Good afternoon, friends and fiends--
Today in the Madhouse, I'm welcoming back a dear friend and colleague: Cynthia Pelayo. Now I've made it no secret over the years that I'm a huge fan of her work, and I feel fortunate to have grown to know her and form a friendship with her over the years as we've worked together.
When she told me her plans to publish a collection of poetry inspired by true crime cases, I knew I had to get my hands on it. My response to the book can be found in a review here.
With that said, I didn't feel like just reviewing this book was enough. There is a lot of pain and suffering between the pages of this collection and so I wanted to dive in a little deeper and talk to Cina about her process, her research, and her overall message of intent with this piece. As always, her answers were beautifully crafted and done so in a way that speaks to and illuminates both micro and macro-level issues happening in our country at this time.
Read carefully and with caution.
Stephanie M. Wytovich
Tell us about your book. What gave you the idea to create this collection, and in your opinion, what does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights?
INTO THE FOREST AND ALL THE WAY THROUGH is a collection of true crime poetry of missing and murdered women in the United States. The collection covers 109 cases of women ranging from days old to the elderly.
I consume a lot of true crime, probably more than is considered normal. I’m particularly interested in cases involving women and women of color. For example, here in Chicago there have been over 50 murdered women found in dumpsters, abandoned buildings, and their deaths all seem very similar leading the community to believe there is a serial killer operating in certain communities. Law enforcement dismissed this theory, but what I found so strange is that it was difficult to find the names of these women in articles or on the news. I wanted to know their names, more about them, and the moments leading up to when they went missing.
In terms of literature, I wanted to create a response specific to each case that reflected the tone of the case. In some instances the poem is told from the perspective of a family member, a detective, an outsider, or the missing or murdered woman herself. I wanted to bring the reader right into this horrific moment. I wanted them to see the blood on the sweater, the missing hair tie discarded in the dirt, smell the burning tires of a car set of fire, feel the zip ties pinching a woman’s wrists, and experience the complete anguish, damage and loss to these women’s family. With the death of a person, there is resolution, even in cases of homicide when the killer has been caught, tried and imprisoned. Yet, with a missing person, or the discovery of a loved ones remains with no prosecution of the killer, there are only desperate questions. I wanted to create that emotional response with these poems; danger, fear, loss, and the manic anxiety of not knowing what happened.
Figuratively, I wanted to make a commentary that none of us really know what people are capable of, whether they are our family or friends, or the stranger that is silently watching us in a store aisle, or behind the computer screen.
Someone did these things to these women and in many cases these people are still moving about their lives normally, and that’s a very scary thing, because there are rapists and murders living among us, next door to us or with us. There’s this unsaid belief that serial killers are gnarled, beastly, and can be identified by how they look, but that’s not true. The reason killers are able to kill, sometimes with great ease, is because they are approachable, they look “normal,” they know how to act kind, and they know how to make us laugh and how to make us feel comfortable when we are with them. That is how so many killers are able to lure their victims. There are of course killers that don’t play this game, they just come up behind you and snatch you in the street, and that doesn’t always happen in the dark, creepy alley. Sometimes it happens in the parking lot of a Target or in a playground.
We should all be concerned that if these people did this once then they are certainly capable of doing it again, and to anyone.
There’s this assumption that we are living in a society that has these rules and laws, but I do not believe we are as safe as we think we are, so literally I wanted to show that as well as figuratively as well.
This book is a highly intense and emotional read. I can’t even imagine the strength it took to write, not to mention how it must have felt to sit (and sleep) with these images time and time again. Can you talk a little about how you took care of yourself while writing this? Any little self-care tips you can share for other writers tackling similar issues in their writing?
I was not very well while I was working on this, and it’s actually now difficult for me to go back and read some of the poems. I went back and read the intro poem the other night and that was enough for me to just become so angry and just start screaming because I was so mad that I could not do more for them. So many of these women are forgotten. They were here once. Someone fed them and bathed them, and took them to school on their first day. I’m sure many of them had a favorite toy, a favorite food. They were loved. They were real. They were not imagined, but for many their names are forgotten and their cases are cold.
