nonfiction

Book Review: The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands by Jon Billman

I have a horror-based fascination with the entire concept of missing people (I fully blame Soul Asylum’s music video for Runaway Train in the early 90’s; that video, which played on repeat throughout my teenage years, is seared into my brain). So when I was going through my emails and came across a Book Riot email that contained a review for The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands by Jon Billman (Grand Central Publishing, 2020), my eyes flew open and I added it to my list immediately. I’m not much of an outdoorsy person or adventurer, but I’m also kind of fascinated by stories of outdoor adventures gone wrong, so I knew this book would be right up my alley, and it was.

A brief warning, however: this book talks a lot about death, and about unresolved loss, meaning, missing people whose cases are never solved, who simply vanish and their families never get any answers about what happened to them. It’s heavy, and devastatingly sad. Wait until you’re ready to carry their stories until you pick this book up.

Writer Jon Billman follows the case of Jacob Gray, a young man who went missing in Olympic National Park, to delve deeply into the subject of the people who go missing in the wilds of American (and some Canadian) national parks. What happens when someone is reported missing? If you’re expecting a massive search complete with teams of park employees and helicopter patrols, one that doesn’t rest until the missing person is found, you’re only partly correct – a small part. It really depends on where the person goes missing.

Mr. Billman follows Randy, Jacob’s father, in his determined search for his son up and down the west coast. Along the way, he interviews the people he meets who spend their time searching for the missing: volunteers, bloodhound owners, professional trackers, Bigfoot aficionados (no, really). He and Randy even meet up with a cult (the Twelve Tribes; I’ve run into this group in Nashville) in the hopes that Jacob, who was religious, had joined up with them. Mr. Billman’s quiet, compassionate observations, always lacking judgment, paint a moving tribute to the many families devastated by the disappearance of a loved one into the vast wilderness of public lands.

This book was fascinating. It’s one that I couldn’t wait to return to every night, to see where Jon Billman would follow Randy Gray next, to learn who he would talk to and the stories he would learn about. Who would be found? Who would be found alive? What happened that these people disappeared, and how did the families who never got answers cope? Mr. Billman didn’t just interview these people over coffee, either; he strapped on a backpack, laced up his hiking books, and followed them over rocky terrain and down steep slopes; he camped with them overnight in bear country and slogged in squishy socks through rain-soaked forests. He lived the life of someone desperately searching for a loved one, and that adds such a depth to this book.

The Cold Vanish will go on my list of one of the best books I read this year. It’s that good. Highly recommended.

Follow Jon Billman on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

One of the many benefits of having bookish friends is when they make you aware of a book that you likely wouldn’t have picked up on your own. My friend Jennifer, who is a librarian extraordinaire at a university in Alabama, told my longtime parenting group’s book forum about an author visit she was hosting a while back: one Ms. Jennifer Berry Hawes, author of Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I remembered this tragedy well; the title of this book, however, made me a little nervous. I had avoided the book about the gunman who shot up an Amish school simply because of the religious pressure to forgive, which isn’t the way my religion works, and the very idea of being required to forgive even when you’re not ready for it made me uncomfortable. But my friend assured me it wasn’t that kind of book; that not everyone forgave the killer, and that it was a really incredibly story all around, so onto my list it went.

In 2015, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a traditionally Black church, hosted a Bible study one Wednesday evening in June. A young white man joined the Black churchgoers; this wasn’t unusual, and they welcomed him with open arms. And as the Bible study concluded, the young man pulled out a gun and murdered nine people.

The manhunt that followed was successful fairly quickly, but the mess he left behind at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, stretched on and on. Almost the entire pastoral leadership had been murdered; husbands had lost wives, wives had lost husbands, parents had lost children. Grief amplifies what is already there, and some family relationships, already struggling, fractured further. The leadership that took over in the wake of the massacre seemed to have the wrong motivations, and financial hijinks made everyone suspicious. Longtime church members, include some who were present and survived the massacre, began to fall away from the church. Some of the survivors immediately forgave the gunman; others struggled with the concept, while still others were unsure how to ever move on with their lives without their loved ones.

