Today I’m ecstatic to welcome author Jane Bradley to the blog today! Her book, You Believers, is a haunting story about the power of the human spirit, of the ability to perseverance despite the horror and tragedy many are forced to face.
Holding on to Faith in a World Where Monsters Roam
I never believed in evil until I discovered the real man behind the crime that inspired my novel, You Believers. Sure I knew about God, Satan, Heaven and Hell. But those were only metaphorical things to me, images constructed to help us comprehend our deepest fears and desires. I’ve always believed in the wild wide world of human behavior. I believed that when people do what we call “evil”: serial killing, torture, mass murder, the “evil” resulted from early environmental factors. I blamed painful childhoods, social oppression maybe. I thought people caused pain in the world because they were drowning in their own pain, that they felt comfort through cruelty. I thought maybe seeing pain on the faces of others distracted “evildoers” awhile from their own pain throbbing within. And I still believe all this is true, but now I believe in something more.
I had my first eerie consideration that maybe devils, demons or something like that existed when I saw the three year old boy my sister had adopted move toward my own three year old daughter with a look in his eye that chills me to this day. His cold empty eyes were locked on the back of my daughter’s head while she sat playing cars on the kitchen floor, and he came at her, baseball bat ready to smack her head, hard. I was snapping beans at the table, looked over just in time to grab the bat, snatch him up and shake him, yell at him for the awful thing he meant to do. When his mother asked him why he would want to hit my daughter in the head with a bat—they got along wonderfully, seemed to play harmoniously all the time—he simply shrugged and said he wanted to, and that distant blankness sat still as stone in his eyes. When he was five he told my daughter that his blood mother—an alcoholic/drug addict who had routinely beat him when he was an infant—that she had demon snakes in her mouth that came out when she talked. He said that one day she had reached at the snakes in her mouth and put them in his mouth and that they were still there. I was sickened and stunned. I told my sister that he needed serious psychological help, but she and her husband decided that the boy was troubled and that a mother’s love and a daddy’s discipline would remedy things. He only grew worse, and after his little sister was born he tortured and terrorized her. Eventually his parents sought help and nothing worked. I could go on about how scary it can be just to be near him—he sniffs and paws at you like a hungry animal. And he now spends most of his time either in mental hospitals or jail. As a teenager he told his mom, and me, that there were four demons inside him. His artwork illustrates this. Yes at time I thought well maybe he is possessed; I like to think in a metaphorical way. But yes, I know there is something bigger and sinister that drives him.
A few years ago as I was researching the “evil” man whose actions inspired my novel, I found myself once again believing in evil. He had a record of brutality that was too harsh to put in my novel—readers wouldn’t want to spend time with a character so horrifying. This young man, like my nephew, had an abusive early childhood. He too was adopted by parents who raised him with love, comfort, and counseling. Nothing worked. He insisted constantly that he WAS the Devil, and he wanted to be the man on death row with the most killings. Given what we know of captured serial killers, that would have to be quite a record. I learned of how he car-jacked of a friend’s daughter and what he did to her, and after I had asked for and received permission to write the book, I sat down and quickly wrote the car-jacking scene. I put in the details that he popped Bob Marley in the cassette player and sang, bitterly, “Every little thing gonna be all right.” as the tearful driver followed his instructions to head out over the Cape Fear River Bridge. I knew I had a good scene to start the book. Many months later I went to Wilmington where the girl was car-jacked. With the victim’s sister, I went to the D.A.s office and saw the pictures of the crime scene, and I heard this man on tapped prison phones laughing and bragging about what he had done. And then he said it. I heard his bitter and proud words on the tape; he told of how he had “popped a little Marley in” and sang, “Every little thing gonna be all right.” I nearly fell out of my chair. How in the world did I have that detail in my mind before I knew it to be true. I honestly feared and still wonder, if he was coming to me in my night dreams and day dreams.
Which leads me to another case of evil at work. The protagonist of my novel, the seacher, Shelby Waters, gets started on her life devoted to searching for missing people because in the past, Shelby’s sister was picked up while on her way to work and hunters found her scattered bones two years later in the North Georgia Mountains. This little story is inspired by a true story; the murdered girl was in truth a dear friend of my little sister. This case was been a sad mystery to me until I went to a Missing Persons Conference sponsored by CUE in Wilmington. By chance I learned that the man who had most likely killed my sister’s friend is now on death row in Florida. He’s been convicted for killing three people in the same area; he is the lead suspect for five other murders and is a person of great interest in countless murders in the southeast. When an FBI agent was asked how many likely victims had been killed by this man who captured people, took them to the mountains, released them to hunt, kill and sometimes eat, blood drained from the agent’s face and he simply shook his head. There have been countless bones and remains left in little dens all over those mountains. Detectives say the man hunted like a mountain lion. He has no remorse. He has even talked people into making a movie about his deadly recreation, pitching it as a story. The film is called Deadly Run and you can rent it. But you don’t want to. It’s the killer’s own true story and he got a chance to revel in it publicly.
