How did I get here? — My Writer’s Journey from Reluctant Author to Movie Option

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Photo by Janet Fries

I have numerous requests asking me to write about my journey from a reluctant author to having a movie option for my book.

Here is how it goes:

I had no intention of writing a book. As I’ve said to many friends and strangers, I had no aspirations of being an author. Books take too long and are too difficult to write.

Well, we know that changed. It was a circumstance that turned me into an author. It began as a curiosity when I was approached by a would-be presidential assassin, Sara Jane Moore, the 45-year-old mother and doctor’s wife who pulled a gun from her purse, took aim and fired a bullet at the head of Pres. Gerald Ford and missed his head by a mere six inches.

Yeah. I know.

She wanted to meet me. She sent a note to the publication where I worked at the time. She had seen an article that I wrote about Sybil Brand Women’s Prison in Los Angeles and the class action suit that had been brought against them.

All I knew about Sara Jane was what I read in the papers. I lived in Southern California and her event took place 400 miles north in San Francisco in September 1975. She wrote to me in November. She was being evaluated by several psychiatrists at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in San Diego to see if she was mentally capable to work on her defense as she pleaded guilty.

Somehow, she knew she was going to be sentenced to the prison in San Pedro, California, which was not far from where I lived.

After her court hearing and sentencing she did end up at the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island in San Pedro, CA and that is where our “relationship” of sorts began.

It was not until January 1976 that I went to meet her for the first time. It was a whole new world, prisons and such. I’ve told his story before, but I’ll relay it again here:

There I was sitting in this big empty room: A human warehouse. I had seen pictures of Sara Jane, but I was not prepared for what happened next.

A woman came through a door on the opposite side of the room. She had curly brown hair, rosy cheeks and a very purposeful walk. She was wearing street clothes so I assumed she worked there. When she approached me, she said:

“Are you Geri?”

Yes.

“I’m so glad you came. It is lovely of you.” And she took my hand.

Huh? Are we going to lunch?

This is quintessential Sara Jane Moore, as I learned. Charming, gracious, highly intelligent, with impeccable manners and as I learned later, perfect penmanship and flawless grammar.

No wonder no one saw her coming. She is not what you look for in a presidential assassin.

People still ask me why I continued to write to her, visit occasionally, and accept her phone calls.

I wrote because she was interesting, but I was not her fan, I did not agree with what she did and I was not sympathetic. I was sympathetic for the only child I knew about at the time was her son, Frederic, who was nine when the she took the shot. My heart went out to him, so I agreed to send him birthday and Christmas gifts.

So, that is how our acquaintance began and it just rolled along from there. I had no agenda. I had no plans to write about her. I was a journalist but she was not my beat. There were months where there was no communication. And when we did talk, visit or write I just accepted what she said. I never questioned her account of things. It didn’t matter. I don’t go home and fact check what people say to me unless I writing about them.

So, Sara Jane spun the tails about her life, her loves, her garden, her home, her friends.

Was I taken in by her? If you count that I sent her books about keeping kosher because she decided she was Jewish, and demanded the prison maintain a kosher kitchen for her, maybe. She insisted her paternal grandparents were orthodox Jews from Germany. She spun an elaborate tale about them and even convinced the visiting rabbi that she was Jewish even though it wasn’t from her mother’s side, which is the Jewish law.

This little piece of information should give you an idea of how convincing Sara Jane Moore can be.

Footnote

Sara Jane was a footnote in my life. I moved around the country a bit and she was moved to several different facilities over the years until she ended up in the prison in Pleasanton near the San Francisco Bay Area and I ended up there as well.

It was at that juncture that my job circumstances had changed and I went to see her a few weeks later.

“So now maybe it’s time to get back to your real writing,” she said.

“Well, what would that be?”

“It’s time for you to write my book,” she said in all seriousness.

My immediate response was, “No, I don’t write books. They are much too long and too difficult. You need to write your own book.”

To cut to what happened, I’ll get to how I came to write this book I didn’t want to write:

I agreed, and told her I needed to actually really interview her, like a real journalist. So, I suggested we set up some meeting times and I’d need to work with the prison so I could bring in a digital-recorder and note paper. But first while there I asked her what it was like growing up in Charleston, West Virginia.

So here is where I need to set the stage, so to speak:

“So, Sally, what was it like to grow up in Charleston, WV?”

“How do you know that, “She said through gritted teeth?

“It was all over the news. Everyone knows that.”

Yeah, well I didn’t tell you.”

That was my first red flag. In other words, because she didn’t tell me, therefore I couldn’t know that about her. She wanted total control over the content as I quickly learned.

Anyway, I did go ahead with some very preliminary research. I learned she joined one of the marches with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers around 1970 and spoke with a well-known Berkeley Catholic Priest, Father Bill O’Donnell. I contacted Father Bill just to ask about his interactions with Sara Jane and he was very willing to speak with me. He sent a note to Sara Jane telling her he was going to meet with me about her book.

I received a call from her which I accepted. She was furious with me. I could feel the venom in her voice. I was very glad I was not in a room with her. She screamed that I had no right contacting Father O’Donnell or anyone else. She informed me I would not speak to anyone she did not approve and she would tell me what to write.

“Sally. It doesn’t work that way. If I am going to write your book, I need to talk to people, and you need to answer my questions.”

Her final words to me on that call were the last time she and I ever spoke to her directly or that she and I ever communicated.

She said, “I am no longer at home to you.”

That was it.

I had to make a decision as to whether I was going to continue researching her and write her book without her help? Was there enough information in periodicals about the event? Was there information about her family? How would I find anything about the history of her life before she shot at Ford?

What about the rest of my life? Did I have the time and resources I’d need to attempt this venture?

Did this story need to be told? Was it a compelling story? Writing a book was foreign to me. It was a world I didn’t know and had never aspired to. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So, I had to find out. That is another article.

Written by

Master researcher, journalist and non-fiction author. My new book, San Francisco Values will be out in June 2020. Connect with me at gerispieler.com

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