The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City is journalist Laura Tillman’s first book. In it, Tillman investigates the aftermath of a terrible crime. In March 2003, in Brownsville, Texas – one of the poorest cities in the United States, and located just metres from the Mexican border – a young couple named John Allen Rubio (22) and Angela Camacho (23) murdered their three young children; three-year-old Julissa, one-year-old John Stephan, and two-month-old Mary Jane.
Tillman writes at the outset that she was sent to report on the state of the building in which Rubio and Camacho lived, five years after the killings. It was already incredibly run down, with boards over the windows, and poor sanitation. In the aftermath, ‘a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed.’ The case itself was a secondary concern for Tillman, but it was something which inordinately became her focus. Her subsequent investigation ‘sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often discussed as monsters alien to humanity.’
The result of Tillman’s investigation is described as ‘a brilliant exploration of some of the age’s most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them.’ Kirkus describes The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts as ‘a Helter-Skelter for our time – unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence and deep empathy.’
In The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, Tillman speaks to lawyers, relatives, and neighbours within the community, as well as to John Allen Rubio, who has been sentenced to the death penalty. At first, this correspondence is via letter – she describes him as ‘candid and conversational in a way I found captivating’, and includes segments of what he writes to her – but she later goes to visit him in prison, where he lives largely in isolation. She notes the importance of the case, and all it brought with it: ‘That the victims were children, that their father was from Brownsville, that an explanation seemed always out of reach, had caused people to question their understanding of their community, their spirituality, the values they held as universal.’ We are never party to the opinions of Angela Camacho, who refuses to respond to Tillman’s interview requests. She too is serving three concurrent life sentences for the murders, but has not been given the death penalty.
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is often incredibly chilling. Tillman writes about Rubio’s motivation for the murders; he claimed that his children ‘were possessed by demons at the time of their death. In his narrative, he’s the good guy thrust into a world where evil can inhabit any form, even children. While his actions seem sinister to us, he knew that he had no choice.’ Tillman then goes on to explain the discomfort which she feels during her investigation, and her feeling of being an imposter: ‘I’d sought it out, I’d crowded close to a story to which I had no innate right. It was his family, his trial, his town. It was his life and his death. But as I began to learn how the crime continued to affect those around me, I realized that this was not an isolated act, but a wave moving out in all directions, pushing on those in its path.’
Tillman examines Rubio’s background, lived in acute poverty, and learns that was abused by his father, who used to give him alcohol from the age of five. His mother, a prostitute, sold him to older men for sex from the age of twelve. He has a history of systematic drug abuse, which has drastically reduced his IQ over the years. She seeks to understand Rubio’s upbringing, and the reverberations which this has had for him. She does add a more human element to proceedings; rather than seeing Rubio as a total monster, she presents him as a human being, albeit an incredibly and incurably flawed one. She continually asks herself questions: ‘Is it easier to believe that John is a “bad guy,” and that what he did was “evil,” or is it easier to blame the circumstances of his life? It’s cognitively overwhelming to combine these factors, to see him both as the catalyst and the entity upon which other catalyzing forces acted.’
Throughout, Tillman discusses the difficulties which she had in engaging with people within the community, but also the eventual willingness of others to speak to her: ‘When I interviewed people about the murders, some cautioned that the crime was a black hole that held nothing within. Heinous crimes are like that, people said. They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in our world… Yet, the same people who compassionately issued this warning also told me, often at length, of all the crime had come to mean in their lives, how it had challenged their beliefs or fortified them.’
A lot of the reviews which I have read about The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts express disappointment. Many readers have come to this as a piece of true crime reportage; whilst Tillman does write at length about the murders, this comes toward the middle of the book. She places more attention upon the effects, rather than the crime itself. Reviewers have also mentioned that they feel Tillman put too much of herself into the book, but to me, the inclusion of her own thoughts and feelings added balance to the whole. I was interested in her personal story, and her motivations for following the case as a young reporter years after they occurred. She sums this up by writing: ‘I didn’t pick the story of Julissa and John Stephan and Mary Jane because it was necessarily any worse than the rest, but being in my backyard, it exerted an unusual pull, one that didn’t seem to let go, more than a decade later.’
I am fascinated by books of this type, which examine the wider implications of a crime, and feel that Tillman delivered what she set out to do. I admire her approach, and particularly liked the way in which she captured the psychology and cultural climate which existed behind the crimes. Her response is sympathetic to a point, but comes across as incredibly measured. Nothing here is sensationalised, and it feels like a fitting tribute to Julissa, John Stephan and Mary Jane, whose lives were so cruelly ended at the hands of those who should have loved them most.