My 2009 Manifesto-ette

By Cornelia Read 

I am currently in the Sierras, on the shore of Lake Tahoe with a really bad internet connection, slightly goofy from altitude. This is not so great for trying to post something to Murderati (apologies for any formatting screwups, I’m composing in Word because we’re illegally piggy-backing on the wireless account of someone in a nearby abode who apparently went to UC Berkeley, as the connection is called GO BEARS). 

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For trying to get work done on my third draft, however, it’s been a blessing. Okay, not so much the goofiness… more the lack of wireless.

Everyone else but my mother goes skiing every morning, and I hunker down on this beige chaise thing down in the living room and spend the day immersed in New York City in 1990—most of this week mentally wandering around the oldest cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, with the fictional doppelganger of a real-life distant cousin of mine named Cate Ludlam and a fictional female homicide detective from NYC’s precinct one-oh-three named Skwarecki.

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(credit: Kevin Walsh, Forgotten New York)

Detective Skwarecki got named two years ago, during an auction at my daughter’s middle school. A very kind parent donated some money to the scholarship fund and she has since become a near-daily companion of mine, in an attenuated sort of way. (Is attenuated the right word? They don’t have a dictionary in this condo. Other than that it’s a remarkably amenable and non-tacky place, which is especially nice since I remember Tahoe as being the place bad Seventies architecture goes to die.)

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I’m still pretty enmeshed in the first half of the book, at this point. On this third pass, I know Skwarecki a lot better—my version, anyway. She’s speaking too formally in the early chapters for a former kickass varsity field hockey player from Queens, so I’m fixing that. 

In fact, she and my protagonist bond in the book because they both swear like drunken tanker captains, and enjoy the hell out of doing so.

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I’m stealing a bit of backstory for her from a real-life former cop in Queens, who started out in the late Sixties when female police officers still had to wear skirts and little stewardess caps, and were equipped with regulation purses as holsters. 

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This lady, her first day on the job, got sent out to some intensely sketchy precinct house in Brooklyn, and the guy at the front desk started swearing a blue streak the minute she reported for duty, at 7 a.m., saying he didn’t want to have to take care of any little girls, etc. He ordered her to go outside and march up and down the sidewalk, “and don’t make any trouble! Don’t even talk to anyone!”

So she did that, this lady named Georgie—age nineteen or so—and after the shift-change ruckus was over, she noticed a man sitting on the curb, head in his hands. She walked back and forth for another hour, and the man didn’t move.

Finally, he began to weep, and she could ignore him in good conscience no longer. She approached him and asked if there was anything she could do to help, only to discover he spoke only Spanish. As there was a small bodega across the street, she went over there to see whether she could find someone bi-lingual to interpret for her, shortly returning with a twelve-year-old boy who spoke English and Spanish.

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“Ask him what’s the matter,” she said, and the boy did.

“Mrs., he says he killed his girlfriend.”

“Ask him when,” she said, and the boy did.

“Three o’clock this morning, he says.”

“Ask him where her body is now.”

The boy did, and said, “Mrs., she’s in that Pontiac, across the street. Under a blanket in the back seat.”

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“Ask him,” said Georgie, “how he killed her.”

The boy did, whereupon the man pulled a gun out from under his shirt and offered it to her.

Taking a handkerchief from her holster-purse, Georgie took the gun from him.

“Ask him,” she said to the boy, “whether he’d come inside with me.”

The man stood up and followed along with her into the precinct house, whereupon the desk sergeant began yelling at Georgie for disobeying his orders not to talk with anyone or make any trouble.

“I’ve got a guy right here who shot his girlfriend to death five hours ago,” Georgie said. “The murder weapon’s in my purse, and the victim’s body is in the Pontiac across the street. I figured you might want me to bring him in to discuss it with you.”

And then, in the words of the fictional Skwarecki (because this is about cops in New York, after all) “the boys upstairs stole that fucking collar right out from under me.”


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I met Georgie in the office of the Queens District Attorney, where I heard the story from an admiring colleague of hers, a great college pal of mine named Eric Rosenbaum, who prosecuted Special Victims cases for over a decade—cases of horrific rapes, unconscionable child abuse—the kind of grim, awful, stomach-turning acts we would all of us like to believe our fellow humans incapable of. And Eric took a seventy-per-cent pay cut from the white shoe firm he started out at, just after law school, to do it.

