How I Listen to True Crime After Knowing a Murderer

In 2015, I took a language class with someone. The next year, he murdered a local man. I followed that case to its painful conclusion while I reflected on what it meant to have known a murderer and how it affected our community.

Then, I began listening to true crime podcasts with my girlfriend.

We met in a culture and languages course. I took it to make up a credit, and he had a keen interest in the arts. We met a mix of vibrant people in the class and took to the material with care and enthusiasm. During undergrad, I was that person who always answered questions and participated. I was just glad to find someone who did the same.

I didn’t know much about his background, but he seemed to care greatly for his work. During a section on oral tradition, he brought up his experience as imbongi, a Xhosa praise singer and storyteller. The professor called on him to give a small performance, which he did with the artform’s characteristic verve and intensity. Otherwise, he diligently took notes on a laptop and participated in discussions. When the course ended, we said goodbye and parted ways.

I wish that was the last I’d hear of him. So much would be better if that was the end of it.

The first few times my girlfriend played true crime podcasts in my presence, I tuned in. They left me a little disconcerted. It wasn’t the gruesomeness that got to me. The stuff that made me tense up was more mundane. The uncertainty. Living in fear of victimization. Recovering from trauma as a secondary survivor.

Most of all, I wondered why she’d want to play that in our home.

We’re both South Africans. Our home country is dysfunctional on a good day and kind of a catastrophe on a bad one. We averaged about 80 homicides per day by the end of 2023. Which is a lot higher than the US’s estimated 50 per day. It’s several times higher per capita, since our population is over five times smaller than the US. Every single South African is a victim of stranger crime or has a personal near-miss story.

My girlfriend’s family has faced several break-ins — quiet ones, thankfully. When she was 10, she suffered an armed mugging. A grown-ass man came after her phone. Even so, he wasn’t confident in his ability to defeat a 10 year-old unarmed and brought a tree branch for emotional support. He was caught, and he got hit with a much worse charge for being armed. She told me the judge didn’t care whether the weapon was a tree branch or something more purposeful. All she knew was this particular judge held a very dim view of crimes against children and dropped a proverbial piano on her attacker’s head.

Meanwhile when I was 10, I slept through an incident where a relative was held at gunpoint while a car was stolen from our garage. By age 13, my family was held at gunpoint while we were relieved of our valuables. I’ve been a pretty staunch atheist most of my life, but that night was exceptional. With my face planted in the living room carpet and our attackers counted heads with pistol barrels, I began praying.

South Africa’s a strange country. Our crime fiction authors make up murders in sleepy towns for their English readership while their children are held at gunpoint and friends are murdered right at home. That’s what made up the dissonance I felt when I first listened to true crime over my girlfriend’s shoulder.

Why listen to fourth-hand stories about these awful things? 

We have true crime at home. It’s worse.

Following a murder you’re close to isn’t completely unlike listening to a podcast. It’s still a narrative of human suffering and loss. It just plays out much more slowly and there’s no entertainment value. There’s only the mounting horror of learning what people close to you are capable of.

Just like a true crime podcast episode, it began with a body floating in a dam. A succession of suspects were arrested, including my old classmate. It swiftly became clear that the crime was not only cruel, but also incompetent. Mountains of evidence and witnesses were located. The accused turned on each other or changed their statements almost at random. Our town followed the case closely. Homicides happen, but coordinated torture-murders are rare.

I want to say it’s also rare for students from my university to kill, but that’s not totally true. We had a murder in 2003. There was a murder-suicide in 2014. My freshman year began the next year in 2015. When I arrived, people were already trying to forget that it happened. I don’t think anybody wanted to dwell on who our fellow students could be in the dark.

My classmate turned out to be the ringleader of this crime. He and three accomplices (some who were relatives) kidnapped and tortured a man to death. The victim was a local man named Thembelani Qwakanisa. The perpetrators claimed he’d stolen my classmate’s laptop — a huge asset to an impoverished student — so they kidnapped him to locate it. There is no evidence that Thembelani stole that laptop, but the callousness and cruelty of his death became well-established during the trial.

Local and regional newspapers reported regularly on the court proceedings. It never made national news though. This case didn’t matter enough. 80 homicides per day, remember? A murder has to be really special to make national headlines in South Africa.

But it mattered to the victim. Thembelani was working at a game reserve and had a steady partner. It mattered to his family who depended on him to keep them above the breadline. His life was a solid feat in a country with a 32% unemployment rate. It mattered to the community who lost one person to murder and four others to prison. All because my classmate claimed he was a victim of theft and he wanted to resolve it extrajudicially.

Media makes it convenient to think of murder as an act that starts with a body and ends with a verdict. Murder is a crime with a long tail. I’ve mentioned the primary victim, but said nothing of the secondary victims affected.

