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The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City

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In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas. On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angel In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas. On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. The apartment building in which the brutal crimes took place was already rundown, and in their aftermath a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed. It was a place, neighbors felt, that was plagued by spiritual cancer. In 2008, journalist Laura Tillman covered the story for The Brownsville Herald. The questions it raised haunted her, particularly one asked by the sole member of the city’s Heritage Council to oppose demolition: is there any such thing as an evil building? Her investigation took her far beyond that question, revealing the nature of the toll that the crime exacted on a city already wracked with poverty. It sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often dismissed as monsters alien to humanity. With meticulous attention and stunning compassion, Tillman surveyed those surrounding the crimes, speaking with the lawyers who tried the case, the family’s neighbors and relatives and teachers, even one of the murderers: John Allen Rubio himself, whom she corresponded with for years and ultimately met in person. The result is a brilliant exploration of some of our age’s most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a beautiful, profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them. It is disturbing, insightful, and mesmerizing in equal measure.


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In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas. On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angel In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas. On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. The apartment building in which the brutal crimes took place was already rundown, and in their aftermath a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed. It was a place, neighbors felt, that was plagued by spiritual cancer. In 2008, journalist Laura Tillman covered the story for The Brownsville Herald. The questions it raised haunted her, particularly one asked by the sole member of the city’s Heritage Council to oppose demolition: is there any such thing as an evil building? Her investigation took her far beyond that question, revealing the nature of the toll that the crime exacted on a city already wracked with poverty. It sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often dismissed as monsters alien to humanity. With meticulous attention and stunning compassion, Tillman surveyed those surrounding the crimes, speaking with the lawyers who tried the case, the family’s neighbors and relatives and teachers, even one of the murderers: John Allen Rubio himself, whom she corresponded with for years and ultimately met in person. The result is a brilliant exploration of some of our age’s most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a beautiful, profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them. It is disturbing, insightful, and mesmerizing in equal measure.

30 review for The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City

  1. 4 out of 5

    Esil

    When I described The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts to my husband, he said "I didn't know that you read true crime". I hadn't thought of it as true crime. I requested it on Netgalley because it sounded interesting, and I like to read pretty much anything that will teach me something about a part of the world or events I don't know; this sounded like that kind of book, granted with a pretty gruesome triple infanticide at the centre. In one of the poorest parts of the US -- Brownsville, Texas, on the When I described The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts to my husband, he said "I didn't know that you read true crime". I hadn't thought of it as true crime. I requested it on Netgalley because it sounded interesting, and I like to read pretty much anything that will teach me something about a part of the world or events I don't know; this sounded like that kind of book, granted with a pretty gruesome triple infanticide at the centre. In one of the poorest parts of the US -- Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border -- John Rubio and his wife Angela Camacho were convicted of brutally killing their three very young children. They were very poor, very low intelligence and lived a life of addiction and constant deprivation. There were issues of mental illness and perceived demon possession. Journalist Lauren Tillman set out to make sense of the world in which these terrible murders occurred. Unfortunately, in my view she comes up dry and her book feels a bit aimless. Tillman corresponds with Rubio while he is in jail, but Tillman doesn't communicate with many other people. In fact, much of the book deals with failed attempts to speak to Angela, Angela's family and others. I don't know if this fits the true crime genre, but it wasn't a particularly good fit for me. I don't shy away from reading about violence if I can learn something from a book. While parts of this book were interesting, I'm not sure what I was meant to get from it. At the end of the day, the events described are sad and horrific, but Tillman doesn't really have an angle on how these deaths could have been prevented, or how the justice system failed these children or their parents, or anything else that may have made this book more compelling. It felt like much of the book was taken up with Tillman's musings over her own reactions to meeting various people, visiting the scene of the crime and looking over the trial evidence. I expect others will get more out of this than I did; I was just left feeling heartbroken for those children and all others affected by these horrendous deaths without any sense of gained insight into anything in particular. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    This is a very sad story written by a brave woman. John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. "Chapter 9" "Don't Read This Chapter Before Going To Bed" .........."I would do anything for them" ----John Allen Rubio *note...Chapter 9 won't be easy to read before - during - or after lunch either. So, I'm not even going to talk about it here either. Laura Tillman, ( bless her skill, commitment, and the personal grief she must have experienced to follow this project throu This is a very sad story written by a brave woman. John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. "Chapter 9" "Don't Read This Chapter Before Going To Bed" .........."I would do anything for them" ----John Allen Rubio *note...Chapter 9 won't be easy to read before - during - or after lunch either. So, I'm not even going to talk about it here either. Laura Tillman, ( bless her skill, commitment, and the personal grief she must have experienced to follow this project through). She did the dirty work, which most of us wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole....but I can't imagine anyone who could have done an ounce better job. She handles a dark, difficult, but important subject with integrity. The narrative is intimate and engrossing. We learn about John and Angela's characteristics - their early childhoods- their life time struggles and behavior problems. We learn about the town Brownsville, Texas, the run down apartment building where 1 member of the city's heritage council opposes demolition and why he does. We learn about the ins and outs of the trial --exploring John's mental state. Many people were interviewed. Teachers, neighbors, special education case manager, doctors, psychiatrists, etc. John's swim coach from High School was interviewed. He had good things to say about John. He worked hard in the water, was not a trouble maker, and was called "the good-looking fit young big John". (in classroom situations, John didn't do well, and at home he was called stupid). This isn't an easy book to review. It's even less easy to digest. The parts of the book I couldn't pull myself away from, though, were the letters between John and Laura. I guess I became so curious about 'why"? What would have 'anyone' do something so - insane - horrific? At times I felt like I was sitting quietly next to Laura watching her work. I am so moved by this woman. Laura's life, personally must be transformed - forever. In one letter John wrote Laura: "I'm not the monster they paint me to be". Laura asked a question... "Is it easier to believe that John is a BAD GUY, and what he did was EVIL, or is it easier to blame the CIRCUMSTANCES of his life?" As this question gets explored, we explore our thoughts more in depth, too. I'm left with one last question...what type of work project - does one do after this? I hope our author took a long break to replenish herself! 5 stars to Laura Tillman!!!! Hats off to you girl!!! I think you're now highly qualified for just about 'any' job that comes your way!!! Thank You Scribner Publishing , Netgalley, Laura Tillman,

  3. 5 out of 5

    Richard Derus

    My review is live today at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud. I give the book 4 stars, as a first book it's very good but has some structural infelicities. #ReadingIsResistance to the invisible poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness that we'd rather not think about. The infanticides that this book details are proof that only a callous, uncaring, selfish people would not fight for better and more complete services to help prevent this happening again. I refuse to believe Americans are callous, uncaring, My review is live today at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud. I give the book 4 stars, as a first book it's very good but has some structural infelicities. #ReadingIsResistance to the invisible poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness that we'd rather not think about. The infanticides that this book details are proof that only a callous, uncaring, selfish people would not fight for better and more complete services to help prevent this happening again. I refuse to believe Americans are callous, uncaring, and selfish. I hope you'll help me prove we're not. Volunteer work with the homeless will educate you about the pervasiveness of mental illness and attendant drup use for self-medication. Regular visits to a nursing home or assisted living facility will graphically demonstrate to you the atrocious cost of tobacco addiction. And closing your eyes to the crisis will only breed tragedy upon disaster after nightmare.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alisi ☆ wants to read too many books ☆

