Visiting Hours: Amy Butcher on Murder, Friendship, and Mental Illness

visiting hours - amy butcher
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In April of 2009, Amy Butcher was on the cusp of a new life. Set to graduate from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and move across the country to matriculate in a master’s writing program, Amy, like her classmates, was anticipating the last weeks of school would be about celebrating the past four years and envisioning the ones yet to come. After an evening of drinking at a local bar, Amy’s friend Kevin walked her back to her apartment, only to return home and stab his girlfriend Emily Silverstein twenty-seven times. Amy knew Kevin had been struggling with depression, but she could never have anticipated the gangly history buff could turn violent. In the aftermath of his crime, many of their friends distanced themselves from Kevin, but Amy continued to correspond with Kevin in jail, hoping their dialogue would help her to understand what happened that dark evening.

In her first book, Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, Amy attempts to unravel her complicated feelings about her friend and his crime, using his story to examine the myriad ways in which the system fails the mentally ill. She also examines her own post-traumatic stress, and asks herself -- and readers -- who is allowed to grieve in the wake of a tragedy, and who should step aside to make room for the real mourners.  Enthralling, thought provoking, and deeply empathic, Visiting Hours explores how loss and trauma affects everyone in its periphery. Here, Amy talks about the obsession that led her to write the book, the discomfiting research process, and the pleasures of writing in the countryside.

Signature: When did you first conceive of the idea for this book and how?

Amy Butcher: The truth is, for many years and many fundamental reasons, reasons I still wrestle with today, I didn’t want to write this book, and in fact, I wrote about really everything else: why clouds go green before a tornado, hypnagogia, trying to squeeze love from a man who doesn’t want to give it, congenital heart failure, eating beef for the first time in eight years, the list goes on. I didn’t want to write about that night and my friendship with Kevin for all of the obvious reasons: the ethical terrain was incredibly daunting and seemed impossible to navigate tactfully, there was very little distance separating me from that evening in terms of both time and any meaningful sense of detachment, and frankly because it feels very taboo to say that you grieve the erasure of a friend when that friend committed murder. The idea in our collective conscious is that unless you were close to the victim, to feel such grief or trauma or gripping depression is incredibly inappropriate, invalid, ethically unsound, and to voice those sentiments, unfathomable. I found this even within my social circle; it was divisive, and to this day there are several I’m no longer in touch with because -- and this is to say that I understand -- we all processed and worked through it differently. We looked at the same events and the same people and generated entirely unique responses. For me, that response was first a strong sense of empathy, of compassion, but over time and as I learned more, that sentiment shifted to grief, depression, guilt, to feelings and actions perhaps less than healthy. And to compound this, there was the ever-present implication that I shouldn't feel the way I did -- that I should feel, instead, anger or repulsion, and that above all I should be silent. This clearly wasn’t true for me as I suspect it isn’t true for many.

So I began to feel very strongly that what happened -- the crime itself, yes, but also largely the response it generated in myself and those around me -- was something worth exploring. It felt, frankly, essential. At some point, this evening and my need to understand it became all-consuming, this event something I found I was dedicating more of my life and mental energy to than anything else good orbiting its periphery. I felt, in short, sort of obsessed. It was important for me, above all, to have Kevin’s permission, and when he gave it -- and gave it very easily -- I began to write about the crime and the idea of temporary insanity, of a brain sort of short-circuiting and betraying a body. It wasn’t until I’d amassed some hundred pages or so that my closest readers -- mentors Robin Hemley and Meghan Daum, whose early insight and feedback proved invaluable -- suggested the book was not at all about Kevin or the nature of the crime but instead why I couldn’t look away. Why, all these years later, I still cared as much as I did.

So it became a memoir, but not without ample hesitation. I was very aware of how self-indulgent it might seem to use myself as subject, to claim that living on the periphery of that night had caused within me a schism, a trauma, an obsession to understand the one thing that made absolutely no sense. Of course I hesitated, too, because I was young. To write a memoir is to open yourself up for immediate and lasting judgment, and to be young, especially, is to see your world and perception constantly in flux. How horrifying then to have those years in ink, permanent, a final word on the way you -- at one point in your life -- felt.

But that youth is essential, perhaps, and I do think those years will always be far closer to me than they are distant. I hope that’s not the case, but suspect it is.

SIG: We have over the past few years seen a rise in what many call the "reported memoir." Did you do a lot of reporting and research for this book?

