A Story of CUE:
Finding Faith in You Believers
Penny knew I was a writer when she met me, and when she kept telling me of the beautiful life and horrible end of her daughter. I kept thinking this would be an amazing story, but it felt too intrusive to ask to do such a thing. So I didn’t. But before the day we were to close on the house I was buying—and take this or dismiss it—but I swear it’s true: I had a dream. I dreamed I was in my university office and a student—I thought—rattled at the door handle. In the dream I moved to make sure the door was locked given I didn’t want to be disturbed—but somehow I opened it. And in came Peggy Carr. I knew then what she looked like, even how she spoke, from the pictures and poems her mom had shared with me. In the dream she was weak. She leaned against the wall and slid down it saying, “You have to tell my story, you have to tell my story.” And I woke knowing I would have to ask Penny if she would like me to try. And of course she said yes. It was a much more difficult, painful, and tricky venture than I had dreamed any writing could be. I’d start and stop. Sometimes stop for years as I went on to write other books. Then as life would have it, I lost two sisters, a brother-in-law and my dad in a very short period of time and I had to move South to raise my niece who had lost both parents.
I spent two years dwelling in grief. And there in the South where I know many who truly live and not just speak their faith, I came to see how I could tell the story of Peggy. I’d have to move it all South. I’d have to make it about the search for faith in a mortal world that can randomly stun us with loss. I had to learn from losing half my family, and I had to teach my niece how to push on. With this experience I at last felt capable of writing a book of such a tangle of grief and hope, of love and sorrow, a story that shows that through loss we can not only survive, but grow. In those years of my own grief I thought continuously of Penny’s deep love and devotion to her daughter—she would not leave Wilmington until her daughter was found. And as I had to struggle to take care of the awful official matters of tending to the consequences of multiple sudden deaths in my family, I oddly kept thinking “where is the grown up who’s supposed to come in and fix things?”
I knew that I was the grown up. And as I faced that, did it, I continuously thought of the grace and strength and dignity of Monica Caison who keeps working when exhausted, who somehow remains generous and kind when she is exhausted and even stays smart and efficient when she is exhausted. And quite frankly I tried to model myself on her and how she can take care of so many adults when they are so terrified and confused they must feel like panicked children looking for the grownup. If you are ever in great panic and sorrow over mysteriously losing a loved one, and you have that crazy desire for a grown-up, Monica Caison is there. As I worked through the many tasks of holding what remained of my family together, I thought steadily about Monica who guided Penny Carr-Britton during the most sorrowful and terrifying journey of her life, Monica Caison who in spite of so many sorrows she’s walked through, doesn’t forget the happy endings she’s also made happen, Monica who still has one of the most stunning, calming smiles I’ve ever seen.
I’ve known of three women murdered, all random, all stalked and hunted, by a calculating stalker out for his prey. The first was a childhood friend of my sister. Debbie was grown at the time, on her way to work as a nurse when her car broke down. They found her nurse’s cap in the phone booth by the side of the road. Her husband and family suffered terribly with the wondering and worrying as to what happened to Debbie. Two years later hunters found her bones in the North Georgia Mountains. I remember how stricken my sister looked when Debbie’s remains were found. We’d grown up in a rough environment. We’d seen a lot of awful in our lives, but I’d never seen my sister look so shocked, hurt. The second was my friend, Rebecca, in Blacksburg, Virginia. She and a girlfriend were camping/hiking the Appalachian Trail and they were watched, stalked and shot by a man who lived in a hole in the ground. He was mad in all senses of the word. He was caught because by some miracle Rebecca’s friend managed to walk four miles with five gunshots, one in her neck, one in her arm, and three in her head. She found strength in her love for Rebecca who while dying told Claudia to run, to find help to catch this man who tracked them down. When I saw the man’s face on television, learned of his childhood that led him to live a solitary hateful life in a hole in the ground, I thought “Behind every horror story is a horror story.” And I knew that trying to tell a story of the awful things that happen in this world was going to be very complicated.
