I Could Not Even Trust My Own Mind: Dinah Lenney Interviews JoeAnn Hart

“IT WAS IN THE SPRING of 1999, during the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it buildup to the millennium, when time and its significant markers were much on the collective mind, that I started thinking about writing a short piece about Howie and Margo.”
So opens JoeAnn Hart’s recently published Stamford ’76, an account of two murders in southwestern Connecticut: Margo Olson’s, brutal and gruesome and never definitively solved — and weeks later, Howie Carter’s, at the hands of the Stamford police. Margo and Howie were a couple back then, as were JoeAnn and Joe, Howie’s friend. The girls, both in their 20s, were white. The young men were black. More than two decades after the murders, Hart decided to craft an essay that would “expose Howie and Margo’s story to the cleansing light of the written word.” And what happened? “The story,” she says on page one, “nearly ate me alive.”
Some 20 years later, Stamford ’76 — carefully researched and documented — is nonetheless as much about Hart as it is about Margo or Howie or the life and times of the community where they were killed. Then, too, it’s about memory, and time, and writing itself: Is it possible to learn from the past? Can writing-over-time, the equation, change the way we feel about others and ourselves?
I found myself wanting to know — two decades into the work, 40 years after the events of the story — had JoeAnn Hart written the book she’d wanted to write?
That’s where we began.
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DINAH LENNEY: This project took its time, didn’t it? Can you explain that? Did it worry you? And is the book (consequently, necessarily) a different project than you first imagined?
JOEANN HART: Stamford ’76 began with an essay I wrote while studying with George Packer in Bennington’s MFA program in the spring of 1999, culminating as a book published in the spring of 2019. Twenty years. I wasn’t actively writing or researching that whole time, but I was always ruminating. It was a dance between memory and fact. The facts were that in 1976 Margo, who was young and white like me, had been found in a shallow grave with an arrow through her heart, and a few weeks later her black boyfriend was killed by the police. Everything else was memory, rumor, and conjecture. Each time I inched closer to a theory about their violent deaths, a new bit of information would send me back to square one. Not only that, I harbored vivid memories that turned out to be completely false. I could not even trust my own mind. I picked their story up and put it down, picked it up, put it down. I wandered in the wilderness searching for connections, but after so long, many of the people who had known Margo or Howie were dead. Others couldn’t be found, or didn’t want to be found, cutting me off at the first mention of Margo’s name. There were long stretches when I thought I’d never be able to create a logical narrative out of the mountain of discordant files I was collecting. Eventually though, a story began to form, even though it developed in ways I could not have predicted, as if I had planted a radish seed and got a pumpkin instead. Much of the process was waiting for me to let go of preconceived notions and expectations so I could take the next step forward.
Talk some more about that — what was the hardest (or scariest) part about writing and publishing this book?
Writing about race made me want to crawl out of my skin. As a white person, I was conditioned to not discuss race, that if it’s not all Kumbaya, it’s going to make people uncomfortable to even bring the subject up. At the time of Margo’s death, I was living with Joe, a black man and Howie’s best friend. As I wrote about our relationship, I listened to my younger self insist that we were all equal and that race didn’t matter, and I realized it had been an insult to those around me who were suffering from the daily effects of racism. Of course race matters, no matter how I might have wished otherwise. In the long writing of the book, I came to better understand my privileged position and recognize my own implicit bias, then and now. White liberalism often only wants to hear a certain narrative about racism. When my agent started shopping the manuscript around, editors would say they loved it, but they were going to pass because they wouldn’t know how to market a book like “this.” Meaning, I hadn’t come to a conclusion that isolated the racism to specific individuals, and worse, I had failed to exonerate the black boyfriend, which is what I had set out to do. Instead, the story revealed a young, marginalized community trying to survive in the shadows of systemic racism and misogyny, in a culture in which some benefit and others suffer. Those who benefit do not like to recognize that their prosperity depends on that system, which remains largely unchanged. In the end, a university press picked up Stamford ’76 because they saw it through a sociological and feminist lens, not just as a bizarre true crime story.
Which makes it all the more timely, doesn’t it? But did you know from the start that you were writing a memoir?
Oh no. I explicitly went into the project believing I could leave myself out of it. George told me early on that at some point I’d have to make a decision about how much of me I was going to put into the narrative, and I remember thinking, “None!” That turned out not to be possible. The story simply didn’t cohere without a personal narrator who knew the players. There was not enough information otherwise. There was never even a connection made between Margo and Howie in newspaper articles, as if an interracial couple had to be separated unto death. Besides, there was no way I could continue questioning Margo’s motivations without taking a good look at my own. I always thought I was an innocent bystander to my life back then, but I had more agency than I owned up to. I made decisions, then paid the consequences or reaped the rewards.
So what about the response of friends and family? Your own children?
My husband and two daughters have read the book and loved it. I’ve had no response from my siblings, so I’m not sure if they’ve read it, although my niece, a budding journalism major, gave it a great review on Instagram. If my mother knows about Stamford ’76, and she might not, it’s unlikely she’d read it. She wouldn’t want to revisit those years. My son has not read the book, but he’s never read any of my books because he’s so afraid of finding something sexual about me in them. We’ll give him a pass. I’m sure someday he’ll work around that Freudian blockade. Oddly, no one has seemed shocked or surprised, even though they knew only the barest of bones about my life before I got married. Or so I thought. Information has a way of filtering down through time.
The most surprising response I’ve been getting is from strangers. Women have been walking up to me on the street or at readings and saying, “You wrote my story!” The first time this happened I was incredulous. “My god! You’ve had a grisly bow-and-arrow murder in your past, too?” It turned out, no. They weren’t even talking about being in an interracial relationship in the ’70s. They were simply referring to those years — all of us looking for something we couldn’t even name, and making poor or reckless decisions along the way. There were few women role models in paid jobs or politics for us to emulate — to show us how it was done. So we entered the world during the second wave of feminism thinking we could do anything, but the instruction manual was in a foreign language: male.
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Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade and an editor-at-large at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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