Rebecca Godfrey (photo: Brigitte Lacombe); Leslie Jamison (photo: Beowulf Sheehan)
I came to Rebecca Godfrey’s Under the Bridge as a woman who has had a long-term love affair with sadness and a fraught relationship to anger, as a guilty wielder of weaponized vulnerability, and as a writer fascinated by the ways we try to represent the suffering of others. Which is to say, I came to this extraordinary book with all sorts of personal and creative baggage. But part of its importance, I think, stems from the fact that very few readers could possibly approach this book without baggage. Under the Bridge directs itself toward questions that cut to the core for all of us: How does sadness transmute into rage? Where does violence come from, and how should we expect to find any sort of meaning in it? What do we do with acts of aggression that seem to defy understanding or explanation?
Under the Bridge explores the life and death of fourteen-year-old Reena Virk, a Canadian high school student beaten and murdered in 1997 by a group of teenagers, some of them classmates. Godfrey’s book tells a shocking story, but the most searing impressions it left on me weren’t the stuff of Law and Order reruns, but rather quieter moments of humanity and heartbreak: the rusty car of a grieving uncle, the meticulous beauty regime of a girl in foster care, the Gandhi quote a boy decides to include in one of his letters from prison—how he writes it down to fill up space, then second-guesses himself and erases it, then ultimately decides to write it again.
If true crime as a literary genre often gets a bad rap—dismissed as intrinsically voyeuristic, as if violence were the sworn enemy of profundity—then Under the Bridge is a brilliant illustration of what that knee-jerk dismissal ignores. If we bring rigorous, unflinching attention to acts of unthinkable cruelty, to our rage and our betrayals—we can find difficult and important truths lurking inside sensational stories: truths about trauma and its afterlife, varieties of claustrophobia, and the dark alchemies by which sadness or longing turn to anger.
Perhaps true crime has been dismissed because too many stories about crime have been told with too much fidelity to formula, and too little fidelity to nuance. Under the Bridge runs against the grain in both senses: it pays close attention to the complexity of human life—its ordinary days, as well as its moments of extremity—and refuses the standard tropes and narrative formulas of the genre.
The book is structured as a kaleidoscope of closely observed narrative fragments—drawn from more than three hundred interviews—that toggle between the perspectives of a large cast. In this prism, the book observes the lives of its subjects so closely that they slough off all the familiar snakeskins of archetype: The Evil Villain, the Innocent Victim, the Slut or the Savior or the Bad Girl or the Saint. Godfrey brings the granular gaze of a novelist to the kind of material often flattened into moralizing argument, and her characters emerge as mysterious, contradictory, heartbreaking, and plural—in short, as human. She lets them hum and shimmer and confound us. Her illumination leaves room for the persistence of mystery in a way that feels aesthetically ambitious and also humble, and ethically useful in that humility.
Over email, just before the re-release of her book, Godfrey and I talked about female rage, representing violence, and the fraught intimacy embedded in the journalistic enterprise.
As I read your book, I kept thinking of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and how much I wanted there to be an explanation that could make sense of that murder, and how it felt so chilling, ultimately, to learn that money was at the heart of all the blood. I wanted so badly for there to be a deeper logic of motivation. Sometimes we tell ourselves stories about where violence comes from, as if that might make it easier to bear. Maybe I’m just telling on myself here, because I kept wanting to fill in psychological portraits behind each of the perpetrators in your book: Warren was angry at his parents, Kelly was angry at the patriarchy, all the girls were angry at the patriarchy and needed some outlet for their rage. Did you have that impulse?
I definitely agree there is an impulse, both as author and reader, to understand why. To find that single reason why ordinary teenagers would do this—he was kicked out of his house, she was abused by her dad. But I wanted to very carefully portray the lives of the teenagers, and the victim Reena, before the crime so the reader could see them not as case studies but as people, with lives that were once so innocent and normal. I hoped if I could be as observant and detailed as possible about the tensions and characters involved, the reader would be able to understand without relying on the authorial voice for a simple explanation.
Maybe granting space with your narrative for readers to experience that desire for explanation is more important than supplying one.