My classmate was the only member of his family who made it to university. One judge noted that he was the family’s hope of escaping poverty. He was studying full-time while also supporting a grandmother and two younger sisters. His fellow perpetrators included a cousin who earned $105 per month working informally and had a three-year-old child to support. His other cousin, also convicted, was supporting a child on $73 a month. The child’s mother was completing her high school diploma and was unemployed. This wasn’t ‘just’ a murder. This was the annihilation of several families.

The long tail of murder reaches people who didn’t go to a single court hearing or meet the victim’s family. It devastates a community’s already lackluster sense of security. It reaches random people like me who once met a passionate classmate taking notes on a laptop.

And I just can’t get that tail of destruction out of my mind when I consume true crime content.

I never had the benefit of distancing myself from the material presented in true crime. My life was at risk during those childhood home invasions, and I laughed with a killer before I knew what he was. Still, neither experience destroyed me. In some ways, I care even more. True crime content is harder to listen to but much more impactful when I do tune in. I have to listen with care.

Listening with care means examining my limits and respecting them. A lot of people can’t handle crimes involving children but can sit through a grisly torture story. My experience is inverted. I was the victim of crimes as a child, and that’s just part of my life’s tapestry. But I can’t listen to protracted torture narratives without thinking of the man my classmate killed. Rather than binge-listening, I sit down after episodes and ask myself: How do I feel after hearing that?

It’s a chance to learn about my comfort zone. A chance to respect it in the future.

Registered Clinical Counsellor Niloufar Esmaeilpour says there are signs that distressing media is becoming more harmful than helpful. She says, “These are worsening anxiety or fear that persists well after the film has been watched. Another indicator is if intrusive thoughts or flashbacks related to past traumatic experiences have been triggered by the media.”

But strong emotions alone are not an indicator of something going amiss. It’s quite rational to feel strongly about these stories, saying that, “It may not, however, be a cause for concern in case changes in mood such as persistent sadness, anger, or detachment that coincide with consumption of the media can suggest that it is impacting one’s mental health negatively. But, more times than not, the responses might be subtle at first, only to get stronger later on, prompting the person to be self-aware and pay close attention to the changes.”

Listening with care also means paying attention to secondary victims. The people in these stories aren’t just victimized by crime. ‘Victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ are not always clear-cut categories, and people often suffer due to circumstances beyond their control. Ironically, the crime is often the least important part of a story. Violent crime is often the conclusion to a story that began far away, and it pays to hear it from start to finish.

Lastly, listening with care also means hearing the story of the perpetrators. It can be convenient to explore outliers. The Dahmers, Geins, and Bundys of the world make for tremendous spectacle. But leaning into exceptional cases reinforces a stereotype that murder is exceptional and irrelevant to us. In reality, most murders happen for very relatable reasons: money, anger, jealousy, belonging. We’ve all experienced those. Some people just take that experience to its most violent conclusion. Even the most callous predators share something with me and my former classmate. They cared about someone. They found humor somewhere. They had aspirations.

Then, they took everything from themselves and others alike.

The burden of engaging more productively with true crime doesn’t just fall to the audiences. True crime creators get to control and produce their content, and should bear most responsibility for what they say and how they say it.

Niloufar says that there are green flags to look for in productions that reflect respect for the material. These include, “clear and specific trigger warnings before presenting potentially distressing content, so that viewers could be prepared or opt not to watch if they are vulnerable. Another positive signal could be providing support resources at the end of such episodes, such as helpline numbers or links to counseling services. Contextual to the true crime media, this also benefits when the narration is humane in a detailed manner, and the sensitivity and respect for the victims and their families are brought out through fact-based reporting without sensationalism.”

Thinking about the violence I’ve seen has understandably left me with a lot of feelings. There’s much to be said about seeing so much violence in your short life that you become desensitized. It’s background noise until something truly awful happens nearby and it all comes crashing back.

When I’m not surrounded by violence, I expose myself to it in media and entertainment. I think Niloufar is right when she says that, “There is an intricate relationship between trauma victims and their consumption of media that portrays similar traumatic events. One reason people might be attracted to such content is an unconscious reach toward gaining some form of resolution or understanding in their own experiences.”

She calls it a ‘managed environment whereby an individual can try to make some kind of sense out of the senseless by exploring feelings of fear or distress within safe limits.’

Yet there’s hope. It’s not uncommon to consume distressing media to the point it becomes digital self-harm. But there’s also space to listen because there’s hope — that’s what I still try to do. Each conviction spreads hope for a working justice system. Each unsolved case showcases hope for better techniques. Each botched investigation highlights hope for reform and improvement.

My reasons for listening to true crime remain personal and complex. I just know that I try to do it with care for myself and the society around me.