This isn’t a pretty, wrapped-up-in-a-bow, everyone-holds-hands-and-sings story of a mass shooting. This is raw pain and anger, desperation, and grief. The survivors grapple with a lot of painful emotions surrounding the massacre- not only the losses of the their friends and family, but the losses of their trusted clergy, the loss of their perceived safety, the loss of trust in the team that stepped in to lead afterwards, the loss of love between family members, the anger they felt at the entire situation. Their pain and, at times, desperation, is palpable. Ms. Hawes conveys that excellently while still allowing the survivors the respect and dignity they deserve.

There is quite a lot of coverage of and about the killer in this book (I’m not using his name here); the depths of his soullessness are disturbing, so be prepared for that if you pick this book up. And there are plenty of parts that will bring you to tears, for many different reasons- depth of strength, grief, suffering, the community coming together, the senselessness of it all. There’s hope as well, but mostly, there’s pain, and a community that suffers deeply because of hatred. Grace Will Lead Us Home is an amazingly well-written book, one that I wish hadn’t had to be written at all.

Visit Jennifer Berry Hawes’s author page here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession by Sarah Weinman

A few years ago, I read The Real Lolita: The Kidnaping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman, which only made sense thanks to my earlier reading of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It (the first book!) was a fascinating and compelling read, and it put Sarah Weinman on my radar. So when I learned about her new true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco, 2020), I slapped that bad boy onto my list.

I went into this anthology expecting the book to continue as it starts, with stories that recap true crime tales like a finely-tuned episode of Dateline (which I occasionally listen to as a podcast). The anthology starts out strong, only to get even better. Beyond delving into stories of murder and deception, this book also takes a hard look at the true crime genre as a whole. Whose stories are told- and whose aren’t, and why? What does it mean that we as a society are so fascinated by these real-life stories of terrible, violent death? What happens in the aftermath of these stories? And what does cleanup look like after someone picks up a gun?

This is a lot more than whodunnit, than a voyeuristic peek into blood-spattered rooms and chilled interrogation chambers. This is intriguing reporting that asks hard questions and demands that we ask ourselves hard questions. What are we getting out of this ethically dubious genre? Look harder at the aftermath of these crimes, at the broken families plagued by grief and the unknowns, at the hospitals struggling to keep up with the trauma victims and the survivors whose wounds stay with them long after the gun stops smoking and the knife is cleaned off. Think a little harder; examine what pulls you so strongly to this genre and why, and what you can take from it in order to make our society a more just place for everyone.

My goodness, this was incredible. There’s some powerful writing in this book, both in terms of narrative ability, and in terms of straight-up journalism that strikes all the right chords. There’s an article about a trauma surgeon tasked with repairing gunshot victims; you may be surprised at how not-linear their recoveries often are. A piece on the impact of the band Soul Train’s early 90’s video for their hit song ‘Runaway Train’ is deeply moving; I had actually read this article before but appreciated coming back to it, as the song and its accompanying videos (plural) of missing and exploited kids, still tugs at my heart. And a story of a murdered mother who turned out not to be who she said she was fascinated me- it’s near the beginning, and I bet it’ll pull you in as well.

If you enjoy the true crime genre, this is truly an anthology you cannot miss. I blew through the whole book in one afternoon and am sorry that there aren’t 23748324032 other volumes to accompany it. This was phenomenal.