Yes, I do think it’s important that readers attempt understanding, and thus leave the book with new insights. That’s one of the problems I have with a lot of popular true crime. It presents the murder as a series of disturbing facts. “On June 8, Kelly Lou’s throat was slashed…” There’s something detached and distant about a lot of popular books in the genre. When I read a book like Deadly Innocence, a crime reporter’s book about Paul Bernardo, who, together with his wife, kidnapped and killed several schoolgirls, I remember feeling queasy and nauseous. I realized it wasn’t the facts themselves that caused this visceral revulsion—it was the way they were presented. I was being asked to view these horrific acts from the perspective of the killers. I’m not sure why, but it seems to me that a subjective telling can be more respectful than an objective one. I wanted the reader to instead feel sorrow or grief, to feel something, as they read about the death of a girl.
I am curious how you thought about the idea of evil as you were writing, or whether that idea has resonance to you. Did you want this book to speak to the idea of evil, refute it, complicate it? As someone who resists thinking of people as wholly evil, and who even struggles with “evil” as a category for actions, I found myself thinking a lot about it during the course of this book—not just because of the horrific violence but because of the randomness of it.
I don’t think about evil. There was such demonization of the kids involved. They were called monsters. None of the teenagers involved went out that night expecting a murder to happen, that’s what makes it so unusual and tragic. That said, I did find one of the accused killers a chilling figure. At the trials, I would see how easily she used the veneer of looking like a nice, white, middle-class girl to manipulate the system, to get all kinds of breaks. For years, she was able to win appeals or have mistrials, and it definitely seemed like evil was at play.
As you describe the ways in which a “nice, middle-class white girl” can manipulate the system, it makes me think about how our narratives about crime often explicitly invoke—or implicitly call back to—the very crude archetypes of innocent victim and monstrous villain. The nice white girl is one of the most comfortable figures to cast in the former category. Were you conscious of wanting to push back against certain reductive archetypes as you wrote?
In this case, the categories of archetypes did get muddled. It was pretty clear, from the start, that there was a lot of disbelief that Kelly, who was alleged to have drowned Reena, benefited from being wealthier than some of the others, and from an attractive, respected family. She was the only one to get bail, she had the best lawyers. She just didn’t look the part. Some of the other girls, who weren’t white or who were in the foster care system, were treated more harshly on the stand. You could see defense lawyers trying to use them to raise doubts for the jury—maybe this girl is the real killer because she’s dark-skinned and was kicked out of her home.
Similarly, Kelly’s friend Josephine was blonde, pretty, later she’d become a stripper, but she wasn’t at all sexualized in that circle of kids or in the way she behaved. She was just ruthless. She wanted to be a gangster. When they arrested her, she just kept blow-drying her hair and said, “Do I look like a murderer?” She never testified or gave a statement, and I thought it was interesting that she was the one who evaded any kind of consequence. I did enjoy upending people’s assumptions, so as you start the book, you think these girls will act one way, and they really don’t.
On the subject of girls, what do you feel this story illuminates about female rage—where it comes from, and how it manifests?
Female rage is usually turned inward. I didn’t want to romanticize the violence of these girls, but at the same time, it seemed interesting to explore how and why these girls were a threat. You’ve written so eloquently about how young women turn their anger inward, become self-destructive, and how you’ve had an “abiding aversion to anger.” I wondered what the experience of reading Under the Bridge was like for you—reading about these girls getting in fights, getting kicked out of school, threatening each other, yelling at police. Was it at all enthralling or did you feel that aversion while reading?
Over the course of the past five or ten years, I’ve been interrogating my own aversion to anger—and, relatedly, the ways I’ve fetishized sadness, as well as the ways I’ve experienced my own sadness as somehow uniquely temperamental, rather than conditioned by a set of social forces that make it more permissible than rage. I keep coming back to the fallacy of seeing anger and sadness as separate, as binary opposites, when really they often feed each other and spring from the same sources.
Did I find myself resisting some of the female anger in your book? Absolutely. I mean, its explosion into violence is horrifying. But I also found myself deeply—almost preemptively—resisting the hypothetical reader who would simply want to dismiss the girls in this book as aberrations, as raging harpies who destroyed an innocent girl. Part of what I loved about your book was the ways in which it challenged a dismissal of their anger by presenting the subjects in such rich, complicated ways.
I did really encounter that dismissal of anger when the book was first published in 2005. Janet Maslin called the girls “skanky” in her New York Times review. I was so startled by that—it’s such a harsh, dismissive word. Now, I wonder if that dismissal stems from the aversion you’re talking about, where, as you write, the sad woman is seen as more refined but angry women are messier.
