Friday, September 27, 2013

True Crime Hits Close to Home

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

On April 14th, my uncle and his wife—both quite elderly—were brutally murdered in their bed. The killer, 15 at the time of the slaying, was finally caught months later. His first preliminary hearing was held last week, and the gruesome details emerged. My cousins were there to hear the young man confess to slaughtering their father and his wife.

A few of the heinous details: Each victim was tortured and stabbed more than 60 times. The killer cut them open and left objects—a drinking glass and a cell phone—inside their bodies. Three months after the assaults when they arrested him, the killer still had bits of the victims’ blood and tissue in his long hair. His parents sat in the courtroom and listened to him confess.

I wasn’t close to my uncle, but people I care about—my cousins and aunt—were devastated. My aunt had a heart attack after discovering the bodies. Fortunately, she recovered. The police suspected and questioned a family member (my second cousin) at great length, causing him (an innocent) and his parents unbearable distress. That whole family will never be the same.

Why am I telling you all this?

One of my cousins asked me to write about the crime, as a way of bringing some closure —a way of making sense of it. She meant in the form of fiction—and that’s what crime fiction does. It tries to make sense of, and find justice for, the violence around us. But I can’t make sense of this. There is no motive to explore, no complexities or connections to unravel. A young psychopath picked two random strangers and killed them for fun. He planned to kill more—with a baseball bat next—but the police arrested him just in time.

I wish I could help my cousins process their grief and pain by writing a novel that would do justice to their experience, but I can’t. So I had one of those moments today where I questioned what I do for a living. And whether I contribute anything meaningful or just add to the problem.

Our culture is so violent and murder so commonplace that this horrific crime wasn’t even prominent enough to make anything but the local news. But for the people affected, it was earth shattering.

To add to my fear and frustration, I read another news story about a Portland couple who were stabbed as they left a soccer game. A mentally ill man chose random strangers to stick a knife into, and the man died. His girlfriend is still in critical condition.

It’s a wonder that any of us can sleep at night. But we do. And we go out in public and live our lives. And many of us write crime fiction as entertainment. Someday soon, I will do more than that with my life. I will advocate for more mental health screening, more mental health funding. Wouldn't this country be a much safer place if yearly mental health screenings were mandatory for everyone between 10 and 40?

I'm determined to make a difference someday. And maybe lives will be spared.


  1. Wow, L.J. It's hard to know what to say. Although I haven't been personally impacted by violence, I do live in Colorado. If I head a little south of my house, I can drive by Columbine High School. If I head a little north of my house, there's a theater we've also heard about.

    Mental health issues were at play there, and every other massacre we've heard about in the last several years around the world.

    I don't pretend that writing crime fiction is noble. What I try and provide is a few hours of escape, and a way bad things can work out in an acceptable way.

    Kudos to you for the much more active role you want to take in making our world a better place to live. It's a big job.

  2. Oh, LJ, I'm so sorry! What a horrible thing for your family to endure.

    I think part of the reason we tell our fictional tales is to try to write purpose into what seems like a random universe. Writing about the mentally ill person with no motive is too real, and there is no sense of justice, even when the killer is caught. A killer with a motive can be hated. We feel relief when they are captured or killed.

    At least, that's my motive.

  3. I'm so sorry that happened to you and your family, L. J.

    And I've been thinking the same things about some of the crime TV shows that are so popular. Maybe they help some people avoid dangerous situations... and maybe they give unstable/criminal people ideas and glorify the violence.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I don't really need or deserve any sympathy for this.

      I've just been wondering the same thing: Does crime fiction hurt us collectively? Or is it more about a lack of understanding of the mentally ill violent types and how dangerous they can be?

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  5. Dear L.J.,

    How distressful. Thank you for writing about this publically and thank you for pondering whether there's anything you can do to help this world.

    And thank you for consistently providing me with escapes.


    1. Thanks, Theresa, for stopping in and for your support!

  6. I sometimes wonder about the effect that crime fiction and film/television have on readers. Yes, it's a possibility that criminals get ideas from these, but I think it's really the other way around.
    Also, the fact that the good guys generally win in these stories is encouraging.
    I've expressed myself badly, but I hope this makes some sense.

  7. L.J., so sorry to hear about your family; thanks for sharing the story. For quite some time, I've been very hesitant to plunge into some stories that I might tell, simply because of the violence in them. At what point do we perpetuate the problem, and at what point do we help people deal with it? That's the big question, and it has no good answers. bobbi c.

    1. Crime fiction may not be a factor at all, but how do we ever know for sure? Thanks for your concerns.

  8. As you know, my ex-husband was murdered. Even though we hadn't been together for years, I was hit hard by a senseless crime. Your aunt's and uncle's murders were even more senseless. Obviously, the young man was highly disturbed, probably even psychotic. Doling out 'justice' to him doesn't help anybody. He belongs in an institution.

    1. I didn't know! But I know how it can change you. Hugs!

  9. This is heartbreaking, LJ. I can only hope that writing fiction can bring you some tiny form of cathartic relief. Maybe when you have the criminals get caught they'll be a slight fist pump at the keyboard.

    As far as the mental health dilemma, that's the real issue here. People need help and it's costing innocent civilians their lives. I don't know the answer, but as with many social issues I'm guessing it will take a village and not a law.

