For this Idaho-based author, writing about Polly Klaas wasn’t an assignment. It was personal.
Many Americans may recall the photo of Polly Klass, pictured above on the left. It was thirty years ago this month the 12-year-old girl was kidnapped at knifepoint from a slumber party with two friends. It triggered one of the largest manhunts in FBI history.
For Idaho-based journalist and New York Times bestselling author Kim Cross, chronicling the case was not an assignment. In fact, it’s a genre she hadn’t particularly been drawn to. But the case was personal.
“This book was kind of a calling. I almost felt tapped by the universe to write this book because I realized that if I didn't, it might not get told at all, and so much would be lost to time, so much history would be lost,” said Cross. “The reason I wrote this book is that my father-in-law is the FBI agent who oversaw this case 30 years ago. His name is Eddie Freyer and I'm married to Eddie Freyer Jr., who is the one who actually suggested I write the book. And when he did, I was slightly taken aback because I have never been a consumer of true crime. I've never been drawn to it as a writer.”
As her book, In Light of All Darkness hits bookstands across the nation, and just prior to her Tuesday, Oct. 10 appearance at The Hemingway Centerin Boise (where a portion of proceeds will go to Faces of Hope), Cross visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice.
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. We're going to talk about true crime for the next few minutes. Not the type that floods the genre on certain cable networks, but a case that most likely changed policing forever. The case of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old taken at knifepoint during a slumber party. It occurred 30 years ago this week. It was October 1st, 1993. Kim Cross is here, New York Times bestselling author. She'd be the first to tell us that true crime was not the landscape that she visited often and never felt drawn to it as a writer. But during one conversation with FBI agents, then retired and they spoke with her on the record, a rare moment. She asked why they were speaking to her. In one of the agents said. “Because you are family”. Let's say good morning to Kim Cross. Hi, Kim.
KIM CROSS: Hi, George. Thanks for having me.
PRENTICE: I'm going to ask you to read a passage from your just released book In Light of All Darkness. And I have dog eared passages throughout your book. I'm going to ask you to turn to page 367 and read the paragraph that begins with the words…::Every life cut short…”
CROSS: Every life cut short has a story that matters. Every victim deserves their own book. The purpose of this one is to chronicle a seminal investigation that has served as a valuable case study for three decades. Its insights have trained investigators in all disciplines. It has helped to prepare them for a nightmare case that happens, if they are lucky only once in a long career because of what we have learned from the Polly Klaas case, many missing kids have been found.
PRENTICE: Here we are in 2023. Indeed, we live in a world of forensics and so-called CSI expertise, but much of that can be traced directly back to the Polly Klaas investigation. True?
CROSS: True. So many investigative firsts occurred in this case that I was really shocked. And I was also surprised that they hadn't been properly documented.
PRENTICE: I want to encourage our listeners if they haven't seen it already. Kim Cross's book is the centerpiece of a recent episode of 2020 on ABC. You can revisit that on Hulu. Kim, let's talk about this as more than an assignment or a prompt. Talk to me about how this was personal for you.
CROSS: So, this book was kind of a calling. I almost felt tapped by the universe to write this book because I realized that if I didn't, it might not get told at all, and so much would be lost to time, so much history would be lost. The reason I wrote this book is that my father-in-law is the FBI agent who oversaw this case 30 years ago. His name is Eddie Freyer and I'm married to Eddie Freyer Jr., who is the one who actually suggested I write the book. And when he did, I was slightly taken aback because I have never been a consumer of true crime. I've never been drawn to it as a writer. And I frankly felt very, very uncomfortable in this in this genre. But I realized that because I have the skill set, I'm a journalist who specializes in meticulously reported narrative nonfiction. I had the skills to do it, but I also had access that probably no other journalist could get because of my father-in-law, who opened doors to primary sources ranging from 24 FBI agents, many of whom do not talk to journalists ever, and certainly not during an active case. And 24 officers, police officers who worked on the case. And so these were deep insiders and a lot of them had never talked to anyone about it. Some of them had never talked to their families and they were willing to talk to me.
