11 December 2019

The Rise and Rebellion of Women Noir Writers

Women writers of crime, mystery, and noir have been kicking their male counterparts in the keister lately. Evidence of this is Akashic Books’ outstanding new anthology Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers. In the world of noir, Akashic wears the publishing crown of noir, from novels to over 100 noir anthologies set in cities around the world. 

In this new anthology, authors Aimee Bender, Steph Cha, S.J. Rosen, Edwidge Danticat, and twelve others prove that women have the cutting edge over their male counterparts. Joyce Carol Oates who Akashic calls “a queen of the noir genre” puts her keen, dark eye to stories that skewer the gendered status quo of “femme-fatale.” No longer do women lure hapless men to their demise. Instead, these writers of femmes-noir, a subcategory of contemporary neo-noir, have a little fun at the expense of a crumbling patriarchal society.

The modern female noir and crime story covers a lot of ground. These stories with their strong sense of place and atmosphere kept me up late into the night and gave me thrills and chills.
“In noir, women’s place until fairly recently has been limited to two: muse, sexual object. The particular strength of the female noir vision isn’t a recognizable style but rather a defiantly female, indeed feminist, perspective.” —Joyce Carol Oates, introduction, Cutting Edge
Take for example my favorite story in the anthology, Aimee Bender’s “Firetown.” An erotic contemporary story is set in a Los Angles that is “crackling” after eleven months of wildfires. This story has the appeal of classic noir with its repartee and humor, its PI and beautiful client. 

But the PI is female, owns an apricot-colored chair, and drinks whiskey, rocks, “to maintain image”; the beautiful client vapes and owns a cat; and other characters develop Etsy sites and drink pale ale. Never far away, however, are the fires, a physical and existential threat.

Another favorite is Bernice L. McFadden’s “OBF, Inc,” a terrifying contemporary tale set in office spaces that could be in any city. This is alternative current history where Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group and blacks are only allowed typewriters and analog phones. By the end of the story, you’ll learn what OBF stands for and why racism still burns hot in our current culture.

Whatever your taste in dark tales, you’ll find delicious ones in Cutting Edge. Steph Cha’s “Thief” is more crime than noir and Elizabeth McCracken’s “An Early Specimen” is more horror than crime. Justice, a favorite theme of mine, finds its way into Shelia Kohler’s “Miss Martin,” another story that raises the current curtain on dark days.

Round out this anthology with a Joyce Carol Oates story and Margaret Atwood poetry, and you have a gift to reread and read out loud. The cynical voices, themes, exemplary language, even the settings defy categories and would be comfortable in either literary or genre. To be scared, stimulated, transfixed, and entertained should be the motive of any writing. Cutting Edge is perfect reading for those with a taste for the nocturnal.

Authors included in the anthology:
Livia Llewellyn
S.J. Rozan
Lisa Lim
Lucy Taylor
Edwidge Danticat
Jennifer Morales
Elizabeth McCracken
Bernice L. McFadden
Aimee Bender
Steph Cha
S.A. Solomon
Cassandra Khaw
Valerie Martin
Sheila Kohler
Margaret Atwood
Joyce Carol Oates

30 September 2019

Val's Review of Attica Locke's HEAVEN, MY HOME

Attica Locke creates stories rich in setting and character and entwined with history. (Bluebird, Bluebird) The plot of her latest, HEAVEN, MY HOME, is not only intense but complex and multilayered. Levi, the nine-year-old son of an Aryan Brotherhood leader, goes missing. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is assigned to find him. As crime novels go, that would be ordinary, except Matthews is black and must follow the law even when faced with legal and moral issues. One of the settings he’s called to, Hopetown, was created after the civil war for freed slaves. Now white supremacists live there too, making a living off people who are nostalgic for anti-bellum Texas.

Heaven, My Home

Matthews comes into the assignment with personal problems, including a mother who doesn’t have his best interests at heart, a vulnerable marriage, and a past investigation that haunts him. As a character, he’s so fully fleshed out that I feel as if I know him, making his story the kind I yearn for as a reader.

