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Friday, June 8, 2018

The Emotional Toll of Writing True Crime

Inmate art by a Mexican prisoner depicts mental torment. 
The best part about reading true crime is that you can put the book down when the story gets too disturbing. Take a break. Have a cup of tea. Return to the gruesome tale when you have gathered up the courage to take another plunge. The author who wrote the story, on the other hand, does not have that luxury.

I first wrote to serial killer William Devin Howell in July of 2015, while he served a 15-year sentence for the murder of one of his seven victims found behind the strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut. In the two years that followed, I immersed myself in thousands of pages of research about the six remaining murders that Howell was charged with committing, including police affidavits, interviews and arrest warrants. I rifled through the forensic testing and the grisly crime scene photos that depicted the bones and graves of Howell's victims and the weapons used in the commission of the brutal rapes and murders. One police report documented the rape of one of Howell's victims by another man before she was killed. The poor woman had endured great suffering while working the streets. Simultaneously, I got to know the man behind the crimes through face-to-face prison visits, hundreds of pages of letters, and lengthy phone calls. During that time, I was faced with the colossal chasm between the friendly Southerner that I was getting to know, and the grisly crimes that he was accused of committing. To say that it did a number on my head would be putting it lightly.

Howell appears harmless in this photo taken in 2000. © 2018 Anne K. Howard All Rights Reserved
Things got really bad when Howell began to confess his crimes to me in great detail following his guilty plea in September of 2017. In the months that followed, I was haunted by horrific images. No amount of after-dinner Chardonnay or distractions at work would make those thoughts disappear. If I stuffed them down, they would emerge in nightmares and I would awake with full-fledged panic attacks. I exercised as a release, but was given to crying episodes on the elliptical trainer as I listened to the upbeat tunes of Hall & Oates and New Order. Good thing I work out at home and not a public gym. People asked me, "What is he confessing to you?" I could not tell them.  Like all mental traumas, I kept it brewing inside. It was just too dark and ugly to share in casual conversation.

When I heard about the death of true crime author Michelle McNamara, who was found dead in her bedroom due to an undiagnosed heart condition, along with imbibing a dangerous mix of prescription drugs, I completely related to her plight. For years, McNamara had been consumed with the exhaustive investigation into the identity of the Golden State Killer, who committed upward of 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in the 1970s and 1980s. Clearly, the project had affected her, and she had run out of coping strategies. McNamara's death was a cautionary tale for me: Don't let the darkness take you over, Anne. 
Serial Killer William Devin Howell. © 2018 Anne K. Howard All Rights Reserved
In her book "Stranger Beside Me," Ann Rule talks about the moment when the atrocity of Ted Bundy's crimes became real to her. She listened to the courtroom testimony of one of his victims who had survived the attack, then went into the bathroom and threw up. That is just how I felt when Howell first told me in a recorded phone call at my law office about the ordeal that he put each of his female victims through. Until then, I had deluded myself into thinking that it was all very bad, but not quite as heinous as it actually turned out to be. Horrible, yes, but quick, I had hoped. I hung up the phone and felt like someone had just kicked me in the stomach. On the drive back home, I wept.

As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for." I have been a voracious true crime reader since adolescence. A few years ago, I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to start a blog about some unsolved murders near my home- maybe even write a book about a serial killer?" Now I realize that my interest was akin to thinking, "Why don't I crush up a broken mirror and try to swallow the glass? That sounds like an exciting and enjoyable thing to do." In her book, "I'll be Gone in the Dark," McNamara writes: “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.” I could not have said it better. Despite the emotional toll, I will continue to write true crime because I believe that these stories need to be told. We cannot turn a blind eye to human evil- we need to face it head-on. I will continue to heavily rely on the love of my husband, dogs, children and friends, and especially my Christian faith, to keep me sane. I make no promises about staying away from my nightly Chardonnay, however. Although I will try to cut back on the stuff.

With the canines who love and protect me...
For those interested in pre-ordering my book "His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer," about Connecticut's most prolific serial killer and the confessions that he exclusively gave me, go directly to this link, or the Amazon link below, to order it. OR (this is the Kindle version). The paperback version will also be available on July 10. Anne K. Howard reserves all copyrights to the photos included in this post.

Pre-order His Garden on Amazon:


  1. I hear you Anne. It took me five years to write about Michigan serial killer John Norman Collins and my research and book will follow me to the grave. P.S. Those dogs adore you, but you already know that.

  2. Anne, I never thought I'd find anyone who sounds as much like myself in my life! People think I'm morbid because of my fascination with true crime. I don't think there's a book written in the genre that I haven't read yet (unless you count the Lee's than 100-page Indies that are being written about current crimes which haven't even gone to trial. I refuse to buy those because they're just summaries of news articles for now, with a ton of grammatical errors that this book editor cannot handle!)

    I'm liking forward to reading "Garden" and have already pre-ordered it. My dream has always been to write my own true crime book, but I just don't have the funds that I KNOW it must cost for the documents. But boy, would i LOVE one day to see the ACTUAL psychological files of some of these offenders. That's what interests me the most - the "why" behind it. Even after reading so much, I still can't wrap my mind around it, you know?

  3. Thanks to both of you for your interest and support.