Firefighters and police rushed to the blaze at a Harlem church to find that the burning object was a decapitated, naked woman. Underneath the body lay a small, gold Star of David, whose outline had seared into her flesh.
In Linda Fairstein’s 13th crime novel, “Silent Mercy,” District Attorney Alexandra Cooper must track down a serial killer with a religious bent.
Fairstein prosecuted rapists and killers as head of the New York District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit. She continues to consult pro bono on cases involving women and violence.
Lundborg: How hard is it to cut someone’s head off?
Fairstein: It depends: You can do a very careful, skillful decapitation, or you can just take a machete and do it in one amateur whack.
Lundborg: How enraged do you have to be?
Fairstein: Unlike killing a stranger, the domestics usually have a lot of rage built up over a long period of time. With strangulation and stabbing, domestics also have more means and opportunity for violence.
We now have a lethality assessment to let women know the likelihood of being killed as the level of violence against them escalates.
Lundborg: How did you get the idea for this book?
Fairstein: I went to Mount Neboh Baptist Church and noticed Stars of David and Hebrew lettering in the stained glass windows. It was fascinating that it had been built as a synagogue.
New York City is really a character in the books, and here it’s religious institutions. I had not expected to get so involved with the treatment of women in different religions.
Lundborg: Where did your title, “Silent Mercy,” come from?
Fairstein: I found out about nuns being silenced, when they want to become priests or talk about abortion.
Lundborg: Does religious misogyny create a climate of violence against women?
Fairstein: Any kind of bigotry makes acceptable some things that you wouldn’t otherwise tolerate.
And if a church is anti-women, it’s also anti-gay.
Lundborg: Some men feel the church has become too soft and pink?
Fairstein: There are Pentecostal congregations, mainly in the south, called “Fight Churches.” They’re designed to get young men back to religion, so women are not welcome.
There’s a ring, they teach martial arts, and then you fight for Jesus and literally tear each other apart.
Lundborg: How fringe is this?
Fairstein: The fighting may be fringe, but the Pentecostals are the largest-growing segment, as people leave conventional organized religion.
Lundborg: Prejudice is not confined to Christians, of course.
Fairstein: Orthodoxy allows no privileges for women. Jews are so intolerant of women, they’re not even allowed to go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem wearing a prayer shawl.
Muslims deserve their own book. Within each religion there is this resistance and a terrible bigotry toward women.
Lundborg: What do you think of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit?”
Fairstein: It’s good the shows shed light on these issues. It’s fiction, so they solve crimes in under an hour. Some episodes are dead-on and some are far-fetched.
Mariska Hargitay gets so much mail from victims. “I was raped when I was 15, and I’ve never been able to talk to anyone about it. What should I do?”
As a result, she founded the Joyful Heart Foundation to help survivors of sexual assault, where I’m on the board.
Lundborg: What’s your next book about?
Fairstein: It’s a lot lighter. It’s about food and wine, since Alex’s lover is a French chef. He’s trying to open a restaurant in New York.
Lundborg: All those nice sharp knives. You’re also still consulting?
Fairstein: I do a lot of work for victims who can’t get access to the system all around the country.
My favorite charity is victim advocacy group Safe Horizon, where we opened a child center last year. We’d been trying to get one in the city since 1977.
Children under 12 who are victims of sexual or physical violence are taken to this center instead of a police precinct or an emergency room.
We expected 300 victims the first year, and we got 600, Manhattan only.
To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)