Darnton, NY Times 95/02/14

Author Faces Up to a Long, Dark Secret
by John Darnton

New York Times, Tuesday February 14, 1995. B1-2(N).

PORTMAHOMACK, Scotland, Feb. 8 - Interviewing Anne Perry, the detective novelist who harbored the dark secret of her identity as an adolescent murderer, is frustrating. It's like trying to capture the mist that rolls off the mountains in the Scottish Highlands where she makes her home.

It's not that she is reluctant to talk. Far from it. The words come out in compulsive torrents. With little prompting she speaks about the early years, her childhood pneumonia and bronchitis, the "courage and love" of her parents, her deep attachment to her father, a time of trial in prison, her epiphanic conversion to the Mormon church in Northern California.

It's that when all the words are added up, she has shed little light on the crime that shocked a nation 40 years ago and half a world away. The motives that caused two young girls to conspire and kill the mother of one of them in August (stet) 1954, after taking afternoon tea in a sunny park in Christchurch, New Zealand, are as elusive as ever.

"Like any other traumatic experience, nature helps you to put it away," she said. "All I can remember was feeling very afraid and very jammed into a corner. I didn't want to do it and I couldn't think of any way of getting out of it."

She cannot, she says, recall anything at all about the crime itself and very few details about the subsequent trial, other than "the sense of helplessness when people tell lies about you and you can't say, 'No, that's not how it was.'"

Miss Perry, 55 (sic) years old, was forced to admit her prior identity as 15-year-old Juliet Marion Hulme because of interest in the murder case stirred up by a film, Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures." The film, which she refuses to see, has been playing in the United States since November but did not open here until now.

To counter what she insists is a grotesque and distorted portrait of herself, she has participated in a publicity campaign to tell the world "who I really am." What began as "damage control" has turned into a single-minded and self-absorbed crusade of revelation, obfuscation and attack.

"I think it's time that possibly we question the acceptability of making a film about people who are still living, because of the damage it can do," she said. "It can ruin lives."

"It's like having some disfigurement and being stripped naked and set up in the High Street for everybody to walk by and pay their penny and have a look. I would like to put my clothes on and go home, please, be like anybody else."

Six months ago Miss Perry was beginning to enjoy the luxuries of a writer on the verge of making it truly big: a 12-room stone cottage here with a spectacular view of Dornoch Firth and two Jaguars in the driveway. Her 82-year-old mother lives in a fishing village nearby.

Since 1978, her Victorian-era mysteries featuring Police Superintendent Pitt and Inspector Monk have been building a steady readership, especially in the United States, where three million copies are in print. Recently, she had signed a $1 million contract to deliver eight more books over the next three years. Her life, outwardly at least, was something of a Scottish idyll, filled with achievement and modest contentment.

Then, with a phone call from her London agent, the idyll ended. The agent was puzzled by calls from a New Zealand reporter with a curious tale, a simple case of mistaken identity, which should be swiftly refuted.

"I had to say, 'I'm sorry, but you can't,'" Miss Perry recalled. "'It is true.'

"I thought I would lose everything. I really thought it would kill my mother."

And so began the mystery writer's long revelation of her own mystery, beginning with a visit to her mother, who had expected the secret to break someday, and phone calls to friends and business colleagues who had no idea of her past. It was, she said, "one of the worst days I've ever lived through."

The 1954 case was a seminal event for New Zealand. It seared the repressive, conservative, English-appearing society like a red-hot poker, the way certain murder cases do.

The prosecutor who won a guilty verdict called it a "coldly, callously planned murder committed by two high (sic) intelligent and sane but precocious and dirty-minded little girls." They were sent to prison for five and a half years, and released with new identities on the condition that they never see each other again.

The film tries to explain the crime as an outgrowth of an aberrationally intense friendship with lesbian overtones between Pauline Yvonne Parker, 16, poor and withdrawn, and Juliet Marion Hulme, 15, affluent and English, who suffered from weak lungs that forced her into periods away from her parents.

Based in part on diaries kept by Pauline, the film depicts the two as outcasts in school who spin an elaborate fantasy world of movie idols and imaginary princes and villains. As family relationships deteriorate, they are drawn into a peculiar emotional symbiosis and the world turns violent.

