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How Murder Ballads Helped

“Your brother killed my whole family,” said the stranger who broke into my Brooklyn apartment, held a knife to my neck, and attempted to sexually assault me one September evening nearly six years ago. Later that night, the detective working my case would explain to me that rapists often create elaborate, delusional backstories about their victims in order to excuse their, well, raping. But in the first moments of my attack, as I woke to realize that a man had crept into my bed as I slept nude, and that he was now telling me that I would die soon, I fully believed that my polite, kind older brother must indeed be a secret murderer, and that I was now paying for some dastardly act that he must have committed (maybe during his junior year abroad in college? That’s why I didn’t know!). In short, in some panicked corner of my brain, the violent situation I was in seemed justifiable. What was happening to me, for a few minutes, made perfect sense.

Sometimes I wish it had stayed that way. Imposing a truly sensible narrative on my attack proved impossible in its aftermath. Though I managed to fight the guy off and escaped with only a few bruises, the heavyset intruder who climbed through my window from the fire escape, wearing a plastic hairnet and a kitchen worker’s uniform, was never caught. After our 10-minute struggle in my tiny studio, during which he repeatedly demanded I tell him my last name (with original and still-deluded thinking, I lied and said it was Smith, which strangely seemed to confuse and deter him), I was able to wriggle out of his grasp and flee, still naked, up the stairs to my neighbor’s apartment. He went back out the window, my neighbor called the police, and by the time they arrived, he was gone. After collaborating on a police sketch and spending a month making unreturned phone calls to my precinct, I gave up searching for an easy solution to the mystery of my assault. 

I’d always been attracted to dark stories — I was a young mystery editor then, and I spent my days and nights reading and shaping manuscripts filled with rape, torture, and murder. But those stories had resolutions; the brother usually turned out to have killed the intruder’s family; the intruder worked at the bakery below the single woman’s apartment. Even trying to explain the weird ordeal to my loved ones brought a flood of incredulity and questions. I moved into the upstairs neighbor’s studio — she was an already close friend who grew dearer as she sheltered me, comforted me, and helped me find a new place to live. She too had been traumatized by my attack, and every night for a month we’d lie down in her single bed and put on a movie to help us sleep. Our choices were twisted and too on the nose, in retrospect — Gaslight and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Picnic at Hanging Rock — but I don’t think either one of us realized this at the time, and we certainly never discussed it. We turned to what we wanted to watch, and that happened, reflexively, to be stories about women in peril, women without autonomy, girls who disappear, dark ladies hurting within and without. On the subway, I found myself obsessively listening to old-time murder ballads like “Pretty Polly,” fascinated by the perverse beauty of lyrics like “He stabbed her through the heart and her heart’s blood did flow.” And later that fall, as most days blurred at the corners and I regularly felt like I was drowning in fear and the inability to express that fear, I read Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

Burke picked up on something that had dislodged itself in me — he made sense, however romantically, of violence; he showed me the beauty lurking inside terror, the sublimity of survival.

But six years on, the best expression of that sublimity I have found — pushing aside the therapy, the sleepless wee hours I’ve spent fearing new bogeymen, the self-defense classes, the times I have retold and reframed this story — has been in those murder ballads, “Pretty Polly” and her kin. If Joan Didion, that troubadouress of trauma, says that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, here’s how my favorite ones go: a young dude, often named Willie (ladies, get rid of your Willies, seriously, they are murderers; see “Pretty Polly,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Cruel Willie”), asks a fair young maiden to take a walk, just a little walk, which is code for I’m-a knock you up, ask you to marry me, make you allllll mine, and/or just plain kill you without any pretext. The delicious peril inherent in that wheedling invitation gets me every time — it’s the equivalent of the horror-movie viewer’s “Run, you silly wench!” But I don’t really want the maidens to run, or at least, not so far away that they don’t get caught. Listening to these songs, I am a bloodthirsty ghoul, drawn to the darkness, trying to sort out what happens next out there in the woods.

And as the song continues, we’re deep in those woods, at the scene of the crime, where Willie, or Lee, or Johnny, our oddly tender villains, gently push the ladies into the river, or the sea, to drown (“Banks of the Ohio,” “The Wind and Rain”), or into newly — yet therefore lovingly — dug graves (“Pretty Polly”), or maybe they shoot them poignantly through the heart (“Poor Ellen Smith”), or, in my personal favorite, they give their special lady some poison in a glass of wine at the local bar:

These deaths are dear, the violence highly stylized. It’s how we would want to die if our exciting deaths were to be immortalized in song, or on film, or in literature — tragically, yet beautifully, with our hair fanned out perfectly around us, tiny blood flowers at our bosom. The artful murderers usually get caught and hang, or narrate their mournful tales of loss and regret from behind bars. But sometimes, deliciously, the tables are turned (“Two Sisters,” “The Ship’s Carpenter,” “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”), and the murderer himself gets thrown into the sea, or is haunted by his lady’s ghost for all eternity. The titles of these songs on my playlists even construct a shifting yet somehow perfectly plausible narrative: Delia’s Gone, Little Sadie, to Where the Wild Roses Grow, at the hand of Cruel Willie.

Why do I love them so? I’m not alone. People love a good thriller, whether it’s told by Karin Slaughter or Dock Boggs. The stories we tell ourselves happen often to be about dying, in the most romantic, sometimes pat, often campy and necessarily truncated ways. But these stories tie up their loose ends. There’s a beginning, a climax, and a reckoning. The victim, the villain, and the refrain refresh themselves. The song remains the same, in order for us to live.

Molly Boyle teaches in Iowa City, where she lives in a cottage on the banks of the Iowa River.


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