Q&A with Janice Ballenger

Q&A with Janice Ballenger

Excerpt from Addicted to Life & Death

On October 2, 2006, milk truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV walked in to the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Roberts pulled a gun, barricaded the door and took 10 girls, aged 6 to 13, as hostages. As law enforcement and EMS responders gathered outside, he started shooting. He murdered five and wounded the others before committing suicide.

As a deputy coroner for Lancaster County, Janice Ballenger had the unenviable task of responding to the scene and processing its young victims. EMS readers can imagine what came with that. Ballenger was later captured in a Washington Post photograph, seated on the altar steps of a church, head buried in her arms--an iconic portrait of America's horror and grief.

That experience alone could have made for a compelling book or movie, but Ballenger wasn't interested in exploiting it. Instead, her book, Addicted to Life & Death: Memoirs of an EMT & Deputy Coroner, provides a full-spectrum look at a career that began as a vehicle rescue technician and included time as an EMT. It doesn't ignore or downplay the events of 10/2/06, but presents them in the context of a journey spanning both the depths of despair and highs of insight, compassion and grace. Addicted is a reflection on the emotions of a career and the author's journey among them. It is available from Masthof Press and Bookstore.

You had planned to write memoirs and collected materials for that throughout your career. What sorts of thoughts and ideas did you want to communicate?

My original plans were to write my memoirs as an EMT. Actually, I started as a VRT, a vehicle rescue technician, with a rescue company. And when I would return home in the evenings, I just needed a way to release my thoughts. So my brother bought me a journal, and he said writing down your thoughts is a good way to release your emotions. So I actually began keeping journals years and years ago, and planned years ago to do this book upon my retirement.

You kept the West Nickel Mines incident to a relatively small part of the book. Why was that?

I had planned to write a book all along, but when I began in the emergency services, I had no idea I'd be thrust into the limelight by the Nickel Mines tragedy. I believe that's why I kept that section to just basically the one chapter and the follow-up: It was never my plan to write a book about Nickel Mines. I was contacted by agents asking me to write a book specifically and only dealing with that tragedy, but I declined those offers, because that was never my intention at all.

It wasn't a difficult decision. There was no way I had any desire to exploit the day at Nickel Mines; I think that's fairly obvious. So I had to turn those offers down, but obviously everybody was very, very hungry to hear all the details.

What's the emotional and psychological benefit of filtering your experiences onto paper? Is it therapeutic?

Definitely. I'd really highly encourage it for anybody who really does not want to, say, speak with a peer or a counselor, but needs a way to release their feelings. Writing is a valuable, underrated tool. It's an excellent means of releasing your emotions.

It was also very interesting to go back years later and reread some of those journal entries. Some of them I honestly had forgotten about. But reading them, I'd think, Oh, wow, that was a horrible day! So today really wasn't that bad.

I've found it very helpful in many ways.

How did you go about shopping your proposal and finding a publisher?

I submitted my proposal to several agents, and that's where I began encountering difficulties. It took me two years to write the book, and I would have agents say, 'Well, we're interested in the Nickel Mines day, but only the Nickel Mines day.' I had another tell me, 'I'm very interested, but you need to take this out and put in more of that.' I got that kind of feedback from a lot of agents. I finally just decided that I wanted to be able to say what I wanted to say, which is why I decided to go with self-publishing [through Masthof]. It was a family-owned business, and I was extremely pleased with the help they gave me.

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