I won’t go into any more plot details as other reviews have covered those. I do enjoy how Locke interweaves Texas history in the novel, plus pulls us into a world in 2016 that is more conflicted than it was a few decades ago. Like a Pandora’s Box of Bigots, the racists have become emboldened and don’t fear the law. Levi the nine-year-old is a bad actor, but questions arise for Matthews as well as the reader as Matthews must put aside his feelings and search for the boy. Should Levi be held to same standards as his racists’ relations? Is his hate conditioning or something more rooted in his genetic make-up?

Locke leans heavily on the idea of forgiveness. Should we always try to forgive, or are there times we cannot afford to forgive?

I’m always drawn to crime and thrillers that ask big, bold, and uneasy questions like these. Early in the novel, Matthews says:

“Maybe the rules had to be different. Maybe justice was no more a fixed concept than love was, and the poets and bluesmen knew the rules better than we did.”

Maybe so. Think about that for a minute before you dive into the novel because once you do, you’ll be too swept up in not only what happens, but what choices the characters must make. Walk in their boots. Experience a time of both past and present, times that make moral and legal choices so difficult.

01 January 2018

The Woman in the Window--Does It Live Up to the Hype?

“Astounding. Thrilling.” 
“Tour de force.” 

When a pre-publication novel boasts these blurbs from Gillian Flynn, Ruth Ware, Louise Penny, and Stephen King, and is pronounced “The Most Widely Acquired Debut Novel of all Time,” my alarms go off.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a skeptic where the publishing world is concerned. Their taste buds tend to salivate over sales—no matter how well written or crafted the novel. Plus their authors often write testimonials for their publishers’ novels because, well, it’s done that way. I’ll scratch your back, etc. etc.

So call me a cynic when, in October, I stumbled across an online mention of The Woman in the Window, the 432-page novel referred to at the start of this review, published by William Morrow. Ruth Ware called it “A dark, twisty confection with an irresistible film noir premise.” Lately, some novels are described as noir, when in fact they are not. So is it noir? Is it worth the hype and read? And exactly who is this wunderkind author A. J. Finn?

Turns out he’s industry insider Daniel Mallory, a senior publishing executive at William Morrow/Harper Collins. In the novel’s promo packet I found this about him:

(Daniel Mallory is) a top young book editor who studied mystery and suspense fiction at Oxford University, who now publishes the work of Agatha Christie, and whose own writing is crafted in homage to the classics from Hitchcock and Highsmith.

Now I was even more intrigued, and the pressure increases for this novel to perform.

Does it?


Is it noir?

Yes … and no, depending on how you define noir.

As a psychological thriller, it’s gripping. The narrator, Anna Fox, an agoraphobic and once a respected child psychologist, drinks too much merlot and pops pills indiscriminately. She spies on her neighbors and becomes increasingly interested in the new ones across the street. When she witnesses a brutal crime, no one believes her. No evidence is found that a crime has been committed, a noir hook that comes directly from Rear Window with James Stewart. We wonder about Anna’s sanity.

The British cover
The novel is alive with Hitchcockian characters: the sympathetic Detective Little, his sidekick who doesn’t like Anna, the new neighbor who Anna suspects of killing his wife, the neighbor’s son who makes friends with Anna, Anna’s tenant who suspiciously has little history, and an online friend Anna confides in. The characters switch from suspects to victims and back to suspects repeatedly, creating the plot twists. A definite noir trope.

Finn chose wisely with confining the point of view to Anna. He also restricted the setting to Anna’s New York brownstone, therefore enhancing the sense of entrapment, isolation, and paranoia, all elements of noir.

The ending, of course, brings the truth about the crime to a close. Usually, however, noir does not end on an uplifting note, or it leaves us with a slight sense of dread that not all is right with the world. Finn decides on a different ending.

