It's one thing to lose your mom shortly before your sixteenth birthday. It's another thing to know she was murdered. Blunt object to the mother's pretty skull, sixteen times, one for each year you've been alive. When they decide it’s your dad who did the murdering, nobody cares that you disagree. He is hauled off; you are farmed out. If you are wondering how this could get any worse, try living with this fact: you and your mother had not been getting along. Barely speaking, for almost two years.
These are the opening lines of My So-Called Ruined Life, a completed Young Adult novel. After losing the previous summer to tragedy, shock and grief, Tate McCoy, the protagonist, has been putting her life back together, and aims to make the most of her seventeenth summer. Her father’s trial has just begun, and Tate has no doubt about his innocence. While her alcoholic mother had always been difficult, Tate’s father, Arthur McCoy, could write the book on responsible parenting. He’s a child and family therapist and the founder of a non-profit called The Center for the Family.
Tate starts the summer with a good list of goals, an incredibly loyal and fun best girlfriend, Kale, and an aunt who is more like a friend/sister/surrogate mom. Along the way, she bonds with a little sister through volunteer work at Big Brothers/Big Sisters, takes swimming lessons, redecorates her studio apartment, goes camping with her aunt, hangs out with her best friend, and develops a crush on a boy. (Oops, that’s against one of her goals! She swears she will keep it platonic.) The boy, Sawyer, is both a swimming teacher and an aspiring journalist; he is attending the trial of her father as practice for becoming a reporter. When things in the case begin to make Sawyer doubt her father’s innocence, Tate feels betrayed and stops returning Sawyer’s calls.
While Tate is busy making the most of her summer, she overhears on occasion, people whispering about how “that poor girl’s life is ruined”. But readers will see that even though she wakes every day to the hard facts of her situation, she is also, concurrently, just a normal teenaged girl with typical teenaged concerns. Having published a lot of short fiction from an adolescent female perspective, I was inspired to write about Tate, an only child, dealing with this atypical horror against the backdrop of the more typical mundane highs and lows of adolescence.
Tate realizes, three-quarters of the way through the book, that her seemingly perfect father is guilty of the unthinkable after all. As she reconciles this reality, YA readers benefit from the knowledge that we not only have a choice in interpreting the events of our lives, but also in deciding just how we will proceed. Tate McCoy is a strong, smart and savvy heroine who triumphs over tragedy, defying the predictions of those in her community. She refuses to accept her life is ruined.
My So-Called Ruined Life
Excerpt for Contest Entry
Chapter 1 of Thirty-Three
It's one thing to lose your mom shortly before your sixteenth birthday. It's another thing to know she was murdered: blunt object to the mother's pretty skull, sixteen times, one for each year you've been alive. When they decide it’s your dad who did the murdering, nobody cares that you disagree. He is hauled off; you are farmed out. If you are wondering about now how this could get any worse, try living with this fact: you and your mother had not been getting along—barely speaking, for almost two years.
Saying it in second person doesn’t make it better. This didn’t happen to you, it happened to me. But some hypothetical you can use the terms “mother” and “mom,” which aren’t words that have come out of my mouth for some time. Since we’d stopped speaking, I’d referred to her as Carla. Like some distant relative, a second cousin twice removed, maybe someone I’d never even met. Therefore, someone I couldn’t possibly miss.
While I know there’s no way my dad did it, apparently dads far and wide are capable of this. If you watch TV shows like Dateline or 48 Hours, you will see how common it is for people to kill their spouses. Mostly it’s the men who kill the wives, but it happens the other way too. In fact, the minute someone is murdered, they will look first of all at the spouse. Some people who do this don’t even pretend to be grief-stricken. A man on the show calls up 911, says my wife’s dead on the floor, and doesn’t shed a tear.
I watch the shows not because they’re good. They are in fact some of the worst journalism you can find. I watch because my father is on trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Carla, and in the courtroom are reporters. These so-called reporters from 48 Hours and Dateline. have tried to talk to me. I watch to prepare myself for when my own family’s tragedy shows up as entertainment on primetime TV.
The shows are terrible even if the topic is usually riveting. They repeat everything a minimum of five times (I’ve counted) and after each commercial break they review the tale from the beginning, in case someone has just decided to tune in, mid-show. They flash the same pictures on the screen, over and over—the woman, beautiful and happy, smiling with her children. Family portraits where you’d never dream someone was thinking of killing someone else in the photo. And then there are the graphic crime scene pictures—blood-soaked carpets and mattresses—a body on the laundry room floor. They interview friends of the deceased who usually say something like the minute they heard she’d been killed, they knew it was him. Sometimes, if the producers of the show are lucky, the friend is able to provide a letter in which the woman wrote those very words: If ever I turn up dead, he’s the one who did it! I fear for my life everyday. That sort of thing.
