I was first introduced to Willa C. Richards’s The Comfort of Monsters in a 2018 graduate-level writing workshop when Willa brought in two early chapters for discussion. It was the type of reading experience a reader never forgets. In the excerpt, the narrator Peg remembers going to a bar in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood with her sister Dee during the summer of her disappearance and comes across the first indications of a terrifying world: that local young men are going missing and the police are doing very little to investigate. The scene stuck with me for years, with its noir aesthetic and blend of nostalgia soured by something sinister. Now three years later, I can confirm that Richards’s debut transcends this unforgettable first impression.
Set in part in the summer of 1991, The Comfort of Monsters follows Peg as she works to process the disappearance of her sister Dee and the horrific murders of seventeen young men at the hands of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Richards combines the most satisfying elements of mysteries, thrillers, and literary fiction to create one of the most dynamic pictures of a coming-of-age story cut short by tragedy and a city suffering through the chaos. It’s a novel with an electricity in every word that will tempt you to read quicker, but be sure to linger as well. Because, behind the intrigue of the crimes it depicts, The Comfort of Monsters is one of the most nuanced explorations of the ways our communities fail those in most need of protection.
I spoke with Willa about relieving trauma through research, our fascination with narrativizing violence, and our shared love for a complicated and fractured city.
The Comfort of Monsters follows two concurrent and interrelated plotlines: the disappearance of Peg’s sister Dee and the real life murders of 17 young men at the hands of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and its lingering trauma. I’d love to hear about how these two threads developed together. Did one inspire the other? How did you find them informing one another as you wrote?
Willa C. Richards
Peg’s story came to me first. It was a short story originally at [University of] Iowa, and obviously I was thinking a lot about cold cases and why some cold cases remain so intractably unsolved. One of the things that immediately occurred to me was the fact that, a lot of times within police departments, larger cases sort of swallow up the smaller ones. From there I began thinking about what was the largest criminal investigation in the history of Milwaukee, and it was the Dahmer crimes. So I started toying with the idea of placing Dee’s disappearance during that summer, and once I decided to do that, I got fascinated about what other unsolved cases and crimes happened that summer that got no attention because of the extraordinary allocation of resources that was being put toward the Dahmer crimes. Once I started the research process, I got really interested in the ways the two crimes—even though they are completely unrelated—could be seen as related politically and institutionally.
The crimes themselves also encapsulated everything I was interested in in terms of police misconduct, the relationships between the police and the community, sex and sexuality, and the relationship between violence and sex. All of these things were sort of a crucible with all of these issues in that particular summer. So once I made the decision, it all started going from there.
I’m pretty biased as someone who lived in Milwaukee for a time, but I found it really exciting to see this city show up in so much intimate detail on the page. But at the same time, you’re writing about a very difficult and dark moment in its history. What was the process like for you in returning to the Milwaukee where you grew up in your fiction?
Willa C. Richards
It was a really interesting process. To the first part of your question, I’ll back up and say I was born on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s campus, literally on Columbia St. Mary’s which is now a part of the university. I would creep my students out when I told them that because I used to teach in that building. Both of my parents were professors at UWM, I grew up in and around that campus as a kid, and we lived in Wauwatosa and then Brookfield. But as a teenager, I was always trying to get back downtown because I just have a lot of love for this city. I grew up with a sort of magical view of Milwaukee, which obviously came from a huge place of privilege. So when I sat down to write, I wanted to be very aware and come at it with that knowledge that I did have a very rose-colored view of the city; and also with the understanding that I was returning to a time in Milwaukee’s history that is very very fraught, that involved real people and real tragedies. It’s true too that Milwaukee is often portrayed as a terrible city, almost like Chicago’s ugly stepsister. It’s very rarely portrayed, and when it is it has a pretty bad image. So I was also very sensitive to that.
The biggest things for me were really digging into the research, and in some ways that sort of kept me grounded. I was an infant when this happened, so I didn’t really have a perspective to butt up against when I was writing. I used a lot of the reporting at the time, a lot of the LGBTQ history projects, and I went to the research with a really critical and hungry eye. And one of the things I noticed about the Dahmer crimes in particular is that, in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, everyone seems to have their Dahmer story. It seems like everyone knew someone involved, like this person knew the coroner or “my cousin was a detective on the case.” Everyone has their story that makes them feel related to it in some way. I really enjoyed hearing those stories, and they really spoke to the way that, because there was so much media attention, it did really affect everyone in the state. So it was a complicated and messy process overall.