As much as I love film noir, I found the mention of so many films
throughout the novel distracting even though we're led to believe Anna’s constant viewing of these movies could cause her paranoia. Night in the City, Vertigo, Third Man, Dead Calm, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, The Lady Vanishes, Gaslight, Dark Passage—all mentioned in the first 144 pages.

I applaud Finn’s nod to Gaslight with its use of madness, Vertigo for mistaken identity, and Shadow of a Doubt for its sense of urgency. After the novel took off, I quit counting the mentioned films as I became more interested in Anna’s fate and the person responsible for the crime.

As for the writing itself, noir benefits with less. Most of the descriptions were spot on, but sometimes Finn tries too hard:

Sounds invade the car: The giddy shriek, the seafloor rumble of traffic, a bicycle bell trilling. A rage of colors, a riot of sounds. I feel as though I'm in a coral reef. 
Her drainpipe legs are folded beneath the seat, and Punch (her cat) churns around her ankles like smoke. In the grate, a low tide of fire.

As for the story overall, The Woman in the Window is more quietly complex and suspenseful than Gone Girl (enjoyed, with reservations). It far exceeds The Girl on the Train which I didn't like at all. Finn takes care with the clues he sprinkles throughout (even the red herrings), the setting, and the way he tries to summon up the moody atmosphere of black-and-white films. 

The Woman in the Window goes on sale Jan. 2, 2018 in a massive launch and has already been sold to Fox 2000 Studios with 
Scott Rudin producing and Tracy Letts writing the script.

I hope A. J. Finn continues to write in the noir and thriller genre. I’m a fan.
Loving the dark,

A. J. Finn's Facebook Page 

27 September 2017



I will soon be interviewed on the “Kendall and Cooper Talk Mysteries” podcast! Wendy Kendall and Julie Cooper loved “Revenge in Paris” so much, they contacted me for the interview.

If you haven’t read “Revenge in Paris” (it’s free!), sign up at my WEBSITE. You’ll be directed to download the story in your favorite format.

You will want to read Ang’s story as it is the first in a trilogy of stories. The three stories will stand on their own, but isn’t it more fun to get something free and prepare yourself for the thrill and mystery of the next noir in NOIR TRAVEL STORIES SERIES?

I had planned to publish "Portland Prey" in June, but a major life event happened.

My mom died. Many of you know she'd been very ill and I was gone during June to help my brother and sister-in-law who live in Naples, Florida where mom was in assisted living.

I have a lot to process about losing her, but that is for a different post. I'm just grateful she didn't have to go through hurricane Irma. I don't know what we would have done then. I'm also so grateful for my sibs who cared for her during a difficult period. 

After mom died at the end of July, the sibs and I were busy with all that death demands. I spent a lot of time working on her obituary and trying to capture who she was. That was about the only writing I did for a month.

I'd finished writing "Portland Prey" in June, but I had no focus nor energy to copy edit, check facts, format, and find authors to write blurbs or testimonials for the story. I researched the next noir. I went out to lunch with my pals. I did my paying job. I watched Ray Donavan.

Now I’m coming out of the fog of Mom’s loss. Thankfully the weather has cooled, my favorite season is upon us, and “Portland Prey” survived, unlike some of its characters.

When I read it over this past month, I loved it even more than when I wrote it. That rarely happens.

I finally gathered the courage to ask two people for blurbs and I was honored to receive this one from Tim Applegate, author of Fever Tree:

‘Portland Prey’ is a swift, seductive, menacing tale of extortion and murder that assuredly carries forward Revenge in Paris, Valerie Brooks' scintillating debut installment in her Noir Travel Story Series. Like the great James M. Cain, Brooks strips her story down to the bare essentials, effortlessly blending classic noir (an urban setting, unexpected narrative detours, a suspicious money trail) with uniquely modern components, including a professional computer hacker, Snapchat, and the Ashley Madison dating site. With its breakneck pace, intriguing cast of characters, and unabashed eroticism, ‘Portland Prey’ is a wild, wicked, and utterly delightful ride.
When the cover design is finished, I'll publish “Portland Prey” in ebook form and let you know when it's available. Until then, here are a few of the Portland settings in the story. Portland is rich with choices, but I decided to stay in the downtown area for the urban, atmospheric setting. 

