Having guessed I’d never seen such a magazine before, my future husband included an issue of Startling Detective among my birthday presents, a little joke between two aspiring writers. We’d met the year before, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and had been living together for six months. As MFA students, we gathered with our peers to critique one another’s short stories; we used the words epiphany and redemption whenever the opportunity presented itself. We did not consider hard-boiled, artless accounts of rape and murder a legitimate form of narrative.
“I knew you’d like it,” he said.
“No,” I said, bouncing up from our thrift shop couch, “I love it.”
The pandering sensationalism; the preponderance of lurid clichés; prose that had passed from bad to execrable without stopping at worse: He’d found the perfect anodyne for the hours I spent rearranging the order of sentences, which had themselves required hours in the making. “Oregon’s Copycat Sex Murders” was the lead article for March. In the back were ads for handguns, wigs, diet aids, miracle cures, girdles and correspondence courses to improve your sex life or learn to become a private eye in your own home.
My future husband, who’d imagined the gift as a onetime gag, thought it was funny that I liked what was unarguably pulp, with standards lower than a tabloid’s.
After we’d graduated and were packing for a move east, to New York, I was surprised by how many detective magazines I found lying around our living room, jammed between sofa cushions, buried in piles of newspapers. He’d bought a few more, and I’d bought some myself. While the joke of their abysmal prose had worn off, I remained captive to what was irredeemably vulgar and misogynistic. True Detective, Startling Detective, Front Page Detective—they were all the same. Whether the girl was hog-tied and gagged by a murderous lothario or was luring an innocent man to his death, the bombshell on the cover was usually wearing no more than lingerie or a bikini. If sex didn’t equal death, the two were inextricably bound.
The transition from a Midwestern college town to New York City was predictably vertiginous, especially as neither of us had ever lived there before, not as an adult working a day job while writing on evenings and weekends. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have time to squander on what had been, I decided, a sophomoric attraction to kitsch, the literary equivalent of a pink plastic flamingo jabbed into a patch of lawn.
A decade disappeared before I gave detective magazines another thought—we’d married by then and started a family. I suspect I may have been the only mother in my neighborhood Barnes & Noble to leave her children within the safe embrace of the “Jr.” section so she could troll the true-crime shelves while they made their way through Frog and Toad Together. I didn’t care about murders undertaken to dispatch an inconvenient spouse or hasten an inheritance. I wanted to read about lust murder, the kind committed by an apparently ordinary man who secretly hunts a girl down, uses her sexually, kills her, discards her lifeless body and seamlessly re-enters his upstanding, workaday life.
Why didn’t the familiar plot bore me? I asked myself as I glanced up to make sure my children hadn’t wandered off while I looked for books I’d be embarrassed to be caught purchasing. If I judged myself by their covers, it wasn’t only because they advertised my poor taste in reading material. It was my appetite for true stories of dead girls and their killers that made me uncomfortable. I had a dozen or more dog-eared paperbacks hidden in a cardboard box under my side of the bed. Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, Richard Ramirez. I read books about men in whom lust and violence were fused, predators satisfied by nothing less than a girl’s halted heartbeat, and I read them at bedtime, using a finger to keep my place in the photo insert so I could flip back and forth between the text and the pictures. The best inserts juxtaposed a victim’s high school graduation portrait—or, if she’d been a prostitute, a booking photo—with that of her lifeless, often mutilated body.
At which I stared as if I’d known the dead girl personally and were trying to understand what didn’t seem possible, that life had continued without her.
My husband was right. I did bump into things more often than other people did. I closed drawers on my fingers, cut myself on can lids, fell down the stairs, and burned myself while cooking. I never hung a picture without hammering a thumb along with the nail, and I stubbed my toes almost as soon as I took off my shoes. I forgot to look both ways when I crossed the street; even a collision with a bike messenger and the resulting concussion didn’t help me remember.
