Two Mysteries: What Happened to Paula and Atlantis Black

What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl, by Katherine Dykstra

Katherine Dykstra’s mother-in-law roped her into the story of Paula Oberbroeckling, an 18-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who disappeared one summer night in 1970. Her remains were found a few months later but a cause of death was never determined.

Instead, the lack of answers and decades of speculation around what happened to her gave rise to a number of narratives and theories, the most prevalent of which was that she’d died during an illegal abortion gone wrong. She’d also been dating a Black classmate, which had led to such friction with her mother that she’d recently moved out of her family home.

Dykstra’s mother-in-law had collected a wealth of information and files but had hit a wall in her attempt to make a documentary, and so Dykstra, a writer and teacher, took a fresh look instead.

She tells the story by retracing what’s known of Paula’s life and her last night, and juxtaposing it with a sociological study of what the framework of life in America was at the time for young women of her age and background. It was a dangerous one even for women with plenty of privilege, as Paula had, thanks to the attitudes towards women’s rights and safety that led women to be incredibly vulnerable.

The investigation into a local doctor who’d allegedly given illegal abortions with some dangerous outcomes was fascinating, as was Dykstra’s parsing of how Paula fit into the social structures allowed to women in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, this is also part memoir, and it falls into the easy trap of making things about the author that shouldn’t be. I’m not sure where this insistence on showing why a story matters to you came from or why it’s become such a mega-popular genre. I suppose because when memoir is woven into a crime story and works, it does so brilliantly — We Keep the Dead Close, The Red Parts, and The Fact of a Body are excellent examples. But when it doesn’t work, it’s irritating and distracting.

Dykstra does great work in showing how Paula was both hemmed in by the standards of her time but also a self-assured, forward-thinking rebel, anti-racist and unwilling to accept her circumstances because it’s what was expected of women. In showing things about her story that are universal; namely, the danger of limited options for women’s reproductive choices as well as the danger of assault and sexual violence, she weaves in her own experiences and some from her mother-in-law. To some extent, this works because it does underscore that universality, horrifying as it is, and creates so much empathy for Paula and her peers in a time when they were denied the dignity of a safe, legal medical abortion, among other things.

But elsewhere, the links feel tenuous. Dykstra tells a melodramatic-feeling story about taking the morning-after pill after a broken condom incident, I think it was. I was rolling my eyes at how minor the episode came across although it was built up as an event of great significance on par with others here which are truly disturbing, such as her mother-in-law’s assault by an abortion doctor. The drama of a Plan B pill was not a story that belonged here, at least not in the level of detail it received. I skimmed some memoir sections because the interest just wasn’t there, although Dykstra is a compelling writer. It all feels like filler to both Paula’s story and to the greater social issues.

Otherwise, it’s pretty compelling, Paula’s life and memory are handled sensitively, and although it does feel ultimately unsatisfying (as much work and research as the two women have put into this, Paula’s case remains unsolved), that’s not the author’s fault. It’s a testament rather to how important she made Paula’s story feel as a sociological episode, regardless of what led to her death, and how much she brought of this woman, only a teenager when she died, to life.

Paula had danger lurking around every corner. Because of the era and because of her familial situation, there was no one to advise Paula on how to respond to domestic peril, nor did she likely have the voice or the vocabulary with which to combat it herself. Place this climate of normalized violence adjacent the movement toward sexual liberation and you have a dangerous dichotomy. On one hand, violence was implicit and accepted; on the other hand, the push toward sexual freedom necessitated trusting the opposite sex. These forces were in direct opposition. Women are encouraged to embrace the very people who could hurt them without repercussion.

published June 15, 2021 by W. W. Norton. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing, by Betsy Bonner

I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it since last year because I’ve become so blogging-incompetent (I even put it on my favorites list without reviewing), but a mildly sort-of crime/memoir hybrid I thought worked well on both levels was The Book of Atlantis Black. Atlantis Black was the name grunge musician and artist Nancy Bonner sometimes gave herself. After her mysterious death in a Tijuana hotel room, her sister Betsy set about unraveling the mysteries of both her life and death, as far as either one could be understood.

