Reports of the death of crime writer Anne Perry reminded me of the impact of a murder on me, a teen “innocent bystander” in 1954. The time and place (Christchurch, New Zealand) are as relevant as the fact of murder by my classmates. Because that was then, this is now.
Guardian article: Anne Perry, killer turned crime writer, dies aged 84. This article gives a clear outline of the story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who were in my class at Christchurch Girls High School.
But of course it doesn’t tell you about the long-lasting impact their act of murder had on an individual schoolgirl, myself. That’s what the poem is about.
The healing power of poetry
The poem is not about Juliet and Pauline. It’s about the cheerful mid-20th century detective stories, and about me and my own reaction to a real murder. Writing it has helped with my own healing. This was a smallish trauma but still affected me for years. Writing about trauma can reveal a larger context. Also, thinking about writing skills is another way of putting some distance between you and the trauma.
I hope the poem may have echoes in your own lives. (Not murder, I hope!) If so, I hope it helps you to process that experience in some way.
I’m interested in how you respond to this poem.
- Does it start you thinking about why you read crime stories or listen to true crime podcasts?
- Does it start you thinking about how adults dealt with death when you were a child?
- Does it start you thinking about the motivation of crime writers? (It varies wildly, of course!)
- Does it start you thinking about irrational guilt?
- Or something else entirely?
This particular murder arouses excitement
And this excitement repels me. I predict that at a certain point, there will be unacceptable comments from Anne Perry’s fans. These I will delete and soon afterwards, I’ll close off comments: I have no desire to get sucked down that rabbit hole.
Here’s the poem in writing.
My crush on death
Some deaths were real (apparently)
but most were in detective books.
People died in libraries
and shearing sheds and country clubs
in beds and baths and bell towers.
Agatha and Dorothy and Ngaio spun
their dainty tales of death.
Murder was a puzzle, amusing till the day
they sat me down for a chat so weird
that the air got squashed
and I didn’t know whether to faint or sob
and the blood sank into my feet.
I was fourteen when I found
that a real life murder isn’t fun
and it isn’t a puzzle.
For everyone knows who done it
and murderers can be girls
fresh out of your own classroom
girls you tried to be nice to
but in your heart you do not like.
That’s when I learned that murder hurts
everyone, even the public
who go feral with theories and fear
even the murderers who had been
so vain about their work
and I learned that every teenage girl
must be prised away, sliced away
from her best friend
in case they go all lesbian
and kill their mothers too.
That’s when I learned to feel guilty
for not seeing what was obvious
for only writing twice to Juliet in jail
guilty for not saving her, guilty for retreating
when our mothers tried to make us friends
guilty for not liking her plasticene horses
guilty for not feeling as guilty as I should
because it was all my fault.
That’s when I learned that life
is not a book. And that was how
I lost my crush on death.
Two wise women
set me free at fifty.
Only then was I allowed
to talk and talk and talk and talk
~ Rachel McAlpine (How To Be Old, Cuba Press 2020)