Book: Thirteen Girls
Author: Mikita Brottman
Type of Book: Fiction, themed short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it made me feel a bit less odd about my own obsessions.
Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2012, you can get a copy here:
You can also buy the book directly from Nine Banded Books.
Comments: This book is deceptively simple: Brottman wrote short stories about the deaths of thirteen young women, some killed by famous serial killers, some picked off like ducks in a row, casual victims in an ugly world. While this is a work of fiction, the stories in this collection are based on real women and real crimes. The stories are told from varied perspectives: police report, perp interview, anguished mother, dieting co-worker, angry boyfriend, sole survivor. There was a game-like element for me as I read, wondering if I could guess who the girl was and who killed her before I reached the end of the story. Given my prior interest in serial murderers as well as just murderers in general, it was surprising I only really knew five, though several more rang some bells that didn’t ring clearly until I got to the end of the book. One I missed was a victim of serial killer Bill Suff. I should have known that one. I became obsessed with trying to track down the whole text of a cookbook Suff wrote, all the more interesting because he evidently ate body parts from a few of his victims, going so far as to use a breast from a prostitute he killed in his “famous” chili recipe. I’m not sure why I wanted a cookbook written by a serial killer cannibal – the late 90s was a weird time in my life (but I still sort of would like to have a copy…).
Shortly, I am going to discuss the two stories I liked best, but before I do, I want to discuss the overall nature of this book. I enjoyed reading it but, at the end, I found myself feeling like the collection hit a discordant note in some of the stories. I felt empty after I read them and felt that Brottman had missed the point somehow, that the stories were flawed because I felt flat after reading them, yet felt so engaged with some of the others. The reason I felt that way was because I was the one who had missed the point.
If some of these stories don’t evoke emotion, it’s because they aren’t supposed to because Brottman is showing us the different windows through which we can observe brutality. While I appreciate this collection for attempting to give the back or parallel stories associated with these murders, the casual memory of death Brottman showed in several of these stories is what makes this collection mean something more than standing as a mawkish look at dead young women. It’s a sad reality that not all deaths are memorable and that all murders do not change those who knew, however fleetingly, the person who was killed. The hell of it is, in terms of media and social awareness of victims, it can often seem like particular victims do not matter at all. Sometimes the lack of interest plays out in the form of a phenomenon called “Missing White Woman” syndrome – black female abductees and murder victims don’t get the media time afforded to white female abductees and murder victims. But on a more personal level, sometimes a murder means little to those left behind. There is a sentimental viewpoint in some of these stories, but these stories are anything but sentimental.
This is best shown in the 12th story, “Vicky.” Vicky’s murder is told via a nurse she worked with for around a week or so, a woman whose diary begins with her food-log, as she is dieting and recording her caloric intake. The diary is full of the narrator’s often inane observances. The coworker she barely knew is just a small part of her life, recorded in amongst diet advice and details of shift swaps with other nurses. Her observations about the drunks she encounters during her shifts carry the same weight in her diary as Vicky’s murder. She’s a sort of trivial woman but she’s not utterly callous – it’s just how much investment could she have in a woman she knew for such a short period of time? This story initially felt very flat for me but, a week or so later, I understood what Brottman was going for. In death we can be quickly forgotten, be it in the imagination of the public or the minds of people who knew us. Not every murder victim is Laci Peterson or the Black Dahlia. For some, the only impact their death will make on others can be summed up by a few lines in a dieting nurse’s diary.
I think I prefer more catharsis than can be found in “Vicky,” but there’s no way for me to deny how powerful a piece it is once I abandon my own sentimentality.
I’m going to discuss a couple of the stories I feel are more obvious, meaning that the average reader of this blog may recognize the victim or the killer. There’s really no way to “spoil” such stories because we all know how the story will end – with a dead woman. But there is an odd pleasure in approaching these stories with a certain amount of knowledge and seeing if you can anticipate how the story will unfold. So I will limit my discussions to the two stories that I think are most firmly rooted in the public imagination.
The thirteenth story, entitled “Mirasol,” portrays a murder scene a lot of people will identify before the end. All you have to say is “Filipino nursing students” and the name “Richard Speck” isn’t far behind. The narrator in “Mirasol” is the sole survivor of the mass rape and murder that took place in student housing in Chicago. Richard Speck entered the student housing late at night and raped, tortured and killed eight student nurses, two of whom were from the Philippines. There were nine students there but Speck lost count and the survivor is telling this story. Brottman decided to call this survivor Mirasol.