Visit Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt

Do you ever look back and wonder how you missed out on major news stories? I’m old enough to remember the Challenger explosion, but I have no memories of it. I’m not sure if that’s because my parents shielded me from the awfulness of it, or because it wasn’t much on their radar, but nope, I don’t remember it at all. The more recent story of the Turpin family is similar for me. I vaguely knew who they were- a mega-family who had at least some sort of Christian trappings who ended up abusing the kids terribly- but somehow the details of this story remained off my radar. But someone on a messageboard where I lurk suggested The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and I knew I needed to read it in order to fill in the gaps (I think things were so crazy politically at the time that all my attention was going to other things, and that’s how this one slipped by me. We can’t pay attention to everything…)

In early 2018, a 17 year-old girl, whose physical appearance made her appear closer to ten years of age, secretly dialed 911 to report that her parents were abusing her and her twelve siblings, several of whom had been chained to their beds for months. When the police arrived at the house, what they found was nearly beyond belief. Children from the ages of two to their late twenties who hadn’t bathed or changed clothing in over a year, in various stages of starvation, cachexia, and psychosocial dwarfism.  None of them had ever visited a dentist; doctor visits had rarely happened. Most of them displayed severe signs of abuse. None of the neighbors realized there were that many kids living in the house, because most of the children never left. The oldest had been pulled out of third grade in public school; they had all been ‘homeschooled’ since, but most of them had less than a first-grade education, even the adults (the daughter who had called 911 had even misspelled her own last name).

The kids were taken and hospitalized; the parents were sent to jail to await trial. The children, even the adults, were badly stunted in physical and social development; educationally, they were all years behind (with the exception of the two-year-old, who was, while still not perfect, in better shape than anyone else). The younger children eventually went to (I believe) a foster home; the adult children went to a secret home to begin focusing on all the things they needed to learn to function as adults, since none of them were even remotely able to care for themselves. The parents were eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison; the children will be battling the effects of the torture their parents afflicted upon them forever (at least two of the girls are unlikely to be able to have children themselves, so extensive was the damage they’ve suffered).

If you followed the case as it unfolded, there probably isn’t anything new here, but if you’re like me and missed this, it’s a good primer as to what happened. I hadn’t really known any of the details, so it was a worthwhile (if horrifying) read. My heart broke over and over again for the damage these kids have suffered (I refer to them as kids, but the oldest is in her early 30’s by now; the youngest is maybe 5 or 6). Their parents stunted their entire lives; whatever they go on to do, it’ll be in spite of their parents, not because of them, and though they may heal, even in the best-case scenario, there will still be massive, massive scars. I’m so sad for all of them.

There are several fundamentalist mega-families on my radar (not the Duggars; we already know what a mess they’ve made…) that have exhibited strong Turpin-esque qualities. One has stated she’s not worried about her homeschooled kids obtaining ‘worldly knowledge;’ in a recent video the mom posted, her oldest kids (somewhere around 11 or 12) didn’t know what year it was or who the President was (both questions my seven-year-old answered immediately with no help). The other family’s kids are very obviously malnourished and the quality of their ‘homeschooling’ has looked pretty poor as well. (I’m a former homeschooling parent; even when I was actively homeschooling, I wished there were better oversight. If you’re doing what you need to be doing, a yearly check-in to make sure your kid is on track is no big deal, and I made my kiddo WORK. Better oversight would have prevented the Turpins from ruining their kids, and it would keep those other families I’m thinking of from inflicting potentially irreversible damage on their children. It’s incredibly difficult to become a functional adult when you were denied the skills it takes to be one throughout your entire childhood.)

The writing in this book isn’t anything special; it’s a really fast read, though a depressing one. You’ll be horrified and disgusted and heartbroken through the whole thing. I pray those kids are able to repair what their parents worked so hard to destroy, and to create beautiful, functional lives for themselves, and that this world makes a safe, patient space for all of them.

Visit John Glatt’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era

I didn’t know that this would end up being such a timely read.

