We were a TV family. There was a set in the living room, in my bedroom, and a tiny one in the kitchen that got almost no reception. On weekdays, when my stepmom got home from work she'd take off her tennis shoes and sit with me on the couch, still wearing her work skirt and blazer, a pair of thick socks over her pantyhose. Together we'd watch Oprah, Hard Copy, and A Current Affair. It was the early nineties and I became well-versed in the language of tabloid television: child murders, Satan worshipers, serial killers. Looking back, I suppose this is weird for a few reasons, the most obvious being that my birth mother herself had been the victim of a violent murder when I was four, which is how I came to be sitting with my stepmother watching these shows.
It was through one of these shows, or maybe my stepmom's subscription to People magazine that I encountered the "Gainesville Ripper." In the summer of 1990 a man named Danny Rolling killed five University of Florida students. He mutilated his victims, decapitating one and leaving her head on a bookshelf facing the door. He sliced off one of the victims' nipples and placed them neatly beside her body. The killings set off a panic and students withdrew their enrollment. Many delayed their arrival indefinitely until Rollings was finally caught.
I can tell you all these details, 28 years later, purely from memory. There were other horrors in my life — my personal connection to murder not the only one. But for some reason, the Gainesville Ripper captured my attention in a way I still don't fully understand. I was 9 years old going on 10 with a knowledge about violence that few of my peers did. At that age I was both too old for childish protections like sleeping in my parents' room and too young to feel any agency over my life in a scary world. And I sucked up the Ripper stories, pure cold fear spiking through me with each new detail I got.
I think most people have a murder like this in their life: a crime that was covered so widely in the media it became a kind of zeitgeist. Whether we realize it or not, as a society we tend to measure generations by violent acts: Where were you when JFK was assassinated? When the Challenger exploded? During 9/11? In the same way, lurid crimes that dominate the news cycle at particular moments in our lives tend to stick with this in an uncomfortable but undeniable way. Sometimes we don't remember the facts quite right but the feelings stay with us, visceral and real. The lessons — about media, about the worth of human lives or lack thereof — never go away.
We asked 10 people to share the first murders that stuck with them. These are the stories of crimes they've never been able to shake, crimes that changed their points of view, or caused them to rethink what they understood about their lives and families. True crime can be exploitative. It can also be a window into the human condition, a peek into the danger and horror of the human heart that sometimes spills over into our lives. And we can't look away.