INTERVIEW: Kristine S. Ervin, Author of Rabbit Heart: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Story

Interview by Dorothy Rice

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cover of rabbit heart by kristine S ervin; close-up of rabbit faceKristine Ervin’s website describes her as a writer, swimmer, and author of Rabbit Heart: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Story (Counterpoint Press; March 2024). She is also a generous and insightful interview subject, all of which came as no surprise to me after reading her poignant and moving debut memoir.

Kristine was just eight years old when two men abducted her mother from a shopping mall in Oklahoma City, drove her to a distant oilfield, and murdered her. First, there was grief. Then the desire to know what happened to her, what she felt in her last, terrible moments, and who she was before these acts of violence defined her life.

As more information about her mother’s death comes to light and detectives continue working on the cold case, Kristine’s drive to know her mother intensifies, winding its way into her own fraught adolescence. She reckons with contradictions of what a woman is allowed to be—a self beyond the roles of wife, mother, daughter, victim—what a “true” victim is supposed to look like, and, finally, how complicated, and elusive justice can be.

Written in fearless, often poetic prose, Rabbit Heart weaves together themes of power, gender, and justice into a manifesto of grief and reclamation. As the author reminds us—and also demonstrates in her life and teaching—our stories do not need to be simple to be true, and there is power in the telling.

An associate professor at West Chester University outside Philadelphia, Kristine holds an MFA in poetry from New York University and a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature, with a focus in nonfiction, from the University of Houston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Crimereads, Crab Orchard Review, Brevity, Passages North, and Silk Road. Her essay “Cleaving To,” was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2013.


Dorothy Rice: Rabbit Heart struck me as an extremely difficult memoir to write. For many reasons. Among them, that your mother’s kidnapping and murder happened when you were so young, then to have the details slowly and painfully revealed over decades, with the search stalling for years at a time.  

Yet despite the long timeframe, the narrative never lags—I read it through the first time so fast, I had to read it again, more slowly, taking notes, before I felt prepared to speak with you today.

Kristine Ervin: Honestly, I have been surprised by how quickly people have been reading it. Rabbit Heart was a slow write, a slow journey. I wrote at a slow pace and I haven’t let go of that pace. Friends—primarily friends—have messaged me that they just got their copy. Then they have messaged the very next day to say that they finished the book already. They weren’t supposed to read it so quickly!

I meant it be a slow read, in part because the story is violent, and there is so much pain and grief. It seems so intense. But perhaps that’s why they are reading it quickly.

DR: I internalized so much more with the second read, and it affected me in a more intense way, more viscerally. I internalized the narrator’s personal story more. Few have experienced what your mother did, but too many have experienced what you did—meaning sexual assault and the kind of abuse that leaves scars of shame and guilt, wounds that aren’t always visible on the outside and that aren’t always believed or taken seriously for that reason.

KE: Right—and unfortunately it doesn’t seem as if it the world is changing. I think about that Rukeyser quote about a woman speaking truthfully about her experience and the world splitting open. (editor’s note: Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-1980 “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”) In some ways it does change, through our naming the experience, and the shared experience that we have as women, but not in terms of really moving the needle of the patriarchy.

At my university I teach a creative writing class called Breaking Silences, and what I have learned is that while my mother’s experience was unique, my experience isn’t. What I did not anticipate and perhaps should have, is that about 85% of the narratives my students ultimately write are about abuse of some form. And while it is exhausting to encounter narrative after narrative of pain, and to also bear witness to their pain, the agency that comes from breaking those silences and the community that builds within the class, is deeply inspiring.

When I have my moments of feeling vulnerable for having put Rabbit Heart out into the world, I think about these students and the trust they have placed in me and in one another and the newfound agency they’ve acquired. It’s inspiring.

Kristine S Ervin

Photo by Jon Ervin

DR: Your Breaking Silences class sounds amazing. It reminds of the Amherst Writers and Authors Method (AWA) and a class I assisted a professor with at Sacramento City College called Writing as a Healing Art which used free writing and prompts to facilitate writing about painful topics and sharing in a safe, judgement free environment.

