Last night, I watched the very compelling documentary "Light In the Darkness," on my PBS station. Produced by the grassroots anti-hate organization, Not In Our Town, this documentary strives to tell the story of the Marcelo Lucero murder and the affect of this terrible murder by a group of teens on the town of Patchogue-Medford in Long Island. I think it covered a lot of ground in a very effective way; it told the story of a town, working very hard to find 'answers' on how to move forward after a vicious hate crime.
As I watched, I thought again, for the hundredth time, why did it happen here, on Long Island? Why, in this very decent middle class suburb? What were these kids, their parents, their teachers, the principal, the police thinking before, during, after the crime? How could these kids, and they were all high school kids -- on a regular basis, often on a weekly basis by their own admission-- beat up Hispanics at random -- for no reason other than that they were Hispanic -- why did this happen here?
Some may find this book 'difficult.' Yes, it deals with a 'difficult' subject: Racism in American suburbs. What can I say? It's true. It's inspired by real hate crimes -- most notably. the murder of Marcelo Lucero on Long Island in November of 2009. He was stabbed and beaten to death by a group of teenagers, who called the weekly sprees, 'beaner-hopping.' If you are looking for a beach read, this isn't it. If you want the next paranormal romance with vampires/zombies/werewolves, this isn't it.
Some may say that there are too many characters. There are 10 distinct first person points of views, including five teen and five adult, including three Hispanics. I felt compelled to delve into, through multiple voices, the psychology of this town. Each person is grappling, often desperately alone, with the aftermath of this crime. I feel this is the story of a community as much as anyone individual. I did not interview or even attempt to interview anyone from the town. This is where I felt fiction had to take over. I had to create characters so I could explore their motivations, pain, angst, anger, grief, struggle to do right or not. The main character, Skylar and Sean, are grappling with big questions of morality, of right and wrong, of keeping quiet, or outright lying.
According to the documentary, the 'real' high school kids in Patchogue-Medford struggled with this too -- they kept their code of silence. No high school kid came forward to tell an adult about what they knew about these repeated, often weekly, sprees. This sentiment is echoed strongly in one character, Lisa Marie, who repeatedly says, "Everyone knows, nobody's talking." I had read or heard about this community 'shut down' and it came alive in this line.
All through writing my debut young adult novel, I kept asking myself how could this happen? Not only how could these beatings happen, but how could everyone keep silent? This crime wasn't an isolated hate crime. I knew that from my research of news articles. I did know from research with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who I thank in my novel, that, not only could this happen here, but there had been a pattern of hate crimes on Long Island -- and a pattern of police indifference. The police in the area routinely ignored or lacked follow up on crimes against Hispanics, that too was in the documentary and has been in several news reports. But it also cried out to me to have a policeman in my story basically saying this. Currently, in real life, the federal government is conducting a probe of the Suffolk County police department based on their conduct in hate crimes. To their credit, according to the documentary and news reports, the Suffolk County Police are taking many steps toward rectifying this situation.
At every turn, I felt that each character embodied some small truth that fit into the larger picture, and only that way, with multiple voices, could a fuller picture of this community be drawn. Of course, then each character had to be as fully developed a character as I could write. You will not find 'easy' good or bad characters in the story, every character is multidimensional, struggling to find answers. In one way, I hope LIE, is an 'Our Town," for the 21st century.
Yes, LIE is not an easy book. I didn't write it to be easy. It's not a comfortable, cozy read. There are lots of those books around, if that's what you want, and I read them too. But I am hoping LIE will offer a radically different reading experience. I hope it will make the reader think: What would I have done in I was in Skylar's place? If I was in Sean's place? Or, if I'm an adult reading this, if I was their father, or mother, or teacher, or Coach, what would I have done or said? No one, none of the ten characters has all the answers at the end, not even the writer. You may not 'like' all these characters, but I hope the reader gives themselves permission to live with them for a while, to argue with them, to feel what they are feeling.
Ultimately, this well-made documentary, "Light in the Darkness," brought a lot of light on this town, on hate and racism in the suburbs. I just wish it had gone further. But a hour is a very short time to go very deep in television. That's the role of fiction, or at least my fiction.
I urge you to read LIE, and judge for yourself, how much farther fiction must go.