Journalist Claudia Rowe had always been haunted by her traumatic childhood. She made sense of it with a correspondence with an unlikely person: a convicted serial killer.
Over a two-year period, Kendall Francois strangled eight women and stuffed their bodies in his attic before his 1998 arrest. His victims all worked as prostitutes on the downtrodden Main Street of Poughkeepsie, New York. All the while, he shared a house one block from Vassar College with his parents and sister, who were ostensibly ignorant of the corpses rotting in their attic.
His outbursts of rage were terrifying and familiar to Rowe — for personal reasons.
In a new book, The Spider and the Fly, Rowe, now a reporter for The Seattle Times, explores parallels between Francois’ destructive life, ending with his 2014 death at 43, and her own upbringing amid violence and turbulence.
“I had seen it in my own family,” Rowe tells PEOPLE. “It completely bewildered me, and it confused and frightened me.”
Trying to understand Francois’ impulses became “an effort to feel better about forces that had shaped me growing up. I felt like if I could understand the mechanism behind that violence, I wouldn’t be so bewildered by it.”
Rowe covered the horrific revelations of Francois’ crimes as a reporter. Even before he was sentenced to eight life terms, she reached out to him with a letter that launched five years of correspondence, phone calls and face-to-face meetings.
“Here is this guy who’s going to explain to me cruelty; he’s going to lay out a map to me, an A to B to C,” explains Rowe. “That would somehow satisfy these ghosts that I had carried around with me all my life about people who had hurt me, and why.”
“I decided in my mind Kendall Francois was going to be my answer. I thought he’d be all-too-happy to explain,” she says. But she adds, “What I expected was in no way what I got.”
During their correspondence, Francois kept his secrets, just as Rowe—in her conversations with the killer—held onto hers.
Troubled Childhoods, Despite Appearances
Rowe grew up in affluence on Manhattan’s Central Park West. Her mother was a college literature professor; her father worked in news promotions at NBC.
But appearances masked explosive conflicts inside the home and attacks on Rowe’s self-esteem that fueled her need in adolescence to escape. She ran the streets after dark, consorting in Central Park with drug dealers and delinquents. While her parents lived an outer life “framed in culture and grace,” she writes, “Every gentility was a lie, undermined by their bitter marriage, their petrified kids.”
Her book exposes and implodes such façades — beginning with the place in which Francois committed his crimes.
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Poughkeepsie is an old city along the Hudson River that Rowe, 50, a former reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal, describes as “a hard, dirty place surrounded by wealth and natural beauty,” adding, “I had the sense that this city was kind of an emblem for denial.”
The discovery of Francois’ victims decomposing in an attic “seemed to me this very notion writ large— here was this family living in denial about what was right above their heads.”
A big man — 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds upon his arrest — Francois had been one of the few African-Americans in his predominantly white middle and high school. His mother taught Baptist Sunday school and made sure her children were regulars at church. In their public appearances, he and his family members presented a comfortable middle-class exterior.
But there were disconnects in his life that began to pile up, and they resonated with Rowe.
“I had a sense of him pretty early as deeply alienated, very out of step with the world he had grown up in and was living in,” she says. “I had the sense of him as this kind of loser-reject. I also felt out of step with the world I grew up in, tremendously alienated and lonely. I felt ugly and worthless, and those were things I felt I might be able to see into him somehow.”
She adds, “I could feel his inability to connect. That was real. And that was real for me, too.”
A Stunning Confession
Francois joined the army after graduation but was discharged for obesity. He returned home and found work as a custodian at the school he attended.
He quickly developed a reputation with law enforcement for assaulting prostitutes. When prostitutes began disappearing from Poughkeepsie’s streets, police circulated photos of Francois as a warning. Authorities also asked one woman who met up with him to wear a wire to help them build a case; she later vanished and turned up as one of his victims.
He was being questioned about an unrelated attack when he stunned authorities by voluntarily confessing to the killings.
Inside his residence, the lie of the Francois family’s exterior was punctured forever by what detectives encountered.
They found, Rowe writes, “a woman’s body dissolved in a garbage bin; a pile of skulls; a bit of rope with an eyeball attached, tied to a skeleton’s arms.”
All of it was inside a home where four people lived that was filled top-to-bottom with piled garbage and decay.
It turned out Francois’ mom had complained about certain strong odors. He had told her there was a dead raccoon in the attic, but he couldn’t find it, so he couldn’t remove it.
Correspondence with a Killer
Eleven months after Francois’ arrest, Rowe drafted her first letter. When Francois answered, it came with demands that she share a photo of herself and intimate details of her sex life. All of it was to be laid out in a precise number of single-spaced pages.
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Rowe ignored it and, through his repeated requests, held her ground. “In terms of the information he said he wanted, he didn’t care. It was a game and I saw that very quickly,” Rowe says.
But the exchanges that would illuminate both their lives had begun.
“Before every phone conversation and before every visit, I was so frightened I could barely breathe. But in actual moments of talking to him, I did like talking to him,” Rowe says.
“When I could see him, and see his eyes and his face, and see how flustered he sometimes became, it made him seem more like a very conflicted, messed-up human being rather than this kind of unknowable force.”
“I did find places where I could connect with aspects of him,” she says. “He had a sense of humor, he had a sense of beauty, he had a sense—a very twisted sense—of loyalty. He pined for something he imagined to be love, and I understood that.”
She describes “a buried thread of humanity in there. But it was so covered up with paranoia and rage that it was nothing you could hold onto in any solid way.”
She told him from the start she was pursuing a book, but Francois was suspicious, believing that he was being set up for betrayal.
But their contact continued, until, on what became her last prison visit, Rowe rebuffed his request for an embrace. She had never wanted to touch him. But she offered her hand, and after he forcefully grabbed it, “he slammed his other hand on top, and I was caught,” she writes. “I drew my hand back and he did not resist. Nor did he exactly release me. … Still mocking, half imploring, he kept smiling into my eyes as I reclaimed myself and finally pulled away.”
Hard Lessons Learned
After the violent encounter, Rowe left the prison, left New York, drove 3,000 miles west to begin her life anew and did not address Francois for another 11 years.
Before she left, she received a letter from him, which she read after she reached the West Coast. The letter read, “How I ‘deal’ with the awful things I’ve done is personal. Even if I wanted to pour out my heart to you, I couldn’t…. People will never get what they want from me, because I died many years ago and several times.”
Rowe realized that during their years of correspondence, she had transformed as well.
“The journey with Kendall Francois taught me that I needed to stand up for myself, and it really taught me to be a stronger person, and where to draw the line, and where to strike the balance in how far I was willing to go,” she says.
“When any of [his victims] said ‘I need to go,’ that was always his trigger,” she says. “The change in his affect was immediate, and it was ice-cold, so I knew what my just disappearing would trigger in him. I knew that it would do damage to a clearly damaged person. But I also knew that it was what had to happen for both of our sakes, really.”
In the end, she wrote one last letter to him summing up their correspondence, which, she believes, made her a better person.
“When I first wrote you, and in all the letters afterward, I was searching for proof that redemption was possible,” she wrote Francois. “Often you accused me of failing to listen. You were right. There were so many voices in my head that it was hard to hear. Voices shouting about what I wanted from you. Voices of judgment. Voices of my family and friends. But in all this, my own voice was silent. … You never wanted to tell me your secret life, and it is still yours. What I have written, the book you were so frightened of, is my secret life.”
“Thank you,” she wrote him, “for showing me who I needed to be.”