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Q&A: She knows the harsh truth of ‘Butterfly Girl’s’ world

The Butterfly Girl
Rene Denfeld’s third novel is “The Butterfly Girl.”
(Owen Carey / Harper)

In Rene Denfeld’s “The Butterfly Girl,” trauma is everywhere. There’s Naomi, “The Child Finder” of Denfeld’s 2017 novel of the same name, a private investigator still trying to find her own missing sister. And there’s Celia, a 12-year-old living on the streets after escaping an abusive father.

And yet, in the hands of Denfeld, “The Butterfly Girl” is a crime thriller built upon redemption. A survivor of trauma who was herself homeless as a young girl in Portland, Ore., Denfeld knows the harsh truths of her book’s world.

She’s been a death penalty investigator at a public defenders’ office as well as a journalist, foster-adoptive parent and social justice advocate. As a result, amid a steady supply of darkness, “The Butterfly Girl” still has room for light.

“I think the book is actually really pushing back against this idea that people like myself are supposed to end up in the gutter, that we’re supposed to be these hopeless, damaged, broken people,” Denfeld says. “I’m very much of the mind-set that I think we need to acknowledge our trauma, we need to in some sense heal ourselves and heal each other.”

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In a recent phone interview during her book tour, Denfeld speaks more about the ways her story informed and helped uplift her third novel.

Between reading the book and researching your background, I was struck by how Naomi and Celia in many ways feel like two sides of your life experience. Is that what it felt like to write?

It did. It’s kind of interesting to me, because my fiction is very much informed by my own experiences. You know, it makes it easy in terms of research (laughs).

So Celia is a 12-year-old street girl. She’s living on the streets of Portland, Ore., because frankly, the streets are probably safer than her home, which is true for a lot of homeless children. She was very much inspired by my own history. I have a very difficult background myself, which I’m pretty open about now. I come from a family of a lot of poverty and abuse. The man I considered my father is actually a registered predatory sex offender. So by the time I was a young teen, I was homeless as well.

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At the time that this happened to me, it was in the early 1980s and there was a serial killer called the Green River Killer who was operating, and he murdered at least 50 girls and women — girls like me. I had a friend who was murdered by him. So those experiences of living in this terror informed the novel.

There is a lot of violence and trauma in this story, but in viewing the characters through that lens, there’s something hopeful too, as the book reads as if you as an adult are rescuing a younger version of yourself.

After I was finished with the book, I felt that. It was kind of the grown-up version of myself telling the younger version of myself — and telling all people, not just the homeless street kids that are out there ... I know from my own life experience that we have the capability of saving each other. We have the capability of making really positive change in the world. So, yeah, I think it’s very much a message of “There is hope. We can do this. There’s a way through the wilderness.”

But by the same token, that path isn’t something that comes easy for your characters. There’s a real push and pull as they decide how much to trust one another. Help seems as hard to accept as it is to offer.

That was a really important part of the story. Too often in our culture, we have these rescue narratives, and they’re very simplistic and they’re very hierarchical, where one person is kind of the supplicant and the other person rides in on the white horse and then there’s a happily ever after. And what we really don’t talk about is it’s a lot more complicated than that.

People need to maintain their dignity and their autonomy, even when they need help. And I know this from now being a foster-adoptive parent of kids who were very traumatized like I was. It would be far too easy to paint myself as some sort of hero, but I don’t see it that way. I see that I’m just as lucky to be part of their healing journey as anything else.

Was it difficult to draw on your experience on the streets?

Writing this book was actually the first time I’ve ever publicly written or talked about that period of my life. I was honestly really embarrassed and ashamed that I was homeless, so I kind of hid it for a long time. It was one of those things when I ended up going to work at the public defenders and you sit in the lunchroom with people and you talk about the high school years. And I remember just being too ashamed to say, “Well, actually, I had to leave school in the ninth grade because I was homeless.” You can’t go to high school when you’re a street kid. So it took me a long time, and I actually think it was my own activism and advocacy work that helped me get over my own shame and to be able to have the strength to revisit those memories. A lot of the memories of my time on the street were incredibly traumatic.

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What was really interesting to me was even as all these traumatic memories came back, and I had to wade through them writing this book, all these positive memories came back too. I spent a lot of time at the public library, and I would sit at a wooden table kind of surrounded with books. The library is one place you can go if you’re homeless. They welcome you, and the books welcome you, so I felt this sense of sanctuary and peace every day that I was in the library, so a lot of those memories came back. You know, if you’re a child on the streets, you’re still a child. You still have a sense of magic about you, and I was able to get back in touch with that as well.

You’ve spoken in the past about fiction having to reckon with the way we depict violence and trauma. There’s no shortage of those experiences in this book, but still, it’s not traumatic to read. How do you walk that line?

I’m very much of the mind-set that even fictional victims deserve dignity. So when I’m writing about something traumatic happening to somebody, I picture myself giving those pages to that character, and I ask the character, “How do you feel about how I represented what happened to you?” That’s kind of the method I use to check myself, because it’s really important, for me at least, that we not sensationalize violence or turn violence into some form of entertainment.

Though “The Butterfly Girl” has traumatic things happening, there’s nothing graphic or, I hope, exploitative about it at all. That’s very important to me. I don’t want to re-traumatize people who are reading the book. I want people to know that I understand what it’s like. Books should be a safe place for us to have conversations with each other, and that’s what I’m hoping for.

In depicting both the struggles of the homeless and the systems that should be in place to help them, there is a journalistic component to “The Butterfly Girl,” where you’re shining a light on how we’re failing these kids. Was that part of your intention?

I didn’t set out (thinking), “Can I do an expose on the system?” But I think if you’re writing about the system, it’s kind of hard not to do an expose. We’re experiencing epidemics of homelessness now, and I think people feel really helpless. “What can I do? And why is this happening?” I did want the book to touch upon some of that stuff, because I think there’s actually a lot we can do.

I don’t believe there’s really a hierarchy of activism. I know that when I was homeless, there was this elderly librarian who befriended me, and she would save food, like jars of nuts, behind her desk, and she would give them to me. And that meant the world to me. It would be hard to overstate how important it was when people would recognize my humanity. There are so many things we can do to help.

Barton is a former Times staff writer now based in Portland, Ore.


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