  10. I'm very sorry to hear about the tragedy that's been facing your family. I really connected with what you said about wondering if your novels are adding value to our world. All of my books have some form of sexual violence in them. I've been asked why I can't write about something "nicer." For me, it's an important to bring light to this often times unspoken topic. No one listens to someone on a soapbox so through fiction, maybe I can make readers think about the devastation assault has on a victim and murder has on the surviving family. So even though I love to tell an entertaining story, I hope my books can somehow impact readers on a deeper level.

  11. LJ, you may know that my daughter was murdered by her boyfriend, who was a federal agent. He shot her 8 times as she was running from him. Consequently, I joined Women Against Gun Violence, which meant that I met monthly with the relatives of other victims, and some of us went to inner city schools to talk to Head Start parents about gun safety.
    After a year, I quit as the endless tide of new victims coming every month became overwhelming. Having to repeat my story over and over kept the wound open and festering. I always thought I would write a book about what happened, but when I try, it never quite works. I'm not so sure that writing fiction about the reality of your family's horror would be good for you or them. Of course, only you can decide that.
    I don't know about you, but from my own loss, I learned a lot about life after death, and that was more comforting than anything I wrote or continue to write.

    1. Sheila, I was wondering if you would share this. The horror of what you, as a mother, must have gone through is beyond my comprehension.

      Hugs to both you, L.J., and Marva. You're all part of a club the rest of us hope never to belong to.

    2. My heart aches for you, Sheila. I can't imagine living with that grief. But I know what you mean about support groups. I attended one for families of addicts, cried through the whole meeting as people told their stories, and never went back.

  12. First, my sincere condolences to all who've lost someone to violence. It's sickening to read and hear about these things. True crime is far more shocking to me than any of the fiction I've read, for the pure fact that it's true. Sadly, many of those predisposed to violence will act on those urges with or without fictional crime. I'm inclined to agree with what Marlyn wrote that in fiction, we can bring justice to the situation and the bad guy, which doesn't always happen in real life. Fictional crime also teaches us about psychology, solving the mystery, watching the good guys at work, and learning from strong victims. I believe it adds value as we focus on bringing down the bad guys and cheer for the good guys.

  13. Dear LJ,

    As I sit here re-reading your blog post today, I find myself wondering how in the world do you continue to smile, to work, to continue to function every day knowing this horrible thing has happened to people you know?

    To Sheila and Marva, how brave you both are to share your personal tragedies, as is LJ.

    I too was a victim of a violent crime when I was stabbed, strangled and beaten (almost to death) by my estranged (now ex) husband. Here is what I have learned.

    (1) Grief and healing take many forms. Please believe me when I say, LJ, that what you do, what you write, has nothing to do with any one's personal experience nor does it change it or make it worse in any way. I have always loved the thriller and mystery genres and always will.
    (2) I have found that by speaking about my personal experience helped me recover. This is not the case for everyone. In Sheila's case, nothing will change the fact that her daughter was brutally taken from her.
    (3) Having said that, if you or anyone who has been touched by violence crime is having difficulty moving forward - I know that concept seems impossible - but it can happen, I learned as a certified victim advocate, talking to someone you trust, ANYONE, helps. Talk about it over and over and over, until the trauma lessens. You too, will survive.

    Finally, forgive yourself. For being angry, for wanting to do harm to the perpetrator, to God for taking your loved one. And eat. And breathe. You will survive.

    Whatever personal trauma each of us faces, know that there are others who stand ready and willing to be your support system and PLEASE, never give up on your dreams - that includes writing award-winning crime fiction novels.

    Thank you all for sharing your bravery. Sending positive thoughts into the universe for you all and with a hope that no one else has to experience this.

    Pam Stack
    Radio Talk Show Host
    Authors on the Air

    1. Thank you, Pam, for sharing. What a horrible thing you survived! My ex tried to kill me too, by strangulation. Hearing your story and Sheila's makes me realize this is way too common.

      But how do we change it? Clearly, we need to do more to educate the next generation of young men in anger management.

  14. Pam,
    Thank God you survived, though your experience has to color the rest of your life. As a handwriting analyst, I can't help wondering about your handwriting before and after this terrifying event.

    Regarding my daughter, I talk about what happened in almost all of my lectures. I also write about it in articles. But somehow, putting it all in a book feels different. I know that Jennifer is still alive in spirit and is still involved in my life--she makes that clear from time to time, and I'm grateful to have become open to that contact. Maybe that will be the subject of my next blog entry right here :-)

    I want to also add my thanks to everyone who contributed here. Those comments show how violence touches so many of us. Peg, I echo your sentiment and hope that this is a club of which the rest of you never become a member!

  15. I'm catching up backwards, so I'm reading L.J.'s post after reading Sheila's. First, L.J., my condolences - and gratitude for your courage in surviving the violence and abuse yourself.

    Literature includes the violent. In one of my classes we're studying the Gothic, and an essay about the appeal of terror. Stories helps us organize experience and control our inner lives. L.J, you wonder if your stories have value. In one sense, you'll probably never know. I have a good friend, a writer. At a particularly difficult time in his life, he got a fan letter thanking him. Years earlier, the writer, a young woman was suicidal and depressed, decided not to kill herself because of a female character he wrote - a minor character.

    How do we educate the next generation of young men? Expect them to respect women. Enforce consequences. Close the fraternities (metaphoric as well as actual).

    There's a cultural and social "war on women," and it takes many forms. Aside from two little islands in the Pacific, we're the only country without national maternity leave. When politicians focus more on protecting health care than the "right" to buy lots of guns...sorry, I'm going from sympathetic to angry. Sometimes, there's just too much pain.


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