Of all the books that I’ve read recently, one of those that stood out the most has to be Nora Murphy’s exceptionally well-written, extremely compelling debut novel The Favor (available from Minotaur Books on May 31st). The book is centered around two women — one who is an attorney (married to another attorney), the other a physician (married to another physician). Though, outwardly, they are successful professionals living what many might regard as these idyllic lives, they secretly find themselves trapped in horribly dysfunctional and abusive marriages. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to chat with Nora about the inspiration behind her novel, the denial and cycle of abuse and apology that can make leaving a toxic relationship more difficult, the importance of police officers being able to recognize the signs that would indicate that somebody is in an abusive relationship, how the justice system can re-traumatize those who were stuck in abusive relationships (and some changes that have already been made to the system) and much more. Read on to see what she had to say.
Andrew DeCanniere: First and foremost, I have to say that I think that The Favor is just such a compelling read.
Nora Murphy: Thank you. Obviously, it’s fiction. It’s a novel, but I was hoping it could prove [to be informative] for people, because I feel as though when people hear about someone in an abusive relationship, they think it’s so easy. You just walk out the door and that’s it. It’s over. My goal with this book was to write something that would help people see it’s really not that easy. There is often so much more that goes into it. My goal was to do that through a thriller that would be interesting for people to read.
DeCanniere: Well, I certainly think it is. I guess that also sort of gets to my first question. I was curious to know more about what the inspiration for — or the story behind — the book might be. How is it that you decided this, in particular, is what you want to write about?
Murphy: I think that it was mostly inspired by the work that I did in law school. I did a couple of clinics where I worked with survivors of intimate-partner violence. When you are a law student, if you are doing a clinic, you can get certified to represent people in court. There also are research components to it. So, I did two that involved victims of intimate-partner violence. For one, I had to write a research paper. The topic that I chose was professional abusers — people with high levels of education or affluence, who have special training they use in their careers, and how they [then] use that to inflict abuse, to conceal abuse, and the effect that has on their survivors.
In the paper, I explored the ways in which licensing authorities or regulators can punish or prevent these people from being able to do that. For the novel, I was sort of inspired by those sorts of survivors and [by] telling their stories. People might not think it happens so much in affluent or highly educated households, but what I learned through [writing] that research paper is that it certainly can happen. That can present unique challenges for survivors. It might seem like they had access to the resources and the means to escape but, in fact, they do not.
DeCanniere: It’s interesting you should mention that, because I took a lot of notes while reading your book, and I thought that is one very relevant point that is worth making. It really does seem that this issue isn’t limited to a particular class or something. It can happen to you regardless of your education, profession, or socioeconomic status, as you just said.
Murphy: Right. In the book, they are almost in denial about their situation, because they think “How could this have happened to me, given everything that I have? Given my education and my experiences?” It can happen and it does. Then it becomes a matter of “How do I get out of this, when my abuser is somebody who is viewed as highly credible, and someone who is well regarded in the community?” There’s always a fear that they won’t be believed if they come forward, unless there is some sort of overt or direct evidence. In the book, I think that they grapple with those challenges — being ashamed, of being in denial, and then also having to deal with the fact that their abusers are likely to be more believed than they would be, if they were to take action.
DeCanniere: Speaking of which, the denial does seem to be coupled with this cycle of abuse and apology as well.
Murphy: In law school, we learned about abusive relationships. You learn about this cycle, and that after a period of violence or severe emotional abuse, there is often an apology. You could call this a “honeymoon phase.” That just makes it more complicated for the survivor, because that’s happening, and there’s the history of the relationship coming to mind, and it can go into this cycle of forgiveness. Then, it happens again. It is often a very cyclical experience, and that can make it more confusing and more difficult to leave.
DeCanniere: I don’t want to give too much away, but in your book there is a scene in which somebody does place a 9-1-1 call, and the police do come out to the house to look into things further. Unfortunately, it does seem as though the officers who respond end up commiserating with the husband. There’s a moment where one of the officers talks about how his wife also “had an episode last week” or some such thing. I feel as though this does illustrate that, unfortunately, sometimes when a victim does try to turn to someone for help — or when someone else calls for help for them — that does not always go the way it should, either. In this particular case, the police barely bother to scratch the surface, and certainly don’t bother to dig any deeper. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not saying that is how most officers would have handled it. Obviously not. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that can sometimes happen.
Murphy: I think it can be easy to go off of appearances. As part of the paper I wrote, I looked at abusers who were police officers themselves, and then people like characters in The Favor — professional individuals — and the credibility that lends them when they are speaking with a member of law enforcement.
DeCanniere: I also think that this highlights the fact that police officers can really benefit from some additional training. For example, where I live, the police department recently partnered with our town’s social services department to be able to more effectively respond to situations where somebody may be in the midst of a mental health crisis, resulting in better outcomes for all involved. I think that, similarly, police should be better trained to recognize signs of dysfunctional and dangerous relationships, such as those portrayed in your book.
