Seven years ago, I interviewed the local historian of a small New England village. We met in a crumbling cottage, the town’s historical society. I was reporting a story for a magazine. After an hour, we parted ways. He escorted me out to my car and asked offhand, by the way, had I heard about the big scandal? What scandal? Oh, nothing, he said, it didn’t have anything to do with my story. Anyway, it all happened back in the 1930s. When the town made headlines with a pair of murders, young lovers. Reporters flew in from New York, Miami, San Francisco, even Germany. It was all very Peyton Place, he said, but darker, more Gothic. The story of the summer, if not the year.
But when I asked why, what happened, he shut down. I could look it up for myself, he said, but his lips were sealed. Some of the families still lived in town, their names had been dragged through enough mud. As I got into my car he suggested I dig into the archives of LIFE magazine.
People who find out you write fiction will often ask you how you start. Not as a career question, but how that first blank page gets filled. The rest seems obvious, proceed to the end, but the beginning? Teachers encourage their students not to wait for inspiration, but to sweat it out, meet the word count, be professional. (Proust had his madeleine, but he also did his ten-thousand hours in a cork-lined room.) The key isn’t writing, it’s revision. And revision, as a way of thinking, is everywhere today. Natural selection. Talk therapy. Tinder profiles. The point is that writing, as we think about it, isn’t about a muse, it’s about work, and we get work (we’re American). But there’s still one place in the process that remains susceptible to cosmic intervention. The empty page. The blinking cursor.
And sometimes the cosmos ships via UPS.
A month or two after I met the historian, I found the appropriate issue of LIFE on eBay. It arrived a week later, torn but intact. Large format, mostly black and white, full of ads for Lucky Strikes and Gordon’s gin. Cover price: ten cents. The news that month included a “great diplomatic victory” for Joseph Stalin over Japan, a review of the latest Fred and Ginger movie, society news from Saratoga. And in the middle was a two-page spread for a single story, about a teenage girl, her father, and a boy of 19, who “wriggled last week in the web of a tragedy as grim as any in Greek drama.”
Those two pages occupied my daily work for the next six and a half years. By this point, the magazine is so worn and disassembled, I need to carry it around with two hands just to show it to anybody.
There are 22 photographs in total, black and white. Each with a caption that unspools a story about a pair of star-crossed lovers—the boy and the girl—and two homicides, the murders of a local doctor and his wife, plus the ensuing press attention that so inflamed the country’s interest.
Of the boy, there are two pictures. In the first, he’s in jail, peering out from between the bars. He’s got on an undershirt, some type of zippered V-neck shirt, a suit jacket that looks too big for him. Did he borrow it from somebody? Did someone loan it to him? The fingers of his left hand rest tentatively on the bars. He’s handsome, with a sly cast, young looking. His gaze is a little odd, composed but distant, like he’s watching a game show on television in a bar.
The other photograph is more revealing, literally. It was taken in the courtroom, when the boy’s attorneys made him remove his shirt, a stunt to suggest that he was too weak to have committed the murders. (The first time I saw the shot, I couldn’t help but think of OJ’s glove.) He certainly is slender. No chest hair. Lean arms. He holds a pose as if instructed, to maximize the effect: hands on hips, elbows skewed out like a runway model. The caption reads, “Spectators giggled at his hollow chest.”
The way the boy stares into the eyes of his lawyer makes it seem like he’s holding onto reality by a very thin string.
For the girl, there are eight photographs, and only one of them makes any sense. The girl sits on a bench, in the courtroom, between her mother and her cousin. The girl and her mother have the same hairdo. The girl and her cousin wear the same dress. Did the mother make the dresses for them? Did the girl? Did she pick out the fabric? Did she make the dress special for the trial, and at the last minute her cousin whined about why didn’t she have a special dress, and the mother looked at all the leftover fabric on the table and demanded that the girl sew a copy out for her whiny cousin? The girl looks troubled, uncomfortable, focused on proceedings while her mother gazes away—which all makes sense, given the caption: that the prosecution, at that moment, had been reading aloud snippets from her love letters to her boyfriend.
I love you with every single part of my body.
But the other pictures of the girl are more difficult to explain. The largest is a headshot. She’s wearing the dress again, not smiling, just sad, dejected, staring down at the floor in the manner of a Hollywood star in press photos. A backwoods Veronica Lake. The background gives it away: it appears to be a scrim, the kind used in a photography studio. So it’s not a school photo borrowed from a yearbook, not a picture the girl’s mother had lying around. Someone took it for the occasion, a photojournalist, almost certainly a man. Perhaps he arranged for the girl to come to a studio nearby, or staged one in his motel room. He would have posed her, lit her carefully, maybe made a comment about her hair—this girl whose boyfriend was found with a pair of bodies in his possession. This girl whose father, the local sheriff, had been the one to bring the boy in.
I can’t tell the whole story for fear of spoilers, but here are the bones of it: The boy was found asleep at the wheel of a car parked a couple hundred miles south of town, by the ocean. In the car were two corpses, a man and a woman. The man had been bludgeoned, also “garroted to death.” Quickly the boy was arrested, sent back north, put on trial. Why he’d been driving around for days with a pair of bodies in his car—never mind who killed them and why—no one could say. The jury was all men, 11 husbands, one bachelor (the judge “excused women from serving,” one caption says). Meanwhile the kid’s underage girlfriend sat in court, watched and listened as the trial unfolded—and was, in turn, watched, listened to, while her love letters were read aloud and the spellbound jury learned, along with the national and international press, exactly how intimate her relationship had been, what lengths she and the boy had gone to for one another.
