I wanted to write my own memoir, but I’d get stuck with every try. If I dug up my childhood demons, my parents would be devastated. Besides, what if my story was boring? I preferred the safety of reporting on other people’s lives for magazines and Web sites. I also write young adult novels (I’ve written seven), gleefully stepping out of reality instead of diving into it.
So coauthoring a memoir—i.e., ghostwriting with a byline—seemed like a good fit. And Stacey Lannert’s story seemed a logical choice. I’d been writing about Stacey Lannert since 2002 when she was a 29-year-old woman locked up for murdering her father, a sexually abusive alcoholic, and I had interviewed her in prison on assignment for Glamour magazine. We were from similar middle-class Midwestern neighborhoods, were close in age, and knew about hunting season and how to load shotguns. We both fought with our dads.
Stacey, though, was sexually abused and, at 18, had shot her father twice. I had gone to college and gotten married.
Writing the heart-wrenching article literally made me sick. I became sad, angry, and indignant. My emotions took over my body and I wound up with bilateral pneumonia just before deadline. I dictated sentences to my husband from my hospital bed. Stacey struggled, too, since this was the first time she’d revealed the truth about her sexual abuse. But we weren’t writing this piece for our own therapy. We hoped the public would take up Stacey’s cause and put pressure on the governor to grant her petition for clemency, a plea for legal forgiveness.
The story ran, and TV shows called. From prison, Stacey was a guest on Larry King Live and The Montel Williams Show. Letters from other sexual abuse survivors poured in. Still, the governor of Missouri ignored her case, and she stayed put. We talked about writing a book together, but there were two problems: prisoners can’t earn profits and book publishers want happy endings. I stored my files hoping I’d hear from her again. In 2009, I got the call and everything changed.
I’m free!” Stacey yelled from her first cellphone. After years of press and petitions, outgoing governor Matt Blunt released her. I sat on my couch—I had a house and three kids by this time—and cried. She was 36, and I was 34. I thought we should write her memoir, but I waited for her to bring it up. Her story was in the news; she was even a guest on Oprah.
We sold the proposal easily. Then we had to write it. For a year, we spoke daily and visited each other’s homes. I pushed Stacey to uncover all of the ugliness and embarrassment, to dig deeper. She let me borrow her family photo albums and talk to her mother.
I spent my workdays pretending I was Stacey in order to convey her voice, and I became traumatized and depressed. I started to remember punishments and fights from my own past. One week, I shut down completely and stayed in bed. My husband had to take off work to watch the kids. Meanwhile, Stacey was reliving the worst times of her life while looking for a place to live and trying to find a job as a felon. But she pulled us through the darkest moments of memoir writing, saying, “It could be a lot worse, sister.” We both saw therapists. Luckily, the book has a happy ending.
Examining old wounds helped both of us move on. Hopefully, this memoir, Redemption, will have the same cathartic effect on readers. When the hardcover published in 2011, Stacey and I set up a nonprofit organization, HealingSisters.org, for sexual abuse survivors to tell their own stories, which they do every day.
Stacey’s bravery inspires me. I still worry that writing my own memoir could hurt my parents and bore my readers. But I’m not stuck any more. I could do it. For now, though, I need a little escape. My next project is YA.
Kristen Kemp is the coauthor of Redemption (Broadway trade paper, 2012)