This piece ran in the New York Times.
Standing in the window, I watched my 12-year-old daughter walking home from the bus stop. Her head was down, her hair hanging in her face. I can tell it had been a bad day.
Inside, I tried to give her some space. I sat in our big leather armchair and asked her about her day.
It was O.K., she said.
I didn’t push. A few seconds later, she flopped on top of me, arms and legs spread akimbo across my body and the chair.
“Something happened today that upset me,” she said, staring at the ceiling. “We picked out a book today at the library and it was really upsetting. It was about a girl who died. It was how she died that was bad.”
I bit my tongue.
“She was walking home from school and was in this field and this guy got her and he had this hole in the ground …” she broke off.
“I think I know that book.” I kept my voice as matter-of-fact as I could. “Was it told from the girl in heaven?”
My daughter sat up and nodded.
“The Lovely Bones.” My stomach hurt and my heart ached. She read that book?
“I only read about 16 pages and got to … you know that part. I’m not going to read any more.”
I stroked her hair away from her face. “I’ve read it,” I said. “It is very disturbing. Even for adults. Some adults won’t read it. I’m sorry you read it at your age.” As I spoke, I scanned our bookshelves on the opposite wall for a Robin’s egg blue book spine. I couldn’t recall if I owned it or had borrowed it from the library.
My words seem to soothe her.
“It just upset me,” she said. “I needed to tell you about it. I feel better now.”
We hugged and migrated to the dining room table.
On this day, I was getting ready for the Bouchercon mystery convention. This year I signed up for Author Speed Dating” where I was supposed to hand out Swag Bags and spend three minutes at each table hawking my books. I was stuffing 120 Swag Bags with a bookmark about my books, a piece of chocolate and a letter I had received from a serial killer. My first book, based on my dealings with a serial killer who preyed on little girls, was up for two awards at the mystery convention.
I had saved this mindless task to do until after my daughter got home from school so we could sit together. She would eat her snack, I’d listen to her tell me about her day while I stuffed my Swag Bags.
It was only when she asked what I was doing that it struck me.
I explained and told her what was in each baggie: “A postcard about my book, a piece of chocolate … and a letter from a bad guy.”
A bad guy who did what that man in the book did to that little girl.
“Does the bad guy know you’re passing out his letter?”
“No, he’s dead.”
And then she moved on to talk about her math quiz.
Meanwhile, my two worlds collided.
As a mother and crime fiction writer, I’m two people every day. One is an Italian-American mother who carts children to soccer and softball and piano and choir and makes pancakes and pasta and acts silly. The other sits down every day and writes about terrible people doing terrible things to others. And sometimes those “others” are children.
The inability to reconcile these two worlds was why — when my daughter was an infant — I quit my job as a crime reporter in the first place. I couldn’t deal with the dark side of life I saw as a reporter and then come home to the pure innocence of a baby.
Years later, I found myself checking on my daughters in our fenced backyard way more than any normal parent would do. I was extremely paranoid and overprotective, worried that danger lurked around every corner. On that day, I realized something needed to change.
So I sat down and wrote a book about the serial killer. Writing about him purged his voice from my head. I was able to let go. He no longer haunts me. Only once in a great while, like on the day my daughter brought up the book “The Lovely Bones,” do I remember that monsters like the one in that book are oh so real.
I continue to write about the people who terrify me, who haunt me, who make me an overprotective mother at times. And there will be times when my two worlds collide and I must sit there and say nothing, only offer my comfort in a hug and a willing ear.
Because how can I tell my own daughter that the monsters she reads about are not real, when I know better than most just how real they are?