Mirasol managed to evade attack because she hid, rather effectively, under a bed and Speck either forgot how many students had been in the house or was so messed up on drugs he was confused. Another victim arrived in the middle of the mayhem, after he made his initial head count, and he failed to adjust his numbers. Brottman tinkered with dates in some of the stories, changed names in the others to protect the living, so the names will not match up for those who know this crime in depth. Brottman does this in other stories as well, creating slightly different details or assigning victims different names.
At any rate, I think “Mirasol” is the strongest story in the collection. Plenty of catharsis in this story and it was the best story with which to end the collection. If you have read reports of how Mirasol handled herself during Speck’s trial, it will make the ending of this story all the more powerful. The story begins by showing how the the Filipina students felt very different from their American roommates. They felt their American counterparts were more sophisticated but they didn’t particularly want to be like them:
The hospital Jeep picked us up every morning at six-thirty, and if we were late, we had to walk. We started work at seven and finished at three-thirty, when the Jeep would bring us back home. Then the three of us would go to Foodland to buy rice, fish, tomatoes, pineapple and spices. We made what we knew: cocidos, torta, kare-kare. We had bought our own pots, pans and glasses out of our wages, because I am sorry to say the American girls were not clean. Dishes were supposed to be washed and dried within an hour of the meal, but if the American girls cooked, they often left dishes in the sink. Happily, they did not use the kitchen often. Mostly, they ate take-away food.
It’s a story we’ve all heard – messy roommates who annoy us. But mixed with a sort of stranger-in-a-strange-land element, we can see the chasm between the Americans and the Filipinas. This is important because, as obvious as it may seem, these girls will, but one, end the same way, very much together in death.
Brottman is a subtle writer. She’s not going to club you over the head with observations, which is why it took me a bit to really absorb how excellent this short story collection really is. She assigns a curious fearlessness to Mirasol, a fearlessness that comes and goes but mostly is what keeps her alive, though there is still an element of chance to it all.
That night, I did not say my prayers.
Why? I do not know.
Perhaps I was not ready to die.
Mirasol’s real name is Corazon, and I have to think Brottman wrote this with her real name in mind even as she gave her a pseudonym. Corazon, literally “heart” in Spanish, seems like she was abandoned by God when Speck knocked on her door but she had the heart to resist and to try to live. She and the other Filipina student nurses tried to hide together in a closet, praying for their safety. Led to believe he was just there for money, the three left the closet and were corralled into a single room with the others. Then Brottman goes to a place in the story I mentally did not want to consider: she shows a conversational and friendly Speck, who spoke to the nurses with a calm, soft voice, who seemed most smitten with the plumpest girl (actual victim Pamela Wilkening). His mild demeanor put the nurses into a sort of torpor wherein they believed that if they just gave this man their money, he would let them live. Even as he tied them up, they believed they would live. This happened in 1966 – four years before I was born – and the world was still a more innocent place. Yet I still cannot believe the nine women let this happen, and I assume this stance with all the bravada of a person not in a room with Richard Speck in the middle of the night. It’s often too easy to look at these victims and want to armchair quarterback their actions, as if this is a scary movie and we can’t believe the heroine is taking a shower in the abandoned house. Real life, as Brottman shows, is generally less heroic and far more anticlimactic than cinema mayhem.
And one by one, save one, they were led from the room. Whispered conversations about fighting back were shot down in favor of compliance. But after they hear the first stab wound, the bound nurses tried to hide – against the walls, under the bunk beds, behind the door. Under a bunk bed, Mirasol listened to the give of bed springs as Speck raped one of the nurses.
At times this story has an almost formal, recitation-like quality, which I interpreted as an attempt to mimic Mirasol’s thorough testimony, but when it matters, Brottman gives this story incredible tension. After all the other nurses are dead, Mirasol’s torment takes on an almost horror-movie quality.
I lay waiting for him to come back, and after a long time, he did. He turned on the light. There was a small gap between two sheets, and I could see him looking round the room. He took a purse, shook it, and a bill fluttered to the ground. He bent over to pick it up. He was right in front of me. I closed my eyes.
I did not breathe for a long time. The house was silent, but I had not heard the front door close. I thought he was still in the house. I did not know, then, that he had walked off into the night, leaving the door wide open.
Mirasol/Corazon, the heart, the girl who forgot to talk to God because she was not ready to meet Him yet, lives. Though I have spoiled the story almost completely, you need to read it anyway. It’s the “price of admission” story for this collection, the story that is alone worth buying this book to read, and Brottman could not have ended it better than she did.