You write about how women hold the pain inside, “rather than making someone deal with its blunt force trauma.” As teenagers, we observe, or learn, or enact this intertwining of sadness and pain—through eating disorders, self-harm, drugs—any kind of annihilation. I remember in high school, there was a ritual. Someone would yell, “Fight!” and there’d be a brawl among boys in the parking lot. And that was that. It was considered ordinary and even exciting, certainly not shameful or a sign of mental illness. It was such a markedly different way of dealing with anger or self-loathing than, say, a girl cutting herself in the bathroom.
How did you try to get at complexity in each of these characters, especially in light of the ways they ruthlessly flattened themselves?
I’m interested in what you mean by ruthlessly flatten.
I’m thinking of the ways in which the characters would often articulate their emotional lives in more reductive terms than, say, a character in a novel, whose consciousness is being carefully sculpted by the author. Here, you couldn’t control how your subjects represented their interior lives—and in real life, people often speak in cliches, or generalities—especially teenagers! When I write, I’m always struggling with the ways in which people sometimes present themselves more reductively than I’d—selfishly, as the author of the text—want them to. What do you do with subjects who insist on articulating themselves in banal terms?
That was difficult, particularly with teenagers who were too young to be capable of a sophisticated language or reflection. I tried to find the poetry in their phrasing, in their gestures.
Someone slipped me the entire police file on the case, I couldn’t have written the book without those police interviews. On one hand, when the teenagers were being interrogated, their language was banal, but if you looked closely you could find emotion and truth even in their evasions. Teenage girls really do have this very distinct way of talking, which is often mocked as “like, oh my god!” kind of chatter. Here, I found they did articulate an important story, told with shame, anger, disbelief, even when the police weren’t really listening to them.
One of my favorite interviews was with a teenage girl who was in the juvenile detention center for prostitution—she was a heroin addict. When Kelly confessed to her, she went to the police, at great risk. The cops were quite dismissive of her. I think they only asked her how long she’d been off heroin. But she just kept talking, this heartbreaking monologue. She was so shaken by the idea that someone she’d met could have killed a girl. “It’s real, it’s too real, it’s so real,” she kept saying. I found that repetition more telling, and moving, particularly as it contrasted with her tough, teenage voice. And when Josephine was interviewed in prison, she toyed with the police. “We don’t talk about murder. We talk about cigarettes and makeup.” I don’t know if she would have described herself as a person with bravado and cunning, but in the interview, if you look closely at her sentences, you can see she is.
I have to say I was so deeply impressed by the reporting in this book. There was such thickness of detail and perspective, and I knew that thickness was made possible by intricate and tireless reporting. Can you say a bit about that process? How did you come to this story in the first place?
I read about the murder in The New York Times. The article recounted how eight teenagers, seven of them girls, had been arrested for a “grisly” slaying of a young girl named Reena Virk. This happened in Victoria, British Columbia, the small town I’d grown up in. I went back there and started asking around, went to the courthouse and the juvenile prison. I became obsessed by it. I kept learning things that weren’t in the newspapers. I spoke to the boy, Colin Jones, who was the so-called cool older boy in that circle. He explained to me the motive, the reason why a few of the girls had wanted to “fuck up” Reena. And then I saw the accused girls, and felt this shock of recognition.
What did you find compelling or challenging about the process of investigating?
I’d only interviewed artists and writers before, so I didn’t know anything about crime reporting. There was an older journalist, Barbara McLintock, who really took me under her wing. She had this gray bowl cut, big glasses, and she crocheted—she looked like a harmless grandmother. But she had a bunch of police scanners in her apartment and knew all the police in town. She told me who to talk to, how to approach them. I learned some techniques from other journalists as well. There were all kinds of coded ways of getting confidential documents—asking to look at a document versus asking to be given a document.
So there were people who were incredibly generous and helpful, and then there were others who were condescending, even hostile, because I was a young woman, not part of any known media organization. There was one veteran crime reporter who would always ask me how my little book was going and then roar with laughter when we were on breaks from the trial. Some of the parents of the accused teenagers threatened me physically, just coming up to me in bars and saying they’d fuck me up if I said anything bad about their kid. I think this is all stuff investigative journalists deal with constantly, but because I hadn’t done it before and I was out there alone, I found it pretty difficult.