Here is a random thing… last night I had the strangest dream (cue Pete Seeger). I was wandering through this bamboo forest in Big Sur with a gang of people, 

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and we were lost, trying to get back to the river, and at some point someone in the dream said to me, as we were climbing up this really long bamboo ladder through all that green, “you need to go read Romans 10:10.” 

Which is kind of funny because I knew they meant the bible passage, when I heard that, but at the same time thought of 1010 WINS AM in New York, the news and traffic radio station (which reports on so many homicides and stuff during the morning commute that my soon-to-be-ex once said “it was a whole year before I realized ‘bodega’ was NOT the Spanish word for crime scene…”)

And I remembered the thing about Romans 10:10 when I woke up at five a.m. (even though in the rest of my dream I lost my car on a mountain in the rain in North Carolina and had to scramble across a slimy river bank with a flood coming in the middle of the Big Sur bamboo forest {have I mentioned they don’t actually HAVE bamboo forests in Big Sur? I’d morphed it from one I used to hike through as a kid above Honolulu} and meanwhile keep my little brother’s towel from falling off {he was about five years old again} and then ended up back in Syracuse at my old apartment {though of course it didn’t LOOK like my old apartment at ALL}, where my soon-to-be-ex had thrown hot coffee all over my family china. And,well, hey, as my soon-to-be-ex once said, “dreaming is surrealist television.”). 

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So, being suddenly wide awake at five a.m.–the sun not yet up over the peaks of the Sierras and with my internet connection working, mirabile dictu— I Googled “Romans 10:10” (because, hey, who am I to look a surrealist-television horse in the mouth, right?) 

Here it is, chapter and verse, King James version:

For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

So, you know, I’ve thought about THAT all day…. even though from a New Testament POV, that sentence is telling you it’s not enough to have faith in the resurrection of Christ in your heart, you have to step up and say it out loud, which is not really where I’m coming from, in a theological sense. I think for me it resonates as something I’m trying to do with writing crime fiction, which is speak up for justice—for fairness—the kind that’s all too uncommon in real life.

When my friend Eric went home and told his family that he was going to become a prosecutor in the DA’s office, his dad said, “so, you’ll be busting poor mostly black and Hispanic people in Queens,” and Eric said, “No, I’m going to be seeking justice for poor mostly black and Hispanic victims in Queens–especially children–and I can live with that.”

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I’m writing this novel based on a real-life case that happened in Queens in 1990. A three-year-old boy was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, in a welfare hotel near LaGuardia airport. They put his body in the motel-room mini-fridge for a week, before hiding it in the abandoned jungle of Prospect Cemetery, the oldest burial ground in the borough—dating from 1660.


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Twenty years ago, my cousin Cate Ludlam was clearing brush there with a group of high-school volunteers, and they discovered little Andrew’s skeletal remains. She ended up testifying at the trial.

I would like to make some confession from the mouth about what that crime has meant to me, since the first time I heard Cate describe what had happened, twenty years ago during a party at my friend Ariel’s parents’ apartment–or at least a confession from the keyboard. 

I can’t do what Eric does, or Georgie, or even the fictional Skwarecki. 

I don’t know how to keep hurt like that from happening to any other children. I don’t know how to make it right—how we can change things for good so that the defenseless aren’t hurt. But I want us all to talk about it… think about it… speak up about it. I want our passion for justice to go from our hearts to our mouths to reality.


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Question du jour: What kind of justice would you most like to see in the new year? And I mean something that’s what your heart believeth unto righteousness, not politics. Give us the utmost message would you most like to speak from your conscience to the universe’s ear, and see made manifest.

Here’s mine: 

 

Happy, happy, happy 2009 to all of you and everyone you love. May it be the best year ever, and may all of your wishes come true. 

 

And that’s the news from Lake Tahoe, where everyone skis but me.

15 thoughts on “My 2009 Manifesto-ette

  1. billie

    I loved this post. My thoughts about justice are pulled way into the personal this morning, as I was summoned to my office yesterday b/c the historic house it’s in had been broken into, and every office but one ransacked.

