Flipping the Script on True Crime: The Ms. Q&A With Author Kristine S. Ervin

Kristine S. Ervin was 8 when her mother was abducted from a mall parking lot, murdered and abandoned in an Oklahoma oil field.

In her debut memoir Rabbit HeartErvin resists the true crime trope of exploiting and glorifying femicide and instead delves into the emotional toll her mother’s death took on her and her family. In a personal story interwoven with research, Ervin painstakingly works to reconstruct a woman she can never fully grasp from her own memory—instead, she pulls from letters she uncovers, and from the stories of other family members. Her drive to know her mother intensifies over the years winding into her own fraught adolescence. Candid and brave, she reckons with the contradictions of what a woman is allowed to be—a self beyond the roles of wife, mother, daughter, and victim.

“That’s something my father gave me, that feeling of being held by a house that I loved, and a house where I remember my mother,” writer Kristine S. Ervin told Ms.

It took decades for Ervin’s mother’s case to be resolved, and her murderers brought to justice—and Ervin is upfront about the sorrow this caused. Rabbit Heart sheds light on the ways women confront violence and gender power dynamics in our everyday lives and encourages us to take back our voices by refusing to remain silent. 

I met Ervin at a writing workshop while we were both working on memoirs and writing into places that felt terrifying to name and disclose. We sat down recently to talk about her book, growing up motherless, how this informed her life’s gender power dynamics and her evolution from being a feminist-skeptic to writing what is undeniably a deeply feminist memoir.

Rabbit Heart: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Story

Leslie Absher: Rabbit Heart is sometimes seen as true crime, but I think it’s really about what it’s like to go through life without a mother. How did you stay connected and hold your mother throughout your life?

Kristine S. Ervin: That’s an interesting question. How did I hold her? Because my first response is that I didn’t hold her, and I wanted to. There was always this intense longing for the mother and to hold her, to feel connected to her, to find her. One of the early chapters in Rabbit Heart is my essentially looking for her in different spaces when I was eight years old. I didn’t really get to know who my mother was, as a woman. I didn’t get to know the things that she valued, the spaces that she loved. And so, I imagined her by imagining her murder, all its different forms, all of them terrible. And that was a longing and a way to connect and understand. 

And one of the big questions in Rabbit Heart, which is a difficult question, a scary question for me to put out into the world, is how much did I want violence against my own body at the hands of men, as a way to feel connected to my mother? It’s a question that really can’t be answered. But it’s an important question to have. It wasn’t in the moment when I experienced violence that I felt connected to her, but later, when reflecting on that violence and building the connections and thinking of those threads, that I did come to see it as a form of holding her in a way that I don’t recommend. It’s a traumatic type of holding.

Absher: That gets to the way this book takes on the patriarchy and the everyday violence that is all around us, the ordinary ways women are violated or threatened to be violated. You describe an instance in the book when your family doctor said inappropriate things to you. What did your father say about this when you shared it with him later?

Ervin: When I was a teenager and went to my family doctor, he kept asking me about kissing boys—do I like kissing boys—and it was making me uncomfortable. I went to my father and said, “He’s making me uncomfortable.” And my father said, “Oh, he’s just joking with you.”

And then there was a time I went in to see my doctor again when I was in high school. There was a thermometer and after taking my own temperature, I set it on the table in front of my legs. When he came in, he said, “Is that an in-between-the-legs thermometer?” I went to my father with this. He said, “Well, isn’t there always a nurse in the room with you?” And I said, “No.” He said, “That’s why I thought he was joking with you.” When I asked him what I was supposed to do, he answered that I could just go see another doctor. Well, to an adolescent girl, I was thinking, ‘If he sees me in the practice and I’m going to another doctor, then Dr. Walcott is going to ask me why, and then I’m going to have to explain.‘ And so in the moment, my father wasn’t protecting me.

But this is a man who woke up to police officers on his front porch and was a single father and had to raise a daughter completely on his own, with no resources, no support, and he did the absolute best that he could. Was he flawed? Absolutely. Is he a member of the patriarchy? Definitely. But he loves me. And so as the adult, I hold all of that at once. Yes, he got things wrong but he also loves me deeply, and loved me deeply then. And he didn’t have the answers, and I didn’t have the answers. And we both did the best that we could.

