Behind The Book: THE NEVER LIST

It started for me with The Silence of the Lambs.

Perhaps because I was at the prime age for abduction at the time, that book and film profoundly affected me. Before then, I hadn’t realized the true possibilities of depravity. Sure, I knew people went missing. I knew about rapes, assaults and murders, even grisly ones with naked bodies left in ditches. But The Silence of the Lambs was an entirely different order of horror. To this day, my brain is imprinted with the images of that basement pit, that bathtub, that sewing pattern.

It didn’t help when I discovered that 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. From then on, I lived with an overwhelming (if irrational) fear of sado-masochistic dungeons.

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 worked for me in other aspects of my life: I tried to learn every single thing about it. What could happen, how could it happen, who did it happen to, how could I be in control of 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 was stunned. I hadn’t suspected the world could be like that.

For a long time, I would obsessively check the Metro section of The New York Times for the latest news of the evils in the world. Then came the Internet. Crime blogs, chat rooms, every publication available at my fingertips. I was scared to look, but I thought it was good for me to know the new horrors I’d need to protect against. I continued for years with my secret little hobby, just keeping track, just taking note.

By 2008, I was calmer. I wasn’t as afraid once I’d aged out of the at-risk demo and was busy with my career as a lawyer, my family, and my life in New York City where no one ever had to be alone. I thought I’d put those fears behind me at last.

And then the Natascha Kampusch story broke. I will never forget that day. As I walked to the subway station, I glanced over at a newsstand. There it was, on the cover of one of the tabloid newspapers: the cluttered pink room where Natascha Kampusch was held for eight years. Before even reading the article, I somehow knew what that image meant. I felt sick and dizzy as I dropped my money on the counter and clutched the paper to me. 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. The evil of these stories was unfathomable to me, and, this time, I found it harder to set them aside and return to my regular life. For one thing, these stories focused on the victims’ lives in the aftermath of captivity, so I followed their progress long after the initial shocking press reports, awed by their resilience and bravery. But 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 and am heartbroken for these women–for what they’ve experienced, for the years they’ve lost, and for what lies ahead for them as they try to heal.

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.

Koethi Zan was born and raised in rural Alabama, then moved to New York City after earning a J.D. from Yale Law School. She practiced entertainment law for more than fifteen years, working in film, television, and theater, most recently at MTV. She now lives in upstate New York with her husband and children.