Welcome to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. In this epsidoe, host Wilfredo Flores chats with Rachel Huddleston, a second-year PhD student at Texas A&M University-Commerce in the Department of Literature & Languages. Rachel gives us a fascinating overview of her dissertation topic and outline, which focuses on the rhetoric surrounding women accused of violent crimes with a specific focus on cases from Texas. That said, keep in mind this epsiode comes with a general content warning as we disucss violent crime. Rachel also chats about interdisciplinary, feminist methodologies, true crime, and public interventions.
You can follow Rachel on Twitter at @rachelmcshane01. If you'd like to learn more about the show, find transcripts, or sign up to be a guest, please check out tellmemorepod.com. Feel free to follow us on Twitter at @TMM_Pod, too. See you next time!
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Transcript for "Episode 2: Rachel Huddleston"
Wilfredo: You’re listening to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. I’m your host, Wilfredo Flores... or just Wil.
[opening theme song plays, “Metre” by Slow Alarm]
W: This is a show where we ask graduate students a singular question: Tell me more!
W: So, let’s get into the episode.
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W: Hi there. Welcome to Tell Me More!, where we chat with graduate students about their work, ideas, and more. In this episode, I'm chatting with Rachel Huddleston, a second-year PhD student at Texas A&M University-Commerce. So welcome, Rachel! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Rachel: Yeah. So I am, like you said, studying, getting my PhD in composition and rhetoric here at Texas A&M University. I also teach as a graduate assistant teacher. So I teach freshman English out here as well.
W: Cool! So you're here to talk to us about your dissertation on the rhetoric surrounding women accused of violent crimes with a specific focus on cases from Texas, which is my home, my home state. As you noted, you're looking at a case through a feminist lens, demonstrating the relationship between societal expectations placed on women and the ways the media and prosecution highlights the way she doesn't meet those expectations, rhetorically framing her as a quote unquote bad woman when she is accused of violence. You call this “the trial of womanhood.” This is fascinating—please tell me more!
R: Yes! So I think the best way to kind of explain it is to really kind of go back to the beginning of how I got interested in this and where it all started. So, I live right outside of the Dallas Fort worth area. I grew up in a little town called Rockwall, Texas, right across the lake, just 10, 15 minutes away there's a little town called Rowlett. And in Rowlett, there was a case in 1996 of a woman named Darlie Routier. Someone broke into her home, brutally murdered her two children, and it was a home invasion, she, herself was attacked and very nearly died. And not long after that the police began investigating. They said that they were looking for an intruder as well.
Just about eight days after the murder, one of her sons who had been killed, it was going to be his seventh birthday. So she went out to the gravesite to—they had a very private family prayer vigil and then opened up to the public, a birthday celebration. So Darlie's sister brought silly string and handed it out, and they sprayed silly string, they sang happy birthday. And the media caught this like 10 seconds of Darlie Routier spraying spring silly string, chewing gum, wearing shorts, singing happy birthday. And they caught this, and that began circulating. And not long after that, they arrested her for the murder of her children.
W: Oh my god!
R: Yeah! It was really insane. The evidence that suggested this was so circumstantial and minimal. In fact, there was a lot of evidence that really proved the intruder theory. But the Rowlett PD and the media had basically decided this isn't how a mother should grieve. So clearly she killed her child. So very quickly went to trial and, they moved it actually to right outside of your hometown, in Kerrville, Texas.
W: Oh, yeah!
R: Yeah, they moved the trial out to Kerrville, Texas, very small conservative community, and tried her on her character, basically. They talked about how she had bleached blonde hair, how she spent her money, how she had fake boobs, and these are not things a good mother would do. And so throughout the trial, the prosecution and the media really focused in on this, on who she was as a woman. And in the end, they found her guilty of murder and sentenced her to death. Now it's been 25 years and she still on death row today for a murder that she is adamant that she didn't commit. So that was right outside my hometown, the history of this case. And I knew all about that growing up. And so, um, I, for a long time was in the camp that she did it. She did it, she was guilty. And then once I started researching and reading about it, I thought, you know, this is really, this was very unfair trial. That's where I kind of get that term, “the trial of womanhood.” Like they put who she was as a woman on trial and all these expectations they had for her and how she didn't meet those. And that's what decided her fate ultimately.