I spent too much time with many of them, looking at crime scene photographs, pictures of the last items many of the Jane Does wore when found. What was also hard was reading the blogs and social media pages family members maintain for these women. Some of the blogs serve as a space for the family to talk to their loved one like they are there. Others just speak to the void every few months, or few years, asking if anyone knows anything.
So with all of these emotions that I took on, this anger, hate, rage, grief, and I grieved for each and every one of them, I knew I had to step away and eat, and sleep because that was what was best for me and for them. I was telling their story and that kept me focused.
This type of writing is brutal. It’s like a reverse exorcism. You are not expelling the bad. You are taking in all of these awful things, these awful images, these awful comments and transcripts from killers. You somehow have to create a psychic shield between you and it where you are taking in all of this information, and I believe you will be changed by it, because I was. What you cannot do is allow it to harm you to the point where the work stops and you become ill.
What helped the most was talking about it. For one case, I went on for three hours just talking about it straight to my husband one night and he just looked at me and said I had to let them go for the night and sleep and move on to the next. I would get mad at him when he would do this, because I felt like I was being made to abandon these women, but I knew it was best for me to continue. So, if you are going to move into something like this please find someone you can talk to, who will not tell you to shut up, who will listen, just listen, but know when it’s the right time to delicately tell you to move on for the work and for your health.
The amount of research that had to go into this collection was, I imagine, quite immense. Can you speak to what your research process was and talk about how you selected these cases?
It was definitely intense. I started writing, and then I quickly learned I needed an Excel file, and it’s funny somehow after the book was published one of my children deleted the master Excel file I had created. It was this massive file that had the names, dates, locations, ages, genders, races, and corresponding links to these cases. I used a few missing person’s websites like The Charley Project (charleyproject.org), NamUS (namus.gov), FBI.gov, and a few others. I also listened to true crime podcasts for relevant cases or watched true crime programs or videos on YouTube. I searched through chat rooms, and went down rabbit holes of theories and blame. I’ve been slowly trying to recreate the file for my personal records.
So I stayed very organized with this project, recording a lot of demographic information and saving the websites where I found research for each case, and I would save those sites to the corresponding person in my Excel file and then go back to them and reference them as I was building the poem. A single poem could easily take me 8+ hours to write, and that included the time I needed for research on the case.
Then I wanted another device, because once I started looking at the immense number of cases it was overwhelming and I needed to focus somehow. So I decided on selecting at least one case per state. I thought that could also show everyone that this isn’t an issue isolated to one area or region. This happens everywhere. Having the Excel helped me then create some balance, because I wanted to include many women of color — since it seems women of color disproportionately go missing. I also wanted to be sure I was including younger women, the elderly, and just overall a range of women from various socio-economic backgrounds. In looking back, the cases do skew young here and I could have balanced that out better, but some of these cases were so compelling, especially so many of these children, that I had to include them.
I wanted to make sure that the majority of the cases were not high profile in that they had not been covered extensively by the true crime community. I also wanted the majority of the cases to be considered cold cases, so occurring quite some time ago, but still recent enough so that it makes an impact when thinking about it. I think the oldest case I wrote about was in the early 1970s.
There was definitely an emotional connection that I was looking for when researching and selecting the cases. I wanted something that I could connect to or that I thought strongly another woman could connect to. For example “Messaging You,” the bus stop case I mentioned previously. This was written for Le-Shay Monea N’cole Dungey. The poem is just 29 words. It’s her texting someone that she is on the bus and she is on her way. How many of us have done that? Text someone that we are on our way? Her texts stopped when she was half a block from her destination. That struck me. She text the other person that she had gotten off the bus, which was just half a block from her destination. She proceeded to walk to that destination and in that short space she disappeared.
What draws you to the mystery and true crime genre? Have you always been interested in them, or have you found yourself recently inspired? Do you have a particular case that you find yourself coming back to time and time again?
