Transcending True Crime: Ken Corbett’s Devastating ‘A Murder Over a Girl’

The true crime genre, no matter what media we find it in, can be a fickle one. Few modes of storytelling are more immediately gripping, and yet fewer fill up the reader so quickly with outrage only to drain it away. Making a Murderer, the genre’s most recent cause célèbre, provoked such fervor that President Obama deigned to respond, reminding 130,000 riled petitioners that he could not pardon a state criminal offense. The army of Murderer truthers had become so indignant, they’d forgotten to read the law.

Given the capriciousness of true crime, it can be a tremendous (if cautious and bitter) relief to come across those works that — while based on real murders — transcend the genre. These works acknowledge that their shattered characters weren’t always actors in a drama; they are, it’s hard to remember, real people whose lives crash along with a continually crashing system. What’s more, these rare instances of the genre are even rarer because they usually have one thing in common: some measure of psychological or novelistic depth. The issues raised by these books and films go beyond the epistemology of procedural — there is more at stake than merely how the loose ends of a crime are tied.

This is why, in film, we revere Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, which challenges the sanctity of documentary evidence by showing that its presentation is often a matter of lying or performance. And there is In Cold Blood, a book that deepens many of the given structures of the genre — but not its manipulations — in favor of a detail-rich, novelistic world.

In the case of A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High — a serious and substantial new work of nonfiction that challenges the pieties of the genre — the victories, however pyrrhic, are psychological and social. This is to say that it’s one of the best recent examples of the genre because it focuses, with no small amount of empathy, on our tragic ignorances with regard to sexuality and gender. And this may because its author, Ken Corbett, a practicing and teaching psychologist, now at NYU, approaches his subject with shrewdness, diligence, and care.

And this care, everywhere in A Murder Over a Girl, faces the devastating murder at its center. Even a précis of the events feels cruel to write; nevertheless, from the book’s inside flap:

In February 2008, during first period English class at a junior high school in Oxnard, California, blue-eyed and blond fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney shot and killed fifteen-year-old Larry King, a brown boy, who had recently begun to identify as Leticia.

Add to this that McInerney was the son of a meth addict and a recent convert to white supremacy. And that Larry was a foster child who had recently moved into a group home.

If the above sounds like a lot to unpack, just imagine the failure of the media, especially in 2008, to do the unpacking. After his first encounters with the case, or at least its presentation in the media — in the New York Times and on The Ellen Degeneres Show — Corbett, who was finishing a book on boyhood masculinity, was drawn to the contradictions (and conflations) in both:

Ms. DeGeneres did not mention anything about Larry’s gender identity, a point that was subtly emphasized by Rebecca Cathcart, who wrote the New York Time account of Larry’s memorial. Ms. Cathcart quotes various sources on the subject of gay teens, but she turned most of her attention to Larry’s gender expression.

In other words, Corbett writes, “Ms. Cathcart did not specifically delineate the difference between sexual identity and gender identity… Nor did [she] explain that gender identity and sexual identity are generally conflated by social convention.”

The same can be said about the teachers and administrators who knew the bare facts of the events leading up to Leticia’s murder. In much of A Murder Over a Girl, Corbett follows the unfolding trial and traces the misunderstandings and misgivings, often willful, sometimes unintentional, of the community. It turns out that instead of appreciating that Larry had begun to question his own gender identity, the authority figures in the school treated it as a matter of sexuality and even bullying. On this account, Corbett is unsparing:

I thought that Ms. Crowley and her fellow teachers had confused Larry’s sexuality and gender. Everything about Larry had been gathered under the umbrella term “gay,” and the term was both overbroad and imprecise. I explained that while some gay boys are feminine in their bearing and being, boyhood femininity does not automatically add up to homoesexuality. Gender interwines with sexuality, but it does not define sexual preferences in the way that the teachers were presuming. The teachers had presumed that Larry’s femininity signaled a gay identity. I added that Larry may have used the word “gay” to try to say something about his sexual wishes, but that this term felt off the mark, especially in relation to his life just prior to his death.

In passages like this, Corbett refuses to pacify adults, whether teachers or readers, who could do better, whose awarenesses could proscribe future tragedies — even if they didn’t prevent this one. Whether we call it true crime or not, the lessons of A Murder Over a Girl linger. This is to say that you’ll want to read it again, though not because it is a gripping procedural. Should a murder this tragic be gripping? You’ll read it again because it matters.