Sickness and Sensation
Content note: this article is about true crime and Jared Fogle, and therefore contains mentions of sexual and physical assault, as well as child sexual abuse.
We are living in the Golden Age of true crime. This is not, I think, due to a particular across-the-board excellence in its output, but in the hyper-evolution of the genre itself — it was only a few years ago that Serial and Making a Murderer kicked off the trend, with a similar premise: retrospectively analyzing a crime and finding something that was missed before. Back then, the missing piece would point to a person’s guilt or innocense. That would evolve, and soon the stories of crime would be fleshed out, not just covering the guilt of murderers and abusers, but of the systems that allowed them to get away with it.
Through the 2010s, the genre expanded beyond cold cases in small towns, and encompassed crimes that were historic (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), familial (Mommy Dead and Dearest), corporate (The Inventor). Wild Wild Country brought cult shows into vogue, eventually coinciding with the real-time arrest of the leaders of NXIVM documented in The Vow and Seduced.
What began as, colloquially, a genre that women watched so they could survive (the “stay sexy, don’t get murdered” of My Favorite Murder) now served as a clarion to avoid murder, abuse, grifters, scams, sexual assault, and cults. This evolved with the changing zeitgeist in America — the 2010s saw the decline of Obama-era optimism with the rise of both alt-right fascists and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland — along with the acquittal of George Zimmerman — brought both racial injustice and the failure of policing to the forefront, explored in The Central Park Five, 13th, and OJ: Made in America. The failures of tech wunderkinds like WeWork and Theranos spawned their own documentaries, heralding the collapse of 2010's startup culture.
Like the Prestige TV boom of the 2000s before it, true crime began to take on its own tropes: a truth-seeking director/journalist, stripped-down personal interviews, an emphasis on cinematography and music, narrative twists and unreliable narrators. These tools would result in diminishing returns, easily parodied (as in the brilliant American Vandal), and often masking irresponsible filmmaking. Consider, for example, the early quarantine sensation Tiger King, which performed an absurd amount of narrative gymnastics and mistruths in order to make its story more sympathetic to a man who is, by all accounts, abusive and dangerous.
I say all of this because I believe that the presentation of true crime stories reflects our evolving understanding of society; how we see crime and punishment, victims and perpetrators, justice and retribution.
This brings us to a subset of true crime stories that tell the stories of victims and perpetrators of abuse. Whether within religious communities (Prophet’s Prey and later Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, Going Clear), popular culture (Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly, Allen vs Farrow), or cultish groups (Seduced, Stolen Youth), the Me Too movement in 2016 created a space to share ongoing abuses and revisit old ones. At their best, these stories expose the systemic forces that keep victims from justice and recovery. At their worst, they rehash sensationalized scandals with a new coat of paint, telling their audience that the rubbernecking of tragedy is the same as learning to prevent it.
We know why we tell these stories — humans have been recounting tragedy and cruelty for most of our existence. We have an innate fascination with the extremes of human behavior. The stories remain the same, but the tellings change, and with them, their purpose: is a documentary about abuse a warning to future victims? A justification for legal actions? A call to action? An exercise in catharsis? Does it challenge the status quo, or reinforce it?
Jared From Subway: Catching a Monster, on the ID Network and Discovery+, is a 3-part series on Jared Fogle’s 2015 arrest and conviction for possession of child pornography and child sex tourism. Along with details on the FBI’s discovery of Fogle’s crimes via his associate, Russell Taylor, who was also convicted for crimes related to child sexual abuse, the documentary includes interviews with Taylor’s victims — his two stepdaughters — as well as Rochelle Herman, a Sarasota journalist who knew Fogle from 2007 to 2010.
The majority of the documentary focuses on Herman’s story — how, as a radio host, she met Fogle at a school event and, after he expressed his attraction to teenage girls, befriended Fogle in order to record their phone calls with the hope of exposing criminal activity. Eventually the FBI was involved, but were unable to charge Fogle due to a lack of evidence, with her investigation ending five years before Fogle’s eventual arrest.
Herman presents herself as an intrepid journalist as well as a woman out for justice — her status as a single mother is an understandable drive to stop child abuse when she sees it. The phone calls she was able to record with Fogle are shocking and disturbing to hear; in order to draw out a confession, Herman says that she needed to “pretend to be someone I wasn’t,” to act not only interested in Fogle but to be a willing participant in his plan to find and abuse young victims. She is presented heroically, an individual seeking justice when the authorities were too trepidatious to do so.
But she was also clearly a woman out of her depth. Her first attempt to gain a confession, as she tells it, nearly ends in assault from Fogle, with her recording device unable to pick up any information. After she brings her recorded calls to the FBI, they inform her that Florida is among the states that require both parties to consent to recorded calls, and not only would her evidence be inadmissible, but it was a federal crime. Herman seems shocked that the FBI would charge her with such a crime, despite being a journalist who would understand her legal constraints, even for undercover calls.
When the FBI asks her to continue her calls as part of their investigation (which would not be bound by such laws), she does so, saying she “had no choice,” plunging into three years and hundreds of recorded conversations with Fogle, which she then catalogues and drops off to the Bureau at every instance. The task itself becomes full-time, unpaid labor. The FBI suggests setting up a sting operation via her son’s birthday party, hoping to catch Fogle in the act of crossing state lines in order to have sex with a minor. The most upsetting of Fogle’s calls happens during this attempt, where he asks Herman if she would allow her own children to be seen naked.
