Claudia Rowe: Befriending a Killer Revealed My Own Ghosts

Interview with author of "The Spider and the Fly"

Posted Feb 05, 2018

The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer and the Meaning of Murder is a fascinating account of how Claudia Rowe, a journalist who now works for The Seattle Times, was drawn into a friendship of kinds with a serial killer. I truly enjoyed reading this tense and emotionally honest memoir that left me with many questions for the author:

Meryl Schenker
Source: Meryl Schenker

Jennifer Haupt: This book is a compelling account of your relationship with serial killer Kendall Francois. Did you set out to write a true-crime story or a memoir?

Claudia Rowe: Neither. I set out to write literary journalism. My aim was to write something absolutely true, yet to have it read like a novel. But the deeper into this story I went, the more I realized that I was a figure in it. Kendall Francois was revealing pieces of himself, yes. But he was doing that in response to something—to me, and what I represented for him. So it seemed that the only honest way to tell this story was to put myself in it, though I fought this idea for years. It’s something that journalists generally disguise—the person behind the words—but in this case, it felt inescapable.

JH: Were you at all surprised by how much your own personal story became part of this book?

CR: Yes and no. I always knew that I’d been drawn to story for reasons beyond the ghoulish facts. It resonated for me in a way that seemed bewilderingly personal. After I’d come to terms with that, the task became one of proportion: how much of him, how much of me?

JH: Did your relationship with Kendall force you to examine your own past, parts of yourself?

CR: It did, yes. I was pushing a terribly damaged man to reveal his most diseased self, while I hid behind a façade of “normalcy.” Meanwhile, Kendall kept calling me out as a liar—he meant that my job as a journalist made me one by definition. But his assessment echoed my own self-doubt and how hard I was working to hide it. Our ghosts are always with us, is what I’m saying, whether we acknowledge them or not. And from the start, I sensed that this experience would force me to reckon with them. What I did not realize was how transformative that would be.

JH: You say numerous times throughout the book that you pretended to be Kendall’s friend. How would you describe your feelings toward Kendall? Did he, at some point, become more than a story you were researching?

CR: Early on, I’d imagined there were parts of Kendall that could still connect with another person, which was an utterly naïve, a fairytale-like beauty and the beast or something. Yet once I’d realized my fallacy, I kept the conversation going—any reporter would have. And this gets at the ethical dilemma embedded in journalism: the establishment of quick intimacy for an ulterior motive. Plenty of people would say all bets are off when dealing with a person like Kendall Francois, but the fact is, I was taking advantage of his tremendous hunger for connection. So he was many things to me—a terrifying force, an enigma, and in the end, a quivering mess whom I came to pity. Sort of. But no, I don’t think anyone could really call us friends—more like sparring partners.

JH: What did you learn about compassion from your relationship with a serial killer? Is it possible to have compassion for a monster who killed eight women?

CR: I struggled with this question, wondering if it was even moral to attempt empathy with such a person. But he was, indeed, a person, with memories and feelings and hopes. I developed compassion for the boy he had been—a quiet, alienated kid; a kid whose parents forbade him to bring friends home, and who raised him in a house where he wouldn’t want to bring anyone, anyway. I certainly don’t think he was born a murderer. And I could understand feelings of intense alienation and shame. That’s what made the whole endeavor so confounding.

JH: How did you change as a writer while trying to figure out how to put this story on paper?

CR: It sounds dramatic, but this story was my crucible as a writer. Despite his cruelty, many of Kendall’s complaints about me centered on my writing—it’s lack of honesty and depth. Of course, that was part of his manipulation. But it hit bone, because I knew it was true. At the same time, his constant belittling was oddly familiar. It echoed messages I’d been getting all my life. And in the end, by confronting him, I wound up confronting those old nibbling voices of self-doubt that had frozen my story for so long, until it finally burst through onto the page.

JH: What is the one overwhelming “true thing” that you learned from Kendall Francois?

CR: Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “If there’s something you’re afraid to do, that’s the thing you should do.” It’s true in writing and in life.

In 2017, after a twenty-five-year career in newspapers, Claudia Rowe published a journalism-and-memoir hybrid, THE SPIDER AND THE FLY: A REPORTER, A SERIAL KILLER AND THE MEANING OF MURDER. It tells of her obsession, as a younger reporter, with plumbing the psyche of a man who killed eight women in upstate New York. The book explores many issues, including the social forces that allowed a murderer and his victims to go ignored for years. But it also revealed Rowe to herself in ways she had not anticipated.