Truth is stranger than fiction.
That old saying rings true in a newly released book by Eau Claire native Jim Kosmo, although the lines between fact and fiction are intentionally blurred throughout “Monsters in the Hallway,” set in Eau Claire in the 1950s.
The book, labeled as “a novel based on a true story,” essentially is a memoir about some of the shocking and disturbing experiences that defined Kosmo’s childhood in Eau Claire with a fictional murder mystery thrown in for fun.
“I had written it as a memoir and then decided to toss a murder in there because I thought, ‘Who cares about my life? I’m nobody special,’ ” said Kosmo, 76, a retired Mississippi riverboat captain and award-winning author who lives just across the border in Bayport, Minn.
Still, readers likely would be surprised at just how much of the book is legitimate family history. Take, for example, the story of Kosmo’s mentally ill father setting the house on fire, as his family slept inside, before departing for the early shift at the former Uniroyal tire plant in Eau Claire. The family got out safely, and then-10-year-old Kosmo received a local lifesaver award for retrieving his 4-year-old sister after she went back into the burning house to try to save their cat, Tippy. That really happened on Nov. 23, 1951, and he has the Eau Claire Telegram newspaper clipping to prove it.
Kosmo estimates the novel is about 80 percent based on reality, with a few names changed and some timeline tweaks to fit the storyline — liberties that initially made him uncomfortable as a former journalist and biographer used to dealing exclusively with facts.
The truth is the novel unearthed some long-buried, real-life secrets for Kosmo.
Even Kosmo’s sister, the Rev. Sandee Kosmo of Eau Claire, was caught off guard by a scene in which the protagonist, a boy named Jason Korsen who she knew was based on her brother, is sexually assaulted by an older Boy Scout.
After proofreading the book, which she immediately recognized as based on their family’s life, Sandee recalled asking her brother, “So that part about the sexual assault is fiction, right?”
She was stunned when Jim Kosmo acknowledged he had been the victim of the assault but kept it secret for more than 60 years out of the fear no one would believe him because his abuser was well known as a Regis High School class president and the first Eagle Scout from his troop.
“I never told anybody, not a soul, until a couple years ago when I finally told my wife while writing the book,” Kosmo said.
When Kosmo first pondered “releasing his demons” by going public with this most private matter, he didn’t think he could go through with it.
“The memories came flooding back. It just seemed too hard, and I didn’t think I had the courage to do it,” he said. “But then I thought, ‘How is some youngster today going to come forward?’ That’s the only way we stop these people.”
Perhaps the most amazing revelation for Kosmo came this summer when he was nearly done with the book and contacted the Eau Claire Police Department about reviewing it to ensure a realistic portrayal of police procedures. Retired Eau Claire Deputy Police Chief Eric Larsen willingly took on that task.
During their consultations, Kosmo mentioned Lester Hansen, the 17-year-old the author says assaulted him when he was 12. Kosmo knew nothing about what transpired with Hansen after that terrible day when Kosmo was lured to Hansen’s house under the guise of trying on a Native American costume for an upcoming Indian dance performance by their Scout troop.
Larsen enlisted Eau Claire police Officer and ace researcher Todd Johnson to search for records about Hansen. Johnson quickly dug up hundreds of pages of information that Kosmo summarizes in an addendum.
The records show Hansen was charged with sexual misconduct with a minor in Alabama and underwent involuntary commitment at a mental hospital. In 1973, he was put on probation and permitted to return to Eau Claire, where Kosmo postulates that Hansen became coach of the Eau Claire Fencing Club and created a scuba-training club based at his home on Starr Avenue as ways to connect with children.
In March 1979, parents of a 7-year-old boy reported an assault by Hansen, who during an interrogation by Eau Claire Detectives Ed Sturgal and Richard Meyer confessed to sexually assaulting that boy and eight other juveniles, including three girls, in Eau Claire and Fall Creek. Hansen didn’t identify any victims in Alabama “nor those of us who had the misfortune to know him in the 1950s,” Kosmo writes.
Judge Thomas Barland accepted a plea agreement, sent Hansen to Mendota State Hospital for psychiatric examination and sentenced him to prison for 20 years. He died in 1994 — four years before he was scheduled for release.
Kosmo described learning about his abuser as a “gut hit,” leading him to think, “Oh my God, the guy was just a monster.”
He also acknowledged feeling guilty and wondering if he could have prevented more children from suffering the same fate if he had reported what he now speculates might have been Hansen’s first assault. Larsen reminded Kosmo he was only 12 at the time and that, sadly, many child sexual assaults go unreported.