R: And so I was really interested in that case and I took it to a class, a composition rhetoric class. And just for fun said, “You know what I like true crime I'm really well read on this case. I'm gonna write a paper about it.” And my professor who is now my dissertation director said, “You know, this is really fascinating and you should look into this and see if this happens in more cases.” And the more and more research did, I found that it did and specifically, like you mentioned cases in Texas are what I'm studying, because I do think you see it happening all over, but I think the location is so relevant to the outcome of the cases as well.
W: Right, yeah. I can totally get how, specifically within Texas and like the. Like the, the cultural parameters of what women are allowed to do and be, I can totally see that. I mean, it's sad to say, but you probably have enough cases and data to, to write a book about, well, I mean, a dissertation is a book, but like so much of all of this. Wow. That's fascinating. So you mentioned an interest in true crime. Did that interest co-develop with your, this case, like, did you, growing up in this hometown and knowing of this case, did that spark that interest or was this just.. Because I know I'm Serial, S-Town, all these shows
R: Yes, yes! Love those—love them all. True crime has always been something that I've been really kind of always interested in. It's funny that you asked that because just in a class last night I was giving an introduction about that and my interest. And I said, you know, it really stemmed from when I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons would come on and then Matlock would be next, and I would sit and watch old Matlock reruns and got real interested in crime. And when I was really young, I picked up a book by John Grisham called The Innocent Man, about a man who was wrongly accused and sentence of murder and later exonerated and realized, “Oh my God, this is true. This is a true story.” And so that kind of opened up my fascination.
R: The cool thing I like about being in the composition rhetoric field is I would have never dreamed that I could blend that kind of obscure interest in true crime with my academics. And so I really enjoy being able to bring those together. But I'm kind of blending rhetorics with criminology studies, as well, and having to kind of bring those in and, and infer the two. And so a lot of the pieces I find in criminology studies do talk about rhetoric. And will use like terms that we in the field would be familiar with. It's just not that specific rhetoric study, you know? Does that make sense?
W: Right! Yeah, so we're getting an overview of the entire dissertation project. Could you talk about the methodology if you've developed that and like how you've gone about kind of weaving together these two disciplines in a way that lets you do this kind of analysis. Cause that’s like—awesome, like criminology? Again, like, I don't know of anyone doing that work right now
R: Yeah! So I am blending kind of three different areas of study. Like I said, so looking at feminist methodologies in other rhetoric works, so pulling from like Gesa Kirsch and Jacqueline Jones Royster, and those kinds of big names that we're all pretty familiar with. Blending those with, like I said, criminology studies: there are quite a few criminologists who write about women and the way women are presented and perceived in courts and in media and court cases. And then also blending that place-based rhetoric as well. So that's kind of the lenses I'm viewing it from. The methodology I'm using or the method rather will be pulling archival work. So like with the Darlie Routier case, I've read court documents and watched newspaper or read newspaper articles and watched clips and all kinds of documentaries and things like that. So pulling those methodologies and then using archival work to kind of view that through those lens.
W: Wow! That's really cool. That's like so innovative and awesome. That's really interesting. I like want to read this. Can I ask too, so... with this project and the kind of popular culture underpinning some of the more like broader movements happening, or like the reasoning for this. Is there any like thoughts, I guess currently, of how to turn this, if you want to turn this into something that maybe might make the case for exoneration, or if you see yourself doing those kinds of, I don't remember what the word is, like stepping in moments where like, “Hey, I'm an academic researcher, and through my research, I've come to this conclusion based off of the rhetorical framing. We might want to reconsider this person's case.” Like, do you see that as an active component of this project?
R: I would love to, that's a dream to be able to be like, “Hey, I’m a researcher from an academic perspective. Here's what I found.” There is a true crime author named Billy Jensen, who does that. He uses social media. As a way to solve cold cases. And so in a, in a dream world, I would be able to say, “Hey, here's my research. Here's how I can help exonerate Darlie Routier” or something like that. Um, it's still very much in the early stages. So I don't know how much of that is going to be like just going through archives or trying to look for new evidence. But as for like the Darlie Routier case is obviously the one I know the most about. There are quite a few moves. There's like Instagram accounts that have started following me since I've been posting about this and websites and YouTube channels that are very much advocating for her release, because like I said, the evidence is so minimal to suggest that she did it and so much suggesting the contrary that quite a few people have taken up her case already and are moving to get her released.