Crystal Hotel

Hotel deLuxe (photo: Kirsten Steen)

Hotel Vintage

The famous round bed in this photo, one of the settings in “Portland Prey,” is in what hotel? 

If you know the answer, EMAIL ME. Please! Do not put your answer in the comment section below. That could give everyone who reads this blog the answer. Those who have the right answer will have their name put in a hat (yes, I actually use a hat) and a winner will be drawn for a special prize.

By the way, remember that cute little puppy we brought home last year? Well, Stevie wants to say hi to you!

I love when you comment. I'd also like your ideas. If you have something you'd like me to write about, please let me know. Also, if you just want some love, comment and I'll write back. You keep me going.

I’m thrilled to be in your world! Thanks so much for being in mine.


06 February 2017

7 Reasons to Sign Up for My Newsletter, Freebies and the Latest News!

Sisters. Revenge. Murder.

Hi Gobsmacked Loyalists!

I launched my NOIR TRAVEL STORY SERIES with “Revenge in Paris,” and the reviews are streaming in! Here's one that gave me the good kind of goosebumps.

Do you have post-holiday hangover? Maybe you need to hunker down. If so, just make sure you read “Revenge in Paris”, the first installment in the travel noir series by Valerie J. Brooks. This story isn’t a marathon–it’s a fast-paced, sweaty-palms, heart-racing holiday sprint around the festive City of Light, told through the eyes of a wannabe killer. The plot winds through Parisian streets and cafes and museums, and into the crooks and crannies of the cold, calculating, passionate, and unmedicated mind of “Helen Craig”. You’ll wince at the glitter and feel the crush of holiday crowds. You’ll want to get up and pour yourself a Scotch. But don’t bother to guess the finale. Brooks will ambush you with it. 
—Tom Titus, author of Blackberries in July: A Forager's Field Guide to Inner Peace

I’m ready to pour myself a whiskey and salute Tom!


Yes, I'm doing it again. This time I'm giving away an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (or an e-reader of your choice)! Get in on this. Drawing takes place around the Ides of March. 

To enter, sign up at MY WEBSITE


Don't you just love freebies? Well, here's one that will make you feel good. Send this postcard to friends and family! They get the free story "Revenge in Paris" and are entered in the drawing for an e-reader! 

Spread the love. Just drag and drop the postcard below into an email and add your own personal message. Don't forget Valentine's Day! What better way to say I love you than to send them a story of revenge and murder?


  • If you missed downloading the free first story "Revenge in Paris"
  • Discover who shows up in "Portland Prey," the second story of my noir series!
  • Hear about freebies & contests, and enter drawings for cool stuff!
  • Be the first to hear news about the series.
  • Learn what weird things I'm forced to do as an author.
  • Find out what makes me tingle with excitement in all things noir.
  • Read about my favorite noir podcasts, tv shows and movies. 

Click on the Cover to Sign Up on My Website

Thanks for following! If you have a favorite social media, you can follow me there for everything noir. 

I love the dark. How about you?


p.s. "Revenge in Paris" will soon be available at your favorite bookseller site. Stay tuned! 

01 November 2016


Playa, Summer Lake, Oregon
Amidst an anxiety-inducing election cycle, the loss of some of our great musicians, an unstable world, and whatever is going on in your personal life (I know many of you have had a tough year), I hold onto the belief that art carries us, gives us means of expression (meaningful expression, the opposite of trolling), and fills us with hope.

Art in all its forms I believe is evidence that humans are worthy of existence. The only other evidence is our social contract to help others in times of need.

