SINISTER SUGGESTIONS by Dr. Karen Stephen – New Acquaintances & Old Memories

I recently have had the privilege of meeting a woman who attended Stanford the same year as I did, 1961. Which is also, of course, the year in which my new murder mystery novel is set. She is two years my senior, was a junior at the time, and we never met until now. She has enjoyed reading SINISTER SUGGESTIONS and realizing that, like myself, she had a general knowledge but not all of the specifics of what was occuring at that time in terms of racial injustice and sexual violence against women. Like me, she didn’t read the Stanford Daily regularly–both of us too busy and too centered on our own lives, both academically and socially to appreciate the top level national, local, and investigative reporting and searing OpEd pieces that the Daily offered. Although, she does recall the notorious reputation that the Full Moon Event had garnered around campus and remembers having no intention of attending an event that demeaned women in the first place (the campus “myth” that you were not a real woman until you had been kissed by a senior man under the full moon on that occasion), much less one that degenerated into sexual and physical violence against the women who did attend.

I learned that she left Stanford at the end of the year, just as did I, each for our own personal reasons. I did have to congratulate her, however, for returning to Stanford 16 years later to obtain her degree and go on to a stellar career in Fine Arts sales. There was no such redeeming return in my life–countered only, perhaps, by the fact that I did graduate from college after traipsing through four undergraduate schools and then settled down and obtained a Masters and PhD in psychology at the University of Illinois, going on to a 44 year career as a clinical psychologist.

Our new friendship has been very affirming that my “take” on social justice, or the lack thereof, at Stanford back in 1961 was shared by other women of the era. And, that in spite of detours in our academic journeys, that being accepted to Stanford in the Fifties and Sixties and even earlier as a woman and giving it the old college try, formed an important part of our adult character and left us with many memories–some painful, others quite wonderful, of our shared time on The Farm. Having made her acquaintance, it strikes me that other women of the era would enjoy SINISTER SUGGESTIONS as a link to their own college experiences at Stanford or elsewhere.

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SINISTER SUGGESTIONS by Dr. Karen Stephen: The World As It Was in October 1961

Clips from the October 1961 issues of the Stanford Daily tell it all. This is the world that greeted this author as a freshman at Stanford University that fall. It is also the world inhabited by the fictional characters in Sinister Suggestions, the author’s first book in the Stanford Daily Mysteries series, centered on young journalists on the campus newspaper solving crimes on and off campus. View suspenseful book trailer.

The LOOK for the men on campus. Levi Jeans with rolled up cuffs, loafers, and an attitude for less than a latte now days.

The look for the women on campus. This author never was and never would be that thin!

Main character Mattie Thorne has her own dress style: Back in her room, [Mattie] threw on her teal and charcoal plaid, pleated wool skirt with its matching neck scarf—that she had laboriously sewn in a Singer sewing class back in her high school days—and trotted down to breakfast.

World politics at your fingertips if you weren’t busy trying to get a date (which would have been this author’s daily endeavor), trying out for Rally Club (my dormmates), or studying for your Chemistry exam (which should have been me!)

And the even scarier international news. The Russians STILL seem to be the problem!

Reaction on campus: By Monday morning, all staffers were being encouraged, no, ordered to return to covering other stories of the day. It wasn’t hard to find one worthy of attention. News had broken via an early morning television alert that Russia had exploded a 50-megaton bomb in the atmosphere. Joe was doing his bit to mobilize a massive protest—a 24-hour “lie-in” on the main library lawn. Similar protests were being organized at Cal Berkeley and San Francisco State. Petitions to ban atmospheric nuclear tests were being distributed across all three campuses as well as across the nation. Even Palo Alto was scheduled to have a peace march in the morning for elementary through college students.

Stanford students were introduced to the classics with luminaries like Dame Judith Anderson coming to campus at bargain prices.

At the same time, students were encouraged to smoke with huge advertisements on almost every page of every issue of the Daily, including this very sexist series sponsored by Pall Mall. And, yes, this author smoked at the time.

