by Andrew DeCanniere
Ever since I read Julia Dahl’s debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books, 2014), last year and learned that there would be more books in the Rebekah Roberts Series, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Run You Down (Minotaur Books, 2015). The book, which takes place in the upstate New York community of Roseville — also, increasingly, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave — takes place only months after the end of Invisible City, with Rebekah investigating a whole new case: the mysterious death of Pessie Goldin. This week I had the opportunity to speak with Julia about her new book, the ongoing “clash of cultures” occurring in upstate New York, ethics in journalism and the role of the reporter, and much more. Read on to see what she had to say…
UR Chicago Magazine: One of the things that I really like about Run You Down is that it touches on so many relevant issues, much like Invisible City does. I know that when we last spoke, you had mentioned that a number of people from the religious Jewish community were moving upstate to sort of get away from the civic authorities. I don’t know if that was a factor when writing this book, but I kind of saw some parallels there. What was the inspiration for Run You Down?
Julia Dahl: Yeah. I mean there are these big, growing communities north of New York City. There really have been for several decades, but now that there’s been a whole generation of people having really large families, the communities are growing by leaps and bounds. There’s been a lot in the news in the last two or three years about the sort of clash of cultures between this really religious, insular community and the people who live upstate. In some ways, New York City is kind of an anomaly in it’s multiculturalism and diversity. People in New York City are used to, and pride themselves on, being tolerant and being understanding. We’re used to hearing ten different languages a day and seeing people dressed in all different kinds of ethnic garb. In upstate New York, it’s a very different kind of community. It’s a little suburban, but it’s also very rural. Because these Haredi communities are growing so much, and because they very much want to live by their own laws and rules, they are doing things like starting their own schools and annexing land. The communities that they’re moving into feel like they’re not interested in becoming a part of the communities that are already there. There’s been a real problem in the school systems, because the Haredi send their kids to private schools, obviously — to yeshivas — which means that even though they’re paying property taxes just like everyone else, which go toward the public schools, their kids are not in the public schools.
So, over the past several years, the ultra-orthodox in a couple of school districts have gotten themselves elected to the school boards and a lot of people feel they've purposely defunded programs like arts education and basketball and AP courses, so that their tax dollars aren't paying for things they don't value. The Haredi say they've just done what is necessary to shore up a financially strapped system, but the whole thing has caused a big problem and created so much strife and a lot of anger at the community. I think it’s really compounded the anti-semitism that may or may not have already existed. It’s just become a really ugly situation, and I’ve been reading about that and really wanted to explore that clash of cultures in this second book.
UR: One would think it definitely wouldn’t engender good feelings, that’s for sure. If you’re only going to care about your own interests, that’s not about to bring up good feelings. I know that in my community, a significant portion of the property taxes that property owners pay does go to the various school districts. I kind of equate it with if I were to say “I don’t have children, so why am I bothering to pay the portion that goes to the school districts?” For one thing, that’s probably not going to be well received by the parents of the kids who attend the schools.
JD: Something I wanted to explore in this book is what is community? Is your community just the people who look like you and dress like you and believe what you do? Or is your community greater than that? Is it the people who are different from you but who are your neighbors? I believe the latter, but I think that certainly one criticism of the Haredi community would be that some of their actions make it seem as though they’re really just not interested in communities outside of their own. I find that to be a problem.
UR: One of the things that I like about Run You Down — and I know that you’ve mentioned this as well — is that it’s just as much about journalism as it is about Roseville, the ultra-orthodox Jewish community that exists both there and in Borough Park, and the investigation surrounding the death of Pessie Goldin. I think you really see Rebekah’s experience and her growth as a reporter, this kind of changing perspective of hers.