Right now, after a tough personal beginning to the year, I have the good fortune to be at Playa, a month-long residency in southern Oregon to work on Vida Flats my memoir that takes place during the early 70s on the McKenzie River. The memoir has been a work in progress over the years with journaling, scene writing, examining, researching—everything that memoir demands.

Writing memoir leaves me psychologically naked, heart cut open, old wounds surfacing, and ultimately in the end is a method of holding myself accountable for what happened to me.

For the first two weeks at Playa, I spread printouts on my bed of everything I’d written so far and went at them with scissors and tape, eliminating replications, combining scenes with notes, moving notes around, highlighting the most emotional scenes, axing bad writing and tirades—well you get the idea. I cried. New memories surfaced. I tried to have as much compassion for my twenty-four-year old self as I have now for others at that age. Memoir is not about blaming others, even if they’ve done you harm. Memoir is about writing truth, my messy truth, about my choices when I experienced harm or love, ignorance or awareness, failure or success. Memoir is mainly about recognizing that big conscious moment when I knew life had to change, or else. It’s about what I did, or tried to do to make that change. It didn’t happen on the first attempt, or even the second, but it did happen.

So what does this have to do with turning to crime?

This year I had one of those moments when I knew my writing life had to change. I’d written three novels, represented by three incredibly hard working agents, but none sold. This last one is still alive, but I was tired, burned out. I could indie publish all three, but I was too tired and burned out to do that. I knew I needed to change a few things in the third novel, but I just couldn’t go back to it, not yet. Plus I had this memoir. I wasn’t having fun anymore, not that writing a novel or memoir is fun, but I’d lost the passion I’d had for years and seriously considered giving up writing.

Then somewhere along the line, I had an idea. Why not write something fun and short. When I thought that, my shoulders relaxed. The pit in my stomach dissolved. I no longer had heartburn. Writing something fun sounded … fun.

But what would be fun to write? Lately, amidst reading memoirs and literary novels, I’d been reading Scandinavian crime novels, recently ones written by women. My husband liked to tease me because I was hooked on what he called “murder and sex” series like “The Tunnel,” “Rebus,” “The Night Manager,” “The Americans,” and “Shades of Blue.” I said, “No, not the murder and sex. I like the politics and the flawed characters.” As a writer, I think of myself as a behavioral diagnostician. What makes people do what they do? What are their motives? What personal demons or desires drive them? How do their actions affect world events, culture, politics, the economy?

When I was a kid, I read Nancy Drew stories and a mystery series my English relatives sent at Christmas.?

During my teens, I read in bed under the blanket with a penlight until one or two in the morning, stories by de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and O. Henry. Twisty, dark, atmospheric stories I sucked down like cherry sodas.

Mysteries. They would be fun to write, but they weren’t serious works.

Then I remembered Rick Moody.

Rick and I met at Vermont Studio while I was there on a month-long writers residency. He’s the author of one of my favorite novels The Ice Storm, also made into a movie.

The Ice Storm hit something deep in me. Rick and I were New Englanders from ultra-conservative families, instilled with a Puritan work ethic, and discouraged from following our creative dreams. I’d wanted to be an artist. He’d wanted to be a musician. We compared stories about our upbringing. He attended a prep school in New Hampshire near my hometown, but not the prep school in my hometown. The prep school in my hometown of Tilton, New Hampshire where I went to high school sat high on a hill overlooking the mill town and main street.  The “preppies” often hung out at the same pizza joint I did and preyed on the “townies.” I was not a popular target so I watched in fascination. I also observed what went on in the homes of our New England picture-perfect towns, something Rick depicted well in The Ice Storm. Something Grace Metalious captured decades earlier in Peyton Place.

In Vermont, Rick and I walked through a familiar stark winter landscape and, inside VSC’s library, he gave me feedback on the first twenty-five pages of my work-in-progress. When I returned to my room, I looked at the pages and at the top of the first page he wrote:

“You’ve got the chops, now loosen up.”

