Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cannonball Read #3: A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, by Jeanine Cummins

This book was written to honor two beloved young women who were brutally murdered, and yet it took me a while to come to that realization. At first I couldn't stop harping on how the writing style was basic and repetitive; I spent the first hundred pages wondering how this was published in the first place. Then I got the fuck over myself. The book was written because Cummins needed it to be written, for herself and for her family. It's a loving tribute to the cousins she lost and an honest look at the media and its effect on the families of the fallen.

The backstory is as horrifying as one can imagine. Cummins' two female cousins, 19 year-old Robin Kelly, her sister 20 year-old Julie Kelly, and Cummins' her older brother Tom spent the final night of their vacation together on an abandoned bridge in St. Louis. Four young men, between the ages of 15 and 19, also chose to spend that night on the very same spot. After initially befriending the trio, the group decided to turn back and rob the family members, seeing that they were in the mood "to hurt someone." As Tom is pinned to the ground by the youngest of the attackers, the sisters are savagely gang raped by the other three. Following their assault, the girls and Tom are taken by gunpoint and lined up on the edge of the bridge. And in a moment that I can not stop visualizing, both Robin and Julie are pushed off, plumetting 50-60 feet below into the raging Mississippi. Told that his options were to join them or be shot, Tom jumped off behind them. Both girls drown. Tom survives and eventually makes his way to the shore to flag down help.

Nauseating. And yet the ordeal doesn't end with the murders. As anyone who has had a loved one die a public death knows, the media are absolute vultures when it comes to grabbing that perfect moment on camera-the grieving the mother, the heartbreaking statements. I lost a friend in a highly publicized car accident in college (publicized because there were over 20 cars involved)-she and two young men in another car burned to death on the Schuylkill Expressway. The news stations flooded my small college, and only an hour after they identified her body the newscasters were asking anyone in their path how they felt and did they see the video of the fire? They came to the funeral, they tried to get a statement from her mother, they interviewed witnesses who discussed how they could hear her screaming in her car. Thanks you callous fucks, there goes any hope for her mother that she was unconscious before the fire. The press are an intrusion in every stage of your agony. The Kelly and Cummins family had to deal with their grief in the eye of the public, and later they had to witness the vilification of Tom after he was initially charged with the crime. Later, after the culprits are found and sentenced, the press focused on the attackers' stories rather than the two girls who spents their last moments in terror. The trial, the editorials written, the Ricki fucking Lake special, the documentary...all provoked sympathy for the murderers while nearly ignoring the victims, and further inflamed the anger and the anguish of an already broken family.

Cummins may not be the most seasoned writer but she imbues her memoir with honesty and candor that provides an intimate, almost voyeuristic look into her family's devastation. She shows a surprising amount of...well, not compassion, but a levelheadedness when describing the four teenagers who killed her cousins. She refrains from making sweeping generalizations about their character, and acknowledges their upbringing and social backgrounds that may have led to their unjustifiable behavior. I've never been able to get into the mind of someone who can commit an act of such brutality. How does that disconnect occur, when you can use a woman's body as a receptacle, commit the most invasive act on another person...and then kill them? Where are the thoughts of their feelings, their pain, what their families are about to go through? I don't get it. How do you rape a woman...and then laugh about it to her sobbing cousin? It makes my blood run cold. Cummins somehow addresses these questions without resorting to name calling and emotional outbursts, and these were her cousins... her friends. Her book could have been a public letter berating the assailants, and instead it's a well-executed dissection of the media and an opportunity to share the memories of two girls who were never given the time to make their mark on the world.


kelsi said...

oh, wow. i can't imagine being able to get through this. my rage at humanity would keep me from turning the pages at a certain point.
even so. wow.

Julie said...

Seriously. It made me beyond stabby, I was sick about it for the rest of the night.