Turning a True Crime Story Into Fiction
The information about her doesn’t change. No matter when I type in her name and hit Return, the Florida Department of Corrections Offender Information Search returns the same information they’ve been providing since March 7, 2000, when she finished her probation and became a Free woman.
Her record is publicly available, but that doesn’t mean I should share her name. Instead, for the sake of sharing this story, I’ll call her Eve.
Eve was a teenager when I met her, convicted of second-degree murder, sentenced to eighteen years in prison. She had, the story went, killed her husband, a man several years older than her and known for being violent. She accepted her guilt although her memory of the murder was covered in an alcoholic haze. She was also pregnant at the time and had her son before she was sent to prison.
I was a graduate student in Social Work and working as a full-time intern for the Battered Women’s Clemency Project in Tallahassee, Florida. The project’s mandate was to scour Florida’s prisons for women who had been convicted of murdering an abusive partner. These women had to have plead guilty, giving up their right to trial and the opportunity for a Battered Women’s Defense. At a trial, evidence of domestic violence could have been provided, possibly leading to acquittal or a lighter sentence. For these women, however, their state-appointed defense attorneys claimed that a trial would only lead to the death penalty, a lie often given so they could close the cases quickly and move on.
Even though I had social work experience in domestic and sexual violence, I hadn’t bargained for the long list of sexual abuses Eve suffered through starting at the age of ten.
I was in my middle thirties when I started at the project but was generally treated like I had just stepped out of the turnip patch. Despite the Zoloft I was taking to keep my stress levels under control, my empathetic nature went into overdrive. I became too attached to Eve and a few of the other women I worked with. Eve was my primary case, though; my whole reason for being part of the project.
My job was to help Eve write a personal narrative or life story, interview family members and friends who would attest to her otherwise good character, confirm the abuse she suffered from her husband and the rough life she had lived since a little girl. We needed to humanize her for the benefit of a group of political officeholders, the Florida Cabinet, also known as the Clemency Board.
Even though I had experience covering the hotline for a battered women’s shelter and had provided individual and group counseling for victims of sexual violence, I hadn’t bargained for the long list of sexual abuses Eve suffered through starting at the age of ten. I hadn’t bargained for finding a letter written by her husband to Eve in such abusive language that I was hesitant to share it with her. I hadn’t bargained for her reading it and then crying, saying she “missed him so much.” Battered Women’s Syndrome is a complicated thing.
I also hadn’t bargained for the poverty I saw when I went to interview her family and friends. It is the poverty, more than the crime itself, more than even Eve, that I really can’t forget. I interviewed several people from her small economically depressed town, their fatalism as palpable as a weight on my shoulders. Domestic and sexual violence was rampant, accompanied by alcohol abuse and drugs.
Eve’s story was, as one of the lawyers once reflected, “an embarrassment of riches.”
We were successful with Eve’s clemency petition. Just before Christmas, nearly two years after I started with the project, Eve’s sentence was commuted to one year’s residence at a halfway house and five years probation. Several years later, I threw out all the documents I had accumulated on her case.
I know. That was very “unwriterly” of me.
Any other writer would have immediately set about to write The Great American Novel. Eve’s story had everything: sex and violence, murder, corrupt law enforcement, a judicial system skewed against women in general and battered women in particular, coming-of-age in poverty, dysfunctional families. Her story was, as one of the lawyers once reflected, “an embarrassment of riches.”
But her story wasn’t mine to tell. I felt I knew too much about her, and that it wouldn’t be fair for me to benefit from her story. I also didn’t think of myself as a writer at that time. It’s complicated. Let’s just say I had my own issues with my chosen field and diving back into Eve’s life was the last thing I needed.
When I pull up Eve’s probation photo from the results of the Offender Information Search, I see a woman in her early twenties who looks like she’s on the fast track to a dead end.
It’s been over twenty years since I last heard from Eve. With a short letter from the halfway house, she included a photo of herself and complained about her weight. I have no idea where she is now.
I think that’s a good thing. These days I do think of myself as a writer, and I’m writing a novel very loosely based on Eve and the murder. If I knew where she was and what she was doing, I don’t think I could write the kind of novel I want to write. I can write about the poverty she grew up in. I can write about the abuse she experienced, abuse that was normalized for her by the environment she lived in and by our judicial system. I can write about her release.
But in the novel, I want to go beyond what I know and offer Eve a new ending because I don’t believe Eve had much of a post-prison life to look forward to. When I pull up her probation photo from the results of the Offender Information Search, I see a woman in her early twenties who looks like she’s on the fast track to a dead end. Her eyes are dull and uninterested. Her face puffy, her hair long and limp. Her lips are turned slightly downward, as if she was impatient or bored when the photo was snapped.
In prison and in the world Eve came from, it was probably safer to appear to be dull-witted rather than sharp as a whip.
When I was working on her case, one of the attorneys said Eve had scored 60 on an IQ test and suggested she had the mental capacity of a third-grader. I remembered her as being very concrete, not being able or willing to talk about abstract things like hopes and dreams. I know she had street smarts. She stayed out of trouble while she was in prison, no mean feat in a medium-security institution. In prison and in the world she came from, it was probably safer to appear to be dull-witted rather than sharp as a whip.
I want the character in my novel to be a young woman who has hopes and dreams. Someone who, with the right guidance, can learn to articulate what she feels in her heart and thinks in her head. It’s not enough to end Eve’s story with her release. She must have the promise of a life better than where she came from. She must have the wit to know how to save herself.
Perhaps Eve does have that wit. After all, in nearly twenty years, she has managed to stay out of prison. She is someone I still think of but can no longer find.
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