A Family, and a City, Confront Their Monsters
“Memory, of course, is also a story. It feels like the truth, especially when there is no one to dispute your recollection of events. But it is a story nonetheless—some moments have been elided, and others have been emphasized and made either luminous or horrific or both….And maybe that is what frightens me now: I can see how much of the story is out of my control….And because now, more than ever, my sister’s case depends on these memories, I am terrified that crucial pieces of evidence have been lost altogether along the way.”
In Willa C. Richards’s THE COMFORT OF MONSTERS, the speaker is Peg McBride, and in the summer of 1991, two devastating things happened in her life. A man named Jeffrey Dahmer was found to have drugged, killed, dismembered, and sometimes eaten 17 young gay men of color in her city of Milwaukee. And her 19-year-old sister Dee disappeared.
Peg is sure she knows what happened to her—Dee’s loathsome older boyfriend, the man they knew as Frank Cavelli, murdered her and disposed of her body. The police, the entire city, are understandably distracted, and, she keeps being told, she has no evidence: No body, no crime. But she knows what she knows, and her family makes it their mission to investigate on their own: setting up hotlines, conducting their own interviews, pestering the media, reconstructing the months leading up to Dee’s disappearance.
Twenty-eight years later, in 2019, they are no closer to proving their case, and Milwaukee has become home to dark tourism—guided tours of Dahmer’s “stomping grounds,” to the fury of the victims’ families, an anger only increased by recent police shootings. For them, three decades are like yesterday. For Peg’s family—her mother, her brother, and her aunt Suze, plus the one police detective who has stayed in touch—the same is true.
And then a stranger comes into their lives. For Peg’s mother, the hope is that he’ll be able to lead them to Dee’s grave. For Peg, the hope is that he’ll provide evidence of Cavelli’s crimes. For the police detective, the hope is that a deep and abiding guilt can finally be put to rest.
None of them is prepared for what really is about to happen, however, the past rushing back in an entirely unfamiliar form. “I was reminded of this unsettling experience,” Peg tells us, “the way something or someone you once loved can became frightening and strange to you. It can happen faster than you think.”
As THE COMFORT OF MONSTERS flashes back and forth between 1991 and 2019, memories shift, histories change, and the secrets come out. So many secrets. It’s an extraordinary exploration of what we choose to believe and the stories we tell one another.
“I’m going to tell you something no one else will,” Suze said.
“You’re going to have to tell the truth eventually.”
“I am telling the truth,” I said.
“Then tell it better.”
But what if the truth is a lie?
“This story really fell in my lap, honestly,” Richards says, “and once it did, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My mother is an archaeologist. Her life’s work involves a cemetery west of Milwaukee which has a fraught history—poor recordation, ‘lost’ maps, disturbed graves. My mother and her students have worked tirelessly to map these areas, to identify those who were buried there, and in some cases to excavate graves that would otherwise have been destroyed or disturbed by construction.
“During the summer of 2014, a family contacted my mother asking if she would help them excavate a tiny portion of this cemetery, because they believed their missing loved one was buried there. I’d worked in these cemeteries with my mother and so I agreed to be a volunteer on the project. This was the experience that inspired the root of the book. It began as a short story I wrote for my very last workshop at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but it quickly grew into a bigger, messier story than I felt a short piece of fiction could contain.
“As soon as I decided I was working on ‘something longer’ and that I wanted to use that particular summer as the backdrop to Dee’s disappearance, I began research. This research was two-fold for me. First, as many people do, I had only a pop-culture knowledge of the crimes: the cannibalism, the gore, Dahmer’s murder in prison, etc. (thank you, Violent Femmes!). So I really wanted to get beyond these popular culture depictions and get some basic facts. Second, I wanted to understand how Dahmer had moved through the communities he preyed upon, and how the city reacted to and interacted with the news coverage of the crimes. All of it was fascinating. I was particularly drawn to investigating what was and is said about these crimes: what kind of discourses popped up around these crimes in the ’90s? What about today? What are people really talking about when they’re talking about the murders?
“In this sense, my first step was reading a lot of the reporting and comparing this reporting. The Wisconsin Light, which is featured in my book, was an important resource, and a great counterweight to some of the more mainstream reporting, including that of the Milwaukee Journal, which really did a lot of what today we call victim-blaming: reporting on the victims’ criminal histories, describing the neighborhoods they lived in using racialized and classist language, etc. So reading the reporting was helpful. I spent a lot of time with this very rich and very useful resource: The Wisconsin LGBT History Project (thank you, Don Schwamb!). And of course, there were a couple of excellent books that I referenced throughout, especially a great investigation into our cultural obsession with Dahmer, Richard Tithecott’s Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of a Serial Killer.
“There were so many interesting things I learned! It’s hard to pick one. I think I was most interested in learning about the ways that Dahmer’s identity played such an outsized role in his ability to navigate the criminal justice system. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but it was deeply disturbing to read. Some people might not know that Dahmer was a convicted child molester, that he served a light prison sentence, and that he was on probation almost the entire time he was murdering people in Milwaukee.
