“If the building stays behind, it will always be a landmark of three children who were never given an opportunity to live, to see the sun rise one more time, to see the moon.”
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts dives into the city of Brownsville, Texas and the repercussions of a horrendous murder of three children and what happens to the building where a crime of such nature is committed. This true crime novel is written in a unique way that focuses outside the murder itself and shows what is left behind. The author was asked to cover the potential demolition of the site of the murders but saw a story that went much deeper. This led to a six-year journey into the effects on the city in the aftermath, the larger significance of such crimes and an exploration of social issues such as poverty and mental illness. John Allen Rubio, with the aid of his common law wife, murdered his three children after voices told him to. These were not simple, point and shoot murders but were gruesome in nature. These children suffered at the hands of their parents. My first question is always: Could this have been prevented? Were there signs?
Rubio had a rough childhood. His mother would use his disability checks to pay their rent instead of providing therapy and assistance. He was pushed into prostitution and moved in with girlfriends to get away from the abuse. He had dreams of going into the military after high school but failed the aptitude tests required for entry. He became addicted to drugs and was homeless on and off. He could not hold down a steady job. Tillman spoke with past teachers, coaches, neighbors, shelters that Rubio visited about his childhood and disability. She left no stone unturned. She even corresponded with Rubio through letters and visits to the prison. He sent her pictures and school reports and painted a picture of a loving father, dedicated to his children. So, what went wrong?
The neighbors believe the building where the crimes were committed is cursed, it has a bad energy that passes to those that come near. Tillman made countless visits to document the changes occurring in and around the building, but didn’t truly grasp the murders until she walked into the Rubio apartment. Her description of not being able to wear the shoes she walked through the apartment in anymore shares how deeply involved she became while covering this crime. She spent six years of her life on this project and it shows. The research is impeccable. As she describes the building, the community, the neighbors, the reader can truly feel the effects of the murders and begin to question their views and opinions on major issues such as poverty, mental illness, the death penalty and many more. These are uncomfortable topics that she doesn’t skip over but instead brings to the forefront and makes you think. He murdered his children. He is a monster in the eyes of most because that is how the media portrays him. Who could kill their own children? He deserves to die. What if you had to look him in the eye? What if you knew his whole story? Would it change your mind…?
I have been lucky in my nonfiction choices lately. I would easily add this book to my favorites list, not only for the content but the writing is something to learn from. As always, I did further research and considered various aspects of the story, the city itself and the coverage of the crime. It made me reflect on issues that I’ve always felt my mind was made up on. Isn’t that the power of good writing?
Cheers to another year of reading, writing and continuing to fly through a million pages…