It started for me with The Silence of the Lambs.
Perhaps because I was at the prime age for abduction at the time, that film profoundly affected me. The Silence of the Lambs was an entirely different order of horror than the stories I’d heard of the missing and murdered. To this day, my brain is imprinted with the images of that basement pit, that bathtub, that sewing pattern.
It didn’t help to learn Harris’s book was based on actual serial killers: Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Edmund Kamper, among others. The story may have been fiction, but the details were real. Of course I knew the odds of abduction were infinitesimally low. But the bad outcome was so devastating I couldn’t put it out of my mind. So I did what usually worked for me: I tried to learn every single thing about it.
My research led me down the darkest paths of humanity: from Fred West to BTK to Richard Ramirez and dozens of others, their victims chained, bound, tortured, abused, and murdered in unimaginably perverse ways. I hadn’t suspected the world could be like that. And for years, I followed every news story in the papers, on the internet, and in true crime books.
Over a decade later, just as my fears had begun to subside, the Natascha Kampusch story broke. I saw it on the cover of one of the tabloid newspapers: the cluttered pink room where she was held for eight years. Before even reading the article, I somehow knew what that image meant. I didn’t get any work done that day. I shut the door to my office high above Times Square and cried for this girl I didn’t know.
Then, not even two years later, the Elisabeth Fritzl case came to light, and a year after that, Jaycee Lee Dugard. Each time, I found it harder to set them aside. I followed these victims’ stories in the aftermath of captivity long after the initial shocking press reports. After years of dreading the very things they’d lived through, I couldn’t stop thinking: how is it possible to go on after the worst has happened?
I wrote The Never List in part to try to answer that question—by creating a heroine who had lived through abduction and was still struggling to get over it ten years later. In writing her story, I dug deep into the psychology of trauma and recovery. In the process, I realized that writing the book was a way for me to confront my anxieties, even as my character confronted hers.
And then, after two and a half years of writing and editing The Never List, a book about four women held captive in a sado-masochistic dungeon together, the Cleveland kidnapping story came to light. In my book, I had written the story of my deepest, darkest fears, and now here were these women who had survived circumstances disturbingly similar to those I’d invented. I’m still in shock.
I would never presume to know what any of these women have gone through. The Never List is fiction, and their stories are all too real. All I can say is that their courage and fortitude are miraculous to me. And the most I can do is share my compassion for all the victims of such awful tragedies, and hope that our collective struggle to understand them is not without purpose.
The Never List by Koethi Zan is out now from Harvill Secker. To discover more about the book visit deadgoodbooks.co.uk