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How a reporter’s talks with a serial killer helped her understand herself

Jan. 30, 2017


He called her "Elf," because she was a young and diminutive reporter whose only defense was her pen. And he was a large, intimidating man who admitted to killing eight women and stashing them to rot in his family’s fetid house.

For more than a decade, the reporter and the serial killer corresponded, talked on the phone and met a few times in a prison visiting room.

Kendall Francois loved it. He was a narcissist who basked in Claudia Rowe’s attention.

But Rowe wanted something, too. She used Francois to understand the origins of the cruelty that had defined her childhood and stunted her heart.

Rowe, now an education writer at The Seattle Times, has captured her 18-year odyssey with Francois in "The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer and the Meaning of Murder."

The story starts in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where Rowe was working as a stringer for The New York Times. After six women — known drug addicts and prostitutes — disappeared, Rowe alerted her editors and started following the story.

It led to Francois, a member of one of the few African-American families in Dutchess County. He was arrested, and eventually confessed to killing eight women and stashing their bodies in his family’s home, where dishes were left to be blanketed by mold and the plumbing seized.

Five bodies in the attic, three in the basement.

Rowe dutifully reported on Francois’ case as it wound through the legal system, and he was finally sent to Attica Correctional Facility. But she couldn’t let it go.

"It just stayed in my head," she said recently, of that time in 1998, "grinding and grinding over it."

A year later she wrote to Francois, asking for an interview, an explanation for his crimes.

"It was a way of looking at various types of violence in my own life," Rowe said. "A couple of things about him triggered me. A sense of being lonely in your own community. Not fitting in."

Like Francois, Rowe was "deeply alienated early on" by her mother, who was verbally and emotionally abusive. In school, she felt ostracized.

"I thought that (Francois) might be able to tell me what I needed to know," Rowe said. "What is the motivation for cruelty? What makes a person knowingly hurt? I was frantic to know that, and he was going to be a way in."

Francois gave her little about what drove him to rape and murder eight women, and toss them, like trash bags, into a heap.

"How I ‘deal’ with the awful things I’ve done is personal," he wrote in one letter. "Even if I wanted to pour my heart to you, I couldn’t … It is far more complicated than you know. Rage was the vehicle, but not the cause or trigger. I no longer believe ‘anger management’ would have helped me."

It’s hard to understand why Rowe turned to a serial killer to better understand her mother.

"I’m aware that’s a stretch, for some," she said. "But to me, it was a compulsion. It was not rational. I told myself I was going to identify the mysteries of cruelty. It was personal for me. And that was why I couldn’t stop."

Rowe didn’t get too personal in the book. She makes brief mentions of rides in cabs, late-night partying and sex, but doesn’t really delve into what she did, or why.

"Lots of high-risk behavior in high school," Rowe said, when pressed. "Self-destructive. I did every awful thing. It was bad. That comes out of growing up in a fractured, fractious home."

Rowe grew up in privilege on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Elite schools, nice clothes, vacations. But her parents had explosive fights, and her mother was prone to caustic, withering criticism.

"My mother wanted to be a good mother, but she was in a difficult marriage and had her own problems," Rowe said. "Those … created a caldron of real rage."

As a result, Rowe’s childhood was marked by fear and confusion, "a constant current of terror," she said.

"This was the emotional setup that propelled me toward the story."

Eventually, she was propelled away from Francois and from Poughkeepsie, to Seattle, where she got a job covering education at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2003.

But she brought with her all her correspondence with Francois, along with the police and court documents, and a handful of interviews she had with his former friends and colleagues. The Francois family never spoke with her.

Only years later, when she started writing the book, did she see what Kendall Francois had taught her, that "compassion is comprehension in a fuller way. It’s not weak or soft, you just try to look at people who repel you."

That allowed her to reach a deeper understanding of her mother.

"It helped me understand all kinds of people, even the most reviled, and what may be the forces within them," she said, "and see her as a person with very conflicting impulses — love and anger — and that those things can coexist."

Rowe lives in Seattle with her family. She reads, cooks and has "a secret addiction to ‘Project Runway.’?"

She continues to cover education, and sees her job as bearing witness to daily change and inspiration. Classrooms are where so many things can be started, nurtured — and prevented.

Think what could have happened, she said, if someone had taken the time with Francois — or his victims, whose families didn’t even report them missing.

If someone, such as a teacher, had looked them in the eye and asked how they were, told them they were better than they had been led to believe. Listened.

"Education seems dry and wonky and impenetrable," she said, "or soft, like cookies and bake sales. The roots of a person’s character and soul can be made in connection to a teacher."

In Rowe’s case, though, it took a connection with a killer to pull the roots of her own pain.

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services