It’s Never Too Late to Be Found: A Conversation with Rene Denfeld
Close on the heels of her award-winning debut novel The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld spins magic again in her second novel The Child Finder. Set in the icy, mysterious world of Oregon’s Skookum National Forest, the story unfolds through the alternating voices of the child finder, Naomi, and a deeply imaginative child named Madison, who disappeared three years ago on a family excursion to cut down a Christmas tree. She would be eight years old by now if she has survived. Madison’s family is certain their daughter was taken by someone and is desperate to find her alive. They turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope.
Denfeld’s genius lies in her ability to shine light into the darkest places, to somehow render the worst and the best in humanity in a way that cracks open the readers’ worldview and lets in new ways of understanding. Formerly a journalist for the New York Times and other publications, and author of three nonfiction books focused on social issues, Rene was the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office and has worked hundreds of cases as an investigator, including exonerating innocents on death row, sex trafficking victims, and finding missing persons. Her debut novel The Enchanted won the prestigious French Prix award, among others, and was adapted for the stage. The Child Finder, which publishes tomorrow, is already earning rave reviews, including Publishers Weekly, which writes, “the conclusion will leave readers breathless.” In addition to her professional achievements, Denfeld adopted three children from foster care and has fostered others.
Denfeld’s fiction feels profound and transformative because, like the protagonist in The Child Finder, her work is grounded in her own experiences. Like Madison, Denfeld was also sexually abused as a child. Denfeld has taken her traumatic background and the world she came from as the prima materia for making her life a work of art and a force for good.
The Rumpus: I first discovered you when I read The Enchanted, which completely blew me away. As a lifelong reader, it’s probably my favorite book of all, and I’ve read a lot of books. The Child Finder is equally amazing, and I’m so honored to be able to talk with you about it.
Rene Denfeld: Oh, thank you.
Rumpus: Thank you. I wanted to begin by asking, what was the genesis of this beautiful story, The Child Finder?
Denfeld: We had a really atypical snowstorm here in Portland a few years ago, and I had been working on some things, and not getting anyplace. There had been this really heavy snowstorm, and the whole city was shut down, and sparkling, and white, and beautiful. I had taken my dog out for a walk in the middle of the night, because you know how the snow lights everything up, and it’s bright in the middle of the night.
Of course, nobody’s out, so we were trudging through the snow, and we hiked down to this place on the bluff that overlooks a river. It was incredibly beautiful and ghostly, and all of a sudden, I heard this little girl talking to me. She started telling me about her life. She said, “I’m the snow girl.” For the second time in my life, this very distinctive voice just kind of walked right up to me and started talking.
I literally turned around and ran home with the dog. We’re running down these snowy streets and I was whooping for joy. It was this incredible magical moment. I just started writing. When I’m writing, I’m writing. It’s very intense for me.
Rumpus: The protagonist in The Child Finder, Naomi, is known for her success in finding missing children. When the mother of a missing child asks her, “How do you know how to find them?” Naomi responds, “I know freedom.” There are so many layers in that answer. What does it mean to the story?
Denfeld: One of the aspects of trauma I think we don’t talk about enough is how we feel trapped in it. Naomi, in The Child Finder, understands that. Trauma traps us, and I think even in a bigger picture way, right now a lot of people in our country are feeling very trapped, too. I really wanted to explore that.
Denfeld: I wanted to explore, how do we survive when we are trapped? How do we survive trauma? How do we move through it? What are the things that make us fragile, and what are the things that make us strong? Naomi knows what it’s like to be trapped, but Naomi also knows what it’s like to escape, and how to find a way out of feeling trapped. I’m so pleased that you’ve picked it up in that line.
Rumpus: The statistics quoted in the book say one thousand children are reported missing in the United States annually. We read, “Naomi always began by learning to love the world where the child went missing.” I’m interested in your thoughts on the meaning of learning to love the world where a child has gone missing. How do you approach that? It also makes me think of your role as an adoptive and foster mother.
Denfeld: There are at least one thousand children who go missing every year. That number could actually be very low. For instance, there have been articles written about cities where young children are classified as runaways by the police rather than as missing. In my experience and my work there are a lot of children every year kidnapped into the sex trafficking world.