JD: Yeah. Obviously, in Invisible City, Rebekah has really just started this job and is kind of in over her head and is just sort of trying to stay afloat. Run You Down starts just a few months later, so she learned some hard lessons. I think she’s also gotten to a point where she realizes that if she doesn’t want to be told what to do everyday, she has to find stories for herself and run those leads, run those stories down herself and become somebody the newspaper can rely on to actually find stories. That’s a big part of the reason why she decides to chase the story of the death of Pessie Goldin. Every reporter has to recognize that. You sort of spend some time doing assignments that your editors give you and then, if you want to move forward, you have to start finding the stories yourself and tracking them down yourself and maybe spending your free time tracking them down. So, she’s definitely trying to do that, but she’s also very much still burdened by what happened in Invisible City and how her life was not only changed but also threatened, and how she felt like she put herself and other people in situations that were perilous. She made a lot of mistakes. Frankly, I think she has a little PTSD. I think she’s a little gun-shy about her abilities and about tracking down scary stories in general, but, as is Rebekah’s way, she’s also not going to let that fear stop her.
She’s ambitious and she’s determined, so like in Invisible City, in Run You Down she’s sort of forcing herself to do things. Some days she would rather sit at home and cover her head with a blanket or just go to whatever story her boss tells her to go to. In some ways that could be easier, but she kind of has this internal engine that says “No. Push, push, push.” I admire that about her a lot. I think that you have to have that if you’re going to try to be a journalist that’s more than just a stenographer.
UR: And I think that you can see her starting to more seriously consider certain issues like, for example, journalism and ethics. For example, she talks about this woman from The Washington Post who came in and talked [to her class] about inserting oneself into the story. So, there’s this sort of consideration of what a journalist’s role is.
JD: Exactly. And I think like most reporters, if you’ve had any journalism courses, you’ve probably had a moment or two of journalism ethics. Usually not very much. I think we should have more, because I think in many ways the ethics of what we’re doing obviously are very important. I think it’s hard for young reporters to really internalize how much power they have and how big an impact writing about someone’s life has on that person’s life. Yet, we do it everyday and we barely think about it — but, when you’re quoted in the paper, or when your story gets told in the paper, it could make a huge impact on your life and change the way people think about you. As a twenty-two or twenty-three or twenty-four-year-old, it’s difficult to internalize that you, as a reporter, actually have that much power. I think that a good reporter is constantly asking “Am I making the right choices here? Am I being ethical?” There’s not a rulebook that says “These ten things you shall do, and these ten things you shall not do as a reporter.” In the scene where The Washington Post reporter tells her that if you insert yourself in the story at all, that’s unethical, Rebekah rejects that. She says that just by reporting, she’s inserting herself into the story. She talks about how she is a human being before she’s a reporter, and that’s something I believe that you have to be. I think you have to balance those two things, but I don’t think that putting other people in danger is worth a good story. So, she’s kind of constantly trying to figure that out. I think most reporters are.
UR: To switch gears a little bit, when Rebekah is investigating Pessie’s murder, it almost seems as though her family is willing to forego a thorough investigation out of the fear that it would affect the rest of the family and their ability to make a “shidduch” — that is, to find a match — for the other unmarried family members and out of the fear of the possible gossip.
JD: Yeah. I’ve heard from several people who were sexual abuse victims who told me that their families told them not to say anything, because it would just make shidduch difficult for them, for their sister, and for the person who did this to them — if he or she was a family member. That just blows my mind, but I heard it a lot.
UR: And, I dare say, if the person was indeed murdered, you’re potentially leaving the murderer out on the street to kill again.
JD: Exactly. Or you’re leaving the sexual abuser out on the streets — or the domestic abuser. Murder and sex abuse and domestic violence are not just these sort of bummer, sad things. They are crimes, and the people who perpetrate them are dangerous. It leaves the rest of the community open to being victimized.
UR: I mean, I know that something like sexual abuse is already a hard thing to be open about and talk about. Then, on top of that, there seems to be this message in the community that the most important thing is to make sure that the bad publicity doesn’t get out there because of this fear of what those outside of the community will do and how they’ll use it — that has to only compound things and make them more difficult. If you really care about the community, then why would the priority be making sure the word doesn’t get out? Why would you leave this perpetrator out there to sexually abuse or murder somebody yet again?