What were your relationships like with your main subjects? How did they differ?
It felt at times like I lived a double life, or was a double agent. Because I spent a lot of time with a few defense lawyers—they were very prominent lawyers, the kind who normally defended tycoons or football players, but now they were defending Kelly because she was so high profile. So we’d go to very nice restaurants and talk about evidence and legal strategy. Then I’d change into jeans and go meet the teenagers at some donut shop in a strip mall and we’d talk about parties and rumors.
When I was talking with the police, it was also a bit complicated because I do think they were trying to persuade me that their version of events was correct, and to feel out what I knew. I couldn’t tell them about a lot of evidence I’d been given or what I’d been told by the teenagers. And the teenagers were very antipolice and would mistrust me if they saw me with a cop. So I had to navigate between those worlds, and not betray anyone. I was very aware that if I slipped up with the information, I could get others in trouble.
Reena’s family were very open and generous with all the reporters. I found her grandfather, Mukand Pallan, to be the most poignant, elegant man, and wanted to tell his story of immigration within this narrative. It was always hard to be in the midst of the family’s grief, and then go spend time with those who had caused it or were prolonging it.
I’d love to hear about your decision to leave yourself out of the story. Why did you choose to make yourself entirely absent—both narratively and ruminatively—from the narrative?
I don’t know if it’s a Canadian approach. When I went to grad school in the U.S., I was stunned when other students would say, I didn’t like the book, or, I didn’t agree with his perspective. At university in Canada, we never used the word I. It was assumed that you would discuss the ideas or craft or theory, not your own response to these things. There’s also the conventional wisdom, which I think is true, that Canadians are brought up to focus on community, while Americans revere the individual. So maybe that’s part of it. I’ve been trained to consider the I as too showy.
I also think the story was already so rich. I had a huge cast of characters and I really struggled to keep the stories distinct and engaging. Adding my own experience as a reporter would just have toppled the thing. And ultimately, I wanted the reader to care about the Virks and the teenagers, not me.
You came to this book as a fiction writer, and I’m curious how that challenged and sharpened your reporting. What was it like to go from writing fiction to this kind of immersive reportage?
I had to learn on the way. With my first novel, I had the workshop experience and community. This felt more untethered. I did try and give myself a crash course. I read On Reporting and books on interviewing techniques, but this case was so unique and unusual—I don’t think any essay or expert could have prepared me. It was incredibly hard to intrude into the sorrow of others. My brother drowned when I was a teenager, and I remember a reporter knocking on the door and asking me, “Did you know the boy who died?” It was just unbelievably horrible. I didn’t want to be that intrusive or voyeuristic, so I was quite tentative by journalistic standards. I took a long time. I remember being in my car, pulling over to the side of the road, with panic attacks while I was on my way to interview people.
You’re working on another novel now, about Peggy Guggenheim. I’m curious how this current novel connects to the books that came before it, and if it feels connected in any way, formally or thematically, to Under the Bridge, in its exploration of female consciousness or otherwise?
Once I had a daughter, I really didn’t want to write about teenagers or violence anymore. But it took me a long time to find a story that had a hold on me like the Reena Virk case did. And around 2012, I read Peggy Guggenheim’s biography and just became obsessed with her, the way her life touched on so many things I wanted to write about—art, motherhood, intense friendships, love. It’s purposely very different than my earlier work. I think when most people hear the name Peggy Guggenheim, they think of an eccentric woman with this massive art collection in her Venice palazzo, but I’m writing about her before that, when she was growing up in Gilded Age New York, and then when she was a young woman in Paris trying to find a way to be something other than a wife or friend to the famous. Perhaps there’s a connection in the sense that I’m again exploring a woman who was quite rebellious, underestimated, often reckless and dangerous, albeit in a much more rarefied atmosphere. I’ve been surprised and I suppose compelled by the tragedy and violence I’ve discovered in her life as well. Maybe I’m drawn to tragedy and violence, or maybe they’re just inevitable.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, a New York Times best seller, the novel The Gin Closet, and, most recently, The Recovering. Her second essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in fall 2019. Her essay “I Met Fear on the Hill” appears in our Winter 2018 issue.
If you enjoyed this conversation, you might also enjoy “Writing Postpartum: A Conversation between Kate Zambreno and Sarah Manguso”
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