I’ve moved to Anchorage temporarily and have been spending the past few weeks luxuriously deep in my thesis project. I’m nearly finished (or so I’d like to think). I’ve taken forever to get this thing done and as a result, have been consumed by more than my fair share of self-doubts. On the flip side, I’ve also been overwhelmed by the response I have gotten from people — and the willingness of so many to subject themselves to my interviews and pesky questions.
One of the most interesting interviews I’ve conducted recently was with former Alaska State Trooper Glenn Flothe and his wife, Cherry. Flothe is probably the most famous trooper in Alaska right now — he was the homicide detective who hunted down Robert Hansen, Alaska’s notorious serial killer who killed at least seventeen women back during the pipeline years. Hansen was convicted thirty years ago, but when Flothe started talking about the case and his memories, it became clear that the case still lives within him every day. Almost immediately, I was struck by Flothe’s calm and earnest demeanor and when he told he initially intended to be a high school English or history teacher, that totally made sense. He is thoughtful and well-spoken and has an interest in the bigger picture narrative of why things are the way they are. I think he may have been a bit frustrated with me, however, as he kindly tried to help me wrap my head around the themes of my thesis. The ethnographer in me of course, didn’t want to talk about the process and the analysis, but wanted to hear and record the stories of his memories as a trooper.
I wanted to talk to Flothe because I have been trying to better understand what was going on in the Alaska justice system back in the 1980s. I know things were different then. There were no cell phones or DNA evidence. There was no Internet. Background checks could take days and fingerprints taken from scenes of crimes couldn’t be easily entered into databases to find a match (isn’t that what they teach us on CSI?). Politics were also different. The state of Alaska was recently awash in oil money and the state’s population expanded almost overnight. Flothe was there during all of that and I was interested in his perceptions and experiences. I’m thankful he was willing to share, but also recognize that there is a side of trooper life that remains hidden from view.
One of the topics I’ve grappled with every day of researching the Investor murders is trying to understand how people internalize the terrible things that happen to them and their loved ones. I think it’s easy to forget that our country’s first responders — firefighters, paramedics, and cops — are subjected to daily traumas that most of us want to forget. It leaves an impact on them, though, as Flothe wisely noted, everyone is differently. Flothe said he thinks about Hansen’s victims almost every day of his life, but not everyone would have that kind of response. It makes sense. Resiliency of the human spirit is complex — some people fold under small pressures while others undergo repeated tragedy and only emerge stronger. I think about it a lot and am in awe of how tough people can be. There’s an entire body of literature out there that probes this very topic, but I’ve been more interested in the capturing of the narrative of trauma and looking at it through an ethnographer/historian’s lens.
This process of collecting stories reminds me of a few lines Elie Wiesel wrote in Night, a book remembering his experiences in Auschwitz during World War II. He wrote: “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Now, I don’t think it’s anyone’s duty to talk to me and tell me their story, but I remain thankful and in awe of those who do.