January 23, 2011

Author Q&A: The survivors' stories

Ron Franscell's new book answers the question 'Whatever happened to ...' people who lived through some of the nation's notorious mass murders.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Ron Franscell happened to debut his new book, "Delivered From Evil," on the same day that Jared Loughner fatally shot six people in a rampage in Tucson, Ariz.

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San Antonio journalist Ron Franscell says that writing the book "Delivered From Evil" provided him "a great opportunity to talk about some players in the American crimescape that we seldom write about very deeply, and that is victims and survivors."

Q: The first story, about the Cohen family murders, was so heartbreaking. Did you ever meet Charles Cohen in person?

A: No, I never did, and let me explain that. In each of these cases, I spent from a week to 10 days with each survivor in their homes and towns, walking the killing grounds, going to all the places that were important, interviewing other people, as well as staying in constant touch with them for 15 months by e-mail and phone.

Charles Cohen was one of the first of the survivors that I contacted. Almost immediately we somehow connected on a much more interesting and intimate level, and we talked a lot. We e-mailed a lot, and sadly, every time something like this would happen – the Binghamton shootings, there were others – he would call me, usually within hours. And he wouldn't necessarily want to be talking about the details of a particular crime, but it had churned something up in him and he just wanted to talk. So we spent a lot of time talking on phone and visiting and going fairly deep into his heart and his mind. I felt that I knew him better than any of the subjects, and it turns out that ultimately I would never get to shake his hand. I was literally on the road to New Jersey when I got a call from his wife that he'd had a stroke. And the day I actually arrived in New Jersey. he died. So rather than attending an interview, I ended up attending his funeral. 

Q: I had never heard of this particular incident, which is something you touched on in your introduction. Why do you think we forget about these terrible events?

A: I think we're hard-wired to be shocked by mass murder. They often seem so senseless, and they tend to get our attention that way, in their senselessness. We're shocked. But in time, we also get complacent and then we forget. And then we get shocked all over again. To me, it kind of appears generational. Let me just offer this example: One of the three worst mass murders in American history, to this day, happened in 1927, and it was a bombing of a school in Bath, Mich., (by a) local, disgruntled taxpayer. Forty-five people, most of them kids, died in that bombing. Twenty-two years later, Howard Unruh comes along in Camden, N.J. and he shoots 13 people. He quickly got labeled the father of mass murder, as if we'd forgotten about Bath, Michigan, which again remains one of the worst mass murders in American history. But now Howard Unruh gets this label, as if he had invented it.

That was 1949. In 1966, Charles Whitman goes up the Texas tower and starts shooting people. Again, we offer a whole bunch breathless adjectives to this – it's the first, it's the worst. But it wasn't any of those things. Then you go another 20 years and you see the McDonald's massacre in 1984. And then in early 2007 you see Virginia Tech. And again, we keep heaping on as if these things were somehow completely different than anything that has ever happened before, when really from some distance they all look very similar. In fact, even this Tucson shooting, as tragic as it is, looks like a garden-variety mass murder. 

Q: Did writing this book make you look at the Tucson incident any differently?

A: When you look at these mass killers – and I looked at many more beyond these 10 – and then you look at the experience of the survivors, the way I look at Tucson first and foremost is with great sadness because I know what's ahead for the survivors. I know that within months, they're going to be left on their own. All the shows of support and the presidential words and everything else will have sort of echoed off in to the distance and they'll be left alone. And they'll be facing decades of various problems, including post-traumatic stress and nightmares and flashbacks.

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