Caitlin Rother of Kensington hopes her mini-memoir about being married to an alcoholic with borderline personality disorder can save lives, serving as a warning to others.
Caitlin Rother of Kensington hopes her mini-memoir about being married to an alcoholic with borderline personality disorder can save lives, serving as a warning to others. Photo by Joel Ortiz

For all her renown as a journalist and true-crime author, Caitlin Rother hesitated telling one of her biggest stories — how she became a victim herself.

The former San Diego Union-Tribune investigative reporter met her future husband, Rich Rose, in the course of covering San Diego County’s pension fund. Rose was its successful chief investment officer.

But after marrying him in 1996, Rother began drowning in abuse and manipulation — Rose’s alcoholism and mental illness. The nightmare didn’t end until he hanged himself in a Baja motel room in April 1999.

In May 2018, she self-published a 56-page “mini-memoir” of the private ordeal. The “story of hardship and healing” had been in the works for 14 years.

“I started trying to write ‘Secrets, Lies, and Shoelaces’ maybe five years after my husband … died in 1999, but it was very difficult,” Rother said in an interview. “I still had very mixed emotions, the strongest of which was anger, and I knew I had to process and eliminate a lot of that from the story.”

In May 2019, she wrote: “I really think [the book] can save lives. It’s worth it to me to see the women’s faces when they buy it for themselves, a daughter or a friend who is in an embattled relationship with an alcoholic and doesn’t know how to leave. Like me, they, too, hope it will make a difference.”

Now 56, the author of 13 books has explored the depths of depravity with subjects like John Gardner, the killer of Poway’s Chelsea King and Escondido’s Amber Dubois. (“Lost Girls,” 2012)

A 1980 graduate of La Jolla High School, Rother has rebounded from personal horrors — if not her “Hell House” of home repairs and remodeling in Kensington.

She writes, coaches other authors and even sings with her boyfriend in a band called breakingthecode — which performed several times this summer at the San Diego County Fair.

She’s also branching out from true crime to scientific salvation — researching a book on the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo (more than 10,000 living cell cultures, oocytes, sperm and embryos.)

“This will be a big departure from my other books, because it involves growing new life and saving the planet rather than murder, suicide and death,” she wrote in April. “But TC fans, don’t worry, I’m still multi-tasking and working simultaneously on several true crime projects in progress.

Still, her trauma surfaces. As in a blog post on the 20th anniversary of Rose’s death in San Quintín.

Rother tells the story of one of her recurring visits to a secret spot in or near the Cleveland National Forest where she scattered Rose’s cremains.

“Are you OK?” she recalls asking her husband. “Do you have friends there?”

Caitlin Rother’s “Lost Girls” — about the John Gardner murders of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois — delved into his mental illness struggles. Photo by Ken Stone

She says those queries, and thoughts unspoken, were answered with clouds suddenly obscuring the sun, birds circling overhead and “a tree … swaying, waving its limbs back and forth. Nothing else around it was moving, just that one tree. As if it were talking to me.”

She admits being a little freaked out.

“But I knew then in my gut that he was okay,” she wrote in the blog. “He was telling me so, I felt it. I’d read that people who had committed suicide were trapped in some kind of halfway place, between here and there, stuck, until they could free themselves. … And yet, he seemed to have found me here, and let me know he was okay.”

Rother also recalled that as “crazy and horrible as our marriage was, he loved me, probably more than anyone ever has or ever will.”

This interview was conducted by email:

TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: When did you actually start writing your mini-memoir?  How long has it existed in its present form?

ROTHER: I started trying to write ‘Secrets, Lies, and Shoelaces’ maybe five years after my husband Rich died in 1999, but it was very difficult. I still had very mixed emotions, the strongest of which was anger, and I knew I had to process and eliminate a lot of that from the story.

I also didn’t really know what message I wanted to leave the reader with, nor did I know how to end it because, clearly, I was still on a journey of recovery.

I picked up the writing many times, but it still didn’t feel finished. I asked other writers and authors to read various versions over the years, and rewrote the whole thing I don’t know how many times.

It took 19 years before I really felt like the story had a good resolution, and it was finally ready for publication. I knew that I also had to be ready to share such private experiences with the general public.

What is Harmonic Convergence Press (the book’s publisher)? 

Harmonic Convergence is the name I made up for the musical duo consisting of me and my partner, Géza Keller. (Normally, we play in a four-person acoustic group called breakingthecode.) I decided to use the same name for my own publishing entity, for which “Secrets” is the first book, independently published through Amazon.

Your blog post on the 20th anniversary of Rich’s death described what might be called supernatural communications from your late husband. Did it persuade you of an afterlife?

I wouldn’t call it supernatural communications. To me, it seemed more of a spiritual connection with forces and energy in the universe that most of us do not fully understand, but that I do believe exist.

I also wouldn’t use the term “afterlife,” because that sounds like I believe in reincarnation, and who knows about that. I once wrote a feature story about a group that believed in reincarnation and every woman I interviewed thought that she’d been Cleopatra, so there you go.

