Author, academic, and analyst Mikita Brottman never set out to write bestsellers. She didn’t even set out to write books. However, she has never shied away from exploring her interests, and as a result, has authored 10 books on various subjects ranging from cannibalism to our obsession with celebrity car crashes, with a lot of serious academic theory sprinkled in between. Her latest, 13 Girls (Nine Banded Books, 2012), is a unique look at victims of serial killers. In 13 chapters, each focused on one victim, Brottman creates fictionalized but largely faithful accounts of the murders but with a surprising twist. Instead of the usual “true crime” angle, Brottman presents these crimes through different prisms and perspectives—police transcripts and interviews with coworkers of the victims—bringing the crimes alive and showing how they ripple with various levels of intensity and frequency through the communities they disrupt.
What’s fascinating about each “girl” in 13 Girls is that their stories are told from the perspectives of a variety of peripheral suspects, friends, and lovers and through different media; court transcripts, therapy notes, and the first-person account of one nurse who survived the kidnapping and mass murder of her roommates. Did deciding the point of view (POV) simply depend on who most of the material came from (eg, if most of the information came from a boyfriend, the boyfriend became the POV?) Had you planned to structure the book this way, or did you find, as you were researching, that it evolved as such?
It evolved that way pretty quickly. I wanted to write about the victims rather than the killers, but since these are all real cases, I couldn’t write from the POV of someone who’s no longer alive, so the 13th girl (the nurse, Mirasol) provides the only first-hand account, as she’s the only one who survived. For the others, I wanted to explore the perspectives of people situated at various distances from the crime, so if the murder is like a stone being thrown into the water, each POV is a different ripple—some very close, some far away. And I wanted to vary tone and voice, so some of the chapters are personal, some from the point of view of a professional (eg, cop, therapist, lawyer).
I guess I was struck, reading the cases, at how hopeless I felt—like a police detective who has hundreds of open cases a year, possibly, all cold cases. I think the true crime genre has done a disservice to the true nature of crime work—readers don’t get the sense of how many details are just collected and filed away, and nothing is ever done with them, how many people just are victims, relegated to a paragraph in the newspaper. Ironically, you do offer “closure” to the reader with the coda at the end, in which you reveal the true stories of all the victims and serial killers who killed them. I told myself I didn’t want the closure, but I was relieved to find it there, and to read it. Was that your decision to have the coda at the end, or your publisher’s?
My first draft of the book was a lot more firmly located in the true crime genre, and I used the girls’ real names and details. Eventually I realized this wouldn’t be appropriate, since many of their friends and relatives are still alive, so I fictionalized the names and blurred a few details, so there wouldn’t be difficult legal or ethical issues to deal with. I think at one point I had the paragraph about the “real” crime after each story. I can’t remember when I made the decision to move this material to the appendix, but it works well there because the reader can choose to look up the details of each case, or they can wait until they get to the end of the book. Essentially, though, this is true crime at one remove—I’ve tried to keep to the spirit of each case, and I’ve often used real details from coroner’s reports, depositions, etc. A lot of people have said that it’s a depressing read—”hopeless” is a word I’ve heard a lot—but I don’t feel that way myself.
It’s interesting that you’ve been surprised by readers’ reactions, including mine, of “hopelessness”—we hear all the time about writers who delve deeply into their research and become profoundly affected by it, sometimes even needing to take time off from it. How do you prepare or separate yourself from the subject matter? Is there anything you find you can’t write about?
I find that the details of each girl’s life become like fetishes. The way people obsess over them is what interests me—the way a life becomes so meaningful in its absence. Those left behind are compelled to try to make sense out of the tragedy—I find this fascinating. I suppose the stories are hopeless if you’re approaching them from a kind of traditional true crime perspective, but I’m not interested in restoration or resolution. I’m more interested in how we try to make sense of sudden loss, and the effects of contingency. As for things I can’t write about—I have a lot of trouble writing about things that don’t interest me, but nothing that’s too sensitive to touch.
You’ve spent many years as a psychoanalyst, and you’ve even worked with prisoners. Have you worked with murderers/rapists/serial killers? How do they view the victims? Did they remember their names and their intimate details, or do they remember the victim as one piece of a larger part of a very erotic, exhilarating scene, the thrill of the kill?