R: So there's this fascination I've found, with women who commit violent crime and, ironically in a book written about the Darlie Routier case, there's an author named John Davis who said, and I'm paraphrasing what he said, but he essentially says it takes somebody like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer to make people say like, “Wow, this man is incredibly violent and a monster. And this is horrific.” It takes something really extreme like that when it comes to men, because men committing violence is almost like an expected norm, you know? Due to that, you know, we know that toxic masculinity and all of that, like that's almost like it's not unexpected. But when a woman commits a violent crime, it's so breaks out of this cultural expectation of she supposed to be compassionate and gentle and nurturing and very submissive. And again, this is why I think the culture is so relevant to study because especially in Texas and in the south, that's even more expected of a woman.
Yeah, so. It's so there's almost like this fascination, when a woman commits a violent crime to be like, “Ooh, why did she do that? Why did she snap? What caused her to, to break out of that mold?” And it's almost this like instinctive, like we're automatically horrified that a woman would do that. You know, because a woman isn't supposed to be violent or kill or anything like that. And so you know, you see these ID shows like Women Who Kill and all these shows focusing on women killers, that there's just this, it's something that we're so not used to, that I would argue is why the rhetoric surrounding it is... well, let's look at how she didn't fall into these expectations we have, and let's look at how she didn't act like she was supposed to. And all of the ways that she broke out of this kind of cultural norm that we have kind of embedded deep in us. And how does that almost feed into the idea that this is such an abnormal, horrific thing?
So my, the way I'm going to divide up my dissertation and I'm still I'm about halfway through my coursework. So I'm getting there, but I'm still kind of in the early stages and, and adjusting different things, but kind of the framework I have is I'm looking through a feminist lens, and my goal is to really look at it through an intersectional lens as well. So like the Darlie Routier case is fascinating. But she's a white, upper middle-class woman in a very like white area. So one of the things that I'm wanting to explore is the different intersections of identity. How does that affect the rhetorical framing as well? So the Darlie Routier case is really just going to be one chapter. The other two chapters that I'm planning on looking at is one is a case of a queer woman, a queer, actually a queer couple, that's murdered a man who was very abusive, very much took advantage of these two women, and they murdered him. They were both put on trial separately for murder. One of them, she's much more fem presenting. She has long hair. She's very feminine and girly. The other one has shortcut cropped hair, and she is more masculine presenting. And the ways in which they were both presented and perceived in their respective court cases were so different.
So looking at that, and that embodied rhetoric, what does their physical embodiment and their identity as queer women causing in the ways that they were perceived in the court? And then the other one that I'm going to be looking at is a case of a woman of color. And I, I'm still kind of looking around for a case to fit that chapter specifically. But I am wanting to look at how does their identity as a mother in one section identity, as queer in another, and then your racial and ethnic identity affect that as well.
W: Right. I'm very interested and curious to see where this goes. So you’ll have one reader, at least, in me, if you're worried about anyone reading the dissertation
R: [laughter] Yeah, thank you! I’m excited, thanks. Yeah. And even in, like you said, like there's so many different directions, you can take it. But my dissertation director, I kept bringing her new ideas and saying, “Maybe we can talk about this. Maybe we can talk about this, Maybe...” She was like, listen, table it for a book project later. Let's focus in on this because there's so many different aspects. And it's not a Texas case, but like the case of Aileen Wuornos who is widely considered to be the first female serial killer. In all reality, she's not. There were many, many before her, but I read a fascinating article that argued the reason she's identified as the first female serial killer is because she was a sex worker. She traveled from state to state, to state. She killed seven different men with a gun and argued that that's a very masculine way of life traveling and toting a gun and shooting people and leaving them on the side of the road is more masculine, whereas female serial killers before her would kill like multiple spouses or multiple children or this like angel of death kind of killed the elderly, almost like a gentle, not the killing is gentle, but you know what I mean? Like, a much more feminine style.