Unfortunately, our media doesn’t pay much attention to the issue. It takes a very rare, blonde, middle-class child to get any attention.
Rumpus: I read recently about the “Highway of Tears,” in British Columbia where dozens of women and girls, mostly indigenous, have been murdered or disappeared since the 1980s.
Denfeld: Yeah, exactly. As soon as you start doing a little research, there have also been articles written about I think it was in Washington, DC, literally dozens of black girls who have gone missing, very little police investigation, and very little media attention. When Naomi talks about learning to love the world where a child went missing, she has this incredibly open-minded, nonjudgmental approach to those worlds. She understands that she needs to honor the child’s truth. She needs to honor the child’s situation in order to find them.
I think that that’s something I’ve found in my life experience, too. We can’t prevent what we don’t know, so if we really want to prevent this, if we want to change the situation, we have to understand it.
Naomi approaches these cases genuinely wanting to understand, and that’s very much how I approach my life. I often say that I believe justice happens when people tell the truth. We have to learn the truth of people, and then we can prevent these horrible, horrible things from happening.
I also feel that way with being a foster adoptive parent. My kids have a history. They have a story, and that’s fine. It’s a beautiful thing. I don’t want them to have a different story. I love them for their stories. I love them for who they are and where they came from. I don’t want to change their story. I want to be part of their story moving forward, but I absolutely honor everything they’ve gone through.
I’ve told my kids, “I don’t love you despite what’s happened to you; I love you including what’s happened to you.” It’s very much a cornerstone of my life, that we have to love and honor people completely, especially when we’re talking about victims of trauma, and my kids have experienced a lot of trauma. We really have to honor the truth of the trauma that people have experienced, before we can even come close to helping them heal.
Rumpus: When we try to understand the world that we each come from, rather than imposing some story on top of each other—you said it so beautifully.
Denfeld: I would add, too, that in literature, there’s a dominant culture approach to these things. People approach other worlds with a giant set of assumptions. Sometimes they’re patronizing, sometimes exploitative. I’ve found that much of what I’ve read of prisons is inaccurate. Much of what I’ve read of foster care is inaccurate. I feel like I have this opportunity because of my work and my life to tell stories that are honest, that depict reality and not the dominate narrative that people continue to follow.
Rumpus: Yes, and that seems key to how we can find each other in the current political and social crisis, as you mentioned earlier.
Denfeld: On a deeper level, I think that’s how we find each other emotionally, too. We all have times we feel trapped or lost, and what we desperately want is to be seen and heard. We find each other emotionally when we allow other people’s worlds into ours, and when we can walk into others’ worlds, and respect and honor their world, and they can do the same with us.
Rumpus: Yes, such a great time for your book to come out. We all need this story.
Denfeld: Thank you.
Rumpus: I mean, we’ve always needed it, but you know.
Denfeld: I’ve wondered about that. It’s not openly political, but to me it felt very timely. It’s definitely metaphorical because it is a time that so many of us do feel so trapped—
Rumpus: And lost.
Denfeld: We’re trying to figure out, or we’re grappling with, how do we get out of this? How do we move forward? How do we find our way home?
Rumpus: The Child Finder is set in the Skookum National Forest in Oregon, where Madison is lost when her parents take her to cut down a Christmas tree. Madison and the child finder, Naomi, share a love for the natural world. How does Naomi’s love for the natural world help in her investigations?
Denfeld: Oh, that’s a great question. Yes, Naomi has an absolute love for the natural world, and she’s also fearless in it. She’s a young woman who is very physically adept, and is perfectly comfortable outdoors. In fact, she keeps the trunk of her car packed with equipment that she can take anywhere, because she has cases across the country. She’s someone who’s equally comfortable in an ancient primeval forest, as well as the deserts or wherever she needs to go.
Many people that experience childhood abuse found the traditional ideas of home were not places of safety. Naomi was trapped in places that other children would find safe: bedrooms, beds, places like that. I think she really learned to associate the natural world with not just freedom, but with solace. She’s very at home in the natural world.
