Native Connellsville author drew on hometown, murders

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 5:39 p.m.

Growing up, Karen Dietrich thought she would always be safe in her hometown of Connellsville, Fayette County. That illusion was shattered in March of 1985, when a disgruntled employee at Anchor Glass in Connellsville — where both of Dietrich's parents worked — killed four supervisors, then turned his gun on himself.

Dietrich was 8 years old. Until then, she was convinced that tragedies occurred elsewhere.

“From a child's eye, nothing bad ever happens,” says Dietrich, author of the memoir “The Girl Factory” (skirt!/Pequot Globe Press, $26.95). “But once we grow older and look back, we can see that the bad things were probably always there. We just didn't see them.”

Dietrich, who lives in Greensburg and is an adjunct English instructor at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and Westmoreland Community College, was a loner for long stretches of her childhood. She found solace in books and took a perverse interest in serial killers at an early age, spurred in part by a librarian who let her check out Truman Capote's “In Cold Blood” when she was 10. She endured entering a beauty pageant at the behest of her mother, who wanted her to grow up and marry one of Donald Trump's sons.

Dietrich's parents worked different shifts at Anchor Glass. While one of them slept, Dietrich often went through her parents' belongings. That innate curiosity served her well when she decided to pursue writing as a career.

“I always felt like I was here to observe and to catalog and to report back for some reason,” Dietrich says. “I thought, maybe that's my place.”

Dietrich admits she was an “over-thinker” as a child, with a tendency to “dwell and ruminate” on events because she often lacked a friend she could talk to or share things. Big questions — whether it was the meaning of life or what motivated Ted Bundy — intrigued her. And she was constantly reading the family's Encyclopedia Britannica for answers.

“If I had the Internet when I was young, I would have had a very different experience growing up,” Dietrich says. “I think of how my son is 12 and how he has this portal and can find whatever he wants. He can connect with people. In my experience, I had to look things up in the encyclopedia or at the library. That was it. You had a lot of time to wonder and think and make up your own ideas.”

Throughout “The Girl Factory,” Dietrich inserts information about serial killers and mass murderers who piqued her interest as a child. She knew her “fascination with that darkness” was going to be a part of the memoir, with the fateful Anchor Glass shooting denoting the figurative end of what outwardly seemed like an idyllic childhood.

“Connellsville treats (the shooting) very differently than other towns might,” Dietrich says, “because, very early on, there wasn't a lot of discussion about it. There wasn't a lot of memorializing, there wasn't a lot of remembrance. I write about how the factory handled the event; it was life goes on, work goes on.

“... A reporter went back a few years later and had a hard time getting people to talk about it. I thought that was really fitting ,because people from Connellsville are very much stoic and are about not showing emotions, just working and keeping your head down and not talking about those dark things and feelings.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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