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 julia heaberlin - who-i-am
julia heaberlin

By Julia Heaberlin

On an ordinary summer day, I reached into the mailbox and pulled out a letter addressed to me in an unfamiliar, feminine hand.

I slit open the envelope, and everything disappeared but the words on that piece of paper. They were straightforward enough. The woman who wrote it was looking for her daughter. She said that her child was kidnapped years ago. I shared her daughter's first name and birth date, information she received from a private investigator. In fact, four other women named Julia with my birth date were receiving the same appeal.

Could you be my daughter?

I wasn't, but that was the germ of fictional inspiration for Playing Dead, a tale of a whip-smart, slightly unhinged Texas psychologist named Tommie McCloud who receives a letter indicating that her mother had a hell of a lot of secrets she didn't know about. Tommie's own identity is suddenly in question. Her father is dead, and her mother is traveling alone on the dark train of dementia. So Tommie sets off on a quest that tumbles her backward through her mother's horrific past—the slaughter of a Chicago family, a missing girl named Adriana, the murder of an Oklahoma beauty queen.

While there is no plot point based on real life, I think it presents a pretty true, sometimes stereotype-defying portrait of the state I love (most of the time). We're a little redneck in Texas but a lot more of something else.

With that in mind, here's a little warm-up:

We prefer Dr Pepper to Coke. I'm drinking one right now. When Tommie knocks one back in the book, I suggest you do, too. I recommend the kind bottled in Mexico with real Imperial Sugar (surely that's healthier). More than one Texas woman who has lived past 100 attributes her longevity to a Dr Pepper a day. I attribute any extra pounds to it.

Women do carry guns, Part 1. I have a real friend named Tommie McLeod, who has been known to carry a gun under the seat of her pickup and face down very big men who get in her way. When we met years ago, she was tiny, feminine, with beautiful long hair and an accent something like Brenda on The Closer. But don't mess with her. Don't mess with the fictional Tommie, either.

Women do carry guns, Part 2. About 15-20 million of us, to be kind of exact. Tommie would fit right into a beautiful book published last year called Chicks With Guns by fine art photographer and Yale graduate Lindsay McCrum. Hey, we're women; we're complicated.

They sell bull testicles at the Ponder Steakhouse. They are more delicately known as calf fries or mountain oysters. You dip them in what you dip everything else in Texas in: ranch, bbq sauce or cream gravy.

We all didn't want Rick Perry to be president. Or vote to make him our governor, for that matter. Perry received 2,737,481 votes in 2010; 25 million of us live here. Not that I'm embarrassed about him or anything.

We revel in both Johnny Cash and Rachmaninoff. You don't think cowboys are cultured? Did you know that every four years, Fort Worth hosts The Cliburn, one of the greatest classical music competitions on earth? Get your tickets now for 2013. I promise it will be one of the most moving artistic experiences of your life (and you can chomp into calf fries in your off time).

You often can't tell a rich Texan from a poor one. Lots of wealthy men and women here still get dirt under their fingernails and quietly give baskets of money away to charity and the arts. If I had to pick someone to have my back, with a gun or a piece of their mind, one of these guys would be at the top of the list.

This state damn sure knows how to solve a crime. We're better known for putting killers to death, but did you know that since 2001, Dallas County has exonerated more people through DNA evidence than all but two states? And one of the best DNA labs in the world sits in Fort Worth. The North Texas Center for Human Identification just put a name to the bones of one of the unidentified victims of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy decades after the fact. Until now, the victim was known as No. 19, because he was the 19th victim dug out from the ground at Gacy's house. Now everybody knows the name his mother gave him: William George Bundy. That's what we call frontier justice.

Welcome to my world. I think you're gonna like it.

© Julia Heaberlin, 2012