KE: I actually stole the title. I’ll give credit where credit is due. There was an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) panel at the 2014 conference—Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion, moderated by Janice Gray. I designed the class inspired by the themes of that panel.

There were six memoirs on our reading list and around 25 students, all women and I think one male student. The students did a creative project about silences broken, which could be in any medium, as long as it was creative, with a critical preface describing how the project connected to our course theme (what silence they were hoping to break—personal, cultural or both). And at the end of the project, the students shared their work with the group, in a sense breaking their personal silence with their peers as their witnesses.

(Editor’s note—memoirs Kristine has used in this class include: Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston; Bone Black by bell hooks; The Other Side by Lacy Johnson; Spy Daughter, Queer Girl by Leslie Absher; My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta; Bright Felon by Kazim Ali; Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard; and, The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison.)

I’ve taught some version of my Breaking Silences course four times now under different course headings. It’s been the most powerful, empowering and magical class of my teaching career. Honestly, I can’t speak about it without tearing up. The last time I taught it one of the students, in reading their personal narrative, started crying; they couldn’t continue, and the student sitting next to them said, I’ll finish it for you and took it from them; that wasn’t anything I’d directed them to do—it just arose from the sense of community the class had created.

At my book launch for Rabbit Heart, the West Chester University creative writing faculty did an incredible job putting the event together. There were so many layers of meaning, support and love in that room. In planning the reading, they asked me who I wanted to open the event. I said that I wanted some students from my Breaking Silences class. Three students read: one from a class ten years ago, one from last year, and a current student. By the time they were done and I had to read, I was already weeping. But to hear their voices again and to bear witness to their silences being broken and their strength, in front of an audience of 140-150 people they didn’t know, it was amazing.

I’m so very lucky to bear witness and to have been part of their journeys and that they were part of mine with Rabbit Heart. I’m doing the work to turn Breaking Silences into a permanent course. It’s basically two years of bureaucracy. (Laughs.)

DR: But it’s so important. Have you always known you would write this memoir?

 KE: Memoir no. This story yes. In some form. My first poem at thirteen was about when my father came into my room and told me about my mother’s abduction.

When we finally got the DNA match, that changed the entire trajectory of the memoir and I was able to see what the book would be. Finally, I had a narrative arc, which I didn’t have before. I’d had an elliptical, brutal unrelenting form of grief, but I did not have a resolution to the case itself, and so it was a very different project before the DNA match. It took me so long to see what it needed to be.

I certainly didn’t go into the memoir knowing it would be as much about power as what it’s become. That’s really what it’s evolved into, not only about grief, not only about death and the different versions of my mother’s death and navigating those versions but it really became about power and agency and the effects of gendered violence. That was the path Rabbit Heart took, and I’m pleased about that, because it does engage those broader conversations.

I didn’t see until much later how my father is part of that journey through powerlessness and the need for agency and affirmation. How my experiences with men, including the men in my family, are all connected to different types of silence and silencing.

kristine ervin reading at a podium

Kristine at her book launch.

DR: You grew up in Oklahoma, where women were treated a certain way and expected to behave and respond a certain way and how girls and women internalized those expectations and behaviors.

KE: Yes, it was deeply conservative. The way that shame is internalized there is certainly connected to religion. Oklahoma is the backdrop for the violence my mother experienced and that I experienced. It’s a landscape I love—the red dirt, the land. It’s a land I am deeply attached to, and that I can never return to.

 DR: There is a touching scene early in the memoir when the narrator’s father has a girlfriend and we see the young “you” interact with a new woman in the house. The absence of women to talk to is palpable in the narrative. Did she the narrator have girlfriends.

KE: I had girlfriends growing up and as a teenager. We talked about experiences with boys, sexual experiences. One girl friend, she and I were both victims of different teachers, one who has since been charged with rape of a minor (thirty years after my experience). There were other girls experiencing similar things and we did talk about it, but we didn’t have an understanding that this was violence—we thought we had agency; we thought this was what we wanted.

