In 1981, when Elle Johnson was 16, her cousin and close friend, Karen, was shot and killed during a robbery at the Burger King where she worked in the Bronx. The girls had both grown up with fathers in law enforcement, which shaped their lives as well as the investigation into Karen’s death. Two decades later, Johnson became a writer for TV crime shows such as CSI: Miami and Law & Order, and her experiences with law enforcement and crime informed her narratives. In her memoir, The Officer’s Daughter (Harper, Feb. 2021), Johnson recounts her memories of her cousin’s murder and how it changed her and her family.
What was it like making the switch from writing fictional crime stories to telling your family’s own?
It was refreshing writing the memoir, because I knew that what I wrote was going to be the end product. When you’re writing a television script it’s the blueprint for something that has to be interpreted by other people. I think I gravitated toward a television career that was about cops and crime and police procedurals because I was very influenced by having law enforcement in the family. When I’d be staffed on shows I’d frequently use scenarios or stories that I remembered learning from my dad. Writing the memoir was a much more personal experience because it was about my feelings and this loss of innocence during a particular period of my life.
Were there particular challenges to writing about a crime that affected you personally?
It was really difficult to go back to those memories and to take a deep dive into them to process and understand what I was feeling and going through as a teenager. Karen’s story has stayed with me since that time—it’s always been a part of me. I think a lot of that has to do with how vividly it played out. It was very traumatic; even though I wasn’t there physically I really felt it. The process of writing this book and going back into those memories helped me get some closure. And delving into other people’s lives and realizing there were families affected who were feeling the same way I did was definitely eye-opening. It made me understand that there’s more than just one victim to a crime.
What prompted you to share this story?
I started off wanting to write this because I wanted to write about Karen. I wanted people to know Karen’s story. Along the way I realized a lot of it was about me and my process of understanding forgiveness. We all have things we want to be forgiven for, and nobody should be judged solely by the worst thing that they’ve done. People are neither bad nor good—they can do bad and good things, and that applies to all of us. Forgiveness is a process that you have to actively undertake, and in forgiving others, you can forgive yourself as well.