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The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City

Laura Tillman

6 Reviews

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True crime, Prose: non-fiction

A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime - the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas - one of America's poorest cities - John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. The apartment building in which the brutal crimes took place was already rundown, and in their aftermath a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed. It was a place, neighbours felt, that was plagued by spiritual cancer.

In 2008, journalist Laura Tillman covered the story for The Brownsville Herald. The questions it raised haunted her, particularly one asked by the sole member of the city's Heritage Council to oppose demolition: is there any such thing as an evil building? Her investigation took her far beyond that question, revealing the nature of the toll that the crime exacted on a city already wracked with poverty. It 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 dismissed as monsters alien to humanity.

With meticulous attention and stunning compassion, Tillman surveyed those surrounding the crimes, speaking with the lawyers who tried the case, the family's neighbours and relatives and teachers, even one of the murderers: John Allen Rubio himself, whom she corresponded with for years and ultimately met in person. The result is a brilliant exploration of some of our age's most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a beautiful, profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them. It is disturbing, insightful, and mesmerizing in equal measure.

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Praise for The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City

  • Laura Tillman has undertaken the kind of work that only the rarest of reporters actively seeks: she has shown us that even in the darkest corners of society - and of the human soul - there is beauty and hope to be found, and there are no absolutes despite how eager we might be to ascribe them. In the process, she paints a perfect picture of true journalism: its labor, its obsessiveness, its challenges, its toll, and also its value. I can't fathom how difficult this story was to tell, nor can I measure its greater meaning now that it has been told. - Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

  • The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts takes as its subject the long shadow of an unthinkable crime-suggesting that thinking about the unthinkable might be a necessary part of the human enterprise. This remarkable book is built of diligent reporting and sensitive reckoning; its questions haunted me long after I finished reading it. The invisible root system of social injustice that dwells beneath our justice system is made more visible here, thanks to Laura Tillman's passionate work and her willing heart. - Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams

  • All the issues that plague those living in poverty are in evidence in this story of love and loss in Brownsville, Texas. Laura Tillman delicately excavates the lives at the center of this tragic tale, providing insights into the people and the place that made them. She plumbs the American class divide so astutely and so sensitively, it's near impossible not to see the humanity even in those we would have previously called monsters. To better understand the social issues at play here and across the country, please, read this book! - Jesmyn Ward, author of Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones

  • The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is as tragic as it is ultimately tender. With stirringly poetic prose, Laura Tillman has written a story that will haunt you with the despair it reveals. Painstakingly researched and told with an unflinching eye for detail, she knows this world of the border. - Oscar Casares, Author of Brownsville

  • Extraordinary... It is so exciting to see a young writer of such high intelligence and passionate unremitting commitment to a subject engage on this risky plane of investigation. The resulting book is a small masterpiece, contributing something very new, profound, and badly needed to our culture. - Suzannah Lessard, author of The Architect of Desire

  • Guaranteed to keep you hooked until the early hours, [a] chilling page-turner . . . Insightful and harrowing -

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Laura Tillman

Laura Tillman is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Pacific Standard, among other publications. Originally from Maplewood, New Jersey, she began her career at The Brownsville Herald in South Texas. She holds a BA in International Studies from Vassar College and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.

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