Journalist Claudia Rowe was working as a stringer for The New York Times in Poughkeepsie, NY when she formed a relationship with a killer. His name was Kendall Francois, a quiet, hulking community college student, and in 1998 he confessed to murdering eight women and hiding their bodies in the attic and basement of the home he shared with his parents and sister. Rowe wrote back and forth with Francois for four years. She spoke to him on the phone several times and visited him in prison on three occasions. What motivated her to reach out to a serial murderer of women? The answer is complex but she says she was drawn to the case because she was searching for her own answers about the motivations of cruelty itself and the mechanics of denial—Francois’ family lived in a home littered with bodily matter and used condoms while the children went to school and his mother worked full-time at a psychiatric hospital, after all. Rowe calls this disconnect between the public face and the reality at home “emblematic of the city [of Poughkeepsie] itself,” something she ruminated over since her stint as an education reporter at the Poughkeepsie Journal. She pursued a pseudo-friendship with Francois because she was convinced, in an overly simplistic way, she says, that he held all the answers to the questions of cruelty and denial that had plagued her her entire life. Ultimately, she says, his case was the vehicle that helped her confront her own ghosts.
Now, 18 years after their first letters were exchanged, her novel—based on the tale of their connection and her own personal journey of discovery—The Spider and the Fly (Harper, $34), is finally out. We spoke to the author about the fear she felt each time she checked her mailbox, how this unusual relationship helped her face her own traumatic past, and how it felt to finally walk away from her unlikely prison pen pal.
How did you first decide to reach out to Kendall Francois? It was a year after his arrest when I first wrote and for that entire intervening year, I just couldn’t get this case out of my head. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I couldn’t escape it. I was just ruminating and grinding over it all the time. Initially, I decided that I was very interested in understanding the motivations behind cruelty and Kendall Francois was gonna be my map. He was going to sketch for me the landscape of cruelty! That was my fairly simplistic belief at the beginning and that was what prompted me finally to write to him, though I was really frightened when I did so. I was not practiced at that kind of thing and I was no kind of expert.
In the years that you and Francois corresponded, and the three times you met in person, were you scared around him? I was terrified all the time. I was terrified of the letters. I was terrified to read them. They felt like a person reaching out of the paper and grabbing me by the throat. In the first visit, Kendall Francois was behind a huge Plexiglas window but in the subsequent visits at Attica State Prison, he was not shackled, he was not behind any kind of barrier at all. We were sitting thigh to thigh, next to each other at a little card table. The idea that he could do something to me—he certainly could touch me—[was there, but] of course, that was crazy. That was just not the environment in which he operated, but that rationale didn’t matter. My own terror in terms of what he represented for me was really pervasive and it didn’t matter whether he was shackled or not shackled or what the rational understanding was.
Can you give the readers a little bit of information about what he represented for you? At the beginning Kendall Francois was, for me, this idea of a monstrous person that I wanted to understand. But as we corresponded and as the interaction evolved over four years, he came to represent for me something beyond the person himself. He came to represent all my ghosts. All my fears. All my backstory. All the ways other people had hurt me. All the ways I had weathered criticism. He came to represent this mountain of past pain. That’s why he felt so familiar to me. And so it was about confronting my own ghosts through him. That’s what the story is.
Throughout your interactions with him, did he ever try to sway or guide your opinion of him? Constantly. I think he was constantly trying to manipulate my opinion of him just as writers are often trying to guide the opinion of their source. The interaction between me and Kendall Francois and the way he was trying to manipulate me was an absolute parallel to the way reporters—and I have been a reporter, I am a reporter—try to guide an interview and a conversation with a source, so we were both kind of “working” the other. And surely, he was trying to influence or manipulate my opinion of him.
Did he ever succeed? I don’t know that he succeeded but I came to understand him, mostly through his letters and through some of the conversations, as a far more complex person than just “a monster.” A monster is not untrue but it’s just very one-dimensional and I came to understand him as a more dimensional person. That doesn’t mean forgiveness; it just means a deeper understanding of a more complex person and, I guess, in spite of himself though he tried to work me at every turn.
In those dimensions of his self, did you discover any more surprising human qualities? I can say this: there were commonalities. Kendall Francois had a sense of humour; not gross, evil humour, but goofy, slapstick humour. He had a sense of beauty; he drew these flowery, intricately shaded hearts and butterfly pictures. He had an admittedly twisted yet very strong sense of loyalty. A sense of family. A sense of wanting a loving relationship though he was in no way able in fact to connect with anyone, but he pined for that. He had a sense of outrage at social injustice. Now, obviously those aspects of him were quite warped but they were things I could recognize as things I wanted, a sense of outrage that I also had about hypocrisy. He often made comments about Poughkeepsie and Duchess County that while extreme, were not entirely wrong, and I too wanted a relationship with somebody I could trust and really believe in. He had aspects of humanity that were recognizable to me.
