In 1996, a teenage Black girl disappears from the streets of Queens. Then another. Then a third girl, of Puerto Rican descent, steps into the street and isn’t seen again. The disappearance of these three girls doesn’t stop the world or make headlines; the New York police force doesn’t turn Queens inside out looking for them. Instead, for ten years, these three girls are raped and tortured inside a house on a residential block where children play hopscotch and elderly women gossip over fences. In fact, right across the street from the house where the girls are trapped, the advice columnist for the local paper goes about her daily business, unaware of the girls’ existence.In 2006, when two of the girls escape the “House of Horrors,” the Queens neighborhood is forced to confront what has been happening in their midst for years, while the surviving girls face a changed world that may (or may not) have a place for them in it.
Dear Miss Metropolitan is an ambitious, kaleidoscopic novel, shifting back and forth in time and between different narrators. While Fern, Gwinnie, and Jesenia’s voices are distinct, they share a powerful imagination and a dark sense of humor that creates a mirroring effect, with each girl’s story illuminating the others’. Despite a fractured narrative structure, the prose in this novel is crystal-clear and emotionally resonant, and Ferrell effectively explores challenging questions—how do we survive the unspeakable? What happens when we shift our gaze from what we’d rather not see? How can telling a story a certain way change not only our perspective, but our actual experience?
Carolyn Ferrell is author of the short story collection Don’t Erase Me, which was the recipient of multiple awards. Her stories have been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories 2018 and 2020, and she has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Association, and the Bronx Council for the Arts. She is an alumna of Sarah Lawrence College, where she now teaches in the undergraduate and MFA programs for creative writing. She lives in New York with her husband and children.
1. The girls’ experience in captivity has parallels to the real-life abductions and years of torture experienced by Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus in the so-called “Cleveland House of Horrors.” But this story also contains echoes of so many other stories, fictional and factual, of “victim-girls.” What do you think is the root of our cultural obsession with missing girls, taken girls, victim-girls? Why does this particular narrative remain so powerful?
In Edward P. Jones’s story, “Adam Robinson acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister,” a Black mother, impatient with the tepid response of the white police, turns to a group of ex-convicts from a local halfway house to help find her missing son. The convicts do indeed find the boy—he’d been kidnapped and held captive in the woods, and clearly would not have, as the police condescendingly told his mother, “found his own way back home.” The story’s protagonist goes on to make the following observation: “That was Washington now…that was the world now—people forced to get criminals to do police work.”
I was inspired by this scene when I first began Dear Miss Metropolitan. I was struck by the obvious: why weren’t people doing what they were supposed to be doing? Why was this missing Black boy not a priority for those public servants meant to protect him? Let me start out by saying that NO GIRL (or boy or human being) deserves the fate of abduction, abuse, or captivity. My heart hurts when I think about what these crimes do to not only the victim but their families and communities. But what is also painful is the lack of mainstream attention when it comes to missing people of color. There is a “missing white girl narrative” in popular culture that can exist at the expense of Black and Brown children. The missing white girl is young, innocent, and undeserving of any type of evil. She is the one society wants to see brought home safely. Rarely is the missing Black or Brown girl—often described as a runaway or delinquent—viewed through the same lens or with the same urgency. 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.
I once watched a true crime program about a young Black sex worker who’d been kidnapped and tortured for months by a man who forced her to become his “wife” (she considered herself luckier than the other women chained in his basement). This Black woman managed to free herself and, finding a pair of white police detectives at a gas station, begged them for help. They laughed, thinking her a strung-out addict. It took more than ten minutes for this Black woman to make them see she was indeed a victim of a kidnapping. Watching her try to convince these white men of her authenticity as a Black victim—as a viable human being deserving of care and safety—broke my heart. The program never followed up on details of race and class, but this Black woman’s lack of being seen and heard stayed with me. It informed Dear Miss Metropolitan as much as any other story of kidnapping and abuse.
I wasn’t interested in writing about actual events in my novel, but I was certainly moved by them. Like many others, I was caught up in the news story of the Ariel Castro kidnappings. How could these girls go missing for so long, I wondered? How can girls, women simply be overlooked, misplaced, forgotten? And for weeks, months, years? This erasure commanded my attention. When I began Dear Miss Metropolitan, I wasn’t thinking true crime or statistics; but I was thinking of the ways race, class, gender and sexuality figure in these stories of abduction and abuse. I considered what communities do (or neglect to do) to recover their missing girls. I thought about the life that is begun after liberation, the emotional aftermath of all involved, and the debt owed to those who are recovered. For Dear Miss Metropolitan, I imagined three disappeared Black and Brown girls and I didn’t want them relegated to some cold case file, some faded missing posters, some tenderly held photo albums.
