Standing by the “Craigslist Killer”

Why are we so surprised when a clean-cut white guy is charged with murder? Or when his fiancee decides to stay with him?

Topics: Broadsheet,

As I saw the media narrative about Philip Markoff, the alleged “Craigslist Killer,” begin to take shape — “Nice boy, so clean cut, who could have seen it coming?” — my first thought was, “Has everyone really forgotten the ‘preppie murderer’ already?” Then I posed that question to a friend who’s five years younger than I am — a crucial difference when we’re talking about stuff that happened in the ’80s — and she was like, “Preppie murder in the what now?” Oh right there are also a lot of people who are just too young to remember. (I was only 11 at the time, but an avid reader of People magazine.) 

One of those people would be Markoff’s fiancee, 25-year-old medical student Megan McAllister. Since Markoff was charged with the murder of Julissa Brisman, a masseuse he contacted via an ad on Craigslist, McAllister has been telling the press she’s standing by her man. She’s made statements to several different media outlets along the lines of what she told the Boston Herald: “Philip is a beautiful man inside and out. He is intelligent, loyal, and the best fiance a woman could ask for. He would not hurt a fly!” Radar reports that as of yesterday, McAllister had taken down the couple’s wedding registry and website, but was still singing the same tune. And as the “He would not hurt a fly” line gets repeated more and more, alongside reports of mounting evidence against Markoff, a second narrative is taking shape: Boy, Megan McAllister must be some kind of idiot, huh?

There are lots of reasons to object to that line of thinking. How many of us, upon seeing our fiances arrested for murder just as the bridal shower invites are about to be mailed, would immediately say, “Oh, yeah, now that you mention it, that makes total sense”? But one very good reason why a young woman might not be able to believe such a thing of her clean-cut, middle-class, white boyfriend is that every time something like this happens, everybody acts like it’s about the most shocking thing in the world. We somehow forget not only “preppie murderer” Robert Chambers but Ted Bundy, who was famously handsome and charming. We forget that most serial killers are average-looking white dudes no one suspected. We forget that the normal-looking murderer is well-worn pop culture motif, from Dexter to “Law and Order” to Wednesday Addams wearing her everyday clothes to a costume party and explaining, “I’m a homicidal maniac. We look just like everyone else.” As soon as the news breaks that another quiet, unassuming white guy whose mama loves him has murdered somebody, the mass amnesia sets in. How could someone who looks like that have done something so horrible?

And then we wonder how a young woman could be so charmed by a handsome sociopath, she could live with him and not see anything amiss. Um, this is just a guess, but maybe it’s because she grew up in a culture that constantly told her good-looking, professional white dudes are, like, never violent — even while discussing the ones who are? 

“We want our villains to be like Hannibal Lecter, The Joker — with a big ’666′ across the forehead,” writes Michael Graham of the Boston Herald before telling the story of his old friend Vince, a good-looking comic he thought he knew “as well as… anybody” — until Vince was arrested for multiple rapes and subsequently sentenced to life in prison. It’s actually pretty easy to understand why someone like Graham or McAllister, who’s been taken in by a charming criminal, would be overwhelmed with shock and disbelief at first. But it’s not nearly as easy to understand why the rest of us, after seeing this pattern play out time and again, still are. Hannibal Lecter was just a normal-looking, professional white dude — he didn’t get that scary mask until after they caught him! The expressions of shock and bewilderment every time this happens smack not only of blatant racism and classism, but serious cultural illiteracy, for Pete’s sake. 

Perhaps if more media outlets took stories like these as an opportunity to discuss warning signs that you’re involved with a sociopath, instead of just regurgitating the same old crap about how clean-cut white men can (usually!) do no wrong, the next Megan McAllister would be able to recognize something was off before her fiance got arrested. Or before he killed her. But hey, nobody should let that thought interfere with making fun of her for being so stupid. 

UPDATE: After reading the letters on this post, I do wish I’d made it more clear that Markoff hasn’t been convicted of anything yet and that the post is riffing off what is currently coming out in the news.

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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