The Hilliker Curse memoir

Hilliker was the maiden name of
James Ellroy’s mother. She was raped, and then murdered, when the author was
10. Ellroy has returned obsessively to the unsolved case in fiction and in an
earlier memoir, My Dark Places, where he used the murder to explain his
preoccupation with the criminal underworld of Los Angeles in the Fifties.

In The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy
interweaves fictional women and the real women in his life. Unhappy love
affairs get redeemed when the women he failed to keep hold of are resurrected
in narrative.

Is the preoccupation with Jean
Hilliker exploitative? In work as grimy as Ellroy’s, the shadow of an impure
motive is impossible to pick out with any precision. He has been accused of
revelling under the veil of verisimilitude in the abusive attitudes of his
characters.

The Hilliker Curse suggests that
the truth may be simpler and more complicated. Ellroy is both a romantic loon
and a macho feminist. He may strut, snarl, bite and brood, but he has no
interest, as such, in frightening or frightened women. The women he has loved,
and lost, have been more than matches for him.

The murder of Jean Hilliker did not
so much set him on a path – he was already “brain-screening” girls at school
and church – as set that path in stone. The war-torn child of an ugly divorce,
he wished his mother dead, and then she was, murdered most likely by one of her
low-life lovers.

Ellroy’s teenage years were
drink-fuelled and drug-crazed. His father was a showbiz “bottom feeder” who
shared pornography with his son and may at one time have acted as Rita
Hayworth’s accountant. Ellroy Jnr considered visiting on his father the fate of
his mother, before clocking that his old man was on the way out anyway.

Orphan Ellroy started messing with
prostitutes or “weekenders” whose stories he would later knit into his work. He
did time for a bit, sobered up, found a job (as a golf caddie) and a part-time
girlfriend who was training to be a lawyer. When he started to write,
everything wrong in his life was right for the books. “The Curse,” he says of
his mother’s death, “incubated my narrative gift.”

Women stopped running away from
him. He married foolishly and got out fast. His second marriage, to Helen
Knode, a journalist in LA, lasted for 13 years of unexpected fidelity. He
persuaded her to write a novel. She did, to some acclaim. Having incubated the
novelist in his wife, Ellroy suffered a characteristically uncontainable
work-induced breakdown and turned her into his nurse. His return to “sanity”
and the end of the marriage are accompanied by a return to the crazed fantasies
of his sex-starved youth.

Knode’s feminist charge sheet
haunts the rest of the book with its dim view of serial obsession. As a boy,
Ellroy had craved older women but his older women are now predictably younger.
He picks up Joan, a Left-wing Jewish academic 20 years his junior, at a
reading. She baffles and bores him with her generational absolutes, but he
fixes on her like a teenage crush. To Knode’s quiet applause, she “dumps” his
“raggedy ass”.

Another academic appears to him
first in a dream. She possesses the daughters that Ellroy says he longs for,
but won’t leave her husband. “You don’t understand family,” she says. “All
you’ve got is your audience and your prey.”

Ellroy willingly takes this truth
to his next obsession, also married, also with daughters, also a writer. But
unlike the previous two, Erika is co-dependent on a fate-defying,
destiny-riven, this-was-meant rhetoric. And she is still in the frame.

Yet when the chips are down,
talking to women in the dark who aren’t there is what Ellroy does. Five years
ago he said in an interview: “If I could abolish one concept from the parlance,
it would be closure.” It shows.

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