Ten years after the publication of her novel, Looking for JJ, Anne Cassidy returned to her the story of child who has committed murder, to examine what life could be like for Jennifer now.
Ten years ago I wrote a book about a ten-year-old girl who killed her friend, Looking for JJ. The sequel to this book, Finding Jennifer Jones, has just been published.
The original story of Jennifer Jones had been in my mind for many years and was triggered by reading about cases of children killing other children in Britain. I was a teacher in a college in the early 1990s when two ten year old boys were convicted of the murder of a two year old child in Liverpool. I can still remember the shocking event and my feelings of revulsion and disbelief that this kind of things could happen. Day after day teachers in the staffroom where I worked discussed and argued about this case. Everyone had been affronted by the violence and pointlessness of this act. The national psyche had been bruised.
As a writer I began to ask myself questions about what might have happened. What kind of families did children like these come from? What had happened in their short lives to make them capable of such an act? What led up to this crime? My own son was nine at the time and I looked at him and his friends and thought about the two boys from Liverpool. The question that came to my mind over and over was Why?
I was also intrigued by the obvious appetite for knowing about these children, as shown by the constant coverage in the tabloid press, and my own continuing interest.
Looking for JJ is not about the Liverpool case but it was certainly triggered by the events of that day in Bootle. My story was entirely fiction. Jennifer Jones spent six years in an institution for her crime. She was released when she was seventeen and given a new identity. She had a job, a boyfriend and a place at university to look forward to. She had everything going for her, it seemed. Until someone found out what her real name was. Then her life came crashing down.
After writing the book I often wondered (and was asked many times) what happened to Jennifer Jones. I thought about this question from time to time and in my normal pessimistic way I pictured her life on a downward spiral. I couldn’t see things ever getting any better for her. I couldn’t see her coming to terms with what she had done when she was ten years old. I couldn’t see any possibility of a happy ending.
The question which interested me hugely was whether or not offenders like these could be rehabilitated; whether they could live a decent life of some sort after their release from custody. I wondered how many offenders were hidden among us living ordinary lives, contributing to society, coming to terms with their own guilt. This question can never be answered though. We can only know about the times when the system breaks down and some individual is marched back to prison amid gleeful headlines from some sectors of the press.
When, recently, a high-profile case of a released offender came back into the news and the young man concerned was sent back to prison, I began to think a lot about Jennifer Jones again. Was it possible for this young offender to make a good life for herself after what she had done? In the first book she had tried hard and followed the rules but was still exposed and pilloried. I began to wonder what she might be like two years later.
In Finding Jennifer Jones the hope she had in book one has been replaced by cynicism. Her name is now Kate Rickman and she has just finished her second year at university. She is unhappy, slightly bitter but still haunted by guilt and the need to face up to her past. She decides to contact the third girl who was there on the day she killed her friend. It’s against the rules but she does it anyway. When she has a brush with the police she makes a bigger decision. She decides that she will disappear and make up her own new identity, away from the authorities. She will live her life the way she wants to. She makes a fresh start and puts her past behind her. There are people around, though, who will not let her do that. The public, it seems, has a long memory.
In Looking for JJ I was asking the question whether someone could make a life for themselves after doing a terrible thing. In Finding Jennifer Jones she has made that life but can’t live with it. Guilt pervades these books. Jennifer Jones may have been released from prison but she lives in a prison of her own.
Juliet Lyons, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, adds ‘Anne Cassidy asks the questions that many would ask in the face of a tragic event but then goes behind the scenes and painstakingly explores what might be some of the answers. Her careful research and close observation together with a wonderfully accessible writing style, spell out how all actions have consequences and how a sudden terrible act has an enduring impact on everyone involved.’
Looking for JJ, Scholastic, 978-1407138091, £6.99
Finding Jennifer Jones, Hot Key Books, 978-1471402289, £6.99
Identity, reform and retribution – writing the story of a child killer
Anne Cassidy and Juliet Lyons are both speaking at a special event at the Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3GA on Tuesday 11 March. Further information visit http://org.uk/adults/get-involved/002-events/identity-reform-and-retribution—writing-the-story-of-a-child-killer.html