Today, more on those research papers mentioned on Thursday. Please forgive me for using the Studiola to air some of the observations I’ve had in the past three years that might not make it into the book. I want to show the seams of the work I’ve been doing in the book itself – not only tell The Story, but tell the story of making the book. In fiction it would be meta-fiction, but what is it in memoir? Meta-nonfiction? Anyway, I think the text can only hold so many extra-textual moments, so I’m placing some here, and hope they’ll interest readers and maybe resonate with anyone who’s done similar work. Or any writing at all, really.
For the past two years, the police documents and court transcripts I gathered in Maine have sat in a dark cardboard box, then in a clear plastic bin, then, finally, in a series of three-inch binders, marked only by neat numbers. The idea is that when I lay in bed and look at their colorful spines on my bookshelf, I don’t have to think, too overtly, about what’s in them. I’ve gradually read them all, armed with sticky notes and flags and a very sharp pencil for taking notes.
And I’ve become increasingly paranoid about housefires. It took three manic days of work to get those copies, and I didn’t do it alone. I don’t know if I could pull it off again.
And so, finally, I’ve made time to haul everything uptown from my place in Brooklyn to the Butler Library at Columbia, which has banks of big, fancy scanners with document feeders that only jam every hundred pages or so. I’m still not quite done, but will feel some relief when everything is safely backed up to the big Carbonite servers out in the desert. When I leave town to hermit myself away and write, I won’t feel compelled to bring all the paper with me.
I’ll cherish, for a while, an illusion of being light and free.
I made my first scanning visit last week. The software is predictably confusing: the how-to-scan primer is six pages long, and not geared toward multi-page jobs, and obsessed with the text-recognition function, useless to me in the face of cop-scribble. So, when the dude staffing the desk offered to guide me through the process, I accepted, although my default state is stubbornness.
I pulled the first notebook out of my roller bag and popped open the silver rings, my ears picking up a weirdly cheery echo of elementary school, the golden age of the Trapper Keeper. I grabbed a chunk of pages and lay them on the table, and Front Desk Dude, whose name, seriously, was Zane, pulled up a chair. He had shoulder-length brown hair and was wearing a neat vest and tie. I felt immediately helpless and vulnerable, staring at the overly-clean, midblue desktop, unable even to open the right program myself, because I didn’t know if it was more efficient to use the terribly-inefficient Abbyy Finereader or the terribly-inefficient Adobe Pro.
Zane picks up my pages, the first one adorned with the Maine State Police crest. “Homicide,” he reads. “Racy!”
Racy. That sexual word.
Then he starts flipping through the stack, fanning the pages slowly. “Wow, what’s your major, anyway?” he asks, as though I’m going to say, “Criminal Justice,” and we can then pick apart the gruesome details. We’ll sit in here in this elegant building with the crown molding and the marble steps, and talk about this stranger who died once.
For a second, I can’t say anything, am sort of stunned. “I’m a creative writing major,” I say. “I’m writing about a book about my mother’s murder.”
He has no reaction at all. He’s looking at my face, so I’m sure he heard me, but he doesn’t retreat or stumble to explain or apologize.
So I plow forward, “Yeah, it’s really interesting, because the police have allowed me to have copies of all this stuff, and you can imagine I need it backed up. I mean, it is all part of the public record, so it’s legal to copy and scan.”
Legal procedure as refuge from the personal.
He finally stops reading and slots the pages into the document feeder. Guides me through the scanning process. That thing keeps happening where you’re holding the mouse and someone’s telling you to click on a menu option and you just can’t find it because they’re looking over your shoulder. Because a confident man is looking over your shoulder. I feel a wash of outsize fury when one of the options is at the very bottom instead of alphabetical like the others.
Finally, we’re done, and I’m left alone to scan the rest of the stacks myself. And I’m sitting there trying to work, but I’m angry at this guy for calling my mother’s murder “racy.” For calling anyone’s murder “racy.” I’m angry at the whole rape/murder-porn industry, from TruTV to Law & Order to Lifetime movies to what passes for primetime news. I’m angry at that god-awful Nancy Grace. I’m angry at everyone who sits calmly on their couch at night enjoying the dramatic stories, pretending that this sort of violence doesn’t actually happen. That they are safe. That they can say whatever they want about it to a stranger, because there’s no chance that stranger could have been personally affected by that sort of thing. It’s so rare, after all. Right?
But. Well, I was angry, but also, I was embarrassed. I made myself vulnerable to this person by bringing in these documents, by needing his help in the first place. I made my personal life public; I brought the source of my messiest, deepest wounds before a stranger. And that’s what I’m doing in writing this book after all, right? Do I have a right to complain when it’s not received as I wish?
Mostly, I was disappointed in myself for not telling him that murder and rape aren’t “racy.” That they are sad and terrible and terrifying and extremely destructive, on both a personal and a community level. That insensitive, sexualized language like his only reinforces the power structures that allow violence to continue.
I wanted to be the confident, poised woman who would say such a thing, but instead I sat there like a helpless girl.
But I’m trying to tell myself that I’ll just have to respond to him in the book.