JD: To me that is the essential question, and I think that it is to a lot of people. I think that there is a large portion of the community that feels exactly the same way — and it’s a growing portion — because it just doesn’t really make any sense. Every community has good and bad people — the Haredi community doesn’t have any more sexual abusers than any other community— but the reluctance to come forward with that knowledge, and the fear of making other Jews or the community look bad, is sort of unique. I mean it’s unique but it’s not unique. Obviously, just look at the Catholic Church. For how many decades have they been covering up sexual abuse in their community because they didn’t want to make the church look bad? Look at Penn State or what we’re learning about sexual assaults on college campuses. Nobody wants to make their institution or their community look bad, and often victims are victimized multiple times. They’re victimized by the abuse, and then they’re also victimized because their stories are either not believed or not told. They never get any kind of justice. So, it’s not just this community. It’s this sort of idea of having to protect the institution, of having to protect the community — and that’s a real problem.
UR: And there certainly seem to be different schools of thought on the issue within the community. Levi, for example, says that if something comes out and reflects poorly on the community, then it reflects poorly on the community. The truth has to come out, there needs to be justice and so, in effect, whatever comes out about the community will come out in the process. On the other hand, there seems to be another group that is content to — and is indeed focused on — silencing the victims and, if need be, on pushing them out of the community.
JD: Right. In truth, there absolutely are people like Levi and Saul and Nechamaya. People who absolutely say the sexual abuser or murderer is making the community look bad and is preying on the community. This is what they need to root out. But then there are some who feel like the greater evil is the bad publicity for the community. You know, the Haredi Jews and the Hasidic Jews live very much in fear of something like the Holocaust happening again. These are all people who were descended from Holocaust survivors and have this acute sense that at anytime — much like in Hungary and France and Ukraine and Poland — their neighbors could just turn on them. There’s this sense of fear that if they give them any reason to hate them, they’ll be victimized.
UR: In a way, I can understand the fear. My mom’s side of the family is Jewish. Of my grandmother’s entire family, only she and one of her sisters survived. Of my grandfather’s family, only he and two of his brothers survived. On the other hand, as your book suggests — and as you’ve said — no good comes from making the focus on stifling the so-called bad publicity and leaving the abuser or murderer out to abuse or murder again.
The other reason the family seems to be so willing to forego a thorough investigation seems to stem from the fact that Pessie suffered from depression and had taken antidepressants. Just as she was secretive about what she was going through and the fact that she was taking them, it seems as though the family is as well. It almost seems as though the family doesn’t distinguish between doing drugs and taking necessary prescription medications. On top of that, there seems to be this concern that should the fact that she was on antidepressants get out, that could also result in gossip, thereby conceivably damaging the chances of finding matches for the other family members.
JD: Definitely. In both books I wanted to talk about the stigma of mental illness. Let’s be honest, it’s not like it’s super easy for us to talk about our family members or friends who’ve committed suicide or who’ve suffered from depression or bipolar disorder. Mainstream American society is not exactly fantastic about embracing, helping and normalizing the people who suffer from that, and I think that’s definitely something that I wanted to point out and critique in both books.
UR: I don’t have personal experience with it, but that also doesn’t mean that I’m judging someone for it. To further alienate those people who have been diagnosed with something like that — to stigmatize them or the disorder, making them feel like they should be ashamed of it or like they need to keep it a secret — is only making it worse. You’re making the person feel badly about themselves and there’s absolutely no reason for it. Anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder isn’t something people should be judged for or something they should be made to feel ashamed about.
JD: Exactly. Mental illness is no less an illness than diabetes or cancer. If you don’t treat it, it can kill you. It’s a disease like any other, but we sort of act as if it’s a character flaw in the person who has it. You don’t look at somebody with cancer or diabetes or asthma as if they have a character flaw. You just say “You have an illness, let’s treat it” and move on.
UR: Your book also takes on the whole issue of so-called gay conversion therapy, which I thought is so important to address, particularly since it is those kinds of things — along with the response to murder or sexual abuse — that can drive people like Sam not only away from the community but to this very angry, hateful place. To a militant place, really, in Sam’s case.