PRENTICE: Can you talk… as a journalist and author of this amazing book…can you talk about self-care? Because I'm going to guess this took quite a while. It is a very deep dive. And just spending any amount of time looking at this case….well, I rarely come to tears as I read a book, but it happened on several occasions. How do you take care of yourself while you're doing this?
CROSS: Well, thanks for asking that. You know, I want to start by saying that no amount of my suffering even compares to what Paul's family and friends went through or even the investigators who all, many of whom cried in their interviews would say about half the investigators that I interviewed wept openly in in our interviews, surprising even themselves. But for me, it was…it was really painful. It came in a great cost to my mental and physical health. There were probably I went for about six months where I was so behind on my deadline because of Covid and some other factors that I literally woke up. And the first thing I did in the morning was sit down and write, and I wrote until 11:00 at night. Sometimes I would take a break. But there were times when I wrote through nausea. There were times when I wrote through tears. There were times when I just couldn't sleep. And it was… it was really hard. It took a toll. And I think the reason is because, you know, as a as a journalist, my most valuable tool is empathy. And I really need to, in order to convey the feelings of my characters, especially the painful ones, I have to inhabit their world and and put myself in their shoes and try to imagine what they felt. And to do that, I think, you know, when you deal with a lot of people who've suffered great trauma, maybe there's such a thing. I don't know if there's a term of sympathetic trauma, but I definitely felt like at a physical, visceral level, my body felt different. And I'm kind of trying to heal from it today. And, you know, I tried to take naps and ride my mountain bike and get outside once a day, but it definitely came at a great cost.
PRENTICE: It's worth noting that at the beginning the book is…” For Polly…. For Polly….and for those who tried to save her and those who tried to save her.” That included your father-in-law. Even though we know what the ending is…as we're diving into the story again, there was quite a bit of time when….well, when hope was twisting in the balance.
CROSS: Correct. And I think part of the story that hasn't been told, I mean, this the Polly Klaas case has been on something like 27 podcasts. It's been on the FBI Files on the Discovery Channel. It's been on a lot of TV shows, but they mostly skip through the two months of investigation between her kidnaping and the break in the case. And those were two months when so much happened. There were 60,000 tips and 12,000 active investigations, which means that investigators had to chase down 12,000 viable leads. And yet they had no viable suspect until about two months in. And so it was… it was a very intense case.
PRENTICE: We should remind our listeners that Polly's killer is very much alive and is on California's death row. And the current governor of California has put the death penalty on pause.
CROSS: He is; and he's been on death row in San Quentin all this time.
PRENTICE: Before we go, I want to note that Charles Graeber, another bestselling author of the book The Good Nurse, wrote, :”Kim Cross has obsessively spun banker boxes of research info into and against the clock thriller.” And that's pretty much how this comes across. By the way, what how are you doing as this book is about to hit shelves. How are you looking at that? Or are you exhaling or is it figuratively on the shelf for you?
CROSS: Well, that's a good question. I am a little bit nervous. Now that 2020 has come out. I feel better. I was nervous about that being sensationalized. But mostly I'm trying to keep myself calm by focusing on my next book. Yeah, I feel… I feel good and I can't control anything from here on out. And so, I just hope it goes out into the world and helps someone … and does some good.
PRENTICE: Kim Cross will be the guest of The Cabin and the Hemingway Center. It is next Tuesday, October 10th. The title of that evening is rather provocative: “Making Sense of the Senseless”. It will be at the Hemingway Center, and we'll put a link to that event on our website. And Kim Cross is a journalist of the highest caliber and historian and bestselling author. I have rarely been brought to so much emotion with a book before an interview, but I just had to burn through it. And for that, congratulations. It is titled In Light of All Darkness. And she is Kim Cross. Kim, thanks for giving me some time this morning.
CROSS: Thanks so much for having me.
Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren
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