You don’t know this person, so don’t even try to figure this out, because you won’t be able to. (Seriously. And she is not part of the book world community). I’m telling you this because it’s a cautionary tale, and one that’s more reassuring to believe isn’t true. But it’s true.
It’s also the genesis of THE HOUSE GUEST, and more on that in a minute.
There’s a woman I once knew who was happily married. She’d go to work every day and send her husband off to do whatever he did; accounting, or insurance, or something financial. And to hear him tell it, the next big sale or the next big deal was always around the corner, and she was incredibly supportive. Then one day the police came.
She found that he had been trading in child pornography at home on the computer all day, and had never even been to that supposed job. She was a really smart woman. Truly. And she had absolutely no idea. How could that be?
I was the tiniest bit skeptical until the pandemic. Since the beginning in 2020, my criminal defense attorney husband and I have worked from home—me in my study and him in the breakfast-room-turned-law-office. For many hours a day, we don’t see each other. But we can kind of hear each other.
I hear things like “plea bargain” and “mandatory minimum sentence” and “absolutely not guilty” and “how was he supposed to know there was money in the dropped ceiling?” (Once, even “I know it seems unlikely that he would commit a crime wearing a GPS bracelet, but there you have it.”)
But I began to realize that he was lawyering for eight hours a day, and I actually had no idea what he was doing. I mean, we’ve been married for 27 years or something, and I know what a lawyer does. And we talk about his cases in general, and about the law, and it’s very rewarding to have in-house counsel.
But I started thinking—what, specifically, was going on in the breakfast room? I realized I had no idea. And, just as revealingly, I could be sitting at this desk writing who-knows-what, or “All work and no play…” over and over, and he would have no idea about that, either.
Then I started thinking about how many couples are shocked when one of them is accused of some crime—and the other one says those very words: oh, I had no idea! And the rest of us all raise our eyebrows and sneer, and say, come on, that person lives with you! There’s no way you don’t know what they’re doing. And I was among the scornful disbelievers.
Now, you know my darling husband, he’s a paragon and adorable and brilliant and perfect, but I’m just saying. I write fiction. We think of all the people—Bernie Madoff‘s wife, Ted Bundy’s girlfriend-then-wife, Andrei (“the Russian Cannibal”) Chikatilo’s wife—who insist they were clueless about their spouse’s crimes, and we think well, then you’re not paying attention.
What’s-her-name in The Godfather, who was married to Michael Corleone, had to be willfully unseeing of what her husband was doing, right? I mean… do you not know that your husband is a dangerous murdering crime family boss? You don’t? Huh.
But Lisa Lawler, the founder of The White Collar Wives project, told Forbes Magazine “Many women had no role or awareness of [their spouse’s] crime.” Seems like that’s also true in violent crimes.
There was the wife of a person who mentioned that from time to time her husband was “acting off.” And then one year, she thought her husband was acting stranger than usual.
And then their son found a skull in the woods near their house. Her husband explained he’d left his ‘father’s old medical skeleton’ out there. The wife, apparently, never asked why. Later, when she finally got suspicious and called the police, they recovered thousands of human bones from that wooded area. And suspected her husband had killed at least 11 people. At least. He shot himself before the case could continue.
She told an Indianapolis paper that before the skull, she and her three children never thought anything was amiss.
The “BTK” killer was married, too. And his family insists they had no idea that he had chosen, stalked and strangled 10 victims.
Ted Bundy’s wife began dating him while he was committing some of his crimes and has been quoted as saying “He struck me as a rather shy person with a lot more going on under the surface than what was on the surface.”
The wife of the person charged as The Green River killer told a reporter, “He’s always been so, so gentle and caring.”
Ruth Madoff was her husband Bernard Madoff’s bookkeeper in one realm of his business. But she has long insisted she didn’t know anything about what her husband was doing. Michelle Pfeiffer, who played her on TV, was quoted in Town & Country saying “In all the research I did, there wasn’t one person who knew the facts who thought Ruth was aware of anything.”
In fact, in a bizarre book world coincidence, I was talking to Stephanie Willing, the fabulous narrator of THE HOUSE GUEST audio book, and she told me she had been the voice of a nonfiction book called Bitcoin Widow by Jennifer Robertson. When Jennifer’s new husband—a bitcoin wizard—died unexpectedly, she discovered he owed 250 million dollars to his company’s customers. Turned out, he’d gambled much of it away. Jennifer had no idea.
FYI, and just in case, the White Collar Wives Project gives a whole list of things that spouses should do when this happens. Including how to deal with the implied guilt by association. How not to file joint income taxes, and not to try to hide assets. And Lawler, the founder, says on their website: “The truth is, spouses and children don’t normally learn that a crime has been committed until and unless agents come knocking at their door.”
So turns out, my acquaintance was more in the mainstream than she thought. Of course each situation is different, each innocent spouse’s astonished and baffled reaction is only the beginning, and followed by the repercussions, and guilt by association, and the sneering canceling public.
But for writing crime fiction, this is valuable and supremely useful information.
So when you read THE HOUSE GUEST, (and I hope you will), don’t be so quick to think that Alyssa Macallen must know what her husband Bill may or may not be doing. If she’s like many spouses, she’s clueless.
But of course—Alyssa is a fictional spouse. Will you believe her?