There’s no shortage of information on Dahmer and his murders—though between the various books, films, and tours it can become unclear which sources are more exploitative than informational. How did you research for the book, and with the subject matter, how did you know when it was time to stop?
Willa C. Richards
I’ll say that most of the source material is exploitative and meant to sell something one way or another. But that doesn’t exclude it from also being informational. Once I decided that this would be a part of the book, I set out a few research goals. The first part was just the basic facts. I knew the sort of pop culture, gory aspects, but I didn’t know a lot of the basic reportage that was common knowledge at the time. So I first wanted to go back and see the sort of Wikipedia notes and what was the timeline, who were the major players, and such. And then the second part of it was that I really wanted to understand what people were really saying when they were talking about these crimes because one of the things that’s so interesting about the proliferation of discourse is there’s a lot being said that isn’t directly being said. One of my biggest goals was to dig into what is this discourse that’s popping up around these crimes, and how was it different in the nineties than it is today?
The first step was to review the reporting; I read, obviously, the Milwaukee Journal, which covered it extensively. A lot of what they did at the time was the basic facts, but it was also very tinged with victim-blaming. They would write things like “the victims didn’t deserve it, but let’s also look at their criminal histories and lifestyles that they lived.” It was a lot of describing the neighborhoods in classic racist and classist language. And that was happening on the national and international scale too. So once I saw that I wanted to find reporting that wasn’t doing that. The biggest counterweight was the Wisconsin Light, which was a gay newspaper at the time that won some awards for their reporting because it was one of the only voices that was like “why are we sidelining the victims of this crime at the expense of making this person a celebrity” and “why are we continuing to spotlight their sexuality as if that’s an explanation?” So that was really important to have that balance. I didn’t watch the Dahmer documentaries or his interviews when he was in prison. I just tried to narrow in on what I was hoping to get out of the research and then hone in on the resources and stick with those. I didn’t want to get too bogged down, so I drew some lines in the sand in terms of what materials I would use.
What do you view as your responsibility as a writer when writing about real people and real tragedy, especially when the person who committed the crimes became a subject of fascination for much of the country?
Willa C. Richards
My first goal was to do no harm. This was a real tragedy, real families, and a real community and city that I love very much. I was really anxious not to contribute to the harm that was done by these harmful portrayals of these crimes and also the very real victims that were at first completely demonized and dehumanized, and then really just forgotten about. I thought a lot about that as I was drafting and editing, and I tried to engage the sensitivity of readers very early on. In the places where the fictional and real events overlap, I wanted to treat those very thoughtfully and ethically.
And the other responsibility was to look inward. I think we’re all fooling ourselves if we think we’re immune to this fascination with serial killers. We’re all a part of how these people are memorialized and become larger-than-life celebrities. And celebrities are royalty in American society. If people are drawn to the subject matter, that makes sense to me, but it’s important that we look inward and see what does it say about us that we’re so interested in the gruesomeness of it and our complicity in that. It’s very easy to become wrapped up in these details.
That’s something I wanted readers to come away with at the end of the book. Why do we continue to celebrate the killer and sideline the victims? And that’s something that extends into other areas of American society, whether that’s gun violence or police brutality. It’s something that happens very much in the media and we contribute to it because we all want the answer to that “why?”
You do an incredible job showing the way violence often becomes narrativized and twisted into something other than the violence itself. I’m thinking particularly about how the media smeared the reputations of the victims as if this could make sense of their deaths. I’m also thinking about the ways Peg and Dee try to rationalize the violence their partners inflict on them. How did you work to push against these types of narratives as you wrote?
Willa C. Richards
I thought a lot about this as I was writing. I think our very existence sort of requires that we rationalize and narrativize extraordinary violence because we’re not good at senselessness, meaninglessness, and chaos. These things are very frightening to human beings. And one of the ways that we protect ourselves from that is with narrative, or the why. We build stories to explain the violence.
