Heather Lewis

A Lost Generation

Photo Credit: Jill Krementz
Photo Credit: Jill Krementz

Publication, Emily Dickinson mused, “is the Auction Of the Mind,” a condition “so foul” that after a certain point she deemed it better to work in “Poverty” rather than pursue the acclaim to which she knew she was entitled. That sentiment caught my eye because of its slant resonance to the case of Heather Lewis. In 1996, Heather began submitting the sequel to her controversial debut, House Rules. Notice didn’t fare well with editors. Its lurid story—a nameless young woman turns tricks for drugs until she falls in love with the wife of one of her johns, a rich sadist who molested and killed his own daughter and uses the protagonist to reenact his crime night after night—struck industry readers as unbelievable or, even more discomfiting, too close to their notions of the author’s actual experience.

At the time Heather took the stoic route, shelving Notice and writing The Second Suspect, the final installment of what she considered a trilogy. She ditched the first-person narrator for third-person detachment, filtering the central conceit of incest, misogyny, and murder through a detective’s objective gaze rather than the unnerving subjectivity of a survivor. The crime-drama prism got the novel published but didn’t save The Second Suspect from being dissed as “transgressive,” its subject matter attributed to “an almost adolescent need to shock.” The taunts stung, not least because they deliberately failed to understand Heather’s work, but also because of the implicit suggestion that the kinds of experiences she wrote about weren’t fit materials for art. The situation was complicated by the collapse of Heather’s career in the wake of The Second Suspect’s failure; in addition, after a decade of sobriety, she started drinking again. These lamentable developments, coupled with who knew what personal traumas, culminated in her suicide in 2002; it is only through the valiant efforts of a handful of supporters that Notice is now being published nearly a decade after she wrote it.