she was born to the day she was murdered. She writes in vivid and lyrical detail about Carolyn’s upbringing in St. Petersburg, Florida, the friendships and relationships that colored her life, her early love of reading and writing and helping others, her early years at Bard College, her struggles with mental health issues and perfectionism, her move to New York City and all of the trials and triumphs that came with it, and Gerard’s own relationship with Carolyn and their mutual friends. Gerard then probes family histories, historical records, periodicals, and people inside of the communities of Rhineback, New York — Stetson-Shanahan and his family’s home — and Bard College to elucidate the conditions that produce the kinds of violence Carolyn experienced and produce the conditions necessary for creating a culture that never responds appropriately to them. Similarly, through what has to be literal months worth of interview time, Gerard examines how Carolyn’s murder continues to affect and transform the people who loved her and the communities she helped build.

Gerard’s pursuit of the truth and of understanding is not only evident in her adept and powerful storytelling but in the tenderness and ferocity with which she approaches every single aspect of her recounting. Through this work, Carrie Carolyn Coco is both a remarkable accounting of the life of a loving and dearly loved young woman taken far too early in one of the most gruesome ways we could imagine and an indictment on our culture as a whole — how the most wealthy and powerful are able to bypass their responsibilities to others, how the lives of women and other marginalized people are viewed and treated as less valuable, and how so many of us look to stories like this one as a source of entertainment rather than enlightenment. Moreover, it becomes an unforgettable testament to the power of artistic community and the ways we’re called on to fight for and protect each other, even in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds.

Thinking about all that Gerard has accomplished in her writing of this book would’ve felt like an impossibility before Carrie Carolyn Coco arrived in the world. But it’s here now, and it’s not unthinkable any longer. It is a compassionate, illuminating, and fiercely researched and written response to what has become of true crime as we know it now and to some of the most devastating and heartbreaking realities people are forced to contend with every day. Gerard forces us to reckon with ourselves and how we approach the world around us and proves many times over in this book that we should’ve been doing that all along. Hopefully, some of us will listen.

Carrie Carolyn Coco: My Friend, Her Murder, and an Obsession with the Unthinkable by Sarah Gerard comes out tomorrow, July 9.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.

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