As a true crime writer, I am often asked if I feel fear, apprehension or anxiety when interviewing a murderer or travelling to a remote site where a killer left a body or going into a less than optimal neighborhood in search of an interview subject. The short answer is: Yes, of course, I am.
However, my reaction to those situations pale in comparison to the intensity of my nervousness I feel when doing another aspect of my work—talking to the family members and friends of the deceased. The first telephone conversation or face-to-face meeting churns acid in my stomach and makes my hands shake.
I am not afraid of these people but I am fearful that I might say the wrong thing or display the wrong reaction and, without intending to do so, cause a surviving loved one additional pain. When I meet the victim’s family members and close friends, they are experiencing the worst time in their whole lives. The world has turned upside down. They are shattered by grief, desperate for justice and fearful of the emotional price a trial will exact or depleted by the one they just survived. Their pain is palpable and infectious.
At times, I have been known to cry along with them. At other times, I’ve sat silent and listened as they ranted about the perpetrator, the crime and the agony of the judicial process. Some have told me later that being able to share their sorrow and anger with someone not directly involved in their tragedy eased some of the oppressive burden.
There have been a few along the way, who refused to talk to me or set up conditions that made it impossible because their demands crossed my ethical boundaries or financial limitations. Although I could readily understand their reluctance, it always broke my heart because I knew that I had failed to reassure them.
One of the reasons I write true crime books is because the most important person in any of these stories is the victim. I believe that any time we lose a life to a senseless act of violence; it impacts all of us even when it is a stranger. Those closest to the deceased person feel the loss most keenly but the pain ripples out to the community and beyond to all of us who value life.
When my readers pick up one of my books, I want them to see the victim as a real person—as someone who deserved to live their life to the fullest. Only family and friends can supply me with the anecdotes and the information about personality that enable me to shape a portrait of their deceased loved one and thus, allow my readers to understand the magnitude of the loss suffered by this crime.
I have found through the years that the people who shared their memories and thoughts with me are grateful that they did. I’ve received many notes and emails thanking me for remembering their loved one in my book. Some of these people continue to maintain contact, years after publication.
The more in-depth information I can gather, the better job I do. When I wrote GONE FOREVER, I had an amazing treasure chest of information about Susan McFarland—access to her personal journal, a sibling’s perspective on her childhood and the memories of friends throughout her life. I felt a strong emotional connection to her. I wrote about this feeling in the Afterword of the book:
One morning while driving up Interstate Highway 35 to Austin, Susan McFarland became so real to me that I thought about how much more I would enjoy the ride if she were sitting beside me sharing stories and passing the time together. Then the realization struck—I would never be able to meet her. I would never bump into her in Central market. I would never laugh with her over lunch. I would never hear the sound of her voice or see the sunny glow of her smile.
At that moment, I was hit by a sense of loss so visceral; it took my breath away and formed pools of water in my eyes. The light of a life-enriching personality was snuffed out, never to brighten anyone’s day again. Gone forever—all because of the violent selfishness of one man.
To this day, I think of Susan when I enter the dark recesses of a crime—talking to killers, looking at crime scene photos, reading autopsy reports. She is my bridge to surviving family and friends, one that allows me to glimpse the inner strength and determination that many of them possess. She reminds me that her story has the potential to save the lives of other women. I owe her a debt of gratitude that I can never repay.