Jacqueline Bublitz's Before You Knew My Name gives nameless victims a voice

Jacqueline Bublitz says she's always been a
Jacqueline Bublitz says she's always been a "capital F" feminist. Picture: The Virtue

Can anyone remember the name of the woman that American college student Brock Turner sexually assaulted in 2015, while she lay unconscious behind a dumpster? What about the names of the victims of serial killer Ted Bundy who kidnapped, raped and murdered close to 30 women?

Why do we have no trouble remembering the perpetrators of crimes, but struggle to recall the victims, particularly when the victims are women?

This is a question author Jacqueline Bublitz wanted to address in her debut novel, Before You Knew My Name.

"I've always been aware of not being aware, in a way, of the names of victims in many crimes," she says. "It's almost a subconscious thing, consuming the media's portrayal, and fictional representations, of violence against women.

"I knew I wanted to tell a story from the victim's perspective, to learn more about her, who she is, to give her a voice."

The victim here is Alice Lee. There's no need for a spoiler alert. She is dead on page one. A recent arrival in New York, she's looking for a fresh start, leaving behind a sad childhood and questionable relationships.

Her body is found by Ruby Jones, also recently arrived in the city from Australia. Escaping similar things to Alice, just at a different point in her life.

From here their stories are intertwined. Alice's voice comes from limbo as her soul looks for answers, looking back on her life. She watches Ruby as Ruby moves forward, searching for answers as to who "Jane Doe" really is.

Neither of the women are perfect, both have made plenty of questionable choices, and this is something that was, Bublitz says, intentional from the start.

"I wanted to play with the notion of the perfect victim," she says.

"I loved the book The Lovely Bones, where it's narrated by a dead girl Susie Salmon, she's 14, a virgin, the 'perfect victim'. Had that been a real crime, the response would be what a great tragedy it was, she would have been given a name.

Before You Knew My Name, by Jacqueline Bublitz. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.

Before You Knew My Name, by Jacqueline Bublitz. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.

"But in a lot of real life cases the women aren't perfect, who is, but why should that change the way a story is told."

Bublitz was editing the book in New Zealand in late 2020 when the Grace Millane trial was in the news. Millane was a British backpacker who was murdered by Jesse Kempson, a man she met on a Tinder date.

Media coverage of the trial often focussed on Millane's sexual interests, which extended to bondage, fetishes and domination.

"The way her past was raked over to suggest that she might have somehow reassigned responsibility for what happened to her, that was a real lightning rod for me and I knew I couldn't give up on Alice's story."

It riles us both up that this has always been the case; if you're not that "perfect victim", then you're somehow partly to blame. If you're dressed provocatively, you're at fault; if you've had anything to drink; you're at fault, if you're a sex worker, or a single mother, or a have a history, you're at fault.

"Who hasn't made a bad decision?" Bublitz says.

"At what point do we become responsible for someone else's disrespect for our bodily autonomy?

"There's a passage in the book where Alice lists all the things she should or shouldn't have done.

"Long before I even knew what my politics were, the idea of victim blaming fascinated me. I knew I had to navigate my life differently because I was a woman. I could never articulate that theory, but as a 40-year-old I found a way to do it."

Bublitz, now 44, grew up on the west coast of New Zealand's north island, her father worked in a slaughterhouse, her mother in a shoe shop.

Desperate to get to New York herself, she headed off to the United States on exchange in her final year of high school but ended up in the midwest. By 18 she was in Melbourne.

"I had big dreams but no idea how to achieve them," she says.

"For a good 15 years I just worked jobs that enabled me to have a good life, I ended up with the job search company Seek as an account manager and eventually I decided to cut back on my hours and decided to indulge my passion for a while, which, funnily was more reading than writing.

"I could never actually get anything down on the page, I spent a lot of time making up stories in my head, which I would share with my friends.

"They'd say that's a really good story, you should write that down but I would never get more than a couple of paragraphs down on the page.

"Because I was such a reader, everything I wrote I expected it to be as good as what I was reading, which, I now say is the way to never ever get a book written, comparing yourself to your favorite writers."

She finished a novel, The Memory of Stars, but it was rejected. A year later she took long service leave, booked a ticket to New York and rented a tiny studio.

The character of Alice popped in to her head, she was roaming New York looking for shadowy corners where a murder might take place, the book was forming. By 2018 she'd finished a manuscript.

But late in the year, she got a call from her family in New Zealand. Her father was dying. She returned home.

Many of the themes in the book about what happens after we die, where do we go, were formed at her father's bedside. He died in September 2019.

"I guess I knew a little bit more about death than I had before. And grief," she says.

On New Year's Eve, she sent several chapters of the book off to a number of agents and within a month, five agents across Great Britain, the United States and Australia were vying to sign her.

She still has to stop when she sees the book on the shelf.

Bublitz says she's always been a "capital F" feminist.

"Not in any academic way, I've never studied gender studies or anything like that, it's all been very organic, through lived experience.

"But I knew I wanted this book to be about more than one thing, I knew it just couldn't be about my anger around gender violence and toxic masculinity.

"I knew it just couldn't be a supernatural thriller told by a voice from the other side. I wanted it to be both.

"Bringing in some heart and some hope and telling the stories of these two women was vital."

  • Before You Knew My Name, by Jacqueline Bublitz. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
This story Giving victims their story first appeared on The Canberra Times.