Monsters & Magic – How I Found Inspiration in Real Life

Photo by Cassi Josh on Unsplash

Like most writers, I started as a voracious reader, losing myself as a child in the beauty and magic of fictional worlds. I saw myself as a dreamer and a poet, but not once did I ever consider becoming an author. 

My career aspirations ranged from wanting to be a radio DJ, an attorney, a therapist, and the proprietor a Christmas tree farm (I still kinda want to do this one). But somewhere along the path to adulthood, I stopped asking myself what I wanted to be and began focusing on what I wanted to have. A distinction I didn’t grasp at the time.

By my early thirties, I was a wife and mother with a successful career and a beautiful home. I was happy. I had all the things I’d ever hoped for, but there was no sense of fulfillment. The parenting thing has it’s own special kind of joy, and I was blessed with the the perfect partner – as if the universe itself cut him out of my hopes and dreams and set him into my orbit. But there was still something missing, something left unfulfilled inside me. Like, was this all there is? Was I being too greedy for wanting more? Probably.

Maybe I was bored, or perhaps I was an ungrateful monster.

I threw myself into new hobbies; camping, kayaking, refinishing furniture, and interior design. I took wine appreciation, soap making, painting, and floral design classes. I volunteered endless hours with the organizations that my children were involved in and still couldn’t find my complete self in any of it.

Fiction, became my escape once again. 

I re-kindled my obsession with reading – mostly bodice-ripping romances, but hey I was reading again. For myself. I feel like I should note here that I’d been reading all along, but not for myself. Bedtime stories were a BIG deal when my kids were little. Do you know how long it takes to read ALL the Harry Potter and LORT books out loud to an eight year old? A long effing time. And who knew there was romance in Star Wars books? Not me. Color me surprised that I found one of my favorite literary romances of all time between Qui-Gon Jinn and Thal in the Jedi Apprentice Series. But I digress…

I was reading for myself once again. I’d just finished reading the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer and was experiencing that post-fantasy let down. The feeling that comes after you finish a good book or the final season of a TV show when you’re forced back into the real world where magic and monsters don’t exist. And it got me thinking, what if they did?

Over the weeks that followed, I mulled over the things that I’d seen and experienced in real life and realized that my life was, in fact, full of magic. 

The universe had brought my husband and I together, after all – my soul’s mate, if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do. For me, the love and connection that we share are truly magical and so rare in this world.

My kids are everything to me, but it was HARD right from the start. The first time I got pregnant, I was thrilled, and I was so confident about it all. I read all the books, thought I knew all the things. But bringing another human into the world wasn’t the magical experience I’d been expecting or promised. 

I was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia two and a half months before my due date. My life and the life of my little stow-away were in danger. Getting the baby out was the only cure. He was only two pounds. We were told he might not be able to breathe on his own and that we should prepare ourselves because premature white males didn’t have stellar statistics. There’s even an awful name for it – Wimpy White Boy Syndrome. Our world came to a screeching halt.

Thankfully he was a feisty, stubborn little shit right from the start. While those first few months were scary as hell, we were incredibly fortunate. Not only did he survive his rough landing in this world, he thrived – thanks to the magic of modern medicine and an army of health care wizards. Thank you to anyone who works in a NICU or children’s intensive care unit. You ALL deserve gleaming, golden halos.

My husband and son in the NICU. Photo by J. Ember Hintz.

There were plenty of monsters in my life as well. I struggled with internal insecurities and anger management. Parenting was hard, much harder than I ever imagined. I had no idea what the hell I was doing and worried every day that I was screwing it all up. Anyone who’s gone head to toe with an irate three year old kicking and scramming on the floor of the small appliance section of Kohls understands what Nietzsche meant by “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”

I suffered from postpartum depression after my second child’s birth and was, yet again, saved by modern medicine – this time in the form of a magical little pill and wise mage of a therapist that helped quiet the monstrous thoughts inside my head.

My husband and I trudged our way through the pressures of adult responsibilities and raising a family. We fought tooth and nail to overcome the toll that toxic people and toxic work environments had on our marriage and our ability to be good partners and parents. Family therapy saved our relationship and helped us eradicate some of our inner demons and became yet another magical milestone for us.

In the middle of the blissful post-toddler years when kids finally start to resemble rational humans, our lives came to a screeching halt once again. This time at the hands of a real-life, flesh, and blood monster in human form. Even today, more than a decade later, it’s still a painful story to tell. 

My husband and I had the honor of being mentored in college by one of our professors, Dr. Debra S. Kelly. In those nebulous years, she became more than a mentor to me. She was a paradigm shift, the person that unlocked my brain and opened my mind and became the catalyst for the person I am today. The John Keating to my Todd Anderson. She also made a mean glass of sweet tea.

Debra was a sharp mind, feisty spirit and open heart. A diet coke, cigarettes, and born and bred southern charm force of nature. She dedicated her career to enlightening young minds to many things, most notably, the role of women in crime. She even wrote a book about it. Sexual Violence: Policies, Practices and Challenges in the United States and Canada.

We stayed in touch after college. Her daughter, Emma, who my husband and I frequently babysat during our Longwood days, was the flower girl at our wedding. Debra and I talked once or twice a year about parenting, relationships, careers and our inner demons. She rejoiced in my successes and encouraged me through my defeats. Debra challenged me to be the best version of myself personally and professionally. I loved her.

My world shattered when I walked into a 7-Eleven on a sunny September morning in 2009. I was supposed to grab a Yoo-hoo for the kids while my husband filled up the mom-mobile. We were on our way home after a beautiful fall weekend picking apples in VA wine country. I’ll never forget the front page headline staring at me from the news rack, right next to the damn donut case, Suspect Arrested in Slayings at the Farmville home of Longwood University Professor.

I pulled the Sunday paper off the rack, tears streaming down my face as I read about how my dear friend – the woman who held such a revered place in my heart – and her entire family were bludgeoned to death in their sleep by a boy their daughter met on-line. I didn’t pay for the paper. I walked out of the store with it clutched to my chest.

There were no words.

All I could do was shove the crumpled paper into the hands of my confused and concerned husband as my body wracked with sobs. The three hour trip home was the longest ride of my life. After that ride I didn’t cry again in front of my children. It upset them too much to see me that way. It upset my husband too. He was struggling as well, but watching me fall apart – it was hard for him. I cried in my car. On my way to the store. Too and from work. For months I couldn’t drive anywhere wihtout having to pull over on the side of the road. Sometimes I left at night after the kids were asleep, drove to the library and sat in the dark parking lot while my rib cage ripped open over and over again.

There is only one word now. One single word to explain the inexorable cruelty of the universe for allowing something like this to happen – to my friend, to anyone. EVIL.

Emma Neiderbrock at my wedding. Photo by J.Ember Hintz
Debra S. Kelly Photo by Andrea L. Parrish

Years later, after reading Stephenie Meyer’s tale of bloodthirsty monsters, unconditional love, and difficult childbirth, I was finally able to recognize the magical and monstrous events deeply rooted in my own story.

That’s when my passion for writing about magic and monsters began and I finally knew what I wanted to be.

A storyteller.


For anyone interested in learning about the tragic death of Debra S. Kelly that made national headlines, I recommend starting with this article from the Richmond Times Dispatch. Warning – Graphic Content.