In November 1970, two brothers, ages 11 and 14, were out for a hike in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and found the remains of 18-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling, who had been missing for four months. Her wrists and ankles had been bound, indicating foul play, but the criminal investigation into her murder lasted less than a year and a half, and her killer or killers have never been apprehended.
PW spoke with journalist Katherine Dykstra, author of What Happened to Paula (Norton, June), about the case, and the ways in which gender, and occupying a female body, intersect with Oberbroeckling’s life and death.
How did you hear about this case?
When I met my husband in 2006, his family was working on a documentary film about Paula Oberbroeckling’s death. His mother had gone to the same high school as Paula, and Paula’s unsolved homicide had haunted her for more than 35 years. Susan, my future mother-in-law, asked then if I wanted to be a part of the project. I was a journalist and capable of conducting interviews, but I was a firm no. At that time, the idea of thinking about how this girl had been killed frightened me.
What made you come back to it?
Years later, after I married and had my first child, my mother-in-law approached me again. Her documentary had never come to fruition, but she hadn’t given up on telling Paula’s story, and now she thought that the case might be fodder for a book. By that time, marriage and motherhood had changed my conception of my womanhood so drastically that when I thought about Paula, rather than fear, what I felt was anger at all the ways she had been hemmed in by the circumstances of her life—chief of which, for me, having just given birth, was the fact that she was possibly pregnant when she disappeared.
Does this case look different in the wake of the #MeToo movement?
It does in that the indignities that Paula and the other women of her time had to endure, from unwanted advances to domestic violence, were both accepted and to be expected. Women were often put in uncomfortable situations and then they were told that they should feel no discomfort. Today women can, at the least, point to others who have stood up for their rights over their own bodies and they can feel emboldened by those examples. But even in the midst of #MeToo, women are still being killed by their partners, they are still the victims of sexual violence. The pandemic has only put a point on this. Women who have been caged with their abusive partners can’t escape the violence.
How do you hope learning Paula’s story will affect readers?
So much of womanhood is ensconced in shame. Women are shamed for the way they dress, the things they say, their very bodies and biology. They’re shamed for their approaches to work, for whether they decide to marry, to have children, for the ways in which they choose to mother. The judgment is endless. Paula was shamed for her behaviors in life and she was practically blamed for her own death. My hope is that by telling Paula’s story, and the stories of the other women in [the book], I’ll be able to illustrate how this type of shaming traps women, and also that readers will feel less inclined to feel shame over their own choices.