‘Can You Really Learn Anything From Random Atrocities? A Review of Laura Tillman's The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts’, by Erin Stewart


In 2003, three small children were murdered by their father (while their mother looked on) in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in America. In her book The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts journalist Laura Tillman describes the crime, in full grisly detail, in a chapter titled, “Don’t Read This Chapter Before Going to Bed”. This is fair warning. All three children were decapitated.

Tillman explores the context of these murders to gain insight into the way in which people living in poverty—and with disability, addiction, and mental illness—may not get the support they need. John Allen Rubio grew up underprivileged and had an IQ of seventy-six, placing him on the border of intellectual impairment. He had a history of drug abuse and was often unemployed. Like most people in Brownsville, he was Hispanic and had likely experienced the structural racism which feeds on the vicious cycle of poverty. While he was found mentally fit to answer to his crimes in court—and indeed, was found guilty of them—one psychiatrist entered evidence stating that Rubio may not have understood that his actions were morally wrong. It was apparent that he was suffering from delusions and hallucinations at the time of the crime, he believed his children were possessed by the devil. His psychosis may have resulted from long term drug abuse, or possibly, schizophrenia.

Despite all of this, and what it might say about the support for poor families and people living with addiction or mental illness, or how these crimes may be prevented in the future, Tillman is repeatedly told not to go there. She’s told by neighbours of the family and other Brownsville locals that there’s nothing to learn from this tragedy. “Heinous crimes are like that, people said. They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in the world.” Tillman witnesses the attempts of these people to push the crime away, saying that the old apartment where the crime took place must be demolished, and wishing the death penalty upon Rubio (which he does get) in order to feel a sense of ‘closure’.

Nonetheless, many of us do look for the lessons to be learnt from atrocities, look for opportunities for personal growth even. This is the message of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning – named in 1991 in a US Library Congress survey as one of the ten books that have most influenced the lives of Americans. As a Holocaust survivor who was interred in Auschwitz, Frankl posits that traumatic events are the stuff of life. He writes, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” The chaos of the world at large, and all the worst things that have ever happened to you, are alive with the possibility of meaning, of fortification. Otherwise life is just too absurdly cruel.

To humbly accept any atrocity as an opportunity for growth, and to question our own responsibilities in these moments, is a radical demand, and perhaps an unrealistic one. Victims are rendered responsible for trying to make sense of extreme injustice. But Frankl has a point. Especially in a world where the morals of geopolitics are now much murkier than those posed by Nazi death camps, there might well be missed opportunities if we don’t try to understand the abject other. It might be a problem that we endure terrorism while refusing to look terrorists in the eye and see how they are made. We likewise bear witness to the foulest murders and don’t want to see the criminal in ourselves, or to reflect on our collective failure to prevent them. It’s easier to live with ourselves if we conclude that we have nothing to do with atrocity.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts dwells in this uncomfortable space; of trying to understand an appalling crime. Tillman flinches—she struggles with questions of how close she should get to Rubio (whom she interviews through letters and in-person visits to death row), and she is haunted by the rundown apartment building where the murders took place—but she is persistent. In one of her apartment visits, Tillman is advised by a neighbour to cleanse herself of the evil spirits with holy water, a suggestion she entertains but ultimately does not act upon. Instead, she keeps muddling through the discomfort.

Tillman is not the first writer to face the facts of a horrendous crime. In her 2004 book, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, recently adapted for the screen, Helen Garner wrangled with the case of a young Canberra woman, Anu Singh, who killed her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. Singh sedated Cinque and then injected him with an overdose of heroin. Garner initially attempts to understand the crime through the lens of relating to the villain, “I needed to find out if anything made [women like Singh] different to me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was within me.” But her attempt to gain this perspective is frustrated. Singh refuses to grant her an interview, while Garner becomes immersed in the Cinque family’s perspective instead. Garner does look to the broader picture, by exploring the failures of their friendships group—Singh had told several people of her plans but nobody took her seriously—and also the failings of student support services; ultimately though, Garner seriously considers the use of terms like “evil” to describe Singh.

She sees the court’s ruling that Singh, owing to her mental state, had “diminished responsibility” for her crime as a cop-out. She is suspicious of Singh’s psychiatric diagnoses, and feels something baser, more revolting, is at play. “[Singh] was the figure of what a woman most fears in herself – the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control.” Her character represents the most awful manifestations of femininity, something the rest of us manage to repress. Shirking away from this ‘wicked’ force is necessary. Facing it—understanding it—is unthinkable.

Perhaps Garner is right. Perhaps looking to find meaning in situations like this is naive. At the very least, it’s hard to argue that the perpetrator’s actions are solely the result of social failures, even though social failures were clearly present. In The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, Tillman offers an alternative possibility – that there is urgent cause for reflection. Not so much to blame society for the crime, but to recognise that there may be responses to atrocity that can be constructive, and even healing (to the extent that such healing is possible).

Those people who told Tillman that there was nothing to learn from the case “also told me, often at length, of all the crime had come to mean in their lives, how it challenges their beliefs or fortified them. How it continued to flicker as a figure on the edge of their peripheral vision”. It made them wonder about the role of community and their role in affirming it.

In Rubio’s case, thinking about social supports is a logical, humane response – regardless of whether he should be deemed responsible for the crime. If he were adequately treated for his problems, the murders could have been prevented. The prosecution for the case argued that the murder was a calculated way for Rubio to defuse his economic woes, including job loss, impending rent payments, and the threat that their food stamps may no longer be available. One witness testified that days before the crime, Rubio had asked him what the best way to get away with murder would be, to which he replied, “saying you were insane”. But even if these murders were pre-meditated, argues Tillman, it was the social and economic context of Rubio’s life that created the “apparent inevitability” of the crimes, even if it was just in his own mind. There was a point in which his desperate answers to complex problems, at least to him, had to be enacted. The essential question is whether we can stop people from getting to that point. Tillman thinks this is a possibility we have to explore.

Ultimately, fragile hope emerges in the book. As Tillman explains, Rubio’s rundown apartment, the crime scene, was transformed into a community garden where local families can grow and access “life-sustaining vegetables”. There’s still ambivalence over its presence, but it’s a tiny shift towards crime prevention. It provides a bit of extra support, a space where a community can come together and find resources in the midst of economic distress. In this way, as Tillman writes, “maybe this wasn’t, as some people said, a sad story of evil, monstrous people. A story with no meaning.”

Erin Stewart is a freelance writer and doctoral candidate currently based in the UK. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.