So like Aileen Wuornos. She was a queer woman. Also, she was very mentally ill and, she ended up getting the death penalty. And a lot of scholars that I've read argued that yes, she was violent. Yes, she probably should have been like put away, but in some type of like mental health facility, rather than—she ended up ultimately being executed in the state of Florida. So that was a case that I even thought about looking at, but that was one that felt so complicated in so many different ways. It was like, this could be an entire dissertation on its own. So again, that's something that I'm like tabling for a future project. But there's just so many different actions to take this project, that I'm so excited to keep researching and looking into it. And it's like, everywhere I turn, I see a new, “Oh wow. That's fascinating. And that's a new way to look at it!”
W: I think how you've gone about doing this is really cool. Yeah, again, I'm really looking forward to seeing this later on down the line, when it comes out—wait when it comes out? It's a dissertation, like there’s paywalls.
R: Oh I will say this. So, so one thing that I'm planning on kind of closing the dissertation with, when I talked to my advisor, I said, “I don't want to just leave it on, like, here's a problem. Here you go.” You know, I wanted to figure out what do we do about this? And so I'm planning on, in the final chapter, closing out with, like I mentioned about Darlie Routier and how a lot of people have taken up her case and use social media and used—there was recently a documentary a few years ago released about her case that, Viola Davis was actually a big part of directing, called The Last Defense and it brought this renewed interest in her case. And so I'm planning on, in the final section, talking about how do we approach these and how can we look at this from a social justice perspective How can we address the problem and notice the problem, and then like, what do we do about it? And so my final section, I found an article, and she was talking about righteous discontent was the term that she used, to talk about women who have utilized rhetoric in a social justice way, and she talks about famous rhetoricians, but the way that I'm wanting to look at this is how do we in the scope, in the field of rhetoric and composition, what do we do about this? How do we utilize our field to address, this really injustice? That even if a woman did commit the crime, that they're putting her on trial for, a lot of times, she gets these very extreme punishments that are just like—Darlie Routier receiving the death penalty? A lot of people were honestly in shock that that would happen, even if she did commit the crime, that it was such an extreme response to that. So I am planning on trying to close it out with a, like, “Where do we go from here? You know, how do we, how do we approach this in a social justice way?” Because I think that's the way the field is moving in a more social justice thing that I really wanted my project to kind of follow along that pattern and not just talk about a problem, but really try to at least identify somewhat of a solution, you know, maybe not the solution, but what can we do to help?
W: Like possible avenues for intervention or questions the field should take up in terms of these intervention strategies. Yeah, that sounds excellent. And I think it speaks to—oh, go for it!
R: Oh no, I was just going to say so I I'm, I'm really still kind of figuring out, how do we do that best, you know, with, like I said, with Darlie Routier, there's been entire Instagram accounts opened up, posting pieces of evidence and different lawyers and justice groups and things like that. There's been YouTube accounts. There's an entire website called FreeDarlieRoutier.org that is just keeping you updated on the status of her case. The good news is that case has gone into, they were granted the right to retest the scene for DNA. So, hopefully, hopefully, that will kind of bring about some conclusive ways to bring some, I don't know if you could ever bring closure to a case like that, but to at least bring a sense of justice and that she's not sitting on death row for a crime that she didn't commit.
W: Right... Well, thank you for sharing all of this awesome information about your dissertation. I, again, I'm very eager to see where this goes. I'm sure lots of listeners will become readers after listening to this episode. So, I guess to end, is there any social media or website that you would like to share where people can follow you and your work?
R: Yeah! You can find me on Twitter. My handle is @RHuddleston2012. And I try and post about that and kind of post updates and things as I find them. If you have any, if you have any type of scholars or any avenues that you would suggest, I'm always open to, to anything like that. So if you want to DM me or anything, go for it!
W: Yeah! You can find me on Twitter. My handle is @RHuddleston2012 [Editor’s note: this has since changed to @rachelmcshane01]. And I try and post about that and kind of post updates and things as I find them. If you have any, if you have any type of scholars or any avenues that you would suggest, I'm always open to, to anything like that. So if you want to DM me or anything, go for it!
R: Great. Thanks so much for having me. This was great!
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W: Thanks for listening! You can find out more about this and other episodes at tellmemorepod.com, where you’ll also find transcripts for each episode. The opening and closing theme song is “Metre'' by Slow Alarm. Music licensed under an Attribution, Non-commercial, Share Alike License, and special thanks to Slow Alarm for providing the music free of charge. You can learn more about Slow Alarm at nultielrecords.blogspot.com. Be well!