Kim Savage shares the process of losing and finding identity in her new thriller, In Her Skin.
The Power in Remembering Who You Are in ‘In Her Skin’;
by Kim Savage
“It’s strange, to feel like a prize, a rare thing that a rich woman wants to touch.”
At the heart of In Her Skin is the question of what it means to have power; specifically, power associated with class. The wealthy Lovecrafts and their daughter Temple have it. Jo, barely surviving in one of Boston’s tent cities, does not. But when the lines between Jo and Temple blur, power shifts in unexpected ways.
Temple’s father owns Lovecraft Construction, the name painted on the cranes that rise from the Boston skyline. She has stellar grades, stunning achievements, and a blindingly bright future. The Lovecrafts have economic and social capital, though their perfect life was marred years before by speculation and blame surrounding the disappearance of Vivienne Weir — Temple’s friend who was kidnapped from their luxurious brownstone seven years earlier.
Jo grew up in Immokalee, where her Momma groomed her to be a con artist of the highest caliber. They were trying to flee Momma’s abusive boyfriend when he killed her, and Jo escaped on a bus to Boston. She spends her days in a cubicle at the Boston Public Library, and her nights in a tent shared with a boy called Wolf, who turns tricks to earn money for their necessities. Life in Tent City is dangerous, even for a savvy girl like Jo. It’s time for a fresh start, using the only skills she has.
When Jo chooses Temple as her mark for ID theft, she admits that they’re opposites. Temple is a “shiny” girl who “has never felt her mother’s boyfriend brush up against her, never devoured a dirty lollipop dropped by a kid in the park, never slept in a bus terminal with a knife under her thigh for protection.” Still, Jo, who loves poetry, watches Temple smell the inside of an old edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems and feels a kinship. Jo begins to direct her inner narrative to Temple (“You haven’t noticed me watching.”).
A little research later, and she realizes stealing the identity of a famous rich girl is a bad plan. But stealing the identity of a missing rich girl? That’s a way better plan. Jo is re-born as long, lost Vivienne Weir, the ward of the Lovecrafts. She slips inside their glamorous life of fancy restaurants and the symphony; shopping trips to Newbury Street and gifts from Tiffany; personal bodyguards and pet puppies.
Things couldn’t have worked out better for Jo. For the Lovecrafts, either.
At first, Jo is careful to remember the lessons of her hard life. When Mrs. Lovecraft suggests Jo/Vivienne takes a bath, Jo steels herself for the possibility she will be molested. When Mr. Lovecraft won’t look directly at her, she assumes it’s because he is sexually attracted to her. At a warehouse party, Jo’s instinct for danger gets Temple out of trouble in the nick of time.
Jo’s tragic flaw is her overwhelming desire to have That Family. Abuse and instability were a constant during Jo’s early years, and she’s sure that the perfect family will solve her problems. So, she acclimates. And acclimating requires making concessions for the little things; little things that might be red flags.
Like going along with Temple’s faux-rebellious escapades and becoming complicit in illegal pranks. Or when Mrs. Lovecraft buys her expensive clothes, but the trade-off is appearing on national TV as part of the Lovecraft’s PR stunt—a high-risk move that exposes her to her mother’s murderer, who’s still searching for Jo. Temple gives Jo affection, but in turn, she must give up Wolf, her first and only romantic love. Eventually, she can no longer ignore the truth, and she has to act.
When Jo begins to remember who she is, the power shifts. Jo the con knows how to work the false bottom of a drawer. She knows how to trade information for information, quid pro quo. She knows how to plan an escape, and to bring the right insurance along to keep her safe forever.
It’s an interesting time to be reading and writing stories about class lines, and the ways we talk about them. America is a class-conscious country: we don’t like holding up a mirror to our distinctions. When those distinctions are blurred—politicians tweaking their rhetoric to call the poor “middle class,” for example—we don’t stand a chance of solving the power inequities that go along with them. It seems to me that there is space for stories that examine class distinctions, the intentional blurring of them, and what that brings.
Jo is the most autobiographical character I’ve written to date. Like Jo, I was once buoyed by the promise of an idealistic life I’d always imagined. I don’t write fiction to teach lessons, but if readers are to take away one, I hope it is this: that being yourself is the only way through.
About Kim Savage
Kim Savage is the author of three critically acclaimed young adult novels, After the Woods, Beautiful Broken Girls, and In Her Skin. Her novels have been published in Spain, Brazil, and Turkey, and have been optioned for TV. Kim is a former reporter with a Master’s degree in Journalism, and she lives with her husband and three children near the real Middlesex Fells Reservation of After the Woods. You can follow Kim on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, and visit her at kimsavage.me.