For a newspaper reporter turned first-time author, I approached The Ride, a nonfiction account of the 1997 murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the torturous aftermath for his family, as an extended journalistic exercise. I would report the story thoroughly, organize my notes meticulously, and finally write the narrative in 1,000-word segments that would allow me to march in neat, tidy, daily steps toward a timely, satisfying finish. And, of course, I would keep all the horrific details of the crime and its wide, collateral damage at proper, professional bay. After all, isn't that what I had always done?
I had been embedded with a front-line battalion during the invasion of Iraq, an engaged but unflappable witness to dozens of charred and broken bodies along the war-pocked roads from Kuwait to Baghdad. I had walked in the New Orleans Convention Center after Hurricane Katrina, at a time when the corpses of the homeless poor lay unacknowledged by both their peers and the powerful on a putrid floor inside that neglected place. And I had knocked on the doors of dozens of murder victims during my career at The Boston Globe, offering murmured condolences to the loved ones of the newly slain, and inquiring in appropriately respectful tones whether I could step inside, please, and listen to their loss.
I could do this again; in fact, I would do this again, I told myself. I had been granted a year-long book leave by the Globe, and I had been welcomed to a remote Long Island beach house with a fabulous, soul-freshening view where I could retreat to write after my reporting, and my interviews, and my leads had been exhausted in Massachusetts.
I had known Jeffrey's father, Bob Curley, since I introduced myself at the boy's wake, offering Bob a handshake as well as a business card. Despite that awkward meeting, we became friends, and I kept in touch over the years. Through Bob, I had come to know Jeffrey's mother, Barbara, from whom Bob was divorced, and Jeffrey's two older brothers. I also knew Bob's second wife, Mimi, a psychologist whom he had met in her Inman Square neighborhood, where Bob worked as a Cambridge Fire Department mechanic.
These people who loved Jeffrey, a precocious boy who had been lured off the streets and murdered by two predators, welcomed this book-- one of hideous tragedy but also of the triumph of the human spirit. But in doing so, they agreed to plumb and re-live a crippling, soul-shattering grief. I was unsure, exactly, why they allowed me to take an uncensored, unsparing, and unprecedented journey to such a dark and intimate place. I reminded myself that many of the psychically wounded, almost always strangers, had allowed me into their lives in the past. Now, I had the advantage of a years-long acquaintance. We were comfortable together. I could handle this.
But as I began to interview Jeffrey's family and Mimi, in interviews conducted mostly at night over kitchen tables, over sandwiches and coffee, and over long, uninterrupted hours, the dynamic began to change. The story I had planned to write-- one that detailed the forces behind Jeffrey's death, and his father's conversion from a rabid death-penalty proponent to an opponent of capital punishment-- shifted dramatically.
This story, I came to realize, was less about the crime, and more about how that terrible event, one that traumatized a neighborhood and sent shudders through the region, had affected the people closest to its horror after the TV cameras and reporters like myself had drifted away. The tale I heard-- this family story behind the story-- was profound, and real, and jarring.
As I heard about Bob's feral rage, Barbara's emotional devastation, and the domestic tsunami that nearly destroyed Bob and Mimi's relationship, I found myself becoming, slowly but undeniably, a piece of the narrative I was stitching. To me, it seemed, I occasionally switched roles from writer to participant. Often, I would relay a bit of previously unshared information from one source to another, often within the same family, as I tried to gauge its accuracy and elicit a reaction. In this way, I slowly weaved disparate threads of the story into what I hoped would resemble a coherent, recognizable fabric. And sometimes, another interview completed, I would dream of the story and sense-- in some small, unconscious way-- a piece of what I had been told.
Once I moved to Long Island to begin writing, I became immersed in the subject matter in a way I had never experienced and which I could not escape. The beach house was remote-- seven miles from the nearest store-- and otherwise empty during my working hours except for the close company of a doting Chesapeake Bay retriever. The material was intense, the documentation labor-intensive, and the writing a daily strain to distill a readable book from thousands of facts and hundreds of hours of taped recollections.
Not long into the 1,000-words-a-day regimen, I realized I cared very deeply about the people who had confided their most personal feelings and remembrances to me. And, unlike my work as a reporter, I asked myself each day whether my subjects would approve or be offended by what I had written-- even though they had willingly shared their thoughts. The wall that had long separated me from the subjects of my newspaper articles had crumbled. I now agonized over the disclosure of what I knew, but I forced myself, despite my close connection to the subjects, to revert to that objective but empathetic reporter I had always strived to be.
The year-long book leave stretched to 16 months. And 90,000 words later, I delivered the completed manuscript to my editor and the Curleys simultaneously. As I awaited the verdicts, both professional and personal, I returned again and again to an anxious, wrenching vision of the Curleys, the story of their lives spread before them.
In the end, their saga had become an indelible part of mine as well. And when I received a phone call from Bob, a quiet, heartfelt approval in his voice, I exhaled in relief for the first time in many months.