And when they are about to be separated, because Juliet is being sent to live with a relative in South Africa and Pauline's mother refuses to let her go along, they decide their only recourse is to murder Pauline's mother. Luring her down a pathway in the park, they repeatedly strike her on the head with a brick inside a stocking. They make no attempt to cover up the act or even the incriminating, strangely jocular diary in which the plan for "moidering" mother was laid out.

Miss Perry tries to refute this version. She is especially upset at any suggestion of psychological deviance or lesbianism. "I find it grossly offensive," she said. "I was so innocent sexually then." Between sentences, she spits out the prosecutor's words with venom: "dirty-minded little girls!"

She insists that even as a child she knew "the difference between fantasy and reality." Aside from "normal childhood imagination," she did not construct elaborate games with clay figures, she says. And she goes so far as to assert that she was not really that close to Pauline. She simply felt a debt of obligation because Pauline had written letters to her when she was confined to a sanitarium.

The details are sketchy, she insists, and perhaps her behaviour was affected by a medication she was taking for her lungs that she heard somewhere was later taken off the market because it "warps judgement." She feared that Pauline would die or commit suicide if she did not join in the plot.

"All I can actually remember feeling is: I don't want to do this. How can I get out of it, hysterically, how can I get out of it? I can't. Because if I don't do it, she's going to die and that's going to be even worse. I'm going to be responsible for a death one way or the other. And this one stood by me, that one I didn't even know.

"My father lost his job and my parents were going to be divorced and that all happened within a matter of days, and we were going to leave the country and Pauline was ill. I just knew she was throwing up after every meal."

Bulimia? "I'm not going to put a name to it. I just know that she was throwing up regularly after most meals, and I believed that if I did not do what I did she would take her own life. I'm not putting words in her mouth. All I will say is this is what I believed.

"I mean certainly we were good friends, but it was a debt of honour. It wasn't a great 'I can't live without you' business that these idiotic movie makers are making out of it."

Could she not have told her parents about the dilemma? The question provoked an angry tone. "Come on. My father's just lost his job and his wife. And she was in a state of distress as well. And we've only got a few days to. ... (stet ellipsis) I suppose I was absolutely stunned."

Following her release from prison, she returned to England and eventually obtained a visa to the United States, where she worked as a saleswoman, a limousine dispatcher and a flight attendant. Twenty-six years ago, she converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is still an active Mormon.

Attempts to distinguish between right and wrong preoccupy her writing. A sense of persecution threads through her conversation, and expressions of remorse are not volunteered. But she says she accepted responsibility for her deed after a few months in prison and "worked through all that." She has not seen or heard from Pauline since the trial ended. "I wish her well," she said, "but I have nothing to say."

Miss Perry has appeared on the "Today" show and was interviewed for "People" magazine. She notes that she turned down Oprah Winfrey and "60 Minutes." This month, she is to start a 23-city tour of the United States to promote her new novel "Traitor's (sic) Gate."

Her publicity agents at Fawcett Columbine have sent out press packets with clippings, an updated biography and a list of 13 suggested questions, including "How did you put your life back together after leaving prison?" A cover letter promises that she is "ready to discuss her past and her future as well as her new book."

The marketing of Miss Perry as someone who has "courageously faced the world and shared her painful story" raises the usual questions about exploiting notoriety for gain. But Miss Perry insists that her own motives are pure.

"The reason that I'm sticking my head over the parapet at all is that other people have made such a noise," she said. "It never occurred to me that 40 years on, something that had been dealt with and paid for, that anybody would care anymore. It's like somebody rushing in with the news that Queen Anne is dead. For Pete's sake, is there anybody who didn't know? I really didn't think it would surface again so long afterward. And if it did, it would be, you know, so what?"

Lead photo caption: Anne Perry, a writer of mystery novels who helped kill a friend's mother when she was 15, in Portmahomack, Scotland, where she lives.

Second photo caption: Pauline Yvonne Parker, left, and Juliet Marion Hulme, now Anne Perry, before their murder trial in 1954.