Sixty years ago…
On May 13,1962, my grandfather, Paul Rush, was murdered in the basement of one his furniture factories in Fort Smith, Arkansas—not even a block from Garrison Avenue. He was only 56 years old. I adored him and looked up to him for so many reasons. He saw to it that I had everything a kid could want…from toys to frilly clothes to private schools to dancing lessons. He’d come to our house and bring goodies and sit on our couch and ask questions about school. And when he left, I’d lift up the cushions and retrieve two or three silver dollars he’d left me. And even though he always did that, I‘d squeal with delight like I was surprised. I carried that money around in a little plastic purse until I got to be 12 or 13. Then I had real purses and I moved most of those coins to a piggy bank.
Papa took me to see Gorgeous George wrestle and scored a “gold” bobbie pin for me. He took me to his factories and let me help outline patterns he’d designed on fabric on a long, long table. He took me to the rodeo to shake hands with Cochise and the Lone Ranger and Dan’l Boone and Davy Crockett.
Then, when I was in the eighth grade, he was killed. As I have learned in the many years since his death, there was a lot going on in his business, in his marriage, and in his personal and professional relationships. And still, the Sunday before he died, he called to tell me he’d seen me dance on TV. And that he loved me. It was the last time I heard his voice.
When Papa died, John Kennedy was president. Ignorant of politics, I transferred my adoration from Papa to the President. I even got to shake JFK’s hand once. Sorta. The year after Papa died though…chaotic and scary as it was…it was also my first year at St. Anne’s Academy. And just as I was starting to think about something besides murder and being scared, in the fall of my sophomore year, Kennedy was assassinated. It was the right time in my growth, I guess, because for the next 20 years, I obsessed over every conspiracy theory that came along…only seeing the folly of it all when someone wrote that a Secret Service agent hiding in the sewer killed him. It was the step too far, I guess.
I had kids of my own by then and I didn’t have time to chase down every theory that came along….well, it wasn’t even that. I’d moved on to another obsession…serial murder. A college acquaintance, Geraldine Martin, was raped, tortured, murdered and mutilated in 1975. Terrified, I started reading up on that kind of murder…and ended up volunteering for a rape center where I learned how much more there was to fear out there. My first full length novel, Username, published in 2002, was the result of Geri’s death and my subsequent research. When her murderer was finally identified shortly after that…through the DNA he’d left in and on her a quarter century before, he turned out to be the epitome of the killer I’d written about. That threw me for months. Are the heartless so plentiful among us that they can be so closely described in the literature?
In the 2000s, a trip to Auschwitz introduced me to horror on an unimaginable scale. And I became obsessed with the Holocaust on top of all the other terrors I‘d already explored. Obsession is a weird thing. You have to look at that which scares you the most. I do wonder if I would have spent so many days, months and years in libraries and archives and in warehouses doing research if it hadn’t been for Papa’s death? President Kennedy’s? Geraldine Cornwell Martin’s?
However, even more terrifying is the thought, did strangers murder them? Or was it someone they knew and loved? Or someone I knew and loved? That's soul shattering to contemplate. I’ve had people I thought were friends betray my trust. I’ve protected folks who turned around and angrily spit in my face. I’ve had people use me…with or without my knowledge. When I finally pushed them away, some were ashamed and apologetic, but others were defiant. Proud of their cruelty.
Human nature is such that we can justify anything, I guess.