There are two cases that personally affected my parents when they were young. I can’t say too much out of respect for them and their families, but my mother’s neighbor was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and dismembered and then later placed in her own parent’s garbage can where her parents discovered her. My mother described to me in detail how she remembered the girl’s father running outside with a blanket to cover the nude, mutilated corpse of his daughter, and that description stuck with me. It was a neighbor boy who was infatuated with the girl who had killed her and was later caught.
For my father, one of his young cousins was kidnapped and never found. There are several compelling theories that the family has discussed, and because it was a high profile case I can’t say more than that unfortunately.
So, why would my parents tell me about these awful things when I was young? I think they did it as a warning, to tell me that the real monsters are people, and these monsters can and will take you away if they had the opportunity, they will hurt you, and they will kill you and no one will ever see you again. It’s uncomfortable to hear, but it’s true.
Also, I also grew up and live in Chicago, so if you name it I’ve probably seen it.
When I was in my 20s, I had a car stop in front of me as I was waiting for the bus to go to work, and a man opened the passenger side door and told me to get in. I told him some strong words, and he got in his car, drove around, came back and then got out of his car and approached me. I ran into traffic to get away from him, figuring I’d rather get hit by a car and die in the street then be taken away by a stranger.
These are just a few personal things, but it’s probably why I’m obsessed with the idea that everything can go sideways in seconds, that there are real and cruel predators out there, and these people have no conscious and know no empathy. Some people like to think that everyone is good or has the capacity to be good. I really do not believe that, and it’s controversial to say, but I just don’t believe that some people can be rehabilitated. I completely believe that there are people out there that are cold and calculated killers and nothing short of prison or their death can stop them. I once saw an interview with a child killer who killed his best friend’s daughter. He picked her up from school, lied and said her father sent him, and he even used an emergency code word the family had established that her father told him in confidence. He took the little girl to the woods and raped and killed her, and in his prison interview when asked if released if he would do it again he said he would. We can even look at infamous serial killers. Could Ted Bundy who kidnapped, raped and murdered multiple women have been rehabilitated? We know he had sex with corpses, sometimes days after killing these women. How do you rehabilitate that? I do not believe that level of deviancy can be rehabilitated.
In terms of cases I have been obsessed with, the disappearance of Diamond and Tionda Bradley in Chicago, the West Memphis Three, Madeline McCann, the Delphi Murders, LISK (Long Island Serial Killer), serial killer Israel Keyes – we may never know how many he killed, the conspiracy of the Smiley Face Killer – is it a network of killers? Just coincidence? Margaret Ellen Fox, that one really drives me nuts, and then finally the numerous missing persons cases in our national parks.
Even though the idea of missing women and children is certainly (and unfortunately) not new, this collection feels quite timely. How do you think your book speaks to current events and topics of violence and racism in the United States on both a macro and micro scale?
One of the reasons I kept putting off writing it is because I just didn’t think it was the right time, but with the global pandemic, and socio-economic-political unrest it just was the right time. To me, the female form is sacred. A woman is sacred. She is the creator of life, of all life really. So, that this being, with all its beauty and magic, a being that has the power to create life is taken by someone and murdered just seems like the greatest offense against divinity. And I speak of the male and female form throughout this interview, but I just want to stress that I recognize all genders and all truths with regard to gender and sexuality.
People kill people for a variety of reasons, but what we are seeing so much of is people killing people in this country because of anger, hate, and/or deviance. A child is shot and killed by law enforcement because he was perceived as a threat. He was only holding a toy gun. A sleeping woman had law enforcement enter her home. Law enforcement, for whatever reason, considered a sleeping woman a threat and killed her in her own bed. A man is shot and killed by law enforcement after flagging down help when his car stopped unexpectedly. He too was considered a threat. For whatever reason, these people, and many more were killed. The same can be said for the young man who walks into a church and shoots and kills worshippers. That young man, for whatever reason, deemed that those people worshipping should not exist. And in all scenarios, it appears that the killers have no empathy or sympathy for the deaths they have caused.
Regardless of what political side one is on, and I don’t want to get political in terms of left and right or conservative or liberal because we will never agree. However, what we all can agree on is that at one time there was a human and another person deemed that they had the power and the right to kill that human.