So yes, I believe in evil. Every culture has its ideas of a bogeyman, devils, imps, all sorts dark forces with malevolent intent. And many cultures have rituals, marked events that provide a space for evil to make itself known so that then it can be shut away to go whatever dark space will hold it. We like to believe we can stir evil up and then put it away again, and oh think of the horror movies that have been spawned by this notion. But I’d say, it’s not so easy to control. Evil is a power as real as the winds and tides. I’d say evil a force hidden and present as underground streams ready to rise up to and through any fissure or crack in the earth. I think evil finds its way into broken spirits, battered souls and it hatches in the mind of someone, feeds like a parasite spawning ideas, fantasies. Driven by its hunger to feed, it grows until it makes itself known and felt in the world. Evil can slip into an unknowing and unwilling child who is, for lack of a better word, broken by neglect and abuse, a child whose body and spirit have been so repeatedly violated that they are beyond mending. Such a child is vulnerable to something bigger taking hold and give him a direction, a purpose, and yes, power. I see this in my adopted nephew; I see this in the calculating casually brutal man who inspired my novel. And I see it in that man with stone eyes and no remorse as he teases at the cops with what he knows and won’t tell as he waits for his turn on death row.
But there’s hope. Just as there are pools of malevolent darkness, I have even greater faith in the goodness of people, the kinds of people I consider beacons of light. They are people who both spontaneously and with a plan bring goodness, comfort, order and hope to those left blasted by violence, murder, mayhem. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some of these people, one of the being Monica Caison, the founder of CUE an organization devoted to searching for missing and comforting the loved ones left behind. Such people provide hope and healing. And they are strong, fueled by a benevolent force bigger than they are, a force that works through human hands.
In You Believers I had and still have the wonderful opportunity to map out just how we can find and hang on to faith in a randomly brutal world. Sometimes I discover the best things as well as the worst things about humanity through my characters. Through Jesse I came to a visceral understanding of evil. Shelby Waters, a woman who runs her life with a mission of goodness. She pays close attention what people do and say and to the consequences that follow. Shelby’s life runs on a concept I try to live by in my own life: live your beliefs; don’t just hang onto them like a metaphorical life raft.
I grew up in the Bible Belt where many wear their religion like a flag, and they are not always the kindest people. When went through my own first very hard time and was left to raise myself while my mother was in prison and my siblings scattered. I knew people in that tiny church down the gravel road that led to our shack of a house, gossiped prayed for me, I had visited that church with my friends when I was a kid. I had often heard the preacher say, “And God bless those poor girls living up the hill.” He was referring to us, my sisters and me. They did a lot of praying and no one did a thing. Our wretched lives moved forward until the family crashed and scattered. I sat in that house and yes I prayed for help. More importantly I finished high school and worked at Woolworth’s. I quickly realized no one was going to rescue, save, redeem me. I would do it myself. I realized then that faith is a verb and it has to be a very strong and forceful verb if you want difficult things done. In recent years I discovered the phrase: “You have to put feet on your prayers if you want something done.” My sister, the only one left living, told me this bit of wisdom. And even though she’d scattered to Texas when our mom was locked up, she’d learned to survive with feet on her prayers. I gave that line to my strong-minded Shelby Waters. Shelby is not a believer in any faith. But she believes in getting things done, and as she goes through the obstacles and set backs and rewards in the book, she allows herself to pray in some little way for some force bigger than she is to guide and support the good things she works so hard to accomplish. This story that takes readers to hell and back ends in a tiny and gentle space: a garden. Shelby is exhausted physically and emotionally, but she keeps helping a friend in need. She tells herself she will try to believe, and she does what she must do in the moment. She says, “We weed. We dig. We plant. We water. We pray.” And with all that done metaphorically as well as physically, she says, “We will stand and walk away.”
That is my message of holding on to faith in an evil world. The key is you can’t hold an abstraction, but you can live it in your actions. And in living good intentions by doing good things, you bring light and comfort, and while evil doesn’t go away, its power recedes, fades away for a while. And that, as Shelby would say is simply doing “what we can only do in the end.”