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A Mother's Murder, a Daughter's Search

by Sarah Perry

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-544-30265-5
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In an accomplished debut memoir, a daughter struggles to understand the life of her mother, who was murdered when the author was 12.

An only child, Perry became a problem for her relatives: her unstable grandmother, aunts who lived near and far, and a father who had left her mother years before and willingly gave up parental rights. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Perry was questioned relentlessly by the police, who intimated that she was somehow complicit in the murder: she must have seen something, or she must have known the killer whom she was protecting. She was haunted by the murder and fearful that the killer would return to murder her, too. Shuttled between relatives in Maine, she finally ended up in Texas, where her mother’s sister Tootsie was stationed with the Army. When Tootsie suddenly and harshly sent her back to Maine, she was taken in by her former babysitter, who claimed to have been her mother’s best friend, a woman incapable of understanding Perry’s emotional state. “My sadness was overwhelmed by fear and visceral disgust and rage,” writes the author, “rage so consuming and aimless that sometimes I was afraid of myself.” At one point, she considered suicide; instead, she deliberately tamped down her feelings. An unsympathetic psychologist concluded that her “effort at control” was “sinister,” indicating that she was somehow involved in her mother’s death. The killer—a man her mother may have known—was apprehended and convicted 12 years after the crime, but the information disclosed during the trial only made her mother more mysterious to Perry. Two TV dramas later documented the case, but the author felt the story was unfinished, inspiring her quest to understand her mother’s life, the series of volatile men she lived with, her community’s culture of violence, and her family’s deep wounds.

Despite some repetition, deft pacing and vivid portraits result in an absorbing mystery and a forthright memoir of abiding grief.