Back Story for She Was
I was reading the Sunday paper in my bathrobe. It was May. It was 2001. The article was about a fifty-something soccer mom in Minnesota who had been arrested for planting a bomb that never went off in a police car tailpipe back in the early 1970s. From where I sat that morning, before the twin towers fell and before we went to war in Iraq, it was hard to recall the emotions and events that fueled the anti-war, anti-establishment protests of the 70s. Still, enough residual flavor of the rock star status of those radicals drifted up through the decades to pique my interest.
A neighbor walked down the alley and waved.
“Hey, did you read this article about the SLA member from the 70s who’s been caught?” I called out, waving the Sunday Times.
My neighbor opened the gate and let himself in. “The one in Minnesota?” he asked, carefully.
“Yeah. Turns out she’s Kathleen Soliah.”
“She’s Sara Jane Olson. She’s married to my brother-in-law’s brother, Fred. They have three daughters. I know them.”
I was stunned. I had met several members of my neighbor’s extended family. They seemed like fairly ordinary midwesterners to me. Who knew they’d been harboring a fugitive?
“Did you know who she was?”
“No. Nobody did. Not even her family.”
“Not even her husband?”
“No, not even her husband.”
Suddenly I was fascinated. I began to imagine what it would be like to be a woman (not Sara Jane Olson, but a fictional woman) who had changed her identity and didn’t tell anyone for more than two decades. What would it be like to commit a political crime? Would you regret it? Would you still believe in the causes that brought you to such a place? And if you hid yourself in a marriage, did that mean the marriage was a lie?
In the meantime, the World Trade Center was attacked and we went to war in Afghanistan. Then we went to war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction only to find out that there weren’t really any such weapons.
I started doing the research for She Was in 2005. All around me people were talking about how to speak out against an administration that lied, how to oppose a wrongheaded war. People started saying that the boomer generation thought it had succeeded but the current situation showed it hadn’t. Now I had no problem revisiting the emotions that fueled the Vietnam war protests, the free speech movement and anti-establishment activities by people like Kathleen Soliah. I saw correlations everywhere: Nixon and Bush, Vietnam and Iraq, the Military Industrial Complex and Halliburton. Now, I imagined what it would be like to have committed a political crime in 1971 only to be caught in 2005 when everything that was relevant in the 60s and 70s was relevant once again.
It was from that position that I wrote She Was.