I believe as human beings we should have the right to live without fear of another human being inflicting violence on us, but we are living in a time where women fear for their safety if they leave their house and go for a walk outside. A person of color fears for their life if they go outside for a jog. In each of these cases the threat is not some monster, but another person. Human beings are the monsters outside of our door because we are seeing over and over again the level of cold cruelty people are capable of. Now, is this a problem specific to the United States? I do not know, but I do know I’ve traveled widely and when a country like Iceland only has on average one murder a year but when the US has over 15,000 murders a year we have to ask what is going on here?
With these women in the collection, there too was overwhelming evidence of rape and then murder. So, a person took another person, forcibly penetrated that person to satisfy themselves and then when they were done, when that person was used up they killed the person, discarding them. This is hard to read, but this is what happens. People use people up and discard them. People deem another person not of value and discard them.
I don’t want to ask ‘What has happened to us?’ because I feel as though we have always been this way. I feel as though we have always had a level of savagery that we try to shield with this guise of civilization, but we are not really civilized, are we? We function off a system of systemic racism, largely ignore violence against women, ignore our failing school systems, encourage the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theory, have the largest prison system in the world, a failing healthcare system, and little to no protections for families, children, and the elderly. So, who is really being protected then? The wealthy? Certainly not the lower class, or the middle class whose status could crumble with a job loss.
When we have people in power who, who also participated in using people as things, then what justice is there for those of us regular people? That’s what scares me. What protection do we really have? There’s a thin veil of protection, and we should be terrified that at any moment it will blow away, because if a man can walk into a school or movie theater or church and shoot you, and that same act is repeated elsewhere, if a woman’s child can be pulled out of her arms in the street by a stranger, if a young woman can be found raped and killed in a drainage ditch, if a girl can be held as a sex slave for days, weeks, months, or years, and if a Black man or Black woman can be shot and killed - largely assumed just for the color of their skin – and all of this without punishing the people who did it what protection do we really have? Who and what is really being protected, because we are not protecting each other.
We’re all out here floating in space with really no one to take care of us but ourselves, and if you meet one of these people – one of these monsters - one day, full of the anger, or hate, with deviance electrifying them then what are we supposed to do to protect ourselves?
So overall, on a micro level – the collection shows that these women should have been safe. They should still be here. On a macro level, the same. We should be safe. We should all be safe from harm, but I don’t believe we are as safe as we think we are.
We’ve personally talked about the obsessive spiral that can happen when diving into topics as grotesque and violent as these. It brings to mind Michelle McNamara, especially in reference to her book (and show) I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. When it comes to writing, how do you separate yourself, or unplug, from topics like this? Or, perhaps, do you find that you have to go down the rabbit hole, so to say, in order to understand your subject material?
In order to understand the material I allow it to consume me, and that’s not very healthy so I don’t recommend that for everyone. I get to a point where it becomes obsessive, and I am lucky in that I have a partner who can tell when I’ve done too much. I’ve definitely given him that license to tell me that if he sees that something is verging into the area of harm then he can tell me it’s time for me to go for a walk, get something to eat, anything, just step away and take a break.
Since there were just so many cases I had to break it down and say today I’m going to focus on this many cases and that helped give myself a time limit. It was hard, because there were some cases I would research for three or four hours, go to bed and wake up and research them again. So some cases threw me off the schedule of where I wanted to be, and for just a few words of a poem, but all of that research allowed me then to include clues and details that maybe the average reader will never know, but I know it’s there and that’s important. For example, someone may think in the poem “Home Was So Close” that the line “Or within that space of Pins or Keyes” has a typo, but it’s suspected in some circles that Suzanne Gloria Lyall, whom went missing and whom the poem is written for, was the victim of serial killer Israel Keyes (whom I could go on for far too long talking about). Keyes did kill himself so we’ll never know. So, there’s a lot of that throughout the collection, a lot of detail that I really wanted to capture, even though a regular reader may not pick up on it, like a crime scene there are many details there.
