In her first book, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, Tillman writes about the consequences of a brutal crime in Brownsville, Tex.: the murder of three small children by their parents, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho, in 2003.
Often our instinct is to turn away from horrific crimes like this. What made you want to turn your attention toward it?
The short answer is the building. I was just starting out as a newspaper reporter when I was assigned to write about the apartment building where this crime occurred, and the local debate over whether it should be demolished. I found that this case and the issue of what should be done with the building had caused the community to wrestle with profound moral and spiritual questions. It was incredibly difficult to write about the crime, but the themes that surrounded it—memory, capital punishment, religion, mental health—captivated me. What happens when you look at such an event directly instead of turning away became one of the key concerns of the book.
How did researching this story challenge your assumptions about other murder cases?
Going in, I assumed that these crimes had little to do with me. I now know that to be false. I think we all have to ask ourselves what makes us different from the people who commit these crimes. In this particular case, when you hear John’s voice in his letters, you might be surprised how familiar he sounds.
What can other communities learn from the way that Brownsville coped with this crime?
When these types of crimes occur, people want to move on, and demolishing a structure seems like a clear-cut way to begin that process, plus there are logistical reasons why such a home could become a blight on a neighborhood. But when these structures are demolished quickly, there may be a missed opportunity to debate how a crime will be remembered, and how future cases might be prevented. In Brownsville, the physical reminder of this event forced those conversations to happen, and they were so meaningful.
You write about the role of spirituality in the lives of the people and the city. How did spirituality play a role in the lingering effects of the case and the building where the crime occurred?
So many people in Brownsville view their community through the lens of faith and see themselves as part of a family. So when something happens to the innocents among them, it causes genuine citywide grief, almost as though they are mourning a relative. There’s also a strong tradition of folk healing in Brownsville, and within that tradition, a place can be corrupted with negativity by a horrific event, to the point where it needs to be cleansed.