Didn’t I realize I was punishing myself? my husband asked me. Once he sensed intent behind what I believed was accidental, he began to challenge my insistence that I was just clumsy, that was all. He’d been watching me for years by then and saw what I could not. There were only so many ways of mining my comfortable married life for penance.
And what about all the hours spent reading stories of violated and murdered girls, girls guilty of nothing other than trust? Was that a punitive exercise as well? That the spell these stories cast had never weakened forced me to admit I couldn’t—or, as my analyst might have said, wouldn’t—let go of the lust--murder plot. How many sickening photo inserts did I have to examine before I made the connection between forensic photographs of female corpses and photographs I persuaded my father to take of me when I was a college girl?
The first thing to happen in a lust murder is that someone finds a girl’s body. A janitor lugs trash to the Dumpster and sees her propped against its side, her legs spread wide so everyone will know what got her into this mess. Or the killer drives the dead girl out of town and into the wild, and a deer hunter stumbles over a foot sticking out from a brush-covered berm. If it’s a fisherman, he sees her hair first, and how it streams from her head, animate under the water. Soon patrol officers are busy securing the scene, grid-searching the terrain, looking for tire tracks, footprints, torn pantyhose, anything that might speak for a girl who can no longer speak for herself.
She’s naked, because the killer strips his victim. One step short of skinning her alive is how he sees it. Sometimes he needs more and has to dismantle her for a trophy: a finger, a kidney, a nipple. Or maybe he takes her apart for the sheer pleasure of destruction, of going on living after he’s watched the blood run out of her veins.
My father hadn’t liked the idea. But for once it was I who manipulated him, suggesting that if he didn’t take the occasional picture I staged, I might not continue to obey his directions when he posed me for the ones he wanted.
Always so ready to analyze a movie or a book, my father and I never spoke of what it might mean that I insisted on posing before him as a corpse, again and again, the victim of a car crash, a fall, an assault. I didn’t plan the pictures ahead of time. They were incidental, the result of my happening upon a usable prop or scene. From the vantage of 30 years it seems incredible that neither my father nor I acknowledged the meaning of our collaboration. Maybe the camera itself obscured his vision. He aimed and shot at a subject already dead. I’d say I’d been playing dead had the message been more artful and less desperate.
“Look at me, Father, now that I’ve given you what you asked.”
Look at what we have done.
The medical examiner arrives on the crime scene and ducks under the yellow tape. He takes the dead girl’s temperature to estimate the hour of her death and looks at her wounds to see if they’ve bled, or didn’t bleed because she was already dead when he stabbed her. Or the killer has left bruises in the shape of his hands squeezing her neck, and tiny capillaries burst, and bleeding red against the whites of her blind eyes tell the ME she was choked; back at the forensics lab, a broken hyoid bone will confirm strangulation as the cause of death. Before the examiner bags the whole of her, he bags each of the dead girl’s hands to preserve what evidence might remain under her nails, perhaps a few of her murderer’s skin cells with the signature of his DNA to feed into a national database of serial killers’ genetic profiles.
The examiner will know more when he has her body where he can cut it open. Then he’ll see what she had for dinner or if she was already dead when her murderer drowned her. As much as the homicide detective wants the killer’s skin cells, he doesn’t want the dead girl to have fought for them. He wants to tell her family he has evidence that it had been fast, and if not fast, then insensate. That the killer had drugged her before he mauled and raped her, or that she’d missed being mauled and raped because he’d slit her throat beforehand. Anything was better than a torn fingernail, evidence of a struggle.
“Fuck you,”I said. I don’t remember why. We were at Bright Angel Point, on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. “I keep hoping,” my father said. I don’t know what happened next. I held him off for months before I let him have what he wanted, afraid of losing what he called love. But I always lay inert, like a corpse, so he’d know I hadn’t given my body to him, only let him take it. What point was there in running away, he said, when I’d never find anyone who would tolerate what he’d made of me? I wasn’t five or 10 or 15. I was 20, old enough to condemn and forever bar myself from huddling among the innocent.