Rumpus: A forest has so much symbolism, and can signify so many things, like the unknown, imagination, magic.
Denfeld: The longer I’ve done this kind of work, the more I’m in awe at the resiliency and the strength of the human spirit, and the more I feel connected with the magic of the world. I think the world is full of magic.
Rumpus: Speaking of magic, Madison creates her own fairy tales as well as takes on the identity of a character, the snow girl, from a favorite fairy tale of hers. We read, “What do children do? They play. Naomi didn’t believe in resiliency. She believed in imagination.” Maybe you can speak to that?
Denfeld: Of course. This is wonderful, because you keep picking up on what I consider keystones of this story. There are certain lines that had so much meaning for me. Resiliency is kind of a hot topic, and, unfortunately, how does one put this? I think when people talk about resiliency, there’s often a lot of misunderstanding about what it is.
It’s something I’ve grappled with in my work. How is it that some people have had horrible childhoods like mine, and they succumb to rage and violence, and yet others of us survive and we even thrive? In my experience, the critical difference is that the people that survive and even thrive through trauma are the ones that have hope, and can see a way out. They have imagination.
If you think about it, nothing is more powerful than having an imagination. If you have an imagination, you’re making a statement of self. You’re saying, “I have the power and the ability to create my own story, to create a world inside my mind that no one can touch.” I think that’s a huge part of survival, and we misunderstand that.
Rumpus: What you’re saying about resiliency rings true. It’s a rather clinical narrative of how some traumatized children survive that doesn’t necessarily come from truly understanding the world that child comes from.
Denfeld: Yeah, we need to honor the truth of the victim here, and not impose labels. That line in particular was definitely inspired by my own childhood. I had a huge imagination, and obviously still do, and it saved my life. I would escape into literally days of fantasy. I would read books, and I would take the characters from the books, and I would pretend I was those characters.
I know that I was experiencing a huge amount of trauma, but I escaped the trauma through the power of my imagination. It’s a way that we assert our right to control our own narrative, and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.
Rumpus: Naomi grapples with lost memories throughout the story. We read, “Memory was incongruous. It was the feeling of a touch you had forgotten, that somehow came back to you in the shape of an apple.” That’s such a beautiful image.
Denfeld: Memory is another area of trauma that’s really misunderstood. One of the interesting things about memory is how sensations or sensory experience brings things back. People call those triggers, but I wish we would examine that a little deeper.
We can’t change what happened to us, but we can change how we look at it. We also get to decide what we remember, and how we access the memories and how we feel about the memories. I think that if we’re moving towards a victim-centered approach, we really need to honor how people want to approach their own memories.
Rumpus: There’s a scene in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Frankenstein is watching a family in a cabin, and he can’t show himself. In The Child Finder, we read how the anonymous fur trapper, B, watched a family at the trading store:
Once years before the girl had come, B had watched a car pull out of the snowy lot at the store. He had stared as a family, a mother, a father, and a young son in the back, had pulled out. He didn’t know why he felt so sad.
Like Frankenstein, B longs to be part of the intimacy that he can only witness, but never possess and, in this case, also can’t remember.
Frankenstein is considered a monster and he knows enough to rage at his creator. You write about such monsters in your books. I was wondering if there are any particular books or authors that have especially influenced you and there’s the whole monster thing we can talk about.
Denfeld: You can probably tell from my work that when I was young, I had a passion for fairy tales and fables. The story was definitely inspired by those, and also grappling with the whole concept of monsters in our society, which I find really interesting.
I think it kind of leads to where we are now in the current political climate. If one person’s a monster, then in some ways, we all are. We want to label what we don’t understand and we kind of want to banish those we don’t understand. There’s a lot of shunning that’s involved with what we don’t understand. I’m really interested in understanding, because I want to prevent what happened. I want to prevent what happened to me. I want to prevent what happens to little girls like Madison, so I want to understand it. In our society, we really confuse that. We think if we understand something, it means we’re somehow endorsing it, and we’re not.
Rumpus: That’s such a good point.
