The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts is heartbreaking and by its nature a difficult read. One chapter, which details the terrible crime, is titled, 'Don’t Read This Chapter Before Going to Bed,' which seems good advice. Even in the horror, though, there are glints of hope, bright moments, people doing their best to get along, to make things better for their families and their neighborhoods.
...rather than focus on the gory details, Tillman instead is interested in how Brownsville itself has been wounded, and how it sets about to recover. As a good reporter must, she talks to everyone from lawyers and psychiatrists who consulted on the case to local people who still regard the building as a site housing evil. Her investigation goes in so many directions that the book can feel unfocused. Yet there’s a strength in Tillman’s rejection of a single narrative. Pondering poverty, mental illness, and a belief in demonic possession as three of the motives raised at the trial, Tillman concludes that '[t]he truth can be more than one thing.'”
A quotation from a witness seemingly comes closest to Tillman’s own view: 'I know he did wrong, but we don’t know what was going on in their world.' Perhaps the most egregious moment in the book is when Tillman lists four 'scenarios,' none of which she says can be ruled out. One of them is that the children were, as Rubio said, 'possessed' by spirits. Declining to call this scenario an impossible fiction is privilege-checking taken to a disgusting extreme. She writes, 'It’s impossible to make a judgment as to which perceptions are real, and which are false, without assuming your personal view to be more valid than your neighbor’s.' Is a book without judgment, a personal view and confidence in its validity still a book?
...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 ... Tillman closes with a last look at the building, still standing. Behind it Tres Ángeles Community Garden now thrives, its name recalling the 'three little angels' who 'live in each root and stem and leaf.' The short lives of these 'small ghosts' are given lasting meaning in this book.
Even fantastic true crime can descend into sensationalism in the service of reader-voyeurs. It speaks well of Tillman that her first instinct, on learning about the grisly murder of three children by a mentally unbalanced couple in Brownsville, Texas, was to look away. When she did finally dig in, her work pivoted to the larger and more important implications of the crime and its aftermath: the impact on close-knit neighbors, who consider demolishing the scene of the crime, and the consequences of jailing and executing the criminally insane.