    This book is terrible. This book is, hands down, the worst I've read all year. It ranks right up there with The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer. The biggest difference is that, while Wilderness diverts into all this aimless, boring stuff that has nothing to do with the crime, Tillman manages to make everything about herself. The book is completely aimless. It is written as a journalist would when taking on an undefined topic. That is, This book is terrible. This book is, hands down, the worst I've read all year. It ranks right up there with The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer. The biggest difference is that, while Wilderness diverts into all this aimless, boring stuff that has nothing to do with the crime, Tillman manages to make everything about herself. The book is completely aimless. It is written as a journalist would when taking on an undefined topic. That is, they circle the topic, tell us how it makes them feel, why they're writing this book, and start picking away at the edges. This works and it's like a spiritual journey you take with the author. That's how this is written and the result is almost nothing about the crime, random details about the most inane things, and everything being filtered through the author. At one point, I stopped trying to puzzle out whether this was an attempt at an actual crime retelling or if the author was just on her own kick. It takes forever to get to the people involved. We are treated with long descriptions of her doing research with a peanut butter sandwich. We're told how she keeps going to the building, is obsessed with it. We are told how she interviews peoples to see whether they agree the building, where the crime takes place, should be torn down. Yes. You read that right. There are even quotes from interviews on the subject of that at the top of a chapter. WHO. THE. FUCK. CARES. Who cares that Tillman is obsessed with this building?! Who cares about fucking peanut butter sandwiches while doing research?! This is a crime where THREE. LITTLE. CHILDREN are murdered by their parents and this reads like some fucking macabre play or like the fucking author is getting off on it. "Oh, I want to know what the children sound like." Yes, she says this before she even tells us their names. We get a long interview with a psychologist about how damaged children who grow up are still damaged. WHO KNEW?! CALL THE NEWS! And is this even relevant? Did the author forget the children DIED?! It's horrible. What little about the actual crime or victims is quickly diverted by to how the author feels or bizarre interviews with people that don't really tell us anything (except act as a way for the author to interject herself into the story.) It's horrible. It's horrible that those poor kids died and it's horrible that this author is getting off by trying to pass this off as a true crime novel. I'm so angry I just can't even. The first thing I did after getting home from work is return this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    ElphaReads

    I don't know how familiar you guys are with the concept of journo-procedurals, but I had never heard of it until I was reading up on THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS by Laura Tillman. Essentially, what an author of this genre does is writes about the process of writing a story, and instead of focusing on the story at hand they more focus on the process of getting the story. It's a way of personalizing an event that may not otherwise be personal. I think that the closest that I have come to readin I don't know how familiar you guys are with the concept of journo-procedurals, but I had never heard of it until I was reading up on THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS by Laura Tillman. Essentially, what an author of this genre does is writes about the process of writing a story, and instead of focusing on the story at hand they more focus on the process of getting the story. It's a way of personalizing an event that may not otherwise be personal. I think that the closest that I have come to reading such a thing in recent memory before THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS is an essay by Jo Ann Beard called "The Fourth State of Matter", as she writes about the last days of her ailing dog and how this horrible time in her life happened to match up with the University of Iowa mass shootings, where one of her close friends was killed. It's delicately and beautifully done, and it's one of the most powerful essays I've ever read (go find it and read it, seriously). But while I loved what Beard did with personalizing this tragedy and making it more tangible by doing so, I had a hard time with Tillman's attempt. In 2003 in Brownsville, Texas, a man named John Allen Rubio and his common law wife, Angela, brutally murdered their three children. The murders rocked Brownsville, a poverty stricken bordertown, and the community mourned together the senseless loss and violence. Laura Tillman, a reporter for the local newspaper, was assigned a facet of the story in 2008, and her investigation raised a number of questions for her as it did the community. Why did this happen? Is there any way that a community can come back from this? What role did poverty, mental illness, and circumstance play? What role does the death penalty have in modern society? As she explores these questions she speaks to those around the case, trying to make sense of the terrible thing that happened. So..... Okay? I think that the biggest problem I had with this book was that, while her writing is fluid and articulate, she doesn't really draw any conclusions about anything in regards to this case. And while I understand not wanting to pass judgments on this situation, on the backgrounds of the perpetrators, and probably wants t0 remain true to her journalistic integrity.... But boy, did she not draw ANY conclusions about ANYTHING. I couldn't even really find a hypothesis. She talks about Rubio's history with mental illness (he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia), she notes on the poverty and abusive circumstances that he grew up in.... But she never makes any solid statements about any of that, or her opinions on his death sentence, or even on what she thinks ultimately happened that night with all of his past experiences and those of his common law wife's that ultimately led to them decapitating three children under the age of four. Hell, even her statements on the death penalty in America were tread upon super lightly. She gave stats about how much it costs to execute someone vs life in prison, and she talks about how Texas doesn't have to give life in prison as an alternative... But then doesn't make any points or statements on it! I think that she was so concerned with trying to just be neutral and non-judgmental that it ultimately came off as waffling. There was one moment where she gave her idea of four possible scenarios of what happened that night, and listed them all as true possibilities. One of those scenarios was that, like Rubio claimed, the three children were possessed by demons. At that moment I was like "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!" These children were NOT possessed by demons. Rubio was either hallucinating this, or he was using it as an excuse and a defense. Don't act like that was some valid option. Ultimately I wanted so much more from this book, and it would have benefited from having a solid thesis that it was trying to support. As it was, it was just 'this happened, it was sad, here is how I gathered my facts to come to this conclusion that it was sad'. Not what i was looking for. If you are looking for an inside look on poverty, mental health reform, and death penalty politics in America, this book is probably not going to do it for you.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Book Riot Community

    Tillman started out as a journalist writing an article about the proposed fate of a building in Texas where a horrific crime took place. Some of the town’s residents wanted the building demolished, while other people in the neighborhood thought it should stay. While investigating her article, Tillman ended up with an amazing work of nonfiction, not just about the building, but about poverty, mental health issues, superstition, ghosts, crime, the death penalty, and more. This is not an easy book Tillman started out as a journalist writing an article about the proposed fate of a building in Texas where a horrific crime took place. Some of the town’s residents wanted the building demolished, while other people in the neighborhood thought it should stay. While investigating her article, Tillman ended up with an amazing work of nonfiction, not just about the building, but about poverty, mental health issues, superstition, ghosts, crime, the death penalty, and more. This is not an easy book to read – the horrifying crime is described in a chapter called “Don’t Read This Chapter Before You Go To Bed” – but Tillman’s writing and penchant for expressing the most truthful, stripped down facts about everything she discusses, makes it an amazing read. Expect this book to win awards. – Liberty Hardy from The Best Books We Read In April: http://bookriot.com/2016/04/29/riot-r...

