The inspiration for a legal thriller – Jennifer Dwight

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By Jennifer Dwight

In June, 1977 my little daughter and I ventured to San Francisco to begin our new life. Soon after we arrived, the annual Gay Freedom Day Parade took place on Market Street, near the ratty apartment I had rented with my meager savings. I knew next to nothing about homosexuality or gay culture, so I put my toddler on my shoulders and walked to the parade to see what it was all about.♥

Such a jubilant celebration of love and diversity I had never seen! More than 200,000 people marched and danced toward City Hall, voices booming from megaphones, demanding equal protection under the law and the right to love whomever they wished. I identified with their cries for equality and recognition; my own recent exodus was similar.

Many carried banners, played music and sang — in costume, on floats, in decorated vehicles, on motorcycles, in wheelchairs. There were hilarious antics by drag queens on roller skates, and dogs wearing signs. A slogan was tattooed on my heart that day. It reads: “A Day Without Human Rights Is A Day Without Sunshine.”

Our neighbors across the alley were transvestites. Their bathroom window paralleled our kitchen window, and both were usually open. When my daughter and I ate dinner, the “ladies” across the way were often dressing for the evening, donning girly outfits and flamboyant makeup more extreme than any that I, a straight woman, ever wore. Our cross-alley banter included their taunting with feather boas, consulting about their outfits and practicing how best to gesture like a femme fatale. So much laughing!

Time passed, we moved, and I began a paralegal career. Nearly everywhere I worked openly gay people were employed. I attended an Episcopal church where the rector blessed gay unions and the many sick with AIDS who sought his help. The church sponsored a program to feed the poor, many of whom were marked by Kaposi’s sarcoma.

AIDS ravaged the area and spread like wildfire around the globe. I followed the slow progress of treatment options and witnessed the agony preceding my friends’ deaths. The ripple effect from each fatality struck generations, and friends were sorely aggrieved, time and again.

I was aghast at the prejudice that many heterosexuals aimed at anyone who lived in a household where HIV had surfaced. Children were ostracized in schools. Neighbors shunned neighbors. Fear of contagion spawned more cruelty, and ignorance about transmission fanned the flames.

Unlike people, the virus does not discriminate. Today HIV/AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death in the world among people of all ages. HIV/AIDS is currently the leading cause of death of women of childbearing age in the world. Some studies report that women aged 15-24 are twice as likely to be at risk for HIV infection as men, while others report that women are actually three to four times at risk.

I watched friends disintegrate under what is now called “AIDS dementia complex.” I read stories about infected people who wittingly exposed their lovers to the virus without telling them, and the lawsuits that followed. I watched the law around AIDS develop. (For example, it is now a felony in most of the U.S. to knowingly expose a lover to AIDS without her or his knowledge.) There were also rare and inexplicable instances of individuals who’d been repeatedly exposed, but whose natural immunity protected them from HIV.

I began working on a novel to examine some of the conundrums I pondered. Watching friends go mad with the virus made me question what I thought I knew about being human. Who are all these different selves that emerge when a person comes unglued? Are we all made up of lots of different people? What is the adhesive that holds an individual’s self together? What is one’s identity, separate from one’s memories? Are we responsible for our actions if HIV invades our brains? If so, to what point? How is our behavior influenced by the past, even after we’ve done our best to heal and move on? Is the past ever really over?

Working in civil litigation for decades provided many premium specimens of con-artists to study, especially in the banner year 2008. The most evil of them were charismatic, understated and seemed to be sublimely scrupulous, empathetic and well intended. They played their gullible targets like a song. They made me ask myself what defenses a victim might deploy, if her little boat were sinking?

Ten years later, I completed The Tolling of Mercedes Bell. It is a legal thriller and psychological suspense novel, and will be published this May. Set in San Francisco in the 1980s, it is both fiction, full of fact, and fact, full of fiction.

Jennifer Dwight was born into a military family and lived throughout the US and Asia during her youth. She studied religion, philosophy and English literature. While supporting a family, she worked as a litigation paralegal, trainer and writer for 33 years in the San Francisco area. She also wrote and published numerous articles, short stories and paralegal books, as well as a 60-segment story which was serialized in The San Francisco Daily Journal and was the first fiction ever published by that legal newspaper. The Tolling of Mercedes Bell is her first novel.

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