On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan outside a hotel in Washington, wounding him and three others in a mad bid for actress Jodie Foster’s attention.
A year later, in March 1982, Leslie deVeau drove some neighborhood kids of the city’s Friendship Heights to an early morning swim practice. When she returned home, she shot and killed her sleeping daughter, who was 10.
While Hinckley and deVeau were institutionalized at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility, they dated for years, and at one point were engaged to be married.
These are the real-life crimes and the creepy romance that inspired “Calf,” the debut novel of Andrea Kleine, who has ties to Richmond and the deVeau tragedy. The resulting book is a dark, unsettling, and at-times gripping re-imagination of an event that defined her childhood.
In the novel we meet Kleine’s stand-in, an 11-year-old named Tammy, and our window into Friendship Heights. Tammy is nursing pre-teen malaise toward her family and a suspicion that no one likes her.
We also see the world via Jeffrey Hackney, a fictionalized Hinckley. A college dropout living with his suburban parents, he obsesses over the assassination of John Lennon and his own dreams of fame.
While the first half of the book draws from Kleine’s life and Hinckley’s background, the story takes on a life of its own and skirts the perimeters of memory and reality. It’s difficult not to Google the real-life counterparts of the characters, but the book ultimately is a work of fiction.
Kleine and her family were living in Friendship Heights in 1981 and 1982. She recalls little of the Reagan assassination attempt. But the daughter that deVeau murdered was the best friend of Kleine’s little sister.
Kleine, barely 12, was baby-sitting her younger sister and brother when the phone rang that March. “A neighborhood friend of mine called up and told me what happened,” she says. “I had to tell my siblings, which is a huge charge to deal with. I was screaming, crying hysterically and blurted it out.”
Later that year, in 1982, her family moved to Richmond. They lived in the Fan and Kleine attended Albert Hill Middle School and Open High School.
“Richmond was a wild and eccentric place,” she says, recalling mingling with Virginia Commonwealth University art students at the Village Café. “It was really where I discovered art and the art community.”
She followed that path to New York, studying experimental dance and making a career as a dancer, choreographer and performance artist. A series of what she calls “personal and creative crises” moved her into writing in the early 2000s, and “Calf” was the first novel she wrote.
“It just came to me,” she says of the book’s theme. “One of the reasons might have been, I might have realized I was the same age that this other mother, Leslie deVeau, was at the time” of the crime.
Kleine also is interested in autobiography as an art form, how people record and express their own lives, as she did in a different medium as a dancer and choreographer.
“It’s very strange coming from dance, which is so transient and ephemeral,” she says. “In dance and performance, you create a work and an audience receives a work all at the same time, in the same room. … In writing, you write something all by yourself, and then there’s this chasm before someone reads and receives it — all alone.”
Kleine’s prose can read like a dance, with alternating sections of Tammy and Jeffrey, alike in their isolation and alienation, and then a violent middle that Kleine calls the “aria.”
In that section, the viewpoint shifts to supporting characters who take you through a harrowing narrative. “It was a difficult section to write,” she says. “I was in and out quickly and drew a circle around it.”
As a reader, you know what’s coming, but it’s disquieting nonetheless. “Part of me wanted to know what happened,” Kleine says, “to understand what happened.”
“I don’t think either Hinckley or deVeau were psychopaths,” she says. “They were people suffering from mental illness. That’s the place I tried to get at the characters from: loneliness. We all experience loneliness, but most of us can get out of it. But what if we couldn’t?”
And the book allowed her to confront the memories of a horrific crime so close to home. “I think a lot of what the book is about is looking at the effects of trauma,” she says — “events that are very grand like an assassination attempt, versus a personal, large-scale trauma like a friend [being murdered]. And the daily traumas we all face.” S
“Calf” was released in October and signed copies are available at Fountain Bookstore.