Civil rights are a cause that’s near and dear to my heart. Everyone deserves the full rights of citizenship in the country of their birth or the country they’ve adopted as their own, and the fact that America still hasn’t managed to get it together in this aspect and is actively trying to move backwards is a filthy stain on our collective soul. But there are people out there fighting to right these wrongs (Stacey Abrams, you are an absolute jewel!), and some of them write books about their experiences. When I heard about Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era by Jerry Mitchell (Simon & Schuster, 2020), I knew I had to read it. Bless my library for having a copy on their shelves.

During the 1960s, white supremacists decided that their right to feel special was more important than anyone’s civil rights or right to live, so instead of getting some therapy and examining why they felt that way, they decided that murder was the answer. Members of the Ku Klux Klan plotted, planned, and carried out the murders of white and black civil rights workers, along with everyday people- including children- who were just living their lives. And far, far too often, the perpetrators and the planners of these murders walked free, even when they bragged about what they’d done to everyone with functioning eardrums. Even when some of them were Christian clergy. Think about that.

Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist working for Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger, knew that there were plenty of wrongs that needed to be righted, so he set about unlocking the clues to the past. Interviewing family members of the victims, former and current KKK members, and anyone who had anything to do with these cases where justice wasn’t served, he began to help the state piece together legal cases against the alleged killers. It wasn’t easy; so many witnesses had already died, more were suffering from diseases of old age, and the ones who were still full of life made Mr. Mitchell acutely aware that his life was as expendable as those of their earlier victims. But with his well-honed journalist skills and a deep-seated sense of justice and integrity, with well-timed articles that brought crucial and long-buried information to light, Jerry Mitchell aided in the prosecution of some of the dirtiest murderers of the Civil Rights era.

This is really an incredible book. Mr. Mitchell’s dedication is deeply admirable, and his bravery is oftentimes both commendable and shocking. I can’t ever imagine a situation in which I would feel even remotely safe traveling to and going inside Byron de la Beckwith’s house (he was the man who murdered Medgar Evers), but Mr. Mitchell did. He repeatedly made contact with various people whose pasts were infuriating and frightening, who said disgusting things in his presence. Some of them had since reformed and expressed regret over their actions. Many had not, and yet Jerry Mitchell still persevered in order to get the information necessary to pen the articles that would change everything.

He’s quick to point out that he failed more times than he won, that there are still plenty of cold cases where justice was not served and where the families of the victims never received any kind of closure. But the cases he was instrumental in helping bring to court- the murder of Medgar Evers, the murder of the three civil rights workers portrayed in the movie Mississippi Burning, the murder of the four little girls in the 16th Street church bombing, and the murder of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer- were high-profile, and while individual cases don’t make up for the lack of justice overall, the conviction of these killers is deeply satisfying. Mr. Mitchell tells the story of his work in these cases in a fast-paced read that will keep you racing through the pages in order to learn the final verdicts of each case and how they were reached.

An excellent book, and so timely for today. May we all be Jerry Mitchells in our pursuit of justice, every single day.

Visit Jerry Mitchell’s organization, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

The US has a terrible past (and present) in regards to racism. Scratch the surface of just about any topic and you’ll reveal its racist roots- it’s an unfortunately truth, because things didn’t have to be things way, but we let it, and the only way to change things going forward is to confront what we’ve been and resolve not to be that again. The history of medical research leading up to the miracle of modern organ transplantation is no different, and after discovering The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones (Gallery/Jeter Publishing, 2020) in a Book Riot email, I knew I had to read it. Onto my TBR it went.

In 1968, William Tucker, a Black man from Virginia got a received a strange phone call about his brother Bruce- something about his being in the hospital, and a bizarre comment about them taking his heart. After scrambling for information that no one seemed to want to provide, William learned that Bruce had died following a head injury. The hospital had never contacted anyone from the family, despite William’s business card with his phone number being in Bruce’s wallet upon his arrival at the hospital, and stranger still, they had removed his heart and kidneys without permission in order to use them for transplants, a new and still very much experimental procedure at this time. William was horrified at this desecration of his brother’s body and contacted a lawyer.

