Friday, December 18, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Closure? Never.

December 18, 2003. It was a life time ago. It was yesterday. It was surreal. It was horrifying. I sat on a hard wooden bench in a crowded Seattle court room, my fourteen-year-old daughter at my side, as Judge Richard Jones read my sister's name and Gary Ridgway's sentence: "life imprisonment without the possibility of early release or parole."

I don't want to go back to that dark place. I don't want to re-enter those dreadful years my family and I suffered through. I made sense of them through words, by writing a memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim. Now, on the anniversary of the sentencing, I'm in pre-publication discussions regarding the re-release of that book, and I realize how hard I've tried to pack away the memories and how reluctant I am to dredge them once again to the surface.

But the truth is, the memories were never too deeply buried. I don't live in a cave. I live in Seattle. I read the news and see the television broadcasts.

November 30, 2001. After eluding capture for two decades in the worst serial murder case in the country, Gary Ridgway was arrested. Now, the last day of November each year is no longer the anniversary of my father's birth, but a reminder of my sister's murder, of the day her killer was finally put behind bars.

December 2003. Gary Ridgway was sentenced to life in prison without parole on 48 counts of first degree murder, and I completed a Notification of Changes in Conditions of Incarceration. An officer at the King County Regional Justice Center where I'd gone to retrieve the few items belonging to my sister assured me I'd be contacted if the prisoner was moved.

February 19, 2011. According to The Seattle Times, Ridgway was moved from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to the very same King County Regional Justice Center. At some point he was returned to Walla Walla. I was notified of neither move.  

September 3, 2015. I received the following email. I was so shocked, I failed to respond until it was already yesterday's news.

I’m a reporter with The Seattle Times. I am writing a story about the decision to transfer Gary  Ridgway to a prison in Florence, Colo., where he will be placed in general population and allowed privileges including a job and contact with other inmates. I was wondering if you have any comment. The decision was made because Ridgway apparently was having some mental health problems after 11 years in what amounted to solitary confinement at Walla Walla, where he could not be placed in general population because he would be targeted by other inmates. I’m wondering if you have any comment.

September 18, 2015. News of the decision to return Ridgway from Colorado to Washington blanketed the media, and I cried tears bitter with the realization that our criminal justice system is as dysfunctional today as it was thirty years ago, when it allowed this man to kill some say as many as ninety women over a twenty year period. Still, after such colossal failure, Dave Reichert, the man in charge of the Green River investigation, built a political career on an arrest he never made.

On this twelfth anniversary of the sentencing of my sister's killer, I am still angry. The failures and incompetence of the system that contributed to her murder in 1983 are as glaring today as they were then. And no matter how many memoirs I write, that reality will not change. 

It's a muddled mess this memoir writing, and the more emotionally charged, the more muddled. As a memoirist one must grow thick skin and a willingness to hold horror close. The idea of memoir writing as therapy just isn't reality.

After the original publication in 2008, readers often asked about the therapeutic affects of writing The Thirty-Ninth Victim. "Did it bring closure?" some wondered. The research and writing helped me understand and deal with family tragedy, but closure? Never.

I found the strength to share my story the first time, and I will do so again. Booktrope will re-release The Thirty-Ninth Victim in late 2016, and I will face the demons and unpack the memories as any memoirist must do because a published work requires marketing to find its way into readers' hands.

I've been writing this blog series with a focus on process and techniques of memoir writing, and I will continue to do so. But on this anniversary of the sentencing of my sister's killer, I jump forward to look at what it means, or what it has meant to me, to put a memoir into the world. 
Maureen and Me, Mexico City 1982

Prior posts in this series:  
Muddling Memoir: Beginnings  
Muddling Memoir: Journals  
Muddling Memoir: Letters  
Muddling Memoir: Perspective
Muddling Memoir: A Timeline


mary rowen said...

Wishing you strength today and every day, Arlene, as you continue on this journey. Reading your post makes me so angry about the way our justice "functions." Love & peace to you and your family.

arleen said...

Thanks, Mary. I suppose an interesting aspect of memoir writing is the continuous in-your-face reality of the published work.

Mindy Halleck said...

Arlene, My heart has always been so deeply touched by your life experience. Whenever I’ve written with you at Louisa’s I’ve left thinking how brave you are to write a memoir and relive the nightmare. Brave, because it’s often just plain horrific to revisit, but in some piece of that revisiting/publishing you will definitely help someone else. That’s heroic. I know you will bristle at that term. Still you’re heroic. I know your thoughts and feelings about the death penalty (and I mostly agree), but honestly I have to say with someone like GR it seems his existence in this world will keep the horror even more alive, haunting the families, and victims who survived.
Writing and sharing your life story will never be complete without Maureen’s story and for whatever reason you’re the one chosen to live it. I think it’s because of your heart, your wisdom and judicial prudence. That’s no solace to you, but may serve as a light to others in this often dark world. Thank you for being brave enough to share your story.

arleen said...

Thank you, Mindy. You're right. I'm not at all sure about "heroic" but I do hope writing my story can support others in some small way. Something interesting I noticed after publication was the number of readers who shared their own stories with me. By reading mine, it somehow gave them or allowed them voice. I love that aspect of memoir.

As to the death penalty, should he have gotten it, the process would have dragged on in courts (and the media) for decades, cost tax payers an obscene amount of money, and been even more of a constant painful reminder. More importantly, his death won't bring back my sister.