  7. 4 out of 5

    Peacegal

    This is an important story written by a reporter who is far braver than I am. I am glad the victims' story was told, but I agree with other reviewers who think it would have worked better as a long-form article rather than a book. This is an important story written by a reporter who is far braver than I am. I am glad the victims' story was told, but I agree with other reviewers who think it would have worked better as a long-form article rather than a book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Julianne (Outlandish Lit)

    This is a true crime book for people who don't read true crime. If you go in expecting a lot of details about the murder of three children by their parents or the court case, you're going to be disappointed. Rather, this is an unflinching look at class and poverty in America, and some of its subsequent effects on communities. It's like classy true crime with a social justice bent. But there is totally a chapter titled "Don't Read This Chapter before Going to Bed." Tillman's journey started as she This is a true crime book for people who don't read true crime. If you go in expecting a lot of details about the murder of three children by their parents or the court case, you're going to be disappointed. Rather, this is an unflinching look at class and poverty in America, and some of its subsequent effects on communities. It's like classy true crime with a social justice bent. But there is totally a chapter titled "Don't Read This Chapter before Going to Bed." Tillman's journey started as she reported on a building that people wanted torn down. The building where three children were killed by John Allen Rubio and their mother Angela. Tillman looks at both the poverty and the sense of community in Brownsville, Texas which is on the very southernmost point of the state. In this border town, drugs are a problem and so is unchecked mental illness. Rubio claims that they killed their children because he believed they were possessed by demons. It's dark and it's complicated. So Tillman starts to talk to Rubio in prison to hear how he speaks about the situation, and eventually she meets him in person. No perspective that could be taken on this crime is left unresearched. And Tillman's writing is so good, and she's so excellent on honing in on what's important, that we're not left with a bloated, dense piece of detail-heavy work. I'm not good at reading nonfiction, but this book was impossible to put down. Definitely a page-turner. This book doesn't try to answer questions for us. It doesn't break down the crime and explain exactly what happened and why. It shows us the grey areas. The grey areas in why this horrific crime took place. How multiple internal and external forces could have led to this event, and events like it throughout the country. In addition to asking us to look at a murderer as a constantly changing human being, it asks us what we're going to do about it. When somebody is sentenced to death, who is responsible and what does it mean? I hadn't thought that much about the death penalty before, at least not critically. I knew I should think about it. I knew that I felt pretty against it, but I hadn't looked at the why's of that feeling. I'm grateful that Tillman went to the extent of actually talking to a reporter who has seen 400+ executions. It gave me a whole lot to think about in regards to the reality of the situation that I hadn't thought of before. Like how the execution is "an intentional death of a healthy person made to look more like the mercy killing of a sick dog or cat." And how there are witnesses to the execution, and the family of the victim often feel disillusionment toward the experience. It's a lot to take in, and it's important to take in. Tillman does an excellent job at presenting many different arguments (about the death penalty, and about other things). She doesn't taint or rework them with her own opinion. She just offers her own incredibly intelligent questions and thoughts after the fact. I swear, I just wanted to type up entire paragraphs of this book in place of a review. The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts urged me to be more thoughtful, analytical, and open to accepting the grey areas. Full review: Outlandish Lit

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lea

    3.5 Stars I think readers going into this with a perception of it being "True Crime" might be disappointed. I've read a few books in that genre, and this one doesn't seem to fit. There is no in depth analysis of the crime, or even many details. The author discusses the murders directly in just one chapter, and seems to try to maintain a certain distance even then. This book is more about the issues and factors that played a part in creating circumstances ripe for this kind of tragedy. Tillman look 3.5 Stars I think readers going into this with a perception of it being "True Crime" might be disappointed. I've read a few books in that genre, and this one doesn't seem to fit. There is no in depth analysis of the crime, or even many details. The author discusses the murders directly in just one chapter, and seems to try to maintain a certain distance even then. This book is more about the issues and factors that played a part in creating circumstances ripe for this kind of tragedy. Tillman looks at the city of Brownsville as a whole, investigating the killer's background (although both husband and wife took part in killing their children, the focus here is primarily on John Allen Rubio, rather than his wife) -- while far from absolving him from responsibility, the author points to Rubio's early life, showing the reader how we as a society fail those who need our help most. One could view that as a plea for help for people like John Rubio, whose life of extreme poverty and abuse led to long term drug use (lowering his IQ measurably) and possibly exacerbated his later diagnosed schizophrenia, but ultimately it is also a plea for help for victims like the children he murdered. John Allen Rubio, as well as his wife, both come across as sad but somehow still likable people. Despite their horrible actions, before that point -- and in spite of poverty most of us could never imagine -- they were decent parents. As far as I can tell, no one really disputes that they loved their children, even though they weren't capable financially or mentally of providing them with appropriate care. They used the resources that were available to them, taking the children to eat at a nearby soup kitchen, for example, rather than letting them go hungry -- but they also showed poor judgement by allowing a revolving cast of unsavory people live with them in order to be able to pay the rent. When the couple was investigated for neglect of their children (the children were dirty and anemic, but not malnourished or physically abused), they worked hard to meet the requirements needed to have the children returned to them. Although the prosecution pursued the theory that John Rubio killed his children due to financial issues, and that he was interested in "getting rid of them" so he could start his life over, the evidence presented here doesn't seem to support that. It seems more likely that Rubio's mental illness was the impetus for this crime, his paranoia spiraling out of control -- Tillman points to acts immediately preceding the murders that seem to show his delusions and fears of demons or evil spirits increasing alarmingly until eventually culminating in his conviction that his own children were possessed. Tragically, Rubio still seems to believe it's possible the children were harboring evil spirits. My complaints about the book have more to do with the distance the author maintains throughout. Even when she's analyzing her own feelings about the crime, there is a remove, as though she's trying to explain how someone else is perceiving the events. At the same time, the book seems to be more about her and her thoughts on and responses to the murders, as well as the murderers. I think this could work for some readers, but I needed something more.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Aj Sterkel

