Emily Winslow was a young drama student at Carnegie Mellon University’s elite conservatory in Pittsburgh when a man brutally attacked and raped her in January 1992. While the police's search for her rapist proved futile, Emily reclaimed her life. Over the course of the next two decades, she fell in love, married, had two children, and began writing mystery novels set in her new hometown of Cambridge, England. Then, in fall 2013, she received shocking news—the police had found her rapist.
Best-selling author Sophie Hannah spoke to Emily Winslow about her new memoir Jane Doe January: My Twenty-Year Search for Truth and Justice.
Sophie Hannah – You’ve written thriller and crime novels before, but they were firmly fictional! What was it like to write a memoir about something so personal?
Emily Winslow – Writing the memoir was similar to writing my fiction in some ways, because I generally write first-person narrators. As a novelist, I love the suspense that arises from the limited perspective of in-story narrators, and the way that they subtly reveal themselves not necessarily by self-declaration but through the way they describe others. My experience with such a limited point of view helped me to accept from the start that I was not trying to be omniscient or neutral in the memoir, or attempting to be an everywoman or archetype. It's told in very much my voice, specifically me as I was right in the middle of the prosecution, in a state of heightened and sometimes surprising emotions. My experience narrating for fictional characters helped me to embrace limitations and specificity when it became me in the middle of the story.
SH – Reading the book, it feels as if writing it must have been both painful and also pain-relieving. Would you say that's true? Does writing this kind of memoir help with achieving some kind of resolution, or closure, or does it do the opposite - stir everything up again?
EW – It was a relief to capture in words the various emotions and complexities as they arose; when I got each one described just right, it felt like I was ready to move on to whatever was next. But I struggle with the word closure. To me it has an implied internality, and puts the onus on the victim to do some kind of trick in their mind or with their emotions to just see things differently enough to make themselves feel better. I'm a big fan of action. Not big action—not car chases or punching the wall—but real things happening between people. If you want to call my journey in the book an arc of closure, that's fine, but it absolutely didn't happen internally. It happened between me and others—the detectives, the lawyers, my friends and the people who through this became my friends. Writing the book was entwined with that process, because it became how I communicated the details of what was going on, chapter by chapter, as it was happening. I live in a particularly formal and “polite” bit of England, and talking wasn't always an option! But people would read.
SH – You now live in Cambridge, England. Do you think that being so far removed from America and that period of your life helped you to move on?
EW – Having distance from the crime in both place and time helped immensely. It had been more than twenty years since the crime; I was more than 3000 miles away. When I did go back to Pittsburgh, I did so knowing that my home here was going to hold still, as-is. It did surprise me, though, that I wanted to travel to the trial alone. Not only to not bring anyone with me from here, but also to not meet up with familiar people there. I didn't want my worlds colliding. That and some of my other reactions were just genuinely surprising to me. It became a little game, trying to guess what I would feel next.
SH – You write a lot about the detectives and the police department’s involvement in your case. It is important for people to see how this whole process works. What surprised you as the process unfolded?
EW – I was shocked at what little kingdoms each of the fifty states are. My case involved both Pennsylvania, where the crime happened, and New York, where the man was living when he was at last identified by DNA evidence. It genuinely shocked me that getting the man from New York to Pittsburgh required extradition; I had thought that that was only required between countries, not states. The man was able to stretch out that extradition process to delay prosecution, and New York courts wouldn't tell the Pittsburgh police anything. It was maddening. On the other hand, when it comes to accessibility of public information, New York is much more transparent than Pennsylvania. As I pieced together the life story of the man who had attacked me, I found New York records to be much more available than Pennsylvania's.
SH – Georgia, another victim of the same man and a similar attack, handled the situation very differently, and felt differently about it from the way you felt. Why do you think it was important to write about her experience and reactions to the case as it unfolded, in addition to your own?
EW – Georgia and I had very different urges regarding the case. I wanted to interact with the detectives and prosecutors; I wanted to learn everything I could about the man who had been so suddenly identified as our attacker; I wanted desperately to testify and was afraid that he would plead guilty and take that chance away from me. Georgia shied away from it all, which is of course just as valid a response, in fact the more stereotypical response. It's very important to me that my narrative not be treated as a kind of template for what all victims supposedly go through, just because it's published. No doubt some people will resonate with my way of dealing with things and think, “Yes! Me, too!” But, equally, many will feel a little differently or very differently about similar experiences. I hope that my feelings will be sympathetically understood, but I have no particular desire for people to feel the same way. I would be very happy if my book were to help others articulate themselves by providing a contrast to respond to. I want everyone to find their own words.
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