Dear Miss Metropolitan

by Carolyn Ferrell

(Henry Holt and Company)

Three girls, Fern, Gwin and Jesenia, are kidnapped and taken to a ramshackle house where they are held captive for ten years by a man they know as Boss Man. The girls live stripped and chained, beaten, starved and raped, at first in isolation and at times together as they do their chores, not knowing if it is night or day in the boarded-up House of Horrors. Even after two are rescued, and the mystery remains as to what happened to the third girl, the girls’ broken lives are disconnected and fragmented.

AUTHORLINK: How did your story idea start?

“As I wrote, my questions persisted. How can girls, women, simply be overlooked, misplaced, forgotten?”

FERRELL: I’d been thinking a lot about fairytales when I first began writing Dear Miss Metropolitan. The story of Goldilocks, in particular—I thought of revising the story of the girl who allows her curiosity to pull her forward, hoping for the best, but experiencing the worst. Around that time there were various news stories about the captivity and torture of young girls, most notably the Cleveland, Ohio and Vienna, Austria kidnappings. Like many others, I was caught up in these stories, which stunned and devastated me. How could these girls go missing for so long, I wondered? How could they have survived such torment? I was relieved by the real-life endings of liberation and (what I hoped would be) healing. But what haunted me, following the victories of the young women’s escapes, were the other threads I felt emerging in the aftermath: the threads of violence, gender, and race. These events needed to be unpacked and investigated in a larger context. That thought propelled me forward in my project.

As I wrote, my questions persisted. How can girls, women, simply be overlooked, misplaced, forgotten? And for weeks, months, years? Where were their families? What were the families experiencing? Where was the national outrage? The disappearance of Black and Brown people goes largely unreported in the news media; a statistic from 2018 showed that of the over 230,000 cases of missing people of color, more than 170, 000 were children.

When I began Dear Miss Metropolitan, I wasn’t thinking statistics, though. I hadn’t set out to write true crime, or to delve further into the real-life stories of the victims who appeared in the news. Fiction would be my vehicle.

Fiction has always allowed me the freedom to pursue the stories that most intrigue me, whether those “ripped from the headlines” or those based in family lore. My imagination liberates my own work; it allows me the room to explore my subject matter in ways that yield—for me—the most meaning. And while Dear Miss Metropolitan is not based on real people, it was inspired by the strength and fortitude of actual young women, who never gave up, despite having endured violent torture and abuse.

“…when I got to the end, I wondered: now what? Nothing felt finished. “

The first draft of Dear Miss Metropolitan was a straightforward, linear draft. I created three female characters, gave them a specific setting and trajectory; I knew that in the end, they would be rescued. They would be saved. Liberation seemed the natural conclusion to the girls’ story. I finished the draft in about 100 pages. But when I got to the end, I wondered: now what? Nothing felt finished. Nothing felt as if it had heft. I had physically removed the girls from danger, but that was not enough. The characters I created demanded more. Liberation was not the only ending; of course, in many ways, it was a new beginning. From a character’s perspective, liberation could be just as complicated and complex as captivity.

I began to change the shape of the book once I realized that what I was after was the literary aftermath. Their experiences began before their captivity and endured well past the time they were freed from the “House of Horrors.”  I thought of their lives in the larger context of their communities. I imagined the personal and societal factors that figured both in their disappearance and in their recovery; what their community did or did not do to recover them. I thought about the life that is begun or resumed after liberation; the emotional toll on all involved. I thought about what is actually owed to the recovered. The communal aspect of the book emerged from the stories of three individual girls: Fern, Gwin, and Jesenia. And it demanded that a multitude of voices be heard, involved, investigated.

“The Women’s Media Center observes that African American girls make up over 40% of the missing children in America…”

I imagined three disappeared Black and Brown girls but didn’t want them relegated to some cold case file, some faded missing posters, some tenderly held photo albums. The Women’s Media Center observes that African American girls make up over 40% of the missing children in America, and yet are absent from any collective outrage; pigeonholed perhaps as runaways or juvenile delinquents, African American girls are erased; “systemic failures render Black girl runaways invisible and, more harrowingly, disposable.” I once watched a television program about a young Black sex worker who’d been kidnapped, held and tortured for months by a man who forced her to become his “wife.” (She considered herself luckier than the other women who were chained in his basement.) This Black woman managed to free herself and, finding a pair of police detectives at a gas station, begged them to help her. They laughed, thinking her a strung-out addict. It took more than ten minutes for her to convince them that she was indeed a victim of a kidnapping.

“Fiction allows me to order my material most meaningfully.”