There wasn’t a support system that would get us out of patriarchy, that would have allowed us or enabled us to see that what we were experiencing wasn’t OK. Because we were fourteen-year-old girls telling other fourteen-year-old girls what was happening; it was a closed loop. So, yes, I had girls around me, so I didn’t feel completely alone, but the experience was, yes, I have agency here—I am being desired, this is what girls want, right?

Even my creative writing teacher, a woman I am still in contact with (she will be doing my book event in Oklahoma City) said something like, “Oh, I remember you talking about your neighbor and what a hunk he was.” That was my narrative as a teenager, that I had this hot guy living next door, this guy I have a crush on, and my girlfriends think he’s hot too and they have a crush on him too.

DR: I get it. I was raped by an older guy when I was fifteen. I didn’t tell. In part because he was “hot” and also I kept seeing him, in secret. My best friend was raped that same year. Neither of us told anyone. She was thirteen. We both carried our “secrets” for fifty years.

KE: I was just talking about this with someone the other day, what we wish for our daughters, granddaughters, nieces. There are many reasons I’ve decided not to have children. So many reasons, from practical ones to not so practical ones. One is, I am deeply terrified to have a daughter and be unable to protect her.

Someone who is very dear to me has recently experienced assault and was afraid to tell me.  She was afraid I would be disappointed in her because, and these were her words, “because you gave me all the tools.” I have spoken to her about agency and the patriarchy. I had not been silent around that subject matter and it was not enough to protect her and it still breaks my heart. Here is someone at a moment when she needs support, and she needs women. She feels shame even after all the ways I’ve tried to show her she isn’t to blame for what happened to her.

DR: That’s still inside for too many girls, too many women. How we, women, girls, don’t feel good enough, strong enough, to stand up for ourselves, to protect ourselves, to say no.

KE: I can’t imagine how it would feel if I had a daughter. This is close enough. She and I have a strong, beautiful connection, but I cannot imagine what it feels like to have a daughter and know she’s gone through something like this.

That’s why I have dogs.

DR: They break your heart too.

(Laughs.) They do. But it’s different.

I was in a sorority. (Laughs again.) My students find this hard to believe. I talk with them about personas. How who you are as a daughter isn’t the same person you are as a teacher or a friend—how all these personas are slivers or elements of yourself.

They just can’t reckon with Dr. Ervin “sorority sister.” It’s just so funny to me. But you know, my sorority sisters knew about my neighbors—Lee in particular. They gave me a Reader’s Digest article “Sex After Thirty.” So for them, my teenage relationship with an “older man” was not associated with power. As a woman you gain experience and you see how the patriarchy is embedded throughout the culture. Then you begin to realize there’s a power dynamic here I didn’t understand at the time; nor did my sorority sisters. They thought it was something to joke about. That I was with older men who were not kind or gentle and, as I would later learn, were well aware of how vulnerable I was.

DR: Perhaps this speaks to your facility with personas. Valedictorian in high school. Perhaps you were perceived by other girls your age as beautiful and popular because you had older boyfriends. Are those some of the reasons your father didn’t intervene, why he didn’t see the signs he would later say he was looking for to decide whether you needed help (when clearly you did)? Was there at least family or individual counseling for you and your brother after your mother’s murder?

Yes. That was all part of the performance and on the outside I was a good kid. When I did start getting in trouble, for shoplifting (a cool black bikini in high school that I still love), I saw a counselor, but even then, my memory is that I was performing for the therapist, going through the motions, not revealing.

The therapist concluded I wasn’t opening up to my father, or to anyone.  All the deep fears I had about my body, about being a girl, I didn’t have any way to articulate that; I felt it but I had no idea how to go to my father and ask is my body normal. I certainly didn’t have an awareness that I was seeking affirmation through painful intimacy with men, let alone the words to describe those scary impulses—not to my father, not to a therapist, not to anyone.