But medical experiments (often ones that lead to groundbreaking research and treatments) have a deeply racist history in the US; the progress medical science has made has often been built on brown and Black backs and bodies, quite often without their consent. Chip Jones delves into the history of Black grave robbing by medical schools for research purposes and how that led to William Tucker’s missing organs. His case went to court, and the outcome ultimately led to a change in legislation when it comes to organ donation and consent, but the history is there and cannot be erased, nor should it be hidden. The Organ Thieves shines a light on a subject a lot of people most likely know very little about.

Organ transplants have featured heavily in the books I’ve read throughout my life. In the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, I read Why Me? by Deborah Kent (about an adopted teenager who receives a donated kidney from her biological mother) over and over again, and plowed through a ton of Lurlene McDaniel’s medical dramas for young adults, which often featured teenagers who were awaiting donated organs. And of course there was Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and recently, Rachel Solomon’s Our Year of Maybe. But I never really knew the history of transplantation, the many failures and deaths it took to get to the place where receiving a donated organ meant a new lease on life, the difficulties doctors first had in recognizing the symptoms of rejection, and what this all meant for Black patients. They were aware of the grave robbing and knew this would have bigger implications, and unfortunately, this proved to be true. And all of this and more (such as history of the Tuskegee study) has led to the hesitancy of Black people in taking the Covid-19 vaccine. History never dies; its consequences ring throughout time like the loudest of bells.

There’s even more racist medical history that Mr. Jones doesn’t touch (the history of gynecology is utterly horrifying), but what he does cover is bad enough. The trial that covered the removal of Bruce Tucker’s organs without family consent is a complex read; the trial itself raised many questions and led to necessary changes in legislation, but at a heavy emotional cost for the Tucker family and the many others who came before them. So much of our progress as a society- maybe all of it- has been made at the expense of others.

At times, the story gets just the tiniest bit dry, but The Organ Thieves is so important that pushing on through is necessary and rewarding- you’ll be better informed, a better ally, better at knowing what shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever read or watched a medical thriller or drama and enjoyed it, or benefited from organ transplants or medical research that came from corpses dug up in the dead of night (and this is probably everyone), this is a book you should be aware of. We owe those unnamed people and Bruce Tucker that much.

Visit Chip Jones’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Broken Faith: Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr

Cults! Cults, cults, cults! This is probably my longest-running fascination. I put in for Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square Press, 2020) on NetGalley but was rejected (no biggie; you win some, you lose some!), but it went onto my TBR anyway. I hadn’t heard of Word of Faith Fellowship before, so immediately I was deeply intrigued and neeeeeeeeeeeeeeded to know more!

Journalist Mitch Weiss has written a stunning exposé on the Word of Faith Fellowship, a church out of Spindale, North Carolina, that consumes every last moment of its members’ lives. You can’t just show up for a church service; you have to be invited (that alone should tip people off). WOFF is run by Jane Whaley, a charismatic, power-hungry woman who seeks to control the lives of her church members and live high on the hog on their tithes, while they struggle to give more and more. Church tactics include screaming in the faces of and beating members, even infants and small children, to release all the demons that plague them, tying them to chairs, locking them away for months at a time in what amounts to prisons on the church property, stealing members’ children, and making it nearly impossible for members to leave.

What’s worse is the local government is fully involved in protecting the church and has, for decades, turned a blind eye to the abuse of the children in the cult. Members have tried for years to get justice for the many, many ways the cult has wronged them, only to be given the runaround by the police and the local court system. Hopefully with the publication of this book, more people will be aware of the shocking manipulations of this cult and the way it controls its members and the county it’s located in.

