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 – 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.