The other story I think most readers will be able to suss out is “Tracy.” Another finely written piece, the murder is recalled, years later, by the grown daughter of the victim’s boyfriend. Her divorced father, a doctor, had a rotating roster of nurses he dated. Tracy is the latest girlfriend. The father, who doesn’t see his kids very much, decided to take them to a medical conference in Aspen and took his girlfriend along to look after them.
The kids resent Tracy being there, though they like her better than the last girlfriend, Kelly, who was a complete lunatic. Tracy tells the kids gross stories about the elderly patients she cares for, stories they proclaim gross even as they are thrilled hearing them. Tracy makes an effort, appreciated only in hindsight.
Tracy wasn’t crazy although she did crazy things. She’d try to make us laugh by puffing her face out and rolling her eyes. She could do bridge, crab, handstands and cartwheels. Last time she and Dad went to a conference, she bought us Aeropostale shirts, a red one for me and a blue one for Jason, which was pretty nice of her, though we figured they were really from Dad, because he paid for them. She also gave me a striped tote bag that she said she never used anymore.
The narrator remembers the inane details that seem to come back to us when we remember something terrible. Tracy spent the day on the slopes wearing the sweater the father had bought her for Christmas. They saw a man skiing with a baby in a pack on his back and considered it a risky move. They had dinner with another doctor, and that doctor had been Tracy’s boyfriend before she dated the kids’ dad, which they felt was weird. All these little details mean nothing, really, but are part of the narrative of one of the last people to see Tracy alive. In many ways, these stories showed the banality of death in terms of how it affected others.
This story also shows the maddening view of the road not taken, how it is ordinary choices mean everything in the end. After the dinner with Tracy’s ex, one of these choices is made.
Dad sat down in front of the fire, crossed his legs and picked up a copy of the New York Times from the table. We had comics to read. Mark had a copy of Confidential that he’d just finished. Tracy asked if she could read it. She said she’d trade it for her Pandora and asked Dad to go to the room to get it. Dad said he wanted to warm up by the fire, and she’d have to go get it herself. I watched her getting on the elevator. She was still wearing her boots and puffy ski jacket, and she turned and smiled at me before the doors opened and she stepped inside.
And they never saw her again. The police didn’t search for her immediately because they figured Tracy had taken off after a lover’s spat and she would show up in the morning. After Tracy had been gone a day or so, the police finally acted, and the news asked viewers for information about her potential disappearance. The police investigation showed that she didn’t leave town in an obvious way, like by renting a car or flying away in a plane. Eventually, the dad and the kids had to fly back home without her.
Jason was sitting behind us. He put his head against the crack between Dad and me, and said he remembered watching a TV show about missing people, and they said a woman who goes missing without her purse has a zero chance of being found alive.
“Thanks a lot, Jason,” said Dad.
When they finally found Tracy’s body, they discovered that she’d been murdered less than an hour after we last saw her.
Everyone said that was something to be thankful for, but I didn’t see why.
I bet as an adult the narrator knows why. Tracy is based on Caryn Campbell, who disappeared from a ski lodge while her physician boyfriend was sitting by the fire in the lobby. Caryn went missing in 1975, and while investigators eventually had an idea of who killed her, it wasn’t until Ted Bundy confessed to her murder just before his execution in 1989 that the book could really be closed in her case. This one, of all of Bundy’s murders, haunted me. To just walk away in a place of safety, with your boyfriend right downstairs, seems impossible. I first read about Bundy when I was in my late teens and it just seemed implausible that anyone could be that charming, that likeable, and also be able to kill someone so brutally. It made no sense to me.
Like the child narrating the story, I understand it now, the mask psychopaths wear. I’m older than most of the women whose stories are told in this book. Actually, I think I am older than all of them. Mr Oddbooks says I have a pretty good psycho-meter, and I do. He listens to me when I tell him someone is making me uneasy because generally that uneasy feeling ends up being right on the money. But no one can tell a killer from a savior in a split second, and that is all it takes sometimes, isn’t it, for a killer to hide his true intentions. In a sense, we are all potential victims.
I hope this discussion does this book justice because Brottman does an amazing job telling the “untold” stories of these murdered women, and she shows all the wrinkles in the fabric – the pointless remembrances of babies in packs on slopes, the almost nihilistic quality of some deaths, the way that a single decision can alter the course of a person’s life forever. The latter isn’t a fresh approach – mystery and crime novels are full of such moments. But in this case, we know that if a doctor had just gone to get the damn magazine, his girlfriend wouldn’t have died. It may not be fresh but it’s still certainly compelling, as are all the stories in this book. Highly recommended.