A question remains as to whether it was even Nancy who died in Mexico, although I didn’t find that to be as much of a mystery as I think the author wants it to be, to keep her own hopes alive.

Nancy was my canary, ahead of me in the dark.

Bonner writes that Nancy wanted to be remembered and admired, and that’s what she strove for with her art. She says that writing the book was partly her effort to do that for her sister. It is so hard to love someone who’s an addict and unable or willing to do what they must for their mental health, and it takes an exhausting toll on everyone around them. The fact that, as difficult as Nancy could be, her sister still wants to celebrate her life’s achievements and triumphs, including her dogged artistic pursuits, without glossing over its darkness struck me as very admirable.

Although she addresses a lot of Nancy’s wrongdoing, other details were brushed past, like stalking behavior connected to her romantic interest in a very young neighbor when Nancy herself was significantly older. I suppose it’s meant to be attributable to Nancy’s mental illness, but it felt odd that sometimes Bonner was blunt about the truth (“My sister was not the worldly woman she thought she was. She was a sad, pitiful creature. If she couldn’t kill herself, she’d find someone to kill her.”) and elsewhere lets things go without commentary or insight.

Bonner has a dreamy writing style, quiet and often poetic but dark and meditative. This is much more biography/memoir than anything crime-related, as she vividly illustrates telling scenes and incidents from their childhood and complex family story, including a manic-depressive, suicidal mother who, according to Bonner, she “barely knew.” Nancy too would become stubbornly, opaquely unknowable, and what is known is clearly enough to drag Bonner into this investigative rabbit hole of trying to find some answers about why Nancy’s life took the course it did.

I’m not convinced there’s much of a mystery around her death, but the book does leave you with a general feeling of being unsettled, perhaps because the mere idea that we can hurt ourselves as badly as others can is a painful one, as is the knowledge that life with unmanaged severe mental illness is so heartbreakingly dark and difficult. It’s easy to see why Bonner felt compelled to write about her sister, despite the delve into so many painful, uncomfortable family memories. It’s a compelling testament to what Nancy accomplished artistically in her life as well as a stark portrait of that life in free fall towards an early end.

published August 4, 2020 by Tin House Books

18 thoughts on “Two Mysteries: What Happened to Paula and Atlantis Black

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  1. The idea of linking something as relatively minor as emergency contraception to an assault feels very icky to me. I get the feeling that part of the deal with inserting memoir places where it doesn’t belong is a growing awareness that none of us are objective – so rather than being objective, at least declare your interests up front and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. The problem is that sometimes, as you identify here, people look through tragedies through the What Does This Mean For Me lens, and it can get a bit exploitative. At least, that’s the impression I’ve had sometimes when reading books like this.

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    1. I should maybe reword it – she doesn’t link the contraception failure to the assault, it just felt like such a nothing story to tell when there were such relevant, traumatic stories from a time when birth control and abortion weren’t easily procured or informed about options. I just feel like if you’re going to include your own story, it better be interesting and relevant and “the tale of how I took Plan B, thank goodness it was available” added nothing significant at all to this and felt so navel-gazey!

      I think you’re right and put it very well, it is so important to make sure as a writer you’re not being exploitative and it’s good that we’re interrogating objectivity. I think in this particular case it would’ve worked so much better as just an introductory chapter as to how she came to the story and why it resonated with a few anecdotes here and there, rather than long meditations throughout on her experience with motherhood, relationship with her mother-in-law, and any story around sexuality and harassment that could be shoehorned in!

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  2. I’ve been pondering lately the idea you mentioned here – when does self-insertion work in non-fiction books and why or why not? When I read Singular Woman, at a few points the author mentions her own access to information and how that might impact what she presents in the book (especially that two key interviewees died before they could provide information) so I felt that was helpful information. But in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author insertion felt more self-serving and biased to me.

