October 15, 1990 12:00 PM

Sugarplum, Melanie Thernstrom’s new pet rabbit, has just relieved himself on a chair in her Brooktondale, N.Y., apartment. He isn’t quite house-trained, she tells her visitor. “I like saying ‘Bad rabbit!’ ” she adds, laughing shyly, “because, I mean, he’s a rabbit, so he can’t really be bad;”

Gentle creatures who mean well can still sometimes do damage, however. And that is a fact of life that Thernstrom, 26, has recently learned plenty about. Sitting in her cozy living room, she is discussing, in a voice as soft as a child’s, the imminent publication of her first book. Entitled The Dead Girl, it is a nonfiction account of the 1984 murder of her best friend. Roberta (Bibi) Lee, and the murder’s devastating effect on Thernstrom’s own life. The book began as Thernstrom’s senior thesis at Harvard, a lyrical, literary meditation that she hoped would serve as “a record, a tribute to Roberta.” The thesis was awarded a summa cum laude, her poetry professor loved it, and the agents he gave it to, unbeknownst to Thernstrom, were impressed as well. Though she never meant to write a book, Thernstrom soon found her thesis in a publishers’ bidding war. The winner, Pocket Books, paid her the astonishing sum of $367,000. She has since received dozens of movie offers.

Not everyone, it turned out, was happy for her. After reading an early version of the book, Lee’s parents (her mother has since died) refused to allow their daughter’s letters to Thernstrom to be included. “It could have been that they didn’t like the portrait of Bibi, or that they thought it was an invasion of their privacy—they never said why,” says Thernstrom. “It broke my heart.”

Lee’s family refuses to discuss the situation publicly, but there are friends of Bibi’s who disapprove of the book as well. “It’s a cheap enterprise,” says one. “You don’t write a book about the murder of your friend, market it as a best-seller and expect what’s inside to have any shred of dignity left, no matter how sensitive it is.”

What’s inside is the sort of information that best friends arc privy to—Lee’s quarrels with her parents, a pregnancy scare, boy troubles—along with details of her murder and the author’s own attempts to come to terms with it. Thernstrom feels strongly that Roberta would approve. “I’m positive of that,” she says. “If I had died, I’d have wanted her to write a book about me.”

The two girls first became friends in high school in Lexington, Mass. Both of them daughters of college professors—Thernstroms father, Stephan, teaches history at Harvard, and her mother, Abigail, is a political scientist—they shared a love of writing and a pervasive adolescent malaise. “We were sort of unhappy in our families,” says Thernstrom, “and I think we also felt that being depressed made the right statement—that the cheery, bouncy people were not the deep people.” When, in the fall of 1982, Bibi went off to Berkeley and Melanie to Harvard, they wrote to each other often.

Then, in November 1984, Melanie learned that Bibi was missing. While she and her boyfriend, Bradley Page, were jogging in the Oakland, Calif., hills, they had reportedly taken different paths, and Page lost her. “When I heard that, everything just stopped,” Thernstrom says. She flew to California to join in the search that located Lee’s body buried in the woods. Page was arrested, confessed to murder and necrophilia, and then recanted, saying his confession had been coerced. His first trial, on murder charges, ended with a hung jury, but he was later convicted of manslaughter. The case is on appeal.

Thernstrom grieved obsessively for months. “If I was happy,” she says, “I would catch myself and think, ‘You’re happy? Roberta’s dead. Have you forgotten about that?’ When someone dies, there is this anxiety that you have to think about them, because if you’re not thinking about them they don’t exist.”

And so she thought—about how Bibi had been melancholy and unpredictable and thus perhaps doomed, about how she too was moody and no doubt headed for trouble. She recorded her thoughts in her diary and in essays for a class. She wrote her thesis partly because “if Bibi’s story was there on paper, I wouldn’t have to think about it all the time.” What she concluded was that she had been wrong to cast Lee as a literary character, seeing foreshadowing and symbols in her life in order to invest it with tragic meaning—thus her thesis title, Mistakes of Metaphor. “Writing it changed how I think, about Roberta’s death and about a lot of things,” Thernstrom says.

The thesis was intended as a private exercise. “They were going to put it in the library at Harvard, but I told them I didn’t want it there, it was too sensitive,” Thernstrom says. She was surprised when she learned that her professor had shown it to agents. But later she decided she liked the idea of making her tribute to Roberta public.

Her editor at Pocket Books asked her to cover Page’s second trial and suggested other additions. But she did not, Thernstrom says, urge her to make the book more commercial by downplaying the literary elements in favor of the criminal. “I’m not the little girl swallowed up by big bad publishers,” Thernstrom says. “I think the book is much better now—more complicated, more sophisticated.” Still, its stark new title, plucked from the text by one of her agents because Mistakes of Metaphor “sounded like a grammar book,” Thernstrom explains, does rankle a bit. “It’s hard to think of your own dear book being called The Dead Girl,” she says.

Her critics question how much such considerations really bother her. Says a woman who knew both Melanie and Roberta: “People who read the book won’t think of Roberta as the person she was. They’ll think of her as the girl who was murdered sensationally. I don’t think she would like the book. I think Melanie has been either thunderingly naive or amazingly calculating.”

Thernstrom’s friends find the latter idea inconceivable. “Melanie is one of the least sophisticated people I know—there is no way she had exploitative motives,” says Richard Shohet, who taught writing to Thernstrom and Lee at Lexington High (and who calls Thernstrom “the most talented writer I’ve taught in 30 years”). “She can be careless about things, but not about people’s feelings, and she loved Roberta. I have no moral problems with the book.”

Now writing a novel and teaching at Cornell, Thernstrom is excited about the appearance of The Dead Girl. Advance critical response has been favorable (writer Harold Brodkey pronounced it “better than Cold Blood”), and Thernstrom is confident the book is no disservice to her friend. “Anyone who reads it comes away really caring about Roberta—and she’s been dead a long time now,” Melanie says. “People wouldn’t know about her otherwise.”

Yet when the Lees are mentioned, Thernstrom’s face clouds over. “They were my friend’s family, and the last thing I want is to be a source of sorrow in their lives,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as someone who makes people unhappy, so it’s queer to realize that I have, in this really concrete way. I feel I’ve done the right thing, but it has a cost. And that is hard to live with.”

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