Welcome to NYLON Book Club!
Our October selection is Sarah Perry’s After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Search.
Prepare to go on an intense journey from page one of this memoir, in which Perry details her experience as a 12-year-old witness to her mother, Crystal’s, assault and murder, the long aftermath of this brutal crime, and—most significantly—the shining, multifaceted life her mother lived prior to her death.
Below is an excerpt from After the Eclipse. Read the book and join us for an interview and book discussion with Perry on Facebook Live October 30 at 11am EST.
That first full night, Gwen and her fiancé, Dave, took Glenice and me to their apartment to sleep — we were to share the big brass bed in the spare room. I remember Glenice cracked, worn down, emptied out. When we got to the apartment, she said she had to brush her teethright away: “I’ve been crying so much, my mouth tastes like the bottom of a birdcage.” It was such a strange and perfect image; I remembered it forever.
We spent the next few days and early evenings at Grammy’s, gathering there with her and my uncle Wendall and his wife Jane, who stayed there with her overnight. After sunset, we did our best to numb out in front of the television. We watched Roseanne and other sitcom reruns, not speaking much, trying to set our brains on automatic, running the grooves of the familiar stories. But we couldn’t escape the teasers for the six o’clock, then the eleven o’clock, news, flashing into view at the very beginning of every commercial break, too quickly for us to change the channel. Even when we grew to expect the footage we would see for weeks, no one got up to turn the knob. We couldn’t admit that openly the power those images had over us. It somehow seemed undignified.
The video showed my black-and-white house behind bright yellow tape. It showed men in uniform carrying a gurney out the front door, a black body bag distorted to a shape I didn’t understand. There was a strange lump in the middle, and a hollow to one side. I tried not to analyze that shape, just as I tried to ignore the fact that it was daylight by the time the news vans took that shot. I tried not to think of the intervening hours. Of the school bus driver slowing to pick me up that morning, then pulling away. My classmates pressing their faces to the foggy windows.
I didn’t know then that the shape on that gurney was the curve of her hip, that she had been carefully lifted and transported as she fell, so her body could tell the story of what had happened to it. All I knew was that it was not the shape of a restful body, that it looked unnatural in a way I didn’t want to think too much about. She seemed exposed; all the other body bags I’d seen on the news had been flat. I hated the idea of thousands of television viewers being able to trace some curve of her, as though all the desirous eyes that had followed her in life would never cease looking.
That body bag also featured prominently on the front page of the Bridgton News, in a bleak, sad image that took up almost all the space above the fold. I was furious about this, that we could not go downtown without seeing that picture in store windows and on racks next to the checkout line. I’ve since spoken to the reporter responsible, Lisa Ackley. I was surprised when she mentioned that shot before I even asked about it, telling me how she had fought to have it included. “This is a family newspaper,” her editor had countered. “We don’t run things like that.” But Lisa had refused to pretend nothing had happened, to help cover it up just to make readers more comfortable. “People have to know,” she said. “People have to know exactly what this person did.” Now that I’ve spoken with so many people who will refer to the murder only as “what happened,” or “the incident,” or even “the accident,” I understand.
Throughout those first weeks, I became fixated on an image: the inside of my head filling with a viscous blackness, insanity as matter, crowding my mind into a tight corner. I knew I had to keep the blackness contained or it would take over; it would suffocate me entirely. I so terribly feared insanity. The part of me that had seen the huge insect in the dark arms of the clock that night, that had heard that sturgeon thrashing on the floor, had to be locked up so it couldn’t take over. I considered restraint and control my best defenses. So mostly I did not cry. Mostly I stayed calm. Cheryl, the social worker, said that her teenage daughter thought I mourned “with grace,” and I thought that was the kindest thing someone could say about me. I wondered, though, how Cheryl’s daughter knew anything about it.
But the Blackness, as I thought of it then, wasn’t just insanity. I could feel that what the killer had done had gotten inside of me. I had seen what a person could do and I could never unsee it; I was unclean, poisoned. I looked into my pupils in the mirror and there seemed to be no bottom to the black. Just as much as I feared him out in the world, I feared him within me.
The worst part of feeling poisoned was that it seemed to wipe out anything in me that was gentle and intelligent and funny — all the things my mother had loved about me. I was devastated to think that if she had ever been able to come back, I might already be unrecognizable to her.
Despite my attempts at control, there were moments of breakage. One came the night after the murder, or the night after that. We were sitting around Grammy’s dining room table — Gwen and Glenice and I, and Carol and Grammy. I was trying to eat something. The idea of my body and its processes still disgusted me. I would look at my calves, shaped just like hers, and they would seem like flesh, like meat, like something that could be dead and inert tomorrow. Grinding an object with my teeth, swallowing its paste, adding yet more to this body — this vulgar, heavy, gross thing I had to carry around — was gruesome. Even showering was difficult: faced with my solid, naked self, having to touch and attend to limbs, belly, to my useless feet, still raw from the run to get help, I shut down completely, stood staring for minutes at a time. My body persisted as a living, warm vehicle, while hers had become a thing under a tarp. The blood flowing neatly through my veins gave me a feeling of horror, a sense of invasion. I didn’t feel like I inhabited a living body so much as a temporarily animated corpse.
But I tried. My aunts told me I needed my strength, and I agreed. The meal that night was something I loved, one of my favorites, a leftover from the days of sitting happily with Grammy, a stuffed animal in my lap. Fish sticks and mashed potatoes, maybe. A meal that would have brought joy even a week before. Now I could only eat a bite of it before I had to stop.
Little things can, for moments, carry the full force of tragedy. I looked at this meal and it was all the childhood happiness I’d ever enjoyed and would never feel again, and I started to cry. And as I cried, I thought about how some person — not a tornado or a hurricane or a car crash or a fire, but a person — had taken her away from me, had robbed me of everything, and a great, furious wave suddenly swept over me. “I can’t eat! I can’t fucking eat!” I screamed. “Why would someone do this? Why! Why the fuck did this happen?! FUCK HIM! FUCK HIM!”
I kept on like this, banging the table with my fist. I could see that my aunts and my grandmother were terrified, and I ran with it. I wanted someone else to be afraid, I wanted someone else to feel everything spin entirely out of control. The fact that I had no face upon which to focus my hatred only intensified it. I raged at my helplessness, and at the fact that no one around me knew what they were talking about. My aunts’ attempts to soothe me only made me angrier. “You don’t fucking understand!” I told them, although they would have admitted that themselves. But I was beyond being fair. I was nearly blacked out.
Somewhere within me, though, I could see myself breaking down. As I burned off some of my trapped energy, that calmer, older self came out and shone a light in my head: I couldn’t let him do this to me. I could not let the shadow take over.
Just then, Grammy approached me with some pills. I was sobbing but no longer banging the table, and I saw her hand shake as she laid them in front of me. I picked up my glass of water and took them, didn’t ask what they were, didn’t pay attention to how many. I had always had a childish difficulty swallowing pills, but now I opened up and threw them down my throat. I became quiet immediately, all the fight leaving me as quickly as it had entered. The pills could not have worked that fast; I was just too tired to go on. Defeated. I didn’t look at anyone’s face. I got up from the table and headed for the living room couch, and as I did, I saw on the kitchen counter the box from which the pills had come. Cold medicine. They truly did not know what to do.
After the Eclipse is available for purchase here.