The cop said: `Your mother's been killed'
The time: 22 June 1958 The place: El Monte, California The man: James Ellroy, crime novelist
Tuesday 05 November 1996
I walked in; a cop squatted down to my level and said, Son, your mother's been killed." A couple of seconds later he said, Where's your father? I said, He's at the bus depot. A cop was dispatched to pick my father up.
I was weaving on my feet a little bit, a bunch of uniformed men and plainclothes men were surrounding me, and I was led diagonally across the yard to Mr Krycki's garage, where he had a workbench with some tools, and that's where I was posed for a photograph. I was holding up pretty well, not crying; truth be told, I started clowning two seconds later.
I was 10 years old.
I tried to banish her from my mind.
I moved to my father's apartment. I knew my father had some newspaper clippings in the closet in our living room, and I snuck a few looks at them, I got the basic story: last seen with the Blonde, the Swarthy Man, at a bar in Valley Boulevard.
But I suspected early on that it was some kind of sex deal gone bad. That was my father's pet theory, that the Blonde and the Swarthy Man tried to coerce my mother into a three-way and she balked at it.
She was the one who made me read the Bible, go to church, do my school work. The old man would read books to me, watch TV with me, tell me we were going to be rich. My mother would say, do your homework; my father would say, you don't want to go to church, don't go to church. Here, look at my skin magazines. As I got older, I started getting his number: hey Dad, if you're such hot shit, why are we living in an apartment covered in dog shit?
I banished her specifically from my mind. I knew that I lusted for her; I certainly did during the last months of her life. She shaped my physical taste in women; she was there, she was working on me, but I thought I had her repressed.
I also transposed her into Elizabeth Short, the "Black Dahlia", and all other murdered women, very fast. I succeed in not thinking about her because she's transmogrified into other women.
There's always that incestuous pull.
I act on it one night when I'm high on Benzedrex inhalers in a bathtub at the Westgate Hotel in '73. She's 15 years dead by that time. It's a shocking experience. It banished her further.
I've lived very badly, and I was certainly morally bankrupt.
Then I get sober and move to New York.
I don't address her; it's my back-story. It's oddly impressive; women are interested in it. It's almost that I had to get it out of the way fast: "My mother was murdered in 1958 when I was 10 years old, that's why I write these books I write" - it was generally part of that conversation.
I set out to write The Black Dahlia; I dedicated the book to my mother. I wanted to love her; I wanted to feel something for her. That book had been welling up in me for so long I just wept. I knew it was the best book I had ever written.
And I knew I could go out and make that book a big hit. I knew the story of a young boy, bereft, has just lost his mother, fixes on the Black Dahlia as a substitute for the mother he didn't love and couldn't love - I could mine it for gold. And I went out and did that.
My mother was somewhere far away.
I embarked on that book tour in some ways to show I was impervious to my mother's power. It wasn't until Helen, my wife, showed me that photograph at Christmas, 1993 ... She wanted a picture of me as a kid, or a picture of my mother, and she saw that picture, of me with a little wood-working tool - she got it from the LA Times archive. She said, do you remember where this was taken and when, and yeah, Jesus Christ, I did. June 22, 1958.
I went out to LA and saw the police file in March 1994. I had always understood the extent to which her death had formed me, but now I really knew. It was strictly an intellectual knowledge before, but now I knew it in my bones.
I never knew the name of the bar on Valley Boulevard, where she was last seen until I saw the police file with Bill Stoner, a homicide detective, 36 years later. That was a shock in itself, just to know the name of the place, the Desert Inn. I was ravenous to know more about my mother.
I knew I had consciously to apply my brain to retrieving every memory I could about my mother; I was reading the files of other murdered women, especially the unsolved ones, I was looking for insights, I was looking for anything and I felt like a grave-robber. I didn't get any symbiosis going between them and my mother.
After 15 months of investigating her death with Bill Stoner, we had done all we could. We'd done all the record checks, looking for old witnesses, we'd got a great deal of publicity and got nothing but shit. I went back home to Kansas City. I had a contract to write the book for one thing, and I wanted to write the book.
I didn't know how I was going to finish the book, then I saw that the arc was my mental state, and my resolving relationship with my mother's memory.
There is no resolution. The investigation will continue; Bill will remain on it. There is a shot at solving this: the Blonde woman knows who killed my mother. She may still be alive. If you get the Blonde, you have a very good shot at the Swarthy Man. That could happen. If it doesn't, I want to know more about my mother.
I think about her a lot. I look at the photographs of her when she was younger, with that severe and breathtakingly implacable beauty, and when she was an even better-looking woman in her early thirties, around the time that I was born. I wonder about her blank spaces. It's a fascinating and very disturbed life that she led.
I'm a happy guy: I've got a great marriage, a great career, a lot of recognition; I'm having a blast. I've never felt like a victim. She was a victim because she didn't know who she was; she didn't know where she was going. It's not pity that I feel for her, I feel respect for certain aspects of her character. What I'm giving her is recognition, an acknowledgement of her influence on me, the extent to which I am recognisably her son.
I think what I've learnt from this dance with my mother is that I need to show a greater diversity of character and motive in my books. I want to show eroticism in monogamy in the next book - it's very easy to show a man and woman getting together, but the long haul is something else.
I've had a lot of thrills in my writing career, and nothing comes close to the thrill of giving her to the world. I see no intrinsic interest in my life were it not for this event and this story and Geneva Hilliker Ellroy. The only thing I can give her is this homage.
After this book tour I'll never answer another personal question ... unless Stoner and I find the Swarthy Man and I write about it. I don't have the need to show off that I used to"n
James Ellroy, the crime novelist renowned for his dark, twisted vision of LA in the Fifties, has published an autobiographical memoir, `My Dark Places' (Century, pounds 16.99).
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