Books In Conversation
Rachel Rear with Ian MacAllen
Catch the Sparrow: A Search for a Sister and the Truth of Her Murder
Stephanie Kupchynsky’s 1991 disappearance from her home in Greece, New York haunted the people of her home town of East Brunswick, New Jersey, a bedroom community about an hour south of Brooklyn. Kupchynsky’s father, Jerry, taught music at the local school. He was beloved by his students, like Rachel Rear, who played the clarinet. Rachel’s mother eventually married Jerry, and she became his stepdaughter and Stephanie’s stepsister. During that time, Stephanie’s disappearance remained unsolved.
I first met Rachel through her younger sister, right around the time we were graduating from Rutgers and moving to the city. Brooklyn is like small village, and over the years, I stayed in contact with Rachel through mutual friends and accidental encounters. By coincidence, a few weeks before the pandemic, we were in the same Park Slope bar. She described to me the project she was working on, the research of her dead stepsister’s murder. I was shocked. If I had heard of Stephanie’s murder, I had never really processed it. Then Rachel started talking about the details and it seemed so real.
Catch the Sparrow is partly a memoir and partly a true-crime investigation as Rachel unravels the many layers surrounding Stephanie’s disappearance. Today, Rachel is a middle school teacher living in Brooklyn, but researching the book required countless hours sifting through documents, conducting interviews, and traveling upstate as she followed the trail of the investigation. Rachel has crafted a compelling narrative about Stephanie’s disappearance and illustrated complex, multi-dimensional profiles of the victims, suspects, and police. We met on a chilly night in south Brooklyn to reflect on the process of writing the book and the interconnected traumas of the people involved.
Ian MacAllen (Rail): I remember you telling me you started this project and you said you were researching your murdered stepsister, and you said that often it gave you access. Was there anything you thought wasn't going to come out if you had just been a random reporter?
Rachel Rear: I was very clear about our relationship and the fact that I had never met her. What was very interesting to me is I would explain she was my stepsister, and explain how her dad was my music teacher when I was younger, and that I knew him and he knew me from school. I explained how I had fixated on his missing daughter from when I was fourteen, when she first went missing. I had never met her, but then Mom married into the mystery. And even though I would explain all of that, the people I spoke to were always the ones who said “sister.” It’s almost like—they liked that story.
It was a personal quest for me. I think people picked up on that. They could sense that I was sincere in my quest to understand this missing puzzle piece of my life, and that it wasn't just journalism.
RAIL: Did you talk about undertaking the project before Jerry, Stephanie’s father and your stepfather, passed away?
REAR: Not with him. He was already suffering from Parkinson's related dementia by then. It wouldn't have done much for him anyway. I do think that his conflation of her and me piqued my interest more, to be constantly compared to and confused with Stephanie made me very curious. He really thought we were very similar even in the way we behaved.
RAIL: One of the things you write about is how many of the people you spoke with compared you to Stephanie, or told you how much you look like her. As stepsisters, you aren’t biologically related. How did you feel when people compared you to her?
REAR: It was somehow simultaneously comforting and strange. I don’t see the resemblance as much as others do, though I do think our eyes are very similar—which is what Jerry used to say the most. I spoke to a lot of people who really loved Stephanie and felt robbed, rightfully, of her presence. I sometimes wondered if they were sort of seeking to reconnect with her with me as a conduit—which is exactly how I say I felt receiving all of their memories and reflections, too. But people who didn’t know her would say it, too—Sandra Doorley, her ex-boyfriend Keith, the county clerk on Martha’s Vineyard. It was kind of otherworldly, really.
RAIL: What makes this book particularly compelling is that you have merged the true-crime investigating and memoir—including your time researching it. How long did the research component of the book take?
REAR: I began sincerely in 2015. I sort of realized then what I wanted it to be. I took a personal essay class with Sue Shapiro. Then I emailed Sandra Doorley, the Monroe County District Attorney, and said: I’d like to come talk to you.
RAIL: Were you worried about what you were going to find on the CD she gave you?
REAR: I was prepared at that point. I had already read a bunch of true-crime books as a study of the genre. It’s kind of the way I teach. I immerse my students in the genre we’re writing.
Part of that was I read Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murdered sex workers found at Gilgo Beach in Long Island. I messaged him on Facebook asking if I could pick his brain. He lives in Brooklyn! He suggested we meet for coffee. He encouraged me right off the bat. I asked: Is this worth writing? Could this be a book? It was worth writing for me. But is it interesting enough? Is it of value to other people?
He said some really beautiful things. He used the phrase, “community of suffering” and explained that by doing all this research, he became part of that community.
We met at the Hungry Ghost, which I thought was apt. After that meeting, I felt galvanized. And he confirmed that it was a worthwhile pursuit. I was prepared for anything.
RAIL: You talk about the community of suffering—there is a quote in the book: “So many people in this story survived abusive childhoods”—that's both victims and aggressors—did you see any patterns that had raised any anxiety in your own experiences?
REAR: I feel like I've done a lot of work in therapy and in dealing with my own childhood. If anything, I’d like to think I was able to help people. There were a couple of Stephanie’s high school friends that I felt very connected to while we were in touch, and there is a lot that they said to me that didn't end up in the book. They shared a lot with me about her childhood and about their childhood and I definitely felt woven together with these women. They were mostly women. It was like an alternate community of suffering because abuse is definitely a thread in my book.
RAIL: Almost everyone had good things to say about Stephanie—or at least, everyone seemed to love her—
REAR: Everyone loved her for sure. That is one of the things that actually was important to me. When Stan calls her “the girl next door,” I stiffen up a little bit. I’m wary of tropes like that.
