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Writer meets a twin wordsmith and fellow student of life's dark moments

Tim O'Leary

Special to the Village News

How does a storyteller spin a yarn about a sibling, a fraternal twin of sorts, in a mere 1,000 words?

How does a poet and a painter tell about a writer and a musician? How does a scribe who has covered crime and hate, pain and fear describe one who has done the same in greater depth and detail?

They start where I begin now, sitting at a keyboard staring at a blank gray screen. And so, dear readers, I now introduce you to Caitlin Rother, an award-winning writer and a New York Times bestselling author.

She is an amazing woman of the word, of the mind and of music. She has tasted many of the same flavors I have sampled: loss, pain, suffering, suicide, death. She has plunged deep into those seas.

We are brother and sister – companions in this journalistic sandbox filled with misfit toys. We have both agonized to find just the right word, the best phrase, the perfect sentence. We allow ourselves few friends. Sources often cringe when we approach them with a pencil in one hand and a notebook in the other.

Welcome to our world: journalism set against a backdrop of crime, punishment and people preying on one another over greed, jealousy, hate, hunger or a consuming desire to humiliate or dominate.

Rother, 60, came into my life first at the Jan. 21 installment of the Friends of the Fallbrook Library Community Read series. She joined illustrious company, most notably Ann Patchett and T. Jefferson Parker, fellow celebrated authors who also share deep Fallbrook connections.

I had hoped to interview Rother immediately after her talk, for which 80 local dignitaries, book fans, murder mystery fanatics and a myriad of other curious folk paid $35 each to cram into a dining room at the Pala Mesa Resort.

But her voice was worn out and she was stressed by the fast-approaching deadline for her next book, "Down to the Bone," a chilling saga about the disappearance and murders of the McStay family. That Fallbrook tragedy has generated nationwide headlines, TV shows and books as it has unfolded before our very eyes over the past several years.

Rother then battled minor illnesses and lost her voice again after a four-hour interview for a network TV crime expose. I finally caught up with her by phone on March 14. Our 40-minute conversation concluded our interactions for now.

My goal in all this was to figure out what makes us tick. Why are we chameleons who can blend in with the gentry and the gangbangers, with bankers and borrachos, with call girls and cultured women of high society?

She talked about her 15 or so books and her writing and her life at the sold-out Pala Mesa event. She talked about what drives her, describing herself as an avid storyteller who loves to piece together life and its intricacies.

She told how crime writers sometimes advise people on how to survive in a world where crime and criminals lurk in the shadows of everyday life.

"People are not often who they seem," she said. "These people are con men or women and you can never believe them. I tell people: 'Just be careful.' "

She talked about a dream she had in which a female murder victim appeared. She told of a dream in which an acquaintance claimed to have spotted Rother's husband, a prominent San Diego County official who committed suicide after his life spiraled into alcoholism, drug abuse, self-loathing and mental instability.

She skipped verbally around as she talked about her favorite and most controversial books, her San Diego home and her 250 or so TV, radio and podcast appearances. She talked about how journalism has become a "skeletal media" today that doesn't even try to provide the depth and detail that it once did.

She was delightfully entertaining. She chatted with folk afterward as she signed copies of her books. Her longtime boyfriend, musician Geza Keller, managed the sales. I bought three of her books: "Naked Addiction," "Death on Ocean Boulevard and Secrets," "Lies and Shoelaces."

The latter, a mere 50 pages, unpacks her life with her husband, Richard "Rich" Rose, a former county chief investment officer. It is a serious analysis of his tortured life and its lingering aftermath.

We went our separate ways after the Pala Mesa luncheon until I finally caught up with her by phone nearly two months later. I couldn't help myself from internally comparing our lives and contemplating the road not taken.

She toiled for nearly 20 years as a daily newspaper reporter, sweating out deadlines at a string of publications that included the San Diego Union-Tribune. She has a master's degree. She has taught writing and journalism, lives comfortably and is a concert-level pianist.

I live an amazing life in a wonderful community. I dabble in acrylics. I stopped at a bachelor's degree, but briefly taught journalism at a community college. Unfortunately, that position was eliminated by a tepid bureaucracy reacting to a precarious budget situation. After all, why bother to offer job training in an industry that teeters on the brink of extinction?

I have 42 years of professional writing and reporting experience under my belt, including stints at the Sacramento Bee and Riverside County's Press Enterprise. I have been blessed to carve out a fascinating role at a friendly, caring, community-based media company that serves a sprawling region where the population not long from now will explode beyond 1 million.

And so my phone conversation with Caitlin wound down. We had connected as journalistic brethren. She promised to send me an advance copy of "Down to the Bone" early next year. She said it will reveal facts about the intriguing case that even the best-informed locals don't know.

She said the fire of investigative journalism still burns hot in her being.

"I'm very excited about people reading my new book, especially Fallbrook residents," she told me.

Stay tuned, dear readers. We'll keep you posted. It will be a blast.


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