    The Good: This isn’t your typical true-crime book. Instead of focusing on the crime itself, it focuses on the events that led up to the crime and the community’s reaction to it. The book is mainly an examination of how poverty impacts the lives of people in a city along the US/Mexico border. John Allen Rubio and his wife decapitated their three children after Rubio became convinced that the kids were possessed by demons. Rubio and his wife were both severely mentally ill, but they didn’t have ac The Good: This isn’t your typical true-crime book. Instead of focusing on the crime itself, it focuses on the events that led up to the crime and the community’s reaction to it. The book is mainly an examination of how poverty impacts the lives of people in a city along the US/Mexico border. John Allen Rubio and his wife decapitated their three children after Rubio became convinced that the kids were possessed by demons. Rubio and his wife were both severely mentally ill, but they didn’t have access to doctors who could help them. This book doesn’t offer any answers, but it does show how America is failing its most vulnerable citizens. The Bad: I got frustrated. Actually, I skimmed the last 50ish pages because the book is directionless. I just wanted the author to pick a subject (or a few subjects) and stick with them. The author spends a lot of pages on herself and how she did her research. She describes old buildings (and peanut butter sandwiches) in great detail. She also talks about the history of Brownsville, architecture, drug addiction, hunger, homelessness, immigration, mental health care, the death penalty, religion, crime, Mexican culture, and a bunch of other stuff. Oh, and occasionally she mentions the murdered children. I realize that this is a book about social issues and not a book about murder, but it seems like the author is just constantly circling the murders without really saying anything important. I didn’t have the patience to wait for her to get to the point. The Bottom Line: I probably shouldn’t have bothered finishing this one. Guess what, Goodreads? I have a book blog.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    Wow. I am so glad that Tillman ended up where she did with this! Interconnectivity. That is what we humans so often seem to overlook, ignore, or simply never realize! See my full review @ Smoke & Mirrors: http://books-n-music.blogspot.com/201.... (Warning: it's a rather long one!) Though I don't personally believe in the concept of "God," neither do I believe that we as human beings have any business acting as "God" (at least that concept as defined by many Christians) by deciding who should liv Wow. I am so glad that Tillman ended up where she did with this! Interconnectivity. That is what we humans so often seem to overlook, ignore, or simply never realize! See my full review @ Smoke & Mirrors: http://books-n-music.blogspot.com/201.... (Warning: it's a rather long one!) Though I don't personally believe in the concept of "God," neither do I believe that we as human beings have any business acting as "God" (at least that concept as defined by many Christians) by deciding who should live or die. What gives any one (or 6 or 12) of us the right to make that determination for another human being? I like to believe (or dream?) that we as a species have overcome such a need for 'the ultimate revenge,' as I see it. For truly, in reality, that is all it is. And what does that help? Who does it help? No one and no-thing, IMHO. As with war, it only perpetuates the cycle of violence...and to what end? So many unanswered questions just with this one crime, and these 'criminals.' "...resolution doesn't seem to be the purpose of questions like these. They open journeys; within and without, daring us after each step to go still further." (p. 237). Yes. Yes. Yes. If you're at all in doubt, you should read this.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    Apparently, this book began as a story about a building in Texas that a horrific crime had taken place in. There was a great deal of controversy about whether or not the building should be destroyed. But, it became much more - the exploration of a horrendous crime, poverty, mental health, superstition and more. There was such potential here but it never came together for me. It was fine but it didn't stand out or engage me quite enough. Other reviews indicate that the book DID work for a lot of Apparently, this book began as a story about a building in Texas that a horrific crime had taken place in. There was a great deal of controversy about whether or not the building should be destroyed. But, it became much more - the exploration of a horrendous crime, poverty, mental health, superstition and more. There was such potential here but it never came together for me. It was fine but it didn't stand out or engage me quite enough. Other reviews indicate that the book DID work for a lot of folks. But, it's not for everyone - the crime is described very clearly and it's not an easy read. All in all, it just didn't come together for me. I recommend that you read other reviews before you decide if you'll pick this one up. Many loved it so if it's grabbed your interest, I recommend you look into it before picking it up.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Janet Wolkoff

    I have known Laura Tillman since she was a little girl through my friendship with her parents. I knew I would like this book because Laura has proved to be an excellent writer in her many journalism pieces I have read and enjoyed. However, I did not expect to read a book that I think is extraordinary in every way. I did not know that the author is such a deep thinker and has the capacity to raise, explore and write about virtually all of our most important social policy issues in America. I am t I have known Laura Tillman since she was a little girl through my friendship with her parents. I knew I would like this book because Laura has proved to be an excellent writer in her many journalism pieces I have read and enjoyed. However, I did not expect to read a book that I think is extraordinary in every way. I did not know that the author is such a deep thinker and has the capacity to raise, explore and write about virtually all of our most important social policy issues in America. I am talking about poverty, employment, housing, criminal justice, mental health, drugs, immigration and the protection of children. This story, because of the way the author tells it, " has it all " The approach to the subject is so mature and thoughtful, I can hardly believe it was written by someone barely 30 years old when the manuscript was finished. The commitment, drive and deep digging required to write this book is unquestionable. Using the horrific crime of 2 parents beheading their children as the prism through which to view Life in the American border city of Brownsville, Texas, the author does specifically render the crime in all its depravity. The fact that she can show empathy for everyone touched by the crime, including the ghosts of the three little murdered children, neighbors, policemen and the father himself, show a consummate reporter and human being investigating and reporting her subject. There are way too many similar crimes making headlines. E g a father murdering his wife and kids and then turning gun on himself, or murdering the wife with children watching, or a mother drowning her children. All are awful and involve the perpetrator going berserk, whether courts want to define it as insanity or not. The truly unique and riveting aspect of this book is that it puts the crime in the context of the life of the family and in that of the city-- its citizens and even its buildings and physical structures. The context is explored over years so that as the author says we don't just read about the crime and then go on to the next one. This book does the full and complete job of crime reporting. It is an essay, a meditation really, on what truly happens in the world when civilized society is upended by barbaric acts which truly may never be able to be prevented or eradicated from this world. Whether the criminal is put to death or not almost seems like a beside the point consideration. So much damage has been done to and by the criminal before his heinous act, and then so much fallout occurs afterwards,as in a nuclear winter, the punishment of an individual is but a small aspect of a case. Maybe the father here has changed and been rehabilitated in prison. But maybe society can't take the chance to find out. And so, as with a dog, man's best friend, the law only gives you one bite and then passes judgment. Neither dog nor human gets a second chance to bite again. Read this book! Please!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Danielle

    What an extremely disappointing read. This book promised a lot after being recommended to me by a friend, however if it was not for this recommendation, I would have stopped reading after the first 50 pages. Unfortunately the book did not improve and was littered with structural flaws. I feel like I learnt more about the author's story and movements than I did about the actual crime this book was supposed to feature. There is really only one chapter about the murders themselves. Whilst I underst What an extremely disappointing read. This book promised a lot after being recommended to me by a friend, however if it was not for this recommendation, I would have stopped reading after the first 50 pages. Unfortunately the book did not improve and was littered with structural flaws. I feel like I learnt more about the author's story and movements than I did about the actual crime this book was supposed to feature. There is really only one chapter about the murders themselves. Whilst I understand that it is important to provide some context and understanding of the town where these murders occurred, there was too much of this and as a result I felt that the book lacked substance. Towards the end of the book, it felt like the author was using the story more as a platform to discuss the morality of the death penalty than actually explaining how the jury came to convict the accused after two separate trials. I would have found this book far more enjoyable to read if the actual crime itself was discussed in more depth, as well as the relationship between each accused and their backgrounds. I also found the continual use of the building where the murders took places as the focal point of the book to be very repetitive and often detracted from the story that was trying to be told.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    I first heard of this book after reading about it in the Times, in what was very likely the most savage book review I've ever read in the genteel NYT. It ventured somewhere past negative into the personal, made all the more shocking because every other review I've come across has been no less than effusive in its praise. Thing is, personal or not, I don't think the reviewer was too far off. This is a shockingly listless examination of a gruesome triple murder involving very young children, a rote I first heard of this book after reading about it in the Times, in what was very likely the most savage book review I've ever read in the genteel NYT. It ventured somewhere past negative into the personal, made all the more shocking because every other review I've come across has been no less than effusive in its praise. Thing is, personal or not, I don't think the reviewer was too far off. This is a shockingly listless examination of a gruesome triple murder involving very young children, a rote true crime book that attempts to transcend the genre by philosophizing about it (the first third of the book is mostly about the author herself, "I" this and "I" that). When Tillman finally gets around to the details of the murders, more than halfway through, she calls the chapter "Don't Read This Chapter Before Going to Bed," which at that point is both redundant and presumptive. Tillman is a promising journalist with a sharp eye, but I found this book a genuine slog.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kirsty

