Passed Notes & Poems
a monthly feature by Kristin Garth
TW: non-explicit discussion of a true crime of childhood sexual assault
The Poem: ((*Listen here!*))
would buy a notebook you must steal. Fifth grade
charade of friendship you might feel apart
of -- if you play a game. Woolworth’s glissade-
burnt fingertips, small cardboard shame, singed, smarts,
aflame, before some mechanic explains
that he is FBI. That spiral book
you did not buy has consequence — detained,
reformatory school, evidence. Looks
shy, wet eyes, full of dread — we’ll keep it to
ourselves instead. You breathe, relieved, reprieve
mistaken — 21 months of plans for you,
road trips he scripts, girlhood you’re forced to leave.
11’s inexpensive innocence.
In 1948, it cost five cents.
I love to write & read true crime and literature. Every once in a while, true crime and literature intersect, and when that happens I am in a happy place/sweet spot of inspiration. A sonnet happens, and, to me, that is happiness.
I’m currently reading a book where these interests align. It’s called The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. Sometimes with my sonnet compulsion, I don’t read as much as I would like. I used to be quite addicted to reading, and then when I started writing and publishing full force, it was something that, out of a sad necessity, fell away only due to the limitaitons of time.
Books can be ghosts that haunt us into reading like one special ghost haunts me into writing even when I feel wounded, tired and want to quit. When I first heard that there was a book on the life of Sally Horner, an inspiration to Nabokov for his book Lolita, just knowing that this book would soon exist, I wrote a sonnet. It’s called Darkbloom, and it was published at Feminine Collect.
As I say, I wrote this poem before the book came out but knowing of its existence aroused a curiosity about this backstory. I never knew this book was based on a real case. I googled Sally Horner and started reading all about her life. I suddenly had knowledge that one of my favorite books of all time was actually inspired by a true crime, and it was such an interesting discovery and layer to me. Even though later, when the book came out and I read it, Weinman makes reference to Nabokov’s referring to the true crime case in the book in one sentence. Humbert Humbert has an internal monologue comparing his own actions to Lasalle: “what Frank Lasalle, fifty-year-old mechanic, did to eleven-year-old Sally Horner.” I’ve read the book numerous times, and I suppose I never thought to google these names to find out that they were, in fact, real people Nabakov was referencing. It was always there. I just didn’t recognize it as the nod to the truth that it was.
The result of this search led to my first Sally Horner sonnet, Darkbloom. Darkbloom is about Nabokov’s dark bloom of inspiration that he tended and crafted into one of my favorite books of all time. It includes references to his observations of butterflies on vacation that he actually cites as an influences to this obsession with the case of an eleven year girl, who he was much more sly about acknowledging as an influence. Sally Horner stole a five cent notebook and was led to believe she was under detention by an FBI agent who was, in fact, a pedophile mechanic who groomed her, abducted her and took her across the country and abused her for 21 months.
I wrote this second sonnet Five Cents once the book was actually out and I was in the process of reading it. It’s such a tragic story of a very bright, sweet honor student fifth grader who made one mistake: shoplifting to join a group of girls, to have friends. I related to this particular dilemma so much. I have done insane things, put myself in untenable, terrible positions because I desired friendship, and I thought debasing myself in some way was the price.
For Sally Horner, the price was much more than five cents. A pedophile used her small crime to blackmail her into leaving town with him, under the impression he was the police. He took her all over the country. He raped her and pretended he was her father for 21 months, even enrolling her in school where she ultimately made friends and told her secret to one. Eventually, authorities were alerted and La Salle, her abducter, was imprisoned.
It was a different time though for victims, and the book explains a lot about Sally’s sad life after her return. Our society is far from perfect today in our compassion for victims and the complexities of their suffering, their decisions in reporting and living with trauma. Relative to the 1940’s, however, we are quite evolved. If you compare Sally Horner’s return to the “normal world” to Elizabeth Smart, for example, in more modern times, Elizabeth Smart faced some ignorant attitudes at times about her decisions while in captivity. Nancy Grace questioned very rudely about her decision to cooperate with her abducter, but even in that interview Elizabeth Smart and her parents stood up to the ignorance espoused in that critique. Many other intelligent, compassionate people spoke out, and Elizabeth Smart is perceived as a leader in victim’s rights and a proud public speaker on the topic. Weinman paints a very different, brutal picture of life for Sally Horner both before her abduction and after her return.
My sonnet Five Cents is an attempt to show how such a small decision of such little consequence truly as shoplifting a five cent notebook changed this poor child’s life forever. It’s also about loneliness which I relate to very much, and the things that we do as humans to abate it that sometimes have terrible consequences. I highly recommend reading this book The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. It’s not only a tale of literary inspiration but the ways that society fails to protect women and children, the conditions that create a tragedy like what befell Sally Horner.