The Murderer’s Daughters

themurderersdaughters

Randy Susan Meyers was forced to access dark emotional truths in this tale of two sisters who grew up in a house of abuse.

Book synopsis: Lulu and Merry’s childhood was never ideal, but on the day before Lulu’s tenth birthday, their father drives them into a nightmare. Her mother warned Lulu to never let him in, but when he shows up, he’s impossible to ignore. He bullies his way past ten-year-old Lulu, who obeys her father’s instructions to open the door, then listens in horror as her parents struggle. She runs for help and discovers upon her return that he’s murdered her mother, stabbed her sister, and tried to kill himself. For 30 years, the sisters try to make sense of what happened. Their imprisoned father is a specter in both their lives, shadowing every choice they make. Though one spends her life pretending he’s dead, while the other feels compelled to help him, both fear that someday their imprisoned father’s attempts to win parole may meet success.

What was the inspiration behind you writing this novel that reviewers have called “haunting”?

When my sister was almost eight, my mother warned her against letting my father into our apartment in Brooklyn. Perhaps she also cautioned me, but I was barely five and can’t remember. Years later, as adults, my sister said:

“Remember when I let our father in the house and he tried to kill Mom?”

She swears I was there (where else would I be at that age?), but I didn’t remember. As the years went by, and my sister fed me more details, the scene rooted in my mind and became my memory also. I heard my father sweet-talking his way in. My mother’s screams echoed.

Perhaps this is why I worked with violent men for many years, men ordered by the courts to the Batterer Intervention Program where I ran groups. My clients climbed all over the continuum of ferocity toward women. They bullied, hit, smacked, punched, and broke bones; some had murdered. When asked where their children were during these incidents, almost all answered the same way: they were sleeping.

Children do not sleep through these traumatic moments. Some freeze. Some bury the horror so deeply it can’t be accessed. Some become stuck on the road of re-creating the incident in their own lives (like many of my clients did.) Many become strong at the broken places and, as adults, are teachers, nurses, law enforcement; they are all over the helping professions.

Doing this rough emotional work must have felt so personal given your past …

While working with batterers and speaking with their victims, I thought of my mother and father. I couldn’t ask my father what happened—he’d been gone since I was nine. My mother, she never liked visiting the past under any circumstances, hating how my sister and I examined it from every angle, rolling her eyes when we made troubles into humorous anecdotes. We didn’t dare ask about the time our father threatened to murder her.

But, I kept asking myself. What if? What if my sister hadn’t been brave enough to get the neighbors? What if the neighbors hadn’t pounded upstairs? What if the police hadn’t come in time? What if my mother had died? Writing is like that for me, a series of “what if” after “what if.”

After you finish a writing session on such difficult material, are you able to “turn it off” and go about your day, or does it impact your mood?

My dearest friend, a therapist, has told me that I am an extreme version of an internal processor—which is probably why writing is my favorite method of expression. Though writing this book had intense impact, I tended to bury it—showing my moods more with joking and making fun of myself than by displaying pain. It’s been interesting how in speaking with readers (at events and bookstores), many people express surprise, often saying, “You’re so funny!” I suppose writing is where the dark comes out.

Months after my book launched, I had a bout of depression. I was ashamed of my dispiritedness. I circled the events leading up to my sinking down and pinpointed it to a time I was writing a piece for a British newspaper (on the occasion of the UK version of The Murderer’s Daughters being launched). For that essay, they wanted background material: Why did you write the book? What happened, really happened, in your family? How did events affect you, your sister, mother, father?

Tell us about writing emotionally about truth versus fiction.

While writing my novel, I accessed dark emotional truths. I took real events (my father trying to kill my mother) and then punted the reality into a far more dramatic story. Fiction. However, what I denied (until forced by writing the UK article to go deeper into my own family background) was the cost of writing about issues that touched on trauma I’d managed to bury for so long. There was a cost to delving into the past. Truthiness makes for a deeper more satisfying read. Truthiness often has little (and sometimes nothing) to do with whether one is portraying actual events from one’s past. Sometimes using biographical material adds up to little more than reporting. But when one accesses the emotional truth, the ugly parts of the self that trauma can reveal, that’s a gift to the reader, but it’s often ripped from the writer in a way they don’t immediately recognize.

Writing my book meant digging deep into family secrets and crypts. Family facts weren’t really revealed so much as a family culture was uncovered and combed through. After the book was published, after I raised my head from the comforting minutia of plot and structure and query letters and editorial letters, at some point I realized something: I wasn’t telling fairy tales. I’d ripped away a scrim of denial that I’d spent years perfecting, a scrim made up of food and books and television and all the myriad ways we keep ourselves at a distance from ourselves.