This is an absolutely shocking book. Mitch Weiss interviewed over 100 former church members to construct this narrative, as well as seeking out court documents, including a 300+ page document that had never before been released prior to his research. Despite damning evidence of the abuse of the members children (including sexual abuse- the mentions are brief, but they’re in here, so be alert if this is a difficult subject for you to read about), the county opted to tie the hands of social services and leave the children there to be further abused. I’m not going to lie; reading this is chilling. It’s yet another account of how cheap life is here in the United States and how little the lives of everyday people matter. The odds are stacked against us all, and if you’ve got money, you’re free to do as much harm as you want to anyone you want, because money is power.

Multiple times, Weiss and Mohr illustrate, usually through the words of authorities, how difficult it is for former cult members to receive justice: cults keep such tight control over their members that when they do manage to escape, they’re often ill-prepared to live in the outside world, plagued with anxiety and PTSD, and they end up homeless and addicted to various substances as a means of coping- rending them, in the eyes of legal authorities and juries, unreliable as witnesses. And thus cults such as WOFF are allowed to carry on their dangerous, abusive tactics. Members of the church have been convicted of various forms of fraud on the church’s behalf (including unemployment fraud and mail fraud), but Jane Whaley has never been brought up on charges herself.

If reading about cults interests you, you won’t want to miss this. Jane Whaley and her sycophants are dangerous and I’m glad the floodlights are being turned onto the church. I hope this helps its victims receive justice and that more people are sympathetic to what they’ve suffered at the hands of this evil, evil institution.

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen

I was cooking dinner with NPR on the radio on the afternoon of April 15, 2013, when news began to come across about an explosion at the Boston Marathon. I chopped, sauteed, and stirred while listening, horrified, wondering what on earth was happening to the country that something like this was taking place. Like everyone else, I followed the story breathlessly until one of the accused bombers was captured after a massive manhunt that shut down Boston four days later (and yet, somehow, no one whined about their freedom and their right to roam the streets when they were asked to stay in their homes then…). The story was terrifying and strange, and I knew I needed to learn more about it when I learned of the existence of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen (Penguin, 2015).

Ms. Gessen recounts the tumultuous family history of Tamerlan and Dhzokhar Tsarnaev, the two brothers accused (Dhzokhar convicted; Tamerlan was killed beforehand) of the Boston Marathon bombing. Their Chechen ancestry had their family constantly on the move between Russian federation countries, never feeling welcome, never finding the successful life they craved, until finally, they came to the United States, a country that didn’t necessarily work hard to welcome them and to which they had a difficult time adapting.

The brothers’ stories are nebulous. Upon learning that they were the accused whom the FBI was searching, friends were aghast, incredulous: there was no outward sign from either of the two young men that they were capable of or even interested in doing something like this. But apparently this is more akin to what a terrorist really looks like; the myth of the young man who has been radicalized by one or more sources doesn’t actually line up with what most terrorism experts have observed. The picture Ms. Gessen paints is one far more complex than what I ever caught on the bits and snippets on the radio, a story that is heavy, depressing, and full of more questions than answers.

To what extent should immigrant families assimilate? How should they go about doing so, and who makes the decisions about which traditions, which attitudes, which practices, to abandon? What is America’s responsibility to people who become citizens? Does a person’s birthplace determine their susceptibility to terrorism or crime? Should your ancestry place you on a watch list, and is it okay for the FBI to attempt to initiate entrapment with those people on that list? Who gets to write the warning signs that point out would-be terrorists, and which list of signs should be followed?

Ms. Gessen raises a lot of questions about corruption amongst the government agencies that followed the Tsarnaevs both before and after, which I knew little about before reading this. Like I said, this is obviously a deeply complex story, one which probably goes even deeper than the information available to the public from any source. The utter tragedy that was the Boston Marathon in 2013 extends further than I knew, goes back ages, has its roots in political struggles far outside the borders of the US, and is a stark example of the ripple effect of those struggles. It’s a depressing story, of lives damaged, ruined, and ended, none of which had to happen, and which maybe could have been prevented if humanity learned to work out their problems instead of taking them out on other humans.