I think the problem comes in, as you say, where someone finds the smallest bit of backstory to explain why someone died in a very horrific way and then says something like “well he or she was a prostitute,” which very much happened with the Dahmer crimes. And I think if we take a step back and examine “why are some types of violence made more legible and acceptable when it’s against certain groups of people?” Because, ultimately, people didn’t want to admit that that’s essentially what they were saying, that this person, on account of their identity or lifestyle, in some way “deserved what they got.”
To your question about Peg and Dee, I think there is a certain way that they sort of rationalize the acts of violence from their partners, in part, because I think a lot of women are socialized to do this. Even in the post-Me Too era, I think a lot of girls are socialized with the idea that we’re responsible for our safety because men can be dangerous and unpredictable, and if you’re receiving unwanted attention you should be looking at what you’re doing wrong. And, again, I think that lines up with the way the victims were treated in the Dahmer case, that in some way it was their behavior that caused this. And on the flip side of that, I think men are still socialized with the idea that not only is violence acceptable but that it’s an expected trait.
As far as pushing back on those narratives, I think we have to reframe those questions. I don’t think it’s bad that people ask why. Narratives can be a powerful form of comfort and block against chaos and meaninglessness. But I think instead of saying “what kind of person allows something like this to happen to them,” we want to reframe it as “who is the person inflicting the violence, and what are the social and political conditions that facilitate them to enact the violence?” We need to examine these behaviors within the wider context of the world. In the case of this particular serial killer, would he be able to inflict so much harm on a community if he wasn’t a white man moving through a very segregated space at this specific time? I think those are the types of questions that need to be asked instead.
Although the question of what happened to Dee sits at the center of The Comfort of Monsters, it always seems clear that all signs point back to her boyfriend, Frank. So, instead of many mysteries that focus on “who did it,” the main tension of the novel appears to be “what is the story of Dee’s disappearance” so that this family can finally find closure. Were there any elements of the mystery genre you tried to lean into or subvert as you constructed this story?
Willa C. Richards
Definitely. I loved mysteries and detective fiction growing up. When I sat down to write the book, in some way I did want to write a page-turner, and I did want to use some of those elements that show up in mystery thrillers. But I also didn’t trust myself as a detective fiction writer. So I did want to make sure I wasn’t writing a straight-up mystery or thriller because, for one, I didn’t want to feel beholden to the conventions of those genres and I also wasn’t sure I was capable of executing that. But I definitely leaned into some of those conventions, like having the detective and messing around with his character through multiple drafts. And then including the interviews as a convention was really fun, because there was so much tension automatically built-in.
I think where I did diverge was when I was starting out—it was always my intention to have Frank as the killer and the bad guy. I felt very strongly that I didn’t want Peg to believe that it could be anyone else. To be honest, when I went through the drafts I got a lot of different feedback from readers, like “you have to make her unsure” or “she needs to be more sure” or “she needs to propose alternatives.” It was kind of messy with some of the drafts because I would try it all out. I would say “okay maybe she doesn’t know for sure” or “she has ideas about someone else.” I went through about ten iterations, but the place where I ended was exactly where I started. I think, like you said, that’s very outside of the mystery genre because the plot propulsion usually comes from “we need to find out who did this.” And that’s why I went back to Frank, because I felt very strongly that Peg was indicting herself and her memories as much as coming up with an alternate explanation. I also wanted her vision of things to jut up against everyone else, and I wanted there to be friction between those two visions.
And it’s important to avoid that notion of random acts of violence against women because, a lot of times, these are the crimes that get the most attention, so it can begin to feel like this is what’s happening a lot. The vast majority of violence perpetrated against women is done by someone that the woman knows or is very close to. So I didn’t want this to be a murder mystery about “the random guy.” This violence is often done within families or within intimate relationships.
What do you want readers to know about Milwaukee as a destination and as a setting in the literary imagination?
Willa C. Richards
I’ll be totally honest with you, ten minutes before this interview I saw this video of Stephen A. Smith on First Take saying Milwaukee’s a terrible city. And I wasn’t surprised by it at all, but it speaks to the popular perception. I love this city and I also recognize it’s a very troubled city; it’s still highly segregated and certainly it is not perfect. But I also think it’s a really fascinating place with a rich history and unique character. And it’s changed a lot. There’s so much to see and learn in Milwaukee that you wouldn’t really know unless you went there and really spent time there.
by Willa C. Richards
Published July 13, 2021
Michael Welch is a daily editor for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.