Author Koethi Zan's critically acclaimed chiller The Never List has been hailed as one of the books of the year. Here for the first time she writes about the parallels between the novel and the real life cases that inspired it.
Koethi Zan and her book, The Never List
Like many people, I stared in shock at the screen as Ariel Castro—the Ohio man who held captive and tortured three women in his house for over ten years—gave his ‘statement’ at his sentencing hearing. As he tried to argue he was not a monster, he provided a pathetic litany of delusions: the sex was ‘consensual,’ the house was ‘in harmony,’ he had an ‘addiction.’ I had followed this story closely—perhaps more so than most—because in a bizarre coincidence, two years before the news of the Cleveland kidnappings broke, I had completed the first draft of my novel, The Never List, about four women held captive and tortured in a madman’s house. This news story was eerily similar to the one I had invented, only much worse for being real.
My book tells the story of Sarah Farber, who was abducted in college along with her best friend, Jennifer, and held captive for years with two other victims. Now, ten years after her escape, Sarah is still struggling to recover and grieving for Jennifer, the only one of the four who didn’t make it out. Her abductor, meanwhile, is up for parole and sending her twisted letters from jail. Sarah must face her past, both literally and figuratively, to help keep him there and, more importantly, to attempt at last to heal.
A photo montage of one of the Cleveland kidnap victims Gina DeJesus
The Never List is dark—its origins, after all, are from my own worst nightmares—but its objective is not. Even though its story is, on the surface, one of female powerlessness and vulnerability, my goal was to write an empowering crime thriller that is also a trauma recovery memoir. I was inspired by, and in awe of, the resilience shown by real captivity survivors like the women in Cleveland.
It began for me decades ago with The Silence of the Lambs, which instilled in me an overwhelming, if irrational, fear of being abducted and held captive in a sado-masochistic dungeon. At the time, I thought there was only one way to protect myself: to learn absolutely every possible thing about the most terrifying, depraved, awful things that human beings do to other human beings. Just in case.
In the process, I learned some pretty grim stories. Colleen Stan was kept for years in a box under a waterbed for twenty-three hours a day. Fred West’s victims, including his own daughter, were raped, tortured and killed in his basement, some of them buried beneath his back patio. Gary Heidnik kept six women in his cellar; he tortured them with electrical wires in a water-filled pit and forced them to turn on one another to survive. Reality turned out to be not only stranger, but much sicker than fiction.
And the stories continued. One day, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of the cover of a tabloid paper: a full-page picture of a tiny cluttered room with pink walls. Before I even read the headline, a shadow passed over my heart. It was the cellar prison of Natascha Kampusch, an Austrian girl kidnapped at ten and held until she escaped at eighteen. That image was impossible to process.
Shortly thereafter, more and more stories like hers, and worse, came to light: Elisabeth Fritzl, who was held captive by her own father for twenty-four years, forced to bear him seven children; Jaycee Lee Dugard, held for eighteen years in makeshift tents in a pervert’s backyard where she delivered two daughters; Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped at knifepoint out of her own bedroom at fourteen and ‘married’ to a homeless itinerant preacher.
Koethi Zan at home
I asked myself what drove these captors to commit such atrocious acts? Was it evil or mental illness? I knew no one could truly answer that question, but I tried. I read every related resource: news stories, non-fictional accounts, psychology textbooks, and court transcripts. I saw again and again that the perpetrators were often sociopaths unable to empathize with other humans and who could only see others as objects over which they could gain total control. Or they were diagnosed as mentally ill, usually after a history of brutal child abuse. Many times they had suffered a head injury that dramatically altered their personalities afterwards. But perhaps these are simply the ways we account for evil, always looking for an explanation when there may not be one.
By the time I heard these more recent stories though, I wasn’t thinking about my own safety any more and I wanted to know more than why these horrors happened. I wanted to understand how these women survived. I sought out every known story of abduction and captivity, immersing myself in these women’s experiences, looking for answers. How did they cope, how were they forced to adapt, what stories did they tell themselves to live through the long days and hopeless nights? And how could they go on afterwards, with those horrible memories and shattered lives?
I learned so much researching and writing my book, though I would never presume to understand what these women actually went through. But I know when I saw Michelle Knight, one of Castro’s victims, give her victim impact statement in open court, I felt a surge of pride and a sense of solidarity with these survivors. In story after story, I’d seen victims draw from this same powerful inner well of self-protection. Michelle Knight was there to tell Ariel Castro, in no uncertain terms and in front of the world, that whatever his motivations may have been, his version of the story is a pathetic fantasy, but her life—the life she will reclaim for herself, piece by painful piece—is real and her strength extraordinary.