Absher: That’s the place of compassion that I think memoir allows us to arrive at, if we stay with it,  if we write into those dark places and ask the questions. Your father was a character I was very fond of, even though he let me down in these moments also. One of the things that impressed me was the way you kept pushing him to know you. Do you feel like that brought you close to him?

Ervin: He had no idea about everything I was going through. I was very good at putting on a performance and that includes for my father. When Rabbit Heart came out, and I took it to him, when I had my author’s copy, and I saw him hold her—I call the book a her—and hold her to his chest, we had a conversation about whether or not he should read it. And I said, “You are going to read my pain in a way that I never showed you when I was young. And I think that will be difficult for you.” Because I did not go to him with everything. And that’s where it’s not his fault, either. He didn’t have the tools.

I hope that I have written him compassionately. I worry about that. We worry about how we represent the people who matter to us. I mean, as writers, even though the book is done, you still think about your writing, and you still question that and you worry about it—especially when you know particular reviewers may interpret it a certain way. But it helps when I hear someone like you saying, “I was fond of the father,” because I’m fond of him too.

Absher: I think that comes across in the way you describe the sacrifices he made—he stayed in the family home and didn’t get promotions and jobs elsewhere in order to keep this kind of constant place that would nurture you and your brother.

Ervin: You know, he had read that for adults who are undergoing trauma, it’s better to make major changes: change houses, change jobs, change cities, get away from it. But for children, stability is best. So my mother’s needlepoint stayed on the walls, deteriorating, but they were still my mother’s objects. And I felt held by that house. I still love that house. I still go back to Oklahoma, I visit it and I take leaves off of my maple trees. It’s not my home anymore, but I still go and honor it. And that’s something my father gave me, that feeling of being held by a house that I loved, and a house where I remember my mother.

Absher: We talked on the phone recently and you said you used to be skeptical of feminism. But this is a powerful book about the reclamation of power, your mother’s and your own. How did your feminism evolve?

Ervin: In graduate school, I wrote a poem in a class taught by my mentor, Lisa Lewis, a kick-ass poet. In this poem, I was longing for my own body to be abducted and raped as a way for me to finally have answers and finally know what my mother experienced. That was also a way for me to feel connected to my mother and to her body. And I remember Lisa, with these poems that I was writing, she said to me, “You are the poster child for feminism.” And I thought, “Oh, hell no.” I had this very clear, distinct image of a billboard and I was on the billboard with a bunch of women. But I grew up with two men. I didn’t have women around me. I didn’t have female family members who were very present. And I felt very comfortable in the company of men. I’m not going to say I felt safe, those are not the same thing. But I felt comfortable in a room full of men because I could define myself against them. I was the object. I did not hold the position of subject.

Absher: It’s like realizing, what if I was the subject of my life, right? 

Ervin: Right. I’m lucky enough to teach a class that I designed that’s called Breaking Silences: Memoir as an Act of Rebellion. And what I love about this class, it’s primarily women who take it, the students have to break a silence in some form. And this can be a personal silence, it can be a cultural silence. They create a work of art in any medium, where they are breaking the silence, and bear witness to their subjectivity, bear witness to their claiming their voices and their stories, sometimes, for the first time. And it is just magnificent. It’s magical. It’s empowering. I also take those stories home with me, so it’s exhausting. I feel them deeply. But I think it’s just truly remarkable when we finally claim our stories and say they matter. And not only do they matter to us, but they potentially can matter to someone else. If we put that story out there.

Absher: Did you read or watch true crime while you wrote, and if so, how did you keep those voices out of your head?

Ervin: I don’t think Rabbit Heart is a true crime story. I think, yes, it traces the developments in the case, but only in that I am putting on the page the versions of the death that I had to reckon with growing up. I see this as a grief memoir, a motherless daughter memoir, a memoir that is meant to show what 25 years of unrelenting, brutal grief looks like when you are the loved one of a victim and you don’t have answers. So any case details, any evidence details, they are not there for the purpose of showing a crime; they are there for the purpose of showing what it is like to constantly have the death of a loved one revised and revised again. It is getting shelved as true crime though. And I don’t know how I feel about that.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and content.

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Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at leslieabsher.com.