In the book, you write about telling Rich’s first wife: “I wish we’d talked back then. I never would have married him.” In the late 1990s, did you have the means or interest to look at his court record? Did you check him out?

I met Rich through my job at The San Diego Union-Tribune, when I was covering county government and its retirement board. Rich was the chief investment officer for the pension fund and with such an important position, I saw no reason to look at his court record. That was something I would do when covering someone running for public office, but not generally when I was writing about a public employee.

Especially one who was so well-regarded for his talents in completely reallocating the pension fund’s investments, a new model that ultimately quadrupled its profits and value from $1.4 billion to $4 billion after his death.

As soon as we had our first date, I notified my editor so we could replace me with another reporter on the pension fund beat; I continued to cover the county government and Board of Supervisors.

Even if I had looked at his court record, I don’t think I would’ve found anything anyway. Alcoholism doesn’t generally show up unless you kill someone with your car or are arrested for drunk driving.

I didn’t know that much about alcoholism at that point. He also told me that he had “crashed and burned” after breaking up with his second wife, but he lied about the circumstances. He also told me that he’d met a girlfriend “at a church,” which I later realized was probably an AA meeting at a church.

How many people have read or downloaded “Secrets”? What feedback are you getting about it?

I haven’t tallied up how many people have read the book, but suffice it to say that I’m still in the red for production and printing costs. I wrote and published it because I felt it could help other people, not to make a ton of money, but I would like to at least break even.

The reviews and other feedback I’ve gotten so far has been tremendously positive, more so than for any other book I’ve ever written, because it’s so deeply personal. I’d venture to say that it hasn’t sold a lot of copies because it’s not the easiest topic to promote and I don’t feel comfortable beating my chest about it.

I have also given away some single copies to people I believe could benefit from my story — such as a woman I know whose husband got three DUIs and went to jail, continued to drink and ended up doing physical harm to her and/or their children. She got a restraining order against him but then let him come back home after he threatened to commit suicide.

I actually published this book with her in mind. She told me that she started to read it, but then it disappeared. I think her husband may have hidden it from her. I told her that they could both benefit from reading this story.

You end the book with advice: “It can be difficult to see that it’s you who needs to come first.” Would such advice from an authoritative source have made a difference when you were with Rich?

I realized this after the fact, but I also gleaned that message from going to Al-Anon meetings, the group for spouses, relatives, or children of alcoholics, before Rich even died. When you’re in the middle of craziness and the chaos never ends, it is difficult to know which way is up.

Maybe if I had read a book like mine when I was in the middle of it, it would’ve made a difference. I’d like to think so. That’s specifically why I wanted to share my story, to try to help other people in similar situations.

Your experience with Rich — like all of your books — would make for a haunting movie with potential for commercial success. Would you ever consider letting Hollywood option your memoir?

Of course!

In my mind, the biggest shock of “Secrets” is how someone as sophisticated and smart as you would be drowning in a toxic relationship. What message do you have for other women (or men) in similar relationships?

I’ve heard this question before. This is one of the faulty assumptions I’m trying to dispel, and one of the lessons I’m trying to impart with my story, as well as the half-dozen other books I’ve written that involve domestic violence.

Many people who are not educated about domestic violence don’t seem to understand that it doesn’t matter how sophisticated, smart, strong or knowledgeable you are. Anyone can be vulnerable to DV.

My book “Twisted Triangle” tells the story of Margo Bennett, an FBI agent and instructor at the Quantico Academy who was emotionally abused and then ultimately almost killed by her former FBI agent husband, Gene Bennett.

In my book “Then No One Can Have Her,” the murder victim, Carol Kennedy, had actually been a therapist working with domestic violence victims when she was bludgeoned to death with a golf club by her ex-husband 35 days after their divorce was finalized.

Like me, they both left their volatile relationships, but sometimes, this is exactly when and why the husbands or ex-husbands carry out the worst violence. That’s why I titled the book about Carol Kennedy the way I did, as in: If I can’t have her, then no one can.

The point is: I write these books to help educate everyone about domestic violence, alcoholism, addiction (Kennedy’s husband, Steve DeMocker, was a sex addict) and manipulative relationships.

My primary message to the reader is this: “This is what these kind of relationships look like from the inside. Do you recognize yourself in my book? Because if you do, or see someone else you know who needs to hear this advice, please recommend they read this book. And please know that it is best to leave before you get hurt, even if sometimes that may not be soon enough. The worst thing you can do is stay in a potentially dangerous situation like this.”

Because my husband owned a collection of hunting rifles, which was an issue between us even before we got married, my biggest fear was that I would become the victim of a murder-suicide, so I did everything I could prevent that from happening by extricating myself from the relationship before it was too late.

At any point in your marriage, did you confide in anyone about what was going on in your relationship? Did you seek help or advice?

The challenge of confronting the problem of alcoholism, or even heavy alcohol use, which often go hand-in-hand with abusive behavior, is that denial is a major component of the disease. Just bringing up the word alcoholism or alcoholic is like waving a red flag at a bull.