“As Tithecott’s book points out so eloquently, the police and the FBI have a real vested interest in portraying serial killers as being above average intelligence. If they were just regular people, how could they have ‘evaded’ law enforcement for so long? But this story tells us that the answers to how and why Dahmer was able to kill so many people without repercussions for so long has much less to do with his purported brilliance and much more to do with the social capital of whiteness. Being a white man helped, but so did the fact that Dahmer preyed upon people the police often overlooked—young men of color. If police did see these people, they assumed their criminality first, and any potentiality to be victimized second, if at all.”
Richards won a prestigious award for one of her short stories—the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Did the way she approached the writing of a full-length novel differ?
“Short story writing is very hard for me. It doesn’t come naturally. I so admire masters of the short story, because I know how unbelievably difficult a beautifully crafted story is—short story writers are like surgeons, moving so many, tiny, fine parts. (Of course the stakes are lower, though!) But it’s incredible stuff. I’m not very good at it.
“I enjoy novel writing, but it is so, so, so different for me than short story writing. They both have their respective joys and their frustrations, but writing a novel is more like a kind of marriage to me. It’s a Big Commitment. A short story is like a fling: fun and flirty, but finite. The novel just goes and goes, and even when it’s ‘done,’ it feels like it’s still going. Maybe other people don’t feel this way. Maybe I’m doing something wrong, ha. It’s strange because with the short story, I’m often inclined to feel my way through the dark and see what happens. With the novel, I felt the great expanse of nothingness in front of me was much too overwhelming, so I did a lot more storyboarding, a lot more plotting, a lot more research, and individual character arcing, in preparation to write. Of course half this stuff went out the window once I was putting words on the page, but I felt I needed some signposts to guide me, to ground me.
“My process varies project to project. I often like to write toward a particular image or scene that may present itself at the beginning of the project. Once I have this seed, I like to see how a story can grow around it, or how the seed can become warped based on the way the story unfolds. It can happen both ways. I’m one of those writers that enjoys writing toward an ending, though the ending I envision at the beginning of the project rarely sticks. Mostly I like to start with something (a scene, an image, a piece of dialogue, etc.) that I can’t get out of my head and to see how I can scaffold a story from there.”
She had a lot of influences to get her to this point. “My grandmother taught me to read when I was really young, and both my parents are academics, so they fostered a deep love of reading and learning in me. I read a lot as a kid—science fiction, fantasy, YA, detective fiction, mysteries, historical novels, all different kinds of stuff. And I started writing my own stories when I was eight or nine.
“I didn’t study creative writing formally until I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had a number of excellent teachers who introduced me to the craft of short story writing, mostly through anthologies. I didn’t read short stories in high school, so seeing that form for the first time, and really studying it, was exhilarating. As an undergraduate I remember being drawn to Denis Johnson, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Gish Jen, James Baldwin, Danielle Evans, Lorrie Moore, Miranda July, Lauren Groff—these were the writers my teachers were teaching. I thought every single story we read was a miracle. And at Iowa, I really dug into the writers’ work that I think has most profoundly impacted my own—Mary Gaitskill, Joy Williams, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Antonya Nelson, Joan Didion.
“As far as the influences that shaped this particular book, I really wanted to write a page-turner. These were the kinds of books I most loved growing up, before I knew what ‘literary fiction’ was. I knew that I wanted to write a book that a reader could really sink their teeth into. And I wanted it to be a book that took hold of the reader too, because those reading experiences were always my most memorable, my most profound.”
Not that she knew for sure there even was actually going to be a book: “I was really lucky to get into Iowa, and to be there at a time when the program was inviting a lot of agents and editors to visit. I was 22 at the time, and I had no idea what I was doing with my writing, but that didn’t stop me from giving random manuscripts to almost every single person that came through.
“I honestly cringe now at some of the pages I gave these people. Some of them never got back to me, some sent polite ‘no’s, and a few offered to represent me when the time was right. So I kept these people’s cards for the next couple of years while I was finishing my thesis, and then while I was a PhD student at UW-Milwaukee. I felt especially lucky that one of these agents, Samantha Shea, checked up on me quite a bit during this time—she was always asking how the book was going. I’d send her incomplete drafts. She’d give me notes.
“We worked together informally on the book for a year or so before I signed with her, and she has championed the book from the beginning. She’s been instrumental in making the process as smooth as possible, including selling the book to Sara Nelson at HarperCollins right before the end of the world! In between all that, I was moving from city to city, working service jobs, teaching, trying to finish my PhD, and pumping out draft after draft of the novel. Those were the fraught parts—trying to support myself for the five years while I worked on the book.
“A big, big, thank you to all the readers out there who pick this one up!”
Willa C. Richards is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, and she is a recipient of a PEN/Robert J Dau prize for Emerging Writers.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: