nonfiction book reviews

The Tragic Tale of Lucie Blackman: A Londoner Disappears In Tokyo


At first the story was a puzzle, which developed over time into a profound mystery. Lucie emerged as a tragic victim, and finally as a cause, the subject of vigorous, bitter contestation in a Japanese court. The story attracted much attention in Japan and Britain, but it was fickle and inconsistent. For months at a time there would be no interest in Lucie’s case, then some fresh development would bring a sudden demand for news and explanation. In its outlines the story was familiar enough— girl missing, body found, man charged— but, on inspection, it became so complicated and confusing, so fraught with bizarre turns and irrational developments that conventional reporting of it was almost inevitably unsatisfactory, provoking more unanswered questions than it could ever quell.

This quality of evasiveness, the sense in which it outstripped familiar categories of news, made the story fascinating. It was like an itch that no four columns of newspaper copy or three-minute television item could ever scratch. The story infected my dreams; even after months had passed, I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman. I followed the story from the beginning and through its successive stages, trying to craft something consistent and intelligible out of its kinks and knots and roughness. It took me ten years.

–Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness

People Who Eat Darkness is an example of true crime being stranger than fiction right from the start. Beautiful, young Londoner Lucie Blackman was a hostess in the Roppongi District of Tokyo, lighting the cigars of Japanese businessmen and flirting with them as they drank. She went for a drive to the seaside with one of the men from the club, and never came back. Her panicked roommate, who immediately suspected something was wrong, received a phone call from a man insisting that Lucie had joined a cult and wouldn’t be coming home. Although roommate Louise begged to speak with Lucie, the man refused to let Louise speak with Lucie. “She’s not feeling well,” he said, “she’s starting a new life now.”

Roppongi - photo by David Fuchs

Roppongi district of Japan, where Lucie Blackman worked as a hostess – photo by David Fuchs

Thus starts the strange and tragic tale of Lucie Blackman’s disappearance. People Who Eat Darkness has popped up on so many best of true crimes lists as of late I took it as a sign to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Well-written true crime books are hard to find, as they often get so bogged down with dates and facts that they lose some of their humanity, or at the other end, they pay so little respect to the humans involved that they feel flagrant.

Richard Lloyd Parry, as a London correspondent living in Japan, was witness to the entire investigation surrounding Lucie’s disappearance, and ultimately, became an odd sort of part of the story himself, when the man put on trial for Lucie’s death sued him for libel. He is in the unique position to identify with Lucie, as much as an older man can, as a foreigner living in Japan. He seeks, vigorously, from the book’s introduction onwards, to establish and understand Lucie as a human, rather than as just part of a headline. He takes this compassionate stance with every person involved in the story, from Lucie’s misunderstood father who doesn’t seem to behave correctly in the aftermath of Lucie’s disappearance, to her murderer, whom Parry examines through his history and familial experience as well as his shocking, atrocious acts.

Roppongi - photo by David Fuchs

Roppongi – photo by David Fuchs

Without giving too much of the story away here, I think the story of Lucie’s disappearance also illustrates the difficulty of investigation in general, as police have a bizarre brush with their bad guy before they have all the facts, and they let him off. Tokyo as a city is known for its relative safety, and the police are simply unprepared to handle this sort of dark stuff, once it is exposed. The sad story of Lucie, with all its odd turns and stops, reminds me of how different the real world is from the mystery novels I love to read. If mystery novels are full stories chiseled out of a raw piece of marble by an author, true crime is an author stumbling through a quarry after police and criminals and victims, picking up rocks, trying to hold as many as he can in one basket before they all fall loose. From the confusion surrounding what exactly a hostess does to the odd ruling in the trial, Parry manages to patiently explain the convoluted case and its circumstances, while keeping up the pace.

People Who Eat Darkness on’

What We Talk About When We Talk About Vaccinating: Eula Biss’ On Immunity

In Eula Biss’ short On Immunity: An Inoculation, she lays bare the fears of being a mother today. As the mother of a young son herself, Biss takes a step back from the vaccine debate and looks at its framing, its history, and the concept of the self as impermeable by society.

The Significant, Sad Case Of Alice Mitchell, Told By Alexis Coe in Alice + Freda Forever

Rather than building the facts into a single story line for the reader, Coe takes the reader on a historical journey, examining the implications of race, sex, and class in 1892 Memphis. This works well as the artifacts from the case are plentiful, and love letters, news headlines, and trial excerpts intertwine with Coe’s telling of the story, which feels dedicated to telling the story without sacrificing truth.

