Memoirs are under great scrutiny by readers, and they should be. Memoirs are not fiction. Now, recounting a conversation from 20 years ago may require a certain amount of backfill, and I do not begrudge an additional “What do you mean?” in re-created dialogue.
However, when writers make up criminal records, life experiences and characters, as did Jonathan Frey in A Million Little Pieces, they must admit to writing fiction.
If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister's Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation is not fiction. Janine Latus has written a chilling memoir that is brutally honest about herself and her family. It hearkens to another unsentimental and unrelenting recent memoir, The Glass Castle.
The description on the dust jacket of If I am Missing or Dead is gripping: Amy, Latus’ youngest sister, fears for her life while in a romantic relationship. When Amy goes missing, and a few days later is found dead, her boyfriend is charged with murder.
Although the dust jacket begins there, the author instead begins his memoir with her birth as the twin who survives. What she survives as she grows up, however, are insidious horrors. At nearly every step of the way, she finds danger with even the safest of people. Alcoholic, abusive, abandoning, suspicious — and those are the keepers with whom she builds her life.
Please do not mistake this for The Bastard Out of Carolina or Jude the Obscure, novels so dark and foreboding I wept as I read them (and in the case of the former, refused to read beyond page 70). Latus treads softly and masterfully. As the horrifying facts of her tale unfold, her telling of them is amazingly honest and revealing.
Latus takes readers out of their personal safety zones with clear, precise, startlingly crisp language and honest self-revelations. These revelations are acts of bravery. Readers can envision exactly what she describes, whether the gift from her husband is jewelry, vicious cruelty or a sound beating.
She does not retreat from telling the truth about her life and choices. Never judgmental, Latus observes her sister’s plight at the same time she reveals her own. Latus does not need to draw parallels, instead allowing readers to judge for themselves.
Amy, Latus and others in this memoir remain human. Even the “bad guys,” though cruel and abusive, are never vilified. She lets the story speak for itself, a rare gift in today’s writings.
With this book, Latus answered a question I harbored for years: what prompts a woman with whom I can identify to stay in a situation I would like to think I would not tolerate? The author is educated, financially self-supporting and independent — all qualities I identify with self-sufficiency and autonomy, and qualities I like to think I share. Even Amy, in her final days, remained smart and level-headed, leaving behind enough evidence to help her searchers and defenders in case of her demise. So how can women similar to me wind up there?
It's a lot of things, Latus proves. It's not understanding that someone does not have the right to treat another in that way. It's cumulative: throw a creature into a pot of boiling water, the creature will fight for her life — but place her in a pot of slowly heating water and she will allow herself to boil to death. It's believing the lies because you believe in the liar. It's a pinch of shame and a dash of self-loathing. It's different for everyone but painful for all.
This was a very good book with a humbling story. I recommend it — and I hope it will start people thinking and talking.