    The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City is journalist Laura Tillman's first book.  In it, Tillman investigates the aftermath of a terrible crime.  In March 2003, in Brownsville, Texas - one of the poorest cities in the United States, and located just metres from the Mexican border - a young couple named John Allen Rubio (22) and Angela Camacho (23) murdered their three young children; three-year-old Julissa, one-year-old John Stephan, and two-month-old Mary Jane. Ti The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City is journalist Laura Tillman's first book.  In it, Tillman investigates the aftermath of a terrible crime.  In March 2003, in Brownsville, Texas - one of the poorest cities in the United States, and located just metres from the Mexican border - a young couple named John Allen Rubio (22) and Angela Camacho (23) murdered their three young children; three-year-old Julissa, one-year-old John Stephan, and two-month-old Mary Jane. Tillman writes at the outset that she was sent to report on the state of the building in which Rubio and Camacho lived, five years after the killings.  It was already incredibly run down, with boards over the windows, and poor sanitation.  In the aftermath, 'a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed.'  The case itself was a secondary concern for Tillman, but it was something which inordinately became her focus.  Her subsequent investigation 'sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often discussed as monsters alien to humanity.' The result of Tillman's investigation is described as 'a brilliant exploration of some of the age's most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them.' Kirkus describes The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts as 'a Helter-Skelter for our time - unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence and deep empathy.'   In The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, Tillman speaks to lawyers, relatives, and neighbours within the community, as well as to John Allen Rubio, who has been sentenced to the death penalty.  At first, this correspondence is via letter - she describes him as 'candid and conversational in a way I found captivating', and includes segments of what he writes to her - but she later goes to visit him in prison, where he lives largely in isolation.  She notes the importance of the case, and all it brought with it: 'That the victims were children, that their father was from Brownsville, that an explanation seemed always out of reach, had caused people to question their understanding of their community, their spirituality, the values they held as universal.' We are never party to the opinions of Angela Camacho, who refuses to respond to Tillman's interview requests.  She too is serving three concurrent life sentences for the murders, but has not been given the death penalty. The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is often incredibly chilling.  Tillman writes about Rubio's motivation for the murders; he claimed that his children 'were possessed by demons at the time of their death.  In his narrative, he's the good guy thrust into a world where evil can inhabit any form, even children.  While his actions seem sinister to us, he knew that he had no choice.'  Tillman then goes on to explain the discomfort which she feels during her investigation, and her feeling of being an imposter: 'I'd sought it out, I'd crowded close to a story to which I had no innate right.  It was his family, his trial, his town.  It was his life and his death.  But as I began to learn how the crime continued to affect those around me, I realized that this was not an isolated act, but a wave moving out in all directions, pushing on those in its path.' Tillman examines Rubio's background, lived in acute poverty, and learns that was abused by his father, who used to give him alcohol from the age of five.  His mother, a prostitute, sold him to older men for sex from the age of twelve.  He has a history of systematic drug abuse, which has drastically reduced his IQ over the years.  She seeks to understand Rubio's upbringing, and the reverberations which this has had for him.  She does add a more human element to proceedings; rather than seeing Rubio as a total monster, she presents him as a human being, albeit an incredibly and incurably flawed one.  She continually asks herself questions: 'Is it easier to believe that John is a "bad guy," and that what he did was "evil," or is it easier to blame the circumstances of his life?  It's cognitively overwhelming to combine these factors, to see him both as the catalyst and the entity upon which other catalyzing forces acted.' Throughout, Tillman discusses the difficulties which she had in engaging with people within the community, but also the eventual willingness of others to speak to her: 'When I interviewed people about the murders, some cautioned that the crime was a black hole that held nothing within.  Heinous crimes are like that, people said.  They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in our world...  Yet, the same people who compassionately issued this warning also told me, often at length, of all the crime had come to mean in their lives, how it had challenged their beliefs or fortified them.' A lot of the reviews which I have read about The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts express disappointment.  Many readers have come to this as a piece of true crime reportage; whilst Tillman does write at length about the murders, this comes toward the middle of the book.  She places more attention upon the effects, rather than the crime itself.  Reviewers have also mentioned that they feel Tillman put too much of herself into the book, but to me, the inclusion of her own thoughts and feelings added balance to the whole.  I was interested in her personal story, and her motivations for following the case as a young reporter years after they occurred.  She sums this up by writing: 'I didn't pick the story of Julissa and John Stephan and Mary Jane because it was necessarily any worse than the rest, but being in my backyard, it exerted an unusual pull, one that didn't seem to let go, more than a decade later.' I am fascinated by books of this type, which examine the wider implications of a crime, and feel that Tillman delivered what she set out to do.  I admire her approach, and particularly liked the way in which she captured the psychology and cultural climate which existed behind the crimes.  Her response is sympathetic to a point, but comes across as incredibly measured.  Nothing here is sensationalised, and it feels like a fitting tribute to Julissa, John Stephan and Mary Jane, whose lives were so cruelly ended at the hands of those who should have loved them most.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Bumiller

    There is a chapter in this book, about half way through, titled, "Don't Read This Chapter before Going to Bed." Normally I would have stubbornly disregarded that instruction but in this case it was circumstance that stepped in for me. I read a good amount of this book in Pittsburgh in a hotel lobby that was simultaneously hosting a library conference and a very loud Halloween dance party. I didn't have much else to do and I was really invested in the story so far, so it was there that I read the There is a chapter in this book, about half way through, titled, "Don't Read This Chapter before Going to Bed." Normally I would have stubbornly disregarded that instruction but in this case it was circumstance that stepped in for me. I read a good amount of this book in Pittsburgh in a hotel lobby that was simultaneously hosting a library conference and a very loud Halloween dance party. I didn't have much else to do and I was really invested in the story so far, so it was there that I read the above mentioned chapter. I'm glad I did. While reading the chapter someone who was apparently associated with Scribner walked up to me and said, "oh hello I noticed you're reading one of my products!" It seemed like my body language conveyed my message pretty clearly because it was an awkward conversation and the guy walked away from me presumably regretting having interrupted me. I won't say anything more about that part of the book because I don't want to spoil the story for anyone. This is an unsettling book written with great care and skill. It is the overwhelmingly sad story of the death of three young children. But it is also a story about place and poverty, mental illness and community, and the need to understand these things. If you are up for it, this book is well worth your time. You will find yourself in good hands with Laura Tillman.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Addison