I’ve puzzled over this for years. At the time, I was so incredibly grateful for those words “You’ve got the chops,” that I didn’t realize I didn’t know what he meant by “loosen up.” Was he referring to my language, the voice? The way the story unfolded? Too structured? Too forced? And why, after these many years, am I remembering this now?

I noodled on that for a few days, finally admitting that my first novel was the one I loved writing the most, a dark story about a young woman’s coming of age in the claustrophobic controlled scary confines of a New England town run by her father who was afraid of the mysterious woman who moved in next door. It contained a mystery!

I also reminded myself how much I enjoyed writing “The Hotel Deluxe.” I’d been on assignment for an upcoming online travel magazine where I’d been sent to Portland, Oregon to write a travel piece. I was told to let my imagination fly and encouraged to write something “different.” So I embedded a travelogue in a mystery. I didn’t kill anyone, but the voice was pure noir.


I got goose bumps. Always a good sign. I also had to laugh. Mom once described me as “a good girl who wanted to be a bad.” Writing mysteries was for good girls. Noir was for bad.

Why it took me so long to figure this out, I have no idea. During college I’d studied film noir in a course titled “Film as Literature.” We watched and dissected films, and Matty Walker, Catherine Tramell, and Lynn Bracken, characters motived by hypocrisy, love, betrayal, and money, captivated me. Flawed, intriguing, greedy, messed up characters. No one you’d want to be friends with, but damn! I sure could have fun writing them.

But the book marketplace was flooded with mysteries and thrillers. What could set my short noirs apart from the rest? The travel noir piece I wrote gave me an idea. Why couldn’t I set each noir in a place Dan and I had traveled? Weren’t there people who would love to know more about the setting, the places mentioned in the story, if they knew they were real? I could add a back section to each short story with links and photos and. … More goose bumps.

Plus not everyone had the time to read or even focus on novels. My short noir-travel stories could be read while sitting in the car waiting for the kids to get out of school, during the inevitable long wait at the doctors, eating pie and drinking coffee at a café while their car was being fixed. With the back travel section, the reader could plan a trip to the setting or just live vicariously off the photos and links.

Sometimes life works in your favor. Over the 2015 Holiday season on a two-week vacation in Paris with Dan, I’d kept a journal and saved every receipt and brochure. Gold! I fleshed out a character and a plot, and wrote my first Noir Travel Story “Revenge in Paris.”

And that’s why and how I ended up writing crime, or more accurately noir.

My first e-story in the series “Revenge in Paris” will launch December 1 to coincide with the holidays, and the story will be FREE to download to your e-reader. I’m giving it away to celebrate my launch of the NOIR TRAVEL STORY SERIES. Plus, you’ll have access to a gift card to print out and insert in your holiday cards so you can give this free NOIR TRAVEL STORY to everyone you know.

Because you’ve been with me a long time, you get the first peek at the cover—before I reveal it on my social media!

Thanks for following me. You’ll receive an announcement when the e-book is available.

And, please, if I end up in jail, post my bail. I’ll mention you in the credits of my next noir.

Au revoir,


For more fun with NOIR click on these links:


01 May 2016

April is the Cruellest Month: Loss, Suicide, and Finding Joy During a Tough Month

Tia--a good day on the canal
Simon and Garfunkle's "April Come She Will" has been playing in my head since April 11th, the day we lost our pooch, Tia Maria, to liver cancer. It was a rough five weeks from diagnosis to the day when we had to call the vet.

Dan and I loved that little dog. Never having been without dogs or cats, our empty house seemed to echo the time when I lost Dad to suicide and our family had no anchor. I also haven't been able to get T.S. Eliot's first four lines of his poem "The Waste Land" out of my head either.

April is the cruellest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain.

I remember Mom often saying, "I hate April," that month when you expect birth from winter, the land greening with newness, the flowers and trees blooming, the sun finally remembering it needed to shine. Warmth, birdsong, goslings waddling behind their parents, calla lilies spiking through dirt.