I took Rich to my therapist before we got married and tried to talk about his drinking, but it didn’t do much other than put him on the defensive. At the time, I didn’t even realize how severe his drinking was, because he hid it from me, so I guess I just hoped for the best.

After we moved in together and got married, the problems escalated — I go into detail about this in the book, but I had one of the most horrible honeymoons anyone could ever imagine and almost got the marriage annulled immediately — and I insisted we go to counseling.

But because of the red flag, I had to couch the purpose as improving communication between us just to get him to go. This is a sticky area that I don’t want to go into too much here, but after a number of sessions, the therapist suggested that she work with Rich on his own.

To this day, I don’t believe that therapist was the right fit for him, because she gave him advice that completely contradicted what he was being told in AA and the treatment programs he was in until shortly before he died.

So much for therapy and advice. I went to a lot of Al-Anon and family support groups before his suicide, and I continued to go to Al-Anon and meet with other spouses of alcoholics after he died.

Have county and state lawmakers done enough to improve mental health resources to keep another John Gardner, the sexual predator who murdered teenagers Chelsea King and Amber Dubois, from falling through the cracks? Could his case happen again?

Chelsea’s Law, which was adopted in the wake of these murders, was not funded enough, at least initially, to do what the sausage-making legislative process aimed to achieve.

I haven’t checked into the funding recently, but I do know that the county jails are full of mentally ill people who are committing suicide because they are not getting proper treatment, so it’s safe to say that lawmakers are not doing nearly enough.

And yes, sadly, I suspect this kind of tragedy could and will happen again. I wrote my book “Lost Girls” to spotlight these issues to try to prevent such a tragedy from reoccurring, but at the time many people wanted to focus more on their anger at me for writing the book in the first place.

That anger was misplaced and unfortunate, because we all want the same thing, and that is to prevent girls and women from being raped and killed by sexual predators like John Gardner.

How did you come to start work on a Frozen Zoo book?

I was recruited to write about the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo by Georgeanne Irvine, who heads up a new book publishing division at the zoo, called San Diego Zoo Global Press.

Georgeanne is a fellow author and friend of mine, who has read a number of my books. She asked me to write this book because she wants it to be a fascinating, dramatic and compelling tale, not a heavy-handed scientific book, to help readers understand the conservation work the zoo is doing.

I didn’t even know about the Frozen Zoo until she approached me, and I’m excited to help in any way I can to try to save the planet’s creatures from extinction because of all kinds of destructive forces, all perpetuated by humankind.

What else are you working on right now?

I’m also under contract to write a book about the Rebecca Zahau death case at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, titled “Justice For Rebecca.” Authorities have deemed her death a suicide while a civil jury, the Zahau family – and many outside experts – believe Rebecca was murdered. That’s all I’ll say for now. My personal experience with my late husband, who hung himself in Mexico, is partly what got me interested in writing about this case.

How many books have you published so far?

Thirteen. This number, however, does not reflect the several books that I have revised, updated, and reissued to include new developments, with new covers. My latest reissue is “Dead Reckoning,” which just came out on August 27.

This book has 30 pages of fresh material since it was originally released in 2011. One of my most popular books to date, it also has a local angle: One of the victims, Tom Hawks, was a former Carlsbad firefighter and restaurant owner, and his brother Jim Hawks is a retired Carlsbad police chief.

Tell us a little about your career as an author, writing-research coach and TV commentator.

The idea that authors keep writing books because they are making a good living at it is an urban legend. I’m sure some authors are earning good money, but the rest of us are just plain crazy. Seriously, I love writing books, but it doesn’t pay enough to cover all my bills, so I have had to find ways to generate additional income.

I taught writing classes at UCSD Extension and San Diego Writers, Ink, for about 10 years, but that took up a lot of time and energy. The classes were also sometimes difficult to fill, because aspiring writers generally don’t have a lot of money to spend.

I still conduct the occasional writing workshop, but I find that I’m able to help these folks much more on a one-on-one basis than in a classroom setting.

After 10 years of building my coaching business, aspiring authors from all over the country are coming to me for help, which I find quite fulfilling and rewarding.

My other part-time gig is going on TV and radio to talk about current true crime cases and murders in general, some of which I’ve written books about and others that are in the news.

There is such a huge interest in true crime these days on TV and podcasts that it is actually detracting from true-crime book audiences and sales, but it has always been a good additional source of income for me. I really enjoy discussing these cases on the air, because it introduces me to a whole different audience who might want to read my books.

You also sing and play keyboards in a band?

Yes! I used to be a closet singer, but my partner got me to start singing with him at parties, then he invited me to join his band, breakingthecode, which has been around for many years. I’ve been playing the piano since I was 7, but it was always hard for me to sing and play at the same time.

I really put my mind to it, though, and after a lot of practice, I am now able to do both simultaneously. That said, there are some songs where I just want to focus on singing, and others where I get a chance to riff on a piano solo, but it’s all just a lot of fun.

Playing music is a great creative outlet that is not only a good distraction from the darkness of murder, but it has been a growth opportunity for me as well.