How Writing Became My Therapy by Liz Lazarus
Liz Lazarus’s debut psychological thriller, Free of Malice, was inspired by events that happened during her senior year of college. Lazarus describes the experience and how it shaped her writing. Note: The following guest blog post describes a woman’s experience with sexual assault. It contains some graphic language.
My senior year of college. I was living in a small house in Home Park, just off the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta. It was a spring evening like any other and I was getting ready for bed when I had a weird feeling. I yanked back the curtains to see if anyone was outside but just saw darkness. Not able to shake the odd feeling, I did two things outside my normal routine. First, I changed clothes in the bathroom and secondly, I locked the flimsy bar latch to my bedroom door.
Then, I went to sleep.
Around 4 am, I awoke to the sound of my bedroom door crashing open. Instantly, I was jolted from a deep sleep to sitting upright in bed. As I looked to the source of the noise, I saw a black silhouette in the doorway and felt his sinister vibe radiating toward me.
I instinctively screamed as he charged at me. I screamed with all my vigor, promising myself not to stop until he was gone. He leaped on top of me and threw me from the bed to the floor. I remember feeling pinned on my back against the hardwood surface with him panting on top of me. His acrid smell permeated the air as he yanked my cotton T-shirt above my waist exposing my bare body.
I remember thinking of my older sister. She knew self-defense and had taught a workshop to all of her freshman students, including me. Like a panicked, cornered animal, I began to fight back. I tried to knee him in the crotch, but he had my legs spread and pinned outside of his. With the weight of his body on top of me, I couldn’t move my legs at all.
I remembered my sister saying, “Pretend to caress his hair at the temples and then dig his eyes out with your thumbnail.” At the time, I couldn’t imagine doing that to anyone, not even a rapist. Now I had no qualms about gouging his eyeballs out of their sockets. I pulled my left hand from my side and went straight for his right eye with a hooked thumb. He reacted quickly, latching on to my ring and pinky fingers with his teeth. He bit into my flesh and shook his head violently like a wild dog devouring its prey. He did not seem human, but like a rabid beast attacking me in the night.
I jerked my hand from his teeth ripping my knuckles. I needed to find some means of defense. I looked through the bedroom doorway where the only meager light shone from the outside street lamp slightly illuminating the den. I screamed even louder hoping my neighbors might hear. He snarled and pressed his palm over my mouth to quiet me, but I grabbed his wrist with my bloody hand and shoved it away with more ease than I expected. My voice was the only defense I had left.
He, too, must have been surprised by my tenacity because he did not try to quiet me again. Instead, he spoke to me for the first time. In a hurried whisper he said, “If you shut up, I’ll leave.”
Leave? I was dumbfounded. He was willing to leave? By speaking, this beast had become human, actually showing signs of weakness as he tried to negotiate rather than enforce my silence. I remember thinking that he must be crazy if he thinks I’ll stop screaming. Now I felt I had some power over the situation. I screamed even louder.
With that, he jumped up and bolted from the bedroom, through the den and out the front door.
I was stunned. Was he actually leaving? Had I struggled that hard? Was he afraid the neighbors had heard my screams? Were my screams even loud enough? I couldn’t tell.
With his weight off of me, I sat upright, pressing my palms against the floor for support. I pulled my T-shirt down to my thighs smearing blood from my fingers on the white cotton. I remember looking at my extended legs and feeling like they were tree trunks. For a moment I was immobilized.
All of the sudden, I realized he was getting away.
I swiveled around and faced the nightstand. Opening the top drawer, I fumbled around until I felt a long, cold metal cylinder. There it was—my can of Mace. And, as if on autopilot, I stood up, rounded the edge of the bed and found myself running through the den to the front door.
I stood on the porch—barefoot, bloodied, tangled hair—screaming with what was left of my voice. I could see him running away down the street and watched as he disappeared into the darkness.
The police came and found where he had broken open the kitchen window. We also found one of my steak knives wrapped in a cloth on the bedroom floor—thank goodness I didn’t realize he had a knife at the time. We also discovered that he had perused through my housemate’s personal photos and belongings—she wasn’t home that night. Sadly, they never caught the guy and no doubt he has attacked again.
To help heal from the trauma, I started to journal about how I was feeling. Unbeknownst to me at the time, writing about what happened and my anxiety was the beginning of my novel. For example, because he had a knife, I could no longer leave a knife out in the open. I could no longer wear the same clothes to bed—I didn’t feel safe in just a T-shirt and underwear. I couldn’t sleep in the dark—all the lights had to be on, and there were many more.
Over time, I began to recover. I never went to therapy like my character in the book, but the changes to my life were the fodder for my character’s feelings.
Not long after, I said to my brother-in-law that I wished I had owned a gun instead of a can of Mace. I would have shot the guy as he was leaving. My brother-in-law, a volunteer deputy, countered that I was fortunate I didn’t—that shooting a fleeing criminal may not have been deemed self-defense.
His remark launched my research and inspired the idea for my novel, Free of Malice. In the book, the female protagonist, Laura Holland, is attacked in her home, much like my ordeal. Like me, she innocently thinks she could have shot her assailant as he was leaving, claimed self-defense and gone on with her life.
When she learns that she might have been arrested, she decides to write a hypothetical legal story using the events of that night to make her case. She enlists the help of a criminal defense attorney, Thomas Bennett, who proves to be savvy in the rules of justice system, but he physically resembles her attacker. Her discomfort escalates as he seems to know more about her and that night than he should. Is Laura being hyper-vigilant or could he actually be the guy?
No spoilers here so I’ll leave the rest for you to discover.
To close, when asked if it was difficult to write this novel, the answer is a resounding no. It was a calling if you will. And I refuse to allow one night of terror to take credit for the creativity that has come from it. Rather, I choose to believe that my creativity was the grace that helped me to heal.
Liz Lazarus is author of Free of Malice, a psychological, legal thriller loosely based on her personal experience. She was born in Valdosta, Georgia, graduated from Georgia Tech with an engineering degree and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern with an MBA in their executive master’s program. She spent most of her career at General Electric’s Healthcare division and is currently a Managing Director at a strategic planning consulting firm in addition to being an author.
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