Book: The Anatomy of Desire
Author: L.R. Dorn
Publisher: William Morrow
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Cleo Ray : I taped this quote above my sink: “What does it matter if an influencer gains all the followers in the world only to lose her soul?”
Erin Newcomb, Chief Deputy : We were feeling sick in our hearts. Who leaves the person she’s planning to marry drowned in a lake and takes off?
Alana Belknap, Defense Counsel : When a defendant changes her story – the one she told police her family, her attorneys – it’s a turning point … As in, What else hasn’t she told us?
Sandy Finch : He told me to go with my conscience. So I did. No matter what, I knew I couldn’t sell out Cleo.
Cleo Ray : Alana and Reuben wanted to go with the truth defense. They wanted me to testify and tell my story. That gave me this amazing surge of hope. The ear worm I took into court that day was “the truth shall set me free.” The truth shall set me free.
Review: The Anatomy of Desire reads in it’s entirety as episodes of a docuseries following the arrest and murder trial of fitness influencer Cleo Ray. Told from the perspective of both defense and prosecution, we read the book as a script. Initially I found the format a little hard to get into, but once I got going I really found myself immerse within the trial. We find ourselves following the story of a girl who is accused of murder, who pleads not guilty, and who subsequently loses all that she’s worked for, which amounts to a rising social media career, minor fame, and near celebrity status.
Something I found interesting in the format of this book as a docuseries is that as a reader, not only are we witnessing an actual trial regarding the moral character of Cleo Ray, we as readers are given the opportunity to determine for ourselves if she’s truly innocent or not. This isn’t told from the first person, it’s told in interview style, with Cleo defending her position both in the court room and to the interviewer, Duncan McMillan. We can choose for ourselves if she is truly a reliable narrator or not, (though I should note, she’s not actually the narrator, but she is who we hear from most). Do we believe her story? Or do we listen to the evidence presented by both sides of the aisle and form our own conclusions based on what we read?
Per the authors, The Anatomy of Desire is based on “a true crime drowning of Grace Mae Brown by her lover, Chester Gillette” – a story from 1906 which then went on to inspire a novel called An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, several movies, tv shows, radio shows, plays, musicals, and now another adaptation. While I’m not familiar with An American Tragedy or the true crime story of Grace Mae Brown, I find this to be an interesting modern day adaptation. We truly are living in the era of the social media influencer and from that we find a nuanced story that underscores what celebrity status means. From millions of instagram followers to a media circus that follows her trial, Cleo Ray embodies the polarity of social status. We understand her rise to fame and likewise have witnessed, like her own, many others who have fallen hard in the public eye.
I do appreciate that this book doesn’t necessarily zero in on or highlight the idea of cancel culture, but rather shows the humanity behind a face on a screen. It characterizes the depth of character that we often overlook when we follow strangers on social media platforms – these people are more than just what we see, there is a history, there are traumas, lives lived, and unseen experiences. Nor does this book focus singularly on social media – there’s a lot of talk about the actual crime, about motive, the legal process, details of the case, and the human element. While we find ourselves living within a world of social status and influencers, we’re also afforded the luxury of being able to peer behind the curtain and see what’s going on beneath the surface.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book, like I said I initially found it a little difficult to get into with the format being the way it was, but it ended up flowing really well and following a pace that made sense both as a book and as individual docuseries episodes. I finished the book and ultimately felt that it needs to be immediately turned into a tv show and I would definitely watch it if it ever were to be. My only hitch in this whole thing is the title of the book. The docuseries itself is entitled The Three Lives of Cleo Ray and I’m not sure I see a point in naming the book differently. In fact, I don’t see a direct correlation between the title of the book and the actual story told, but I suppose that’s just a personal opinion and being an advanced reader copy it’s possible that could change, though I doubt it.
Advice: If you’re interested in true crime or a fan of true crime tv shows / docuseries, I think you’ll really enjoy this book. It isn’t graphically violent and in that regard could be much easier to read than many docuseries are to actually watch. I found this to be a quick read and one that kept me thinking after it was over, which I find to be the mark of a good book. I recommend this book if the subject matter sounds interesting to you, it certainly didn’t disappoint.