"Invisible City" - In Conversation with Julia Dahl

Though I don’t ordinarily gravitate toward murder mysteries, from the moment I picked up Julia Dahl’s debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books, 2014), I was hooked. The novel, which centers around a murder in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave of Borough Park in New York City and Rebekah Roberts, the young reporter determined to uncover the truth of the case, has to be one of the most original, most engrossing books I’ve read in a long while. This week I had the opportunity to speak with Julia about the inspiration for her book, New York City’s Hasidic community, her influences and much more. Read on to see what she had to say… 

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I’ve never been what one might call religious. As such, I’ve never been part of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community, but I have to say having had some exposure to that particular segment of society, your book really piqued my interest that much more. I really think that your book is ‘spot on’ about so many things.

Julia Dahl (JD): I’m so glad. That means a lot. Thank you.

AD: First of all, the Hasidic community is most definitely not your typical setting for a murder mystery. How did you come up with it? What was the ‘inspiration’ for the setting of Invisible City?

JD: Well, I grew up in Fresno, California. My family on my mom’s side is Jewish, but I had no idea that the ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S. Then I moved out east. I went to college in Connecticut and then moved to New York City in 1999. If you’re in New York City, you see men with black hats and women in wigs on the subway all the time, but it wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn that I started seeing them a lot, and a couple of things happened that piqued my interest and made me focus on the community. It was something that I wanted to explore in fiction. One was just that I saw these people and thought they’re so like me and yet so unlike me. So there was just this sense of wanting to know more about them. In the fall of 2007, I had just started working at the New York Post, and my then-boyfriend — he’s now my husband — and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We went to visit an apartment that looked great on paper. It had a great price, it was right by the park in a neighborhood we like. On the way there, the broker told us that he felt like he needed to tell us that the previous occupant of the apartment had committed suicide there. So, we went and we saw the apartment. It was a great apartment, and there certainly were no signs that anyone had committed suicide there. We decided to take it, and after we moved in, I went to sign the lease. It turned out that the building was owned by an old Orthodox man in Borough Park. When I met him he said he was really glad we took the apartment, that the man who lived there was ‘really sick’ and so on. He didn’t really tell me any more, and then I started talking to the neighbors and I found out that the man who lived there had been an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had a wife and children, but he was gay. He was shunned by the community, and he ended up alone in this apartment where he died.

I started having this kind of imaginary relationship with this guy who used to live in the apartment. I would get his mail because, as you know, you often get mail from the previous tenant. These people didn’t know he was dead. I never opened the letters, but I would keep them all with the idea that maybe I would give them to his family or — I don’t know. I just kept them and started building this idea of who the guy was. At about the same time, the Post sent me out to Borough Park to cover a story where an ultra-Orthodox young man had gotten married — they tend to get married very young — and jumped out of his honeymoon suite the night after his wedding and died. He had committed suicide, basically. So they sent me out to Borough Park to try to talk to his family. Both of those things happened at about the same time. I was also living in a neighborhood that was on the border of a very ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, so it kind of just became this thing that I kept bumping into. I was just really curious about who these people were and how they lived, and when writers get curious we start to write. I was also covering crime and it sort of came together.

AD: It’s quite the backstory. I mean it came about in an interesting way, but it’s also incredibly sad. Particularly the story of the former tenant who was shunned, in essence, for being gay. While I don’t want to ascribe feelings to somebody — much less someone I didn’t know — I would think that in order to commit suicide someone would have to have felt pretty desperate and alone.

JD: Exactly. Like I said, I tried to imagine who he was. I don’t necessarily not believe in ghosts, but I’ve never seen one, and I kept thinking if ever there were going to be a ghost in my apartment, it would be now. I never saw any kind of ghosts or anything, but it was just something that was always on my mind, living in this place where he lived.

AD: From what I know of the community, it seems that many of the problems that exist within the community can be said to stem, at least in part, from it’s insular nature. As is said in the book, there’s this real effort put forth to keep both outsiders and outside influences — popular culture, mainstream media — out. In addition, there seems to be a distrust of outsiders that is encouraged. So while murder is not an everyday occurrence within the Hasidic community, it does seem like those factors, combined with this practice of self-policing, there is this real potential for it to be a sort of breeding ground for some major problems. 