    This is an excellent, sad, hopeful book about Brownsville, Texas, and a terrible murder that took place there in 2003. John Allen Rubio and his common-law wife Maria Angela Camacho murdered---decapitated---their three children, all under the age of 4. Rubio was sentenced to death. Tillman's inquiry is about the murder; about the history of the building it took place in; about the man who did it (and to a lesser extent about the woman---Rubio agreed to talk to Tillman and Camacho did not); in one This is an excellent, sad, hopeful book about Brownsville, Texas, and a terrible murder that took place there in 2003. John Allen Rubio and his common-law wife Maria Angela Camacho murdered---decapitated---their three children, all under the age of 4. Rubio was sentenced to death. Tillman's inquiry is about the murder; about the history of the building it took place in; about the man who did it (and to a lesser extent about the woman---Rubio agreed to talk to Tillman and Camacho did not); in one amazing chapter about the death penalty; about the community and how they responded. Tillman writes beautifully and thoughtfully and empathetically about tragedy, and although she can't answer the question of why Rubio did it---a number of answers are put forward, including grinding poverty, schizophrenia, drugs, and/or demonic possession---she does record the community's ultimate, beautiful response: to make the land behind the building into the Tres Angeles Community Garden: 3 angels for Julissa, John Stephan, and Mary Jane.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    3.5 stars. I believe I first heard about this gruesome story from the Sword and Scale podcast (diehard fan!) and I’ve been intrigued ever since in picking up the book by Laura Tillman. This is a reporting of the murder of three children by their father with the help of their mother in Brownsville, Texas on March 11, 2003. This explores many issues, such as the death penalty, mental illness and poverty. While the story was heartbreaking and devastating, I found the writing somewhat lacking. I jus 3.5 stars. I believe I first heard about this gruesome story from the Sword and Scale podcast (diehard fan!) and I’ve been intrigued ever since in picking up the book by Laura Tillman. This is a reporting of the murder of three children by their father with the help of their mother in Brownsville, Texas on March 11, 2003. This explores many issues, such as the death penalty, mental illness and poverty. While the story was heartbreaking and devastating, I found the writing somewhat lacking. I just wanted more.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Thatcher-Murcia

    I was reluctant to read this because as a fellow Brownsville Herald reporter I've covered my share of heart-breaking, inexplicable tragedies that emerge from the poverty and brokenness of my beloved Brownsville. But huge credit and five stars to Laura Tillman for taking a deep, extremely humanistic dive into the horror story of drug addled parents killing their children. I could not stop reading and felt as though I came away with enormous respect for Tillman's research, interviewing and writing I was reluctant to read this because as a fellow Brownsville Herald reporter I've covered my share of heart-breaking, inexplicable tragedies that emerge from the poverty and brokenness of my beloved Brownsville. But huge credit and five stars to Laura Tillman for taking a deep, extremely humanistic dive into the horror story of drug addled parents killing their children. I could not stop reading and felt as though I came away with enormous respect for Tillman's research, interviewing and writing skills.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bridget

    This is a sad book. The murders themselves are horrific and not for the faint hearted, but it’s more about the city of Brownsville, mental illness and substance abuse. It’s a study on all influences that led up to a terrible moment.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Janet Morris

    I don't know how to explain my feelings toward this book. It is an extremely compelling story, but the writing quality is poor. There seemed to be no real outline or backbone to it. The purple prose only highlighted this flaw, as did the repetition of unimportant things and the lack of refreshers given for details that seemed more important. If all you knew about the case was the manner in which Julissa, John Stephon, and Mary Jane died, then it would seem impossible to feel bad for John Allen R I don't know how to explain my feelings toward this book. It is an extremely compelling story, but the writing quality is poor. There seemed to be no real outline or backbone to it. The purple prose only highlighted this flaw, as did the repetition of unimportant things and the lack of refreshers given for details that seemed more important. If all you knew about the case was the manner in which Julissa, John Stephon, and Mary Jane died, then it would seem impossible to feel bad for John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho, but what happened to them within the justice system is awful for other reasons. This is a case where a man with a severe mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia) and an intellectual disability (IQ in the low 70s) and a woman who had a shared psychosis with this man because of her own intellectual disability (IQ in the 50s) end up imprisoned, and, for him, end up on death row, but the writer is busy talking about superstitions & personal fears. It's almost like she doesn't completely perceive the gravity of the situation, the level of injustice that's going on. As lovely as it is to learn about regional cultural beliefs, I was more concerned about the fact that this man who should be in a hospital will probably face lethal injection. The writer could only view this as horrible once she met Mr. Rubio, but it seems like anyone with a basic sense of compassion would figure out after learning about his background. Instead, she was oblivious to it, which made her seem callous. It made the whole book feel callous. Also, the stalking of Ms. Camacho's family was a bit disturbing. I understand she felt that she needed to hear from them for her newspaper article and her book, but her behavior was quite creepy. I'm surprised that they didn't issue a restraining order after the second or third time she showed up outside the woman's front door. The writing honestly reminded me of what you'd find in an essay by a bored, uninformed student who waited until the last minute to do an assignment. I have a hard time believing that this is something the writer was encouraged to get published, at least in its current form. I have no doubt that she has talent, but the fixations on pointless details within the work are distracting and annoying. I wish she had explained more about Rubio's mental health than how a superstitious grandmother convinced her to throw away a perfectly good pair of tennis shoes. This wasn't her memoir. This wasn't even a memoir for the building. It was an unfocused work of nonfiction that was rather disappointing.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    IN COLD BLOOD is one of my favorite books, in part because it's a story about true crime and also because it's a book about journalism and the process of figuring out the story. Tillman's book does something similar. This is a compelling read about a journalist being pulled to a story of three children being brutally murdered by their parents and the legacy such a crime leaves on a small patch of the world. It's an uneven read, in that it doesn't delve enough into the story itself and focuses far IN COLD BLOOD is one of my favorite books, in part because it's a story about true crime and also because it's a book about journalism and the process of figuring out the story. Tillman's book does something similar. This is a compelling read about a journalist being pulled to a story of three children being brutally murdered by their parents and the legacy such a crime leaves on a small patch of the world. It's an uneven read, in that it doesn't delve enough into the story itself and focuses far more on Tillman's exploration of the story, figuring out the importance of asking questions to get to the heart of what a crime does, rather than figuring out the whys of the crime. More time on one or the other, or perhaps a better description of the book, would ground it a bit more into what it really is. That said, I appreciated how well Tillman digs into the idea of gray areas. It's not about the rights and wrongs here, nor about the places where good happens and where bad happens. It's about nuance. There's a really thoughtful look at John, the father, and how his life's situation may have led him to commit murder, but there's also a look at how the beliefs that led him to do it land in a murky area of mental illness vs. spiritual belief. I wish there'd been a little bit more about the role of spirituality and Mexican beliefs, especially because it's such a crucial part of the landscape and one that infiltrates many of the beliefs of those who Tillman talks with (Minerva, for example). It feels like a first book and there's wild potential in Tillman's writing, for sure. If nothing else, it made me want to learn a lot more about Brownsville, about the Rio Grande Valley, and about the mix of cultures therein. She presents such a rich look at the tapestry of beliefs that shape this part of the US and how those become complicated pieces of the justice system. Likewise, I thought her presentation of and discussion surrounding the death penalty offered much to grapple with. She doesn't come down on one side or the other, but suggests again we think about those gray areas and what our beliefs about the institution suggest about our beliefs about humanity on a larger scale.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Susan (aka Just My Op)

