5 lessons I learned covering same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court

The start of this week was a whirlwind of press conferences, photo opportunities and historic court arguments for me as I covered the Supreme Court in action for the first time. I’ve been a full-time reporter since 1999, and while my career has led me to Instanbul and Tokyo and Paris and Belize, I’d never been to our nation’s Capitol, much less granted a seat for one of the most historic high court arguments of the generation. I was there Tuesday, April 28, as the justices listened to...

First signing is in the books!

Today I'm recovering from a four-day road trip to Minneapolis -- with an 11-month-old boy in tow, no less -- where I met up with David Batcher for our first-ever book signing. The response we're getting for the book is humbling. I'm incredibly appreciative and hopeful that we can get the word out about our work. The Kennedy women we highlighted are fascinating, and I think our approach is accessible to introduce them to a new generation. Here are some photos of the big night, courtesy of...

Kennedy Wives has arrived!

I remember reading author interviews when I was younger and being dubious when the scribe likened his or her latest book release to birthing a child. I am in perfect position to judge that analogy this year: In December 2013, I delivered my first son. In June 2014, my latest true crime hit bookstores. And this week, one year after the birth of my boy, my first hardcover -- The Kennedy Wives: Triumph and Tragedy in America's Most Public Family -- is making its nationwide debut. I assure...

I get bored with predictability, so after three true-crime books, I switched it up for Book No. 4: It's a non-fiction biography about the Kennedy wives. I also didn't work alone this time. David Batcher, with whom I went to high school, signed on under the guise of helping me research, but by the time the book proposal was finished, I realized I wanted more than just his behind-the-scenes help, so I enlisted him as a coauthor. It was a brilliant decision. David was one of those annoying,...

The Tyler Hadley case

He stood behind her, a hammer clenched in his hand. He was silent, and she was oblivious. The hammer’s handle was smooth in his palm. He stared at her as she typed absentmindedly on the family computer. He was still for a long time and he held the hammer at his side as he eyed his mother’s head. -- So goes the first paragraph in my third true crime book, See How Much You Love Me. It was a difficult story to tell -- one about a boy whose parents did all the right things in trying to...

Effin' Matt Power

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine died. I didn't get to know him long, but I had the privilege of knowing him pretty damn well. Matthew Power had been a colleague whom I got to know during my stint as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan (2010-2011). It was a tight-knit clan that spent hours together crammed in buses and seminar halls and on airplanes. We traveled the globe together, visiting Argentina, Brazil and Turkey. A lot has been written about Matt since he died...

Learning from Love

Yeardley Love was no shrinking violet. The truth will come out about the University of Virginia lacrosse star, the young woman whose piercing blue eyes peered out to millions from magazine covers, newspaper pages and television reports. We will all learn that though her name has become synonymous with domestic and dating violence—due in no small part to the allegation that her lacrosse-playing boyfriend beat her to death in a violent rage just weeks before they were to graduate—the...

About Amber Hunt

Amber Hunt is an award-winning journalist who works for the Cincinnati Enquirer as an investigative reporter. She previously covered crime for the Detroit Free Press and the Dakotas for The Associated Press and was a 2011 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She's written three true-crime books: Dead but Not Forgotten, All-American Murder and See How Much You Love Me, and is co-author of the upcoming The Kennedy Wives: Triumph and Tragedy in America's Most Public...

Remembering Joe Clarke

A few months ago, I sifted through cat piss-covered remnants stored in my basement as I readied for a move. My job was disgusting but simple: find whatever worthwhile items hadn’t been irreversibly damaged by the acidic mess, especially stuff from my childhood, and transfer the putrid keepsakes into new plastic bins that wouldn’t make me gag to have enter my new home.

That’s where I found my diaries.

As a child, and then a teenager, I always kept a journal. I started probably around age 8, maybe earlier. I wrote down everything; nothing was too miniscule or mundane to be denied entry into Amber’s annals.

