Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll

In her novel Bright Young Women, Jessica Knoll explores the incomprehensiveness of grief, the impacts of crime reporting, and how the celebritization of serial killers revictimized those they have hurt through the story of two women whose lives were touched by tragedy. 

In 1978, Pamela, a pre-law student at Florida State University and President of her sorority, is startled awake in the middle of the night by a strange sound. She finds herself in an unimaginable nightmare, catching a glimpse of a man she will come to know as The Defendant as he escapes from the house having killed two and maimed two more of Pamela’s sisters, including her best friend Denise. She soon crosses paths with Martina “Tina” Cannon, a psychiatrist hunting down the truth of what happened to her partner Ruth Wachowsky when she disappeared in 1974, believing that she was killed by the very same serial killer. The two women join together to find the truth and achieve justice in the face of a legal system constantly working against them. 

“…a moving and empowering story of women rising above the actions of one horrible man and fighting for justice and truth.”

I have long been a fan of true crime, less so of crime fiction, but when I saw this book described as “inspired by the real-life sorority targeted by America’s first celebrity serial killer” it piqued my interest. While I enjoy true crime, I tend to stay away from sensationalized retellings or reportings as they often do more harm than good to the victims and their families. I believe crime writing’s first priority should not be entertainment but in representing the voices of the victims unable to tell their own stories. 

Not only does Bright Young Women uplift and center the stories of the women whose lives were touched or ended by The Defendant, but the book also asks the same questions of media and entertainment ethics that have long interested me. Pamela’s experience of fighting for justice is heavily shaped by the media. From the early days when journalists would harass her and her sorority sisters, misreporting details in order to sensationalize them; to later at the trial when The Defendant is lifted to celebrity status for the media’s benefit; to years later when documentaries edit and shift the narrative to fit their own means. Knoll expertly captures the ills of crime reporting and fictionalization that only retraumatize victims without helping them in their pursuit of justice.

I will also note that the killer is only ever referred to as The Defendant throughout the text by the narrators. In making this decision to never name the fictional or the real-life serial killer, the author keeps the focus on the victims and does not contribute to the very celebrification of serial killer book critics. 

There is one thing that bothered me about this book. While it was marketed as being “inspired” by the first celebrity serial killer, the book stayed very close to actual events. I will not name this killer as Knoll lays such good groundwork by not naming him in the text and contributing to his celebrity, but I recognized his crimes and entitled nature in the pages having once read a biography of him for a university course. With the recent Dahmer documentary prompting backlash from the family who did not want another dramatized version of their loved one’s last moments, the ethics of fictionalizing crime for entertainment is more in the zeitgeist than I’ve ever seen before. 

The fact that the book stayed so close to the actual events made me a little uncomfortable, especially since the author seemed so aware of the ways in which the media can re-victimize survivors and family members. What made me most uncomfortable was that Knoll had to speculate about the lives and feelings of real victims and their families. I did later learn that Knoll interviewed one of the women who survived the FSU attack and has been very willing to tell her story which eased my discomfort, but I still would rather the book further fictionalize the murders in particular.  

I also want to commend Knoll on her inclusion of Ruth’s storyline as a queer woman whose case is dismissed because of her sexuality. Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that her case has largely remained unsolved because her family did not care to advocate for her and the police did not recognize Tina as her next of kin until many years later, leaving Tina unable to access information about the case and advocate for her partner. Because of her sexuality, Tina is dismissed by police who even go so far as to call into question Pamela’s trustworthiness for associating with her. Tina is assumed to be manipulative and harmful, while The Defendant is assumed to be misunderstood despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

On the whole, I found Bright Young Women a moving and empowering story of women rising above the actions of one horrible man and fighting for justice and truth. Knoll sheds light on the many actors who work to re-victimize survivors, from the media to police who dismiss women for their sexuality or because they do not take domestic violence seriously, to the court systems that prioritize the rights of The Defendant over the well-being of his victims. Bright Young Women is a shining example of ethical crime fiction and I hope serves as a guide for the whole genre. 

Jessica Knoll is the New York Times bestselling author of The Favorite Sister and Luckiest Girl Alive—now a major motion picture from Netflix starring Mila Kunis. She has been a senior editor at Cosmopolitan and the articles editor at Self. She grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and graduated from the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their bulldog, Franklin.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ S&S/ Marysue Rucci Books; Canadian Export edition (Sept. 19 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 384 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1668046067
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1668046067