Journalist Larrison Campbell’s eighty-five-year-old grandmother, known to friends and family members as “Presh,” was murdered in 2003 at her home in Greenville, Mississippi. Police never arrested anyone for the crime, but that didn’t stop some family members from blaming one of their own. Nearly twenty years later, Campbell explored this tragedy—and her family’s response—in a new podcast, Witnessed: Devil in the Ditch (Campside Media). The eight-part series combines true crime investigation with the kind of thoughtful introspection more commonly found in literary memoir.
Campbell is a friend of mine from college, where we both worked for our campus newspaper, The Argus. I recently spoke with her via Zoom about carrying out a journalistic investigation into her own family, her evolving beliefs about subjectivity and journalism, and the differences between podcasting and writing.
The Rumpus: When you set out to make this podcast, what was your goal? Was it to solve the crime? To tell your family’s story?
Larrison Campbell: Honestly, I wanted to solve the crime. I hoped—that with time and resources and with two decades having passed, I really thought, in retrospect, naively—that I had a good shot at solving it. I spent one year working on this. And by the end of the second month, I had a pretty clear idea that we were not going to solve it, certainly by any legal definition. Too much time had passed.
I thought people would be more willing to talk because of the time passing. And they were. But, I mean, I’d never tried to solve a crime before. What I didn’t know is that at the end of the day, what people remember does not matter because memory is so subjective. What I really needed was evidence, and that was just not something that I’m sure ever really existed. It certainly didn’t exist by the time I got to the case. I mean, they never provided us with the case file, which is not what the police chief said when I initially met with him. And it’s not what the city attorney said when I first spoke with her. They said, “We won’t be able to get you the whole file, but we will be able to get you parts of it.” And then they got us nothing—absolutely nothing—from the file. Maybe they lost it. Or they lost enough of it that they didn’t want to give us what they had because then it would be apparent that things were missing. Or maybe, yeah, there’s a smoking gun in there and they should have arrested someone, I don’t know. Twenty years in a poorly run police department is a very long period of time.
Rumpus: Subjectivity is a big theme in the podcast. It was interesting to me as somebody who, like you, is trained as a journalist. In journalism, everything is about objectivity, avoiding conflicts of interest, never being a part of the story. What was it like, as a journalist, to go into this story about your own family, without the kind of objectivity that you’re used to?
Campbell: I don’t think I could have reported this, say, six years ago because I think my feelings on objectivity in journalism were very different prior to the previous presidential administration and everything that came with it. I think the last few years really taught me that the idea of objectivity in journalism is kind of a fallacy. It’s a total stretch to think that a human being can be objective, even if they’re reporting on, like, potholes in the streets. Well, guess what, they live in one of the neighborhoods that’s either getting that roadwork done or is not getting that roadwork done. That’s going to color how they see it. And so, I think the very best thing we can do as journalists is not try to be objective but try to be transparent about our possible biases.
That being said, it made me super uncomfortable at times and was absolutely a problem. One of my aunts, one of the people who believes, very strongly, that my cousin killed my grandmother, I love her. And I want to portray her in only a good light, you know, and I don’t want her to resent me because of this podcast. But I really didn’t agree with a lot of stuff she said. And so, that was really, really, really difficult. Part of me would have liked to change aspects of the story. Thank god I had a team of people working with me, who were like, “You’ve got to be honest about this, you’ve got to be honest about this, you’ve got to be honest about this.”
If you’re working on a podcast, you’re guiding the story, but you have so many other voices of reason. And thank god for that. Because there were times when I kind of had to be protected from my own worst instincts, maybe more than in a podcast I wasn’t so closely linked with. When you’re writing about family, there’s what’s really relevant and has meaning to you. And then there’s what has meaning to the audience. And sometimes I was so close to it, I had trouble seeing that difference. I’d be like, “Oh, here’s this story about my grandmother that really matters to me.” But it didn’t actually make a difference in terms of the story.
Rumpus: Did you ever question the idea of putting the truth or the podcast before your relationship with your own family members?
Campbell: I did have a conversation with everybody in my family before I did this. And I said, “You know, things are going to happen here. Things are going to come through in the podcast that you will probably not agree with. And I just have to follow this story.” And that was very much my intention going into it. And then once I got into it, I was like, “Oh, it’s harder to do this than I told them it was going to be.”