JD: Right. It’s a tricky subject, because as far as we know, statistically, it’s not like murder or child abuse or domestic violence happen in any greater rate within the ultra-Orthodox community. It’s not like it’s a hotbed for this, but there is this overarching desire to keep things within the fold. There’s also a real fear in the community, and in some ways it comes directly from the experience of the Holocaust. Many of the people who live in places like Borough Park and Williamsburg — and in a lot of the Haredi neighborhoods throughout the country — are direct descendants of people who either died or barely escaped the Holocaust. As a result, there’s this real fear that the non-Jewish community is hostile toward Jews, and that fear is really palpable. I think it’s a driving force in their desire to look good to other people. If sex abuse happens — and it does happen, just like in the Catholic church, just like in the Mormon church, just like in the Boy Scouts — there’s this desire to sweep it under the rug, and in part I think it’s because they feel like the non-Jewish world already has enough reasons to hate them. For thousands of years, the Jews have been tossed out of countries and murdered, so the idea is if there is sex abuse, if there is domestic violence, they would rather not publicize it, because it is going to make them look bad. If it makes them look bad, they feel that they are in danger. So I understand where that comes from, but from my perspective it makes it more difficult to punish the people who are doing this and to allow people who have been victimized to come forward and get help. So you can kind of see why it happens. Secrets grow in the dark. When things like that are allowed to be kept in the dark, positive change certainly doesn’t tend to happen — and it doesn’t tend to happen quickly. 

AD: My mom’s side of the family is Jewish, and both my grandmother and grandfather were Holocaust survivors. After the Holocaust, the only people left in my grandmother’s family were her and her sister. Of my grandfather’s family, only he and two brothers survived. So, on the one hand, I can certainly understand the fear as well. I can understand where they’re coming from. On the other hand, just having this community-sanctioned narrative, that you would like to present to the general public and then sweep everything else under the rug doesn’t do any good, either, as you say.

JD: Absolutely. It’s the oldest story in the world, right? The institution is considered more important that the people within it. Protecting the good name of the university or the church or whatever is paramount, and if that means that children are ostracized if they’re abused, if that means that a Rabbi or Priest is sent to a different congregation and will abuse again, that’s not considered as important as keeping the good name of the institution. I work for CBS News, and I’ve written a lot about sexual assaults on campus, and that’s absolutely a very similar sort of thing that’s happening. When you try to pretend that it doesn’t, it just festers and creates more problems. So it’s an old story in that way. 

AD: I was just watching the news the other day, and there was this girl who had been assaulted by a fellow student. She said that the university basically told her to go to her attacker and work it out with him.

JD: Exactly, and I’ve heard stories about someone being found ‘responsible’ for raping someone and their punishment was to write an essay about it. That’s just crazy.

AD: That’s just so far from what could even be considered acceptable that I don’t even know what to say. It just defies logic. As far as the community itself goes, it seems like there’s this perfect storm.

JD: In a way it is, and it’s interesting in a place like New York. Now there’s also a lot of reporting going on in the upstate New York community. A lot of the Hasidim are moving upstate for various reasons including costs, as well as wanting to get away from the more civic authorities, and they’re having the same problems. They want all their children to go to private schools, then they end up getting on the school board, and cutting all the funding for the public schools. That creates a problem. It’s an ongoing issue. 

AD: In short it just seems to create this environment that perpetuates the whole thing. You have a victim, and they’re either forced into silence by the community, are shunned by the community, or are labeled by them.

JD: Right. You know, they’ll go ‘That person is just mentally ill.’ I hear that a lot with people that I use as sources. People within the community say things like ‘Oh, he’s mentally ill. That’s why he’s talking so much about this.’ They attempt to delegitimize them. 

AD: And you see that in action so clearly when Yakov and Rebekah have that short conversation in front of the Mendelsohn home, where Yakov says that his father told him that his mother was ‘sick.’ There’s this really low threshold or tolerance for non-conformity within that community as well, and this rather broad application of these labels to those who fail to conform. 

JD: Exactly. They’re said to be ‘sick.’ Something is said to be ‘wrong with them.’

AD: And there certainly can be people within the community who genuinely are, as in any other community. However, the flip side of that is that they also assign labels like ‘sick’ to someone who is gay. I have known someone who is gay for many years — since both of us were about four years old. I by no means think that being gay is a sickness of any kind, but there are those within the community who would view that as a ‘sickness,’ unfortunately. Likewise someone who is questioning what they’ve been taught — just as Rivka does in your book — could be said to be ‘ill.’

JD: Yes. I totally agree.

AD: There’s also this political component to it, too, which I found pretty interesting.