And last, but not least, we have the new Dean of Women, who appears center stage in the novel with her sexist lectures on the role of women at Stanford. The very one who, in real life, sent this author a letter at the end of the year requiring me to get counseling if I was to return to Stanford the next fall (which I didn’t do). A novel excerpt taken from a Daily article on character Mattie Thorne’s reaction to the Dean’s speech to freshman women:

As Mattie read through the account, she realized she had been there. She remembered being outraged by the first question the Dean posed—the same evil woman who, weeks later, would be sending her threatening letters about not attending class. The offending question was quoted verbatim in the article. Can an educated woman be a person of charm and integrity, a scholar, a helpful wife and mother, and a loveable woman? What had occurred to Mattie at the time was why the hell would any self-respecting woman want to be all those things? She hadn’t gotten a combined SAT score of 1490 and fought her way into Stanford to attend charm school, nor to find a husband and pump out babies, although perhaps some of the other girls had.

Mattie had come from a long line of educated women. Her mother, to her credit, had graduated from the prestigious University of Chicago in 1937 with a degree in Political Science—although the mores of the day never allowed her to pursue her dream of becoming a city manager. Instead, she had worked as a medical secretary all her life—until, that is, she married her well-to-do dimwit second husband when Mattie was sixteen. Even more significant, Mattie’s maternal grandmother had received a bachelor’s degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in the early 1900s and taught Latin and German prior to her marriage. Following in the family tradition of educated females, Mattie had applied to Stanford with the intention of carrying through to medical school and finding a cure for cancer. Wow! She just remembered her goal in life. Now all she had to do was figure out how to undo the fact that she had screwed herself over on ever reaching it.

She read on, her animosity toward the Dean growing with each word. The Dean had described the stereotype of an educated woman as cantankerous, unreasonable, and an expert only in knowledge. Whereas 20th century men had the image of their fathers to look up to—fathers who were versatile people, good hosts, sportsmen, fathers, husbands, as well as competent executives. Mattie guessed that her own alcoholic father, who had abandoned the family shortly after her birth, broke the mold. When the Dean ended her presentation by suggesting the women could meet in small groups with her for further discussion, Mattie remember thinking at the time, the hell I will. Right now, however, she would give her right arm to meet her face to face and give her a piece of her mind for sending out threatening letters to young women who were in dire straits.

SINISTER SUGGESTIONS by Dr. Karen Stephen – The Stanford Daily Archives: A Treasure Trove for This Novelist

Although I have my own memories of attending Stanford as a freshman in the Fall of 1961, my memories are selective (and fading!) and do not fully reflect the historic times nor the nuances of life on the Stanford campus and in the world during that early Sixties era. Which brings us to the Stanford Daily Archives, which touts its online, searchable collection of 18,931 issues dating back to 1892–well over a million articles written and edited by Stanford student journalists.

One of the most pertinent articles in terms of the storyline of my novel was an Campus Opinion piece written by Bill Griffin on October 25, 1961. I have a clear memory of the buzz in Roble Hall (one of the women’s freshman dorms) the day of the annual Full Moon event, a campus tradition that had been long touted as a means for a Stanford “girl” to become a “woman”–by being kissed by a Senior in the Inner Quad on the night of the Harvest Moon. For the first time in my young life, I had an honest-to-goodness boyfriend, and by some miracle, he was a Senior. Not that he hadn’t been working on my “womanhood” on his own for the past few weeks, but even he declared that the event was too raunchy and felt it inappropriate for me to attend. He explained how frosh men had traditionally disrupted the event. I never knew the full extent of the sexual violence that took place that night until I read Bill Griffin’s account in researching my novel (I wasn’t much of a reader of the Daily at the time–too busy majoring in “boyfriend”). The up side? Given my history of childhood maltreatment, it would have certainly been a traumatic experience had I attended.

Here is a portion of Griffin’s first hand account:

The girl, surrounded by a pack of animals screaming “Rape her! Rape her!” and other unprintable slogans, panicked and ran.

SHE WAS CHASED into one of the garden circles on Quad, and again surrounded. She there became trapped in the thick bushes, while the freshmen shined flashlights on her and continued their screaming.
Several of these brave defenders of their class’ honor fought their way through the bushes, grabbed the girl from behind, and dragged her out into the open, where she was thrown down, then picked up and held so more freshmen could throw their water on her.

By the time her date and myself had gotten to the center of he mob and the girl was freed she had lost both her shoes, had skinned both knees, torn her clothing, and was extremely frightened.