    When I got there the CSI had just left, and it was so eerie walking into my sandplay inner sanctum and finding his business card with contact info lying on my little table.

    The break-in was very odd. There was almost no evidence of entry from the outside, but inside, most of the individual office doors had been violently kicked in. The doors were original to the house, and solid wood, and seeing deadbolts intact but holes ripped in doorjambs, as well as the splintered solid wood of the door was heartbreaking.

    The odd thing was that once into the individual offices, things changed. With the exception of one office, which had been trashed a bit, the rest were oddly intact, and the things stolen made very little sense. In my sandplay office (which had nothing of commercial value but did have my incredibly valuable to me sandplay collection, not a figure was out of place. The thieves opened the closet door and looked inside, and in the inner sanctum they took a lamp and dipped a hand into 2 out of 3 sand trays.

    I have a large clean paint brush I use to smooth out the trays between every client, and I always do that right before leaving the office. It’s common for clients who don’t use the trays to put their hands in – the smooth contained sand seems almost like a blank page that calls out to be marked in some way. But the fact that a thief did so made me wonder about what was going through his/her mind in my little space.

    The lamp was a personal favorite. It was unusual but absolutely not expensive. But it has been the lamp for most of my practice that sits between the client and me during sessions. The light was soft and perfect, and I couldn’t help but think “they stole the light that connects me to my clients.”

    Instead of leaping to anger and wanting justice, which would normally be my next leap, I have been thinking of how they might use the lamp, and what will happen when that powerful light shines into *their* space.

    Given that I have worked with mostly trauma victims, many children, that lamp has some potent energy indeed.

    Reply
  2. R.J. Mangahas

    Great Post Cornelia. And I can’t wait to read this book.

    Justice for 2009? Well, I’m not sure. There has been a lot of injustices going around lately.

    Okay, here’s one, but I don’t really know if any real justice can be brought here. The 16 year old son of someone I went to high school with was found murdered and burned over some money. To get into the full story would take to long, but here’s the jist.

    My former classmate (who’s son was killed) is really not to bright to begin with. He was currently serving seven years in a state prison for some drug related charge. However, he got busted for running his drug ring from behind bars, so he got another 30 years.

    There are two sad things here though. His 16 year old was running the drug ring from the outside. What’s sad is that this kid didn’t know any better because his father actually raised him to take care of things “should anything happen to him.” Second, the 16 year old was killed by his younger brother and a couple of other people over money.

    It seems to me both sons are in a sense victims because of the way their father (not to mention most of the family) are involved with drug trafficing) brought them up. I have to ask, how can there be any REAL justice here. The only hope here is that another generation of this family are not brought into this dangerous world of drugs.

    Reply
  3. JT Ellison

    What a wonderful story, Cornelia. I can’t wait for this book.

    I hope for justice for Michelle Young, the pregnant mother killed in North Carolina in 2006. I based the opening scene of JUDAS KISS on this case, and it’s heartbreaking.

    Billie, so sorry to hear your office was broken into. That’s terrible. I’m glad it happened when no one was around though.

    Reply
  4. billie

    Thanks, JT.

    I’ve been tracking that case – and it was/is heartbreaking. I hope they solve it soon. There was some recent info released that made it seem they might be getting closer.

    Reply
  5. J.D. Rhoades

    “dreaming is surrealist television.”

    Consider that stolen.

    And the justice I would like to see done in this country would probably be dismissed as “too political” here, so I’ll remain mute.

    Other than to say I’d like to see justice done to all my ‘rati friends in the form of big contracts and much success :-).

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    I’m with J.D. on this … all my injustices have been writ large this year, although I would accept any and all reparations, however small.

    Would you just get the damn edits done, Cornelia? I want to read this book!

    Reply
  7. Rae

    What a lovely post, Cornelia, thank you.

    I’m not sure that it necessarily speaks to justice, but I thought about your question through several cups of coffee and what it all boils down to for me is the Golden Rule. Lately, the cynical version – “He who has the gold, makes the rules” – has been in play. I’d love to see us all revert back to the original.

    And I cannot wait to read your book. Good luck with the drafting 😉

    Reply
  8. Cornelia Read

    Billie, I am so sorry about the break-in at your offices. The detail about those beautiful old doors being smashed really brings it home, but I am glad they didn’t destroy more than they did.