JD: Yeah, a little bit. There are about 250,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City, and it tends to be that they vote in a bloc. Thus they are very powerful. That’s a big bloc of voters right there, specially in Brooklyn where they’re clustered. If you want to be the DA, or you want to be the State Representative or you want to be the Representative to the City Council, it’s very important that this group of people endorse you. There’s been a lot of criticism in Brooklyn, especially of the last DA who was just defeated and voted out in the last few months. He was religious, very soft on sexual abusers, not bringing cases to trial and doing these sorts of no-jail plea bargains, that sort of thing. Then there’s the same thing with the Shomrim, which is this kind of neighborhood watch. For a lot of the members of the community, they tend to be the first people you call when someone goes missing or there’s been a burglary or your child tells you that they’ve been sexually abused. If, for example, my sister were to come to me and tell me that she’d been sexually abused, I would call the police. That doesn’t tend to be the case in some of these areas.

A lot of people blame them for saying ‘Okay, your daughter has reported sexual abuse. Don’t report it to the police yet. Let’s bring this to the Rebbe.’ They’re well-funded. They have their own police cars — or cars that look very much like NYPD cars. They have decals and shields on them, they have a dispatch station and are funded, in part, by the City Council. They have a relationship with the NYPD. I think that it’s a bit fraught, but they do have one, and they have the support of the community. So, all of that kind of contributes to this.

AD: I had no idea that they received funding from the City Council. Interesting.

JD: Yeah. Not always, but I know that recently the City Council funded at least one of the groups to the tune of at least $25,000. Basically, all of the City Council members get their own discretionary fund they’re allowed to use in their own community. So — and this is from a couple of years ago — they received over $100,000 from council members. So, that’s the stamp of approval.

AD: So it’s kind of New York City-funded, in a manner of speaking. I had no idea.

JD: I mean it’s very complicated, because obviously these people are Americans and they deserve to live how they want to live. I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I don’t know how many other neighborhood watch groups have that kind of funding and cars, or if the NYPD would tolerate them or people telling their kids to call them instead of telling them to call 9-1-1. It’s certainly a question worth asking, in my opinion.

AD: Then, by the same token, I guess there could be this argument that if they weren’t to exist, then things may not go reported to anyone. But then there’s this sort of uncertainty to that. Is that what would happen, or would they just go to the NYPD?

JD: Right. That’s a very good question. Sexual abuse and sexual assaults are obviously very underreported to begin with. One of the things that is interesting about the sexual assaults on campus issue is that a lot of people don’t want to go to the police, because the police don’t always treat you very well when you report a sexual assault. If a child is involved, then it’s different. With older, of-age women, you get a lot of ‘Were you drinking?,’ ‘What were you wearing?,’ ‘Did you invite him home?’ I can understand not wanting to go to the police. 

The book isn’t about bashing the community, but there are a lot of questions about the way that this group works. Some people live really happily in that world, and some people don’t. I just find it fascinating and felt like it was just a really interesting setting. I’ve always wanted to write fiction and when I came back to fiction writing in 2007, I started thinking about ‘What do I like to read?’ and what I like to read are murder mysteries. I mean I love a murder mystery, and I love a good one that isn’t just whodunit but is about interesting characters and takes places in an interesting setting with interesting circumstances.

AD: Not to imply that all of the other stuff out there is formulaic, but one of the things that I absolutely love about the book is that it is just so the opposite of that. The characters are so well-developed and so multi-dimensional. No one is a flat, stereotypical, one-dimensional character.

JD: I’m glad that you feel that way, because it was really important to me. It was important to me to create a couple of areas where there were people in the community like Malka — the woman who works at the funeral home — who could articulate that she likes the world that she lives in. It works for her. She is an intelligent woman and not just this doormat. So I’m glad you felt that way.

AD: Right. She’s an active participant in her own life and in her own community, not just railroaded into it.

JD: Exactly, because I believe that people should be able to choose to live this life, but what I tend to have issues with is this idea that you’re born into this life and have no choice, that if you try to leave your family will shun you or that you will be called ‘mentally ill.’

AD: Yeah. I think that as far as what the reaction of someone’s friends or family will be, there’s really no way of telling without knowing them really well. I think that varies from person to person or from family to family. At the same time, I think that there is more of a choice than some people may realize. I think that is what Rivka comes to realize, and that’s certainly the notion that is reflected in the letter she writes to her friend. This notion that it is their life and they are able to choose differently.