Denfeld: If we really want to change these things, if we really want to prevent them, we have to understand them. It’s not enough to yell and shout and point fingers and to condemn people. My experience from working these hundreds of cases, including a lot of pretty terrible things, is that I think just about every one of these cases is preventable.
Rumpus: It’s heartbreaking.
Denfeld: Yeah, it is. It’s heartbreaking, and what do we need to do as a society to prevent them? How do we stop the cycles of abuse?
Rumpus: What captivates me so deeply about your work, both in The Child Finder and The Enchanted, is your compassion, the depth and dimension you bring to bear on the so-called monsters, the predators, the shadow side of humanity, and how that is so beautifully rendered.
In The Child Finder, B, for example, is a fur trapper, which is especially abhorrent. He kills animals for their fur. I don’t know if you consciously thought about it, but is there a reason you chose a fur trapper?
Denfeld: I was raised in Oregon, and even though I live in Portland, I spend a lot of my time in rural areas of Oregon, and I am fascinated with how there are people in this state that live lives that people were living one hundred or more years ago.
I wanted to explore that, but perhaps also, I think a lot of times when we’re reading stories about offenders and victims, both offenders and victims are portrayed in these flat, one-dimensional ways. The offenders are portrayed as complete monsters, and the victims have to be angels, or else we don’t give them any respect. In my work, I want to move away from that, because it’s not the truth. People relate and respond to the more complex and important truths of these issues.
Rumpus: There’s an ethos, a reverence for life that runs through the book, “the sacrament of life,” as it’s mentioned in the story. Were you thinking about that when you were writing?
Denfeld: When I’m writing I fall down this delicious rabbit hole, and I’m completely immersed in it to the point where my kids can come in the room and they raise their hands in front of my face and I’m just gone. At a subterranean level, I’m thinking about a lot of things. For me, life is a sacrament, and I’m sad about how callous society has become. We dehumanize millions of people. We’ve dehumanized millions of people through mass incarceration. We’ve lost touch with our principles, the principles of liberty and justice for everyone, the principles and values that hold life sacred.
Rumpus: The character Madison thinks, “Being born of snow meant knowing things that ordinary people did not.” She goes on, “Mr. B didn’t want to hurt her, this she could tell. He wanted the warmth and mystery of her body. He wanted to feel good. He didn’t know how.” From “the highest chamber at the top of the ice castle, nothing she could do could ever be wrong.” I’m thinking of the difficulty readers might have comprehending those lines, particularly, “Mr. B didn’t want to hurt her.”
Denfeld: Yes, and I think that’s what Madison believes. It’s very important for me to be inside the Madison character, as a child who is trying to make sense of this absolute horror that she lives inside, and to really honor her view. The way that Madison comes to understand what’s happening is that in fact nothing she can do is wrong. She sees herself as this character that is in some way protecting her own essence, protecting the true Madison, and so these things are happening to this other character, the snow girl.
Rumpus: In another world, she says, this would be considered wrong. But in this world, everything is different.
Denfeld: Yes, it’s her way of understanding and processing it. What you just spoke to gets to a very sensitive subject, and it’s something that we need to discuss more. When children are hurt, and when children are sexually abused, it’s incredibly confusing to them. One of the more confusing things is often times children are sexually abused by people that they care about or come to care about. They are forced to try to understand how this thing is happening with somebody that they care about, somebody that they see as a human being, somebody that they can come to have empathy for.
That’s one of the realities of childhood sexual abuse. It’s not always a painful situation for people. Often times, pedophiles are very good at making children feel that they’re involved in some sort of loving relationship. It’s a terrible, unfortunate reality. One of the unfortunate things is we end up sending victims a great deal of shaming messages when we deny that they could have these complicated feelings for the offenders.
Rumpus: That’s so important.
Denfeld: Yes, so in my situation, the man I consider my father was a registered predatory sex offender, and I grew up around other pedophiles as well. One of the challenges I struggled with as a child was I felt this tremendous guilt that I cared about these men. I felt the shame of caring about these people. I wanted somebody to love me, and these were the only people in my life that were showing me any degree of affection or care. I thought that was love.
Rumpus: Wow, yeah.