Who are some of your favorite writers when it comes to mystery and true crime? Are there certain podcasts that you find yourself listening to regularly?
What’s great about true crime is that it’s a field filled with a lot of investigative journalists, and maybe they are not investigative journalists in the traditional sense, maybe they are more Truman Capote In Cold Blood, but still, these people are great at researching these cases. I really enjoyed Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas, and a lot of Douglas’ other works. Others include The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, not so much because I’m fascinated with the actual crime committed, but I’m fascinated by the hold that Manson held over his followers, and not just his followers, but his own thinking, his constant declarations that regardless if he was in prison he was free because his mind allowed to escape confinement, and Devil’s Knot because I had a very unhealthy obsession with the West Memphis Three case for a while, unhealthy because I researched this case in and out for days, weeks, and months, and just needed to stop.
For podcasts – Crime Junkie, The Vanished, Park Predators, Down the Hill, Up and Vanished, Wine and Crime, True Crime Fan Club and so many others. There’s probably way more that I’m not thinking about. As you can see my true crime obsession is probably a little much.
What books are currently sitting in your TBR pile?
You should see the towering books on my desk. I’d send you a picture, but it’s such a mess, and I’m serious, these are all of the books next to me:
- The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock
- Hurricane Season, Fernanda Melchor
- Thin Places, Kay Chronister
- Crossroads, Laurel Hightower
- Yellow Jessamine, Caitlin Starling
- Tender is the Flesh, Augustina Maria Bazterrica
- A Stab in the Dark, Facundo Bernal
What’s next in store for your readers?
I have a few fiction things that are a little all over the place. The main thing I’m trying to finalize this year is setting up my old works, from like 2010 – 2014, so that they are available again. I don’t think many writers will say they don’t like their older works, and it’s not that I don’t like my older works, it’s just that I am a completely different writer today. Still, I owe my past self to make them public again. So they will all be public again, and I suppose the readers can decide what value those works have.
My most important fiction work is CHILDREN OF CHICAGO, a hybrid horror and thriller novel being released by Polis/Agora February 2021. It’s the novel I’ve dreamed about writing for a decade, and I felt like I finally had the right voice to write it. It includes everything I love, Chicago, Chicago history, folklore, fairy tales, and a bogeyman – not one that I created, but an adapted bogeyman in the Pied Piper. It’s the type of writing that I hope I can continue doing in the future.
In terms of poetry, I have another nagging idea that I think I will start writing when things quiet down a bit. It’s funny, my poetry projects have been like that, it’s quiet for a while and then I hear this shouting and this panic in my head that I have to tell this story. POEMS OF MY NIGHT was like that. There was a panic to get it down on paper, because it was really my dad’s story and our family’s story. INTO THE FOREST AND ALL THE WAY THROUGH came about from just seeing this continual injustice of missing and murdered women and I had to light this fire and show people that there is a huge problem with who we are, and with humanity if we continue to ignore these crimes. This other idea I have is similar in that it’s another shouting from the void, so maybe I need to get it down, because otherwise it will not stop.
Beyond that, another novel in the Chicago series, and hopefully something else soon I promised I would do for my son. Send me fairy dust and good wishes.
What advice do you have for writers working in nonfiction and/or poetry?
When it comes to nonfiction do not feel guilty for getting lost in the research. It’s your job to get lost in the research. I uncovered so many cases that I knew very little about or nothing beforehand and with this research I was able to learn about them and write about them.
For poetry, my best advice is to read your poems out loud twice. Craft it, edit it, and read it out loud. How does it sound? Read it out loud again. Do the words have as much meaning on the page when read to yourself as they do when you read them out loud? If so, you made music and music will touch someone emotionally and that is a very powerful gift.
Cynthia “Cina” Pelayo is the author of SANTA MUERTE, THE MISSING, LOTERIA, POEMS OF MY NIGHT, INTO THE FOREST AND ALL THE WAY THROUGH, and the upcoming CHILDREN OF CHICAGO by Agora/Polis Books. Pelayo is an International Latino Book Award winning author and an Elgin Award nominee. She lives in Chicago with her family.
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