Some of the diaries were just school notebooks. One, a three-subject binder, was yellow and, by the end of the fifth grade, covered with notations about the boy I’d loved and lost … at age 10. Yes, 10. I’ve always been perhaps a little too giving with my heart – even before my heart had fully formed valves. I went so far as to mark June 4, 1989 as “independence day” because that day marked my breakup with Andy Hu. We had “dated” for seven months – dating back then meaning that he walked me home from school, mustered the courage to kiss my cheek and occasionally met me at the mall when our parents were willing to make the drive. Seven months is a long relationship when translated into fifth-grade years. Hell, today it counts as 2.99 Kardashians! I wasn’t really as happy about the breakup as my hurrah for independence suggests. He left me for a 12-year-old girl named Sabrina. I was crushed.

But it was inside a more traditional looking journal that I, hunched in my foul-smelling basement, discovered entries that truly made my face flush with embarrassment. Here, bound in a hard, purple cover, were details of my longest high school romance. The entries would mortify any parent on earth. I re-read the pages with horror, mesmerized by my immaturely told tales of far-too-mature escapades. I was gripped by the urge to ditch the journals – why on earth would I ever want those resurrected?? – but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I looked up at Elijah, my fiancé, with whom I have no secrets, and ordered, “Never read my diaries. You’ll be way too afraid to ever have children.”

I couldn’t burn the tawdry pages for a fairly simple reason. My mother died when I was 12, and after she was gone, I tried like hell to find anything that helped explain to me the type of person she’d been at my age. I’d caught a glimpse in some letters she’d saved from her 8th-grade boyfriend. They were silly messages. Sometimes, her then-boyfriend Randy told her that she’d joked too loudly around his friends. Other times, he wrote in a juvenile scrawl that he loved her, and that he was glad she loved him, too. I was about 13 when I found those notes, and I did find them helpful. I no longer had a mother to walk me through the facts of life, but I had some letters that at least let me know that she and I were similar in some ways, and that I wasn’t a freak for caring so much so young.

But these journal entries weren’t like my mother’s innocent notes. I felt my face turn red as I laughed until my breath got caught in a snort. My then-paramour was Joe Clarke, a cute boy with a fantastic smile whom I’d met while interviewing students for a “man on the street” question for the high school paper’s opinion page. I asked him for his number and called him. We started talking. Next, we were dating. Soon, we were in what high schoolers call love.

Our romance lasted nearly two years, beginning during our sophomore years at Bettendorf High School on the Iowan side of the Quad-Cities, and ending during our senior years. We spent countless hours together, though in hindsight I’m not sure how we pulled that off. Really, how did teenagers have relationships before cell phones? We both had jobs. I, in fact, had several, writing for multiple area newspapers and indie rags while also working at a grocery store and editing the school paper. He at first worked at McDonald’s. I helped him pick out his first car – a maroon Chevy Corsica – and we got in plenty of trouble from my father when he pieced together that the relationship wasn’t as chaste as he’d prefer.

I never fully knew what happened that led to our breakup. I was more driven, for sure, though during our relationship, his tendency to get in trouble at school seemed to subside. But he quit his fast food job in favor of one at an area hotel, where he got better hours and made decent tips. There, he met new friends, and I noticed that he began to change. His hair got greasy and he showed up stoned for a few dates. I wasn’t the partaking sort. He began standing me up, and then one day, when we’d planned to go on a weekend trip during our senior year, he showed up hours late and we both knew it was over. I don’t remember if we talked much about it. I just remember I cried, and my dad, feeling sorry for me, gave me a glass of wine, and then told me I was a sloppy drunk when I began to cry harder.

From time to time, I’d thought about Joe over the years. I never regretted the breakup. It hadn’t been my choice and, really, it was inevitable. I intended to go to college and was determined as hell to become somebody. He wasn’t interested in more school and once said it’d be best for everyone if he just joined the military, got shot and unburdened everyone around him.

Last February, I had a dream that one of my ex-boyfriends had died. It shook me up so much that I emailed a mutual friend of a different ex, asking for a status update. For months after, I became obsessed with looking up exes. I chalked it up to some strange psychological warfare sparked by my recent engagement. I’d endured a failed marriage already; maybe my brain needed to flip through the Rolodex of failed romances before I could feel completely at peace committing permanently to this most stable one. But no matter how much research I did on more-likely suspects – the guys who’d lasted longer or who I felt I’d wronged somehow – it didn’t make the uneasy feeling go away. Finally, over Thanksgiving, I had a more pointed dream, and Joe was in it. I urgently looked him up. He’d died Feb. 7, two days after the dream that prompted my email.

