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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

May 3, 2012

Book Review: A Silence of Mockingbirds - The Memoir of a Murder

2012

For reasons having nothing to do with the author's more than capable abilities, Karen Spears Zacharias' new book A Silence of Mockingbirds ($16.50, MacAdam/Cage Publishing 2012) was an extremely difficult book to read and an even more difficult book to review. Zacharias' work chronicles the true yet sordid tale of an innocent little girl named Karla "Karly" Sheehan.

Sadly, Karly Sheehan's tale would become the inspiration for Karly's Law in the State of Oregon, which requires mandatory medical intervention in suspected child abuse cases where victims exhibit signs of suspicious physical injury. Ultimately, this is the end of Zacharias' book. But this suggests that a tragedy had to occur before the powers that be reacted. And this reflection upon tragic events is what much of Zacharias' book consists of.

From the outset, the author is quick to note her own affiliation with the story. Ms. Zacharias' family at one point had a familial relationship with Karly's mother Sarah - a figure that comes across almost as much a villain in the tale as the actual villain who would abuse poor Karly to death. This relationship makes it quite impossible for Zacharias to be objective. But this misses the point of Zacharias' work. Her point is not to be objective, but to use the story to raise awareness about "the epidemic of child abuse in our nation." And on this score, the memoir could not have delivered better. I mention the point about objectivity, because it is important to remember that not all works of non-fiction need to be told through an objective lens. There is certainly a role for the objective eye, but when the point of a piece is to advocate, objectivity inevitably yields to the story being told.  

The bulk of the work can be glibly typified as "somber" in tenor, but only insofar as readers know the outcome. Each detail of Karly's life is lovingly presented. From Zacharias' writing, it is clear that there were many moments in Karly's life that were filled with love and with joy. Her account of Karly's trip to Ireland to visit her father's family comes readily to mind. But the final outcome of the account stalks even the happiest memories, ever lurking in the background of the book. Karly's own presence in the memoir reminds me a bit of a delicate glass set precariously on the edge of a table. For but a moment all seems safe as Zacharias describes Karly's sky blue eyes and whispy golden hair. Readers get every sense that she was a precious, perhaps precocious, little girl who was much beloved by the many people in her life. But knowing the outcome of the story, readers also understand that this cannot last. The glass on the edge of the table is doomed to shatter, and the result is that an innocent little girl must die. 

My choice of the word "must" is intentionally provocative. In addition to presenting the tragedy of Karly's death, Zacharias consistently explores the broader public policy implications, directly addressing the question of whether Karly's death was preventable. The villain in the book and the man ultimately convicted of Karly's murder was her mother's boyfriend Shawn Wesley Field. But equally complicit in the sad outcome is a system that failed to protect Karly at manifold turns. As Zacharias writes:

Karly's death is not simply a tragedy - it's an unforgivable shame.

It takes the complicity of a community, and a nation, to stand by in silence as a child is tortured to death. That ought to give us all nightmares of children weeping.

If there is a moral imperative to be gleaned from Zacharias' work, this is it. And as the tale proceeds, the root of Zacharias' anger becomes more clear. From a mother in denial, to the first child services inquiry filed by a worried daycare worker, to the shoddy follow-up investigation by Oregon's Department of Human Services, to the failure of the Corvallis Police Department to have Karly's physical symptoms examined by a doctor with expertise in child abuse cases, the list of should-haves in the book is depressingly long.

The trial of Shawn Wesley Field is also an interesting aspect of the story. While readers at this point will long for justice, what actually struck me most was the lack of state's evidence available to convict Field, despite the fact that Karly was abused for such an extended period of time. The trial turned on pictures that Field had taken of Karly that were timestamped only a few minutes before she died. The photographs showed Karly battered, yet clearly alive, leading prosecutors to conclude that the blow which ultimately took her life had to have happened while she was in the clutches of Shawn Wesley Field before the paramedics and officers arrived

The lawyer in me recoils at hearing how such circumstantial evidence can connect a defendant to a crime. But this is true of a number of cases, and the inference made between the timestamped photo and the time at which paramedics and police arrived at Field's house makes a lot of sense. What is most appalling is that in the two year span of abuse allegations, the best the State of Oregon had at trial were a few pictures. If there is a fortunate aspect of the tale, it may well be that so little evidence was sufficient to convince the jury of Shawn Wesley Field's guilt. 

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the outcome of the trial really only hints at the title of Zacharias' curiously titled book - although she addresses this directly toward the end. Mockingbirds are symbolic of people in society - we are a notoriously protective and obnoxious lot, always around, always causing some ruckus or another. Yet, in Karly's case, when their alarm was needed most, the gaggle of people around her went silent and a little girl died. The natural question is "why." Or whither the empty nest?

While it's true that we can address the public policy questions of Karly's case through changes in law, and we can encourage individuals to be more vigilant, particularly when it comes to the vulnerability of children, there are never answers to questions like these. We can no more "know" what drives individuals toward evil anymore than we can know what drives saints and martyrs toward the light. But I like the approach Zacharias suggests. We can cry together. We can learn together. And we can take every precaution to ensure that our children are protected.

I never knew Karly, but I have a hunch that protecting other kids would make her smile.

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