It is 1997 and I am sitting in a conference room in the courthouse in Burlington, Vermont. It is an uncharacteristically balmy April afternoon and I am interviewing a victim's rights advocate for a novel. The woman specializes in counseling victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse. At one point in our conversation, she reaches into a manila folder and tosses onto the table between us a pair of Polaroid photographs of human head indentations in Sheetrock. The images, she tells me, were taken at the house of one of her clients and they are part of an investigation. Only later will I learn that it was a murder investigation.
At the time I had one immediate thought: How hard must you shove a person's head into Sheetrock to leave an indentation?
I live here in Vermont, in a village of barely a thousand people halfway up the state's third highest mountain. Writers talk with an agonizing amount of hubris and self-absorption about how or where they found their voice, but the reality is that I found my voice after moving here from Brooklyn over two decades ago. Ten of my thirteen books are set in the Green Mountains, including my new novel, "Secrets of Eden." What I love about the state is its size and the ease with which a novelist can interview anyone: Once I needed to speak with the head of human services and he had lunch with me the day after I called. (Try making that happen in California.) I am also mesmerized by the ways we are a microcosm for the issues that are relevant across the nation: The environment vs. development, alternative vs. traditional medicine, and all that baggage that we bring to gender and sexual orientation.
Our reputation beyond our state lines, however, is that we are either a throwback to a pastoral ideal (the more-cows-than-people-myth) or that we are a bed and breakfast theme park. To wit: If you live in Manhattan in a primetime NBC sit-com, the only place to go for a quaint, romantic, getaway is Vermont. Will and Grace came here. So did Jerry. It's even where Chandler brought Ross when Monica couldn't escape the restaurant for a few days.
And while there is much about the state that deserves the sort of 22-minute idealization that comes with a sit-com cameo, here is Vermont's deeply disturbing little secret: We are sixth in the nation, per capita, when it comes to homicides committed by men against women. Recall those Polaroids of the head indentations in Sheetrock. And here is another thing: Our tendency not to discuss the prevalence of domestic violence in our midst is one more way we are a microcosm for the rest of the country. We do have those exquisite bed and breakfasts and that phantasmagorically beautiful fall foliage, but 11 of the 15 homicides in Vermont in 2008 were directly related to domestic abuse - as were roughly two-thirds of all homicides since 1994. The year before last, there were almost 16,000 calls to the state's hotline and 16 crisis centers and shelters, and 3,800 petitions for relief from abuse orders.
The reality, of course, is that violence against women and domestic abuse are epidemic in this entire country and as a culture we are strangely tolerant or willfully silent. Chris Brown pleads guilty to assaulting Rihanna, and four months later it is his song, "Forever," that the "The Office" uses as the wedding theme for love birds Jim and Pam. Charlie Sheen is arrested on Christmas Day amidst allegations that he threatened his wife, and the next month "Two and a Half Men" resumes filming. (A Colorado court will determine on February 8 whether Sheen will be charged.) And in early January, John Michael Farren, onetime deputy White House Counsel to President George W. Bush, is arrested for brutally beating his wife after he is served with divorce papers. She is hospitalized with a broken nose, a broken jaw, and other injuries. The story merits about 30 seconds on the news one night and five column inches in the paper the next day. End of story.
"Secrets of Eden" is a literary thriller in the tradition of my earlier novels "Midwives" and "The Double Bind," and though I did not know it at the time, it began when I saw those Polaroid prints in 1997. It's the story of what looks to all the world like a domestic abuse murder-suicide in a small Vermont village, but turns out to be something rather different. The book has four narrators, including the minister who baptizes the woman on the very Sunday she will be murdered; the state's attorney who is investigating what she believes is a double homicide; the woman's 15-year-old daughter, now an orphan; and the author of wildly successful books about angels, who is herself the daughter of a domestic abuse cataclysm. Each of the narrators has a very different opinion of what must have occurred to leave a husband and wife dead in their living room (with, yes, an imprint of her head in the Sheetrock), though no one can ever be sure of everything. As the minister tells us at one point in the novel, "Believe no one. Trust no one. Assume all of our stories are suspect."
It would be a decade between when I first saw those Polaroid photos and when I started writing "Secrets of Eden." That's a long gestation period for a novel. But I never stopped thinking about the prints. And sometimes, even after you have found your voice, it takes time to find the right words.