Archive for Washington D.C.

The Monday Women Marched in Black

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

“Wear all black,” the woman said over the phone.

Come at eight-thirty, and don’t carry too much.

Be prepared to go from the Supreme Court of the United States to the offices of senators.

Last Sunday, I learned the Women’s March organizers were a series of actions this week in Washington D.C. I wanted in. Over the last two years, I have been increasingly agitated by the attempts by male lawmakers to erase established civil rights, especially those of women and minorities. It feels like the final straw that the President’s nominee for an open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court is Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative judge alleged to have sexually assaulted a young woman during his high school days. Despite the fact that more claims have come about the judge’s sexually aggressive behavior, the President and most Republican senators don’t want an F.B.I. investigation or to postpone voting for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

President Trump and his supporters insist Chrstine’s report must be false, or else it would have been told to the police years ago. But I know that many women who do report rapes have their stories ignored or suffer repercussions for telling.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is a psychologist now living in California. She says that when she was fifteen, a teenaged Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, forced her into a bedroom at a party. She claims Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth so nobody could hear her cry out for help. The men fell off her, and Christine did escape being raped, but she suffered post traumatic stress disorder. Christine moved 3000 miles away to get away from her painful memories, which she had discussed with others over the years, but that became increasingly hard to ignore when Kavanaugh came onto the national stage. Some months ago, Christine wrote a letter about her experiences to her Senator, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Christine asked Feinstein to keep her identity confidential but to share Kavanaugh’s past actions with the F.B.I. However, information was made public, and now Christine has received death threats and left her home.

I am grateful to live close enough to Washington D.C. to reach it in an hour’s train ride. I wanted to make a physical declaration that I believe women don’t make up stories about rape. I followed the instructions the woman had given me to assemble in front of the US Supreme Court on a gray Monday morning. Rape survivors among the marchers spoke about who hurt them and how the trauma still affects them. Some of their voices were very low, because the emotion was strong, and it was the first they had told these painful histories. After each story, our voices swelled in answer. “We believe you.”

The rally started out with a few hundred people, but as we marched to the Hart Senate Office Building, the numbers swelled. Long lines of cars had to stop to let us cross the intersection, and by the time we reached Hart, it seemed like close to one thousand were marching. There were so many marchers, we had to divide up to make it into the building through two different sides. Because we had no bullhorns, messages passed through the crowd by repetition. When people in the line began holding up a hand, it meant it was time to fall silent and listen for directions.

In the Hart and Dirksen Senate Office Buildings, the police were already waiting and had stiff plastic wrist bands, the modern version of handcuffs. While it is legal for people to enter a building to visit a senator, the police told us that it is against the law to protest inside government buildings.

In the atrium, some people prayed and many others got to know each other. I met many students from Yale Law School, the alma mater of Kavanaugh, and women and men from all over America. The organizers divided us into smaller groups that lined the halls outside the offices of Republican Senators Susan Collins and Jeff Flake, as well as some others who might be swayed to vote against Kavanaugh.

I was unable to get inside any of the senators’ offices, but the people who did spoke to the senator’s staff about how the experience of rape impacted them. I did not know that during the same time, other rallies were being held around the country, that many women were wearing black as a sign of protest, and at 1 PM that Monday, many women would walk out of work for an hour to show they believed Christine.

At the Senate Buildings, 128 people were arrested in Dirksen and the Rotunda. The rest of us made it out.

As I walked through Capitol Hill, I caught sight of a protest sign about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh on a food truck, making me realize that people are creatively speaking their voices.

It was still raining when I reached Union Station, and my thoughts went back to my own social history. Christine and I came of age at the same time, and there are several uncomfortable experiences with men I’ve pushed very far back into my memory. Three decades ago, I believed that if I got away from someone without being hurt, I should consider myself lucky. Why should there be a consequence for the perpetrator?

In my Perveen Mistry series, I write about a woman solicitor battling for social justice for females constrained by the legal system in British colonial India. A century later, it is shocking that so much is still the same.

Death in the Dollhouse

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


Dollhouses have a shelf in my life. I played with dolls and miniatures for a very long time—longer even than my little sisters. Our house had a tall, narrow built-in bookcase on the second floor landing, and I set up rooms for my tiny doll family on five “stories.” These went from kitchen to living room, dining room to bedrooms. The coup de grace of a Victorian bathroom with pull chain toilet and free standing china tub. I could play “A Little Princess” or “Borrowers” or a story of my own devising.

While I made doll clothes and tablecloths and tiny books, the home was furnished mostly with dozens of very fine wooden and porcelain furniture pieces, a long-term loan from a kind neighbor. These beds and sofas and dining cabinets dated from probably the 1940s and ’50s and were often in the nostalgic Victorian or Colonial style. Was it the dollhouse that gave me an appreciation of antiques? And was the art of playing family stories set in the past practice for later writing historical and mystery novels?

Frances Glessner Lee, born in 1878, also loved dollhouses. But she transformed a picturesque child’s hobby into a dark art. Her miniature rooms are the center of a magnificent show currently at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A parlor scene with victim

Frances’s path to her gory, tiny rooms was utterly original. She was a lady of privilege, the only daughter of the industrialist John Jacob Glessner, who owned the International Harvester agricultural and construction machinery company. Frances and her brother were tutored at home; he attended Harvard, but her parents denied her the chance for higher education due to her gender. It was a sad, too familiar story.

Some of the activities that filled Frances’ time as a girl were making dolls and miniatures and reading the novels of Sherlock Holmes. Her marriage to a lawyer named Blewett Lee was unhappy; she wanted much more than life as a society wife. Frances appreciated the central concept in Sherlock Holmes stories about clues being essential—and often overlooked. But her husband didn’t want her to pursue the forensic pathology work that she spoke about learning. The couple divorced, and her parents dissuaded her from trying to enter the field.

But Frances didn’t give up. After her brother died, she had access to her inheritance and used some of it to endow a brand new department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. She realized this could be a venue where she could contribute. The school was named Magrath in recognition of her lifelong friend, the doctor George Burgess Magrath, a coroner who was on Harvard’s faculty. Her idea was to take a crime, create a tiny room filled with a victim and clues, and let police and coroners study it for their own education.

Frances and Ralph Moser, her estate’s carpenter, spent between three to six months fabricating a “nutshell,” as she called these incredibly detailed dollhouse rooms. To make the piece known as “Barn,” Ralph was directed to shave pieces of wood from an aged shed on her property and put them together to be the barn’s boards. Frances knit tiny stockings using straight pins and recreated tiny newspapers by hand.

The Barn. Did the farmer suffer suicide or murder?

All the ideas for the crimes presented were hers, and often featured women at risk in domestic situations, and the poor and working class. Her dollhouses show the real world of the United States between the thirties and the fifties. Some of them are still used by the Baltimore Police Department for training.

I visited the exhibition over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it was packed with viewers, young and old, peering in at the lit-up nutshells. The line went out the door, the show was so popular. It was heartening to see a woman like Frances appreciated after her death. In her late years, she was the inspiration for some fiction by her friend, Erle Stanley Gardner. She also is said to have been the model for Jessica Fletcher in the television show “Murder She Wrote,” although Jessica was a writer, not an artist.

The exhibition, “Murder is her Hobby” runs through February 2018 and is well worth a peek. If you visit the Renwick’s web page about Frances Glesser Lee, you can take a virtual tour and also hear a podcast about the show.