In April 2009, one month before graduating from Gettysburg College, Amy Butcher walked back to her apartment with her close friend Kevin. They spoke about the future, post-graduation anxieties, and Kevin’s plan for a cross-country road trip, a freer way of living. Then he left. Two hours later, he stabbed his girlfriend, Emily Silverstein, 27 times. Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder chronicles the build-up and aftermath of that event: how a mind can be haunted, then break.
Emily’s murder shook Butcher to her core as she tried to comprehend how Kevin, who’d appeared so calm, so normal in the hours prior, could perform an act so gruesome. “It was easy to be upset and sad and overwhelmed,” Butcher says. “It was another thing to try to rationalize it the way that I was, especially with the violence that was inherent in it.” Though the event could not have been foreseen, there were signs of trouble long before, like Kevin’s suicide attempt nearly a year and a half earlier while Butcher was studying abroad. Nobody spoke of the event—not to Kevin, not to each other. Even for Kevin’s closest friends, the act crossed into the taboo, along with his ongoing depression. But just because something is invisible doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. “I didn’t understand then that ghosts were real,” Butcher writes. “Perhaps not in their embodiment, but in the way they could possess a mind.”
And if Kevin’s mind could betray him in such a devastating way, Butcher worries, what prevented something similar from happening to her? “There are a lot of people that have had experiences with mental health issues, and if you haven’t it feels very foreign,” she explains, admitting in the book that she also dealt with severe depression apropos of nothing. “My childhood was idyllic, and loving, and there was no reason for me to feel depressed, and yet I did, from a very young age. People have shame or self-hatred that keeps us from wanting to talk about it or address it.”
She describes the feeling of waking to news of the murder as “coming of age overnight.” In its wake, she is diagnosed with PTSD and lives in constant fear. Her friends and boyfriend chastise her inability to let it go; they say it is not her grief. But they are not the ones writing to Kevin in prison, scouring public records about the case, trying to understand how a mind can turn on itself. “It shook so much of what I assumed to be true. I had no closure of it and I was living my life in fear of it,” she says. “I felt until I addressed it, it would never go away and my life wouldn’t resolve itself.”
Part of that resolve was not to argue Kevin’s defense, but to unspool the complicated threads of the story. The night of the murder, Kevin was again trying to kill himself. Emily tried to stop it, and according to multiple mental health experts’ evaluations, Kevin’s mind momentarily snapped. He had no recollection of the actual event, though this wrinkle is often ignored because, as Butcher notes, it complicates the narrative. “We’re used to an easy resolution,” she says. “There’s a sense of complete ‘other-ing’ in these instances. We often look at situations like this and we don’t want to give humanizing characteristics to people like Kevin.”
Part of that humanizing effort is derived from her personal history with Gettysburg, the site of the bloodiest conflict ever on U.S. soil, known for its kitschy ghost trinkets and haunted battlefield tours. “I have a complicated relationship with Gettysburg,” she admits. “Gettysburg is this place of beauty and wonder and it’s where my parents met and fell in love. They’d bring us here every summer and we’d go on haunted ghost tours,” she says. “But after what happened, I can’t help but look back at the sensationalism of it, the glorifying of violence. It became this metaphor for what the world was.”
Despite the very tangible ghosts of memory—the loss of Emily, Kevin, and in many ways, her youth—Butcher refuses to let what happened keep her from moving forward. “Over time I felt the story was an important way for me to own up to a lot of these issues that I’ve had and also address the stigma of mental illness; to say, look, we need to talk about depression. Not addressing the thing you’re scared of will only make it worse,” she says. “This was my way of addressing it, to help move toward a sense of wholeness. I’m becoming comfortable with that notion.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.