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Carrying the Vagina Chart: Mixing Fact and Fiction in a Novel

Posted: 10/28/10 04:26 PM ET

In my profession, carrying a five-foot-tall chart of a human vagina down the street is a rite of passage. I'm a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and the chart is an essential piece of evidence in many of the most serious rape cases. An expert witness will use it either to illustrate the victim's most intimate injuries or, more often, to explain why there were none (this is anatomy that can stretch to fit a baby). In ten years as a prosecutor, I've carried a lot of these charts down the streets of our nation's capital, to the astonishment of countless pedestrians. Experiences like this didn't just immunize me against embarrassment; they gave me incredible material to work with when I decided to write a novel about my job.

Every day, I see heartbreaking tragedies, vulnerable victims, and acts of shocking evil -- but also moments of real courage, love, and healing. An eleven-year-old boy who saved his mother from being stabbed to death by her boyfriend. A serial rapist who specialized in carjacking women driving with their children. Sex crimes committed by doctors, lawyers, church deacons, and the local ice-cream man. Throughout, I've been awed by the courage of victims who testified against their assailants, good Samaritans who helped strangers, and eyewitnesses who came forward despite fear of retaliation.

It's not a job you leave at the office. I spend my yoga classes fretting about DNA tests instead of focusing on my downward dog. Now that I have small children, I scope out every room, sizing up the most likely child molesters. At some point, I realized I should put my knowledge (and imagination) to better use. My real cases are as engrossing as the most harrowing thrillers. I had to write a book.

When I sat down to write the novel that became "Law of Attraction," the challenge wasn't finding fascinating moments -- it was choosing between them. Could I incorporate the witness who unsnapped his wooden leg and brandished it after being cross-examined about whether he was an able-bodied man? Should I talk about the weird fact that many rapists go flaccid and can't perform in the middle of their rape? You never hear about that on SVU.

I eventually figured out how to turn details like these into one cohesive story. I focused on an issue that haunts many of my cases: why do so many women stay with men who hurt them, even when the whole world seems to cry out "Leave him!" For my heroine, I created Anna Curtis, a beautiful, smart, but inexperienced prosecutor whom people could relate to and root for -- because everyone has been that rookie who wants to be a hero. She shares my résumé, but has a darker background that makes her both empathize with her witnesses and be wary of the men she dates. I threw this young prosecutor into her own controversial romance, with the public defender on the other side of a homicide case -- because conflict is what drives a story. From the framework of this fictional story I hung hundreds of details from my real-life cases.

Writing about my work creatively was great fun. Real prosecutors have to stick to facts and ethical rules, but my fictional characters in "Law of Attraction" could run amok. My heroine trotted around D.C. doing my job, seeing what I see, feeling what I feel, but saying things I wouldn't dare, and landing herself in more trouble than I've ever been in. She also got a more exciting social life. I'm the mother of two toddlers, so a big night for me usually involves Happy Meals. I enjoyed plunking Anna into hip urban happy hours and having her banter with other bright young things.

But I insisted on one essential rule, which I came to think of as the vagina-chart principle. I could write about things that were graphic or controversial, shocking or silly. The details might be embarrassing to write or jarring for the reader to learn. But they had to be real.

The result -- I hope -- is the type of story that I like to read myself: a fast-paced tale of crime and punishment, infused with authentic detail, which will give the reader an inside glimpse into how our criminal justice system really handles the most intimate crimes.

Allison Leotta is a graduate of Harvard Law School, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and a novelist. The views in this essay are hers alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Justice. Allison's debut legal thriller, "Law of Attraction," will be published by Simon & Schuster's Touchstone Books in October, 2010. Learn more at www.allisonleotta.com.