One of the issues you tackle is, “how far can forgiveness stretch”? Is this something you’ve had to deal with in a major way, and what did you learn about your own ability to forgive?

In The Murderer’s Daughters, the sisters come from different points of view in regards to forgiveness—which is something I find fascinating. I have had to decide whether to forgive major transgressions against me—or at least that which I perceived as such. I believe we each make and deeply believe in our own reality. We often choose our own truth.

I believe forgiveness is, in part, a process of understanding (even if never agreeing with) another person’s belief system. For me, there are some acts that are unforgivable, but being in that place of never forgiving can lock one up in hate. I strive towards forgiveness, even as I never forget. Forgetting is a sister of denial, and can lead one into repeating self-destructive behavior.

Working with men who battered led me to understand how people tell themselves stories so they can deny the wrongness of their behavior. Only in honest examination can we change our own destructive tendencies or make the choice to forgive others.

Why did you decide to make the characters of this story Jewish, and is it essential to the narrative?

I am Jewish, the events in the book germinated in an event in my life, and the particular culture I write about (Jewish people who are marginalized from the mainstream of traditional Jewish culture) is one where I belonged. Even as I had brief forays into stereotypes of a typical Jewish culture, I had no steady membership. Yet, I identified as being Jewish.

It’s important for me to explore my background without reservation. There is a myth that there is no abuse in Jewish homes. This is no truer for us than for any other culture in the world. Though I was in no way trying for polemic on this issue, I wanted to capture the emotional truth of the story as best I could—and that was through having the characters come from an unconventional Jewish family. At one event, a woman, who looked to be about 90, came up to me, grabbed my hands, and said, as she glared at me, “I loved your book, but did you have to make them Jewish?”

Many of us want any and all dirty laundry to stay buried. After many years of ongoing persecution, there is a pride in being thought of as unflawed. We don’t drink! We don’t abuse! The price paid for this myth is the deep shame of those who are living the reality of violence in the home. It is only through recognizing problems that we can solve them.

The book is narrated by both daughters, Merry and Lulu. What did you think of switching voices back and forth? Were you more drawn to one sister than the other?

The Murderer’s Daughters is as much about sisters’ relationships as it is about the collateral damage of domestic violence. There are many times when my sister and I will be relating a story from our childhood and the one speaking will be interrupted by the one listening, who will say: “it didn’t happen like that”! Siblings feel as though they’ve grown up in different families, each is convinced that their story is the true one. In reality, we each have individual stories we tell ourselves, and they are equally true to our own experiences. I wanted to capture that dynamic. In doing so, I felt myself completely drawn into whichever sister’s point of view I was writing and, during that time, they would become my “favorite.”

Was there anything that you learned about domestic violence from writing this book that surprised you?

I worked with batterers for ten years (and with their victims), so I’d already learned about the field in great detail. What I have learned during and since writing the book is that forgiveness can take people by surprise. I’ve received letters from many men and women who’ve found that the only way they could achieve peace in their own lives was by letting go of the anger they felt towards their abuser or the man who abused or murdered their parent. Anger can make a noose around the victim’s neck that repeats the abuse.

This is your debut novel. Did you always want to be an author (or, even write this particular story), or is this something that came to you suddenly?

I have always loved writing and was lucky enough—after many years of supporting my daughters and sending them through college—to finally be able to devote myself in enough depth to write a novel that merited being published. I feel extraordinarily blessed.

What do you hope the readers will take away from this novel?

I always hope women, especially young women, can come to a realization that kindness is a number one trait of worth in a partner. In addition, I pray that any who reads this book, who has suffered in an abusive home, can find comfort in knowing that victims of violence can come out very strong at the broken places.

Is there a question you would love to be asked? If so, what is it and what is the answer??

Yes! What is my next book and when will it be published? Paper Baby (whose title might change) will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in January 2013. Paper Baby tells the story of three women: Tia, who gave up her daughter for adoption after being rejected by her married lover; Juliette, who never knew her husband fathered that child; and Caroline, the adoptive mother who fears she is not up to the task of caring for the little girl.

About the Author

Randy Susan Meyers
Randy Susan Meyers is the author of The Murderer’s Daughters, released by St. Martin’s Press. Her family drama is informed by her work with batterers and victims of domestic violence, as well as her experience with youth impacted by street violence. The Los Angeles Times deemed the book, “A knock-out debut.” The Murderer’s Daughters was chosen the Target “Club Pick” for February/March 2011 and chosen by the Massachusetts Council for the Book as a “Must Read.” The Murderer’s Daughters was recently named a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award.

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