    Another aspect, which the author has much less control over, is how the publisher and reviewers choose to present the book. Picking up a Bill Bryson book, I assume he’s in the narrative even if he is not the topic of discussion. Overall though, I don’t like the trend of including oneself in a book about a topic that doesn’t directly connect to the author – as with these two, it makes sense that the second author is part of her deceased sister’s story, but less that the other author included such detailed personal stories in a book about an entirely separate death.

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    1. I find myself thinking about this point often too, because sometimes it works so well and elsewhere it’s my least favorite thing! I don’t remember being bothered by it in Henrietta Lacks although I do remember the author was heavily involved, and I don’t know Singular Woman but I agree, that sounds like it was well done and useful. I think especially as we emphasize Own Voices this has become a tricky subject, about who can tell a story and why and what it means if someone outside the immediate events tells it.

      And yes, you’re absolutely right that the author has no control over the marketing, which must be so frustrating! I think with the “true crime” wave so much gets slapped with that label because it will automatically sell, and I think it might’ve happened a bit with the second book here (although my copy clearly says Biography/Memoir, which I think is right for this one).

      Some of the issues, like with the first book here, seem to stem from there not being enough material to warrant a full book, and hence the secondary memoir story to pad it out. This bothers me so much, but even more so here when the author did an excellent job of making this into a sociological study. I was far more interested in the statistics and data around that, and a couple of personal stories would be fine, but it was way too much and way too off topic in this case!

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  3. I get annoyed by memoir getting inserted into non-fic, it happens all the time with nature books, like the nature isn’t interesting enough without a personal trauma or dead relative. Bird Therapy, On the Marsh and Birdwatchingwatching get it right, in my opinion.

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    1. So weird that it’s an element of nature books too, although you really made me laugh at the dead relative necessity! 😂 I think so much of it is being unable to separate what’s meaningful to an author from what’s meaningful to a reader.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these, neither have been on my radar. I don’t particularly like it when the author inserts themselves into a narrative that they do not have direct experience of, it often feels like they are piggybacking on someone else’s tragedy as a springboard for their own publishing career.

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    1. Yes, I agree! Or it feels like a mishmash of topics, like they really wanted to write a memoir and the only way it could get done was because they knew something or had done some research into a story that has broader appeal.

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  5. I was quite annoyed when Walter Issacson inserted himself numerous times into the Code Breakers. It took away so much from my enjoyment of Dr Douda’s amazing life and work.

    ……and a thank you for I am finding lots of books to add through your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, that’s such a shame about that one because it sounded like such a fascinating and important topic! It’s just such a weird area of nonfiction, I understand why authors feel their personal experience is significant or relevant and sometimes they find the right way to approach it or tie it in, but when it goes wrong it’s just so annoying!

      And thank you for that wonderfully kind compliment, I’m so glad we have so many reading interests in common and I can point you to lots of new-to-you titles 🙂

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    2. I have to admit that I had a different response to that one! I really enjoyed hearing about Issacson’s exprience researching the book. I liked his personal impressions of Doudna and I thought his description of doing some lab work himself made that more accessible. I like this in Mary Roach’s books too, but it certainly doesn’t always work and I’m sure most cases of authors inserting themselves won’t work for everyone 🙂

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      1. Good to hear your take! I’m still on the fence about this one because it looked pretty intense. If his style is at all similar to how Mary Roach does the personal element I’m intrigued though 🙂

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  6. “I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it since last year because I’ve become so blogging-incompetent” Nope, not buying it! You continue to be the best book blog I follow! Think I might give these two books a miss, the fact there is no resolution to either puts me off, I do like some sort of closure to these sad events.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thanks, you’re too kind! I read way more than I can write about though, and I used to be better about it. But I also used to work less than 40 hours a week and now, well…I feel like I rarely have the brain power for blogging anymore. But I’m glad I can give you so many suggestions still!!!

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