On Monday nights, I have a standing date with my daughter. That’s when the popular podcast Crime Junkie drops a new episode about some gruesome murder or troubling missing person case. We listen together, 325 miles apart.
Our love affair with Crime Junkie began two years ago when we still resided under the same roof. We’d sampled many other true crime podcasts by then — none of them hooked us like Crime Junkie. I credit hosts Ashley Flowers and Britt Prawat for that. Tuning in to them is like hanging out at a slumber party with your best girlfriends, huddling in a candle-lit room where an Ouija Board is bound to make an appearance.
Listening to a crime show with my daughter became my guilty pleasure
The sinister, slightly cheesy theme music thrumming in the background while they dig into the details of a particular crime — many of which remain unsolved — amps up the appeal. After blowing through all the archived episodes, savoring a fresh one together on Monday evenings became our guilty pleasure.
When the pandemic hit, Crime Junkie moored us in a sea of blurs-days. And offered an hour of escape from a new reality that sometimes felt as threatening as the stalkers and murderers highlighted in each show.
Even before the world changed, the two of us were grappling with significant changes in our lives and our relationship. My marriage ended at the beginning of 2020. The split was amicable, and I moved from our family home in a Northern California suburb to a small apartment in San Francisco, fulfilling a long-time dream of being a city dweller.
My daughter, a high school senior, was preparing for her own solo adventure. While she lived with me part-time, she was counting the days until her departure for Central California where college, new friends and her first taste of adulting waited. Then schools across the country started shutting down, including hers. It was clear that come fall, she wouldn’t be honing her acting skills in the state-of-the-art campus theater we’d toured the previous summer or living with a house full of roommates as she’d envisioned.
Still, she was determined to move out and pursue her independence. I understood her desire for distance. It was a natural and necessary next step. But not an easy one for either of us — especially me. Being separated by a 20-minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge was one thing. Being separated by more than 300 miles during a pandemic was another.
I’d always had an unusually tight bond with my daughter
Plus, we’ve always had an unusually tight bond. Partly because she’s an only child, but mostly because she’s suffered from severe mental illness since kindergarten. At 5, she announced she didn’t want to be on this planet anymore. At 18, her depression —amplified by shelter-in-place isolation and an unsettled future — landed her in the psych ward of our local hospital.
I’ve often struggled to know when my instinct to protect her is justified given her fragile condition. Or when I’m smothering her with good intentions. Though I was reluctant to let her go, I helped her find an apartment in the town where her college is located to share with a friend while they hunkered down for a semester of online classes.
Arguments were part of the separation process
In the months leading up to her move, our normal squabbles escalated into more frequent, heated arguments, ignited by just about anything either of us said or did. This increased friction was part of the separation process, her therapist assured me. It still hurt.
I griped about her slovenly ways: dirty dishes stashed in her room long enough to sprout science project-worthy coats of fuzzy mold. Piles of damp towels and clothes she deposited on the bathroom floor like a dog marking its territory. She, in turn, accused me of being neurotic and insensitive.
“You’re more interested in your phone than listening to me!” she screamed one afternoon.
Admittedly, there were times — like that day — when I was guilty of checking texts or zoning out on Instagram instead of paying rapt attention to her monologue on another fantastic vegan YouTuber. I want to say I always put the phone down the second she tried to talk about serious stuff. Sometimes I didn’t.
Listening to our show together brought us together when the days were fraught
The only thing we agreed on was that neither of us felt heard. And that Monday nights were for Crime Junkie. We may have fought bitterly earlier in the day. But by evening, the sting of our angry words faded. Apologies were exchanged. Then we snuggled under the covers of her bed, or mine, for our true crime fix.
As my daughter’s moving day approached, Crime Junkie was on my mind for less enjoyable reasons. Many episodes focus on girls her age, dipping their toes in adulthood only to have their lives cut short in the most horrific way any parent could imagine.
These stories re-played in my head on a continuous loop I couldn’t shut off. Instead of the poor, faceless souls of another mother’s nightmare, I saw my child. She was the young woman kidnapped from her job at a gas station. The teenager who set out for her regular bike ride one afternoon and never made it home. The sorority sister who ducked out of a party for a minute and didn’t return, her body found stuffed in the trunk of her car the next day.
I grew more worried as I dropped my daughter off
My paranoia snowballed once the big day arrived. Driving off at dusk after helping my daughter settle in her place, her quiet neighborhood seemed dicier than I remembered. The modest bungalows and apartment buildings exuded a shabby charm by day and looked sketchy.
The massive oaks lining the streets cast spooky shadows perfect for concealing a serial killer’s van. Yes, a six-foot tall fence surrounded her new digs, offering protection from prying eyes. But she was in a ground floor unit, which now seemed like an open invitation for predators. I imagined a prowler clad in black sweats and ski mask slipping through one of the low-slung windows.
I pulled over and frantically texted my daughter: “Don’t forget to lock your windows!”
“STOP!” she responded.
Not long after her move, she called to tell me she’d applied for a job at a frozen yogurt shop. Instead of applauding her, I freaked. Oh hell no, I barely stopped myself from screeching into the phone. A yogurt shop was the scene of an especially brutal murder covered on Crime Junkie.
“Well, don’t let them schedule you for nights,” I said. “And don’t ever work alone. And make sure you lock your car as soon as you’re in it. And don’t sit there listening to music or watching TikToks…”
She let out an exasperated breath.
“I’m an adult. You can’t tell me what to do. I think about this stuff all the time. Your lecturing just makes things worse!”
I had to let my daughter become an adult
I winced — she was right. Since she was a toddler, I’ve pummeled her with warnings of stranger danger, date rape, and the perils of using ATMs at night. Of course, she knew bad guys out there preyed on young women. Crime Junkie reinforced that message, reminding her she couldn’t afford to let her guard down. But the hosts’ safety tips also helped her feel more empowered.
She also knew the heinous murders and kidnappings highlighted on our show were rare. Far scarier were the monsters lurking in her head. The ones she battled daily that told her she was worthless and would never cut it as an adult. My questioning her choices and ability to care for herself only strengthened them.
I told her I was sorry and hung up the phone. A couple of weeks later, she texted me on a Monday.
“Junkies later?” she wrote.
I worried that listening to the program would feed her anxiety, not to mention mine. Yet I missed our morbid, oddly comforting ritual. True crime stories are terrifying and irresistible to millions of fans precisely because they’re real. And because they happen to ordinary people, just like us. We can get the crap scared out of us for an hour and then return to safety — or at least the illusion.
“Okay,” I typed. “If you’re sure it won’t frighten you too much.”
We negotiated a time to listen, and she called me at the appointed hour. By then, I’d migrated to bed. I pulled up the podcast on my laptop and placed my phone next. I could hear muffled rustling as my daughter settled in her bed. I pictured her positioning her phone on her pillow and adjusting the sleep mask she wears.
“Ready?” I asked.
I clicked on the episode link and turned up the volume. Familiar ominous music wafted in the darkness between us. Then Ashley and Britt launched into the evening’s story. Half-way through, I whispered my daughter’s name. No response. She’d drifted off to sleep, the way she sometimes did when we used to listen to the podcast together, in the same room. I wished I could reach through the night and rub her shoulders like I did back then. But I was glad I didn’t have to.
I was glad she didn’t need me beside her to feel safe.
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