Katherine Ellison spent 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America, reporting for Knight-Ridder papers such as The San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald. Her work on how Fernando and Imelda Marcos looted the Phillippines treasury and secretly bought property in the United States garnered her and two collegaues the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.
Despite her many accolades, awards and books (she has written 10) Ellison could never put a major mistake she made as a young journalist out of her mind. She spent almost 40 years grappling with the period in which she covered a notorious San Jose murder case — and was sued for libel for her writing. The final result is her newest book Mothers and Murderers: A True Story of Love, Lies, Obsession…and Second Chances.
Berkeleyside caught up with her to find out more.
You’ve written about subjects ranging from climate change to Latin American politics to progressive education. What led you to take on true crime?
I’ve been haunted by this story for nearly 40 years. At its center is an extraordinary villainess: an upper-middle-class stay-at-home mother-of-three who’d been the San Jose chapter president of Hadassah. Her behavior with a series of hapless men would amaze you.
How did you get involved in this story?
I met Judi Singer, the villainess, in 1981, when I was covering the murder-for-hire trial of her husband, Robert. He was charged with hiring two young men to kill Judi’s former husband. Judi wasn’t charged at the time but I mistakenly reported that she had helped plot the murder. She sued me and my newspaper for libel for $11 million, and we’ve had an up-and-down relationship ever since.
You say the story could have been cast by the Coen Brothers – why’s that?
The hired killers were straight out of “Fargo” — such bumblers that they initially forgot to buy ammunition and got lost on the cross-country drive to the scene of the murder. The triggerman was high on a huge dose of LSD on the night of the murder. And the list goes on…
What first drew you to newspaper reporting?
I grew up in a materially privileged but unfortunately violent home, which gave me a keen interest in reporting on abuses of power. Reporting also became a coping method: when I was very young I used to write down scenes of what was happening in our family in my journal as if I were war reporting. When I later actually did war reporting, it wasn’t all that scary. Today I teach writing to kids in juvenile hall and I tell them how writing can help them deal with emotions that might otherwise become overwhelming. It definitely helped me.
Talk about some of the themes in “Mothers & Murderers”?
I think the main theme of Mothers & Murderers is the enormous value of self-awareness, and how surprisingly hard it often is to achieve. We may feel like we’re self-aware when we’re still mostly driven by unconscious programming to do things that are against our best interests. It’s also about the work some of us have to do to break a cycle of dishonesty and hurtful behavior that can run through generations. Ironically, Judi’s lawsuit pushed me into psychotherapy, which helped me straighten out my life, while she never had that opportunity.
Another theme is about mothers and daughters in the early 1980s when millions of us were painfully differentiating ourselves from our mothers, who were aware of feminism but born too late to experience any benefits. The novelist Milan Kundera once said he could barely stand to think of himself in his twenties, he was such a jerk. I wanted to provide an honest portrait of a highly ambitious but flawed woman in her twenties, namely me, who was going through that painful separation while navigating the male-dominated world of journalism with very few role models.
How do you think the job of reporting the news has changed for women?
It has gotten easier in that there are certainly more of us, including in positions of power, but much harder in terms of the dwindling of sustainable jobs, particularly including some of the really great jobs of the past. I feel lucky to have been part of an age in which newspapers had big budgets, which I completely took for granted, to let you really delve into good stories. But I’m encouraged by all the creative new approaches emerging about how to revive the news business.