    R.J., how awful to think about the chaos your former classmate’s family has fallen into. I have a similar story about a pre-school friend of my brother’s family–his mom was beaten to death in her driveway with a baseball bat about ten years ago. The murder has never been solved, although it took place at 7 a.m. in a cul-de-sac with maybe ten other houses closely by. Horrible.

    JT and J.D., I hope they find out who killed Michelle Young, too. And J.D., you’re welcome to Surrealist TV, but I already used it once in book two.

    Louise, a great number of my injustices have been writ large, too, but it’s the little ones that keep me up nights, over the years. Thanks for the encouragement on the edits!

    Rae, I love that take on reversing the Golden Rule back to what it was originally meant to be.

    Reply
  9. L.J. Sellers

    Thanks for a great post. The justice I want to see is mostly political, such as George Bush spending the rest of his life in court defending himself against various charges. I’m realistic enough to accept that he’ll never actually pay. I’d also like to see all the children who are sold into sexual slavery grow up to be prosecutors and politicians who change the culture of acceptance for such crimes.

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  10. Allison Brennan

    Cornelia, a fantastic post on justice. Your story (both the fictional and non-fictional accounts) really resonate with me. Most–okay, maybe all–of my books were sparked by real injustice in the world. That anyone can hurt a child so cruelly hits me hard, and I want to shout from the rooftops that we can’t sit back and think it’s not our problem. It IS our problem. If we can’t protect the youngest and most vulnerable in society, then we are nothing but monsters ourselves.

    L.J., I just did research about human trafficking and the stories are so awful and almost unbelieveable, except that they are absolutely true. 800,000 people–mostly young women and children–sold or kidnapped every year and trafficked across international borders. That number does NOT include the hundreds of thousands sold and kidnapped within their own country.

    Sexual predators need to be stopped. They need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Child pornography must be stopped. Children–as young as 3 months–are sexually abused and the films are shown on the internet and people get off. Those people need to be punished, as well as the perp. I commend all those in law enforcement who take their free time to track these bastards. But the problem is so huge, so widespread, that we must get involved, educate our young people, teach them to be strong, wise, and get involved to stop injustice, to stop predators, and save the young innocents.

    Reply
  11. pari

    Cornelia,What a marvelous post.

    I can’t think beyond my own dramas today though. We just found out that our beloved dog, who is only 5 1/2, is probably going to die very soon. It’s too sad for words.

    Reply
  12. Cornelia Read

    Allison, thank you so much for writing that comment. I’m in complete accord with you on those aspects of criminal justice. Horrible stuff…

    Pari, I’m so sorry to hear the sad news about your dog. That’s far too young to lose a canine pal.

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  13. Fran

    What leapt to mind when you asked what justice I’d ask the universe for was summed up perfectly by Rae, darn it, so I’ll have to go with a wish that everyone get what he or she deserves.

    Yeah, that covers it, good and bad.

    But if I’m truly asking things of the universe, it would be that broken hearts and minds be healed.

    Happy 2009, everyone!

    Reply
  14. Marianne Plumridge

    Cornelia, you always have a knack for hitting the heartstrings. 😀 Is your new book a Madelaine one, or a new protagonist? It sounds intriguing and well worth reading – as usual. 😀

    Justice? Let the punishment fit the crime… There are way too many innocents hurt or killed out there, and either the crime or criminal slips through the cracks or a fancy mouthed lawyer and a lot of money lets the perp walk or get much less than he/she deserves.

    2008’s best justice – sending OJ to jail, FINALLY!

    Billie: How awful that you offices got broken into. The suckerpunch feeling of violation is a horrible sensation. Been there, done that. But how wonderful that you can turn it around a bit and wonder at the mind of the perpetrator. And the lamp may have more affect on him than you can possibly know…

    Many friends and acquaintances have had a difficult year last year: my family, too, in Australia had its own traumas with my brother in law’s Parkinson’s Disease, when it went dramatically wrong. Dealing with it by remote control from halfway around the world, while in the midst of our own schedule from hell was damn near draining. Things are better now, thank god. But I wish all brighter and kinder 2009, with new visions and new prosperity for all of us…

    Group hug,Marianne

    Reply

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