2. Early in the novel, Fern’s mother, a nurse, tells her patients, “Don’t look and it won’t hurt. Don’t look and it won’t be there.” The title character of the novel, Miss Metropolitan, is a reporter who lives across the street from the “Queens House of Horrors” for ten years without discovering what’s happening there. When confronted by what she didn’t (or chose not to) see, she goes crazy. Part of the catalyst for her breakdown is guilt, but a part of it is because she is forced to bear witness to such horror so close to home. Yet the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to look away, to not see. Why is it essential that we bear witness to the girls’ brutalization? Why is it important that we as readers (and as writers) choose not to look away?
It’s easier to look away from violence and trauma, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. How many more school shootings must we bear witness to? How many more acts of domestic violence involving guns? How many racially motivated or anti-Semitic hate crimes? Violence against Asian Americans, against transgender women and men, against differently-abled people—how much can our hearts hold? The violence is relentless, and most of us can feel desensitized. But for every person who feels overwhelmed, for instance, by racial violence in the news, there is another one who lives it every day, and doesn’t have the luxury of turning away. For every person who feels their soul crushed by yet another act of sexual violence—and I count myself among this lot—there are people—women, men, children—who can’t look anywhere else. After four years of Trump, I couldn’t fathom more bigotry and violence from his camp—and yet, my heart broke and froze and broke again while observing the murderous insurrectionists storm the Capitol building. I was horrified to the core. As I watched this violation of such a foundational symbol of our country, I felt my own personal safety at risk.
I think we can all feel overwhelmed—you feel what you feel. And this isn’t meant to be a judgment—we all do what we can do—but often people can and should do better! And luckily, there are those of us who form movements as an expression of our resistance and resilience. As ground-down as we might feel, there can be hope. Dear Miss Metropolitan was written before #MeToo came into being, but was guided by similar convictions. #BlackLivesMatter also informed my novel in profound ways. I don’t pretend to speak for any living person; instead, I do my talking through my characters; I want to allow my characters to express their particular grief and healing, and offer hope their own varieties of hope.
It was important for me to show the reader the violence experienced by Fern, Gwinnie and Jesenia, but I also did not want it to overwhelm. I didn’t go into this project thinking I wanted to shock my readers with the things Boss Man did to them, with his assaults and torment. I wanted my readers to sympathize with my characters, even if their experiences seemed too painful to fathom. Lynda Barry has this poignant scene in her graphic memoir 100 Demons where the narrator, herself a victim of abuse, says, “I cringe when people talk about the resiliency of children. It’s a hope adults have about the nature of a child’s inner life, that it’s simple, that what can be forgotten can no longer affect us. But what is forgetting?” Fern, Jesenia, and Gwinnie are resilient. But they can’t forget, nor should they. Nor should we.
3. In captivity, the girls are deprived of light, food, and all autonomy. In the darkness of their isolation, they tell stories—about their pasts, about what they imagine the outside world to be. When Boss Man leaves them without food, they eat magazine pictures of food and pretend they can taste it. When they are separated from each other in separate areas of the house, alone and afraid, they imagine that the mice in the walls can pass messages between them. Please comment on the use of imagination as a means of surviving the unimaginable.
I would say these survival strategies represent means of achieving a kind of autonomy. The girls’ imaginations are a form of resistance to the abuse and neglect they suffer; their senses of humor are both a protection and a means of asserting their humanity. Much of their trauma is expressed through what they have experienced not only in Boss Man’s house, but in their past lives. Fern can’t talk about her aborted pregnancies in conventional language; the term “nonborns” is developed as a response., a coping strategy. But it is also a magical term, at least as I envisioned it. There was something about not being born (into the world she’d been born into) that was a saving grace. The names the girls give the rooms in the house also point to strategy. Those are places of horror; but once the girls learn to identify these places imaginatively, that horror is transformed. It may not be lessened, but it becomes more navigable.
Storytelling is essential to their survival. Humor and wit are absolutely key. While talking to each other, the girls come to some deep truths, especially about their families, their communities. They learn (to paraphrase Grace Paley) what they didn’t know they knew. Songs and music play a huge role in how they establish their identities from before and now, as Boss Man’s prisoners. One of my first writing teachers, Linsey Abrams, said: every character needs an escape hatch. Imagination not only helps the bitter pill of day-to-day survival; imagination offers this escape hatch. One example of this takes place when Fern imagines Mathilda Marron communicating with her from the outside. Did that really happen? Did something like that happen? The imagination protects as it offers glimmers of hope; it is, in the end, about world-building. And even at their most victimized moments, these girls have created and maintained their unique world, a place of comfort and tragedy—a place Boss Man cannot truly enter.