AB: More than I wish I had. Which is to say that in the course of trying to understand the chain of events that led to Emily’s murder, in trying to comprehend and accept the full weight of Kevin’s actions, I sought and viewed information I really wish I hadn’t. In my acquisition of Kevin’s full file of public records -- court documents assembled in preparation for a trial that never happened -- I came across, for example, Emily’s autopsy report. It was something that, at the time, I felt I had to view. Not photos, mind you, but a description of what she’d been wearing and markings on her body. The idea is one a colleague suggested -- that really, the only way I might find closure or reprieve was to look at and know everything that could be known about what had happened. It’s based on the psychological idea of flooding, of overwhelming your senses with the thing that most terrifies you. He felt I wouldn't move toward closure until I found myself at the end of information. And it seemed important to do, somehow, but frankly, acquiring and viewing her autopsy report remains the most shameful thing I feel I've ever done. I can’t think now of a more invasive, intrusive inquiry than to wish to know the precise manner in which someone died.

Beyond that, however, I am glad to have done the work I did and to have exposed, I hope, the necessity for long-lasting and effective care for the mentally ill. The book grapples with a number of statistics on mental illness, incarceration, and violent crime, and the correlations often shared between them, but most important is its assertion of the overwhelming prevalence of depression both nationally and globally. It is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and in 2013, was determined the leading cause of death, surpassing even car accidents, which killed 33,687 that year. Suicide claimed the lives of 38,364. By 2030, the World Health Organization predicts depression will be the leading cause of global disability, and of course this proliferates not merely in economic and social costs, but in the quality of life for every man, woman and child. That truth is especially important when you consider the direct correlation between what Kevin did and what Kevin had intended to do to himself had Emily not intervened.

SIG: By telling Kevin’s story, you shed light on what you call a national "epidemic" of mentally ill men acting out violently. What do you think your average reader can do in the face of such an enormous problem?

AB: I do think this is very much an epidemic, one rooted deeply in American culture and masculinity, but it is contextualized by what I think is the larger and more looming necessity for a comprehensive reevaluation of the way we think about and treat mental illness.

We fear the mentally ill because we can’t see what makes them sick, cannot in that way understand. We look at Robin Williams and we think, Him? But how common a story like his is. There’s this tendency to assume it is only some extenuating life circumstance that drives one to depression or thoughts of suicide, when in fact it is every bit as chemical or biological as what turns cells in our body cancerous. This explains why suicide is the leading cause of death in those age fifteen to twenty-four, a statistic many parents would be shocked, I think, to know. We assume sadness in the young is often without recourse, certainly without such lasting consequence. And yet every thirteen minutes, another American takes his or her own life, and the pain that depressed individual feels, many experts assert, is worse than that of, say, a tumor, which is finite, tactile, an ailment our society embraces without blame or judgment.

So I think it needs to begin first with enhancing our capacity and willingness to exhibit empathy, and it needs, too, to be afforded the sort of support -- vocally and financially -- necessary to create real and lasting change. Ongoing budget cuts mean states all across this country are slashing their funding for mental welfare, and yet our rates of incarceration have grown exponentially since 2005. There are currently three times as many mentally ill in jails than in hospitals, and in fact the rate of mental illness in the incarcerated is five times that of the general population. No matter how you look at it -- whether that is the impetus or a testament to the experience of incarceration -- one thing is for certain: we are failing a great percentage of our population. And many of them, of course, are men. Much of my research concerned the link between expressiveness and violence, and the different ways in which our society expects men and women to process lived experience and how that processing makes all the difference, but I think at the individual level, support and dedication to a greater sense of understanding is imperative, is essential. It’s all too easy, I’ve learned, too easy, to look at someone who has committed a violent crime as a result of our failing mental health systems and impose upon him the mental state we are privileged to in health.

SIG: In the book, you share some very personal struggles, and also some ambivalence on your family’s part to become connected, in however small a way, with Kevin. How did you deal with these issues?  

AB: My family was incredibly supportive, understanding, sympathetic. I have the best possible support system in them. I was home when I first learned what had happened, and I remember my mother saying that for the first time in their twenty-three years of parenting, she and my father didn’t know what to say. Normally, she said, they had some sort of shared experience with whatever my brothers or I were going through, but here was an occurrence altogether alien. My close friend had killed someone. And worse, he hadn't done it maliciously, or as an act of revenge, or because he was drunk, or because he was on drugs. He did it because he couldn't not, which is to say that during a disassociate episode or in a moment of temporary insanity, you become unable to act upon right or wrong, if you can even identify the difference to begin with. The only moment in which my mother expressed hesitation was in writing to him with my return address, but even then, I suspect it was something that came out instinctually and was more an exhibition of love and her desire to protect me than anything else. I've never felt judged by them, never felt anything but love and encouragement to do what I think needs doing, and I’m very grateful for that. Any ambivalence or condemnation -- and there wasn’t much, but some -- came from outside the family. There’s a sort of hierarchy inherent to trauma and violent crime, one imposed on the traumatized solely by the non-traumatized. But trauma presents its own set of rules.