April seems a schizophrenic month that promises a new start, a leaving of winter and a thriving of all living things but tests everything and everyone. Sometimes after seedlings burst, April will deliver a frost. Birds are wild with mating, but lose their head and smash into windows. Frenetic energy brings mistakes. The season is full of beauty and the stirring of desire--from sexual desire to a need to garden. It's all about planting of seed and escaping winter.

And this brings me back to suicide and the seasons.

Many believe the rate of suicide peaks in the cold and dark months of winter, but that's not true according to research. Suicide is prevalent in late spring and early summer months.

My theory on this is that the holiday season keeps us engaged and filled with interaction with loved ones. My dad made it through pain and emotional suffering the winter of 1969 surrounded by family and celebration. There was hope. Then the need to carry this through with New Years and the idea that something would change, a better year, a different year. By March it's pretty damn clear that nothing has changed for the person suffering, and when April comes, so does the frenetic energy, never mind taxes and the responsibilities of clearing, growing crops, pruning, weeding, the long hot summer ahead meaning work, maybe the craziness of not being able to mate or let go of that pent up energy, and like a bird flying into the window, the mistake is made. 
Dad, me and my brother Kent working in the garden 1955
So today, on the anniversary of Dad's death, I offer this letter to you, one I wrote to him today in the hope that I can pass on more info about the pattern of suicide. I have no idea if any of this will help anyone, but I do know the rate of suicide is brutal for the men and women in our military. Maybe, just maybe, if we understand more, have more information, and keep a list of resources handy, we might keep someone from leaving us, someone who if they live might invent something amazing or give birth to the next great leader. Who knows? I am ever hopeful.

Today is the first day of May. Yay! May brings birthdays, my oldest granddaughter and mine. May also brings new life. We're so excited because on May 19th we bring little Stevie, our new Havanese puppy, home.

Stevie at four weeks
Embrace life. Love and light to you all!

* * * * * * * * * * *

                                                                     30 April, 2016 

Dear Dad,

On this day forty-six years ago, April 30, 1970, you committed suicide.

I understand why you did it. You were in pain, struck down from an autoimmune disease that hit in 1944 when you were an officer during WWII. You spent a year in a Texas Army hospital that couldn’t diagnose your illness. Later it would be called PTSD.

April 3, 1970 was your 54th birthday. You told us not to buy you any presents. You were gray-haired, skin and bones, and physically worn out. You still had two kids at home, a 17-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. I was going to have your first grandchild in July.

But you couldn’t wait. And as I said, I understand.

You were always self-sacrificing. You thought your family would be better off.

The truth however is something you didn’t understand and I didn’t discover until much later—the idea of suicide is addictive like a drug. The pattern is the same, the same spikes and plateaus, the ever-shortening relief brought on with the bigger the need. The idea of suicide brings relief at first, but then needs to be fed more and more to get ever larger doses of serotonin, the calming, happiness-producing hormone.

I don’t know when you first thought of suicide as a possible way out. It could have come rather innocently.

Maybe it came when you had to call into work sick because your body felt aflame. Perhaps a bill came due that you couldn’t pay or it was the day you scraped your beloved new blue Oldsmobile against the side of the garage and realized you no longer had control. Maybe it was from me dropping out of college, getting pregnant, and marrying a Vietnam Vet with his own demons who I thought I could save. Possibly it was when your business partner bailed and your business failed.

The day I drove you to the VA Hospital in Vermont for tests, you thought you might have cancer. You hadn’t felt good for three years you said. Because the hospital had no doctors on staff that day or over the weekend, they said to go home. We went for coffee. You seemed calm and relaxed. In an unusual confession, you told me you had never wanted children because of your condition, knowing you wouldn’t be a good father, even admitted to being too controlling, like your father was. Later, I would realize that this was your way of saying sorry, and goodbye. Thank you for that. Later, it would give me understanding and closure.


