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The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts

Murder and Memory in an American City

This book can be downloaded and read in iBooks on your Mac or iOS device.


“A haunted, haunting examination of mental illness and murder in a more or less ordinary American city…Mature and thoughtful…A Helter Skelter for our time, though without a hint of sensationalism—unsettling in the extreme but written with confidence and deep empathy” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

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 run down, and in their aftermath a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed.

In 2008, journalist Laura Tillman covered the story for The Brownsville Herald. The questions it raised haunted her and set her on 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. Tillman spoke 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. Her investigation is “a dogged attempt to understand what happened, a review of the psychological, sociological and spiritual explanations for the crime…a meditation on the death penalty and on the city of Brownsville” Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

The result is a brilliant exploration of some of our age’s most important social issues and a beautiful, profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them. “This thought-provoking…book exemplifies provocative long-form journalism that does not settle for easy answers” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

From Publishers Weekly

Feb 22, 2016 – When Tillman moved to Brownsville, Tex., in 2008 for a job at a local newspaper, she was assigned to write a story about the local debate over whether to demolish an apartment building where, in 2003, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered and decapitated their three small children. Tillman becomes increasingly interested in the crime and how the proposed destruction of the building was the catalyst for the community to wrestle with it. In order to fully understand the family involved in the crime, she traces their place in their south Texas community and explores the violent history of the region. Did Rubio, who orchestrated the murders, truly believe his children were possessed by demons? Why did Camacho go along with it? Tillman's persistent, gritty journalism reveals that the case is more complicated and nuanced than the headlines would indicate. But still another question persists: how does a community cope with the long lasting effects of such a revolting crime? This thought-provoking portrait of a murder implicates the community at large and forces the reader to grapple with the death penalty, which Rubio is sentenced to. Tillman's book exemplifies provocative long-form journalism that does not settle for easy answers. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency.
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts
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  • $11.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: Social Science
  • Published: Apr 05, 2016
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Seller: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc.
  • Print Length: 256 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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