Ryan Parkhurst, a journalism professor at JMU, wishes he never had to meet Andy and Barbara Parker. However, the two got in contact following Alison Parker’s murder on Aug. 26, 2015 in what Parkhurst would describe as a “really horrible and tragic time in their lives and in the life of the JMU community.” On Thursday night, Alison’s father, Andy Parker, visited JMU to speak about the writing process of his newly released book, “For Alison,” and to inform and remind the JMU community of Alison’s legacy. The event was organized by the Society of Professional Journalists at JMU.
“I think it was a good fit for us to host,” Chelsea Church, president of the SPJ, said. “Journalists go out every day covering these things and they put their life on the line. I think it’s important that Alison’s dad is trying to protect other journalists from this happening again.”
Parker described how approximately a month after Alison’s murder, he received a phone call from his friend, best-selling author and former reporter for the Roanoke Times Beth Macy. She encouraged Parker to write about his experience, despite Parker not initially seeing the story’s potential. Parker stated that people had already seen Alison’s murder and that he wasn’t sure he could “add any more to it.” Parker was then introduced to Macy’s agent in New York, who agreed Alison’s story was book worthy.
Parker highlighted the emotional obstacles he encountered while writing “For Alison.” He described writing the most difficult parts, most notably the day she died, as “agony.”
“I’d get a few hundred words in, and I’d just melt down,” Parker said of writing the chapter describing Alison’s murder. “Then I’d regroup and I’d start again, and then I would melt down. This went on for several days, and I finally got it finished.”
Soon after, Parker shared his first chapter that told the account of Alison’s murder with Macy. She insisted that Parker try to publish his work, so Parker went “agent shopping” and narrowed his search down to six candidates. The book eventually sparked interested in Laurie Liss from Sterling Lord Literistic.
Writing the book took over two years to complete. Parker explained how he was “religious” about writing between 500 to 1,000 words per day. “For Alison” was then marketed to various publishers.
“The feedback we got from the major publishers was just shocking,” Parker said. “Without exception, they said, ‘We love the story, we hate the subject matter.’”
“For Alison” was later picked up by a start-up publishing company to speed up the process. Parker described his disdain at the idea of waiting for an offer from a larger publishing company that may never come.
During his presentation, Parker showed the audience a photo of his daughter’s name on the wall of fallen journalists at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. He explained that her name was “front and center” in “typical Alison fashion.”
Nearing the end of the book’s publishing process, a photo had to be decided on for the book’s cover. The photo used was a surprise to Parker, as he had assumed the publishing company would have wanted to use the “iconic picture” of Alison in a red dress at WDBJ7’s news desk. However, a photo of Alison in the middle of a snowstorm before one of her reels was used in instead. The photo used was taken by Alison’s cameraman, Adam Ward, on the day of her appearance on CNN. Ward was also murdered moments after Parker on Aug. 26, 2015. Parker then explained how he hopes Alison will be remembered as more than a journalist who was murdered on television.
“This book is about more than a death,” Parker said. “I want people to know more about her. I want them to know how accomplished she was, how she touched and inspired people.”
The grief Parker experienced following Alison’s death was channeled into activism, as he aims to “turn tragedy into something constructive.” Since Alison’s death, he’s been advocating for stricter gun laws.
Alison’s murder has allowed Parker to become friends with various politicians, such as Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine. He also explained how others in the same field have worked against him “across the isle.” He cited a specific instance in which a Virginia State Senator tried to get a special prosecutor to investigate him for alleged threatening messages sent online. Despite attempts to silence Parker, he’s eager to share Alison’s story.
“The biggest takeaway was how it felt a lot more real,” Stephanie Soucek, a freshman media arts and design major, said. “When it’s on the news, it isn’t on a personal level. Hearing it firsthand from a victim’s father was eye opening.”
Parker discussed his opinion on major gun violence prevention groups in his book, mulling over their pros and cons and analyzing their central messages. He also explained how Alison’s murder is different from other shootings such as those at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, due to the fact that Alison’s murder was captured on video.
“The horrific way that Alison died captured the world’s attention,” Parker said. “In the aftermath of these other shootings, you saw pictures of smiling kids and husbands and wives and girlfriends, of their last days on earth. You never saw the horror they experienced.”
Videos of Alison’s murder can be found online, but Parker has worked for over a year to get them removed. Parker explained how with the help of the Georgetown University Civil Rights Law Clinic, he’s actively taking action against Google to remove videos of Alison’s murder.
“I’ve seen Andy and Barbara grow into their advocacy over several different things, such as responsible gun reform and trying to hold Google and YouTube accountable for the types of things they’ve done,” Parkhurst said. “I really am in awe of the amount of energy and the amount of passion they bring to bear every single day.”
Parker explained how he hopes that in the future stricter gun laws, such as universal background checks and the elimination of the gun show loophole will play a part in maintaining a safer society in honor of Alison’s life.
“What was it like being Alison’s dad?” Parker asked the audience. “It was getting up each day with a heart bursting with pride.”
Contact Connor Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.