From Fear to Fearlessness: Researching and Writing about Jack the Ripper

This year, I had the honor of serving as the Visiting Gerding Author at Newberry College. In the the fall, all freshmen at Newberry College read Ripper, then on March 19, I was invited to speak at the Newberry Opera House. Below is the text from my talk entitled: "From Fear to Fearlessness: Researching and Writing about Jack the Ripper."  


From Fear to Fearlessness: Researching and Writing about Jack the Ripper  

By Amy Carol Reeves 

Donald Rumbelow in his book The Complete Jack the Ripper, claims that a surveyabout fear reveals that Jack the Ripper is the number one killer people fear meeting in the dark. When it comes to fear, we tend to fear most what we don’t know or understand.

 Jack the Ripper would never carry the weight of terror that he (or she) does if we ever definitely solved the mystery. Yes, there’s the speculation: George Chapman, a local Whitechapel barber, the Duke of Clarence, Alice in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll. But doubt, questions, serious problems exist with every single “certainty” surrounding the Ripper’s identity.

There was the controversial Diary of Jack the Ripper—most likely fraudulent—which would lead one to believe that cotton merchant James Maybrick was the murderer.

Author, Antonia Alexander claims Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir John Williams was the Ripper.

Mystery author, Patricia Cornwell, went to great lengths to try to prove the troubled painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper.

Most recently, Russell Edwards claims DNA evidence on a shawl supposedly found near the body of one of the victims conclusively proved that Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski was the Ripper.

However, not a single one of these theories is conclusive: historical inconsistencies and questions about the DNA evidence abound in each case.

Because even our current technology and science cannot solve the case, Jack the Ripper has come to represent everything we fear about the dark. When we walk down lonely streets at night, he’s the unknown lurking in foggy alleyways—that irrational fear channeling our childhood fears of the dark. At a deeper more primal level, Jack the Ripper represents anything that can overcome us when we least expect it, eviscerate us, tearing us apart so that we lose control of all that holds us together.

I know what it means to confront fear head on.

I began writing Ripper during a time of personal depression. I was a newly minted PhD and the mother of two very small children; in the course of a few days, my world went from hanging out with other graduate students and talking about everything from feminism to Foucault to holding down mighty toddlers as they threw tantrums or cried over ear infections. I traded in foreign films for PBS cartoons. To make matters worse, just days after my graduation, my husband and I moved to a small coastal town where I struggled to make friends.

At that time, I felt, career-wise, like I was met by nothing but closed doors. I wanted to be an author, but I kept my foot in the door in the “safer” career of teaching.

Within months of moving there, I had an agent who tried to sell one of my picture books then one of my middle grade book with no success. The world of writing is difficult and very slow. There are no guarantees. With each rejection, doubt took over me, and then even worse—fear.

The world of writing was lonely. I did it between my children’s naps, during drop-in nursery programs. Still, the rejections kept pouring in. When the depression hit, suddenly I didn’t care about things I normally cared about. My world darkened and I let myself wander through the dark alleyways of my mind. Depression is horrible, but for me at least, it spurred a certain creative recklessness where I explored these alleyways.

I had felt a certain disconnect with my previous books, a detachment from the main characters. Once I was depressed, I couldn’t revise these books anymore, in fact I couldn’t read them anymore. I almost deleted the manuscripts on my computer, thinking they were flat and silly.

I read young adult book after young adult book, both to learn more about the genre and to keep my mind active between pottytraining my children. I felt drawn to writing something edgy.

I began to wonder what, with a PhD in 19th century British literature, I had to offer to the young adult genre. Fortunately, 19th century British literature was the site for the birth of many of the monsters of our time: The Gothic revived a flush of werewolf stories. Mary Shelley channeled today’s science fiction and zombie genre through Frankenstein where a human is brought to life from dead body parts; Shelley also predated current dystopian novels in her book The Last Man, about a world wiped out by a plague. John Polidori, Sheridan LeFanu, and Bram Stoker all revived the ancient bloodsucking monster—the vampire--from oral tradition. The Victorians were obsessed with murderers, conartists, and lunatic asylums as some of the first detective and sensation novels hit the scene—specifically The Woman in White and, my personal favorite, Lady Audley’s Secret.

I made lists of high concept creatures that I could write about and then considered the market. The young adult scene was swollen with werewolf and vampire stories. Dracula had evolved into a hot sparkly high school lab partner. There was the popular book series and now television series, The Vampire Diaries where two vampire brothers compete for the heart of a high school girl. (I never, ever, watch it. Or…maybe just a few times.) Zombie apocalypse stories abounded. Even hot zombie—pretty teenage girl love stories. My personal favorite was the zombie apocalypse retelling of Romeo and Juliet called Warm Bodies. Soon after, there was this lovely steampunk dystopian zombie love story, Dearly Departed.