    This is undeniably a tragic, heartbreaking story – in 2003, three small children murdered by their (step)parents in Brownsville, TX, because of demons. And this is nonfiction. Real people killing real, innocent children. The parents were poor, not well educated, and the mother had a very low IQ. Still, can you murder your children, and horrifically at that, because you believe they are possessed by demons? Sadly, you can. They did. Despite the very touching story, the telling of it did not impres This is undeniably a tragic, heartbreaking story – in 2003, three small children murdered by their (step)parents in Brownsville, TX, because of demons. And this is nonfiction. Real people killing real, innocent children. The parents were poor, not well educated, and the mother had a very low IQ. Still, can you murder your children, and horrifically at that, because you believe they are possessed by demons? Sadly, you can. They did. Despite the very touching story, the telling of it did not impress me as I expected. Although the author interviewed those she could and repeatedly visited the site of the murders, I felt like I was reading newspaper articles rather than an in-depth coverage. Towards the end of the book, especially when writing about the death penalty, the author showed much more emotion. There was a good deal about what should happen to the building where the murders occurred, and the author told what has happened, and what has not, up to the point of her writing. While I understand the concern, and the deep emotional connection of residents near there, the building is not what mattered to me. While the story is interesting, it surprised me that there did not seem to be a more emotional connection. I felt too set apart from the story. I didn't really get to know the people involved. I listened to an unabridged audio version of this book, and although it was well read, the narrator's speed was too slow for me.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mrs. Danvers

    Thoughtful and compassionate, this sad but lovely book considers the big questions of humanity, questions of moral responsibility, the existence of evil, self-perception and the meaning of community, and does so with an almost lyrical command of language.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Miabi Chatterji

    The book is subtitled "Murder and Memory in an American City," but a better subtitle would have been "Various Musings of a Journalist about One Building and Evil." Tillman's slim volume - no index, bilbliography / further reading, or further notes on the people interviewed -- shouldn't be described as an "inquiry" into the murders of three children in Brownsville, TX in 2008 as it is on the flap, because only about 20% of the book covers the murders, the people involved, or the two trials that e The book is subtitled "Murder and Memory in an American City," but a better subtitle would have been "Various Musings of a Journalist about One Building and Evil." Tillman's slim volume - no index, bilbliography / further reading, or further notes on the people interviewed -- shouldn't be described as an "inquiry" into the murders of three children in Brownsville, TX in 2008 as it is on the flap, because only about 20% of the book covers the murders, the people involved, or the two trials that ensued (there is very, very little about the trials). Another 50% is made up of the journalist's comings and goings in Brownsville and her many, many, MANY ponderings about good, evil, community, connectedness, energy, and on and on and on. The final 30% is made up of some shallow overviews of topics like Brownsville's military history, the death penalty in the U.S., the DA in Brownsville getting convicted of corruption, and curanderismo. None of this is focused. Is the book an investigation of the ins and outs of the death penalty? Definitely not. Is it about whether someone (John Allen Rubio, who the author corresponds with for years and meets on death row 2x) who committed horrible crimes should be seen as a monster? Kind of, if you follow Tillman's meanderings. Is it about poverty, mental health issues, drugs, crime, race relations, class, or border politics? No. Each is given a little notice and a few lines here and there. So what the hell is this book and what is it about? It's really, at the end of the day, an inward-facing journal about Tillman as a person, one that would have been better for a blog or tightened severely into a New Yorker article. I am most disappointed that, after SIX years of research, Tillman couldn't give the reader a full sense of the context of the horrendous crimes in question, who the two murderers had been before the crimes, and what happened to them between arrest and sentencing. That is the LEAST she should be expected to provide in what is as open-and-shut a case of guilt as is possible! But we barely hear anything at all about the wife of the couple. We find out nothing about her past, who she knew, what she was like. I'm serious, there are about 6 and a half pages about Angela in the whole book. There are 2 pages each about Angela's defense attorney and Tillman's attempts to meet Angela's mother. Was Tillman not able to reach a single other human who knew Angela? Why not explain the complete dearth of information about her? She never faced trial because she took a plea deal, but she testified at least once during Rubio's trials - Tillman even reports that in the 2nd trial, she claimed that Rubio raped her after the murders! Is that not something to comment on, investigate, consider? Then there's Rubio's family and friends. Tillman tries to meet Rubio's mom, too, and is directed away. But could she find out some stuff from others during this six years of research? Is she still an addict? What does she think about her son? What do Rubio's siblings do for a living? How did they each carve a different path after the abuse they all suffered as kids? Even if she couldn't interview them, she could get SOME comments from other families about what they were like or what they're like now, no? I've read plenty of investigations of murder cases where the public sentiment, garnered from the people who either trust or mistrust the main characters, is just as interesting as the interviews with the main people involved. Here there's a total lack of that except for a handful of neighbors. There's the issue of Rubio's mental health, which is clearly important as it was the crux of both of his trials, it seems. Why no analysis of the system of mental health care (or lack thereof) in South Texas? At the beginning of the book there are a couple sentences about how, with no medical school around, there are few doctors. But I came away having no sense at all of the kinds of services that are lacking or existent in Brownsville vs the rest of the country... Rubio's family went to a food kitchen for ALL of their meals - one might ask, 'were any counseling services or services or any kind offered? Did staff have any resources to deal with mental health issues?' At least one employee spoke to Tillman, and even saw Rubio shortly before the murders. She said he looked awful and told her about his rent troubles, but didn't ask for help and left. Was part of her job to offer help? When Rubio and Camacho's kids were taken away from them for neglect, what happened in those 'parenting classes' they took? A couple murders their three kids after CPS had previously taken their kids away, made them take parenting classes, then gave them back, and you don't ask questions about what and who failed those kids?????? If you expect that Tillman would ask Rubio, at least, some hard questions about whether he feels remorse now, what he thinks about Angela, etc, don't get your hopes up. In a stunningly nonchalant sentence towards the beginning, Tillman writes that she feels it would be too "cruel" to ask Tillman such directed things about the murders and his guilt. Baffling. I got a basic understanding of the toxic nature of huffing paint in combination with Rubio's paranoid schizophrenia -- if he's not 'faking' his issues, as Tillman still leaves open to possibility. But other drugs? It seems Rubio and Camacho weren't given tox screens after arrest - is that normal in such a case? Is it possible they were on drugs despite Rubio's claims that they weren't? One neighbor said they hung out in crack houses; this doesn't even merit a follow up. Did no one in the editing process ask Tillman these questions? Finally, I want to say that if you're going to spend half your book making philosophical "insights" such as "A piece of earth can host another structure, and though it will be different from what came before, it can serve a new purpose. But when a life is gone, it is not replaced" (that is what a lot of the book is like), you better back up your philosophy with facts that catalyzed those concepts. Tillman talks at times about how we're all interconnected; the world, she says, is a "single, quivering entity." But that's just not what she shows on the ground in Barrio Buena Vida. Who pulled together through the trials? While Rubio's siblings defended him through the first trial, they didn't at the 2nd (that's not explained either except for a few vague phrases). Were there people who banded together to demand more services in the community? Better investigation of child abuse? Tillman's exploration of the case started years after the fact, and she herself provides stories of how people just forty miles down the road barely remember the case! So where are those ripple effects she talks about? Apparently not a single person who ever associated with Angela can be found except for her one-time lawyer, so how are we all connected? How does this crime show how a community is all affected by a tragedy? Not until the last couple chapters do we see anything happen in the neighborhood that's an effect of the crimes. It's rushed at the end, and cushioned with wayyyy too much philosophizing. TL:DR: Read this if you'd be interested in an exploration of what it's like to be a journalist and get obsessed with a derelict building where a horrific crime took place several years back, and you want to read some meandering thoughts about evil and whether a building can have a 'bad energy.' If you expect that, it's not bad. Don't read if you're looking to learn about the Rubio/Camacho murders, Rubio's trials, the people who knew them, or the social forces at work around them.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Penny Schmuecker

