SARAH MARSHALL has made a literary career out of writing about horrible things. So it's appropriate that our meeting is over coffee on a dark, rainy day, and that the first thing we talk about is The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, which, like some morbidly curious book club, it turns out we're both planning to read.
Marshall, a native Oregonian, lives in Portland, where she writes about true crime, teaches at Portland State University, and co-hosts the literary podcast Late Night Love Affair for Late Night Library. She made headlines last year when she wrote a long-form piece for The Believer about another Portlander, Tonya Harding, that made the case for Harding's innocence in the 1994 attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. Having grown up with an affection for the off-brand stars of ladies' figure skating (as a six-year-old, I was proudly Team Nicole Bobek in a sea of devoted Kerrigan fans), I was hooked by Marshall's reinterpretation of the events, and became a reluctant, retroactive Tonya sympathizer.
One of the first things Marshall tells me when we meet up is that despite writing about the skater extensively, she's never actually met Tonya Harding. "She's this Northwest figure who everyone seems to have seen but me," she says, citing "like 10" people she knows who've reported their Portland Harding sightings to Marshall. After The Believer piece came out, Marshall was in talks with Harding's manager about interviewing her for a longer piece, but says, "That never really happened." Marshall didn't push for it, because, "I don't think [Tonya Harding] would want to meet some woman who has all these thoughts about her career. She seems happy."
Marshall, who never watched figure skating as a kid, calls her fascination with skaters like Harding a "late-onset obsession," inspired by the fact that Harding "put pressure on [figure skating's] conventions"—conventions deeply rooted in traditional notions about gender. In a sport that valued grace and poise above athleticism, Harding was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition. But "she wasn't beautiful to watch," says Marshall. "That was kind of the main strike against her: Everyone would always talk about how she wasn't beautiful to watch, [as if] everyone knows and has a universally agreed-upon idea of what beauty is, which is not true. [Here,] that probably means femininity, but then what does femininity mean? And the more you think about it the more you think, okay, so she wasn't beautiful because she wasn't feminine and she wasn't feminine because she wasn't small enough, and she was visibly strong."
Whatever you think about Tonya Harding, that's a problem. Long before the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, she was punished for appearing to be strong in a sport that prized small, delicate bodies. Later, when she was linked to the attack on Kerrigan through her abusive ex-husband, she made the transition from tolerated misfit to outlaw, literally banned from her sport.
Marshall writes better than anyone about the Pacific Northwest's outlaw figures, and it would be impossible to do that without writing about serial killers. She's researched and written about Ted Bundy extensively; in some of her classes, she teaches Paradise Lost, a documentary about the West Memphis Three; and she's currently working on a project on the Canadian serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
"I started writing about serial killers when I was, like, 16," she says. "There's this moment that I still remember... I [was watching] Biography Channel specials with my mom, and was kind of getting interested in it and I was asking her all these questions, and so she came home with this copy of Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me that she got from Barnes and Noble. She's like, 'Here, this is the book you need.' And I was like, 'Oh, yes it is.' And that was this weirdly sweet mother-daughter moment: 'Here's this heirloom, here's what I have for you, as you become a woman.'"
I find this anecdote strangely funny. Growing up in Seattle, I remember my mother having a copy of that book, too. When I developed a morbid curiosity about the Northwest's serial killers, my mother imparted a tremendously creepy detail: She'd been in college in Olympia, Washington, when Ted Bundy was active, and one of his victims had been abducted from her school, the Evergreen State College. When I tell Marshall this, there's a highly particular sense of recognition. Bonding with your mom over frightening stories about serial killers is surpassingly odd; I doubt we're the only ones.
"I do think of it as this kind of weird matriarchal folklore," says Marshall. "I feel like every woman now has a story like that [that] they kind of grew up with."
For Marshall, it was the 2002 disappearances of Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis, who were from Oregon City, and later turned out to have been murdered by a family acquaintance; they were 12 and 13, respectively. "I was 13 when it happened, and I remember seeing the billboards on the freeway," says Marshall. "There are so many stories like that... at some point in your life as a girl or as a young woman, you're going to find that 'It could have been me' story."
If Marshall sees conversations about figure skating as really being about gender, then conversations about serial killers are about the comforting idea that evil is real. "There's often this description of, like, 'the butcher behind the perfect mask,' or 'the mask of sanity,' and this idea that a lone figure doesn't implicate the society that they're from," she says. This seems wrong to Marshall, who argues that if you look at white, male American serial killers embodied by murderers like Ted Bundy, you'll find "a commentary on what kind of white, heteronormative American society is about." In other words, she says, "If we look at people who try to harm society, we can often find a way that society instructs them to be harmful."
"The idea of evil I think is so... comfortable... this idea that evil [is] this thing, and it exists, and it's inside certain people and if we get rid of those people, then we get rid of evil," she says. "One thing I tend to talk about with my students is okay, (a) try and define evil, and then (b) what if evil doesn't exist? What if this thing that we're calling evil isn't real [but] really just the idea of a quantity, you know, like beauty?"
If we take evil off the table as an explanation for why people do bad things, says Marshall, the conversation gets more complicated, but maybe more productive. "My dream is that we can actually talk about... meaningful treatments for sociopathic behavior," she says. "You know, to have Ted Bundy alive so we could have studied his brain—that would have been amazing. But, you know, it's gone now; we burned it."
Rehabilitation for sociopathic tendencies is Marshall's far-off dream. In the immediate future, she'll continue co-hosting Late Night Love Affair until she leaves Portland for Wisconsin later this year, where she'll be working toward an English Ph.D. She's also working on a novel about "a vampire trying to befriend a serial killer in '80s Los Angeles." "It's not as exciting as it sounds," she says, but I'm skeptical of that. When we get up to leave the coffee shop, I notice a pink canister of pepper spray on Marshall's keychain. I have the same one. "Oh yeah," she says, when I mention it. "My mom got that for me."
Late Night Love Affair streams monthly at latenightlibrary.org.