Carolyn Murnick wrote a book, The Hot One, a memoir, that's about her childhood best friend, Ashley Ellerin, who was murdered—strangely, she was supposed to go on a date with Ashton Kutcher the night of the murder—and afterward, she was thoroughly slut-shamed in her death.
Carolyn Murnick's book tries to dismantle that trope. There is the virgin-whore dichotomy that people impress upon women. I feel like a lot of people wanted to virginize Stephanie. That's how they wanted to see her. To me, that robs her of her entirety as well.
I think that Stephanie was all the things people say: sweet, a bright star, all those things. But I also love Dave Harrison, her college friend who described her as “a porcelain delicate flower with a screw loose.” He really had a good handle on her and was very honest with me about who she was, because he adored her, but also recognized that she could be so annoying. And I loved when people told me those things because it just humanized her so much. And that's what made me love her.
Her friends from high school told me she was kind of wild—sneaking out, smoking cigarettes, drinking when she was like in middle school. Sure, it was probably in response to a pretty rigid environment. But she still did it. She was kind of a bad girl. Those things—Keith, her boyfriend, sort of reminisced about their sex life. I loved learning about those parts of her life. Her boyfriend from Martha's Vineyard, Geoff, one of the things that he said to me was, that a lot of what he had read or heard about her family was “borderline delusional.”
RAIL: There is clearly a lot of trauma going on in this book. Did your research lead you to reexamine any of your previous relationships?
REAR: The part where I write about my own abusive relationships: I swear it will never happen again. And I say every time I leave one, I swear it will never happen again. I’m three years out of the last one, and I swear it will never happen, again, period. Absolutely, acknowledging that every time I've said I'll never do that again—it happens again. How can that happen again?
I would say that's something I reexamined, but it’s been liberating to acknowledge that I am susceptible to falling in love with abusive men. There is something about them that draws me in. Maybe just acknowledging that this time might not have been the last time, even though hopefully it was, might make it more likely to be the last time. Acknowledging it—like being in recovery as an addict, and knowing you might relapse. Knowing that you are vulnerable makes you stronger. So yeah, maybe I didn’t have an epiphany, but I did reexamine my own susceptibility to abuse. You'd be shocked about the kinds of things abuse victims go through and then just do it again.
I think a lot of people who are charismatic, fiery and passionate might also have anger issues. I don't know why it’s so hard to find one without the other. I was in my 20s and in a relationship that was rife with abuse and then I left and I said never again, I will never be with someone like that again. And then I did it again, and again, and again, thrice more.
RAIL: There are so many layers of this narrative that you have constructed with the characters. Was there a natural mystery within the book—the page turning element—or was this something you had to construct as a narrative story teller?
REAR: I knew the ending at the beginning. I knew the big answer. That mystery was actually hard to construct. I don't like to call it the “whodunit aspect” of it. But that’s the word other people have used. Let me say, making the story compelling was a challenge.
My agent Dan Conaway, he is brilliant, he helped a ton with that. And my editor Daniel Loedel polished it more—my two Dans.
I would say one of the things that I really obsessed over was when I went down the rabbit hole of researching the police department. That section was twice as long at one point—the corruption. The section about Dave Connors’s original investigation had been separate from the police corruption. But I realized a lot of people were getting bogged down in that part. It interested me, and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t interesting to everyone. But it is because it wasn't about Stephanie anymore. So, I had to weave together the Dave Connors investigation to coincide with the corruption. The challenge was in braiding them together.
I became obsessed with figuring out how this town got so fucked up. For me, it was how did this corruption happen? I went back to the 1960s in newspapers. There were a lot of big fish in a small pond. These men and their drive for what? Power? Nobody has even heard of Greece, New York. Todd Baxter said something like it was the most corrupt police department in America, but, no, I don’t think so. Even in the minds of the people who fought the corruption there is a mythologizing going on. I got caught up in that. I lost the trail of Stephanie because I was so obsessed with it.
RAIL: You have done an excellent job of leaving a lot of people as possible villains.
REAR: There are multiple villains.
RAIL: You also write a lot about other people’s pain.
REAR: Yes, people really did retraumatize themselves for me, in this really beautiful and generous way.
RAIL: Did you feel any guilt about making them experience that trauma again?
REAR: I don't know if I would call it guilt. I feel responsibility. But I don't think that is the same thing. I think anyone who couldn't handle it said no. I hope. I would hope that people had strong enough boundaries.
RAIL: Adding the memoir component feels essential to the narrative. Was that always part of the project? How did you see the narrative benefiting by inserting yourself?
REAR: I'm an extrovert. I wonder if it helped me. It probably helped because I will literally just go hang out with people when I interview them, and I feel like I have a whole bunch of new friends. I’m even friendly with the boys who found Steph’s remains. I feel like everyone was rooting for me.
Carol Sykes, the woman who would drive Stephanie to the ferry on Martha’s Vineyard—we spent hours on the phone. She’s kind of older, she was so beautiful to talk to. I made beautiful connections. She said something to me at the end of the call: if you are ever in doubt, and ever wonder if you should be doing this project, if you ever doubt your vision, just know that you should do this and that there people who are supporting you and want you to succeed.
RAIL: In the book you do draw parallels between Stephanie and Jerry’s relationship, and your relationship with your own father. Have you reexamined any of that?
REAR: If anything, my relationship with my dad gave a frame of reference to actually look at Stephanie and Jerry's relationship with more nuance because I had something to compare and contrast it to. I don't think Jerry was like my dad. My dad was fairly sadistic and I don’t think Jerry had a streak of sadism. Jerry was in over his head. His life was a series of trials: he was conscripted by Nazis; he lived in a Displaced Persons camp; he was separated from his mother. There was a lot that I wrote about his life that was taken out. But his life was a series of traumas he had to endure. He did what he knew how to do. That’s what we all do until we learn new ways of doing things—and it’s an understatement to say that’s not easy.