The 1991 murder of four teenage girls that inspired my novel, See How Small, has haunted me for 23 years. It struck a deep chord in anyone who lived in Austin, Texas, then—one that reverberates even now.
I was teaching high school in Austin at the time, and my eldest daughter had been born only a few months earlier, so the sudden loss of these girls—Sarah and Jennifer Harbison, Amy Ayers and Eliza Thomas—hit particularly close to home. They were in a very real sense, the “every girls” of the community: They were loved by their parents, belonged to Future Farmers of America, danced the two-step, dated awkward boys, attended midnight movies, had sleepovers and looked out for one another.
Then one evening the unimaginable happened: They were bound, raped, shot and then burned in a fire set to cover up the crime.
Eight years went by as the investigation was plagued by false confessions and false leads. Then, in 1999, a newly launched investigation engulfed four young men who were boys at the time of the murders, roughly the same ages as the girls. After hours of interrogation, two of the men confessed. They soon recanted, but were later convicted and sent to prison for a decade based solely on the confessions.
Still, the parents of the girls must have thought—after enduring the horrific details of the trial—that finally there was a resolution, there was justice, even if at a great price to them personally. Now they could try to move on with their lives.
And then in the summer of 2009, shortly after I began See How Small, both men were released because forensics investigators—using more advanced DNA identification methods—found DNA evidence of two previously unknown male assailants. In short, the two men who confessed couldn’t have been the perpetrators.
So what did this all mean? Investigators and the prosecution had told the same story to the girls’ parents for a decade. The parents reacted as anyone would who’d shaped the arc of their lives around it: They refused to believe the new evidence. The original story of a robbery gone wrong—compelling in its detail if somewhat implausible—had become the parents’ reality, a way for them to make meaning out of atrocity.
See How Small is my attempt to make emotional sense out of inexplicable events by channeling all the voices we’ll never hear.
And what of the girls? Weren’t they more than victims? What about their stories? And what of the incarcerated men (whose boyhoods were now long past) and their families? It had dramatically shaped their lives as well. The murders—known since as the “yogurt shop murders” because of where they took place—remain unsolved. The case is a Texas In Cold Blood of sorts, a challenge to our basic ideas of justice, responsibility, grief, love and even the shape of the stories we tell to make sense of it. The ache in this story stays with you. See How Small is my attempt to make emotional sense out of inexplicable events by channeling all the voices we’ll never hear.
Another inspiration for See How Small was very personal. One day, soon after I began writing the novel, my wife called me at my downtown Chicago office, saying our then 6-year-old daughter had gone missing from school. The police were called, the school grounds searched, the neighborhood canvassed, a helicopter hovered overhead.
While racing home in a cab, I called everyone I knew. Horrific images rose in my mind. Nearby Lake Michigan took on new connotations. Alleyways seemed ominous. Every passerby suspect. How could we have been so oblivious to the dangers?
Eventually, nearly an hour after the first call, my wife called to tell me they’d found her. She’d created a play date with a friend, somehow evaded the school staff and walked three quarters of a mile to a friend’s house. She was safe. But the veil had been lifted, everyday life revealed to be potentially treacherous and wondrous at the same time.
The title See How Small is taken from the voice of the dead girls in the novel, who say, “See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart?” This is the central theme of the book: Though its characters are separated by suffering and loss, by the ephemeral, random nature of the world, they can make an eternal human shape out of it, can tell their own stories—full of joys and sufferings—that connect them with each another, and with each of us.
In the end, it’s about transcending loss through accepting loss— embracing all of human experience, and being transfigured by it.
A longtime resident of Austin, Texas, author Scott Blackwood now lives in Chicago and teaches writing at Southern Illinois University. He has won awards for his previous work, which includes the novel We Agreed to Meet Just Here and a two-volume history of Paramount Records.