I started listing serial killers. Jack the Ripper immediately came to mind as a high concept “monster.” I had developed a strange interest in the Ripper in graduate school—even attending a Jack the Ripper guided tour in London.

Also, I noticed that any dry conversation became more interesting when I brought up Jack the Ripper. For instance, when others moms talked too much about their latest recipe fails or children’s serial ear infections, I learned that mentioning Jack the Ripper could turn our talk in a whole more enlivening direction. (Although sometimes it also meant that I wasn’t invited to the next park playdate.)  

I wrote the plot summary pretty easily. I knew from the beginning that I wanted there to be more at stake than just the identity of the Ripper. I wanted a Secret Brotherhood, I wanted a teenage heroine who, as she solved the mystery of the Ripper, confronts her own “darkness”—unveiling secrets about her family history.

Then, one day, as my husband and I navigated a busy airport during Christmas time with our little ones, I told him the whole story from beginning to end. “Write it,” he said.

This is the part where I wish I could say that the depression got better, where I banished all of my fears and my self-doubt for good. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Immediately after the holidays I dove into writing the novel. I ordered through interlibrary loan research books about East End London and about medical practices during the nineteenth-century. I also read about Victorian forensic investigations—at infant stages during the Jack the Ripper murders.

I researched and wrote, researched and wrote, creating my version of Jack during my children’s naptimes and channeling my own fears and unsettledness into the pages of the book.   

My existential anxiety increased. I was investing in a project that seemed too fun, something that now as responsible Dr. Reeves, I wasn’t supposed to do.  

I was taking time away from my family, from personal scholarship, jeopardizing any future tenure track teaching career for a book that might or might not hit the shelves of a bookstore.

I knew all the statistics about how difficult it was to get published even after I had an agent. It could take years if it happened at all. Was I prepared to sacrifice everything my graduate studies had worked for to pursue a career in which I might very likely fail?  At that time, my answer was no. I feared failure.

“Do you know what it’s like…” I asked my sister one time when she was in town, “for people to ask me what I do, and to tell them, well…I’m working on a young adult book about Jack the Ripper. It sounds ludicrous.”

My favorite reaction from a good close family friend when I told her about the book I was working on was: “Is this really what you want to do with your life?” she asked me.

And yet I couldn’t stop writing. Unlike my previous stories, I couldn’t abandon this one. I became obsessed. I stayed up late at night. I worked on weekend nights when my husband could watch the children. I worked late into the early hours of the morning when he was out of town for work.

One stormy night when my husband was out of town, I couldn’t sleep so I worked obsessively writing the entire attic scene featuring Mariah, Abbie, and the Ripper in one sitting. I borrowed many details for this scene in Ripper from Dracula. I’m fascinated by the main female characters’ vampire transformations in Dracula; I love how in an era when Victorian women who were supposed to be “well-behaved” Bram Stoker had made them into monsters. Writing this scene though wasn’t easy. I like Mariah. She bucked against the Victorian system of separate spheres, and truthfully, I hated myself for dooming her. I actually remember muttering under my breath, “Sorry Mariah, but you have to go.”  

Still, as I wrote the book, my personal fears didn’t go away. I began seeing a therapist for my depression. She handled my obsession with the book, my depression and anxiety with a certain therapeutic dose of dark humor. I remember one particular session where she said, “Come on now Amy. If you kill yourself, who’s going to finish Ripper?”

Although I felt off track at the time, in retrospect, this was a critical time in my personal and creative development.

It’s not so much that I was connected to my main character Abbie. I only wish that I knew how to bare-knuckle box and throw knives. (Truth be told, I just cut myself with them while chopping vegetables in the kitchen.)

But I believe that I was so obsessed with the essential story in Ripper because it represented a safe wandering ground, a labyrinthine world where I could confront multiple fears about myself and my future—fears and anxieties that I didn’t even understand myself. 

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she talks about insomnia-producing middle of the night anxieties. About them she asks, “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them? What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going? Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happened next?”

Although I didn’t know it at the time, writing Ripper was that point where I was following my own fear at the “edge of the abyss”; doing something a little bit reckless and wondering if I was going to be “surprised by what happened next.” The part that scared me was the “next” part. What if so much work represented failure?

 I moved on. I continued writing the book. After I finished and proofread a first draft I sent it to my agent and crossed my fingers. Two days later, she called me.

“Amy, you need to write this kind of book. This is amazing.”

 I almost fell on the floor in relief.

She told me that she had stayed up late into the night to read it, and then she couldn’t sleep, so she watched a documentary on Jack the Ripper. And then she still couldn’t sleep.

