By Louise Ure
On September 22, Joan Rosenthal, a 75-year old grandmother of five and a woman with a passion for reading, was shot dead on her front patio in the upscale community of Tiburon, California. This was only the fourth murder in the town’s history.
She was “dressed the way a lot of us look when we first get up in the morning,” police chief Mike Cronin said at the news conference later in the day. Nothing was taken from the house.
For reasons they haven’t yet specified, the police believe that Mrs. Rosenthal’s death was caused by someone she knew.
Less than a mile away as the crow flies is the home of mystery writer Judy Greber (Gillian Roberts). She was a friend of Rosenthal’s in the way that many Tiburon residents are friends. They would greet each other and chat at the local Safeway, comparing grandchildren’s antics and proclivities. They might run into each other at the Tuburon library: one the author of books there and a presenter, the other an organizer of reading groups and a docent.
But on September 22, all that changed. Joan Rosenthal lost her life. And Judy Greber was assaulted by the unthinking comment of a neighbor, “I’ll bet that would make a good mystery novel for you.”
She didn’t know whether to grimace, grin or slap the questioner.
I understand her reaction. What is it about some people that they don’t understand the distinction between writing about death and deception and having to bear witness to it as part of our lives?
I think I told you that when I was interviewed for jury duty this summer the prosecutor asked me, “How can we be sure that you can tell the difference between what you hear here in the courtroom and what you write on that page when you get home at night?”
“That’s easy,” I told her. “One is fact and the other fiction.”
What I could have said is that one is a mental exercise where I’m creating characters and angst and pathos out of the thin air, and the other is the gut-churning, eye-reddening, sleep-depriving horror of man’s inhumanity to man, reaching far too close to home.
It is true that writers draw inspiration from everything around them. I’m happy to use my neighbor’s squeaky voice, my high school teacher’s illogical mantra, a colleague’s singular tattoo.
But I could never write a crime novel based on someone close to me.
I cannot use that real rape. I cannot depict that real bi-polar relative. I cannot fictionalize a real neighbor’s murder.
It would be akin to posting someone else’s naked pictures online. Sure, you can do it, but only because you have betrayed a trust, because you have taken advantage of special access and abused the privilege.
And it’s a step away from humanity that I do not choose to take.
I can evoke the smell of fresh-spilled blood but I do not wish to imagine that that pool of blood springs from a friend of mine. I can write about violence and abuse but do not wish to paint the faces of my family into those imaginings.
I don’t mean to disparage writers of non-fiction works here. To catalog the descent of a Ted Bundy or The Son of Sam somehow falls into a different category for me. (Perhaps it’s only because they weren’t part of my circle of family and friends.)
Nor do I mean to condemn our fascination with celebrity (Michael Jackson’s or Steve McNair’s murder, for example). But if that celebrity was my step-sister, I don’t think I could read about it.
Call me a coward. Call me empathetic. But do not discuss the murder of a neighbor as if it’s all grist for the mill and tell me “it would make a good mystery novel” for me.
How about you readers and writers? Do you wish to write about a real life crime or violence close to you? And how would you feel reading about real crimes that have effected people you feel you’ve known?