That true crime is having a moment should not come as news to anybody. The current trend seems to have started with the astounding success of Serial, Sarah Koenig’s hit investigative podcast that premiered in the fall of 2014. But while true crime has been a popular genre for movies, TV series, documentaries, and books for decades, this time is different. For the first time, audiences, be they for podcasts, documentaries, scripted series, or books, are active participants. They are conjuring up their own theories in online message boards, sleuthing out new information, and, in rare cases, changing the course of investigations and unearthing new suspects.
Before the 1980s, true-crime memoirs hardly existed. Even after the popularity of Ann Rule’s 1980 memoir, The Stranger Beside Me, in which she chronicles her friendship with Ted Bundy before he became the best-known serial killer of the 70s, those types of books were still rare.
Since 2014, though, first-person accounts of true-crime sagas have flooded the publishing world. Authors’ connections to victims can range from familial (Rachel Rear’s 2022 Catch the Sparrow, Leah Carroll’s 2017 Down City) to friendly (Carolyn Murnick’s 2015 The Hot One) to tenuous (Becky Cooper’s 2020 We Keep the Dead Close). They can even be biographical (Myriam Gurba’s 2017 Mean).
In 2017, Slate book critic Laura Miller wrote that “if this burgeoning genre has a central preoccupation, it is women trying to fathom the capacity in certain men for terrible violence when their desires are thwarted.” This is the pulse of Erika Krouse’s new memoir, Tell Me Everything. The book is an account of her career as a private investigator and the sexual-assault case that consumed her life, both professionally and personally. It’s also a harrowing narrative about her own childhood sexual abuse.
When the Professional Gets Personal
In the book, Krouse describes her childhood experiences with “X,” an unnamed but clearly parental figure who assaulted her for three years, when she was between four and seven years old. Not believed by her family, she endured the abuse in silence. As a result, she developed poisoned gifts.
One of those gifts is her ability to compel people, loved ones and strangers alike, to spill their secrets. Krouse describes it more as a coping mechanism than an innate talent. By carrying other people’s secrets, she could briefly become them and escape herself.
The gift came at a cost: “Tear a mimic free from her disguise,” writes Krouse, “and you’ll find only inner flesh, viscera, a heart emptying its last blood into the dirt.”
Even so, Krouse buried her trauma for years, until 2002, when she was 33 and working as a writer and teacher in Colorado. One day at a local bookstore, she reached for the same Paul Auster novel as an attorney. They started chatting, and soon, like the others, he began sharing his secrets. Shocked she could elicit the truth from him without trying, he impulsively offered her a job as a private investigator at his law firm. She accepted.
Erika Krouse has an ability to compel people, loved ones and strangers alike, to spill their secrets.
One of Krouse’s first assignments was on a sexual-assault case—a college student accused several school football players of gang-raping her. Krouse was to gather information from witnesses.
Krouse was good at the job because people trusted her, no matter how dark the topic was. According to her, this trust came because people recognized that she was “obsessed, on a trail of my own.” You can sense this in her prose. She details others’ pain with care and compassion, and her own past clearly informs those descriptions. “I understood rape victims and I understood rapists,” she writes.
While her ability to gain people’s trust helped with her work, Krouse “didn’t want to understand either, ever again.” Eventually, she realizes that working as a private investigator is exacerbating, not relieving, the emotional scars from her own abuse. She cannot hold other people’s trauma while her own remains unresolved. The book is most heartbreaking when Krouse speaks with her mother, who still has a relationship with X and refuses to admit what he did to her daughter.
Toward the end of the book, Krouse writes that “you know all of my tricks now, but it doesn’t matter. Give me twenty minutes alone with you, and you’ll still tell me all your secrets.” It’s that keen awareness that prompts her to quit working as a private investigator after 15 years. It turned her into “a manipulator, a liar, an information thief, an agoraphobe, an intruder,” she writes. While she helped victims, she couldn’t live with “steal[ing] their information,” then disposing of them once her work was done.
That ability and sensitivity also allowed her to write this unnerving, haunting book. It’s a triumph of literary reportage and memoir that doesn’t flinch at the ugliest truths—from others and herself.