She started going through the process of selling it. Unfortunately, all of her sales had been picture books and middle grade books. She called me up one day to tell me that she didn’t have the connections for this type of book, that she felt like she was holding me back, and that I should find another agent.

Once again, I wish this was the point where I could say that I stood up confidently, and began working like She-ra to find another agent. Instead, I let the fear take over. I cried in my bathrobe one morning to my husband that I’d made a terrible hash out of my life and that my career was at an end. I’d spent six years working on a Masters and PhD, three years trying to be a writer, and now I had to find a new agent.

Writing wise, I felt like I was back at square one. Finding an agent is difficult. Any reputable agent works on commission, so an agent has to make certain that she has a good chance of selling your books before representing you. In the industry, it’s almost as hard to find an agent as it is to find a publisher. I knew that the process might take a while.

Together, my husband and I decided to make some changes.

First of all, we moved back to the city.

I began a Visiting Assistant Professor position at Columbia College while he started his own law firm.

I began the process of querying agents for Ripper. I had a plan: query twenty agents, and if I receive all standardized rejections, I would know that the book would need more work before I sent it out again. If that was the case, I thought perhaps I could join a writing peer critique group somewhere to work on it.

Needless to say, I was terribly excited when I received my first personalized rejection from an agent, who liked the book, but didn’t feel like it was quite right for her. Then out of the twenty agents, pretty much all at once, I received three requests to see the book.

One of the agents got back to me immediately, in fact, she kept e-mailing me almost daily, asking me to let her know if anyone else wanted to represent me. Then, after she met with her team, she called me, offering representation. We clicked immediately. I liked her enthusiasm for Ripper, and she discussed how she wanted to help me in a long term career—not to simply sell this book and move on.

After deliberating with my husband for a couple of minutes, I called her back to tell her that I accepted her representation offer. I’ve heard since, that after she hung up the phone from me, she screamed in excitement and her intern thought she was crazy. I signed her contract and we immediately conferenced about a few revisions she wanted me to make before sending it out. Then once she submitted it to editors, we received an offer from my publisher within a month. I was ecstatic. Overjoyed. I had thought it would never happen.

A book contract though was just the beginning of a new kind of fear.

I had never thought about what would happen after a book deal. This was a whole new world. My agent had initially negotiated a two book deal for the series, so suddenly, I had to work on a deadline, pushing out the second novel within a year.

My editor sent me thirteen pages of single space revision notes for Ripper and I had about three months to revise. I stayed up late, got up early, worked revisions into my office hours between classes. I started asking for an extra shot of espresso in my coffee at Starbucks.

The stress and lack of sleep made me sick. But I did make the deadline, and then I had just enough time to rest before copy edits arrived. Then there was the whole world of publicity and social media.  Although I had a publicist and my publisher flew me to a major librarians conference in Texas to sign advanced reader copies, I was also responsible to promote my book. Suddenly I had to learn how to use social media, Twitter, Facebook. I had to learn about author blurbs and how to network with other authors to get one.

Then once the Advanced Reader Copies of Ripper were distributed to major bloggers, journals, and reviewers, I realized that reviewers didn’t care about my feelings. Yes, I received positive reviews from Voya, Booklist, School Library Journal. But another major reviewer recommended that readers “skip” the book. I had a few bloggers tweet their one star reviews to me. Some of the snarkier reviews made me eat half a bag of dark chocolate chips. At least one review made me stomp around the house for an entire evening.

I contacted another author my agent represented in another part of the country asking her how she handled bad reviews. My “agency sister” assured me that reviews are subjective, that we can’t take them too seriously, and yet at the end of the day we’re still human…

Writer, Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird describes the process of early reviews well. According to her:

“Not long after [publication] you get your early reviews, in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and sometimes they sound like your mother wrote them. Other times they suggest that you are a show-offy vacuous loser, and they hope you die so that they won’t have to read your work anymore. I have gotten prepub reviews that said I was a treadmark on the underpants of life. Perhaps this is not exactly what they said, but by reading between the lines, I could see that this is what they were implying. You survive that. Possibly you’re still drinking, so you have a pitcher of martinis just to take the edge off, or you’ve quit drinking, so you eat your body weight in pastries and Mexican food.”             

I tried to take the wisdom of my agency sister and Lamott to heart. This time, as the reviews started pouring in, I had to battle with fear again. I decided to stop reading most of the reviews. They were only distracting me, draining me of emotional and creative energy that I needed to write the second book in the series, Renegade.

 One of my priests says that “The root of most of our sins is fear.” As the Queen of Anxiety, I know exactly what this means.

Finally, in my early thirties, I was beginning, just beginning , to learn that fear was not something outside myself. I was not a mere boat in a stormy ocean. Fear is something that I create.

