Stay Out of the Forest: On Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark’s “Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered”
By Jacquelyn ArdamJuly 15, 2019
Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
In case it’s not already abundantly clear, I am a murderino. For those who are not, the podcast works a little something like this: each week, Kilgariff and Hardstark meet to discuss their “favorite” murders. They cover cases and killers that are well known (the BTK Killer, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer) and not so well known, and they revel in some of the worst parts of humanity. (I have written in more detail about both the joys and the deeply troubling aspects of the podcast here.) Each episode features two stories, one that Kilgariff tells to Hardstark and one that Hardstark tells to Kilgariff. And as they tell each other their murder stories of the week, they offer armchair analysis, they crack jokes, they speculate, they talk about what draws them to true crime (anxiety, mostly), and they offer lots and lots of advice. They evangelize therapy and certain self-help books. They talk, they giggle, they gossip, and they have a crackling chemistry. Murder is what brings Kilgariff and Hardstark together each week, but much of the appeal of the podcast lies in listening to the friendship of these two funny, vulnerable women unfold in your ears. You come for the murder; you stay for the camaraderie.
Kilgariff and Hardstark’s book Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered is quite light on murder and the podcast itself. It is billed as a “dual memoir” and organized into 10 chapters with titles such as “Fuck Politeness,” “Get a Job,” and “Stay Out of the Forest” — all catchphrases from the podcast that murderinos will immediately recognize. The book mostly consists of anecdotes from the author’s younger lives framed by reflections, lessons, and advice. What most of these anecdotes have in common is a didactic structure, an organizing rule of “Once I was blind, but now I see.” Kilgariff and Hardstark don’t claim to “see” perfectly, though. Their struggles and mistakes encompass parents and boys, drugs and alcohol, anxieties and depression, eating disorders and men; many of them are ongoing. Both authors are quick to talk openly and unashamedly about therapy, to frame their advice as lessons hard-won from years in a clinician’s office. If there is one thing this book wants you to do, it is to see a therapist, immediately, and never stop. I can get behind that advice.
The most appealing anecdotes of the book, for me, though, do not quite follow this didactic structure. For example, I found Hardstark’s story of her love for the books of Ray Bradbury, which (in a refreshing break from the norms of the memoir genre) doesn’t feature a lesson at all, wonderfully touching. At age 14, just out of rehab and desperate for something, the author fell in love with The Martian Chronicles and kept on reading. At 16, she drove up from Orange County to Los Angeles to see Bradbury speak at UCLA. She said a brief hello to him, told him how meaningful his work was to her, and then promptly went to get her nipple pierced to mark the momentous occasion. I also particularly enjoyed Kilgariff’s chapter in which she recreates, minute by minute, the afternoon of a latchkey kid with a somewhat sadistic older sister in the 1980s. I laughed, I almost cried, I wanted to watch cartoons and, like Kilgariff free from her parents’ surveillance, eat endless pieces of toast after reading.
While isolated chapters of Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered may appeal to broader audiences, this book is primarily for those who are already invested in Kilgariff and Hardstark. The book will tell you new stories about your hosts, and more in-depth versions of the stories that you already know. (And we know a lot of stories!) But like any memoir, Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered leaves out a whole lot. If you are looking for dish on, say, Georgia’s tense relationship with her mother, or Karen’s marriage and divorce — two topics that are sometimes alluded to but rarely discussed in any detail on the show — you are out of luck. And while Kilgariff and Hardstark’s voices do come through the page, the book often feels like two parallel monologues. The book format allows for focus and depth, but the charm — and also the power — of the podcast lies in the chemistry between the two hosts. The relationship between Kilgariff and Hardstark, their shared vulnerabilities, and their ability to laugh at each other and themselves: this is what is most compelling about the podcast and most missing in the book. In the medium of the book, their voices and humor often fall flat.
The other thing missing from the book is, interestingly enough, the podcast itself. While Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered tells plenty of tales about dangerous situations that Kilgariff and Hardstark have gotten into, and while it offers plenty of familiar assessments about why the hosts are drawn toward true crime stories, there is very little reflection on the podcast other than their acknowledgments of their surprise and pleasure at its success. My Favorite Murder is ethically murky, to say the least; many have criticized the podcast for a number of reasons including victim blaming, racism, and exploitation. One could listen to 10 sequential episodes of the podcast and think that the only people murdered in this country are young white women, and the manner in which Kilgariff and Hardstark speak about victims and perpetrators of crimes may make a number of people cringe. I certainly cringe, at times, and I’m a murderino.
Kilgariff, in one of her final chapters, addresses at least one of these issues head-on and traces the purposeful shifts over the years (quite noticeable to me) in the way the hosts speak of issues of culpability and accountability. Drawing on a message she received from a victims rights advocate, Kilgariff explains the problem with “Stay out of the forest” — a joke the host made in an episode in which she told the story of children who found a dead body in the woods — which has become one of the show’s most popular catchphrases. While the phrase has come to signify something like “avoid dangerous situations and stay safe,” Kilgariff tells us that
the sad truth is, you “can’t stay out of the forest” because the world is a forest. And it’s filled with predators. If someone is assaulted, it wasn’t because they were careless, irresponsible, or dressed wrong. It happened because some piece of shit chose to assault them. And if someone is murdered, it’s because some piece of shit chose to murder them.
This moment by Kilgariff is important, but it is also underdeveloped. It comes late in the text and is a rare moment of reflection on the podcast itself. Throughout the book, Kilgariff and Hardstark are quite aware of the concerns of their private lives but not nearly cognizant enough of the concerns that their sensational (in every aspect of the word) podcast raises. As a murderino, I would have liked to read more about how they understand and engage with their work. The podcast grows more and more popular; Kilgariff and Hardstark have performed sold-out shows around the world and have recently started their own podcasting network. True crime and My Favorite Murder aren’t going anywhere, and I am sorry that the authors missed the opportunity to engage with their professional lives and concerns in meaningful ways.
That being said, Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered is an often funny, sometimes sweet, and occasionally wise memoir of Kilgariff and Hardstark’s lives and particularly their spotty youths. The book will likely appeal to the murderinos among us, but for those looking for more, you may want to stay out of this particular forest.
Jacquelyn Ardam's work has been published in venues such as Public Books, The Toast, Jacket2, Modernism/modernity, Comparative Literature Studies, and Contemporary Women’s Writing.
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