The Ghost Muse: How My Best Friend’s Murder Led Me to Write


My best friend Carolyn was murdered in September 2016. A little less than a year later, I started to write in earnest.

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I’d always journaled, and on occasion, out of what felt like nowhere, a short story would come to me like a flash of lightning and I’d type it out and file it away with all the other nostalgic bullshit I hoard, then never look at again for a decade or more. When I was 17, I wanted to write the great American novel, but I never, as an adult, considered myself a writer.

When Carolyn was 17 and I was 23—the summer we were inseparable—she first showed me her writing. It is the only time I remember ever being in genuine awe of someone, witnessing the magnitude of their talent, in real life.

Carolyn loved books even more than I did. She read voraciously. She was forever engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and creative practice. I was nearly seven years older than her but she was light years ahead of me. She was just born cool.

After she was murdered, I started having dreams about her. In the first one, I was waiting by an old rotary dial phone in some sun-drenched Florida room when finally a call came. Carolyn told me how she was sorry she hadn’t called sooner. That she’s been so busy. I asked what it was like, wherever she was. She laughed and said it was very much like it is here. That she had a job and had moved into her new house—and then of course she had to spend all her time decorating and settling in because she can never settle down until she’s settled in. “One thing is different,” she said. “Fewer men. Which makes sense, when you think about it.’ She laughed. ‘Souls are made mostly of female energy anyway.”

Carolyn had always known she was a writer, but I didn’t figure out that I was a writer too until the year after she was killed.

In the Spring of 2017, about six months after Carolyn died, Sarah Gerard messaged me on Facebook. She told me there was something she wanted to ask me. She said it was best to talk in person. We had first met about 10 years prior, when Sarah’s father had dragged her to an art tour of the Raymond James Financial Art Collection. As administrator for the Collection, I led the tour. In the years since, we’d both moved to New York from our hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, and had crossed paths from time to time in the section of the Venn diagram where the art world overlaps with the literary. But we weren’t friends. I told her to meet me at Shade Bar on Sullivan Street, near my office at NYU. I had a feeling about what she wanted to ask me. I didn’t yet know how I felt about it.

It was late afternoon around four or 5 o’clock. Sarah ordered a crêpe and a glass of whiskey neat. I had a glass of Chardonnay. I wondered in passing if she ordered the whiskey to impress me. In Florida, in the punk scene, girls drink whiskey. I didn’t indulge in it much, at age 32. But I recognized it for what it was. A code marker. We were of the same tribe, or at least she wanted to present that way.

Halfway through our first drink, she told me she wanted to write something about Carolyn. She needed to understand what had happened to her. She wanted to know what I thought. I thought maybe she wasn’t the right person to write about Carolyn. I hadn’t yet read Sarah’s other works, and felt protective over Carolyn’s legacy. I told her that if she was going to do it, I needed to know everything. I needed to be a part of all of it. She told me she wanted to attend the trial. I told her I would be attending also. That meeting was the first of many to come. I would eventually become the main source for Sarah’s book.

In my second dream about Carolyn, soon after, she was being interviewed by Terry Gross for Fresh Air. I was witnessing their conversation through the thick glass window of the recording studio. Their audio was piped into the room through surround sound speakers. I was listening more than I was watching. Terry asked Carolyn if she was okay, after enduring such a horrific ordeal. She laughed and said she was fine. She said that at the time of the murder, of course, she was shocked. Shocked and pissed. She laughed again. That laugh of hers, confident and cool, and at the same time like a mischievous child. She shrugged and said: “I know now that it wasn’t personal. It was never about me, really. Death is hardly ever to do with the person who dies. It has everything to do with those left living.”

In the Summer of 2017, Sarah and I went to the Queens County Courthouse to review court documents. The trial was another couple of years off but we didn’t know that yet, and there wasn’t much to review at that point. On the subway back to my apartment, she said something about me being a good writer. I rolled my eyes and brushed her off. She pressed on, in the unrelenting way she does, which I have come to greatly admire. “Have you done any creative writing before?” she asked. So I told her about my stories. I told her about the story behind my stories. And she told me: “That sounds like a novel. You should write that novel.”

