[By The] Letter
05/27/2014 12:00AM ● Published by Claudia Mosby
Enjoy: Why is “true crime” so intriguing?
Jim: I taught a victimology class at the community college level for 20 years and there is just something in the human psyche, a part of human nature—I think at a gut level—that is interested in the aberrations of what people do.
Enjoy: Why write about Elizabeth ‘Ma’ Duncan?
Jim: My wife’s uncle was a juror at the trial and she grew up around the case in the 1950s. As time went by and she talked about it, I got more interested. Duncan was the last woman executed in California and part of the last triple execution in the state.
I had worked at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, which was originally involved in the case. Although it was years before I was there, my association got me access to the case files. I started looking into it, and quite frankly, it turned out to be a labor of love.
Enjoy: What is ‘Ma’ Duncan’s story?
Jim: Elizabeth ‘Ma’ Duncan had been living with her adult son, Frank, who was trying to disentangle himself from her, when she took a bottle of Seconal and ended up at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. It was there that Frank met Olga, his mother’s ICU nurse. The two married secretly because Elizabeth disapproved.
The story is really about the lengths to which this woman went to try and break up her son’s marriage. The presumed motive was Duncan’s jealousy over his relationship with another woman. Money was another factor, since she helped put him through law school and felt he owed her.
Before hiring Luis Moya and Gus Baldanado to kill the then-pregnant Olga, Elizabeth hired someone from the Salvation Army who pretended to be Frank to go to Ventura County with her posing as Olga to obtain a marriage annulment. She had solicited eight other people before hiring the two killers and none of them went to the police. One did go to Frank, but he denied the reports.
Enjoy: How has the book fared?
Jim: A New York agent carried it for a year, but was not able to sell it. The biggest criticism was that it was not timely. It sat on a shelf for 10 years while I worked in the jails, on patrol and then became chief of police.
When I retired in 2003, my friend Patty Frye got interested and became the driving force in getting it published.
It has been reviewed nationally, featured on the Investigation Discovery Channel’s program Deadly Women and I co-wrote a screenplay that has been optioned. We are working on that now.
Enjoy: What advice do you have for those interested in writing true crime?
Jim: You really, really have to commit to the research. With capital cases, court records are kept forever. You need those records to corroborate information gained from living witnesses or newspaper accounts.
Writing is a craft. You have to take it seriously.
Available at Enjoy The Store
Enjoy: What inspired you to write “A Stranger In My Bed”?
Debbie: I believed I could help people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) get to a better place more quickly than I did. It took me 10 years to really understand what was happening when Vietnam came back to visit my husband 30 years after the war ended.
There were books written by Vietnam veterans about their experiences, but not so much about the spouse and family perspective and how to help them. My husband’s PTSD had a tremendous effect on me as well and I wanted to include everything I wish I had known about the disorder.
Enjoy: Describe the book.
Debbie: I structured it in five parts, beginning with our story. I tried to pull out specific symptoms and behaviors that I thought would be common to other couples, hoping they would be able to say, “Wow, that sounds just like our life.”
Part two offers a reader-friendly overview of PTSD, and part three covers traditional, complementary and alternative treatments. It also addresses how military indoctrination affects the disorder.
In part four, entitled “Living With a Stranger,” I discuss how we can help our partners with PTSD. This section also looks at how the disorder affects intimacy and relationships, money management, communication and the reality of a future with PTSD. It’s largely about symptom and trigger management. Finally, part five looks at secondary stress disorder and the steps for taking back one’s life.
Enjoy: Did you have to confront stigma in your own family while preparing to tell this story so publicly?
Debbie: Yes, and it was scary, because none of my friends or family had any idea about the things that were happening to us. Some of the responses I would get when I tried to talk with others were, “There’s no such thing,” or “It’s an excuse for bad behavior.” It was very frustrating and made me feel alone.
When I finished the story part of the book and gave it to my husband to read, I wasn’t sure what he was going to say. Initially, he thought it was about him and not about the effect of his behavior on me.
It took him a couple days, but when he was finished, he walked into my office, put the book down and said, “Wow.” He was in full agreement to share it. Even if we helped one person, it was worth it.
Enjoy: What has helped you while living through this experience that may benefit others?
Debbie: No one sat me down and told me PTSD could also affect me. He was struggling, but I was struggling, too. It is crucial to educate yourself and find a support system. A couple years ago, I started a free support group for spouses that meets monthly. As far as I know, it is the only one in town.
The more I learned, the more I was able to help my husband. Instead of being mad that he did not want to go to a social event or wanted to leave early, I learned that social situations were difficult for him because of his PTSD. I learned not to push, or to take two cars. My understanding made a tremendous difference.
Enjoy: How has the book been received?
Debbie: I am kind of in shock over the attention it has received nationally. I was selected to serve as the 2014 Dole Fellow from California for Caring for Military Families (The Elizabeth Dole Foundation), and in April attended an event at the White House hosted by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden honoring military and veteran caregivers.
Last September, I was invited to the Warrior Family Symposium, sponsored by the Military Officer’s Association of America, to speak to department heads from numerous veterans’ organizations and government agencies.
The number of people who approach me has been amazing. One woman bought books for her children, wanting them to know their father was not the monster they thought he was.
Enjoy: What’s next?
Debbie: After being invited to give numerous presentations, I am now creating workshops, seminars and programs to take readers beyond the book.
Available at Enjoy the Store