Writing about Tragedy

In the latest issue of her newsletter, author Gayle Trent shared a dilemma. Should she write about a tragic and violent incident that resulted in two deaths at her husband’s workplace? Although she would like to write something that might help prevent future incidents of this kind, she is deeply concerned that what she writes might bring more pain to the families of the victims.

Gayle invited feedback, and I told her of my own experience in a similar situation.

The first book I published, Look Beyond Tomorrow: the Carola Spencer Story, was about a similar incident. The abusive boyfriend of an an answering service employee (the boyfriend had been fired from the company) shot and killed his girlfriend and a co-worker and shot the company owner (my friend Carola). Several other people escaped out the back door.

The shooter killed himself, but the police didn’t know he was dead. They thought my friend and another woman were being held hostage; the two women were actually hiding in separate offices, Carola holding her face together, fully expecting the shooter to come after them. They were eventually rescued – the other woman unharmed and Carola shot several times in the face. She lost an eye and had several extensive surgeries to re-build her face.

Carola didn’t have any medical insurance, and a group of friends got together to raise money to help her with medical expenses. The idea of my writing a book kept coming up, and I resisted – fearing that it would look like I was taking advantage of the tragedy to get a book published, that I would cause more pain for the people involved, and that I wasn’t capable of writing a good book. But circumstances (or as I believe God) just kept pushing me in that direction. Everything lined up to make it happen: a printer volunteered to print the book at cost, an artist donated the cover art, several people offered to edit, friends signed on to sell the book through their businesses …

Then when I talked to Carola and her employees, I discovered they wanted their story told. I went to the office and interviewed each employee, and in most cases, I just explained what I was doing, turned on the tape recorder, asked them to stop periodically so I could change tapes, and listened until they said everything they wanted to say. I did ask a few questions, but in general the people I interviewed just talked and talked and talked.

I wrote a draft from those interviews, took the finished manuscript to the office, and gave each person a copy to read to make sure everything was accurate. They were all intrigued and said things like “I didn’t know that happened!” They had all been in different places (even Carola’s boyfriend several hundred miles away happened to be on the phone with an employee when the shooting started and maintained contact throughout the ordeal with the woman who hid under a desk in a locked office). When I took each individual story and wove them together, it was the first time they had seen the larger picture. Reading the manuscript also gave them a chance to share their feelings with each other again.

There are several major differences in what I did and what Gayle is contemplating. One of the main ones is that Carola’s assailant killed himself so there was no trial. The alleged perpetrator in the situation Gayle is considering is coming up for trial.

Carola’s business was, however, a small company, and everyone had close ties to the victims as well as the killer: they had worked with him before he was fired, one of the employees was the killer’s cousin, and others had invited the man to church and had been trying to help him. The husband of a woman who escaped the shooting by running out the back door was a clergyman who conducted the killer’s funeral. So they all had concerns about what people would think of them being related to or friends with a murderer. I told the cousin I would leave her out of the story if she felt uncomfortable (she was not involved in the actual incident as she wasn’t working the shift when the shooting occurred). However, she decided that it was important for people to understand how she was able to deal with the situation through her faith.

And that leads to a second difference: I wrote the book from the perspective of how the people involved responded to the tragedy rather than focusing on the event itself. Remarkably, Carola’s employees returned to work the next day – most intending to quit – but a young office manager told them that Carola had lost two dear friends and was fighting for her life. He didn’t want her to lose her business too, so he was going to do everything he could to keep the business going while she recovered. They all knelt down where the bodies had lain, prayed together, and went back to work. Carola herself showed remarkable faith and courage throughout the ordeal.

So while I told the story of what happened, including background on the prior problems with the killer both on the job leading to his being fired and abuse of the girlfriend, the main thrust of the story was how the victims coped and recovered.

And I made no money from the book. Everything was supposed to go to Carola’s medical expenses, however those expenses were met primarily from victim’s assistance, donated services, and other donations. The remaining books have been donated to a literacy organization run by a friend of Carola.

There is no one right answer to whether it is appropriate to write about a tragedy. Each writer faced with the opportunity/challenge to write about an event that caused terrible pain and suffering has to ask herself if what she writes will help or harm the victims and their loved ones as well as potential future victims.

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[tags]tragedy, writing, victim, Gayle Trent, Lillie Ammann, Carola Spencer, Look Beyond Tomorrow[/tags]

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