Denfeld: I think Madison is interpreting what’s happening with Mr. B in the same sort of way. She’s taking what she can out of it, and protecting herself and seeing herself as somebody who is not always a victim. I really wanted to honor that.
Rumpus: A real dilemma for victims of child sexual abuse, or sexual abuse in general, is that it’s complicated, and we have complicated feelings. Shame is a huge part of that. If we cannot shine a light on that, as you do in this book, and as you just so eloquently did in this interview, then we can never heal or begin to understand, as you’ve said earlier.
Denfeld: We get a lot of shame messages. We’re told to feel ashamed, because we’re supposed to have felt only pain. We’re supposed to have felt only fear. The truth is, this is an unfortunate reality, most pedophiles approach their victims deliberately in a way that creates a pleasurable experience, and this is tremendously confusing to the children. I wanted that truth honored in the character of Madison.
Rumpus: That comes up also when we read, “Madison didn’t know you can love someone who is bad.”
Denfeld: Absolutely, and I think that’s something a lot of us can relate to, not only victims of childhood sex abuse. Many of us at some point love someone who is bad. We might have a brother or a cousin who’s been in and out of prison. We might have a parent with mental illness who is malevolent. Sooner or later, we find ourselves in a situation where we love someone who is bad for us. I really wanted to explore that.
Rumpus: There’s so much shame in that, too.
Denfeld: As children, when we love somebody who is bad, and they’re a parent or a parent figure, we are trapped with the trauma of trying to figure out how to navigate that world, of loving someone who’s bad. That’s certainly something that came out of my own experience, and also the experiences of being a foster adoptive parent and helping my children navigate through relationships with people that may have failed them. How do we help each other in these situations, when people fail us, when people hurt us?
Rumpus: Both The Child Finder and The Enchanted deal with duality, good and bad, and help us learn how to bring all of that together into a whole, to contain it. We’re dealing with humanity. We’re human.
Denfeld: One of the costs of polarization, interestingly, is to the victims, because I think we have kind of a good/bad economy. If the victim herself isn’t seen as perfect, then her experiences no longer hold the same value. We expect perfection out of victims, as well as we stereotype offenders. Since people are very complex, we find ourselves in situations where we care about somebody who is not good for us, and we have not been given a road map for what that world looks like.
Rumpus: Faith, as well as hope, is prevalent in The Child Finder. Madison’s mother has faith she’s alive, and the child finder herself has faith in her ability to find her and other missing children. Madison herself demonstrates the significance faith plays in her survival through fairy tales. You believe that people can change.
Denfeld: Certainly. The longer I do this work, the more optimistic I grow, the more faith I have in humanity. I think people assume the opposite. When we get out there and really grapple with life, when we dedicate ourselves to helping people, frankly, when we shut off the computer and go to a prison and meet the inmates, when we volunteer to help refugees, or when we take in a foster kid and we’re working with their birth family, when we really get to know people, it’s hard not to have faith. It’s hard not to see the humanity in people.
Rumpus: Like you said, when we bother to learn about and understand the world others live in, change becomes possible.
Denfeld: Life carries us through the disappointments as well. You also asked about hope, and that’s an intrinsic part of the stories. All these people have hope, and it’s not always rewarded, but they’re continuing despite their challenges. They’re all trying very hard, and I think that’s true of most of us. Most of us are trying very hard, and we really want to be seen for that.
Rumpus: Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we don’t read children fairy tales like we used to. The book made me think deeply about how important fairy tales and fables are for children.
Denfeld: Faith and hope is fundamental to fairy tales and fables, and I think that these are the stories that we tell each other and have told each other from the beginning of time, to remind ourselves of the power of survival and the power of continuing to hope. That’s why they are so resonant for Naomi and Madison.
Rumpus: Another thing that stood out is the diversity in The Child Finder. There’s a character who is deaf and an autistic woman. Naomi’s foster brother is a war vet and has a missing limb. There are African-American characters, like Detective Winfield, and Danita, who is autistic, and her mother, Violet. What was the genesis of the characters, Violet and Danita?
Denfeld: Actually, that’s something that evolved naturally. I think it’s important to include characters from different backgrounds and cultures. I was raised in a primarily black family. It’s my home culture. My children are African-American and we live in a very diverse neighborhood.
