On Dec. 6, 1991, someone walked into an I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! in Austin, Texas, and brutally murdered and raped the four teenage girls who were closing the shop. He then neatly stacked the girls’ bodies and set the building on fire, destroying much of the evidence. There were no clear suspects and no apparent motive.
The community was devastated. Austin still felt in many ways like a small town (the population at the time was around 500,000 people—it has since nearly doubled), and no one had considered this kind of crime possible. “Everyone felt like they failed in some way,” says Scott Blackwood. “Here are the Everygirls of the community, and they were completely vulnerable.”
At the time, Blackwood was working as a high school teacher and his first daughter was just a few months old. The sheer evil of the crime was so shocking and so senseless that the story haunted him for years. He followed the case through its many twists and turns, mulling over the possibility of writing about it but unsure how to do so. After all, murders happen all the time, and he was leery of suggesting that this case was somehow more tragic than all the others.
He decided to focus on the individual experiences of each person affected by the crime, no matter how seemingly unimportant. “The case itself is just astounding in terms of all these stories competing,” Blackwood says. His new novel, See How Small, which traces the lasting reverberations of a crime very similar to the yogurt shop murders, excavates the deep emotions behind the many different perspectives on this tragedy.
“I think the part that really caught my attention was that no one could really tell their own story,” Blackwood says of the 1991 crime. Everyone had a role to play—victim, martyr, villain—without much room for the nuances of their specific experiences. In telling his own version of the story, Blackwood aimed to recover those individual voices and explore the particular perspective of each of the actors, from the mother of two of the girls to the fireman who discovered the bodies to the 17-year-old who served as a lookout for the murderers.
This approach meant allowing each character to speak for himself or herself—including the three murdered girls, Elizabeth, Zadie and Meredith. Their ghostly voices lend the novel a touch of the surreal, but Blackwood was far more concerned with what the girls would really be like than with the nature of any otherworldly visitations. “The supernatural itself doesn’t really interest me,” he says. “I wanted to get at their essence.” He describes the girls as his favorite characters to write about—they are complicated and difficult and darkly funny in a way that is both true to the behavior of teenage girls and very rarely afforded to the young victims of brutal crimes.
The three dead girls also possess a degree of perspective none of the other characters can quite muster. The survivors orbit the crime, moving backward and forward through time, permanently unable to make sense of such a pointlessly horrific act. “They’re still stuck on those moments,” Blackwood says. “The time inside is always the same.”
The police investigation, however, moves more or less sequentially. Blackwood felt it was important to lay out the procedural elements of the story as clearly as possible, to provide an anchor for the characters’ nonchronological attempts to grapple with their grief. Though the exact circumstances of the fictional case differ somewhat from those of the real one, the gist of the story is recognizably the same. Many of the strangest details in the novel are drawn from the actual case, including the fact that dozens of people called in to the tip line to confess to the crime.
Details such as that one appear throughout the book—a result of Blackwood’s following the investigation over the course of two decades, as well as a testament to the strangeness of the case itself. Despite the crime’s high profile, the police investigation made very little progress until a new detective took over in 1996 and decided to refocus on a group of four teenage boys who had initially been ruled out. In 1999, the Austin police arrested the boys, and two of the four eventually confessed to the crime. Now young men, the two were convicted on the basis of those confessions, but in 2009, after the verdicts were overturned due in part to the discovery of new DNA evidence, the men were released. No further progress has been made on the case. “It has this ongoing history,” Blackwood says. “It’s almost difficult to keep up with in fiction.”
Pieces of Blackwood’s own life come into the story as well. “I think it’s kind of typical of my work to connect to where I am,” he says. That statement is not merely figurative—the novel takes place primarily in Blackwood’s old stomping grounds in Austin, and there is a major detour to Chicago, where he moved in 2008. He dots the book with details like street names and ambient sounds in order to evoke a sense of place, which helps ground the often fragmented narrative.
But ultimately the novel turns on the pain of losing the young girls, something that, for a long time, Blackwood couldn’t quite access. As a parent, he couldn’t quite put himself in the position of imagining such a loss. Then one day he got a call from his wife saying that she’d gone to pick up their daughter from school and she wasn’t there. Blackwood rushed home, envisioning every nightmarish scenario. They ended up finding her at a friend’s house, but Blackwood remembers the pure terror of that hour vividly. “It changes you, for sure. You can imagine it, or at least one one-thousandth of it,” he says. “It’s just temporary, of course, but you can inhabit it.”
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in California.