DR: Nor does it seem your father had the tools to have heard those kinds of revelations or to have known how to respond in any way that would have helped you.

KE: No! He didn’t have the tools or support he needed to help himself, let alone me or my brother. He woke up from a nap to police on the porch telling him his wife had been kidnapped. He woke up to being a single father with two grieving kids.

His sisters live in other states. He was alone in this. He didn’t know what to do. At my first dance recital without Mom, he was in a room with girls and their mothers doing their hair and makeup and he had no idea how to comfort me. I never danced again. I feel for him. It was hard for all of us.

DR:  I assume you changed names in the book. Did the publisher require you to do that?

KE: Required is too strong a word; it was strongly recommended. Not so much about legal concerns, as all the responsibility is on me, not the publisher. The publisher’s perspective is that when you don’t change names, the conversation around the book, and the themes of the book, can be subverted by family members and others who may take to social media.

I’m conflicted about it because if we don’t name names we don’t move forward as a culture, but I didn’t want the messages of Rabbit Heart to be lost. Names that are a matter of public record remained the same (such as those named in court records and newspaper articles). Some names were changed to give family members some distance as the story becomes public in a different way, and some people are just very private and I want to respect that.

DR: Were family members supportive of Rabbit Heart being published?

KE: That depends on how you define support. I am not close to family on either side. We get together at weddings and funerals. I emailed my Iowa family—as I think of them, my mother’s family—when I had a publishing deal and said, this is happening—Rabbit Heart will go into details about Mom’s death, some of them graphic. And some of you may find it difficult to read about my experience. So my recommendation to some of you is that you don’t read the book.

They aren’t listening. I have received a few responses. We are so proud of you. This is great. I’m going to read it anyway. I’ve ordered my copy.

 But I don’t have the kind of support from my family in terms of really feeling understood and seen. That’s what I gain from my community of women, writers, students and friends. And I guess I’m OK with that.

DR: What about your brother?

KE: There’s a quote in Rabbit Heart that expresses his point of view. He thinks the same things I think. The difference is that he isn’t one to openly express his feelings. Then you take me, who not only openly expresses what I’m thinking, but now I’ve put it out into the world and there’s a huge disconnect. We approach our grief very differently. That’s where I don’t think I will ever feel seen within my family. That’s where I don’t think he can understand why I have been compelled to craft the story and put it out there.

I was in Oklahoma for spring break. I gave him a copy of Rabbit Heart. He was in a casual conversation with some friends. When the subject of my memoir came up, he said, “But it’s a really sad story. I have no idea why my sister would want to write a sad story.”

The need I have to control, to shape and reckon with the sadness is something he will never understand.

DR: Because you’re a writer.

KE: And he’s also part of the patriarchy, what men are taught and not taught. How to express pain and sadness. One of the things I love about French feminist theory is that it explores how men lose out to the binary too. Whenever we define masculinity as stoicism, as strength, as being rational and active, it really shuts down the exploration of all the ways we are human.

DR: So what was your path to publication?

I had a very slow process. When I was teaching, I only sent queries out during winter and summer breaks. Maybe sixty queries total, though I never counted. I still remember the moment my agent first responded to me. I was in my Breaking Silences class. She emailed that she loved what she’d read so far and to please send the rest. My students were witnesses to my excitement. Then I never heard from her. After a year, I circled back and she said she assumed I’d found someone else, so it was just a misunderstanding. We talked and then she read the rest of the manuscript and loved it!

She sent the manuscript to Harry at Counterpoint because he’d edited Heart Berries (Terese Marie Mailhot) thinking he would be a perfect fit for me. Initially he responded that he had too much on his plate, especially in regard to trauma memoirs, so she sent it to a couple of editors at other houses; we got close with a couple. Then she circled back to Harry and the second time around he said yes! That’s been the journey. Waiting for the right person and the right time.