SIG: Do you have any memoirs that you found particularly inspiring when writing yours?

AB: What was difficult in the few years between when this happened and when I began writing about it was how few books presented a personal narrative similar to what I was going through. Which is to say that while there are a number of books written by those shattered by the loss of a friend or family member, very few concern what it is to struggle with both navigating that loss and coping with strong feelings about the perpetrator. In that regard, Darin Strauss’ Half A Life proved invaluable, and even beyond the scope of its content, it is a brilliantly beautiful book. I read it in one sitting and have returned to it many times since. Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: An Elegy For A Friend made me feel so much less alone; there, too, Manguso’s heartache sort of permeates but with such clarity and love. And Dinah Lenney’s Bigger Than Life was pivotal in that it was the book that made me decide to write about this, to confront it head-on. It came recommended to me by my mentor and friend, Robin Hemley, who suggested her writing contained the same sort of meditative cycling I was working out on the page in early drafts. That book is gorgeous, and Dinah, very talented.

SIG: Throughout the book, you are searching for some sort of closure with Kevin and how his crime affected you. At the end of the story, the finality seems elusive. Has finishing the writing process -- and especially, anticipating publication -- changed that at all?

AB: The very same thing that gave me permission to write about and explore this incident in the first place -- the term ‘memoir,’ the inherent and subjective ‘I’ -- is what causes especial confliction in me now. In writing a memoir, you’re saying, in essence, This is how I feel, and the implicit clause that follows is, Both now and forever. But anyone who has ever put thoughts down on paper -- which is to say everyone -- knows there is no finality, no memory or sentiment or decision that cannot be undone through the passing of time. And because this is a book that largely concerns the life of other people, there’s the disconcerting notion that some will see my particular experience as absolute and universal. In that way, an author’s note is essential; this is how I understood and processed and experienced what happened, but there are many who experienced it differently. How we receive trauma is a process entirely unique to each of us. I think, too, it’s a daunting experience to put your early twenties down on the page and feel comfortable walking away from them. But I do take tremendous comfort in the many -- many -- who have come forward and expressed allegiance and gratitude to the precise way I felt, which is to say they've felt it, too. Of course there will be those who think this book should not exist, or that I’m in no way entitled to write about what happened, but that’s precisely the point, I think.

SIG: On a lighter note: what is your writing routine like?

AB: I’m very lucky in that two of the three years I spent writing this book were years in which I was afforded the tremendous luxury of time and intellectual support by means of university fellowships: first at the University of Iowa, and then at Colgate University. Both meant I could rise in the morning and write, relatively uninterrupted, for much of the day. I was teaching at the time, and so worked out a schedule in which I dedicated half my time to my students and half to the task at hand.

During my third year, I made a somewhat precarious decision to isolate myself in a cabin in remote New Hampshire; I took a job as an adjunct instructor for two low-residency MFA programs and that afforded me eight months of leaving the house only if I truly needed to. I wrote, and when I wasn't writing, I was reading the work of others, and so in that way I was always immersed. It was a long year, and a lonely year, but perhaps the most meaningful of my life. I learned a great deal about myself and my work and it’s something I can only now, a year removed, begin to truly appreciate.

In September, I accepted a tenure-track job that keeps me engaged with students most of the time; I had a mentor once who felt a teacher should be a teacher nine months out of the year exclusively and take the summer and winter break to write. I admired him for that and it’s very important to me to do the same. That said, on the days I do write, it is often in the early morning through lunch, and in that time, I don’t do much of anything except get up to replenish my coffee. I don’t hold myself to any particular word counts and I don’t deactivate my Internet, but I always seek to live in places that are remote and incredibly quiet, and in that way, I suppose I crave the occasional interruption. I’ve never been a writer who yearns for the city; I feel fantastically tethered to the countryside, where land is cheap and wide and open. So generally it is just me, a desk, and my thoughts, which increasingly have nothing to do with this incident, and for that, I am incredibly grateful and very open to what comes next.