Whatever first put the idea of suicide into your head, you thought of it and experienced your first hit of serotonin. You were back in control and had a way out if need be.

That didn’t last however.

The next time you experienced stress and your body was wracked with pain, you thought of suicide again, and that brought relief, only this time not as much. When the pattern repeated, relief came when you started planning your suicide. Now the relief was stronger and longer.

The family doctor had given you painkillers. That’s how you’d do it. A big surge of relief this time. You functioned for a while and felt back in control.

But it didn’t last long, and the next time some incident brought back the pain, you were ready to be done with it. You calmly took that bottle of pills and laid down on the bed, waiting for relief. Instead, you slept for three days. Probably you’d built your drug tolerance too high. Mom had me go over to change your sheets and I found you in the bed, and you were breathing, but wouldn’t wake up. Only nineteen and scared, I called Mom, but Mom said let him sleep. He’s tired. He sleeps a lot. So I covered him and left.

After the failed attempt, you no longer felt a big surge of serotonin. So this time you started carefully planning, took your time, and made sure your business was in order, from making sure your insurance policy had no suicide clause to figuring out how much paint it would take to finish painting the garage. The serotonin surged. You were acting happy around that time, even for your birthday on April 3rd.

By the end of the month, you’d finished writing a love letter to Mom and telling her how and why you were doing what you were doing. You’d convinced yourself that since you couldn’t provide for your family anymore and no one could help you medically, you’d end up being a financial burden on your family. You said you hadn’t felt good for three years and didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I wondered if you cried as you wrote that four-page letter. I can imagine you also felt relief. You felt free. You’d done the right thing for your family. You gave Mom instructions on everything she’d have to do after you were gone, including having me paint the rest of the garage. You told Mom how much you loved her and the best days of your life had been with her. You said how sorry you were. You even apologized to me for not being there to see your first grandchild and made a joke that we would probably not name our baby after you, Albert Horace. You also told Mom where the police could find your body. You didn’t want Kent and Wendy coming home from school and finding you.

You folded the letter, sealed it in an envelope, and left it along with a copy of your insurance policy standing against the fruit bowl on the kitchen table.

Then you drove to town, bought a new license for the dog, paid all outstanding bills, got a haircut, drove home to leave the license and pick up your gun.

At one of your former favorite hunting grounds in Sanbornton, you parked your car. That beautiful blue Oldsmobile that you loved so. The day was sunny. A lovely flood of serotonin hit. You no longer had to worry about your family or the burden you’d become. You’d no longer be in pain. The gun felt familiar in your hand. I don’t know if you were crying or smiling or just ready to go. Then you shot yourself.

You were free. But we had to suffer the burden that suicide leaves on a family.

I’ve had many years to heal from losing you. I still write letters to you and one year I even bought a Father’s Day card for you. This year I want you to know one thing: I don’t blame you, Dad, for what you did. Many forces were at play.

I blame war and our stupid fixation on what is heroic. I blame a system that hadn’t identified PTSD as real or the health system that failed you and still fails others in our military. I blame the Greatest Generation’s belief that they could control everything and valued keeping an outward appearance of perfection vs. recognizing when a family or person was in trouble. You couldn’t ask for help. It was too embarrassing and would be a sign of weakness.

Suicide is not painless. We would have rather had you alive even if it meant hard times, because suicide caused rough years for all of us. Twenty years after your death, like a gateway to grief, when my two dogs died in one year, I finally felt your loss and grieved so hard I thought I’d never stop crying.

I love you. And as I said, I understand your decision. I don’t even look at it as the wrong decision. It was the only one you thought you had at the time, and who knows? I cannot see into the parallel universe that would have been if you had lived.

All I can say is you were and are deeply loved and missed. I forgave you years ago for leaving so soon. You missed so much joy with Jason and his girls and the two great-grandsons.

Yes, there is pain in life, but joy is always around the corner. You just need to be patient and keep the light on.

Love always,