Write About it Wednesday: Rubio Murders, Brownsville, TX

“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…

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Write About it Wednesday: Winifred Bodkin and New York’s Most Unusual Address

“It’s a grand old building. In the old days, this building was New York.”

Life at the Dakota by Stephen Birmingham is a lovely guide to New York’s Most Unusual Address: The Dakota. I had never heard of this building until receiving a copy of The Address by Fiona Davis. Architecture and building design fascinate me. I think the buildings themselves embody history and allow us insight into life in a previous time. There have been so many celebrities, guests, and workers in and out of this building that if only the old saying were true, “if walls could talk…”

I chose to focus on Winifred Bodkin in my research. She came to the Dakota in 1930 not long after her arrival in America. She started as an elevator girl and promoted to the front desk where she remained for the rest of her working years. She was loyal to the Dakota far beyond a regular employee. During the strike of 1976, she chose not to participate (the only worker to do so) and continued her regular duties. She packed her bag the night before so she would not have to cross the picket line but would still be available to the occupants. I thought it was very interesting that during this strike, all of the occupants chipped in and compared the event to an adventure at summer camp. The women loved sorting the mail, the men volunteered to take out the garbage, and everyone learned how to run and staff the building. Winifred left memories of this event along with other tales of occupants working out of their apartments, announcing callers, and helping famous people avoid the paparazzi such as John Lennon. She noted the security changes through the decades and the renovations that pained her to watch. Some of the residents described Winifred as more than the building’s concierge, she was the heart and soul of the operation. Her scrapbook of the time she spent at the Dakota is one of the only remaining documents of the building’s history. Most of the building’s eighty year history was destroyed in one single day by a porter “throwing all this old stuff out.”

It is hard to imagine a person working decades in the same job. We bounce around and change careers more than any generation before us. I think that is what drew me to Winifred. Can you imagine what you could see and document if you spent your entire working career at one company? My parents both had this luxury (that might be a stretch) of working for the same company and watching it evolve, seeing the highs and the lows and all the in between. I think this is a new way to look at history. We all hear the stories of the John Lennons, Joe Namaths, and Judy Garlands of the world, but what about the workers that watch them pass through each day? How would the Dakota compare today from let’s say 1960, 1970, 1980? One woman can tell us that story. We just have to look in the right places. 

Write About it Wednesday: What Makes a Good Biography?

“Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.”

Biographies are my go to nonfiction. I find it hard to pick up a book that details a war or a particular time period with 500 + pages without getting bored and feeling guilty for not being able to read it through. A biography allows the reader a more personal experience of what occurred.

So what makes a good biography?

A good biography should read like a novel. Truth can be told as any other story, and presentation is important. A reader shouldn’t feel as though they picked up their old history book and need to take notes in case there is a quiz at the end. The story should flow and keep the reader engaged and excited. The most important aspect of a biography is the research. An author should research thoroughly before beginning the writing process. Facts about the person’s life are important, but combining elements of the world around them makes it authentic. It is immediately evident if the right amount of research has been done. Another important element is the author’s passion. Why are they writing about this particular person? What made them significant? If the reader can’t tell then the author has missed an essential element.

My biggest pet peeve in a biography is when the author is outright biased about a historical event, or a decision made by the person they are discussing. I do not pick up a biography to hear an author’s opinion on historical matters. I want a well-rounded viewpoint so I can develop my own opinions. How do I know if something is accurate if the author is telling their own form of the truth?

What are your favorite biographies? Do you have any that you despised?

Write About it Wednesday: Rise of ISIS

“Americans are weary of war, but our enemies are not. Wars do not end when we grow tired of fighting them. They end when our enemies are defeated.”

The Rise of ISIS is a combination of background, crimes committed by the terrorist organization and a detailed account of Hamas and their threat to Israel. This is an excellent description for people who have minimal knowledge of ISIS and the threat we’re currently facing. I am not an expert on terrorism, but I was hoping for a deeper knowledge of ISIS based on the title. There are several chapters outlining Hamas and their influential role on other organizations. I did find this intriguing and hope to dive into some research over the Gaza conflict, and the Palestinian authority. I was alarmed that Fatah and Hamas jointly govern the authority and that Obama funded $221 million to the organization three hours before Trump’s inauguration. The fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization is widely known, and our tax dollars were sent as aid to their new government.

One thing I found shocking was the overwhelming use of media by ISIS. “…on June 13, 2014, ISIS posted a picture of a decapitated head on Twitter, along with the following text: This is our football, it’s made of skin #WorldCup.” With the 90, 000 + social media messages per day they have a firm hold on marketing strategies. People are flocking from countries all over the world to join ISIS at an alarming rate. Their violent crimes and lack of concern for human life is not a deterrent. They also have a steady cash flow making them the wealthiest terror organization with countless weapons at their disposal.

I have always had my fair share of issues with the U.N. (and their involvement in terrorist organizations) and this book only increased my concerns. It brought to light issues that I did not know about the Red Cross and how each organization reports the news on the ground. They both lean towards the left and if this book is correct, have aided in promoting terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I like to explore both sides and determine fact vs opinion, but I found little evidence disputing some of the claims. It’s shocking and downright scary.

This book leaves us: “It’s once again time for America to lead.” I couldn’t agree more