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Friday, April 3, 2009 | When others glance away in horror, author Caitlin Rother leans in for a closer look.
Over the last four years, the former San Diego Union-Tribune investigative reporter has written true-crime books about notorious local husband-poisoner Kristin Rossum and a best-selling mystery writer’s near-deadly love triangle. She’s tried fiction too, in a novel about murders in Pacific Beach and La Jolla.
Now, in the newly published “Body Parts,” Rother tells the horrific story of a Northern California serial killer who kept gruesome mementos of his victims.
Up next: A co-authored book about a Fresno polygamy, abuse and murder case. And she’s currently working a book about the murder of a couple who were tied to an anchor and thrown off their yacht into the sea off Newport Beach.
The Kensington resident and La Jolla native sat down with us to discuss the art of writing about violence and very bad people.
What is the appeal of writing about crime?
It’s about life and death, and it’s drama and emotion. It’s the most important thing, life and death. We can all relate to this.
I’ve had so many people say, “I don’t read this stuff. I read this because I know you.” And they say, “I actually liked it,” and they’re actually embarrassed.
A lot of people think [true crime] is their dirty little secret. But it’s important to learn about the human condition. Why do we produce people that do this, what makes them that way?
Do you ever get people who ask, “What’s a nice girl like you doing asking about these gruesome topics?”
No one’s ever phrased it like that. But I’m not a ghoulish person. I’m really intrigued by the psychology of human behavior, aberrant behavior.
I used to write about corruption in politics, wrongdoing, stupidity and negligence. But I also went back and forth between that and writing about bizarre deaths.
That became my specialty, and it evolved over time. I started getting into that kind of reporting, and it became an interest of mine to learn more about crime by reading crime fiction.
True crime has a bit of a stigma, and some people look down on it.
There are a lot of true-crime books that are written by people who aren’t writers. They’re police officers or investigators by trade, and they don’t know how to tell a story. They read like investigative reports that they write for their jobs.
That’s not a story. I’m telling you a story, so it’s more literary. I try to focus on the writing and the emotion, as opposed to just telling you a bunch of information.
How do you avoid getting too emotionally wrapped up in a story?
I don’t have nightmares about these things. I don’t know why, but somehow I manage because it’s my job.
It’s a story to me. It’s not to say I don’t feel emotion, that’s why I do these stories. But I don’t internalize them.
Has writing about true crime given you insight into what makes someone a criminal?
The one thing I can see is bad parenting.
My understanding is that personality disorders develop in the first five years of your life, and that has a lot to do with parenting, the role models you have and the behavior you’re taught from your parents. That plays a big role in the cases I’ve studied.
How do you define bad parenting
Maybe it’s not bad parenting but the way the parents act, even the interaction with each other.
Let me take the Kristin Rossum case. I don’t want to say bad parenting per se, but they enabled.
For example, the mother filled out Kristin’s college application to San Diego State, and in the area where it says please write down all of the education background, colleges, etc., her mother decided that wasn’t relevant and said let’s just ignore the 1.8 grade point average she had from (the University of) Redlands, as if it never happened.
That’s not a good way to teach her not to lie.
How have the troubles of your late husband affected your work?
My husband was an alcoholic and I ended up going through all sorts of meetings with them. I learned all about addiction through that.
Kristin Rossum was a meth addict, so I already knew a lot about addiction from living with one.
She claimed her husband committed suicide. You know what, my husband committed suicide. I didn’t mention any of that while I was covering the case. … The only reason I bring it up (in the afterword to “Poisoned Love”) is because I feel like it really gave me a unique insight into Kristin Rossum, her family and marriage, and the relationship and dynamic she had with her husband.
[Her family] said “Oh, he was so controlling.” You know what happens when you live with an alcoholic? It makes you crazy too, and you go around looking for empty bottles.
He was going through her purse, and her parents were horrified by that. But no, he saw her acting strangely and he was trying to find the drugs. … He was trying to save her, and she killed him for it.
Does being a woman give you advantages or disadvantages in terms to covering crime?
There’s a lot of men. The attorneys are usually men, the judges are men, the police officers and detectives, and a lot of authors in the genre are men.
It’s difficult to get men sometimes to give me what I need in terms of details. A lot of men are not detail-oriented in the way they observe things. When I interview people, I have to work hard to pull what I need.
Some of them are scared to cuss around me. I think they’re trying to be respectful.
But then they realize that reporters cuss like crazy.