JD: Yeah, well I’ve met a few people who’ve been subjected to gay conversion therapy in the Haredi community. A man I know is actually currently involved in a big lawsuit against one of the major groups that offer this therapy. I wanted to explore how the experience of being told not only that your sexuality makes you evil, but I’ve been told that, in some cases, sexual abusers are able to find the children who are different — who maybe are gay — and victimize people like that. They already know that these kids are different and are going to be [used to] keeping secrets, because they’re going to have to keep their desires secret. So, there’s this overlap between already having this sense of “Oh, I’m a little different,” and then becoming a victim, and then becoming a victim [again] because no one in your family either believes you or is willing to fight for you. I wanted to sort of explore how that could really warp a person and turn them into an incredibly angry person, how it could really drive them to actions and emotions that they wouldn’t have if their family had embraced them — their sexuality — or protected them when they learned that they’d been a victim.
UR: And having known someone who is gay for many years now — since we were both about four-years-old — I have to say that this is such an important issue to touch on. I know that, from my perspective, it really seems as though they were under pressure to keep who they really are hidden from the community.
JD: Definitely, and in these strict communities it’s definitely not an environment of “If you’re gay, you’re okay.” I mean, it’s just not like that, just as it isn’t in many other religious communities. I’ve known people who are from devout Catholic families who’ve not been able to admit to their sexuality into their twenties. It’s certainly similar in very strict Baptist communities and Mormon communities. This idea that there’s something wrong with your sexuality, that it can be fixed, that you have some kind of illness, is just so corrosive. Like in Invisible City, I wanted to explore how untreated mental illness can really kind of destroy a person, I also wanted to explore being told who you are is evil can also destroy or really warp a person.
UR: And what I found interesting is that at one point in the book, one of the characters completely distorts the whole rationale for the lawsuit brought by Dov Lowenstein and some others who were forced to undergo gay conversion therapy. I mean, he literally says “I understand he had a bad time, but he’s hoping for a big payday.”
JD: Exactly, and there are many communities where you’ll see many people talk about the people who are either “involved in a lawsuit” or who are even just speaking out about their experience, and they’ll be dismissed. They’ll say “he’s mentally ill” or “he’s on drugs.” It’s much easier to dismiss them as a problem than to actually listen to what they’re saying.
UR: I just thought that was the understatement of the century but, at the same time, I think it captures this total disconnect that exists as well.
JD: Well, if you don’t really want to deal with what this person is talking about, then it’s easy enough to say “Oh, well. Everybody has a hard time. Why is he making such a drama about it?” Well, people make drama about things because they want to change things. Things don’t get changed unless people make drama.
UR: Which, it seems, escapes some individuals’ attention or is something they don’t want to acknowledge. Speaking of Sam, I also found it kind of interesting that he sort of feels as though Aviva left him. Yet, when you think about it, he’s really sort of going after the wrong person, because when she found out what was going on, she returns to the community to be closer to him and because she sees that his own family isn’t listening to him and doesn’t believe him. They’re more willing to listen to the rebbe and what he says — how he says you can’t report an incident unless you’ve seen it happen with your own two eyes. I mean, they are seriously questioning whether Sam is even telling the truth. Aviva’s the one who comes back and believes him and tries to be near him and form more of this bond with him. Yet, there’s this anger that she didn’t take him with her when she left Borough Park.
JD: Yeah. He’s an angry kid and has a lot of reason to be angry. I think that he, in some ways, gets angry at Aviva because he knows that she is safe. He knows she believes him and will eventually protect him. He knows that she’s been there for him, but he wishes she’d done more, and she wishes that she’d done more, too. Again, a lot of what I wanted to explore in the book was regret. How the way that you treat your family, and the way that your family treats you, can really impact your whole life and have consequences that reverberate far past what you think they might. Sam definitely is very angry at a lot of people, and he has the right to be. He’s young and needs to work through it in order to live a decent kind of life, but in this book he’s a very angry person.
UR: Speaking of Aviva, you also have this sense that there’s this relationship developing between her and Rebekah — or at least there’s more of an understanding of what was going on with her mom and why she did what she did.
JD: Absolutely. Obviously a person doesn’t just leave her child and I knew that there were reasons, even though, arguably, what she did was the wrong thing to do. But Rebekah didn’t know why she did it and — as a child especially — it was just easy to hate her mom and assume the worst. It was important to me to humanize Aviva — to give her some depth and some perspective on why she made the decisions she did, even though they’re decisions most people wouldn’t make.