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Summer Tao

Summer Tao is a South Africa based writer. She has a fondness for queer relationships, sexuality and news. Her love for plush cats, and video games is only exceeded by the joy of being her bright, transgender self

Summer has written 31 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. There’s a lot of care and food for thought in this article – can’t really articulate it yet beyond the excellence of your work, Summer! Thank you for sharing this

  2. Thank you so much for this in depth text.
    I react to true crime and its consumption in a similar way as you. For a signicant period of time, i was also exposed to actual violence such as murder, shooting etc in my direct environment. While i was not directly affected, and old enough to not be traumatised, for me it led to a total deinterest in true crime.
    What i didn’t handle so well was when i saw that mainly friends of mine who grew up very sheltered and “boring”, consume true crime in large quantities.
    It made me low key angry at them, also because i couldn’t make then understand why i reacted in that way. This only got better when i talked to a gay friend from a very violent country, who also has zero interest in true crime or other violent media, and geeks in a similar way.
    So thank you for sharing your thoughts, it is very reassuring.

    • I hard relate to what you just wrote. There are countless different kinds of people who engage with true crime media. As with any media, there definitely are people who live completely unrelated lives who consume it for entertainment.

      I still bear some resentment to people who live away from violent crime and consume it as entertainment. I have an especially low opinion of presenters who bill themselves as comedians. The quickest way to lose me as a listener is to talk about a ‘live special’ at a comedy theatre or have a fat giggle while hawking merchandise. I strongly dislike making violent crime a profitable comedic venture. And this exact pattern is followed by many of the more successful presenters. Shows like ‘My Favorite Murder’ (whose title alone just turns me off), and Morbid lost me once I began engaging with the material presented more critically. Because they are at their hearts, a comedic venture first and any educational value is only incidental.

      Another glaring red flag for me in any true crime presentation is when shows (usually comedy shows) veer into ghost stories and ‘spooky’ content. They know their audiences well: young women in developed countries who have a passing interest in pop culture paranormal stuff. And they will lean into it with ‘theories’ about ghosts and haunting as it pertains to criminal cases. Or just start showcasing ‘hauntings’ and other ‘spooky’ stories to keep their audiences. Especially since there is a limited roster of true crime cases they can engage with at their level of expertise (usually shock-jockey high profile cases that EVERYONE covers sooner or later). I firmly believe that pseudosciences like ‘hauntings’ and ‘ghosts’ have no place alongside the reality of intensely violent crime and its social consequences. I’m perfectly fine with that sort of thing being presented elsewhere. But in my mind, presenting ghost stories alongside real crime is highly degrading to the crime. Especially since in true crime (unlike many history podcasts), people affected by the cases are often still alive. Relatives of victims and perpetrators, actual survivors, etc., are often still alive and surrounded by coverage that is inaccurate or worse, served as comedic entertainment. There is seldom a mechanism for journalistic ethics in these presentations. True crime ‘comedians’ use their position as entertainers and comedians to shield themselves from the responsibility of managing victim/survivor safety or the burden of accuracy. But they happily leverage violent crime for comedy entertainment.

      As to listening to true crime content that doesn’t fall into these trappings, I’ve worked out an approach that works for me. And I tend to evaluate new podcasts/presenters/videos based on certain criteria:

      0. The first rule is that no presenter is ever above critique. Because it is fundamentally the creators’ responsibility to produce, manage, maintain content and communities that showcase a net good when handling distressing content.

      1. I strongly favour an expertise-led approach. My current listening roster has a lot of Killer Psyche (Candice DeLong), Women and Crime (Drs. Sacks & Shlosberg) and Buried Bones (Dawson & Holes). All of these shows feature experts in their field (retired law enforcement, specialist journalists, academics). They also present their content with the support of relevant theory or expert practice. It’s not enough that a show’s presenters merely have history in the field. To me, they should use their field and expertise as a vehicle for education.

      2. I avoid anything that bills itself as comedy or develops comedic procedures. Things like specials at comedy clubs, classifying themselves as comedy, aggressive merch advertising are all major red flags to me for profiteering from violent crime while diminishing educational value.

      3. No pseudoscience. Anything to do with astrology, ghosts, hauntings, ‘spooky’ is right out of my listening roster. In my mind, it doesn’t have a place alongside serious and violent crime and it should be presented separately. Preferably where I can’t hear it at all.

      4. An awareness of the socio-political conditions of crime. This one takes time to get into, but an easy tell for a lack of expertise in presenters is low engagement with the contexts of crime. Presenters who fixate on the ‘psychopathy’ and shock-violence of individuals but only give basic lip service to systemic racism, childhood abuse, medical conditions are a bad sign. They’re often doing it to elicit shock and emotional reactions while not discussing the ‘boring’ reality of sociological and psychological theory. Often because they lack that expertise. As an example, Women and Crime explicitly avoids describing crimes in graphic detail: no. of stab wounds, the exact processing of sexual assault, etc. Because unless it’s intensely relevant to the presentation, it has no purpose except to shock and terrify.

      I’ve written enough but… this is my long, long opinion on the topic as a true crime consumer, a psych grad, and a victim of violent crime.

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