Author Kim Reid’s life intersected with one of the most famous serial homicide cases in 20th century America: the Atlanta child murders, when up to 21 black children were kidnapped and killed there between 1979 and 1981. Her tough-minded mother was a cop and a lead investigator on the case. When it began, Reid was 13, the same age group as many of the victims. Three decades later, she has turned a difficult stretch of her life into an engaging book and winner of the Colorado Book Award, ” title=”No Place Safe: A Family Memoir”>No Place Safe: A Family Memoir.
Each year the state’s Center for the Book, a Library of Congress satellite, throws a grand gala to honor local literary achievers. By that night, contenders in each literary category have been reduced from several nominees to three, and the winning authors, like Oscar hopefuls, do not know they have beat the competition until their names are announced on stage.
“Winning the Colorado Book Award was a wonderful validation,” Reid says. “Writers go to this place in our heads where the only reality is ourselves and everything else is imagined. But ultimately I think we’re writing for as many people as will have us.”
Reed, a novice, was up against journalist Jim Sheeler, whose book Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People who led Extraordinary Lives. His book Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives is a finalist for the National Book Award. Sheeler also won a Pulitzer for the Rocky Mountain News piece, of the faces and families behind Iraq War fatalities, upon which it is based.
“I was imagining I’d only thought they’d called my name and any minute someone was going to say, ‘I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake,'” Reid says.
A physics research assistant, Reid is working on her next book, fiction this time, which she calls a cross between the films Crash and Unfaithful. The events that inspired No Place Safe, she says, were all too real. “Kids should never have to talk about how they’d defend themselves if a killer ever tried to get them, but we talked about it,” she recalls. “We’d wonder if we knew someone who knew the last kid to go missing. Not only were we dealing with fear, but for many of us it was the first time that we saw our parents afraid. Childhood was abbreviated.”
It wasn’t much more than a blip in the news—two black boys being killed in Atlanta in 1979 didn’t get much news coverage. The only reason that I knew what I did was because my mother, an investigator with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office at the time, told me to be more careful. She said it was probably just a coincidence, but just as likely not, that the boys were close in age, black and found in the same wooded area.
Warning me to be a little more careful because those boys were killed was probably a waste of words. By my thirteenth summer I’d learned to be nothing but careful, whether I wanted to or not. Even though they were my favorite, I rarely drank frozen Cokes because I avoided going into convenience stores where they were sold (an off-duty cop still in uniform is a sitting duck if she walks in during a robbery.) At restaurants I never sat with my back to the door (you need to be aware of everyone that comes in and out, and know your entry and exit points.) I always tried to carry myself like I wasn’t afraid of shit (even if you are, you don’t let them know or they have you.) My friends used to call me Narc.
Ma told me about the boys while we got ready for work. Sharing her bathroom mirror, I combed my hair while I studied her use of blush—the sucking of the cheeks to find the bones, the blowing of the brush to prevent over application. This girly part of her never seemed to go with the other part, the other woman—the one who, as a uniformed officer carried a .38 caliber service revolver in her thick leather holster, along with other things difficult to associate with a woman, especially a mother: handcuffs, a nightstick, and the now illegal blackjack, metal covered in leather for handling an uncooperative perpetrator or bad guy as I called them. Perpetrator filled my mouth in an uncomfortable way.
Reid’s memoir transcends the pall of the serial killer and captures what is was like to grow up as a middle-class girl in Atlanta. Sometimes, she is simply writing about being a college-worthy kid trying to navigate the catty claws of high school, please her mother, and make that special boy like her. The subtle tension in the tale is derived by tender inexperience constantly getting her too close to life’s buzz saws. The book has trusting, straightforward style that deftly plants adolescent affairs of the heart on a landscape pockmarked with social injustice.
Reid was raised in Georgia, but she and her husband moved to Colorado 14 years ago. “Now when I visit Atlanta, I love the hustle and energy, but I can’t wait to get back here to all the wide open space,” she says.
Her next book will be set in the West. No more memoirs, she says. “I promised my family they are off limits for my future writing,” she says. “I look forward to making things up.”
Still, reality and art may fraternize the tiniest bit. The plot is about Southerners who relocate to Colorado.
“Even in writing fiction,” she says, “I can’t help but use my truth.”