Lots of the people who commit these crimes do so because they have fallen in love with someone else and think the only way out of one marriage and into another is to kill the spouse who stands in the way of the new improved model. Again, this stuff seems obvious to me, but who would want to become the new wife of a man who just offed the first one? What is to stop him from later doing the same thing to you? People have no sense. And how is it that people get married to someone they’re later going to want to kill? Why does a woman ever stay married to a man who makes her fear for her life? And why, as in many of these badly televised cases, does the husband think the only way out of a marriage is to murder the wife? Hello? People! Ever heard of divorce?
My parents were divorced for two years when our murder happened, and they’d been separated for ten. My dad had no other lover, not that she would’ve cared if he did. She’d fooled around for their whole marriage, and would not have had a leg to stand on. So there is no reason my father would’ve needed to get her out of the way. She’s the one who wanted the divorce in the first place, and their split was what they call amicable. So it doesn’t add up. Everyone you talk to in this town is pretty much of the mind that they rushed to accuse my dad, because when there are gory-ass murders of gorgeous women, people want someone behind bars—now.
I don’t go to court every day like my dad’s brothers do. At least one of them is there at all times—they do shifts. I’ve gone twice, and that was enough. Everyone thinks I don’t go because it’s a horrible thing for a kid to see and think about. But 1) I am not a kid. I’ll be a junior next year; and 2) I’m not so delicate that I couldn’t face it if I wanted to; and 3) Hard as it is for people to fathom, I am over the initial shock of all this—the murder was a year ago last month: June 12th. A year is a very long time. I don’t go for a lot of reasons. I don’t go because I hate all the whispering about the poor daughter, and I don’t go because I get tired of dodging those nosy reporters, but mostly I don’t go because it seems like a waste of a summer, and I already lost last summer to this whole ordeal. I’ve got stuff I want to do. Besides, I think it’s more helpful to my dad if I visit him, when we can have conversations, than it is to see him during the trial, when even smiling at the defendant from across the room is discouraged.
Among the many horrible things about this situation is all the therapy that gets forced on you, and I’m not even opposed to therapy in general—I think it’s great and necessary and everyone should try it at least once. But enough can be enough. Pretty much everyone thinks I should be in therapy for the rest of my supposedly ruined life. I’m supposed to turn out a whack job due to all this. I’m hanging in there, thank you very much. The relatives on both sides of the family are concerned: if I’m upset, they worry about me; if I’m not upset, they worry about me. There are only so many times you can rehash the story with a therapist, telling her how it all felt every step of the way. It’s repetitious; it starts to be as boring as Dateline.
Probably the worst of the repercussions and aftershocks was when my boyfriend, Jasper (Finch is his last name), broke up with me. His parents put me up for the first month after it all happened. They’re good people. But it freaked them out—I mean who wouldn’t be freaked out by a murder like this in their neighborhood? Everything that had been great between me and Jasper got overshadowed by it. Nobody wants to date a girl who has 1) mandatory therapy; 2) a mom in the grave; and 3) a dad in jail. I give people the heebie-jeebies. I’m a walking reminder of the whole mess.
After the month at the Finches, and the break-up, I convinced my dad and my Aunt Greta to let me go back to where I’d been living before all this happened: my dad’s guest house. For my 9th grade graduation present, my dad had turned over the key. He used to rent it during the school year to college students, but he finally caved and let me have it. He was moments away in the main house, but I had my own space. I could go over there and eat with him or fix something in my own mini-kitchen. It’s what every teenager dreams of—freedom, privacy, autonomy. A door that locks and no one messing with your shit.
I’d only lived there for one month when the world fell apart. I begged to be able to move back in. So the deal is, for now anyway, someone from my mom or dad’s family is in the main house at all times. They take turns. And I get my little studio in the back. This took a lot of convincing. Everyone is waiting for me to completely disintegrate. Delayed reaction to loss. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I intend to make more of this summer than I made of the last one. I have goals up on a chart in my room. I first had them written in my notebook but it was my best friend Kale who saidwrite them bigger and put them on the wall where they will stare at you every day. So I did.
1. Learn to swim laps (and then swim weekly)
2. Do some kind of volunteer work
3. Research colleges (and study for SATs)
4. Go camping with Aunt Greta (as much as possible!)
5. Find a part-time job (save money!)
6. No more boyfriends till I figure out my life (give it six months)
7. Be there for Dad (visit, bring favorite foods)
8. Redecorate studio (paint, get cool furniture)
9. Keep it neat (or else they will take it away!)
10.Become a vegan (and buy vegan cookbook)
Obviously Kale influenced #1 and #10. She’s vegan and has been trying to get me to be. And she’s learned to swim laps and does it for meditative reasons. She tells me there’s nothing quite like the calm and the rhythm you reach after the first mile. You find your buoyancy, apparently, and it’s just heaven once you get the hang of it. If it works for Kale, I’m willing to try it. Kale named herself after her favorite leafy green. Up until tenth grade, Kale was Karen. She never liked that name.
My name’s Tate—Tate McCoy--and I like it just fine.
Love it, Melanie!!! Your characters and situation are being skillfully developed with authenticity and panache. I love your protagonist. You've got me hooked, and I know you'll publish it. I look forward to that day.
Thank you , Cindy, for the vote of confidence!