The Gray Scale
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts:
Murder and Memory in an American City
The abandoned apartment building on East Tyler Street in the Barrio Buena Vida neighborhood of Brownsville, Texas, is a place of constant local conversation and consideration because of a violent crime that occurred under its roof. This is saying something. Situated on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, directly opposite Matamoros, Mexico, Brownsville is no stranger to violence, whether of the historical sort, as a battleground of the Mexican-American War, or the sort that comes with the territory in a place that perennially resides near the top of the list of poorest cities in the country. The neighbors there can unspool a yarn or two: lovers’ quarrels turned deadly, robberies gone wrong, or the grim cruelties of drug traffickers wishing to send a message to would-be rivals. When a lurid new tale reaches the barrio, someone will say, shrugging, “Only in Brownsville.”
Exposure leads to inurement, eventually—when pain becomes common, the brain and the heart must harden. But when the inured become haunted by an event, we learn something. What happened on East Tyler Street pierced the most protected hearts, and the building has yet to shake off the stigma. Some neighbors still hear the ghosts inside. Some neighbors still pass the building only on the far side of the street.
On March 11, 2003, three children, aged three, one, and two months, were brutally killed—choked, stabbed, and decapitated—in their home by their parents, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho. The parents confessed the crime immediately and were arrested the same day. What passed as their motive was that the children were possessed by demons. Over time, investigators, reporters, psychiatrists, lawyers, and neighbors would add plenty of copy to that simple claim, but very little resolution.
Journalist Laura Tillman covered the murders, and the aftermath of the parents’ conviction, for the Brownsville Herald. The story of a community, and a reporter, handling unthinkable violence became The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City, a diligent and sensitive meditation on how we reconcile ourselves to human acts that surpass human comprehension. Tillman roots her account in the moment the neighborhood mythos surrounding the murders became not just something she observed as a reporter, but something she felt herself.
As I began to visit the building with increasing frequency, I noticed a cloud hovering overhead—an accumulation of meaning more dense and persistent than I’d ever intuited. […] The cloud was heavy with palpable ambivalence, an existential dread about what had happened here, […] leaving damage that had yet to be completely measured.
Tillman goes on to describe a growingly occult relationship to the building on East Tyler. “I became a pilgrim to the building […] I was a disciple of the unknown lesson I believed it would teach me.” Her hope was that absorbing the scene emotionally could yield some understanding of the circumstances surrounding the murders, an endeavor that quickly reinforced her impression of the structure’s numinous significance: after a construction worker allowed her access to the actual apartment—largely undisturbed several years after the crime—Tillman felt compelled to dispose of the shoes she wore on the chance they’d been contaminated by the evil that may have inhabited the home.
Restricted to the earthly plane, the facts are these: John and Angela were deeply impoverished, often drug-addicted, and strongly learning-disabled, if not mentally ill. John, on whom the book focuses, may have been in the early stages of schizophrenia. And if he was a schizophrenic, a longtime habit of huffing paint may have exacerbated the disorder. Or, he may not have been schizophrenic, but the huffing of paint created similar reality-distorting symptoms in his brain. Add to this mix the hopelessness of penury—“When a difficult time comes and nobody helps you,” explains one neighbor, “nobody listens to you […] You’re frustrated and you have hungry children. And you kill them. That’s how people think.”—and you’ve amassed a list of ingredients for a reasonable explanation of what went wrong.
And yet, John himself would disagree. He might point out that his family was well-nourished through regular meals from the nearby Good Neighbor shelter, or that he and Angela had no history of abuse toward their kids. Tillman spoke with John while he was in prison:
His face lit up whenever he spoke about them, and his expressions grew more animated. […] These relationships were the most unblemished in his life. His children had loved him.
John has stuck to his story over the years, more or less, and that story doesn’t brook tepid rationalizations about aggregated circumstances. “Something crazy happened and I just snapped,” he wrote to Tillman, a vague summary of what was, at the time, his stance against demonic evil. Such an argument, a claim of insanity, might be expected from a confessed killer hoping to avoid the needle: He and Angela had no choice, they believed they were doing good. Such an argument also sounds spot-on in the case of a man who, at one point, abandoned the knife and opted to pull his infant daughter’s head off with his hands.
Is this evil born within a person, or is it thrust upon them from the outside? For Tillman, the question came to defy her journalistic methods. “In John’s case, an amalgamation of religious references, drugs, and mental illness conspire to make it nearly impossible to definitively answer” what it was that guided his and his wife’s actions. The who and the what and the where and the how were, as always, accessible by diligence, but the why remained elusive. And with its elusiveness came a challenge to her faith in the project of shining light on atrocity:
Sometimes it seems easier not to know. Easier to forget the murders and the bloody concrete, the remnants of DNA, the graphic histories of violence, to live in a world where the horrors of the past are invisible, or else you’d have to throw out your shoes every time they touched the street.
By collectively dwelling on these horrors, do we mitigate the chance of similar events happening in the future? Or do we risk staining the social conversation with superstition of capital-‘E’ Evil, because it is the only digestible explanation for a seemingly normal, if troubled, couple murdering their beloved children? Is the concept of “motive,” while crucial to attorneys operating within a system, only one of many ways to reconcile the reality of cold-blooded murder? Even the staunch empiricist is susceptible to feeling “bad energy” emanating from a physical place, inside which the memory of horror hovers like an entity.
James Holmes, the 2012 Colorado theater shooter, wrote in his journal relating to his plans for mass murder, “The message is, there is no message.” Tillman faced down a similar reality each time she stood outside the building at East Tyler Street, not as perpetrator, not even as reporter, but as a person. “Do moral absolutes exist, or is the world grayer than we would generally like to acknowledge?” she wonders, having been unable to arrive at a sufficient why. Here, with the Rubios, there is no jilted lover, no wronged gangster, no unhinged psychopath. Here we have only a bug in the system, and our name for it is Evil.
Recently, the building has come into happier times. A community garden thrives adjacent to it, a symbol not just of natural beauty, but of constructive collective effort. Tillman found herself, and the neighbors she’d come to know, healed by it. It signified a legacy “I initially viewed as a straightforward history of violence, and now know to reveal a city in which perseverance, optimism, and hope accompany even the darkest tragedy.” While a building’s power may lie “in its ability to make present what is past,” she writes, a conscious initiative to inject color into the landscape of gray means that the collateral victims of horrible crimes can wield goodness like a weapon, and render the evil past powerless.
GEOFFREY YOUNG is a writer living in Brooklyn.