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May 16, 2014

Guest Post by Legs McNeil - The True History of DEAR NOBODY


You never know what's going to spark the idea for a book...a trip to the supermarket, a really fun concert, or, in the case of DEAR NOBODY, a conversation with the Postermaster's daughter. In this blog post, Legs McNeil talks about how DEAR NOBODY --- a compilation of diary entries from Mary Rose Wood --- came to life, and why it's so important.

It all started when my Postmaster’s daughter came over my house to borrow a book on Charles Manson for a high school class. I live right across the street from my Post Office and had struck up a pretty tight friendship with my favorite mailman and his family. Since he’s also in a heavy-metal cover-band, we sometimes spend afternoons gossiping about different rock & roll bands while he stands behind the counter dispensing stamps, money orders and the local scuttlebutt. 

As is my usual habit, I asked the Postmaster’s daughter what books she was reading while she was browsing through my extensive Manson library. She rattled off a few popular titles, and then added, “But you know Legs, the best thing I ever read were these journals my best friend’s older sister wrote, but unfortunately she died…”

I was immediately interested. Ever since I’d read GO ASK ALICE when I was 11 or 12, I knew the book was a fake, though it took me a few years to trust my instincts. I intuitively realized that no one ever used the slang the Avon editor invented in order to make the book appear authentic. And I also knew that no one ever died of an LSD overdose, as it is suggested that Alice succumbed to. GO ASK ALICE made me furious because not only was the book a complete hoax, but it sold millions of copies to unsuspecting teenagers wanting to believe in the tragedy.

And when the Postmaster’s daughter told me about Mary Rose’s journals, I was listening. Shortly after, I contacted Mary Rose’s mom, via my Postmaster, and started reading the loose-leaf notebooks. I thought they were spectacular. There was a lot of bad fiction mixed in with Mary Rose’s brilliant non-fiction prose. To say that I was amazed by the story that unfolded in front of me would be an understatement. I was seduced at how Mary Rose could be so sharp, intuitive and dead-on one moment—and ridiculously bratty the next. And, for me, these emotional contradictions seemed to capture the essence of adolescence in one short read.

There were 600 pages in total, and I thought maybe we could edit the journals together into a diary and get it published. So I quickly photocopied selections from the journals and sent them off to New York, to Gillian McCain, my writing partner, and asked her, “Am I crazy, or is this one of the best things you’ve ever read?”

Gillian agreed that the non-fiction parts of the journals were worthy of a book. What we wanted to do was use Mary Rose’s day to day writings that she jotted down to express her love, outrage, disgust and frustrations --- all the true stuff she wrote so we could create a two-year portrait of her painfully short life. The most difficult part seemed to be assembling it in chronological order.  I told Gillian it would only be a six month distraction --- but I was wrong; it took a year and a half to get it into a solid narrative. It was rather difficult because of the limited amount of material that we had to work with.        

Once we finished the editing process, and were all set to send it to publishers, our New York lawyer told us that since Mary Rose died as a minor --- and her parents inherited her estate --- that Mary Rose’s dead-beat dad was entitled to half of her mother’s share of the profits of the book.

Since her dad left his family a year after Mary Rose was born and played no role in their lives --- except to send his daughter some rocks on one of her birthdays, we didn’t want him to receive a penny.

In order to prevent him from interfering in the publication, we hired a local lawyer and took the case to the Montgomery County court to have the father removed as a beneficiary. Five years, three male judges, and $35,000 in court fees later, a female judge finally removed Mary Rose’s father from her estate and made Sourcebooks Fire’s publication possible.

 I sat in the courtroom as Mary Rose’s mom testified that her ex-husband had failed to pay child support after he left them and had his Pennsylvania driver’s license suspended because of it. Even more shocking was that he had taken out an insurance policy on Mary Rose and urged his ex-wife to take their daughter off life support systems in the week before Mary Rose finally passed away. 

I was sobbing in the courtroom as her mom finished testifying. Mary Rose really had a terrible deal --- and to be reminded so brutally through her mom’s testimony --- well, we’ve all had terrible deals, in one way or another.

Just before the lady judge made the final ruling, I drove to the rope swing where most of the book takes place and decided to talk directly to Mary Rose.

During the editing process, I had objectified her to the point where I was cursing Mary Rose on a regular basis for not writing more so that my job was easier --- or not clarifying a confusing situation. I’d become another jerk ---in long line of jerks --- who treated her with indifference and scorn. It was time to make amends.

 I sat at the base of the tree, where the rope swing was still tied to one of its thick branches, overlooking the river. The first thing I did was to say out loud to Mary Rose, “Listen, I know this doesn’t count for much, compared to the life you had, but we’ve edited your journals into a diary and I’d like to read some of it to you…”

“But before I do that, first I’d like to apologize to you for what a truly terrible life you had. I’m sorry you were in so much pain. I know this book is no compensation for what you lived through, but hopefully it will get published and people will have a chance to read your story. So thank you for letting me and Gillian bring it to the light of day…”     

            And then I read…

            In honor of Mary Rose, I also tossed a can of beer into the river. It was a long, difficult process bringing Mary Rose’s story to publication. I don’t think I’ve ever been as frustrated as I was during the years the book sat in court. Sure, Gillian and I would love it if the book became a hit and sold billions of copies, but I also don’t care. You can’t control what’s going to happen. The only thing I know in my heart is that I am prouder than anything else to have my name on this book—and that Mary Rose will live through the words she wrote down, hoping some idiots like me and Gillian would discover them. I’m so glad we did. Thanks again M.R. for letting us be a part of this, we promise you, you will not be forgotten….

Legs McNeil is one of the authors of the highly acclaimed PLEASE KILL ME: An Oral History of Punk. McNeilis is a former editor at Spin and co-founder of Punk Magazine. Always drawn to "teen misfit' stories, he heard about Mary Rose's journal through a neighbor and immediately knew it had to be shared.