THE LOCKBOX IN EVERY AUTHOR’S CLOSET
I was a curious kid. When I was thirteen, I became convinced I was adopted. I couldn’t possibly share the DNA of the people who sat around the dinner table at our house each night. My dad sold insurance. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. My five siblings and I squabbled incessantly, and I’m the only brunette among them. I was different, not just in hair color. I was special.
I imagined myself to be the love child of a couple who would have kept me if their circumstances hadn’t prevented it and who would love nothing more than to be reunited with me. Naturally they were both interesting people who led lives of adventure, writers perhaps, like I dreamed of being one day.
I set out to discover the truth about my birth.
While snooping in my parents’ bedroom one day while they were out, I noticed the metal lockbox on the top shelf of their closet. Surely it held my birth certificate proving that I was adopted!
I didn’t know what I’d do if I found what I was looking for. I’d grown rather fond of the people who called themselves my parents, and the idea of being reunited with my birth parents who were essentially strangers was a scary prospect, I admit. Write about it? I’d kept a journal from the time I was eight. I was also a passionate reader. Jane Eyre had captured my imagination. But where was my own personal tale of woe? My impoverished upbringing? My cruel guardians? I was a child of the suburbs with a swimming pool in the backyard, a kid who was well loved and whose parents were happily married. The one family skeleton was an alcoholic grandfather who’d died in poverty. I longed to write tales like the dark, twisted ones I loved to read. But if I followed the age-old advice to “write what you know,” the sum total of my experiences, at the tender age of thirteen, would put readers to sleep.
So…the lockbox. I found a set of keys in a dresser drawer, one of which fit the lockbox that I’d pulled down from the closet shelf. With a pounding heart and trembling fingers, I lifted the lid.
I gasped when I saw what was inside. Proof of my adoption would have seemed mundane compared what I found instead: a stack of nude Polaroids of my mom that had obviously been taken by my dad. In retrospect, I see it as a sign of a healthy love life—the photos were pretty tame—but at the time, I was deeply shocked. The mere thought of my parents having sex was repugnant, and here was graphic evidence of it. Worse, there was no erasing the images burned into my retinas.
I was scarred for life. And yet…
It was grist for the mill, I would come to realize in time. Something shocking. Something no one else would have suspected of the seemingly respectable, church-going couple who were my parents—my mom was known for baking her own bread, not baring her boobs. While my parents were alive, I never told anyone outside my family about those nude Polaroids, but at the heart of every one of the seventeen novels I published in the ensuing years is a family secret. In my first novel, Garden of Lies, which became a New York Times bestseller, the secret involves babies switched at birth. In my latest novel, Swimsuit Body, Book 2 of my Cypress Bay mystery series, property manager Tish Ballard solves the mystery of the Hollywood starlet who was murdered at one of her vacation rentals while she deals with the family skeletons rattling in her closet.
My own Grace Poole wasn’t a crazy lady in the attic. I’m very much a product of the ’burbs. And no, I never did find proof that I was adopted. Instead, I’m living proof that, for all the children who dream of becoming authors someday, there’s a lockbox in a closet waiting to launch their career.