Murphy: I think that’s so important. One of the biggest pieces is the training. It’s recognizing what these signs look like. One recent case that comes to mind, which I am sure everybody saw in the news, is the Gabby Petito case. There was the body cam footage, where the police were speaking with her and with the man who ultimately killed her. I think that it is unfortunately very common in these situations, where survivors do manage to get before the police, that the things that they do are misperceived — and the terror that they are feeling is missed. I think that judges also need that sort of training, so that they are able to recognize the signs, which is so important.
DeCanniere: It also seems that, when it comes to the women in your book, they don’t really want to share what is going on behind closed doors with anybody in their lives, either. They don’t share any of this with colleagues, friends or family. Obviously, a part of this could have to do with the fact that they are increasingly isolated from their colleagues, family and friends. However, even when an opportunity to share what is happening with others may present itself, it is arguable that they make sure not to tell anybody.
Murphy: Right. I think you mentioned many of the reasons. There’s the shame. There’s the fact that they have slowly become isolated, so they no longer have this support system. It suddenly disappeared from their lives. Then there is also the fear that they will not be believed. The fear that people will look at their spouses and think that they would never do that. That they are making it up for whatever reason. I think that the combination of those things can make it very overwhelming to do anything.
DeCanniere: While I am not a mental health professional, it is also pretty evident when you get a sense of both of their husbands, that they might very well be sociopaths. It seems that, from their perspective, it is all about them. They seem to have no regard for their impact on their wives, and seem to feel as though their wives’ lives should be about them and them alone — that their wives should focus solely on them, their careers, and their desires, and that their wives’ lives, careers and desires do not matter whatsoever. Even though, outwardly, these men are these respectable professionals, this is how they think and what is going on at home.
Murphy: I think that’s very common. I’m not a mental health professional, either. However, I think that, in my experience on the legal side, you do see this sort of dynamic occur. Also, when there’s narcissism and narcissistic personalities, it can make it extremely difficult to manage.
DeCanniere: What’s alarming is how very focused they are on completely isolating their spouses, making sure they do not have a job, that they have virtually no contact with family, and basically no friends to turn to. They also make sure that they do not have any means of supporting themselves. Though they are highly educated, and they are professionals, they end up without a source of income and cannot access any funds. They don’t have any independence.
Murphy: I think that is all about control. It’s about taking control of all aspects and that makes it so incredibly difficult to leave — in addition to the emotional aspects that make it difficult, along with the fears of not being believed. It’s also just logistically difficult, because even when there is money in accounts, they don’t have access to them or can’t access those funds without their spouses knowing exactly what they’re doing and when they plan to do it. It’s as if those funds might as well not be there.
DeCanniere: Speaking of exerting control, they not only do so by threatening their wives’ safety, but by threatening their family members’ safety as well. I think that is also what prevents them from just walking out the door one day. I am sure that it can certainly feel more complicated than just picking yourself up and leaving and, in the vast majority of cases, it is much more complicated than that. Because of that, one of the women also becomes more dependent on alcohol, using it as a sort of means of escape. The major problem with that, however, is that you’re not really escaping your situation at all — as she finds out. So, she ends up using alcohol as a sort of coping mechanism, but as she comes to find out, she’s not really coping. In fact, it’s arguable that her reliance on alcohol ends up putting her in an even worse position, rather than helping her.
Murphy: I think that’s something that I included because I saw that is something that can also be common. It’s just something that is used to get through the days. However, in the book, it really ends up debilitating the character even more. It was also this feeling that there wasn’t anything she could do about it. As you said, it was just a coping mechanism to get through the days, but she isn’t truly escaping. It sort of becomes a mechanism of control for her husband to use, because he knows that she’s doing this. In a way, he doesn’t discourage it, because it does sort of debilitate her further. If she’s struggling with that, she’s less likely to access the resources she needs to be able to leave the relationship.
DeCanniere: Right. I think that at that point there are so many signs that there is something seriously wrong with the relationship. It is arguable that, in a healthy relationship, you want what is best for the person you are with. You want the best for that person, and you want that person to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be. Ultimately, in this case, that’s not what he wants for her. He wants just the opposite. He wants what is best for him.
Murphy: He’s almost desperate for control. It’s almost like anything that aides in his complete control over her is good with him. It’s really unfortunate, but that does happen.
DeCanniere: Even in cases where a survivor of abuse manages to make others aware of what is going on, and it does go through the justice system, it seems that they can be re-traumatized by the system itself. I just thought that it was so good — and so important — that you make that point as well.
