Did a Mother Really Plot to Burn Her Special Needs Child to Death?
Chapter One: One town's "Miracle Submarine" blows up lives in this fiery murder-mystery.
Chapter One is RealClearLife’s conversation with debut authors about their new books, the people, places, and moments that inspire them, and the work that makes their literary hearts sing.
In the rural Virginia town of Miracle Creek, a cluster of families live with a slew of medical issues ranging from autism and cerebral palsy to infertility. A family of Korean immigrants also resides there, and it is through them that these suffering people find hope. That’s because Young and Pak Yoo, and their daughter, Mary, run a hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) machine, a submarine-like chamber that’s supposed to promote healing and general well-being. For some—whether real or imagined—the HBOT works; others see it as totally bogus and for one unknown individual, it’s a way out. After the HBOT explodes and claims the life of a child, a trial begins with the mother at the defendant’s table. But could a mother really conceive of and carry out an arson plot to kill her special needs child? Granted, his tantrums did embarrass her and the jealousy she felt for the simple lives of other moms was consuming, but was that motive enough? Angie Kim’s story answers these and other deeper questions about the complexities of families and the secrets they keep from each other.
RealClearLife: Your book is partly a legal drama, partly focused on medical issues and a murder mystery all at once—do you have a background in any of these fields? Minus the murder.
Angie Kim: I don’t have a medical background, but when I was a lawyer I did medical malpractice defense for Georgetown Hospital, so I had familiarity with that kind of research and how to do it, and I was familiar with the terminology.
I’m also the mother of a real-life submarine [HBOT] patient. I have three kids and, for whatever reason, all three have a variety of medical issues—but actually [the kids are] great. The only issues that are remaining are things that will be with them forever, like one has celiac disease. One of my kids, one of his medical issues was ulcerative colitis in preschool. He was losing weight and in pain all the time. The treatment wasn’t working and he was crying constantly, throwing up. I am a very standard medical treatments kind of person, but when the treatment doesn’t work you become desperate with your children. I heard about hyperbaric oxygen therapy in those chambers and imagined it like going into a mini Yellow Submarine. It’s just like in the book, you go in with three other families, kids and adult patients, wear an oxygen hood, and are administered 100% oxygen that you breathe in for an hour at a time.
RCL: Did you only cover medical malpractice cases in your law career?
AK: I was a trial lawyer in general, but I did some medical malpractice, too. I did general litigation, mainly people and companies fighting about contracts. I did some criminal defense and pro bono work and also did some appeals of death penalty cases. I did a bunch of different things at my law firm and clerked for a federal judge for a year after law school ,so I saw a variety of cases. I interned for the public defender and the NAACP legal defense fund on death penalty cases. I got my feet wet in so many different aspects of law.
RCL: How did you transition from a legal career to writing? Were you always a writer?
AK: I wrote a lot professionally; mostly legal and business things, but I got into creative writing, too. I’ve written essays and short stories for literary magazines. I sort of wanted to make sure that I had the ability to do that before writing a novel. I started writing the novel 10 years after [the HBOT experiences] and thought it was the perfect setting for a book because of all the emotions and dynamics involved. The other thing was the risk of fire. We did have a lot of faith in the people running it and that they took good care of us. They gave us cotton clothing to change into so we were sure that nothing would happen, but fire was always something to think about. So, when writing novel, that fire idea came to mind; how it would happen.
RCL: The Yoos are Korean and their immigrant experience felt so authentic; was that pulled from your own life, too?
AK: I’m Korean, that’s the other thread that’s taken from my life in this novel. I’m an immigrant, I was born and raised in Seoul and I moved to the Baltimore area when I was 11. I’m a lot like Mary in that I’m an only child like she was and my parents did have this grocery store in downtown Baltimore, too. It was a really dangerous area and my dad was actually shot once.
The Mary part of the story—there are a lot of characters that are composites of people and friends in my life, but Mary was mostly drawn from me. It’s really interesting to me, I think I didn’t realize what the dynamics were at the time, but I was a brat when I was that age and I was pretty rebellious and resentful of my mom. We were close in Korea when she was a stay-at-home mom. I had a lot of those feelings and accusations that Mary had, that she abandoned me and I’m sure it was painful for her and I didn’t think about it all until I was writing the book and writing from a mother’s perspective. When my mom read an advanced copy, it took her a while because it’s so emotional and she called me, crying, to apologize for everything when we came to America. I said, “Mom, it’s fiction! There’s nothing for you to apologize for!” But there was a lot for us to both see—the emotions and the truth in those scenes. It’s been really good that we were able to talk it out and that I was able to—forced to, really—think about Young’s [Mary’s mother] point of view and be able to articulate that to my mom—that I know now what she was going through.
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