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Melanie R. Thernstrom '87 received a fair amount of press during her senior year at Harvard when she was offered the largest advance ever made by the American book industry for a first novel. A number of publishing houses bid for the creative thesis she had written as an English major, an intensely personal work about the disappearance and murder of her childhood friend.
That friend, Roberta Lee, grew up with Thernstrom in the small town of Lexington, Mass. Both literarily inclined children of professors, the two maintained a deeply personal and prolific correspondence when Lee went to college in northern California. In her first year at UC Berkeley, Lee suddenly disappeared. Thernstrom immediately went west to help in the search, to discover, weeks later, that Lee's sexually violated corpse was found buried in a shallow grave. Lee's boyfriend, Bradley Page, who had diligently helped in the search, confessed to the crime.
And now that Thernstrom's longawaited, first-person account is being published this week, she is again receiving a considerable amount of press. This time, however, it is largely negative. The Dead Girl is now condemned by the Lee family and some of the press as a hugely exploitative work.
This interview was conducted by telephone with Thernstrom, who currently teaches creative writing at Cornell.
One of the most difficult points to accept about the Dead Girl is that a human being is capable of committing a grisly act without being the embodiment of pure evil, or insane, as many of us have been brought up to believe...
[Yes.] I'm sure [Bradley Page] wasn't mad. When I arrived in California he picked me up at the airport. He helped poster. He slept in her bed and carried her teddy bear around with him. I don't believe he was crazy or that it was planned.
Some have said that the book is marketed sensationally. What do you think of the title?
I like the title. It was orginally titiled Mistakes of Metaphor and my friends still call it that, but my publicist thought it sounded like a grammar book. The present title was taken from a phrase in the book by my agent.
Why do you think so many people, especially Roberta's family, are angry that you wrote this very personal book?
They thought I should have fictionalized Roberta. But there is no point in writing a glossed version of your life. [Her own] family would have had me take out anything problematic. I wouldn't do that. There is nothing bad in trying to capture her. My primary loyalty and friendship was with Roberta, not her family.
The man who murdered Roberta, Bradley Page, was acquitted of murder, and convicted only on manslaughter charges. How do you feel about the fact that he is now free on bail?
I'm appalled at the justice system. He was convicted of killing her and sentenced to six years and is eligible for parole in two. I've heard of drug posession sentences much higher.
Because of your high advance from Pocket Books many are portraying the book as solely commercial...
I was shocked over the biding war over the manuscript, but that was separate from me. It was my agent that got so much money for it. I was not involved... I would have published it for free.
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