Review – Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

beyond belief large w border

Next, we had to yell at square glass ashtrays at the top of our lungs. The idea was to train ourselves to express absolutely clear intentions, and by mastering this we’d be able to guide our future preclears to successfully confront things. And it didn’t end there. Directing our intentions into particular parts of the ashtray, we’d ask our ashtray very specific questions. The belief was, that whenever you asked a question, you had the intention of getting that question answered, as you should when you had a preclear in session. The ashtray was required to be square. We were to direct questions into each of its four corners.
“Are you an ashtray?”
“Are you a corner?”
“Are you made of glass?”
The same principles that we were trying to learn and understand as auditors were the principles that prevented us from questioning these ridiculous tasks. We’d been trained to follow instructions, just as we were now learning how to make others follow ours. Outlandish as all these tasks were, none of them ever struck me as odd, but remembering the scene now, they were. . . . All these courses were supposed to be about training auditors to be smooth with their communication, and less distracting to preclears in session. But the result is that it made all of us more robotic. It automated our responses, turning everything we said into a script.
-Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscavige Hill

Jenna Miscavige Hill (via)

Jenna Miscavige Hill was raised in an alternate reality, with its own hyper-abbreviated lingo, strict work ethic, and complicated belief system. She was raised as a Scientologist, and amazingly survived her bizarre upbringing of manual labor and indoctrination to leave the church and write a memoir, Beyond Belief. As Scientology is a relatively new development (started in 1952), it seems safe to assume these stories (and memoirs) may become more common as more children are raised in these situations, flee, then report back to the outside world what exactly they experienced inside the secretive church.

Beyond Belief is simply written, as Hill doesn’t spend much time waxing poetic. She documents her experience, and allows the reader to infer from her life what they choose. She repeated L. Ron Hubbard mantras over and over in what was called “Chinese School”; she and other kids did manual labor at the ranch they lived on, after class and on weekends; she saw her parents once or twice a year at times; and when she and others encountered the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence they were interrogated or banished. What seemed like fun and games to Hill as a young child began to cause pain and heartbreak as she aged and thought more independently.

Some of the situations recounted in Beyond Belief seem so ridiculous they are almost comical (Hill is asked to sign a one-billion year contract when she is seven years old), others are painful to read about. Much of Scientology’s power over its members seems to be derived from separating family members, and Hill struggles to communicate with family and loved ones throughout the book.

Certainly one of Hill’s intrigues is her last name. While both her parents held prominent positions in the church, her uncle, David Miscavige, ultimately took over the church and is still its leader today. Those seeking insider information regarding David Miscavige or an overview of the church’s intense and nefarious business dealings may want to look elsewhere before reading Beyond Belief. This is ultimately Jenna’s personal story, as it should be. For a thorough overview of the church, I suggest Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (although I realize there is high praise for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). Without some background on the Church of Scientology, you may find yourself lost amidst all the practices unique to the church in Hill’s story: abbreviations and talks of preclears and auditing, which are explained briefly in Beyond Belief but examined in more detail elsewhere.

Even after reading other books about Scientology, I was surprised by how extreme Hill’s childhood experience was. She now works with the website Ex-Scientology Kids to provide support to others leaving the church. In this type of situation, where Scientology values its image so much and markets itself as a church, it does seem like one of the most powerful things to do is to make these voices heard.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill on

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Review – Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker


The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the internet; they’re stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on.
–Robert Kolker, Lost Girls

Lost Girls starts with a story straight out of a mystery novel, a trendy Scandinavian crime thriller: a panicked prostitute disrupts a sleepy and isolated beach community, usually peaceful behind its private gate, when she sprints from door to door, asking for help, hiding behind bushes and parked boats. A man in a black SUV chases the woman down as she sprints away from his headlights. The stunned community calls the police. Cops show up too late–forty-five minutes later, they arrive to no trace of the girl or the black SUV. In their search for the young woman months later, police start to discover bodies. Four of them, clustered together, at first.

This mysterious sequence of events, seemingly created in the dark mind of a mystery novelist, is pulled from recent history. Robert Kolker‘s Lost Girls documents the unsolved murders of four women (possibly more) on Oak Beach, a barrier island of Long Island. All four women were prostitutes; all four were using Craigslist to solicit johns. It seems the killer in this case realized what apparently many killers do: prostitutes are often not reported as missing, and their deaths are often dismissed as the price of their chosen vocation. Kolker eloquently describes this after one especially frustrating police ruling: “the police seemed to be saying that [the missing woman] had died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life in the streets.”

Lost Girls asks the traditional true crime questions–who is the murderer? Why haven’t they been caught? Why weren’t the bodies noticed? And what about the pathologically lying, limping doctor who lives on Oak Island? But there is an even greater mystery at hand which Lost Girls chooses to explore–how does someone end up on Craigslist, offering their body to strangers for cash? Kolker, in a fascinating, touching, and intimate way, tracks the story of each woman back by finding those who knew her best, from childhood forward. Illustrated by maps charting each woman’s ominous progression towards her final destination point of Oak Beach, NY, Lost Girls documents the four women’s lives. They all encounter hiccups, struggles, and tragedies along the way that lead them to prostitution and Craigslist; their stories all halt mid-frame as each young woman goes missing in the midst of a life they were planning to earn just a bit more from and then get the hell out of.