“Back then if a case was investigated by police, it would be prosecuted, but a lot of times, like what may have happened with Lester Hansen if somebody said something to the Scouts, they just moved him to another troop, just like the Catholic church did with (pedophile) priests, ” Larsen said, noting that the records indicate Hansen changed troops in 1953.
Larsen was impressed by the book, which he said offers a gritty view of life in the 1950s that is likely more realistic than such popular TV shows as “Father Knows Best.”
Johnson said he was pleased to help bring closure for Kosmo.
Unusual events — Hansen’s mysterious troop change and Kosmo’s quitting Scouting and dropping off the list of Scouts planning to attend the National Jamboree in 1953 — make sense once the back story is unveiled, Johnson said.
“There is some satisfaction in putting the stuff together to validate the memory of a little boy from 1953,” he said.
Eau Claire area readers will recognize local landmarks throughout “Monsters in the Hallway” (Beaver’s Pond Press: $19.95), including McDonough Park, the site where the body of a fictional murdered Boy Scout is discovered to open the book — a far cry from the congenial atmosphere that fills the pickleball gathering place of today. Other familiar sites include Longfellow Elementary School, Hilltop Tavern, Memorial High School, Dells Pond, the former White House Motel and the former Eau Claire County Asylum, a spooky photo of which graces the book’s cover.
Knowing that Kosmo survived a sexual assault by someone he thought he could trust and a childhood with a father who attempted to kill his family after being told to do so by imaginary voices in his head, readers may be surprised to learn who the protagonist considers the “monsters” referenced in the book title.
That answer comes out as Kosmo addresses the 27 years his father spent locked up in mental health institutions in Madison, Whitehall and Eau Claire after being hauled away from his home in a straitjacket. Kosmo even quotes his father’s actual medical records in detailing the experimental electroshock, insulin shock and hydrotherapy “treatments” doctors used in failed attempts to jolt his brain back to health.
In researching the book, Kosmo met with several former staff members of the Eau Claire County Asylum (later changed to the more politically correct Hospital) built in 1900 that stood on the grounds of what is now Dove Healthcare-West. Kosmo’s father, Palmer, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, spent many years at the mental health facility, although the family rarely visited after being told guests upset the residents.
Arletta Rud, former administrative/medical secretary at the facility, said she and her former colleagues shared with Kosmo their belief that conditions weren’t as bad as the perception of what some people called the “loony farm.” She explained that residents were permitted to choose the jobs they preferred, with Palmer electing to work in the kitchen. He gathered fruit from the orchard and gained a reputation as the facility’s pie baker.
“Once Palmer was there and not drinking and on light medication, he was a model resident,” Rud said, adding that Palmer had permission to roam the grounds freely. Rud also recalled that Palmer once sneaked off the grounds to attend one of his son’s programs, an incident reflected in the book.
Sandee learned that her father was known as “the professor” because he always had a book in his hand and a pipe in his mouth.
Message of hope
Despite delving into such troubling subjects as mental illness, sexual assault, poverty and the bullying he endured from kids who knew about his father, Kosmo said he added several entertaining anecdotes to lighten the book’s mood.
“You can’t expect people to keep reading if you just keep dumping heavy stuff on them,” he said. “My objective was to write a book that folks will enjoy reading and also to shed some light on mental health and how families deal with it.”
While Kosmo said the U.S. has made significant progress in dealing with the mentally ill since his father’s case, “we still have a long way to go,” he maintained.
His hope, he said, is that his book sparks discussion about a topic that too often remains taboo. Kosmo attempts to jump start that conversation with an author’s note at the end of his book that shares statistics about mental illness — a condition that affects an estimated 43 million people in the U.S. — and a few resources for affected families.
Though Kosmo endured a difficult childhood, he insisted he still loves Eau Claire and visits often. He credited his “incredibly strong” mother and grandmother, along with great teachers such as Pearl Landfair at Memorial and caring male role models such as Carl Lehman of the former Lehman Drug Store and Gerald Stange of the former Stange’s Corner Market, for guiding him through to a successful adulthood.
After graduating from Memorial in 1959, Kosmo attended UW-Eau Claire for a year and then joined the U.S. Air Force before graduating from Metropolitan State University. He spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and public relations manager before serving as president and captain with Padelford Riverboats Co. in St. Paul for 30 years. He also served a stint as mayor of Bayport. In 2010, he wrote “Still Standing: The Story of SSG John Kriesel,” a nonfiction story that earned national recognition.
“My wish,” Kosmo writes, “is that through this fictionalized account, my experiences might reassure others that they can beat their monsters too.”
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