    In The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, author and journalist, Laura Tillman, writes of the murder of three children in Brownsville, Texas in 2003. The unthinkable aspect of the crime is that the murders were committed by the children's parents, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho. Tillman began writing about the crime in 2008 when she was a journalist for the Brownsville Herald. Five years after the murder was committed, the building where the children were killed was still standing and many reside In The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, author and journalist, Laura Tillman, writes of the murder of three children in Brownsville, Texas in 2003. The unthinkable aspect of the crime is that the murders were committed by the children's parents, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho. Tillman began writing about the crime in 2008 when she was a journalist for the Brownsville Herald. Five years after the murder was committed, the building where the children were killed was still standing and many residents believed that the building itself was evil and should be demolished in order to rid the community of this evil. A notable amount of the book is dedicated to the examination of the building, both physically and historically, and the effects that its presence still has on the residents of the area, years after the murders were committed. Thankfully, the book is more than a gruesome account of the details of the crime. It is impossible to tell the story without considering the factors that could have contributed to the commission of such a heinous crime. Brownsville, Texas is one of the poorest cities in the US. Lying on the north side of the Rio Grande River, its sister city to the south is Matamoros, Mexico. The two cities are really one and the same in terms of poverty and I found it ironic and sad that the mother of the children, Angela Camacho, had crossed the border illegally, only to live in poverty in the United States. Tillman corresponded with the children's father by mail and on two occasions, she was able to meet him for a face to face interview. In addition to using drugs, John Rubio admits that he regularly sniffed paint. At his trial he would later be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis that is relevant when it was revealed that he believed the children were possessed by the spirit of his deceased grandmother and therefore needed to be killed. Tillman's well-researched book takes into account the impact of poverty, addiction and mental health in the violent murders of the Rubio/Camacho children. While nothing can fully explain how a crime such as this occurs, she has certainly presented enough evidence to allow the reader to consider how each of these factored into this senseless tragedy. This was a extremely well-researched book and one that should not be overlooked when considering the effects of poverty, addiction and/or mental health on our society. Thank you to the publisher, the author, and NetGalley for allowing me to read an advance copy of this book.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This book had a lot of potential, particularly regarding the analysis of the M'naghten rule in British and American law. Unfortunately, not from any error of the author, although harder work or at least speculation would have deepened this subject, the book is largely about a horrendous murder of three very young children by their father (with assistance from their extremely low IQ mother) in Brownsville, Texas. The legal question in play is the "insanity" defense. The father had been diagnosed a This book had a lot of potential, particularly regarding the analysis of the M'naghten rule in British and American law. Unfortunately, not from any error of the author, although harder work or at least speculation would have deepened this subject, the book is largely about a horrendous murder of three very young children by their father (with assistance from their extremely low IQ mother) in Brownsville, Texas. The legal question in play is the "insanity" defense. The father had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, which was enough to get John Hinckley a mere sentence in a penal mental hospital for his assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan. Secondly, the father huffed spray paint, which did his brain no favors, and lastly, the father was actively hallucinogenic and believed in demon possession, thinking that his dead grandmother was speaking through the voice and body of his eldest daughter. After decapitating the three children, the father and mother washed their bodies and awaited their arrest at their home. The jury found that the washing of the bodies showed that the father knew what he was doing and therefore couldn't have actively not known right from wrong during the murders. I wonder what he would have had to do to be considered actively insane, clucked like a chicken? Surely a more nuanced definition of the M'Naghten rule could have produced a more enlightened outcome than a sentence of death. Not that he didn't deserve the death penalty for what he did, but how could he have been adjudged not insane and had that taken into account in his sentencing? The book largely consists of the author trying to come to metaphysical terms with the murders, including her expansive abstract meditations often using strained metaphors, such as "true comprehension was a moving target," and "all one could make out were the contours of despair." She also discovers the shoes that she wore to tread over the crime scene as "waiting for me in the back of my closet, defiant." I had trouble anthropomorphizing shoes to imagine that level of emotion in them--or else all my shoes have had plain vanilla emotions and usually just sit there in seemingly contented idleness. A valuable part of the book is the author's historical (and current) description of the residents of Brownsville and the distinctions between the few whites who lived in nice houses compared to the mostly Mexican residents living in abject poverty.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Paul Pessolano

    “The Long Shadow of Small Things”, by Laura Tillman, published by Scribner. Category – Crime Publication Date – April, 2016 This is a wonderful book for those interested in crime, especially those seeking to determine the reasons why certain crimes are committed. This is an excellent study of conditions that could cause criminal behavior. The reader should first realize that this is a story of horrific murders, the beheading of three small children by their parents, a murder that most of us could “The Long Shadow of Small Things”, by Laura Tillman, published by Scribner. Category – Crime Publication Date – April, 2016 This is a wonderful book for those interested in crime, especially those seeking to determine the reasons why certain crimes are committed. This is an excellent study of conditions that could cause criminal behavior. The reader should first realize that this is a story of horrific murders, the beheading of three small children by their parents, a murder that most of us could not even visualize as happening. This crime was committed in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in America. The parents were young and poorly educated, but seemingly were proud and dutiful to their children. They did live in abject poverty and almost totally dependent on others for their well-being. Laura Tillman goes into detail about how these factors and others may well have played a pivotal factor in these young parents’ lives that led them to this end. It is also unbelievable that both parents took part in the murders, and neither of them denied what they did nor did they make any effort to hide the murder or escape. This book uses this murder to study the whys and wherefores of the criminal mind and what could possibly lead them to do something totally unimaginable.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cait

    Oh this book. It could not decide what it wanted to be. A ghost story? A true crime novel? A psychology textbook, a history book, or a story about a building? I had to painfully slog my way to the finish line on this one. I was familiar with the crimes of John Allen Rubio and picked up this book after listening to a podcast about the crime in which this author was interviewed. I am not a person who needs all the gory details about a crime, but this book felt SO CONFUSING. I went into it expecting Oh this book. It could not decide what it wanted to be. A ghost story? A true crime novel? A psychology textbook, a history book, or a story about a building? I had to painfully slog my way to the finish line on this one. I was familiar with the crimes of John Allen Rubio and picked up this book after listening to a podcast about the crime in which this author was interviewed. I am not a person who needs all the gory details about a crime, but this book felt SO CONFUSING. I went into it expecting I was going to read a true crime novel, and instead had to slog through dozens of chapters about the cultural and historical makeup of Brownsville. While I think these elements are definitely part of the story, I don't really understand why the author chose to make them the focus. I felt that the story of the deaths of three little children was wholly overwhelmed by the author's obsession with the scene of the crime. Don't think you're going to get any insights into the why's of the crime with this one, unless the why is that THE HOUSE IS AN EVIL THING.

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