What We Can Learn From True Crime Books
A review of Debora Harding’s Dancing with the Octopus
I read a lot of True Crime. I know. People think it’s weird. I don’t. I actually have several good reasons for reading True Crime. But one of the biggest and most valid reasons to read this nonfiction genre, in my opinion, is simply that they are often really thoughtful, well-written books. They’re books from which we have a lot to learn.
One of the best True Crime books I read recently was Debora Harding’s true crime memoir, Dancing With the Octopus. It is the story of Harding’s abduction and sexual assault when she was a very young teenager. To make the story even harder to read, Harding also slowly reveals the abuse that was present throughout her life in her own home. Although she had a close and loving relationship with her father, and good relationships with her three sisters, her mother was psychologically cruel and neglectful. Although she could confide some of her and her siblings’ problems with their mother to her father, he often worked away from home and usually refused to believe things were as bad as his children said they were.
This, then, is a memoir of family trauma and crime trauma, so it’s not easy to read.
But you really HAVE to read it, because you have to meet Debora Harding.
This is a woman who has survived several types of abuse and trauma, which she did for a long time by mostly not admitting to herself (or others, never to others), how much she was affected by everything that happened to her. Her focus throughout the early part of the book is how she started experiencing symptoms that she did not understand, and which she slowly comes to understand are her body’s delayed response to her childhood and the kidnapping.
I am a huge believer that our bodies hold all our secrets and can be a mystery even to our brains, so to watch her work through the process of understanding her own physical being was powerful.
While reading this book you can just feel that it was years and a lot of thoughtful work in the making. In addition to relating her personal family story and the story of the assault, Harding also explores the process through which she learned more about the person who assaulted her. (Shockingly, after the crime, she never really heard more about what happened to the man who had kidnapped and raped her, or learned if he was convicted or how long he spent in prison.) She eventually met the man and worked through a process of restorative justice, which is fascinating to read, and which left me in even greater awe of Harding and what she has had the strength to face in her life.
You don’t have to take my word for it; go read this stupendous interview with Debora Harding and then come back here and tell me you don’t want to read her book.
I’ll wait, but I don’t think you’ll be back. I think you’ll be off reading Dancing with the Octopus.
Dancing with the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime, by Debora Harding. Bloomsbury, 2020. Available at Bookshop.org.
Sarah Cords is the author of Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can’t Stop Watching. Fellow curmudgeons welcome at citizenreader.com.