4. The novel incorporates many different texts and styles, including fragments from a nursing study guide, an exit examination for a psychiatric hospital, and excerpts from a book called The Devil’s Handbook for Girls. There are also photographs interspersed throughout the text, some featuring figures with hidden faces, or partial scenes. In the afterword to the novel, you mention that the photos felt “integral to your ambitions for it.” Most of the photos are your own, and I’m curious about the process of taking the photos and then incorporating them into the novel. Did you imagine the novel with the photographs from your initial conception, or did the photos become a piece of the puzzle along the way? How did you decide to take the photos and how did you decide to include them?
In the early days of drafting Dear Miss Metropolitan, I thought a lot about the book’s shape, but I hadn’t thought of including images. The first draft wound up being a straightforward, beginning-middle-ending narrative with few detours; it started with the kidnapping and ended with the girls’ liberation. That’s what I thought my reader would be interested in: the resolution of the ostensible plot.
I soon realized that the book—and by extension, the story of Fern, Gwinnie and Jesenia—wasn’t finished. Those “detours” were precisely what was missing. A question I always come back to: what is the larger story? We might be reading for plot, but the books that have affected me the most have had me delving into the literary aftermath as well. The larger story of kidnapping, captivity and eventual freedom revealed itself to me as a story of fragments—reflecting the girls’ broken sense of reality, their shattered backgrounds. Dear Miss Metropolitan was about individual as well as communal experience. Everyone was affected by the kidnapping, torture and captivity of Fern, Gwinnie and Jesenia. And everyone comes to understand how they bear a responsibility to the girls. Everyone has to, in some way, make amends. What is it they owed to these missing and exploited children? How could they have done better?
Thinking about the larger story revolutionized the way I thought about the novel’s structure, which needed to be more expansive. The photographs and images were part of this strategy of fragmentation. Two intriguing novels also provided sources of inspiration: Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I found the use and placement of the images in those novels startling and inventive; they were telling a part of the story that extended beyond our expectations. To return to Grace Paley: I felt the images tapped into something we didn’t know we knew, something absolutely essential to the story.
5. The narrative begins in 1996 and leaves off in 2039. In captivity, the girls have no sense of time, learning to interpret the subtle changes in light to know whether it’s day or night. They are unaware of the defining events of their generation—9/11, the election of Barack Obama. The movement through time in the novel often feels dizzying, like looking through a turning kaleidoscope—it’s hard to know at first which version of the girls we are seeing, whether past, present, or future. What influenced your decision to end the novel in the future? How does the move into the future reflect the way the rest of the world is not ever quite real to the girls?
That’s such a great question. But I don’t know that I’d say the world isn’t real to the girls. A Black president, the devastation of 9/11, and even the advent of smartphones: the girls are taken aback with these discoveries but also file this information away, to incorporate into their own project of Post-Boss-Man-worldbuilding. Katanya, who has lived in the outside world, is haunted by events and images filtering through her consciousness—the disappearance of her mother, the haunting specter of her father. Her own captivity manifests itself as an almost mirror image to that the “victim-girls,” who know what has come before and have so much yet to process. Katanya is trying to piece together the past, which remains unknown to her and forms the basis of her life’s inquiry. In each case, I think the women struggle with a world that’s gone on without them. The throughline that emerged as most vital to me had to do with resilience and hope. It was the girls’ ability to not only survive but flourish.
There is also the sense of time being disordered; in captivity, the girls must re-order time, must reimagine time as it points to their daily strength and potential rescue. Because the girls don’t ever let go of that hope.
I was thinking about the ways trauma can stay with a person forever, how it shapes not only what they see behind them but what they see ahead. Lynda Barry’s narrator in 100 Demons goes on to say: “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? Tell me. This ability to exist in pieces is what some adults call resilience and I suppose in some ways it is a kind of resilience, a horrible resilience that makes adults believe that children forget trauma.” Each form of narration in the book—each testimony, each news article, each document, each image—is a way of addressing that nonlinear experience. The journey may not be easy or straightforward. But it represents a kind of wholeness, one they (and others) may not immediately recognize.
It’s really interesting when they do get in touch with that wholeness. Satisfying. Intriguing.
And anyway: is it ever possible to go back to normal? What is normal? Fern, Gwinnie and Jesenia are redefining this at every turn.
Carolyn Ferrell is the author of the story collection Don’t Erase Me, which won the L.A. Book Times Award for First Fiction. She is a recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bronx Council on the Arts. Ferrell teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York with her husband and children.
Ellie Paolini lives and teaches in Austin, Texas. In May of 2017, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University, where she served as a Teaching Fellow and was runner-up for both the Andrew James Purdy Prize in Short Fiction and the Melanie Hook Rice Award in the Novel. In 2014, she earned her B.A. in English and French and Francophone Studies from Santa Clara University. Ellie grew up on the central coast of California, a setting that has influenced much of her work, including the novel-in-stories she is currently revising. Some of her recent short stories appear in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and Collateral Journal.