Some ghosts from the past never stop haunting us, as shown by these two sharply crafted memoirs in which true crime meets family trauma.
Betsy Bonner explores her sister’s unsettling life and death with laser-sharp prose in The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing. Because their mother had bipolar disorder and was suicidal, Bonner and her sister, Nancy, were raised mostly by their physically abusive father. Eventually Nancy changed her name to Atlantis Black, which Bonner felt suited her sister perfectly, as “the Atlantis of legend is mystical, self-destroying, and forever lost.” Likewise, Atlantis nicknamed Bonner “Lucky Betsy” because she hadn’t inherited the depression and mental illness that ran through their family tree like a venomous snake.
In 2008, when Atlantis was 31, her body was found on the floor of a Mexican hotel room, her death most likely the result of a heroin overdose. However, mysterious circumstances caused Bonner to wonder if the body they found wasn’t actually her sister’s. Fingerprints and dental records weren’t checked. Could her sister be alive, hiding somewhere? This notion could simply be magical thinking, Bonner admits, but the messy last few months of her sister’s life were filled with a host of suspicious, shadowy characters, whom Bonner duly investigates. Part exorcism and part adoring tribute, The Book of Atlantis Black is deeply haunting and darkly fascinating.
With two stumbling-drunk parents, including a mother who faced a variety of health issues and spent hours reading and watching true crime dramas, Marcia Trahan’s childhood had hardly bolstered her self-confidence. “I was not simply shy; I was frightened by almost anything that was unfamiliar, any uncertainty,” she writes in Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession, her adroit exploration of how inherited fears and traumas overtook her life.
Already prone to depression and having attempted suicide at age 27, Trahan was then diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her 30s, and a string of complications ensued. Three years later, she found herself glued to true crime TV in an obsessive way. “Only violent death captured my attention, as it had captured my mother’s,” she writes. Eventually she connects this obsession with the deep-seated medical fears instilled in her by her mother and realizes, “I sought out true crime programs because my body had experienced surgery as violence.”
This is a wildly freeing revelation for Trahan, after years of being so fearful of medical procedures that she couldn’t even stand to have her teeth cleaned. Searingly honest and deftly written, Mercy is the story of a unique psychological journey that ends in satisfying self-revelation.