AND ALL THE while the mob of “mature, intelligent, well rounded individuals” stood around screaming for “Rape!” and “Hold her up! Do it again!” 

There were subsequent follow-up articles in the Daily, including a front-page headline story on October 27, 1961, written by then Editor Jerry Rankin, minimizing the incident and providing rationalizations that are employed to this day when defending incidents of sexual violence on college campuses. As if dousing women with buckets of ice water was inconsequential, much less screaming “rape them” and physically attacking them.

Here is a portion of Rankin’s article:

THE MATTER CAME to light when The Daily published a column Tuesday by Bill Griffin. Griffin was with the German girl and her German date (both Stanford students) when they were set upon by a group of freshman men.

[Head Wilbur dorm sponsor Jerry] Puttler said The Daily column was factually correct, but overstated the case. He noted that “very few” of the freshman men on Quad were involved in other than the usual water-bombing. Puttler listed three causes of the incident:

• An article in The Daily Monday morning telling of the full moon tradition and which, he said, gave many frosh the impression that their role in it was to turn out and water-bomb the seniors.
• The desire to let off steam after the morning Western Civ test.
• Failure of the sponsors to see the situation developing and to take action to head it off. “We should have seen it” coming, he explained. “We didn’t.”

The final outcome was that 150 freshman men “confessed” to being present and paid an average of 70 cents each for damage to the shrubbery and a broken window. No mention was made about the victims involved who were neither compensated, nor counseled, nor made amends to, although a few subsequent letters to the editor alluded to the inappropriateness of the event.

Looking back, the courage it took for a male student journalist to write that initial article is quite astounding. An act that we seldom see over sixty years later.

There were many other relevant articles about campus incidents and world events that wound their way into my novel. One of the most astounding being Bobby Kennedy’s statement that his brother, JFK, was considering using nuclear force against East Germany over the Berlin wall. My thought, wouldn’t than rain terror down on both sides of the Berlin Wall? Although my account involves Daily staffers solving two fictional unexplained deaths on campus, the true story of campus life, world events, even the sexist cigarette ads, the aptly named films, and the distinctive fashions of the day enlivened my novel in a way fiction never could. The Stanford Daily archives were a treasure trove indeed!

The Archives are indexed by date and are searchable. Pick a date that has significance time-wise for you, and read all about it. Even if you never set foot on the Stanford campus, I’m sure you’ll find relevant articles that will stir your own best and worst memories.

Enjoy watching my heart-pounding book trailer for SINISTER SUGGESTIONS.

SINISTER SUGGESTIONS is available in Kindle or paperback versions at Amazon

Sinister Suggestions by Dr. Karen Stephen – Why is my mystery novel set in 1961?

To preview Sinister Suggestions, please enjoy my BOOK TRAILER.

The answer to the “why” of the setting and time period chosen for my third novel Sinister Suggestions is found in Chapter Twelve of my first novel, Degrees of Obsession. This chapter contains the most autobiographical material found in any of my works of fiction. My alter ego, protagonist Dr. Charlie Pederson, describes herself and her best friend Marietta growing up in La Jolla, California in the Fifties:

Marietta and I were on the cusp, so to speak, graduating from high school in 1961. We entered puberty in 1955 along with a generation of kids who spent their formative years crouching in dirty hallways, sweaty fingers laced behind their well-scrubbed necks, waiting for the A-bomb. We graduated at the peak of the SAT scores. Our parents were afraid of Sputniks, and we were afraid of our parents. There were rumors about poodle skirts, but I never laid eyes on one. I felt out of kilter with my own generation. My mother insisted I wear sturdy brown oxfords instead of the saddle shoes and Capezios that graced the dainty feet of my peers.  Of course, irradiating my toes under the shoe store fluoroscope negated the health benefit of good arch support. Actually, looking at the bare bones in my feet was the closest I ever got to obscenity. My political consciousness peaked at having two parakeets named “Ike” and a German shepherd with the same patriotic appellation. My family was not big on original thought.

