As a young child growing up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in the 1970s, I asked my parents for a pony and a dog every year, especially around Christmas time. Horses are expensive, and we didn’t have a fenced backyard to keep a dog safe. We became a cat family instead. The cats picked us and showed up as hungry flea-bitten strays in our backyard. We would put out some food and play with them, and after a few weeks, they became part of our family. During my childhood, we adopted five different stray cats, including two yellow Tabby cats we named Ralph 1 and Ralph 2. We lived on a busy street, so you can probably figure out how Ralph 1 died. The Tabbies belonged to my brother, Chris. If he was lying on the couch, he had a yellow cat sleeping on him somewhere.
The black cats picked me. I’m not sure if this was the universe connecting with my gothic heart or my future path as a female scientist, or witch if you lived in the 1600s. Blackie was a lithe black American shorthair who looked stunning lying on my purple bedspread. My entire bedroom was purple at that point, even the carpet and walls. I have since realized my parents were cool and very supportive of childhood color obsession. If I’m honest, I stole the second black cat, Midnight, during my kindergarten kleptomania phase. That was the same year I took chocolate candy eggs out of our classroom Easter basket during recess. Yes, my teacher busted me, and I served my time. Midnight wandered onto the Southview Elementary School playground, a longhaired black Himalayan kitten with amazing green eyes. It was love at first sight. After school, I put him in my coat pocket and told my mom he followed me home. I’m not sure if she bought my fib, but she let me keep him anyway. He turned out to be very sweet and patient and even tolerated me dressing him up in doll clothes and rocking him in a small cradle.
Fast forward 40 years. I’ve been thinking about cats again because of my interest in screenwriting. When you first start writing screenplays, you read all of the self-help books, hoping you can transform your miserable first draft into a decent roadmap for a film. Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” has been one of my favorite screenwriting books. One of the screenwriter’s main jobs is to make the audience care about your characters. Snyder suggested that the audience will become emotionally invested in your characters if you can create some on-screen empathy for them at the beginning of your film. I began thinking about cats in recent TV shows and movies I had seen. Perhaps my favorite saved cat appeared in the binge-worthy crime drama miniseries, “The Night Of.” John Turturro stars as a beaten-down defense attorney, John Stone. In the third episode, Stone visits the crime scene of the woman his client is accused of murdering. Her hungry, abandoned cat appears, and Stone pours him a bowl of milk. He eventually takes the cat home to his apartment. Every time the cat comes near him, he sneezes his head off. This endearing interaction creates empathy for Stone, and we are rooting for him and his client. I decided to give my serial killer, Carl Baldwin, a cat of his own in my screenplay, “Cadaverine.” Carl owns a viper who eats mice, and the stray cat brings Carl dead mice in exchange for a tasty bowl of milk. One of the themes of my story is that everyone wants to feel loved. Carl falls in love and develops a deadly obsession with a narcissistic co-worker, James, who only thinks about his pleasure. Even though Carl has killed three people by the end of the story, he remains a sympathetic character. Spoiler alert, in a compelling moment of justice, James is killed at the end of the movie.
We are now living in quarantine during a historic pandemic, and our family is grateful for our adorable orange Tabby, Finn. He’s a bright spot of joy in our otherwise routine days. Scientific studies confirm that pet relationships extend our lives. A cat purrs at a frequency between 20 and 140 Hertz, which can be therapeutic for illnesses in humans. A cat’s purr can also lower stress and blood pressure and help heal infections and broken bones. If I could give Carl some advice, I would tell him to keep the stray cat and enjoy some unconditional love until he meets the right person. Save the cat and save yourself for someone who cares about you as a human being.