But I was never worried that they were going to be angry with me for not finding a story that, say, supported what they thought was right. I knew I had license. I have two aunts who very strongly believe that my cousin murdered my grandmother. My dad is very much on the fence, and I never felt like I had a pull from either side.
But still, you’re portraying people you’ve known your whole life, like, how do you do that? As a writer podcasting her own story, how do you sum up your dad? And is it relevant that he got mad at you right after your grandmother died? Is that relevant to the story, or is that only relevant to you?
Rumpus: When you first approached your family about this podcast, did they all accept the idea?
Campbell: Yeah, they were just happy that someone was talking about it. Especially for one of my aunts, this was a drum that she felt she was beating by herself for a really long time. And so even if I didn’t come out with a revelation that she agreed with, or even if she didn’t like what I discovered, I think there was a sense of validation because someone else cared as much as she did. You know, I come from a family where, like a lot of families, you’re not supposed to dwell on unpleasant things. And this was certainly an unpleasant thing that she chose to dwell on. I think a lot of people close to her couldn’t really stomach that.
Rumpus: When I listened to the podcast, I thought you were remarkably objective. You’re obviously involved in the story, you’re related to everybody that you’re talking to, and yet you stayed so open-minded.
Campbell: Thank you for saying that, I really appreciate it. I think that is the benefit of going into this as a journalist and not just a member of the family. The journalistic training is still helpful because objectivity really is just curiosity. The important thing is to really want to listen. If you’re genuinely interested in hearing what everyone has to say, then I think you are by default being somewhat objective. I think where you get into trouble is when you go in and, say, “Well, this is absolutely what the story has to be. This is what is true.” Because then you’re just cutting out questions you could be asking and stories you could be telling and perspectives you should be taking into account.
Rumpus: When I wrote a memoir, a lot of people asked what my family and people in the book thought about it. Do listeners ask you about that too?
Campbell: Yeah, they do.
Rumpus: Why do you think that’s so fascinating to people?
Campbell: Good question. You know, let me rephrase my answer, actually. People who I’m friends with, or acquaintances with, have asked me what my family has thought. People who I don’t know have written me critical messages for doing the podcast. I think that’s because a memoir, or a podcast about your family, is a massive social transgression to a lot of people. And in a way, even as a storyteller, I can see it because it’s a story about a lot of people but only from the perspective of one of those people.
Rumpus: That’s true.
Campbell: I think that’s also one reason it’s such a fun genre to read and to lose yourself in because you are suddenly in somebody else’s point of view. There’s no other nonfiction form that does that. But just the idea of it makes people really uncomfortable. Everyone sees themselves as the main character, you know? And everyone is like, “Well, what if it were me? What if I were the one in the family that was being written about?”
Rumpus: Right. People are not used to having their own story told by somebody else. So, what did they think? What kind of feedback did you get from people who are in the podcast?
Campbell: In the podcast? Nothing but supportive. I was very worried about my dad because he’s a big part of it. He really liked it.
Rumpus: And he’s an attorney! Did he have legal concerns for you?
Campbell: Yeah, I think he did. I was sued for defamation a year and a half ago for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast, and I won, thank god, but I think that was fresh in his mind as well as mine. He was like, “You’ve got to be careful.” And, we were. I mean, we took so many steps. We changed some names because in a podcast or a memoir, you’re talking about somebody else’s life but the reason is not to expose other people but because none of us live in a goddamn vacuum. Whether or not someone may believe that my cousin did this horrific thing and killed my grandmother, you know, at least for me, I’m not out here to affect his life in any way. I’m just out here to tell a story that resonates with me and, I hope, with other people. And so, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what name I use for him.
Rumpus: Before I steered us into the topic of legal risk, you were saying that your dad really liked it. That must have been so reassuring.
Campbell: It was lovely. He told me, “I really think it’s wonderful. And I think your grandmother would actually have liked it.” And that was nice. I mean, is it terrible that hers is still the opinion I probably care about the most?
Rumpus: Were you thinking about her opinion while making the podcast?