It’s opened a wound in me like I couldn’t have imagined. I am thrust back in time. I hadn’t spoken with him in 15 years, but the idea that he didn’t make it to age 33 breaks my heart. There are moments he and I shared that will never be repeated in history. There’s something reassuring and even beautiful when you know that those long-ago moments are housed in someone else’s subconscious. Not just the mushy stuff, but the silly moments and the angry moments and all of those trials you faced together because you were each other’s first significant relationship. It was Joe who’d literally caught me as I fell upon learning a close friend was killed in a car wreck. It was Joe who taught me how to fish with crawdaddies. And it was Joe’s goofy-ass sense of humor that left me forever doomed to see a “stop ahead” road sign and yell, “Stop! A head!”

He was no smooth talker. In a moment of attempted tenderness, he once told me, “I want to have your babies.” He wasn’t kidding. I laughed my ass off, but hugged him for the effort.

We never had overlapping friends. In fact, I don’t recall him having many friends until he fell in with the wrong ones at his new job. I guess that, and my constant moving around since high school, is why I didn’t learn he had died until more than nine months after it happened. How I finally learned was jolting. Any journalist worth her salt knows how to peruse public documents to find out latest home addresses. I did that, and noticed two entries. One was listed in Bettendorf; the other, Alabama. Next to the Alabaman Joseph Clarke was a notation that the social security number associated with him matched one that had been reported deceased. I squinted with skepticism. Joseph Clarke’s a mighty common name, and though I’d honed in with some advanced search parameters, it could easily have been another Joe. But then I noticed that the birthdates matched.

I did a Google search with all the necessary phrases, and the only online references to my high school boyfriend are his obituary and a three-paragraph news brief reporting the single-car wreck that ended his life.

That might be what bothers me the most. Joe was never very technically inclined, so I’m not surprised he didn’t appear to have a Facebook account or a website or even a job that listed him publicly. But it’s bullshit that to most of the world, the guy who’d been my universe for two years is documented for the masses with nothing more than news of his death.

It seems each of my existential crises in life has stemmed from this very fear: dying in anonymity. I’ve seen death a lot in my personal life, and more still in my professional. My urge to write about crime and death isn’t some morbid, sensational fascination. It’s an attempt to tell the stories of people who might otherwise be ignored by history. I watched my grandmother take her last breath, and, when I was married, both my mother-in-law and grandfather-in-law. I was 12 when I held my mother’s hand during her two weeks of clouded Hospice care and played for her Tom Petty’s “Alright for Now” – over and over until it was imprinted in me as an immediate time machine thrusting me back to that age, in that bedroom, with that shell of a woman. Even today, the tears well every time I hear the tune. While cancer hollowed out my mother, the actor Michael Landon was battling the disease, too. He graced the cover of TV Guide too many times to count during his struggle, and his passing made worldwide news. I felt it unjust that my mother’s importance warranted just four short paragraphs in the paid obituary section of the local newspaper by comparison.

With Joe’s death, all those previous losses are wrenched to the surface. I’m 7 again, learning about my cousin Natalie’s cross-armed surrender to Reye’s syndrome. I’m 12, coming home from school on Valentine’s Day to learn mom’s fight had ended. I’m 24, unable to breathe as I listen to my mother-in-law’s final gasps. They all meant the world to me, and they all died in obscurity. That’s the part that’s always pissed me off. It doesn’t matter that I’d lost touch with Joe. He meant the world to me once, and surely he meant the world to his “new” family – a wife of nearly four years and three stepchildren, his obit reads – so his existence, like everyone’s, deserves to be documented somewhere.

I guess that’s what has compelled me to write this. Joe wasn’t the one who got away. I moved on in relatively healthy fashion, and endured far more tortured romances than ours. We were kids, and while the mushy “I love him so much” scribblings in my journal are perhaps juvenile and eyeroll-inducing, they were also sincere. Once upon a time, I loved a boy named Joe Clarke. We went to Bettendorf High School together. We grew apart. He’s forever part of my blueprint, just as I’m sure he’s part of others whose lives he shared after we both moved on. For those people, and for Joe, I just want to say: I remember.

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