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
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.
Francois loved it. He was a narcissist who basked in
Claudia Rowe’s attention.
Rowe wanted something, too. She used Francois to
understand the origins of the cruelty that had defined
her childhood and stunted her heart.
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."
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.
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
bodies in the attic, three in the basement.
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
just stayed in my head," she said recently, of that
time in 1998, "grinding and grinding over it."
year later she wrote to Francois, asking for an
interview, an explanation for his crimes.
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."
Francois, Rowe was "deeply alienated early on"
by her mother, who was verbally and emotionally abusive.
In school, she felt ostracized.
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."
gave her little about what drove him to rape and murder
eight women, and toss them, like trash bags, into a
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
hard to understand why Rowe turned to a serial killer to
better understand her mother.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
a result, Rowe’s childhood was marked by fear and
confusion, "a constant current of terror," she
was the emotional setup that propelled me toward the
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.
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
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
allowed her to reach a deeper understanding of her
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."
lives in Seattle with her family. She reads, cooks and
has "a secret addiction to ‘Project Runway.’?"
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.
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.
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.
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."
Rowe’s case, though, it took a connection with a
killer to pull the roots of her own pain.