Picture Perfect Is Almost Perfect: A Conversation With Author Shanna Hogan

I thought I'd read enough of the Jodi Arias story to never want to read another word. After all, how many times and in how many ways can you say that the convicted killer is a psychotic bad girl who had no right to kill her lover and now must pay the price? That's sort of like repeatedly insisting that Cruella de Vil was mean to puppies and doesn't deserve another Dalmatian.

But bored on a recent Saturday night I downloaded a copy of Shanna Hogan's new book on the infamous made-for-TV murder, Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story (St. Martin's Press, 2013). I was expecting to be cheaply entertained the way one is with sleazy gossip among even sleazier friends. But in no time at all I was muttering to myself, "Wow, she's pulling it off. She's telling a damned good story."

It isn't often that a true crime book reads like a Patricia Highsmith novel, with shades of Ruth Rendell passing across the pages as the story of lives converge toward what the reader knows is a horrifying conclusion. But these masters of suspense had an edge over Shanna Hogan. As fiction writers, they had the advantage of conjuring interior monologues to explain their characters' motivations and troubling thoughts. Confined to the limitations of non-fiction, Hogan has had to reconstruct from paper trails and cybertrails and conversations with the living, along with the massive evidence and testimony from the trial, a tale of obsessive love and lust and secrecy between a man who has died and a woman who has lied (to put it mildly).

Yet she has done a masterful job. In her second book of true crime, journalist Shanna Hogan's Picture Perfect brings to life the life cut down by Arias, the life -- more so than the death -- of Travis Alexander. As anyone who has followed the trial well knows, Mr. Alexander overcame a brutal childhood to become a rising inspirational speaker before meeting Ms. Arias and, despite his Mormon pledge of virginity until marriage, was soon caught up in an intense sexual relationship that he found rather difficult to quit. In bringing him to life, Picture Perfect draws the reader into the life and world of Travis Alexander, as we cheer for the determined, witty and charismatic young man who devoted his life to helping others.

Then, just as we come to love him, Hogan reminds us that he was flawed. Like every human, Travis Alexander was unable to master every facet of life. Like most humans, he struggled with finding the perfect partner, made big mistakes, and didn't always learn from them. He ostensibly ended things with Jodi, but clandestinely continued his sexual relationship with her, while dating other women. He lied to them and to his friends about his ongoing sexual obsession.

"I felt a little conflicted," Hogan told me. "I felt that Travis was a great guy. I did get attached to him. I spent an entire summer listening to him on voice recordings and watching him at conferences and reading his text messages and email chats. I thought he was a great guy. If he would have been my brother I would have thought that he was the greatest brother and a charming and wonderful guy. But at the same time, if he was dating my best friend, I would have been furious. I would have told her to get away from him, he's such a jerk... It was interesting for me to pull back the curtain and see what men are really like sometimes."

It is this portrait of an imperfect victim whose lustful addiction to the once-bleached blonde beauty with silicone breasts that makes Picture Perfect so compelling. We see Travis making mistakes. We see him behaving badly. But by the time we do, we already know how complex and caring and determined he was to turn the brutality of his childhood into something remarkable and valued. By the time he's lying to one woman after another while simultaneously hoping to make one his bride and fantasizing about Jodi dressed as Red Riding Hood while he bangs her tied to a tree, we pretty much get it. He wanted to have his virgin and eat her, too. It's human.

And so is Jodi Arias. Hogan succeeds in humanizing a woman who many have described as "the most hated woman in America," and vilified with unspeakable hatred (for a crime committed daily by men who stalk and kill their former lovers). But in humanizing her, there is no hint in Picture Perfect of excusing her crimes or painting Arias as some sort of victim. Hogan relies on the writer's classic technique of "show, don't tell" to encourage the reader to draw their own conclusions. She shows the reader the preposterous lies, the immature devotion, and the calculating mind of the killer, without ever having to point a finger. From a spectacle of televised vengeance where metaphorical pitchforks were hurled at the killer with a gleeful exuberance once reserved for public stoning or the Roman Coliseum, Hogan's tale emerges all the more powerfully, as she steers clear of jumping in to join them. And for that resistance, her story is all the more effective as she manages to convey how utterly normal so much of Arias's life and love once were, yet how utterly abnormal her mind is.