JD: Exactly. And I feel like that is very American. You do have that freedom of choice. You get to decide who you want to love, who you want to live with, what you want to do, where you want to live and what you want to believe. I feel like that’s sort of my greatest blessing. I have that freedom. So, I feel like when people don’t have that freedom, that’s suffocating. Maybe that’s just my bias being a white American, but that’s sort of where I’m coming from.

AD: Speaking of characters, it seems that even now, in 2014, we often hear about this dearth of strong female role models, and I think that Rebekah really is just that. She’s this intelligent, strong, independent, compassionate woman who wants to find the truth and wants to do what’s right.
I just think she’s this wonderful character and a wonderful role model, for that matter.

JD: Thank you. That means a lot to me. A lot of people say ‘Is Rebekah you?,’ and of course she has pieces of her that are me, but to me what she is is a very brave young woman, and a very strong woman who — you know, she makes a lot of mistakes. Most people focus on the Hasidim in the book, but to me the book is as much about being a journalist in this world as it is about the world of the Hasidim.

Like I said, I worked at the New York Post for about three years, but I got my job there when I had already been in the journalism world for like eight or nine years, but I was older than Rebekah. I was 30, so I had some maturity. With Rebekah, I couldn’t imagine doing the job that I did, where everyday you’re in a different place and having to make a lot of on-the-fly decisions, with really touchy stories. Doing that when you’re just out of college, when you’re still sort of emotionally immature, and you don’t have much guidance professionally. So I wanted to throw her into all  these circumstances where, frankly, she makes mistakes and where she makes bad decisions — decisions that put her in danger — and to sort of explore that.

To me her defining characteristic is her bravery. She is passionate about the truth and revealing the truth, and she’s not going to back down.

AD: She really serves as this voice for the voiceless, which is one of the things I think is so cool about her.

JD: Yeah. I think she would like to think of herself that way. I’ve written the sequel, which will come out next year, and I’m really excited about that. It takes place about two months after the end of this book. I hope that I get to write a few more books about her, because I’d love to follow her as she gets better at her job and is able to do more things — dig up more injustice and that sort of thing in more communities, too. The next book takes place in upstate New York mostly. So there’s still a connection to the Hasidic world.

AD: Well, I know that for one I am looking forward to reading it. Now that we’re heading into summer there are the requisite superhero movies coming out. You know, X-Men and Superman or whatever. To me, however, Rebekah is a real heroine. To me what she does is so much more important and so much more impressive than any of these so-called superhero types.

JD: That’s awesome. That makes me feel really good.

AD: Lastly, who would you consider to be your influences?

JD: In terms of writing Patricia Highsmith is one of my big influences. I love her mysteries. Her work is really creepy and character-based and I love her. In my first job out of college I was a fact-checker at Entertainment Weekly, and I met Gillian Flynn there. She was the TV writer. We didn’t know each other well at all, but I remember when her first book, Sharp Objects, came out. It was probably around 2005. I was in Barnes & Noble and saw it and thought ‘I know that girl! She worked at Entertainment Weekly,’ and I read it and love it. I thought that this is the kind of book I want to write. I read all of her books. There’s another current female literary mystery writer named Tana French. She’s fabulous. I love all of her books. I’m also very influenced by Bruce Springsteen. I feel like he’s writing about the redemptive power of work and of love and just the sort of restlessness of American living. Wanting to break free of where you came from and wanting to make a name for yourself. That’s very influential to me. Also his ideas about the power of community, how we’re sort of all in this together — the power of togetherness — and working to make our world better together. That’s something that’s sort of powerful to me. And then I’m also a big Joan Didion fan. She was one of the first people I read as a young person and thought ‘Wow. I want to write like her.’ There are her essays, of course, but also her novels like Play It as It Lays, which is sort of really moody but — and she almost always writes these female protagonists, women who are in a way very much the victims of their circumstances and their bad choices, but she gives them a real beauty and power that I find really exciting. Those are the big ones for me.

There’s also this journalist named Katherine Boo. I started reading her work when she was writing for The New Yorker. She has won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, she’s written non-fiction. She basically finds injustice — whether it is the way people in state mental health hospitals are treated, or the way children living in the slums of India are treated — and creates these beautiful narratives about these ugly places. I find that really inspirational.


Julia Dahl is a journalist specializing in crime and criminal justice. She has worked as a reporter for CBSNews.com and the New York Post, and her feature articles have appeared in Mental FlossSalon, the Columbia Journalism Review and many others. She was born in Fresno, California, to a Lutheran father and a Jewish mother and now lives in Brooklyn.

You can find out more about Julia and her debut novel, Invisible City, on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook

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