UR: Not that she was this sort of one-dimensional character in the first book, but I think you really do have a better understanding of why she did what she did — even if you don’t agree with the decisions she made.
JD: Yeah. I wanted to flesh her out. It sort of felt like in Invisible City she was kind of the ghost in the book. I thought it was important to give her some humanity, some real motivations and that she isn’t just some awful, selfish person. She has reasons for doing what she did, even if maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do.
UR: And it sort of seems like she fled the community to avoid being locked into what she felt was the only option for a woman in her community — to be someone’s mom and husband, having as many kids as possible and supporting your husband in his Torah study or his work. Obviously, Torah study is this sort of ultimate pursuit for a man in that community. Then, she ends up in what she feels is the same — or very similar — position, even though she left. It’s as though here she was, running away from that life, and sort of finds herself in the same position — at least from her perspective — yet again.
JD: Right, and I think that just terrifies her. Even though the man she’s fallen in love with and got pregnant by was different from the men of her community, I don’t think she really understood that. She didn’t really know him well and probably assumed “Well, he’ll just become controlling and stern like I perceive the men in my community to be, and I’ll just be in the same life but a different place.” It just sort of was overwhelming and terrifying to her.
UR: I know that last time we spoke, I asked you about your influences, so this time I thought I’d go a different route. Are there any books you’d like to recommend?
JD: Well, I just finished Richard Price’s new book, The Whites. He is just so good and I think his last book was Lush Life, which had to be at least five or six years ago. I started reading The Whites and I kind of just thought “Oh my God. This is so good. Why am I even bothering writing books?” Not only is his language so beautiful, but his descriptions of people are so smart. His main characters are often police officers, and I know he’s been doing that for many years, and he’s just so good at it. I’ve started writing the third book in the series, which deals a little more with policing. It’s told partly from the point of view of Saul, so I’m trying to learn more about police officers, and reading Richard Price is such a master class. So, I just finished that. It was fantastic. I just started reading Don Winslow. I just started reading his first book. His most recent book, The Cartel, just came out and someone recommended to me that I read his first book. So, I just started that and so far it’s great, really just sort of fast-paced and he uses dialogue really well. It’s a really gritty book and I have to say I enjoy that. I’m also reading a book that came out last year, The Painter by Peter Heller, which is really beautiful. It came out right around the same time Invisible City did, so I would see it in the bookstores near my book and I bought it last year but I hadn’t read it. I just opened it last week. Like I said, the writing is just so beautiful. It’s really a joy to read.
UR: And now I have a few more that I can take a look at… right after I get through the three I’m in the middle of reading.
JD: I know. The one that’s on the top of my “To Be Read” pile is Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham. I don’t know if you know of her. She has just finished her trilogy of historical mysteries and they take place in New York City — I want to say in the late 1800s — and I met her briefly. She’s very cool, and I am just dying to read them because they’re supposed to be fantastic. I moved to New York City as an adult and fell in love with the city, so I’m a huge sucker for anything kind of New York City historical. Just imagining the city in the past is something that I love to do, so I can’t wait to start reading her series.
Julia Dahl is a journalist specializing in crime and criminal justice. Her first novel, Invisible City, was named one of the Boston Globe’s Best Books of 2014 and was a finalist for an Edgar Award and a Mary Higgins Clark Award. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and writes for CBSNews.com.
Invisible City is available now in hardcover, paperback and as an e-book. To learn more, visit www.juliadahl.com/books/invisible-city/.
Run You Down will be available from Minotaur Books on June 30, 2015 and is available for pre-order. To learn more about Run You Down, visit www.juliadahl.com/books/run-you-down/.
You can find out more about Julia, her debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books, 2014), and her forthcoming book, Run You Down (Minotaur Books, 2015) online at www.juliadahl.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juliadahl or find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JuliaDahlAuthor.
You can also find my 2014 interview with Julia regarding her debut novel, Invisible City, by going to http://www.urchicago.com/interviews/2014/7/17/julia-dahl.html.
This interview originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine.