Eric Brach has walked the halls of elite universities, but that hasn’t kept him off the mean streets.
A graduate of USC’s master's program in writing, Brach did his undergraduate work at University of Pennsylvania and studied for a master's degree in economics at John Hopkins.
But his newest book introduces readers to a subject they don't teach in school: criminals who betray the trust of friends and neighbors by committing heinous offenses.
The true-crime writer’s nonfiction work, titled Double Lives: True Tales of the Criminals Next Door, provides readers with a string of tales about criminals who prey on their neighbors.
As a true-crime writer myself, I wanted to ask Brach what led him to this fascinating but frightful subject, which debuts Aug. 18 with a book launch at Writers Blok studio on La Cienega.
L.A. WEEKLY: People usually imagine crime as something that happens to someone else. What made you focus on criminals who live close by?
ERIC BRACH: I grew up in a small and close-knit town but some kids I’d known since Little League became criminals. That in itself was a shock, but it was the fact that some of them committed their crimes right in our neighborhood that got me wondering about people who live double lives, presenting one face to their families and friends while secretly masking another, more sinister one.
Thinking about hometown killers and robbers makes me want to lock my doors! Which case did you find most terrifying?
For me, it’s the case of Genene Jones, a pediatric nurse who derived satisfaction from intentionally injuring infants in her care. Her favorite tactic was to give newborns overdoses of potent drugs so that she could rush in, deliver an antidote, and look like a hero. Sometimes, though, she failed to produce the cure in time. Multiple babies died on her watch.
Amazingly, Genene Jones fooled parents and doctors for years before she was caught. Now, some 40 years later, the district attorney in San Antonio is still making it a priority to ensure Genene Jones remains behind bars.
I know from experience that it's gut-wrenching to interview people who've lost a loved one to violent crime. Was there any victim whose story touched you in a heartfelt way?
There’s a young boy in Mountain City, Tennessee, whose mother was murdered as she held him in her arms. He was 7 months old then; he’s 7 years old now, and he’s had to grow up without either of his parents, as his mother’s killers murdered his father, too.
Readers of Double Lives will learn all about this horrific incident. It stemmed from the machinations of a person so disturbed, she connivingly twisted the protective instincts of her father and her beloved to trick them into committing these crimes. Knowing that a boy was orphaned to satisfy the malice and caprice of a crazed shut-in down the road still hurts my soul.
Murder, robbery, arson … this is scary stuff! While working on your book, did you ever have trouble sleeping at night?
I didn’t have trouble sleeping but I did notice the impact in other ways. For instance, I’d go to my wife at the end of the day and say, “Thank you, honey, for not tricking me into murdering an innocent family today.” That really did happen, so I guess writing Double Lives has lowered the bar on my standards for marital bliss!
You write about an opioid overdose, which is a different sort of tragedy from murder, arson or robbery. Was it challenging to weave this story into your book?
It felt natural to integrate a consideration of America’s current opioid problems with examinations of serial killers and bank robbers. Covert criminals and covert addicts share that same trait of living double lives. They each hide their behaviors from the ones closest to them. And that, after all, was the impulse that drew me to write this book — not just the crimes themselves but that people felt and followed that disposition inside them to do wrong.
Many of us have grown numb from the barrage of horrifying images and stories about the opioid epidemic. How did writing about a friend's overdose death alter your perspective?
Having a friend pass away from an overdose drew empathy from me in a very deep way. It’s true: These horrific reports can oddly also become numbing due to the sheer dumbfounding size of the problem. It’s a lot like crime: You know it’s an issue but you don’t know if there’s anything you can do to stop it.
What we can all agree on is that, sadly, losing people to overdose and addiction is the new normal, and that, almost even more than violent crime, it is the new scariest thought that keeps us up at night.
Besides making us take a long sideways glance at the people who live next door, what's next on your agenda?
There’s so much going on with this project! In the coming days I’ll be appearing on a number of true-crime podcasts and radio shows, including the outstanding True Crime Fan Club, where I’ll be discussing a high school love triangle that went wrong in ways even the most hard-boiled true-crime fan couldn’t imagine.
I’m also on a Reddit AMA on Aug. 14, and I have a number of live events taking place across Los Angeles — any L.A. Weekly readers who’d like to speak with me live, please come find me there!
The print edition and e-book of Double Lives: True Tales of the Criminals Next Door are available for order now, with an audiobook edition expected to be released in the months ahead.
The launch event and an author signing will be held on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8 p.m. at Writers Blok, 2677 S. La Cienega Blvd., Mid-City; WritersBlok.org.