By making Lost Girls the story of the murdered women, much more than the investigation or the killer-at-large, Kolker manages to shine light on a glaring and uncomfortable point of the sex trade: police seem to dismiss reports of missing prostitutes. Or their friends, working girls themselves, are too fearful to report them missing. When the women are found murdered, and the police are forced to show more interest, they still seem to chalk murder up to a direct result of prostitution, placing the blame with the women and the women’s families. Kolker documents some unbearable victim-blaming by the police, and near the end of the book, it gets to be difficult to read: police describing the women as “greedy”, suggesting they can’t resist going with a serial killer john who offers them a lot of money to hop into a shady situation.

The only thing I did feel was missing, and it seemed to be achingly absent from the second half of the book, was documentation of some of the police work done on the case. I’m not sure if this is because the killer is still out there and the police didn’t want to reveal too much of their investigation, or if there was another reason for this, but Kolker doesn’t document the police investigation itself. It seems that Kolker has one brief interview with the Suffolk County police commissioner and his chief of detectives, both desperately needing a lesson in PR. I kept waiting for more detailed information on the police investigation that never came.

Mysteries without a clear solution are captivating, exhausting, frustrating. As noted in my review of The Hanging Judge a few weeks ago, there can often seem to be a moment when looking over all the evidence, in puzzles both real and created, where it is clear no single explanation can possibly explain past events. Kolker has managed to write clearly about a puzzling mess of facts, rumors, and biases which have built this unsolved case into something daunting and nonsensical. He writes about what happened in the only way we can understand, for now: by telling the stories of the victims, overlooked for so long, unable to speak for themselves. These women were, truly, lost girls. Kolker dared to try to find them. Sadly, he was too late.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery on

Robert Kolker’s Author Page/selected articles written by Kolker for New York Magazine

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Review – Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink


Five Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital was everything that makes nonfiction great to read:  a subject worth uncovering, documented by a voice with a clear penchant for obsessive detail.  Sherri Fink recounts the struggle for survival at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, which acted as a port in previous storms, in the days following Hurricane Katrina; she discusses at length the choices made by hospital staff (several doctors and nurses made the choice to euthanize patients they felt couldn’t be evacuated) and the investigation that followed.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I could not stop telling people about it. First off, I had no idea things got this bad at Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina.  The scenes described were more harrowing than any fiction could be: hospital staff stuffing preemie babies in their shirts to evacuate as there was no space for incubators, nurses ventilating patients by hand due to power outage, stifling heat with smashed windows acting as the only ventilation, while gunshots were heard outside, and rumors of martial law were spreading.  Hurricane Katrina was a testament to our government’s inability to organize a response to disaster, and Five Days at Memorial illustrates the high human costs of that inability.  This was at points a difficult book to get through; the descriptions are so clear I felt sick even imagining such an experience, let alone living through it.  I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t the army come to relieve these exhausted hospital staff members, and help them evacuate these dying patients?”  It was so frustrating to know this happened in America and there was nothing I could do about it now.

The questions of justice presented here are some of the most difficult questions that exist about human life, and at points reminded me of the perplexing moral issues presented in Michael Sandel’s epic Justice class at Harvard, free on iTunes U.  Is it right to evacuate the most able-bodied people, who need the least help and will be the quickest to get into helicopters? Or is the more moral choice to evacuate the most sickly to safety first, as they are the most in pain and most in need of help? The questions presented at Memorial Hospital in that hellish time after the storm speak to historical ethical dilemmas, and Fink does a great job of explaining the dangers with and benefits of each choice.

Kirsten Potter narrated the audio version of the book, and did an incredible job. This story could have easily been overdone by a different narrator.  Potter managed to stay neutral but interested, the voice of a reporter bearing witness to history rather than a character actor.

Although the second part of the book (covering the aftermath of choices made at the hospital) may not be as gripping as the harrowing account of survival in the storm, I think this is the portion that makes this book so important.  We can all guffaw at the tragedy, but examining it with a critical eye is the only thing that will keep it from happening again.  Perhaps the most terrifying part of Five Days at Memorial is its end, when Fink embeds with American medical disaster teams after the earthquake in Haiti.  Seemingly logical decisions to preserve oxygen for those who need it most almost cost a young woman her life.  It seems like in a disaster, the luck lies with those who have the most innovative, creative doctors who are able to see beyond the complicated machines of modern medicine.

Five Days at Memorial on

Five Day at Memorial on