Murphy: I think that’s such an important point, because even if someone manages to get through all the things we already discussed — the shame, not having access to resources, the fear, the literal danger of walking out the door — if they are married to their abuser, or aren’t married but have children in common, then there are the legal entanglements. Even if she’s able to separate and get away, there’s still a complaint for divorce. Then that other person has to be served and — depending on the state — there could be a scheduling conference. There could be a settlement conference. There could be discovery. There could be depositions. All of that could be in person. So, there are times when she has to sit in the same room, only a few feet away from this person who has been abusing her. Ultimately, this process can stretch out over months. Especially with COVID, we saw the already slow slog through the court process become even slower with postponements. If the case doesn’t settle, it can take years to actually get a trial, and the trial can be horribly traumatizing, because she has to testify in front of her abuser. If they have conflicting testimony, it brings up all of those same fears of not being believed.
DeCanniere: It makes one wonder whether there are some sort of changes that could be made to the system, in order to make the whole thing less traumatic for someone who has already been traumatized.
Murphy: I think a lot of states have moved toward no-fault grounds for divorce. I do think it has gotten easier in some states. I used to practice Family Law in Maryland. There was a shortening of the separation period. They added no-fault grounds for divorce. However, the only way to avoid dragging the process out is if the case settles and resolves, and it can be difficult for that to happen. Obviously, the other person has to enter into a written settlement agreement. If that person has narcissistic tendencies, or is using the process to continue to exert control, settlement is not really likely. If the person has the resources to pay the legal fees, then the cost of litigation isn’t a factor. The cost of litigation can be a factor that can get people to resolve a case, but if there are a lot of resources on one side, then it can really drag out and be very difficult.
DeCanniere: Right. If the person who is engaging in the abuse happens to be of means, and the person they are abusing does not, I could imagine a scenario where they actually are emboldened. They may intentionally try to drag it out, if they feel like they have the resources to do so, and that the other individual involved does not. Is there anything else that you feel is important that we haven’t touched upon? I don’t want to leave out anything you feel is important.
Murphy: I’m really glad you brought that up about the litigation process, because I think that’s such an important point to drive home. The answer to that question of “What doesn’t she just walk out the door? Why doesn’t she just leave?” You think that if she gets out of the house, and she stays with her mom, that’s it. It’s over. She’s fine now. There’s just so much more that has to happen after that if they’re married. Even if they are not, any if they have property in common, then there’s disentangling that. Especially if they have children in common, that’s probably the most challenging scenario, because that can drag out for the entire minority of the children. Unfortunately, a lot of times, it does do that. So, that’s really challenging. I think that’s one of the most important points I wanted to get across.
DeCanniere: And in both these cases, though they are married, they don’t have children. So, at least that’s not an issue. Though I’m not in the legal field, I know that can certainly be a complicating factor — as you just said — and can make an already contentious process even more contentious.
Murphy: Right. I think that the book would’ve been way too long if they had children. So, I wanted to focus it on a few specific points, but I do think that’s something that is really important to understand.
DeCanniere: I also think that the parts of the book that are written from the detective’s perspective are quite interesting. It also kind of points out how, in some cases, they can fill in some of the blanks of a case a bit incorrectly — based, at least in part, on their own biases or experiences.
Murphy: I felt like he was a necessary point of view to the story, because he kind of exemplifies the different theories of what happened and who did it, and it is through him that we see all of the different options running through his mind. Then he also reflects on his partner, who recently suffered an accident in the line of duty. He has that weighing on his mind, and influencing how he is thinking. And, like you said, there also are his own biases — his experience working as a detective in a place like this, where the sort of violence that he sees is more often of a domestic nature.
DeCanniere: When he’s trying to put the puzzle together, he does get many parts right. He’s on to a lot of what happened. That said, he does seem to make some assumptions and, thus, does get some of the finer points wrong.
Murphy: He needs to not only figure out what happened, but he needs to be able to prove it, and he needs to be able to take it to the State’s Attorney and put evidence before a grand jury and get an indictment. Beyond that, he needs to take it to a jury and a trial and get a conviction. So, his only concerns are not just what happened, but how he can prove it and how he can put a case together that proves it beyond a reasonable doubt.
DeCanniere: Last, but not least, who would you consider to be your influences, in terms of writing? What are some books — or who are some authors — you would recommend?
Murphy: My favorite writer is probably Laura Lippman. I’m from Maryland, and she also grew up close to where I live. You can recognize a lot of landmarks and everything. That’s just added fun in her books. I don’t think anyone writes like she writes. Patricia Highsmith is probably another all-time favorite. I love all of her books. She’s just so good. So, those are my all-time favorites. Then, recently, I’ve read Pay Dirt Road by Samantha Jayne Allen, and that’s really good. It reminded me a lot of [the HBO series] Mare of Easttown. That was a really popular series, and I’m really bad at keeping up with TV series, so I never finished it. I thought the book was a lot like it. I love the book and thought that it was so good.
Nora Murphy attended law school in Washington, D.C., then worked as a judicial law clerk before transitioning to private practice. During law school, she participated in two clinics, through which she represented and studied the issues facing survivors of intimate-partner violence. A practicing attorney, Nora writes as much as she can, usually long before the sunrise or on her phone for brief moments when the inspiration strikes. Nora resides in Maryland with her husband, young son, and five rescue pets. The Favor is her debut novel.