When I got home, I sat down and started to write, and I haven’t stopped since. That was seven years ago. A lot has changed in my life since that night. I married and moved to the Catskills. Carolyn’s murderer has been tried and convicted. Yet, the most profound shift in my life has arguably been the movement toward fully embracing my identity as a writer. Carolyn had always known she was a writer, but I didn’t figure out that I was a writer too until the year after she was killed. Sometimes I think she writes through me. Our minds do the most incredible things, to make sense of unimaginable pain.

As the release date for Sarah’s book approaches, I find myself in the throes of a whirlwind of emotions. On one hand, I am flushed with excitement. Intellectually, I can understand how weird this is, to be excited about something so morbid. But the prospect of sharing Carolyn’s vibrant presence with the world, if I’m being honest, is exciting to me. It’s what I’ve missed desperately, for all these years.

In a third dream, I was grocery shopping when I ran into her in the dairy aisle. She was so excited to see me and pulled me into a back room—an employee lounge of sorts. There, she told me about how the only thing she regretted, about leaving so soon, was that she’d never got the chance to publish her novel. “It was finished and everything,” she said. “Oh well.” That laugh of hers, again. As if all of this life stuff were so inconsequential now, so silly. I told her to give me the book anyway, that I could publish it for her—she just needed to tell me where to look for the pages.

Carolyn, my best friend. She was a force of nature—a tornado of charisma, style, wit and kindness. She is not the sort of person whose magnitude one can convey in a cocktail party anecdote. I have missed talking about her. But it’s hard, telling stories and knowing they can’t possibly land because these people never saw the magic in her eyes. Never heard her laugh. Never witnessed her uncanny comedic timing nor how brilliantly she delivered a joke. They’d never know how she smelled of baby powder and magnolias and stale tobacco. How it was impossible to be in a bad mood whenever she was around. I have longed to revive her presence. I have wanted, so badly, to bring Carolyn back.

In the end, that’s all we can do. Write our truth, unapologetically and without reservation.

Through Sarah’s book, I hope for Carolyn’s memory to be immortalized. I long for her impact on my life and so many others to never be forgotten. I hope Carrie Carolyn Coco is only the beginning of a much longer conversation. I hope there are a million more books about Carolyn to come.

But along with this excitement, there is apprehension.

Not everyone will perceive Carolyn’s story—or mine, for that matter—in the same light. Some will question the validity of sharing such deeply personal experiences, while others may have differing perspectives about the way things are portrayed.

That’s the thing about free speech. Everyone’s got a right to their opinion, even if that opinion is that we are unlikable and our grief is “a little narcissistic and performative,” according to a recent ARC review for Carrie Carolyn Coco. I have come to accept that this is simply the reality of putting oneself out there, especially when the subject matter is as raw and personal as grief. But it doesn’t feel great to read. To be honest, it really pissed me off. I am only so healed.

In wrestling with these demons, I have come to discover the two things in life that matter most to me; to ensure Carolyn’s memory lives on, and to become the most authentically excellent version of myself. If someone reads Sarah’s book, they’ll get a glimpse into the person I am—the good, the bad, and everything in between. And if they don’t resonate with my story, then so be it.

Writing is a means of making sense of a fucked up world. Of saying: okay so you made me bleed, but I’m going to make sure the world knows what you did, and I’ll be damned if they don’t remember.

Art is not a finite resource. Art is a way to heal. Art is how we tell the future that we once were here. Nothing lasts forever. But through story we approach immortality. So, write.

In the end, that’s all we can do. Write our truth, unapologetically and without reservation.

And my truth comes with a disclaimer: you don’t have to read it. You don’t have to like it. But you don’t ever get to say it shouldn’t exist.

In the last dream where Carolyn visited me, we were standing in a meadow upstate. It was summertime, and I felt her presence but I couldn’t see her. I cried out, “Where are you Carrie? Are you here?” I couldn’t hear her reply, but I knew what she was saying. She was telling me to do the Magic Eye trick. Cross my eyes, and relax my gaze. The plane of my vision blurred like film off a large body of water on a hot day. Suddenly, she came into view. I ran to her and threw my arms around her, felt her body— warm and soft, alive. “You’re real,” I said. “You’re really here.” She smiled. “I’m always here. All you have to do is know how to look for me.”

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Carrie Carolyn Coco: My Friend, Her Murder, and an Obsession with the Unthinkable by Sarah Gerard is available from Zando Projects.



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