In the late 1990s, Kendall Francois raped and killed eight sex workers in Poughkeepsie, New York. For two years, he piled their bodies in the attic of a house he shared with his mother and his two younger siblings. At the time of these murders, current Seattle Times education reporter, Claudia Rowe, was working in Poughkeepsie as a stringer for the New York Times. She wanted the story, but she also wanted to know the culprit; she wanted to get inside his head.
Her debut book, The Spider and the Fly, is a gripping memoir/true crime hybrid in which Rowe recounts her lengthy correspondence with Francois, an epistolary (and telephonic!) relationship she became obsessed with, nearly to the exclusion of all else. Along the way, she investigates her motives for investigating him.
Her central question: Why would she, a well-off white woman, develop an addiction to the mind of an obese black man who brutalized women, the majority of whom sort of resembled her? The reader's response: You don't have to do this, you don't have to do this, who cares about why this guy did it, oh my god, why are you doing this?
On Friday, January 27, Rowe will launch the book, read from it, and hold a Q&A at Elliott Bay Book Company. But I had some questions of my own.
Humanizing a serial killer in the way you do in this book makes me think any of us can become a serial killer.
Any of us is capable of one burst of rage that could kill someone. But to gain some sort of strange sense of satisfaction from doing it compulsively—that is a whole other thing. That is different from snapping in a moment of rage. I think [Francois] alternated between this towering narcissism, these grandiose illusions of his powerfulness, and then this deeply abject sense of himself. I think he was terrified to look honestly at himself.
You started writing this book in 2000. It's 2017. What took so long?
It's not an easy thing to do. It took me a long time to get the perspective on myself. I couldn't do it at the time, but I tried. I had to get older. I had to get a lot older, and a lot more seasoned as a journalist, which I did.
Did any other writers serve as a model?
No. I was really really frustrated at the time that I couldn't find anything like this in 2000-01. [In the book], I mention Janet Malcom's The Journalist and the Murderer, which was really important to me, but it's more of a view from on high about the fraught relationship between the writer and the source. My book is different in that I'm not way up high—I'm in the muck of it.
I was disgusted by the way the police handled the sex workers in this story. How much blame does the state shoulder in this case?
There are infinite sources where somebody might logically place blame in this story. You can say the police in Poughkeepsie did whatever job you think they did. You can also say the newspaper didn't report it. And the people who lived in the city, who knew what the center of town was like, avoided it. In some way, obviously, it's on Kendall Francois—it's on him because he did what he did. But it's also on all of us, who preferred to look away because it was unpalatable.
You're hard on Poughkeepsie in the book. What kind of response do you anticipate there?
I don't know. My experience of Poughkeepsie at the time was one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. I think it's about denial. Rings of denial. Expanding circles of denial. Poughkeepsie itself is the largest circle. They denied the reality of what was happening on Main Street, in the center of downtown. The denial of the family—what was going on in their own home, the rot they were living in. Then my own denial.
The point of the book is to say: look closer. Look with more human compassion at everything. At the women on the street who are so ugly that you just want to turn away from them. Once upon a time, they were kids. They went to elementary school. See people as we all are: struggling. If we could just see each other with that in our minds, with a little more sense of common humanity, then I really believe that some of this pain and destruction might not have to exist to the degree that it does.