A tragic suicide cripples a close-knit family in this memoir.
Inspired by the wave of child sexual predation allegations that rattled the 1980s and early ’90s, reporter, freelance editor, and author Tallmadge (Tell It Like It Is, 1998) details the tragic story of how that hysteria, coupled with mental instabilities, took the life of her “deeply troubled,” 23-year-old niece, Michelle. This book, visceral and urgently depicted, creates an intensive portrait of a family in the throes of misfortune and desperation. The clan became helpless against Michelle’s psychological damage and inner turmoil; Tallmadge details her niece’s suicide shortly after her discharge from a state psychiatric facility. The author weaves her own history into that of her niece, whom she monitored from afar, in a poignant attempt to draw some connection or shed light on the reasons Michelle took her life. As Michelle matured, her volatility became problematic while Tallmadge’s secular, anti-establishment, feminist leanings in rural Oregon opposed those of her brother and his family’s Mormon belief system in Utah. Though the narrative’s jerky, unreliable timeline is too haphazardly arranged to allow the author’s ordeal to achieve a cohesive flow, her story remains compelling nonetheless. By the early 1980s, teenage Michelle became riddled with multiple personalities, depression, severe bulimia, and harrowing memories of ritualistic sexual abuse by a satanic cult that preyed on her when she was a young girl; she also confessed to being gang-raped at 13. The story winds its way downward into darker realms as Michelle’s behavior and appearance became increasingly sinister and her chilling cult abuse allegations multiplied. While Michelle’s parents became more frustrated and helpless, Tallmadge emerged determined to find answers through in-depth research. Later, after her niece’s death, she also relied on her memory of events alongside Michelle’s letters and journals written in the mid-’80s to make some sense of her psychological decline. The author’s crisis of conscience between Michelle’s testimony and what Tallmadge believed in her heart to be true forms the memoir’s core as the powerful book also astutely addresses the issues of social panic and mental illness and how both can inflict great pain and destroy lives.
A potent and compassionate, if meandering, chronicle of a family in crisis.