NOTE: The first 30 pages of In Custody are now free for anyone to read. Go to the book’s website, InCustodyTheNovel.com, and click on “Read Chapters 1-5.”
I’ll give the short answer first. I wanted something we could hand to people who don’t get it.
I wanted to be able to tell them that the book is a fun read, hoping that would lure them into it. So I wrote a novel that’s humorous, romantic, and suspenseful. The most common feedback I get is that it’s a hard book to put down; you always want to know what’s going to happen next.
And, as a few readers have commented, by the end of the book you know a lot more than you did before about what’s going on in the custody courts. But the information sneaks up on you, because you’re focused on the story of the journalist and her boyfriend and their complicated lives. By the time the young reporter stumbles into a major scandal, you’re already hooked.
I’m hoping that In Custody can be a way to reach friends, relatives, and other people in our lives. Maybe it can even bring about some degree of shift in the outlook of individuals who have, until now, been stubborn in their myths about the courts, unable to take in what’s actually happening to mothers there.
Now back to the full story.
As many of you know, I was less than half way into my thirty years in the domestic violence field when I started to find out that mothers were being forbidden to protect their children from obvious harm. Modern society, not just in the U.S. and Canada but in many other countries, is completely two-faced on this issue.
Face One: Friends, relatives, police, and the child welfare system (CPS) all tell mothers, “Your children shouldn’t be around his behavior. You need to leave him. A mother needs to protect her children.”
So she breaks up with the children’s father. And suddenly she finds herself confronted with:
Face Two: Friends, relatives, police, and the custody courts are suddenly saying the opposite – that the children need lots of unsupervised contact with their father no matter what he did to Mom, or even what he did to them. And the courts are outright forbidding her to protect her children. They’re even barraging her with criticism for her attempts to do so.
A number of powerful books have been written about this scandal, including Mothers on Trial, From Madness to Mutiny, and The Hostage Child.
But we’ve got to reach far more people. And we especially need to reach those individuals who are nearby to these cases: the loved ones of protective mothers, that is. We have to motivate them to start loudly raising hell across the continent and across the world. Moms can only do so much, because they have to look after children and make ends meet. The rest of us, in large numbers, have to lend our voices and make these atrocities known. The custody court has become the number one enabler of domestic violence and child abuse in the world.
All this painful awareness had been rattling around inside me for a long time.
Then, about eight years ago, I happened to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the other two wonderful books in that trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Those books were written by a man, and his mission was to expose abuse and violence towards women.
Few people in the English-speaking world are aware that the book had a completely different title in Swedish: Men Who Hate Women. This is the only title authorized by Stieg Larsson, and he fought hard against his publisher’s attempts to change it.
I suddenly had an ally, and a role model.
The next thought I had was, “Stieg Larsson reached so many people with these suspense novels; far more people than he ever could have reached with a non-fiction book about violence against women.” (And about women’s rights in general; for example, it comes out in the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, that the girl with the dragon tattoo is trapped in an exploitative conservatorship strikingly similar to the one that Britney Spears was ensnared in.)
I’m new to fiction writing, so I knew I couldn’t write a book with one-fifth of the suspense and drama that Larsson created. But he inspired me to start learning how. And he inspired me to see if we could reach thousands of people who would not have picked up a non-fiction exposé of the family court system.
Enter Carrie Green, my young and inexperienced news reporter – just an intern, actually — at a small and struggling daily paper. When a mother and daughter in a nearby town go missing, Carrie’s editor hands her the story precisely because he considers it the most trivial matter to come across his desk that day. People go missing all the time, and they almost always turn up unharmed within 72 hours, often with a slightly embarrassing story to tell about, say, how they wandered off on a long hike with no water or map and got terribly lost.
But days go by and there is still no sign of Lauren Harbison and her daughter Brandi. And by this time Carrie, who grew up in a rough area, has managed to connect with the ex-husband of the missing woman – the missing girl’s father – and she’s the only person who seems to be able to get along with him. He’s a major grouch, complaining constantly that no one is doing enough to find his daughter. But the only journalist he’s willing to speak with is Carrie Green – she can’t figure out why, but she’s not complaining – and the exclusive access she has to him catapults her into the spotlight.
The police struggle with a set of clues that point in opposite directions. They find what seem to be clear indicators that the mother left voluntarily – though it looks like the daughter may not have been such a willing participant in that flight. But other pieces of evidence – including facts turned up by Carrie’s own investigation — point in different directions. First Carrie thinks the mother had bad motives for fleeing. Then she comes across information that suggests they may have truly needed to go into hiding.
And then she starts to doubt both of those views. In fact, she starts to doubt everything she has learned about the case up to that point.
The police and Carrie hate each other. She already has a bad history in their eyes, due to her years as a street punk before she decided to make something of herself. As for her view of them, well, she grew up watching police bully people in her neighborhood, so she likes them even less than they like her. But as the case gets thornier and more mysterious, they start to realize they need each other. An unlikely alliance is born.
Meanwhile Carrie’s wealthy boyfriend, a guy she met at a conference for young journalists, watches from the sidelines and tries to make sense out it all. And then suddenly he’s dragged into it too. And they both start living dangerously in their hopes of getting the truth to come out.
I can’t say more without saying too much. I’ll just tell you that Carrie is stunned when she starts to discover the hidden realities of the child custody system, and its connection to the case.
My readers are telling me that they don’t feel preached at when they read In Custody, and this was my hope. They laugh in the early pages, then they get caught up in the romance and the development of Carrie’s career, then the suspense begins and they can’t stop reading.
I know that we’re all trying to get people to hear. This is my latest attempt. I hope it helps.
In Custody is available in both paperback and Kindle. For now it can only be ordered online. (The typographical problems from early editions have been fixed.) After you read it, please consider leaving a short review at Amazon or at InCustodyTheNovel.com.
Photo by Lundy Bancroft (mother and daughter running)