Pop culture has a nasty habit of producing them. You know the type: the girl in the trunk with her long bare legs dangling over the bumper; the torture victim in the basement in a dirty vest and panties; matted hair over her face, the broken ingénue with glazed eyes and her dress fetchingly rucked up and one high heel kicked off and blood pooling under her.
The murder victim becomes a bloody puzzle that has to be solved. She is the sum of her injuries, rather than her life.
We focus on the gory details – the exit wound of the bullet, the angle of the knife, the pattern of the blood spatter, the DNA under her nails, the defensive cuts on her hands. We learn it from TV. This is what is important: what was done to her. Passive voice. Because there’s no subject anymore. Only object: the dead girl, the body. And a body doesn’t mean anything. It’s an empty snail shell. It’s okay to look. There’s no-one in there now. But there was once.
Which is why I wrote The Shining Girls to be a book that is as much about the victims’ stories as the killer’s.
Serial killer folklore maintains that they often have a type. Ted Bundy was into young women with middle partings and brown hair, for example. But what if my killer was not into physical characteristics but some inner quality that shone out of them? Bright young women full of spark and curiosity, engaged with the world, kicking back against convention and pushing past their doubts and fears. What if the story was more about their lives than their deaths? What if the pretty corpses had voices and that’s part of why they were cut down?
I was interested in writing women who were exceptional in ordinary ways, who didn’t quite fit in, who took a stand and would have made some kind of contribution in their fields if they hadn’t been robbed of their potential, from a microbiologist, to an artist, an architect, an activist, a single-mom welder, a transsexual dancer, an economist.
If the violence in the book is shocking, it’s because it is supposed to be. Because real violence is. All those pretty corpses and raging gun battles and torture porn on-screen have made us virtually immune to violence and the ripples it sends out. But it should be gut-wrenching and upsetting. It should be emotional. It should be about the victim.
Of course, in the real world, real violence is usually not perpetrated by a serial killer. Usually it’s someone the woman knows. A partner or husband or friend or neighbour. But the truth about violence is that it is all domestic. As in every day, playing out with tedious regularity in any number of configurations. Ask any cop, any social worker, any paramedic, or crime reporter. Bodies lose their flavour. Often they don’t even make the news. Especially if they’re not a pretty corpse or a celebrity, if there’s no whiff of scandal. Especially if they’re poor.
Writing this book was very personal.
In 2009, Thomokazi, a 23-year-old friend of my family, was attacked by her abusive boyfriend. He stabbed her, poured boiling water over her head, locked her in his shack in one of Cape Town’s desperately poor shantytowns and just walked away, like she was nothing.
Five days later the neighbours called the cops to break down the door because of the moaning. There were flies thick on her skin, the smell was terrible, but she was alive. We didn’t know it was already too late. With burns, the infection sets in deep, the same way violence sets in to society. She died four months later. The public hospital put it down as ‘natural causes’, because maybe that kind of thing is.
I tried to help the family. We tried to get justice. Three months after Thomokazi was buried in her traditional home up-country, I accompanied her sister to court. But before the case was called up, the prosecutor summoned us into his room and told us – furiously – that he couldn’t try the case. The police docket was one pathetic page. The cops hadn’t bothered to investigate, hadn’t bothered to interview anyone. The only witness was Thomokazi. It was her word against his and All she was dead and the dead cannot speak for themselves.
But I thought I could. I got the case into the papers, because I’m middle-class and I have a voice and I know how to use it and I believed in the system. With the support of the prosecutor, I got the investigation re-opened. I gathered hospital records, the names of other witnesses who could testify that he’d punched her before, pulled out her hair, and found out which neighbours had called the cops.
Then her family phoned me. They couldn’t bear to go through all of it again. They couldn’t face having to exhume her body for a police autopsy. They couldn’t talk about it anymore. All the words had been used up. They asked me to let it go.
I still haven’t been able to. I’m still angry. About the violence that happens every day, about all the girls and women, like Thomokazi, whose deaths go unmentioned, who will never have a voice, whose obituaries come down to their autopsies. As Kirby says, ‘How am I supposed to let this shit go?’ How are any of us?
At least in fiction, unlike real life, you can get justice.