The Brothers paints the picture of a tragedy so twisted and tangled that it’s hard to sum it up in just a short review, and I’m sure the story will continue to unfold as the years roll on. My heart breaks for the people who were hurt or killed at the race, and for those who lost loved ones, and likewise, I’m saddened by the loss of potential of the two young men who could have used their lives in a positive way had so many circumstances been different.

Follow Masha Gessen on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge required me to find a book set in the 1920’s. Not my favorite decade to read about, and I’m really not sure why. The fiction choices on the list weren’t really appealing to me (a lot of them were more literary fiction, and I’m not really a fan), but one book finally caught my eye: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press, 2010). Nonfiction? Awesome. History?Awesome. Poison? WHOA. This sounded like a pretty cool book, and I dove right in.

In a nutshell, before, during, and slightly after the 1920’s in America, everything was made of poison, deadly poison of every sort was widely available for pennies, people constantly poisoned themselves, often to death, and if they weren’t doing it to themselves, their friendly neighborhood poisoner (often a family member) would do it to them. Add to that a medical examiner’s office whose corruption and cronyism resembled something ripped straight out of today’s headlines, and you had a major mess on your hands, along with a disturbing amount of murderers running free.

Enter chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Together they revolutionized the study of forensic medicine and revealed what poisons of all sorts do to the human body in every stage. They designed and ran experiments that not only helped to identify killers, they helped educate the public on the effects of the many poisonous substances that surrounded them so that they could exercise better care in what they were consuming and so that they would be familiar with the process of forensic medicine when it came time to serve on a jury and convict a murderer. This was no easy task; Norris fought his entire career for the New York government to take his lab seriously and fund it appropriately, but the advances he and Gettler made changed the face of science forever.

This is a seriously fascinating book that nearly reads like a novel. Did you realize that the United States government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition? And when people died, instead of, you know, NOT poisoning the alcohol, they just shrugged and said, “Eh, they shouldn’t have drank it, then,” and upped the amount of poison in it!!! And the US went through a radium craze- NO, SERIOUSLY- where radium was in a ton of different products, including RADIUM WATER THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY DRANK. This worked out about as well as you might think. Like I said, basically everything was poison.

There are a lot of parallels between the society of this time period and today. Even though so much has changed, enough has stayed the same that chunks of this were really depressing. Like when men who worked in the plants that manufactured leaded gasoline began getting sick, going crazy, and dying, the owners of the plants blamed the men for not being able to handle the hard work (turns out it was the lead. Which they knew really early on). And most of us know the story of the Radium Girls who painted watch dials and died from radium poisoning after putting the tips of their paintbrushes in their mouths to make the brush pointy, a technique taught by their employers, who assured them that this was safe, then blamed the women when their jawbones and hipbones and femurs began crumbling. (It was all that promiscuous sex they were having, and not, you know, the fact that these women would glow in the dark when they went home.) There are a lot of stories like this in the book. It’s frightening, to be honest, because I kept wondering what’s being hidden from us today. (And I’m *not* a conspiracy theorist at all; there’s just enough disturbing historical content in here that it really freaked me out.)

There are so many interesting stories in this book, ones I didn’t know and never learned about in school. Deborah Blum has written a book that made the 1920’s come alive in a way they never have for me before. The Poisoner’s Handbook is information-dense, but it’s information everyone interested in American history or the creation of forensic medicine should know and understand. If you like true crime, this should probably be on your list as well, since it’ll give you a better understanding of what it took to get to today’s lab procedures that pin down whodunnit with chemistry.

SUPER cool book! I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Visit Deborah Blum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer- Michelle McNamara

So, according to Goodreads, I’m the last person on Earth to read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (Harper, 2018). I read maybe a handful of true crime books every year; it’s not usually a section I wander through at the library, but if a case interests me for a particular reason or someone I know recommends something from this genre, I’ll pick it up. A ton of my friends read this last year; I finally picked it up based on a prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book with gold, silver, or bronze in the title (this being an Olympic year and all…if the Olympics still happen, what with mass events like that getting cancelled due to coronavirus). Not being a huge true crime person, I went into this book almost entirely cold, which made for an interesting read.