Very quickly the media decided to make her a sex symbol.
After a couple weeks of looking at the pictures, I was fixated. I’d stare at the photos and wonder about the boy’s expressions; my heart broke newly for the girl, who looked so trapped.
I knew I wanted to write something, I just didn’t know what. Where to start? I came up with a rule, for the game of it as much as anything, that no matter what I wrote, I’d learn nothing else about the case outside that magazine. It would be a test—not true crime so much as imagined crime, to fill in the gaps, see how much I could extrapolate from the photographs, invent around them to fill the empty space.
At first I tried to write something historical, New England noir. I hung out at our local county courthouse. I befriended a public defender in North Carolina, I emailed with a police detective in Louisiana, I talked on the phone with a federal prosecutor in California. I even watched Peyton Place, the original, black and white, with Mia Farrow. It all went nowhere, the writing was dry and sad. No revision would make a difference—I couldn’t get into it. I definitely wasn’t any closer to understanding, let alone communicating why those photographs so intrigued me, beyond the details of the plot.
In my experience, to revise a piece of fiction deeper than the style of the thing—dialogue, description, why two characters are arguing and who leaves the room first—a writer starts to get pulled by hidden currents. It’s the most mysterious, difficult part of the process, the most human, having almost nothing to do with craft. I need to feel my way toward a character, the same I do people in my life—those confusing, irrational, emotional people, whose psychology can’t simply be hacked.
The two magazines pages measure 14 x 21 inches. On the right-hand page, a box is set aside, like a sidebar, for a special section about the girl. It’s a little more than a quarter of the story’s total real estate, told in six pictures. In two she wears a swimsuit—“obligingly,” says a caption, as “requested by the newshawks.” In one of them, she reclines on a lawn as if sunbathing. In the other, she poses against a tree with her chest thrust forward, “as requested.” In a third photo she lies on the floor in a come-hither pose; in another she dances uncomfortably in a man’s arms, “keeping a date.”
So a sex object, a bobble-head. Not once is she heard from or interviewed. She has no voice, nothing to hide behind. We project onto her whatever we want. Mostly sex.
When I was 13 I went to my little sister’s dance recital. It was late in the fall, a cold rainy day in southern Connecticut. My mother escorted my sister to the dressing room. I killed time in the lobby, I was bored out of my mind. Many classes were dancing, all ages. They’d set up bulletin boards with photographs, and the oldest girls, the ones dancing solos, got headshots. I saw one I recognized, a girl my age. I’ll call her J. We shared a homeroom, but I didn’t know her. A black and white photograph, with her head tilted to the side, her left cheek on her hand, her wrists supported by a little pillow. I didn’t know at the time that this is a standard pose, even cliché; I thought she looked like a Broadway actress. I thought she was gorgeous. I couldn’t look away.
What was happening to me? I’d hardly noticed J. before, but I knew it like a clap of thunder: I was in love. I couldn’t move. It was almost overwhelming. I’m in love. My heart pounded underneath my shirt. I stared and stared. The pleasure developed almost too quickly. How beautiful she looked! Like an artist, an actress, an adult. A woman. I didn’t know what to do. My nerve endings fizzled. I wanted to rip the headshot down and keep it, I wanted to be alone with it, I wanted the time to let these feelings ripple through me. And just as suddenly I felt awful, rejected—I felt for certain there was little chance J. would love me in return. My life was doomed.
There’s a weird irony to memory: that our pasts, neurologically, are revised as they’re remembered. Scientists have found that to intentionally remember certain details of a memory, others details are suppressed, even erased. Retrieval changes the landscape. I don’t remember much about my sister’s performance that afternoon, but I know I made sure to see J.’s solo dance. I sat in the back, completely rapt, sunk in my seat. Hiding. When she took her bows, I snuck back out to the lobby just to look at the picture again. Since that day, I’ve deliberately avoided thinking about J. and her headshot. I don’t want her to know how I felt, I don’t want to discuss it. In a funny way I don’t know that I can pinpoint many similar moments in my life, when reality cracked and I could say: this is who I am.
In the end, I don’t know the fate of the girl and boy in the photos. I don’t know if the girl’s dress was homemade. I imagine it to be because I took the bones of the story, the narrative structure of those 22 pictures,and adapted them in a novel set today (The Last Kid Left). As soon as I started to write in contemporary time, it felt right—to give the girl a voice in this world, to imagine her and the boy’s life from the inside-out, in a story that could include Tumblr pages and the Scarlet Letter, The Lottery and Badlands. Finally, I could identify what had leapt out from those photographs with so much relevance for today: the luminosity of teenagers forced to be adults.
There’s no way to really know another person. Deep down, we’re too unique, or so we like to believe—a belief held by pretty much everyone, in my experience. Teenagers are the ones who feel it most intensely, as they settle into themselves. But today’s teens really are different: they’re on the internet. They have an audience that’s limitless, always awake, always hungry—a Greek chorus, of potentially global proportions, that stands by on alert. What this generation has, we’ve never seen before. But what they want is as old as human history, as fire. Very quickly, I wasn’t interested in writing about anything else.