Violet and Danita and the church they go to are pretty much lifted right out of my life. Like them, I grew up quite poor, so I felt very comfortable writing those characters. They are actually far more known to me than if, say, I had to write a character that was a white professor. That would be kind of hard.
Rumpus: I loved the way that Danita’s situation was portrayed, how she was seen by the police department and the community, for example, versus the way that Naomi was able to see her.
Denfeld: I’m so glad you picked up on that. There’s a line in which Violet says, “Black children aren’t diagnosed as autistic, they’re diagnosed as bad.” That’s something I have personal experience with, having children that are African-American and coming from an African-American family, the way that African-American children with disabilities are treated as opposed to white children speaks to so much racism, so much discrimination.
I wanted to bring light to that, and I also wanted to bring light to a person like Jerome, for instance, who is a war veteran who lost a limb. I wanted to populate the novel with people that felt real to me, and will probably feel real to a lot of readers.
Rumpus: The little missing deaf boy, that was so masterful and cracked my heart open. Also the whole incident with Danita was heartbreaking… people’s inability to see created that whole situation.
Denfeld: Yes, how we fail to protect is part of the story. That was preventable, and it’s because of our own bias and our own societal failures, that sometimes these tragedies happen. I wanted to touch upon that.
Rumpus: The child finder thinks of each child she finds as “a molecule, a part of herself.” I see her search for missing children as a way that she honors her own lost child, and her own missing memories. I think of the book as an allegory, as a map of how we might all find the missing children inside ourselves.
Denfeld: I’ve found that by doing my work, and by adopting my kids, I rewrote my own story. That’s what Naomi is doing. Naomi is really writing her own story. She’s finding meaning out of the trauma, and she’s creating a sense of self that doesn’t deny her experiences, but is in fact founded on them, and is taking the terror that she experienced and turning it into a force of good. I think that’s certainly in my life, and what I’ve done.
Rumpus: That’s beautiful.
Denfeld: It’s a healing, profound thing to do, and I think it’s one way that we get to claim power, and we get to assert our right to make what we want out of the trauma that we’ve experienced. I think Naomi is doing a great thing with it.
Rumpus: Coming full circle, as the book so beautifully does, there are several references to the missing children as “an army of children.”
Denfeld: When I was writing that, it was this incredibly powerful, sustaining image of what would happen if all of us lost souls, all of us that have experienced hurt and fear and terror, all of us that have been lonely and afraid, what would happen if we all came together, and if we were the ones that were directing our country, if we were the ones that formed then an army of change and compassion and kindness and true justice, in every sense of the word? I think it’s such an important theme of the book, that change is possible and that hope is relevant, and we all have the possibility to come together, to link hands and to make it happen, and I really believe that.
Rene Denfeld will be awarded the Break The Silence Award at the 24th Annual Knock Out Abuse Against Women Gala in Washington, DC on November 22nd, in recognition for her advocacy and social justice work. Knock-Out Abuse Against Women (KOA),established in 1993,is dedicated to promoting awareness of domestic violence and its impact on women and children of all ages, races, and socioeconomic status and to raise critical funds for long-term housing that provides protection, life skills, and higher education.
Author photograph © Gary Norman.
Kelly Thompson's work has been published or anthologized in The Rattling Wall, Entropy, Oh Comely, Dove Tales, The Rumpus, Proximity, The Writing Disorder, Witchcraft, Manifest Station, 49 Writers, and other literary journals. Her essay "Hand Me Down Stories" was recently nominated for a Pushcart by Proximity. She is also a contributor for The Rumpus and curator for "Voices on Addiction" at The Rumpus. Kelly lives in Denver, Colorado and is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. More from this author →
Twenty years ago, you wrote The New Victorians, a book criticizing the feminist movement for losing touch with ordinary women. Is that still true?
A lot of stuff in that book, if you wrote it now, people would say, well, duh. At the time, feminism was reeling from extremists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon. There was a real feeling that dissent within the movement would be quashed. Today, a whole generation of women demonstrates that feminism can embrace diversity of thought and debate. People can say, I can be a feminist and support free speech. I can even look at pornography and erotica. So things have improved a lot in those regards. Whether things have improved as far as actual equality is concerned is another matter.
