The Killer Across the Potomac

Editor’s Note: A Crime in the Neighborhood is the first novel by Suzanne Berne, and it takes a startling look at the meaning of crime. It tells thestory of what can happen when a child’s accusation is the only lead in a case of sexual assault and murder, and it sheds light on what might be the motives of a child who points an accusing finger.

The winter I turned thirteen, I was in my bedroom one night listening to the radio when the news came on to report that a girl at a Virginia boarding school just across the river had been murdered. Someone had grabbed her as she parked her bicycle behind the school chapel and dragged her into the woods. She’d been found by her own father’s search party early the next morning, half-naked, tied to a tree. They must have passed close by her during the night. The news announcer went on to say that if the girl had been found sooner she might have lived; she died not of her wounds, but of hypothermia.

This was 1974. It happened that I was set to attend that same boarding school in the fall, and the news of this girl’s murder deeply shocked me. Or perhaps I should say it deeply impressed me. I’d watched TV reports about the Vietnam War, of course, and Washington Post while wearing my nickel-plated POW bracelet. I’d followed some of the Watergate hearings in school, and listened to President Nixon’s resignation speech just the summer before, at my uncle’s house, while my uncle—a Republican who sent Nixon birthday cards— wept silently and my father—a Democrat—tried not to look triumphant. In the sixth grade I had even been briefly newsworthy myself (our class had voted in favor of be coming communists, and one of the kids in our class was the child of a top presidential aide). But this particular news involved me in a way I’d never felt involved in any news before. A girl my age, going to the same school I would soon attend, had been killed. A girl I might have known. A girl who, had the circumstances been a little different, might even have been me.

As I recall the story, the man who killed the girl had swum across the Potomac River—a river swollen by winter rains and full of rapids, especially where he crossed it—then, like Frankenstein’s monster, he scaled a cliff to reach the school chapel. Two years before he’d grabbed another girl behind the chapel, but when he relaxed his hold on her for a moment, she ran away. He shouted after her that he would come back, that he would get her the next time. Almost immediately the police caught the man and he was sent to a mental hospital. But the girl was so convinced that he would come back for her that she called the mental hospital every week to make sure the man was still there.

She left school, but she kept calling the hospital. Then one day someone at the hospital said the man had been released. Right away the girl telephoned the boarding school and told her old headmistress the man was free. But no one paid attention.

This was the part of the story that frightened me more than the murder itself. That even such vigilance couldn’t prevent a horrible crime from happening struck me as unreasonable and terrifying. The world wobbled; something rattled and came loose. Life had pretty much made sense until then, but suddenly nothing seemed reliable. Someone had warned the school that this man—this monster—would return, and no one listened. It didn’t make any more sense to me than the fact that the murdered girl’s father could have saved her if only he’d walked ten yards to the left at one point, instead of ten yards to the right. Or that, after all she had suffered and survived, she died of something a woolen blanket could have prevented.

I suppose if I had to determine exactly when I became interested in writing fiction it would be that moment, when I saw life veer out of control and I wanted to know why. To me, fiction is about making sense of things that don’t make sense. In a way it’s a second chance, an opportunity to organize what, in our daily experience, often seems painfully irrational: time; coincidence; other people’s rage, brutality, or carelessness. Life holds inexplicable calamities; fiction does not. But what I love most about fiction is that you can use it to examine those moments when everything changes forever—the moment when an old way of understanding the world no longer works and a new way has to be found. In fiction, you can also be in charge of what happens next.

Years went by and I thought I’d forgotten about that murder. And I had forgotten about it, in the way you file certain events deep within your memory, out of immediate reach, where they stay until you need them again, or until you are ready to understand them. Then a few years ago I began writing A Crime in the Neighborhood, a novel that opens with the murder of a boy not far from his own house. I set the novel in a suburb near where I grew up, in Washington, D.C. And yet I wrote those early pages describing the murder with a particular confidence; they’re really the only part of the novel that never changed throughout all the revisions. I also set the novel at the beginning of the Watergate scandal, though I’d forgotten how Water – gate hung over my own childhood. I even made the main character a young girl whose parents are splitting up—as my parents did (although much later and less dramatically), as did so many of my friends’ parents in the 1970s. In fact, the story is much more about her family’s destruction, and the destruction of a community’s sense of stability, than it is about a child’s murder.

But it wasn’t until after I’d finished a first draft that I realized I’d written about concerns that shaped my youth and that now seem to define the present. Mine was the first generation to grow up in a world of pervasive insecurity; where most people don’t trust the government, don’t leave their back doors unlocked, don’t believe for certain that their marriage will last. These fears took root in the early 1970s, blossomed during the 1980s, and now feed the political and social issues of our times. My generation—I’m at the end of the baby boomers—is full of scared people. Safety is a national obsession. In fact, safety consciousness has become the new sign of affluence: if they can afford to do it, people eat organically grown food, they draft pre nuptial agreements, they drive Volvo station wagons or Range Rovers, they conduct criminal checks on babysitters, they even reside in gated communities.

But as political as I think this book may be, it’s also very much a “domestic novel” in that I’ve tried to look at the society I know by looking at one family, and I’ve tried to explore the cruelties within that one family as a way to understand the cruelties and insecurities of my world. There’s a set of sisters, for instance, that gets torn apart by one sister’s sexual rebellion, just as there was a family before the father left it, a safe neighborhood before a child was killed there, and a reasonably unified government before five inept burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters on the night of June 17, 1972.