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Crime. Crime Writers. Crime Writing

Touching Evil: Melissa Moore

This Interview posted by Sam Blake on 5 November 2011.

Three years ago Melissa Moore was playing with her then six year old daughter in their back garden in Spokane, Washington. As the swing came to rest, her daughter asked an innocent question that set off a chain of events that was to bring Melissa to national TV including the Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey shows, write a bestselling book and most importantly, confront her past. That question?

‘Mommy, where’s your daddy? Everybody has a daddy. Where’s yours?’

How could Melissa admit to her daughter and to those around her that her father was serving three life sentences with no chance of parole for the brutal murder of eight women? That he had confessed (then later recanted) that he had committed 160 murders across California, Florida, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming?

Keith Hunter Jesperson, a long distance truck driver, began his killing spree in 1990, when Melissa was just 10 years old. In the next five years, he is confirmed to have killed seven women in five states before he finally murdered his then girlfriend Julie Ann Winningham and wrote a letter to his brother implicating himself. Jesperson left a trail of graffiti confessions at rest stops and restaurants across America, sending authorities and newspapers anonymous letters describing his savage murders in detail. The graffiti and letters were signed with a smiley face drawing, earning him the nickname “The Happy Face Killer.” 

With the murders crossing state lines, and with all (except the last) of Jesperson’s victims complete strangers, he was extremely hard to difficult to track down. He murdered seemingly at random, leaving his victims’ bodies in different locations from where they were abducted, leaving their belongings in other locations, mutilating his victims to conceal their identities.

Not something you casually drop into conversation with the new mums at the school gate.

Indeed, starting a new life in California, Melissa had run from her past, blaming herself for her father’s behaviour and telling only her husband and her best friend about her background. For fifteen years she bottled up the trauma of seeing her mother abused by her second husband and of the constant house moves her mother and step father made – as they too seemed to try to run from their problems. She tried to forget her father’s terrifying and unpredictable ‘cold’ rages, the inappropriate way he openly discussed his sexual relationships with her as a young teen. She tried to escape the memories of her rape at the hands of her ‘boyfriend’ and her subsequent abortion.

But as the cliché goes, you can run but you can’t hide.

 Failed completely by both her parents and the system that is supposed to spot kids in trouble, Melissa kept the secret of her past buried deep, fermenting inside her until the day her daughter’s question popped the cork, making her realise that she could no longer cope and needed help. But who do you turn to when you have a secret so enormous, when you have been let down at every step of your life?

The answer came to Melissa as she was watching daytime TV and she sent an email to Dr. Phil asking to join one of his ‘Get Real Retreats’. At the retreat, Melissa told Dr. Phil, ‘My name is Melissa, and I’m here because my father is a serial killer, and he’s in prison for life. Others view me as a normal person, a mother, a wife to my husband, and they don’t suspect that I’ve had the past that I do. I have to come up with how to tell my children that their grandfather is a serial killer, and I want to avoid it. I pretend that he doesn’t exist. I still hide it as a secret. I feel guilty for what my father’s done. I feel disgraced and embarrassed.’

Melissa says the truth clicked for her during the retreat. ‘He was my father and didn’t have a conscience; he didn’t show remorse for the victims, I took it upon myself to feel that burden, that guilt, for him, and I didn’t realize I’d done that.’

Within Melissa’s family, her father’s history had been handled with secrecy and shame. ‘My mother and I wouldn’t discuss it because it’s so painful. He was such a disgrace to our family,’ she says. ‘There’s a wall of silence between my mother and I.’

With Melissa’s background, her history of moving schools and unstable homelife, you might expect her to be poorly educated, perhaps withdrawn. But Melissa Moore is the exact opposite. Articulate and intelligent Melissa Moore is a survivor and through her own story Shattered Silence, has offered inspiration and hope to millions who struggle with guilt and trauma. When I spoke to Melissa, I asked her why she had decided to write the book,

‘When I left Dr. Phil, on the plane on the way home, I was thinking about the journals I had at kept though all the horrible years, and thought that I should go back and re read them. I also remembered, about two years after my father was captured, that another serial killer had been caught in Washington and he had daughters the same age as me, and so I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew they had gone into hiding, changing their names. But I had realised through the show that I didn’t have to feel guilty anymore, and I thought that if I could share my story, it might help another family.

I started reading the journals and then I started to type. I worked all summer. When I finished it was about sixty thousand words but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to share with the world, so I hired Bridget Cooke to help me edit and rework it and get it into shape. I loved reading as a teenager, and I loved to write which was why I kept the journals all those years. Although I hadn’t written like this before, it all flowed.’

When you start a memoir it’s tempting to start at the day you are born and work forwards, but this doesn’t always make for the best reading and can hamper you in detail that you actually weren’t aware of first hand. I asked Melissa what approach she had taken. She told me,

‘I didn’t really know where I wanted to start – I would write whatever I was feeling for the day. It was out of sequence, one day I’d be writing about a summer vacation, then I’d remember something my Dad told me about how he knew he could get away with murder and I’d have to write that piece.’