Fiction allows me to order my material most meaningfully. Fiction gives me necessary freedom. I’m not as interested in facts as I am in the power of story to engage my reader. People have asked me: how much research did you do for the book? And my answer seems to surprise: almost none. The New Zealand writer Janet Frame described this process—of transforming lived experience into art—as the writer’s voyage to “Mirror City”:  the place where “nothing is without its use,” where “memories are resurrected, reclothed with reflection and change and their essence [left] untouched.” Dear Miss Metropolitan allowed me to explore other “softly lit territories” connected to the central crime of the novel, such as communal responsibility, communal pain and healing. It allowed me access to the fragmented consciousness of three young women who were forced into an unimaginable sort of world-building.

As I wrote I contemplated the idea of resilience, as well, and how we often take children’s resilience for granted. Lynda Barry has an amazing graphic memoir, 100 Demons, in which her young narrator must make sense of the violence and abuse surrounding her—in the world and in her family. At one point, she puts it most aptly: “When your inner life is a place you have to stay out of, having an identity is impossible. Remembering not to remember fractures you. But what is the alternative?…This ability to exist in pieces is what some adults call resilience. And I suppose in some way it is a kind of resilience, a horrible resilience that makes adults believe children forget trauma.”

AUTHORLINK: How did you get your title?

FERRELL: The original title was “The Last Life of the Three Bears”—again, in keeping with my idea of revising a fairy tale. As my ambitions for the novel expanded, I realized that the title was wrong, not quite as comprehensive as I needed. I experimented with a few other titles, but somehow, they weren’t quite right. My agent, Lisa Bankoff, had the great idea of pulling the title from the material in the book—and “Dear Miss Metropolitan” was just right!

AUTHORLINK: Did writing about the plight of these girls challenge you emotionally?

“When I create characters, they draw upon my imagination and my own experiences…”

FERRELL: When I create characters, they draw upon my imagination and my own experiences, my lens on the world—in other words, everything I write is in some form or fashion autobiographical. My writing carries my baggage. Writing these characters was very hard at times, but I wanted their stories to be told. That meant, I had to really inhabit them, as well as the world that kept fighting to erase them.

AUTHORLINK: What purpose do the people of the neighborhood serve in the story?

FERRELL: Dear Miss Metropolitan is about all sorts of community—the ones you’re born into and the ones you create. You have the community the girls build under the abusive eye of Boss Man; you have the community of mothers who were not there for their girls, whose expectations of their daughters effectively erased the girls’ own identities. There is the physical community of this Queens neighborhood; its members are aware that something is wrong but unable to act on their intuitions. That would most accurately describe Miss Metropolitan herself. Her burden is her survivor’s guilt. It’s also the idea that she’s neglected her responsibility to the girls as well as her own community. I thought of the neighborhood people as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting, guiding, judging, reflecting, experiencing.

AUTHORLINK: What was the idea of including photographs in the book?

FERRELL: I’m very interested in the ways writers and artists play with form. Years ago, I published a story (“Documents of Passion Love”) that was constructed through various texts, newsletters, narrated (but not shown) photographs, a failed dissertation, and a sentimental novel. There was no overtly connective narrative—my goal was to present and solve a mystery through these artifacts, allowing the reader to also form her own conclusions. I wanted to allow voices to speak to the mystery, voices that might not have been considered essential in a more conventional format.

This same impulse led me to include photographs in Dear Miss Metropolitan. When I realized that a linear narrative would not encompass what the novel needed, I began to include different narrative formats—an interview, lists, missing posters, memoirs, etc. I wanted the fullness of the experience of the girls and their communities to be on the page. In my mind, the fragmentation of the novel’s structure had to reflect the fragmented experiences of the girls in their various forms of captivity. I saw the photographs adding another layer to the story. I didn’t want them to offer direct explanations. My desire was that the photographs inspire thought, reflection, memory, emotion.

AUTHORLINK: How did you work out the arrangement of your story, including the variety of topics, point of view characters and different types of sections? What was the effect you were striving for?

“I can’t say I was consciously striving for any one effect…”

FERRELL: I can’t say I was consciously striving for any one effect. Every reader will bring their own baggage to what they read; I hope the form of the book will allow the reader as much interpretive room as possible. I tried to think about the voices that would add most to the overall story. Originally, there were a few extra characters I wanted to include, but during revisions, I felt their pieces might spread the whole novel too thin. What emerged during my entire process of writing Dear Miss Metropolitan was the idea of fragmentation, and how it applied to nearly everyone and every experience.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

FERRELL: I’m currently working on a novel that connects stories from the Holocaust and American racism. It’s still in its infancy. I’m also trying to finish a collection of stories.

About the author: Carolyn Ferrell is a recipient of grants from the Fulbright Association and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies, and she has won awards for her short story collection, Don’t Erase Me, from The Los Angeles Times and Ploughshares. She teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York.