How has being a woman in Portland changed?
There’s such a focus on this cutesy, utopian vision of Portland. That’s just not reality for most women here. Many of the changes in the city that are presented as good are, in fact, really terrible for poor women. Look at all the attention that’s paid to restaurants. Behind all the glowing restaurant articles, a whole bunch of people, usually minorities, are in the kitchen washing dishes. We’re creating a caste-based economy where poor people are underpaid to serve rich people. It falls hardest on poor women—often single moms who are trying to raise kids.
The current popular image of Portland definitely doesn’t include a lot of working-class people.
A friend of mine, Sarah, recently died. She was 25, mom of three young kids—a poor, working person in outer east Portland. She developed a bad toothache and couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. The autopsy found that the infection had spread to her bloodstream and killed her. That’s just an example of what life can be like for women in this town. There are countless women living in substandard housing—cheap, rat-infested apartments, trailer courts where conditions would shock people. It’s not all riding your bike with your hair in pigtails. It’s not the Portlandia episode.
You recently wrote a New York Times essay about growing up, for a time, in a household led by an abusive pimp. How does your upbringing influence your outlook on Portland?
These things formed me: growing up very poor, a white person in a predominantly African-American family—my siblings are African-American—and attending so-called “inner city” schools. I was the only white kid in my grade at Woodlawn. And I consider it a blessing, seeing what life is like from a different angle. I was out on my own at a young age, and I’m self-educated. Most people in this country don’t go to college. Most people in Portland aren’t graduate students. My background is a lot closer to that of the majority of people than to the educated minority.
It’s very strange, given my perspective, to see how Portland is presented. Flouride—classic example. People’s concerns are about…organic food, or these sorts of things. When you grew up around people who can’t afford to get their cavities filled, it’s strange. The things that people get embroiled in here can be completely foreign to me.
Your recent novel, The Enchanted, is based on your real-life work as a private investigator specializing in death-penalty cases. You’ve worked for public-defense attorneys, and written a nonfiction book about violent street kids. How does being a woman affect your ability to do that kind of on-the-ground work?
I think it allows me to do the work. I can go into situations without assuming poor people are scary or bad. When I worked for the public defender’s office, I did a lot of prostitution cases. I’ve lost count of the number of sex trafficking victims I’ve worked with in Portland. Women are beaten and abused and kept in awful little apartments. Behind that whole weird Portland thing of, oh, we like to go to strip clubs because it’s cool, a lot of strip bars—not all, but a lot—are fronts for trafficking women.
Very few men can do death penalty investigation. There are only a handful of us, anyway, but most of us are women in our 40s. We have some life experience, and we can be compassionate, and empathetic, but it’s also pretty hard to fool us. We’re 100-pound bullshit detectors. People will tell me things they wouldn’t tell a man.
Is Portland sexist?
We have a lot of wonderful, strong women here. In a lot of ways, it’s a great city to be a woman—a white woman. But the political infrastructure has been very male dominated. We have a discomfort with open, vigorous debate. One effect of that has been that women who are vocal and assertive tend to get labeled as troublemakers. Name Portland’s Bella Abzug. There isn’t one.
Culturally, this city is bizarrely in love—especially the media—with this neo-traditionalism: women, in the kitchen, baking their own bread and raising chickens. Those things are not bad, but it’s an image you could pluck out of Little House on the Prairie. The women are going to raise the kids and the chickens, and the guys are going to grow beards, drink beer, look like lumberjacks and throw darts. It’s fascinating.
What should we be focusing on?
Rising housing prices are a huge concern. There’s such a focus on creating housing for young professionals, but what about a woman with children? It’s almost like you don’t exist. We’re concerned with the “creative class”—as if other classes can’t be creative—but ironically the conditions that allowed artists to thrive here have begun to disappear. What kind of Portland are we creating for women of the future, or for women who want to have children, or for women who don’t come from backgrounds of privilege? We need to think about what we’re creating for everybody.