I’m working with someone right now, and he can’t help knowing all about who his victims were, even though they were chosen at random. By the time someone’s serving time in prison, it’s usually years since their crimes were committed, and they’ve been through a long, drawn-out trial. The police and prosecution will have investigated everything very closely, and they’ll have interviewed friends and family of the victims. So the accused has to get to know the names of their victims and details of their lives because they’ll be facing the victims’ families every time there’s a parole hearing, or reading about them in the press. Part of the rhetoric of the defense (whether genuine or not) is to understand their crimes more fully, which involves paying respect to the victims. For example, The Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway) made a plea deal in 2003 and was spared the death penalty in exchange for confessing to all the murders he could recall. He killed prostitutes, but in court for the plea deal referred to them as “young ladies” —it’s part of the rhetoric of repentance.
There’s been a lot of profiling regarding the personalities of serial killers. In 13 Girls, which you’ve described as a “casebook” of victims (or, more specifically, a casebook of loss), I was struck by how disparate the victims were. Some, predictably, were drug addicts, prostitutes, or both. Yet others were in respectable professions (nursing), and another girl, Tracy, disappeared in the hallway of her ski resort. Have you been able to discern, from your research, a “victim profile,” or do you believe that most of the time, although murder is a rare event, statistically speaking, all women are equally vulnerable?
Most murder victims are killed by the person closest to them, so being married or being in a relationship multiplies your risk factor enormously. 1 in 4 female homicide victims are killed by husbands or boyfriends. As for random murder, the risk is slightly higher if you’re physically small and live in an urban area, but you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to be the victim of a serial killer.
Your answer is both reassuring and unnerving at the same time. I think that anyone familiar with your background and publications is not going to be surprised by the subject matter of 13 Girls. That said, I’m curious as to how the idea germinated—you’ve advocated for hyenas, studied the public’s fascination with celebrity car crashes, and written about cannibals. When do you decide you want to write about what you write about? I know you’re a voracious reader and are probably following several trails at once, but what makes you want to commit to a book that may have a selective readership and require years and years of work? Do you find yourself with a question you’re not finding adequately answered in the literature, or is there greater, unexplained pull?
Hmmmmm. Very good question. I think the answer is that I never set out to be a writer (in the professional sense). I trained as a literature professor, then as an analyst, so I have a full-time day job and a part-time job. So while I’m always writing, it’s sort of half-personal, a way of following up my compulsive curiosity about things that don’t get much attention. I never think about audience, market, sales, or readership. As a result, I don’t sell many books—not too many other people are interested in exhaustive studies of hyenas or cannibals—but making big sales or a name for myself isn’t really something I think about. My books are more like a private hobby—like looking closely at insects through a microscope. If a few other people want to take a look, that’s great, but it’s really my own curiosity that’s being satisfied.
Given another one of your interests, film, and combine it with murder, what do you think of legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ forthcoming book, A Wilderness of Error, about the conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald for murdering his family (about which the true crime book—Fatal Vision—and a TV movie were made)? Morris has spent twenty years examining the evidence and has come to the conclusion, in 500 pages, that from a sloppy crime investigation to a preconceived “narrative” in the minds of the police as they searched for and pieced together evidence, that MacDonald, military veteran and surgeon, was railroaded. Have you ever had a similar feeling of disbelief during your research—that the “accepted” narrative of a case may not have been the real one?
I’m looking forward to the book—Errol Morris always comes up with interesting angles—and he used to be a private detective, so I’m sure he has some great details and insights (and he also has two French bulldogs). I think the “accepted” narrative of any crime is always much too simple. People are endlessly surprising and complicated, and every “true story” comes apart, once you start looking at it from different angles. That’s what I’m trying to show in 13 Girls.
Of course, who could forget your Frenchie, Grisby! I have to ask, I mean, I can’t imagine what your dreams are about. Like, what is a bad dream to you?
I have the same recurring nightmare about losing Grisby—it’s usually a while before I realize he’s gone—and I know he’s out there somewhere lost, looking for me…. I usually moan and yell in my sleep.
To find out more about Mikita Brottman, visit her website.