In Greek mythology, the god of fear is, Phobos. He’s the son of Ares and Aphrodite and was often associated with war and terror. Like Mary Shelley who summoned up her own monster during a time of personal depression and terror, I was beginning to realize that I had conjured Phobos up myself and as long as I stayed fearful, he would always be with me.

After my agent negotiated the deal for the third Ripper book, Resurrection, I allowed myself, as much as possible, to try to enjoy my writing career without only thinking about the next writing project, reviewers’ opinions or the possibility of screwing up the entire Ripper series by failing on the last book. (Yes, I did have nightmares about this.)

So I plunged into writing and researching for Resurrection. Although I had already been to England, I realized that a second trip would be necessary to research certain scenes. With my sister accompanying me as a research assistant, I booked a flight to London and explored Highgate Cemetery, even sweetalking a tour guide to take me back to the Rossetti family gravesite after a tour. For those of you who have read Ripper, you’ll know why the Rossetti gravesite intrigues me. You’ll also know that Christina Rossetti is a main character in the book. Historically, she was more stable than her drug addicted artist brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died of an overdose in his early thirties, Dante Rossetti buried several unpublished poems with her. Unfortunately, a year later he needed money, so he had her body dug up. There’s all these Halloweenie stories claiming that her hair had grown longer, and that she was even more beautiful a year after her burial than when alive. However, as Highgate Cemetery politics would have it, many of the guides refuse to talk about that story, and it is not included on the tour. When I was at Highgate Cemetery several years ago, I had a guide tell me to be “careful about who I talked to about that story here.” Apparently, some of the guides believe the story tarnishes the reputation of the graveyard. My guide who took me back to the Rossettis’ gravesite on my research trip told me that Highgate Cemetery was still trying to recover its reputation after several people broke into the cemetery in the early 1970’s trying to stake a vampire. Really. That happened.      

My sister and I also walked through dodgy East End London and I asked her to guard me and my camera while I photographed certain places of relevance to the Jack the Ripper murders.

I wandered both in and around St. Pancras Old Church for several days, even speaking to the church historian one evening about the property. At 1700 years old St. Pancras Old Church is one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. Excavations of church foundation and walls have revealed fragments from the Roman occupation.  

It was on the grounds of St. Pancras Old church where my sister and I went on a hunt through the rain one morning trying to find the early feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft’s tombstone. Wollstonecraft was a champion for women’s rights, particularly for education for women in the late 1700’s. After giving birth to a daughter with her American lover Gilbert Imlay, Wollstonecraft met and fell in love with the writer and radical philosopher William Godwin. Although both were against marriage in theory, they married shortly before she gave birth to their remarkable child Mary Godwin, or as she is now known as, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft, however, was only one of many famous figures buried in the church’s graveyard.

Unfortunately, many graves at Old St. Pancras were lost during the construction of a railway near the church during the 1860’s. Wollstonecraft and William Godwin’s bodies were moved elsewhere by their spunky daughter-in-law, but many other bodies, including Wollstonecraft’s sister’s body and the body of the physician and vampire writer, John Polidori were lost.

I learned while at the old graveyard there that the ill-treatment of the graves by railway workers shocked the Victorians. The young architect and later novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, moved many of the gravestones around an old ash tree in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old church, the tree is known now as The Hardy Tree. The gravestones remain clustered to this day around the base of the trunk like crowded dominoes.

While in London, I read Hardy’s poem called “The Levelled Churchyard,” ; it is believed to have been inspired by his work relocating the gravestones. Here are my favorite stanzas:   

               "O passenger, pray list and catch

                   Our sighs and piteous groans,

Half stifled in this jumbled patch

                   Of wrenched memorial stones!

            "We late-lamented, resting here,

                   Are mixed to human jam,

            And each to each exclaims in fear,

                  'I know not which I am!'

The trip represented the exciting part of research, where I got outside of my books, and wondered around sketching scenes for the Ripper and Abbie inside my head. I finally understood when years ago back in graduate school, an elderly professor told me over a glass of scotch one afternoon that as a professor and writer, I would never be rich, but I would have an interesting life.

As I conclude this talk, I have to admit that I think perhaps the title of this paper is misleading. “From Fear to Fearlessness”—implies that I’m no longer fearful, ever. That I never conjure Phobos.

The truth is that I still fear everything from failure when I write to hissing Canadian geese when I jog. (They’re really, really scary.)

I think it’s more accurate to say that my life experiences have made me more capable of turning around and facing my fears; I haven’t banished the monsters of fear, anxiety, crippling self-doubt. But now instead of running away, I run into the dark alley to face my monsters head on, and so far I haven’t been defeated.