Michelle McNamara was the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She passed away unexpectedly in her sleep from an accidental overdose in 2016, but in life she was a true crime writer and obsessively searched for the man she dubbed The Golden State Killer, a man who terrorized Southern California throughout the seventies and eighties. He was responsible for at least thirteen murders and more than fifty rapes (and who knows what other crimes haven’t been tied to him). Despite massive effort to pin him down, he always seemed able to slip through the fingers of law enforcement, to blend into the background and remain unnoticed.

Finding him was Michelle’s obsession. She dug through old evidence, interviewed witnesses, befriended investigators. From what it sounded like, she was as much a part of the investigation team as some of the officers and retired officers still at work on the case. She passed away before her book was finished, a heartbreaking ending to her story, and a devastating blow to her family.

SPOILER ALERT- not for the book, but for what came after:

I *thought* I remembered hearing things about this on the news recently, but I didn’t look it up while I was reading (and I wasn’t entirely sure if what I saw related to the case itself or to the book). It was only this morning, after I finished the book, that I allowed myself to Google, and sure enough, they found him, just as Michelle had so desperately hoped. His time had indeed run out, thanks to a DNA match that investigators were finally able to run through an ancestry site. With the help of a genealogist, suspects were narrowed down and a match was secured. The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, will go on trial at some point for being the Golden State Killer. Science is amazing, you guys. Back when he was terrorizing the people of Southern California, he was nearly unstoppable, but science hunted him down. I’ve seen articles purporting that the age of the serial killer is over, or at least greatly slowed down thanks to DNA testing, and I pray that’s the case.

Two major emotions settled in as I read Ms. McNamara’s work. First off, fear. It’s nigh impossible to read real-life accounts of home invasion, rape, murder, and the type of terror that this man evoked and not feel at least somewhat vulnerable. Even in this age of heavy locks, security systems, doorbell cameras, and the like, do any of us ever feel entirely safe? This book definitely creeped me out (and made me thankful for my cats, who would never greet me at the door like they did this morning if there were a stranger in the house, as they’re kind of terrified of strangers and scurry off to hide under the bed if someone they’re not familiar with enters the house) and made me a little more aware of my surroundings and my safety during the time I was reading.

And second, sadness. It’s hard to read the master work of someone who passed away so young, not only before she had a chance to finish the book but before she had a chance to see the case come to fruition the way it has. Reading the scenes where she talked about her husband and young daughter were heartbreaking, because I read them with the obvious knowledge that they’re still here and she’s not. Life is so very, very unfair in so many different ways. I wish Ms. McNamara were here to see this monster finally caught and celebrate his capture with her investigator friends. I wish she were here to watch her daughter grow up and to live out her natural life with her husband. I wish she could have finished the book with its rightful conclusion.

If you’re into true crime, you’ve probably already read this, but if you’re like me and only read the genre now and then, it’s a worthy pick despite the aura of sadness surrounding the untimely demise of its author. Lots of information on investigations and police procedures, what happens when a case goes cold, and the history and growth of DNA testing in here, and that alone makes it a great read, as does Ms. McNamara’s own history and her explanation of her involvement with the case.

Now that the suspect is caught, my thoughts go not only to his victims, but his family members. His ex-wife, his children, his grandchildren. They never asked for this, they never asked for the publicity or to be related to this monster. My heart breaks for the family members because he turned them into victims as well. I so hope they’re getting support from their friends and community, because this has nothing to do with them as people.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is probably the most in-depth true crime study I’ve ever read, and I’ll definitely be following the trial much more closely than if I hadn’t read this.

Michelle McNamara passed away in 2016.