You just never know. It’s a success story and it’s been a long journey. There were so many moments when it felt close; but editors were concerned about the sexual violence, not against my mother’s body, but when it came to my body, they weren’t comfortable with that.

DR: Yet, weaving the two stories together—your mother’s and your own—was ultimately vital, particularly in terms of the rabbit motif and metaphor and how that works throughout the memoir, the revelations and self-interrogation that the narrator works through up until the very end in arriving at an understanding of her own journey with abuse, violence and self-acceptance.

This was done so artfully I thought, through the use of a form of interrogation, by two voices.

“Please just call it rape. It perpetuates the problem if you don’t.

There is a difference, though.

A difference in circumstances and details, but it’s still a rape.

I don’t want it to be labeled the same. I can’t let it be.

Why? Why can’t you just say, They raped me?

Can’t you see—to call what happened to me ‘rape’ no, to say ‘My neighbors raped me,’ cheapens her death. It feels like it betrays her, makes her rape so very ordinary, when she’s not here to speak her story, I want to quarantine it from every other story, to respect that silence by saying her experience is not my mine.”

Rabbit Heart, page 111

KE: I think of those sections as conversations with myself where I use a more aggressive voice. I’m saying to myself, “Look at this, face this, consider this.” It’s this more assertive, angry self, facing the complexities, pushing the dialogue that’s difficult to have, both defending and arguing, honoring the utmost terror of what happened to Mom, looking at my lived experience alongside hers. My agent really pushed me on these parts. It was hard to do, and necessary.

Interrogating the ambiguity of the law. When is it consent. When is it rape. At what age. Cross state lines and the laws change. Introduce alcohol or drugs and the laws change. To hear detectives say my mother was that rare thing, a truly innocent victim, and to wonder where does that put me and other women and girls.

For so long I struggled with what to call what happened to me, to my body, because what happened to my mother was the real deal. “Our mom” is the bridge between the two voices—all the selves can agree on that—the importance of calling it rape, of honoring the utmost terror she experienced.

kristine ervin standing at her mother's piano, facing the keys

Kristine with her mother’s piano.

DR: So now that it’s finally here, your long awaited memoir, how does it feel?

I’m in my forties releasing my debut. I had to take that time to unpack all that. I’m better equipped now to hold this moment and cherish it.

When I received my author copies, I opened the box of books beside her piano, that’s now in our home. I flipped to the “Motherline” chapter and experienced this incredible sense of relief that I had preserved her, not all of her, but my memories of her, fond memories. Mom dressing up as an Easter bunny, bringing a piñata to class filled with fake spiders. The woman who would do that was so special. No one else’s mom did things like that.

There was something about holding the hard copy in my hands that was so different than its being in the computer and printing out pages. To feel the book in this physical form and realize that long after I die, it will exist somewhere, even if it’s in a free library. I didn’t expect to feel—I won’t say closure because I don’t believe in that—but relief. And to feel that even as I am ambivalent about putting the violence against her and her death out in the world, I can feel good about putting my mother with her brown leather blazer back into the world.

A woman I met in Greece who’s since been like a mother to me—she won’t let me go swimming across shipping lanes; she makes me drink water—attended my book launch in West Chester. She came up to me after the reading and said, “Your mother would be so fucking proud of you. I know that your mother’s deepest fear was that her children would not survive this. And you survived and are thriving. She would be so fucking proud.”

I just broke down weeping because she said what I think my mother would have said. And I think I needed to hear it from her, as a woman who has taken care of me.


(Throughout our conversation I would glance at the piano in the room behind Kristine, her mother’s piano from their childhood home in Oklahoma. It’s described several times in the memoir:

             “I want to close my eyes and finally rest, my hand on top of your hand, my fingers between your fingers. To whisper “I love you” in the language of knuckle and bone.”

            Rabbit Heart, last line, page 278)

 

 

  1 comment for “INTERVIEW: Kristine S. Ervin, Author of Rabbit Heart: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Story

  1. What a sensitive interview. Thanks to both of you for introducing me to an author and a book I want to know more about.

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