My mother’s parents thought they’d done my father a favor by releasing him from his shotgun marriage to their daughter, pregnant when they were both just 17. As long as he’d go away and not come back, they’d relieve him of responsibilities he couldn’t shoulder and payments he couldn’t make—alimony, child support. They reassured each other that a boy his age didn’t have to start over; he’d yet to begin.
My grandparents steeled themselves to my teenage father’s humiliation at having his wife and firstborn taken from him. They didn’t foresee that so grave an insult to his manhood would warp the person he became; they failed to imagine the magnitude of his pride or how, over years, it would inspire a rage that demanded retaliation.
Neither they, nor my mostly absent young mother, nor I recognized the girl I became, the one who would do anything for what anyone called love. The only person who saw her was my father.
If the dead girl whose story I’m reading isn’t a prostitute, she’s a college girl out on a hike, or a waitress who went home with the wrong customer. She’s been missing long enough that her roommate is frantic, her family more so. If she’s not a prostitute, the media invite the missing girl’s parents to appear on the nightly news and plead for their daughter’s abductor to return her. They have to assume he’s capable of remorse, of possessing emotions that resemble their own. They can’t understand what makes him who he is, and they don’t want to believe such people exist. Her friends stand at intersections handing out flyers printed with her picture over the word reward.
I didn’t think it was particularly odd to keep a box of lust murders under my side of the bed until I tried to move it to a better spot. After all, what mother would leave books like that lying around, where her children might come upon them? I carried them up and down the stairs looking for a place to tuck them away, out of sight, and ended up putting them back under the bed. I did this two or three times, enough to feel self-conscious. Did I want them near me as I slept, and if I did, why? Acknowledging them as bedtime stories provided only more reason to hide them away.
Perhaps I was, as my analyst said, polluted only insofar as I believed myself to be. But what informed my beliefs other than the books I’d read? I’d never taken a sex ed class; I knew little enough about normal sex, let alone deviance. But Oedipus knew the wages of incest, of pollution that can’t be contained. And what about Paradise Lost, in which Death is born when Satan beds his own daughter? Dick Diver put his mad wife, Nicole, in a Swiss asylum; by the end of Tender Is the Night, he’s lost his soul to the father who raped her. I was still a bluestocking, with a bluestocking’s library. Whose opinion would I hold above Sophocles’?
My favorite of the dead-girl pictures, and the last we made together, is bloodless. I’m wearing a black dress with a prim white collar and holding a white rose. Eyes closed, I’m lying in a casket I nagged my father to ask an undertaker friend to lend him—a floor model. I thought it might be scary, climbing into a coffin and lying down, especially when the bottom half of the lid was lowered over my legs, but it wasn’t, not really. Not when I thought of myself as dead anyway, a body abandoned by its owner.
Who can interview a dead girl? If a reader is to understand how it happened, this thing so terrible that people can’t imagine it for themselves, someone has to re-create her final hours. If the author’s lucky, there’s a girl who got away, and she tells the homicide detective what the killer did before she escaped. She shouldn’t have been walking alone on that stretch of road; she knew that. But her car broke down, or a pickpocket stole her wallet, or she spent her bus fare on something she wished she hadn’t. The lust murderer posed as an officer of the peace or a night watchman: a big man whose job it is to protect the vulnerable. He seemed nice at first, she tells the detective; he was kind and he bought her dinner.
Whoever she was, the girl who got away had been careless, just like the ones who weren’t so lucky. Everything would have turned out differently if the coed had been a better judge of character, or if she hadn’t been so headstrong as to hike alone where no one could hear her screams. The prostitute would still be alive if she hadn’t been so desperate for a fix that she ignored the killer’s eyes and got into his van. If you read enough lust murders, it’s clear how vigilant a girl has to be.