"Oh, my gosh! To do that [commit the killing] and not be a complete basket case? And to be able to act normal around people and not be shaking?" Hogan asks, rhetorically, noting how void of emotion the killer remained both immediately after the gruesome killing, and throughout the interviews, interrogations and cross-examination. As Arias demonstrated on the witness stand, and Hogan deftly illuminates in her story, Jodi Arias is far from normal in many respects. The immobile face that revealed no emotion on the witness stand because no emotion lay behind it, the breezy manner in which she was able to respond to a police officer who pulled her over just hours after her slaughter, or the near instantaneous pursuit of a new man once she'd erased Travis Alexander from the earth and was finally able to move on, all point to a sociopathic personality. But for all our fascination with sociopaths, it is the sheer normalcy of their lives in other respects that draw us to them.

Not only does Picture Perfect paint a portrait of a psychopathic personality through Arias's own words and the peculiar behaviors she consistently exhibited, by focusing on the relationship between Travis and Jodi in a manner which downplays the salacious details of their sex life and explores instead the needs and objectives and actions of the two, Hogan captures the intriguing element about obsession that captures our imaginations -- the barely perceptible yet incremental steps that took the relationship from normalcy to obsession -- on both parties' parts.

"That's exactly what I wanted to do," she says. "It's definitely not a case of good and evil, as I may have thought naively when I first entered it. There were definitely fifty shades of gray in this relationship." Yet in seeing fifty shades of gray, Hogan doesn't in any way excuse the crime or the criminal. But she does acknowledge the pain that drove Arias to hatred.

"She tried to be so okay and complacent in this relationship and she never spoke up and told him how she felt, either," Hogan notes. "I think if he ever realized how much he hurt her, he would have been mortified. [He never knew] how truly obsessed she was and that she wasn't okay with it; I think he never realized what he did to her."

By showing how painful the relationship became for Arias, Hogan skillfully shines a light on one of the compelling aspects of the case -- how relatable such emotional pain can be, even if felt, in this case, by someone otherwise devoid of normal emotion. Hogan notes how many of the stalking behaviors of Arias are increasingly becoming the norm in relationships, from her spying on his online and cell-phone activity, to obsessing about his failure to instantly respond.

"It drives women crazy. And it drives men crazy, as well. There's nothing that stirs up emotions like heartbreak. Every one of us has been in that unrequited love. I felt that so strongly. I've wondered, do days pass by when she doesn't even recognize the person that she was when she was so obsessed with Travis, because now she's over him?"

But getting over Travis was something that Arias just couldn't do while he was alive, anymore than he could get over her sexually. I pose the question of whether or not her motive may not have been as much a desire to just "move on," a phrase Arias repeatedly mentioned to the police, as it was rage and jealousy. Hogan agrees. "Yes, yes. It's like, get him out of her life so that she could have that fresh start because she knew that he'd keep pulling her back and that she'd want to keep going back to him. And at that point she may have really not wanted to marry him. Maybe there was no more love and it had all just dissolved into hatred and rage and just wanting to remove him from the planet and just be done with it forever."

Ironically, Arias's hatred and rage have provoked a firestorm of hatred and rage over the internet, as the mere mention of her or her victim's name leads to calls for ever more condemnation. While most focus their rage on Arias, a smaller number, convinced that she was an "abused woman," turn their rage toward Travis Alexander. Much of this aggression has exploded through the cybersphere, with Facebook and Twitter accounts used to demonize Arias, Travis, witness Alyce LaViolette, prosecutor Juan Martinez and others. Writers, myself included, who have written on the subject have been threatened and smeared for the mildest of comments, while one man was even arrested for planning the brutal murder of journalists Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell (who has written her own book on the case). Given the emotional fervor the case has provoked, was Hogan concerned about the reaction to her own book?

"I knew that in writing about this case, that because it is so polarizing, that they would criticize me even if I was too sympathetic to Travis or to Jodi or for people who had watched every aspect of this case, there wasn't enough new information." Indeed, the desire for "new information" about the killing or the killer has kept the public addicted to the case, much as Travis and Jodi were themselves addicted and obsessed. And, like Travis and Jodi, the audience just can't walk away.

For those readers who are looking for new information to solve the lingering mysteries of the case, such as what she did with the knife and the gun; which came first, the bullet or the blade; or where in the word did her memory go, Picture Perfect may well disappoint. But for those readers who are intrigued by the complexity of human emotion, the symbiotic nature of relationships gone weird, or just enjoy skilled writing and story-telling, Picture Perfect is unlikely to disappoint. For a young author just bursting onto the scene, Shanna Hogan has done an excellent job of telling a story already growing old. By restoring the life of the victim and the humanity of such an inhumane killer, Hogan has established herself as a skilled writer of suspense, whose future books are likely to just keep getting better.

Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story: A Beautiful Photographer, Her Morman Lover, and A Brutal Murder, Shanna Hogan, St. Martin's Press, 2013, 352 pages.