In those aspects of humanity, do you feel like you got close to understanding why he committed his crimes? I think it’s like this: in the “official” recounting, if you will—and I’ve waded through tons of police reports—there was a fairly consistent pattern. There were many, many women who were with Kendall and survived that interaction. Who he brought home and who ended up bruised and battered, but they survived. There seemed to be a very consistent pattern involved with those who did not. So you could say “When Kendall Francois felt humiliated or rejected, he was triggered into this blind rage.” And that would be a very simple A + B = C understanding of his pattern, yes. But people are complicated and I became increasingly unsatisfied with that answer. While it’s not wrong, it just wasn’t enough for me. That trigger was real, that’s true. He interpreted people leaving as rejection and he could not tolerate it. And when he felt humiliated, particularly in public, same thing. But, the why of why anyone does anything is a very complex knot of personal history.
And did you ever experience his reaction to rejection? When I would say “OK, I have to leave now” on our in-person visits, he would completely change in a second and it didn’t seem to be terribly thoughtful. It seemed more like a reflex, just a change came over him and he became hard and cold like granite and it was immediate. It happened every time.
How do you think he felt about his confession? Was he relieved to have confessed or did he ever regret it? I’ve thought about this question many, many times and gone round and round. And I have to say that I have come down to believing this: Kendall Francois was deeply invested in control, even though he was clearly an out-of-control person. But he was deeply invested in maintaining what he felt was control—control of conversation, control of every situation. Regarding the police, when he felt that he as about to lose control of the story—even though I don’t think the police necessarily knew that at that time! They left him alone in a room questioning him about a rape and assault, which he had confessed to. And they tell him “Okay, we need to get a warrant for your house to get the shirt that you were wearing during this rape that you have just confessed to. We need this for evidence.” That seems to have triggered in his mind “Oh man, it’s all going to come apart now. They’re going to find out everything and I am going to do it on my terms.” And that’s what I think happened. And I think that’s what police believe as well. This guy was heavily invested in control and when he felt like control was about to wrested away from him, he took control.
How did you feel when you stopped communicating with him? I don’t want to give away too much of the book but I had come to a different place in myself through the interactions with Kendall and digging into the whole case. I had come to understand myself in a different way than I did at the beginning. And so I felt like I had a) gotten a certain understanding that I needed, and b) no longer needed to tolerate somebody toying with, battering and berating me. He was alternately solicitous and cruel. He was both. And I just said “You know what, I don’t need this anymore.”
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Was coming to that decision difficult? Honestly, it was not an easy decision because I kept imagining what this would feel like for him which would be absolute rejection which it was, of course. And rejection, I knew, set him off into this horrible place. Obviously he was in prison, what can he do? But just on an understanding of a human being, I knew this would be deeply tormenting to him. Was that like “ha-ha, I got you now?” in some way? Not explicitly, but I knew that in that sense, in the end I was the one who had control.
Do you ever feel like you got any indication that he had regrets about his actions? Kind of. With him, nothing was pure. It was all shades of grey. He did say that he understood none of those women deserved to be murdered, which I found surprising, actually. But I think the regret was more self-centered. I think it was more of a regret of what he had done to his own life. This was a person who was not an idiot, who in a parallel universe might have been able to make something of himself, but obviously he did not have the emotional grit to leave home, to really grow up and be a functioning adult. There was a quality of him like a big overgrown child. So I think his regret was a “How did I get to this place?” kind of regret.
How does it feel for your book to be released after working towards it for 18 years? It feels a little bit surreal that this thing that I was working on and working towards, kind of in private in this sad, dark place for such a long time, has become public. It is a very surreal experience. But it also feels… real. I’m telling my story. And it is really is the story of the narrator. It is my story, it is who I came to be through this interaction with Kendall Francois. Understanding his case was the vehicle for me having a different understanding of my own life and my own story. And it is very hard to tell your story with all of its faults and frailties and to be learning in public which is what this is. This the story of a young reporter and a young woman learning a more nuanced understanding of kind of humanity and human cruelty, and also of journalism! That is the story. And so, it is not an easy thing to do but it is what I had to do to stand up and stand up for myself.
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