The sting does not happen — Herman blames the FBI for this, claiming that they were unable to pull together enough resources in the short window where Fogle would be available.
We don’t get much insight from the Bureau itself. None of the agents who worked with Herman are in the documentary to share their input on the case, leaving only Herman’s account: that no matter how many horrifying statements she recorded Fogle making, they were unwilling to arrest him. One FBI agent (not involved with the case) notes that, though compelling, Herman’s recorded statements are not proof of action; they would only be useful in moving the case forward if Fogle indicated a specific location, time, victim — as was the plan with the defunct birthday party operation.
That the FBI and Herman were planning to entrap a child predator at a children’s party is shocking to think about. These children and their parents would have no way of consenting to the operation, nor to Fogle’s predation. It is one thing to put oneself in the line of fire to stop a dangerous criminal, how could that possibly be reasonable for minors?
This is not to say that Herman’s efforts were unwarranted, or that the FBI acted appropriately. Herman’s desire to stop abuse is admirable, and authorities dragging their feet in the attempt to stop a child abuser is also par for the course. But I was constantly flabbergasted at the slapdash way in which Herman (and presumably the FBI) handled the investigation. In one instance, Herman’s daughter finds her diary of the calls she made with Fogle and is understandably horrified, and I couldn’t help but ask — should that have been in an unlocked drawer? Herman was driven to get as much from Fogle as she could, and to her own detriment — she speaks at length about the PTSD she and her children have experienced in the past decade — how much of that was pressure from the FBI, and how much could have been prevented? Why, if she knew that conversation alone wouldn’t result in an arrest, would she continue as she did? Is she a brave seeker of justice, or a tragic study in going too far?
The quality of the documentary itself is tepid. Herman’s story is told through poorly made reenactments that seem plucked from a 1998 episode of Dateline. Structured around commercial breaks, at least half a dozen sections end with Herman saying “And then Jared said something that shocked me to my core” or something of the like, with accompanying suspense music, cheapening the reality of the situation with dramatic clichés. When other subjects are interviewed, they are introduced with slow-motion shots of them walking, or the camera lingers on their faces for a few seconds before cutting to another scene. At about two total hours, the entire program seems to be constantly padding for time; replaying Fogle’s commercials and press events, rehashing his story with each new interview subject. The first episode, which mostly documents Fogle’s rise to fame, spends an inordinate amount of time explaining what is, in retrospect, an extremely banal story of a man who lost weight and became a corporate spokesperson.
This is not to say that the documentary contains all the information that it could; there are no attempts to learn more about Subway’s involvement (we learn at the end that there were at least two internal investigations into Fogle’s behavior), nor are the authorities really held accountable for negligence. Rather, the story cares mostly about the lurid details of Fogle and his associate, Russell Taylor — including an offhand mention of bestiality that pops out of the woodwork and immediately disappears. The narrative seems to be, simply: look at this man who everyone thought was a normal, inspiring person. Now listen to him say the worst things imaginable.
Indeed, at a moment in history where the drumbeat of “save the children” is loudly directed at everyone but straight, white, suburban men, the story of Jared Fogle and Russel Taylor should be a sobering glimpse into the people who historically, pose the greatest risk to children: their relatives, people in power, men with money and influence. In the wake of Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes exposing his association with dozens of powerful people (mostly white, mostly straight, mostly men), it does not seem enough to tell a story of one or two men in a vacuum, as though Fogle was a singular instance of unimaginable evil, rather than an evil that was allowed to exist because of the power structures that protected him and prevented him from prosecution.
There are better ways to tell this story. One comparison that came to mind was Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story. About an hour longer than Jared from Subway, the Savile documentary also begins with Savile’s rise to power and influence (to be fair, he was one of the most famous men in Britain and eventually knighted, far more of a history than a Subway spokesperson), while weaving in evidence for Savile’s abuse: clips of him admitting attraction to young women, refusing to answer questions about his romantic life, jokes about being a predator. It subtly offers an insidious cause behind his fondness for volunteering at the hospitals where, it was later revealed, he found most of his victims. There are very few lurid, shocking details in the telling; rather it shows how a man was able to bend his own abuses into apparent acts of charity, how he used his status as a friend of the royal family and a public hero to hide in plain sight. In Jared from Subway several interviewees posit that Fogle used his speaking engagements and charitable foundation to get close to his victims, but there is no compelling evidence of how that would happen, how it would be hidden, and who would do the hiding. In that story, the public is let off the hook, as though we couldn’t have possibly known. In Jimmy Savile, the result is more damning: he told us who he was, and we refused to believe it, because we wanted to like him.
That idea is one of the through lines of great true crime stories: that all of society plays a part in these abuses happening. They call for collective action and empathy, for a restructuring of a justice system that does not protect the vulnerable, for a better media and entertainment industry that no longer shields abusers for profit. They do not tell us that child abuse is carried out only by a few sick individuals, nor that it should be the responsibility of one person to stop them.