I made a point of trying to write at least two hours a day, when my kids were napping or in school. When I first started writing I was terribly slow, I didn’t know how to type or use a word processor. I started off being a bit neurotic about the work, going back and editing, but once I stopped doing that, stopped going back and editing and censoring what I wrote, the writing was much more heartfelt. I started at around 800 words a day but then it went up to around 1500 and on up from there. It was much more honest and authentic’.

Putting the pieces of information together, creating a whole document, Melissa had done a great deal of work before Bridget Cook became involved, but working with a published author gave Melissa great confidence. Sending Bridget all her family picture books and taking her to Washington to see the locations that were key to the story, Melissa told me was vital. As they toured the locations and met Melissa’s family, she had many moments of self-doubt, unsure how much she should reveal of her story, but Bridget was able to help her bring the right level of emotion to the manuscript, and gave her confidence.

 

Melissa feels writers should start their memoir wherever they feel the need, but understands that when the book comes to be submitted to a publisher, starting at a dramatic point or a point of conflict will hook the reader into the story.

Shattered Silence opens with a gruelling chapter describing how her father killed her pet kittens, pegging them by their tails to the washing line. It’s a chapter that puts some reader’s off when they first pick up the book. Melissa told me, ‘that was one of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood and was really where my fear of my father first started. It’s a controversial chapter because it does lead some people to put the book down at that point, but I felt that it was an important starting point as it was the time that I began to see another side of him.’

I asked Melissa if in writing the book she had uncovered any hidden memories, incidents that her mind had erased in order to allow her to continue, she told me,

‘I made a time line, one of my own life experiences, of growing up milestones. Then I made a separate one for my father, of his crimes, and I synced them with my timeline. And that’s when it became really eerie.

I started to have revelations of memories that coincided with things he had told me. When I was twelve he took us on a holiday to visit some friends, and on the way and he told me he knew how to kill someone and get away with it. I hadn’t understood at the time, but when I looked back I could see he was talking about killing Tonja Bennett. That happened in so many incidences. I was 15 when I found out my father was a murderer. The same doting six-foot-six dad who used to throw me over his shoulder and spin me round as I giggled and laughed with joy had strangled eight women and dumped their bodies at our favourite family vacation spots. I could see so many connections – it happened again when I looked back at the time my dad invited me to stay at the Davenport Hotel. I refused and that was the night he met another one of his victims. I’ve also wondered if I’d have stayed the night, if he would have met her.’

After the murders began, without realising why, Melissa knows she felt more cautious and afraid of her father, and going back to her brother and sister, has found out that they had felt the same.

The killings seemed to start around the time that Melissa’s parents got divorced, and seemed to have been sparked off by his assault of a lady called Dawn, whom Keith Jesperson was dating at the time. Melissa was to go on to meet Dawn on the Oprah Winfrey show. At the time of the assault, Melissa knew something had gone wrong and that the police were involved, but she didn’t have the vocabulary or capacity at the age of ten to understand.

The impact of a memoir on those around the author can be huge – your memories of an event may be very different from another family member’s recollection, and at worst this can lead to acrimony and dispute. While Melissa kept the manuscript to herself as she wrote, not completely sure that it was something she was going to publish, when she brought Bridget in to help her, she explained to her family what she was doing. They were initially suspicious, but once they read the book, became much more supportive of her, the book a revelation to them of the impact of events on Melissa’s childhood.

Melissa revealed that many readers of Shattered Silence have been in touch to say that it has helped them realise that while you may think that you know what’s going on in someone’s life, a lot more can be going on behind closed doors.

I asked Melissa how going public with her story had affected her own family. She told me, ‘When I wrote the memoir, I did think about how open I wanted to be. But I decided I wanted to tell the whole story. What I didn’t expect was how writing a memoir makes you a public, open person all the time.

Now I have to be ready for any sort of question at any time – some people don’t seem to have courtesy or tact in public – often I’ve been in a public setting with my children and they’ll say ‘Oh you’re the daughter of the serial killer, I read your book’ right in front of my children. I wanted to be open and honest in the book, and in real life, but I wasn’t expecting my family life was going to get thrown into the whole thing in quite that way. I would never walk up to someone in the supermarket and say, ‘Oh you’re the one who was sexually abused.’

Finding a co-writer for your memoir can be very tricky – getting a natural fit with someone you can work with is vital. It took Melissa around two months to find Bridget Cook, looking for someone who was compassionate and organised and who had the professional skills she felt she lacked. In her quest to find a co-writer, Melissa went to Barnes and Noble and checked memoirs similar to her own. She was anxious that her story didn’t become salacious, that it was her coming of age story and not a true crime book about the victims. Finding a book Bridget had written, that was both sympathetic and covered a difficult topic persuaded Melissa to get in touch with her. She told me, ‘You’re trusting this person, spending hours with them, it’s important that you can work well with them.’

For Melissa writing her memoir has helped her come to terms with her past and set the record straight for her children, it has allowed her to accept that she isn’t responsible for her father’s actions and could have done nothing to stop him. It has also launched her writing career as she is now working on an inspirational non-fiction book. As Melissa says, ‘if you believe in yourself, you can become more than you ever thought you could be.’

Shattered Silence is available in Ireland from Y Books – listen out for Melissa’s forthcoming interview with Pat Kenny on RTE Radio 1.

© Vanessa O’Loughlin October 2011