Campbell: I tried really hard not to because I had a feeling it was not up her alley. I say this in the podcast. She wouldn’t have liked this kind of attention on our family. I think she would have liked podcasts in general because she was constantly reading. She would try to read on her long walks and, inevitably, fall and hurt herself. And so it just would have been a lot better if we could have given her an iPod.
Rumpus: People obviously have a huge appetite for true crime right now. You and I have talked before about how a lot of true crime coverage feels exploitative. Did you worry about that with this podcast?
Campbell: I went into this thinking that I’d solved the issue of exploitation and true crime. I went into this thinking, “Ah, if it’s a member of the family, if it’s somebody who was actually affected by this, you can’t be exploitative.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I believe there is something to that.
Rumpus: What makes something exploitative?
Campbell: What makes it exploitative is if you are more interested in the grossness and the tragedy in this rubberneck-y way, rather than the actual people that went through it.
I also think there’s an issue in true crime where the victim is just a victim. And I mean, god, I love true crime, even exploitive true crime, I listen to it all. But the number of times I just roll my eyes at the descriptions of the victim: “She lit up a room, she had the kindest heart, she never met an enemy. . . .”
Rumpus: I’m laughing because those descriptors actually do fit your grandmother.
Campbell: (Laughing) True, although I never used those phrases. But, yeah, I think that’s sort of the problem with tragedy, it’s kind of impossible to see a victim, even if it’s somebody close to you, as a three-dimensional person. Suddenly they’re just their absolute best qualities. And yet, to me, [my grandmother] Presh was very three-dimensional.
Rumpus: To me, she came across as three-dimensional. You had anecdotes about her grudge-holding and other traits that made her seem less angelic. She had a big personality and a lot of it was wonderful.
Campbell: Yeah, a lot of it was. She was a mostly wonderful person with some flaws, which, ideally, would be everybody, you know? In a perfect world, everyone would be wonderful with a few flaws. But the problem with the flaws of hers that I did mention is that they all sort of fed into the theory of why she might have been murdered.
Rumpus: Oh, that’s true.
Campbell: As I was writing it, I was aware of that. But I don’t know, maybe that’s the nice thing about writing a memoir over a podcast. At the end of the day, there just isn’t as much room in a podcast.
Rumpus: How else is a podcast different from journalism or other types of writing?
Campbell: First of all, it is very much a collaboration from the beginning. Yes, the germ of the idea rested with me, but an agent helped me work out the pitch before we took it to a production company, and then the production company introduced me to a story editor and a producer and an associate producer. And suddenly I had this entire team helping me, which is good because otherwise I would still be working on it. So I think it’s harder to argue that it’s a singular vision. And I’m not saying that makes it any less artistic or literary or anything like that, but I think one of the real beauties of memoir is that it’s a singular vision.
I also love being able to use other people’s voices. That’s a message I’ve gotten from a lot of people, “Oh, I loved hearing your mom and dad’s voices.” And I love that. I think we all have regrets about the people in our lives who aren’t there anymore, but I remember thinking, when I was in college, “I should get a tape recorder and get Presh’s stories from her. She knows this whole segment of our family history that I know nothing about. I should record her.” And I never did. She was so camera-shy. But I think she would have let me audio record her. It’s nice now that, in addition to what’s in the podcast, I’ve got hours of tape of both of my parents talking, and my aunts.
Rumpus: And their storytelling. I mean, your mom talks about going with your grandmother to estate sales, or what your grandmother believed were estate sales.
Campbell: Going into other people’s houses and trying to buy their stuff? Oh, she was a nut.
Rumpus: How fun to spend that time remembering her and talking about her. I mean, I’m sorry that it was in the context of her death.
Campbell: I feel like that’s what I got to do with this podcast project. A huge part of why I wanted to do this was not just to hopefully solve what happened to her but to kind of bring her back to life. She felt very alive to me for the year I was working on this, which is ironic because the whole project is about her death. But she felt so alive. Multiple times a day, I’d be debating with somebody, “Well, maybe this happened, or maybe this happened,” and I’d have this instinct that I could reach and call her like she was just a phone call away. When you’re so focused on somebody’s story, that person is very much alive. When I was working on this podcast, I would dream about Presh many nights a week.
Author photograph by Aidan O’Donohue