And years later through my realtor Penny Carr-Britton, I discovered Peggy Carr. On the first day I was to meet Penny to see a prospective house, I was late. Quite late—because on the way there on a hot July day I saw a little old black woman crouched on the side of a road in a not so great neighborhood. At first from a distance I thought she was a pile of clothes, but as traffic moved, all the cars driving by her, I saw it was a woman hunched down. I pulled over, got her in my car, and made every effort to get her back to her home. But the place she called home was long condemned. So running late, I asked would she mind going to look at a house with me, then I’d figure what we could do. She was quite happy to do so.
When I pulled up, late to the house, I saw Penny for the first time, a lovely tall, strong looking woman who looked quite pissed off at me. When I explained why I was late, pointed out the old woman in my car, Penny teared up, said, “My daughter Peggy would have done such a thing.” And a friendship, a powerful relationship was born. Together we worked with police to get the woman to a shelter. And then while looking for my perfect house we talked about Peggy, how she had been carjacked, and we talked of what happened to Peggy and the ripple effects and the facts of that awful story. I knew there was a good story to tell, and knew Penny knew I was a writer. She kept bringing me poems Peggy had written, pictures, and I felt a great desire to ask if I could write that story but I resisted because it seemed too invasive. Until the night of that dream when Peggy came to me and I knew I didn’t have a choice in this matter.
And ten years later, I have You Believers. It is not Peggy’s story. I had to respect her privacy and the privacy of her loved ones. So I made up a story inspired by Peggy’s story. And I can tell you that sometimes it takes a work of fiction to get at the truth. I didn’t want to give the true details of Peggy and her loved ones. I simply wanted to get at the truth of how the beautiful powerful gift of life can be randomly snatched away. I wanted to tell the truth of how people can live through their worst nightmares and come through it not better maybe, but certainly and deeply changed.
But before I could write a solid piece of fiction I had to ground myself in the facts. I came here to Wilmington twice to do the research. I met Monica who astonished me with her strength and smarts and her amazing smile in spite of the hard work she did to help people on the worst journey of their lives. But I didn’t know Monica well enough to write a book ABOUT her. I knew I had to make up a character LIKE Moncia. That I could do. The woman you know as Monica Caison was transformed into another woman named Shelby Waters. And it’s a wonderful thing about writing. The characters, they invent themselves; they tell their own stories and you just follow them around and try to keep up. I need to point out that all of the characters in this book are fictional creations. Yes the book is based on real events. But I did not know the people involved and I wouldn’t dare try to write their lives. So my characters took over, designed themselves and ran the story for me, told me what the story was about.
The result is a novel about the struggle for faith in a random world of loss and violence. I worked to answer the questions of how we stay steady in a world of emotional earthquakes. And as I wrote, I wrestled hard with my own faith, struggled to understand why I do what I do, how and why I try to make meaning out of what is often meaningless. I looked back at all the work I’ve done, how I’ve lived my life which has been pretty horrific at times, and I realized that one thing I absolutely believe in is the redemptive power of love.
Yes, horrific things happen to people and somehow we survive the sorrow, and I think it’s by stepping into our biggest souls and embracing a love for this random world. Monica Caison embodies this belief. She lives the fact that faith is not a noun, a thing we have. Faith is a verb, a very active verb. It is with active faith that Monica devotes her life to searching for the missing, and to giving comfort, as well as food and lodging, to those searching for lost loved ones. Monica is the rock solid inspiration for this book. And I must say here again that my character is in no way Monica Caison; if I had to say who Shelby is, I’d have to say, well, that’s Jane Bradley there. My friends and family would agree.
I suffered my own losses and sorrows after learning of Peggy Carr, and I think I was better able to handle my losses given I had learned much from Penny Carr Britton and Monica Caison. Theirs is a powerful story that can teach us how to live and love in a random world of losses and now and then lovely surprise of finding things we might not have known we so needed. Things like faith. And now I’d like to share a little of You Believers, my story of wrestling for faith in this world. And I’ll hope it can do some bit of justice to the fine work of Monica and CUE.