In Chapter Six, Charlie describes her and, thus, my transition to college at Stanford University in the fall of 1961:

There was a saying that went:  “Nine out of ten California girls are beautiful and the tenth one goes to Stanford.”  I went to Stanford. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t break mirrors, but there were thousands of drop-dead gorgeous women in California, even in high school.  I was tall and naturally blonde…well, almost.  That brief stint in modeling school had served me well.  I had outgrown my awkward pubescent years and could manage a graceful stride when I put my mind to it.  Any shortfall I had in the looks department had been well compensated in the brain department.  Those top grades paid off.  Twenty-two of my classmates also applied to Stanford, but none of the others was admitted.  The day my letter of acceptance came in the mail, I had more than a few envious friends.  My ego was quickly deflated, however, when I arrived on campus, just another clueless freshman set loose in a seething mass of upperclassmen. I struggled through the maze of registration, jostled by the milling masses at Memorial Auditorium.  I fretted as I watched the IBM cards, each printed with one class opening, disappear into the greedy hands of the students ahead of me in line.  I breathed a sigh of relief when the precious card for Chemistry for Chem Majors fell into my possession. My relief was short-lived, however.  After I collected the rest of my class cards, I realized that two required courses had been assigned to me on the same days at the same hour.  I stared in dismay at the placards overhead that forbade any changes to the pre-assigned sections of either Freshman English or Western Civ. 

In Sinister Suggestions, my alter ego morphs into a new character named Mattie Thorne, a frosh student at Stanford that fall of 1961. She is suffering from amnesia due to unknown trauma from her past or present. Her journey and that of her rescuers, a determined and rebellious group of student staffers working on the campus newspaper, The Stanford Daily (click for archival issue from September 25, 1961), is told in this first book in a series of four murder mysteries entitled The Stanford Daily Mysteries.

In addition, staying true to my goal of blending truth into fiction, I have taken social, political, and lifestyle stories from the pages of the Daily from that 1961-2 academic year, added my own memories from the same period of time, and combined them with the requisite murders demanded by the mystery genre. The world itself was caught between Camelot and catastrophe in 1961 and many of the societal and political issues of that day plague us in the present, such as nuclear threats and sexual violence on college campuses.

Evidence that we had moved past Fonzie and the Happy Days of the 1950s, is shown in this list of a few of the world events that occurred in 1961:

  • UN General Assembly condemns apartheid in South Africa
  • Berlin Wall is built, dividing East and West Germany
  • American-backed Cuban exiles fail in an attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs
  • Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo is assassinated
  • Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completes the first orbit of Earth by a human

To preview Sinister Suggestions, please enjoy my BOOK TRAILER.

Launch of SINISTER SUGGESTIONS ~ See the TRAILER

I am thrilled to announce the launch my third novel, SINISTER SUGGESTIONS, the first book in a series entitled THE STANFORD DAILY MYSTERIES. Set at Stanford University in 1961, the actual year I attended there as a freshman, it is a story of renegade student journalists on the Stanford Daily, who expose connections between a professor’s hypnosis experiments and two mysterious deaths, forcing the university to face its culpability in its reckless endangerment of young coeds, who not only endure sexual violence and other trauma on campus but are thrown into an even more dire situation when seeking help–college scandals which continue to dominate our headlines today.  

View the TRAILER for SINISTER SUGGESTIONS

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON IN PAPERBACK AND KINDLE E-BOOK FORMATS

on white privilege

Powerfully said. Thank you!

Little Orchid

if you can take your leave during this conversation

that’s a privilege that you possess

why don’t you try this out instead

take a knee, look around and see

the racial inequalities that fill this country’s head

don’t stop at asking why people are angry

because that’s what you see on the surface

look deeper below and see what flows

throughout this country and hurts us

racial ideologies proliferated throughout centuries

years of injustice, devaluing, and pain

do you really think your frustration over damaged properties

could ever be the same?

if the protests brought more words to your mouth

than did the brutal murder of black lives

it’s on you to check what that’s about

let white privilege be your guide

take a walk through history

see how being white has benefited us in society

understand that you can refuse to take these steps

but not without acknowledging that…

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Memories of France ~ The Food

Just One? A KQED Perspective 2007

I finally came across a copy of the KQED Perspective I did in 2007. I had taken a class of how to write and present a topic for this well-known radio format and was thrilled when my offering was accepted. I recorded it at the KQED studios in San Francisco. It is no longer in their archives, so I was excited to find a copy in my own files. For all you single folk out there…enjoy!