The Murderer's Daughters, by Randy Susan Meyers, is a fascinating tale of how domestic violence scars two sisters and how they help each other to heal. Here's my interview with Meyers:
Jennifer Haupt: Tell me about your work with domestic violence victims and how that informed this novel?
Randy Susan Meyers: I worked with victims and with batterers-the perpetrators of domestic violence-leading psycho-educational groups for men who were ordered into the program. Most of them were ordered by the courts; some were ordered through a Department of Social Services. As part of the program, I was in contact with their victims throughout the 42 weeks the men were enrolled in the program.
Many things I learned informed my novel-the men's denial and their self-pitying victim stance stand out. They used excuses of money, sex, jealousy, children and in-laws to justify shattering cheekbones and bruising tender skin. It was about power, control and denial: they couldn't change because change meant admitting they'd done hateful things to people they loved. Most chilling was their denial of the effect their violence had on their children. When I asked where their children were, they always said they were sleeping-an outlandish assertion, but one which they held tight. This led me down the path towards wanting to write about the children who live through the violence-the forgotten victims.
JH: Your characters are so real-especially the two sisters who are left alone in the world after a terrible tragedy. Are Merry and Lulu based on children you worked with?
RSM: I worked with many children from abusive homes while running a local community center and was struck by how many of them became strong at the broken places. I feel that side of trauma has a place in literature-the fight many take on to succeed despite carrying a childhood coat of horror.
When my sister was 10, she opened the door to my father, after being warned not to let him in the house. He then attempted to kill my mother. My book is a tremendous ‘what it' of this situation which has always haunted my sister and me.
More recently, I thought of a young man who presented at a domestic violence conference I attended. As a young boy he hid under the couch and watched as his father murdered his mother. Grief and guilt colored his entire life.
JH: It's interesting how differently domestic violence affected each sister, yet they both feel responsible for what happened. Is this common with victims of domestic violence?
RSM: Children live in such a self-centric world that they feel responsible for everything from their parent's divorce to the violence in the home. Additionally, we all want to control our environment in some way and when life falls apart, we perseverate on what could have been and what we could have done differently. Merry and Lulu, the sisters in my novel, are examples of how a traumatic incident can trap children in that place.
JH: I found it equally heart-breaking how one sister felt compelled to take care of her abusive father and the other totally cut him out of her life. In fact, Lulu and Merry are so different than each other. Did you relate more to one than the other?
RSM: I empathize with sides of each sister I am a mother, so the intensity of that connection (mother-daughter) Lulu has with her children is very present for me. On the other hand, I was the ‘pleaser' in my family-always trying to make everyone happy, so in that way, Merry felt closer to me.
While I wrote THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS, whichever point of view I was in at that moment, felt like the one I was closest to. I became lost in each character in turn.
JH: I found myself empathizing with the father even though he committed a monstrous crime. What are your feelings about him?
RSM: I find reader's reactions to him fascinating: people either despise him or feel a sense of pity for him. I felt about him the same way I felt about my clients: while hating the crime I could find a charitable sadness for the criminal. I thought Joey, the father, was a weak and sad man, who in one moment ruined not only the lives of his family and killed his wife, he smashed his own life into irreparable pieces. He was to weak to admit his guilt and that was the fatal flaw that kept him from a true reparation with his family.
It's fascinating to me that the men who do monstrous things to their family, still love their family. Being an awful father doesn't mean that they do not love their children. This leads to the most twisted of dynamics between fathers and children.
JH: How long did it take you to write this beautiful story? Was it with you for a long time even before you began writing?
RSM: The process from first word on paper to sending it out to agents was about 18 months. I worked on it quite steadily-at times becoming so involved that chapters flew onto the screen. I think the swiftness was partially because it involved issues I'd thought about for so long.
JH: What can you tell me about your next novel, without giving away too much?
RSM: In keeping with my fascination with family dynamics and the hidden costs of mistakes, my new book covers the far-reaching damage caused by an affair. I take the situation from many points of view, including the wife, the other woman, and a third woman who adopts the baby birthed by the other woman.