Every day for a week I visited the gun on the shelf above my father’s suits; sometimes I touched it, and sometimes I just looked. Once, I loaded it. I dropped a single bullet into one of the revolver’s six chambers. A bullet would be too fast for regret, but having never practiced on anything other than a distant soda can, I was afraid of misfiring, and even more than that, I was afraid of myself. On my last visit to the revolver, I looked up from where it was lying in my lap and by chance caught my reflection in the closet’s mirrored door. We regarded each other, I and the girl who’d traded all she had in order to keep the father she’d lost once before. How long had it been since she’d taken off the gold cross she used to wear? She didn’t want anyone to mistake her for a decent Christian. I pointed the gun at the girl in the mirror and saw something beyond or beneath her willingness to be debased. She was proud, like her father.
Whatever part of me I hadn’t lost or strangled was the one recording what happened, and even an apprentice writer knew better than to end such a story on so obvious a metaphor as her incestuous father’s pistol.
I put the gun back on the shelf and let what was left of me live.
A dream recurs, a dream that consists of one moment. As if I were watching from the other side of a double mirror, I see myself sitting alone in a small, windowless room painted white, empty aside from the chair beneath me. The room has a single door, with a knob but no lock, and my father is on the other side. I sit facing the door, and I watch the knob.
Nothing happens. I wait, that’s all. I’m 19; soon I’ll be 20. I know it’s only a matter of time before the knob turns, the door opens, and my father steps through. I know what future lies ahead, and I know there’s no way to escape it.
The only way to get away from my father, the only way I knew, was to leave her behind, the girl he stalked and stole, the one in the college yearbook picture that appears above my name. She was stupid about love, that girl, and she never knew when people were lying to her.
I kept her christening dress, a pair of her baby shoes bronzed into bookends and a banker’s box full of high school notebooks and term papers, all of them typed on onionskin paper, without a single mistake, the result of watching her fingers on the keys. Of starting over as many times as necessary. “What I Am; What I Hope to Become.” It was an assignment, so she’d taken it seriously: She did her best to sum herself up. Ten pages held together with a heart-shaped clip: I skimmed them to see what she thought she knew about herself. That she loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian? That maybe she’d work for a zoo, taking care of the big cats? She’d gotten an A, of course; she always got A’s. She was a slave to praise.
I kept the stuffed dog she’d had all her life and had taken with her to college, and I kept her books, too, a few cartons’ worth. To open a volume was to summon the girl who’d licked the gummed bookplate bearing her name and solemnly set it in place. Ex libris. Her grandfather had built her a bookcase and painted it white, and she slept just an arm’s length from it. The lamp on her bedside table had a ceramic stand painted with a nosegay of pink flowers, and she scorched a lot of T-shirts by dropping them over its shade to stop light from leaking under her door past bedtime and giving her away.
The door in the dream has no lock, and the room is so small and so empty, the girl so alone. How was it—how could it have been—I didn’t know the cost of failing to protect her? She’d want books, the girl I’d abandoned; she always did, and maybe it would help her to see the story’s end.
A single strand of pale hair caught on a thorn, lifting in the air and gleaming for a moment in the sun. Don’t miss it. If you’re a homicide detective, that’s how hard you have to look, how closely you must pay attention and never allow your focus to waver. Otherwise you might mistake it for something it’s not—a single filament, say, from a spider’s torn web. You have to look closely, because there isn’t always a body to find. Sometimes it was long ago that she died, as much as 30 years, and all that’s left is her exhumed remains. Other times there isn’t even that much. But you don’t stop looking. You can’t stop looking. Your job is to find what other people refuse to see. By day you hunt for clues, by night assemble them into a map.
You detect her, the dead girl, no matter if you have to use a magnet to stir a hundred woodstoves’ worth of cold ashes to find a single eyelet from her sneaker. Not everything burns away. A girl can be killed, but not obliterated. And even one tiny eyelet is something. Something for the mourners to bury.
KATHRYN HARRISON, novelist, nonfiction writer and More contributing editor, is working on a biography of Joan of Arc.
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