Author Sarah Perry’s visceral memoir, After the Eclipse, is not, in any way, for the faint of heart.
Perry’s mother, Crystal was brutally murdered inside her own Maine home in the late hours of May 11, 1994, two days after a partial solar eclipse, with 12-year-old Perry in the next room. The author’s description of waking to an argument, and then within minutes, listening to her mother’s sudden screams of “No! No! No!” while she was a mere 15 feet away, personally shook me to the core. I had also grown up, like Perry, in a small town with a beautiful, young single mom. I couldn’t help the images coming at me in waves; that this could have happened to me. It could have happened to my mother.
Perry retells how she tentatively whispered the word, “Mom?!” and received no response, but immediately understood that her mother could not respond to her call, lest she give away her daughter’s location to the intruder. More screams of “No!” and a kitchen drawer being pulled open present a horrific foreshadowing of what will happen, and I realize it reads as flawlessly as a scene in a novel, until I remember this isn’t fiction. This is real, all of it. And Sarah Perry lived it.
I point out to this scene not out of morbid glee to create sensationalism and shock, but because it’s this scene I can’t erase from my mind, even weeks after finishing the book. After all is quiet, and Perry can’t hear neither her mother’s screams or the unseen intruder any longer, she forces herself to try and call 911 after having to see the crumpled shape of her mother on the floor, pinching herself to prove that this isn’t the worst nightmare of her young life. When the call doesn’t go through, she is forced to run outside for help, knocking on the door of several houses and receiving no response, until finally arriving at the back door of an Italian restaurant whose proprietor peeked outside in answer to Perry’s urgent cries.
The murder of Crystal Perry is interwoven with her daughter’s memories of who her mother was, how she lived, and whom she loved. Sarah Perry through her narrative, introduces us not to the woman who was brutally murdered, but to the daughter, wife, girlfriend, woman, and mother who worked a grueling job of hand-sewing shoes in a factory to support her only child, who was exceedingly proud when she managed to buy her first house, a home for her and her daughter. Someone full of life, who loved to dance and sunbathe “behind oversize white plastic sunglasses.” She had beautiful red hair. She was “full of energy and passion.”
Perry’s journey in trying to understand her mother’s life alongside tapping into the childhood memories about her is one of not always pleasant discoveries. We, and I say this from experience, sometimes forget that our parents aren’t just parents. They have dreams, desires, ambitions. And yes, secrets too. As Sarah Perry navigates hundreds of police files and interviews her own family members, Crystal Perry appears in a more human light, with all her qualities but also flaws that were deeply rooted in her own childhood. She fell in love with the wrong men because she was fearful of not having a man by her side, a fable that had been systematically reinforced on her by her mother. At the time of her death, Crystal was engaged to a man she wasn’t sure she wanted to marry. She broke off the engagement several times but then it was on again, a cycle that would be repeated over and over.
Reading Perry recounting her life after her mother’s murder is also heartbreaking. She was shuffled from one family member to the other, the depth of her tragedy sympathized with but not truly understood. She was plagued for a long time with nightmares and terrible fears of being stalked and ultimately found by her mother’s killer, whom the police didn’t find until twelve years later. The murder made her frightened of men and what they could do to her if she rejected their advances. As Perry herself admits:
“It is often simply easier to give men what they want. I once said yes to a man because I was positive that if I said no, he would rape me. He was aggressive and pushy in a way I’d never encountered, flattening me painfully against a cold window when I tried to pull away. In that moment, I saw that if I continued to resist, he might not listen to me and then there’d be no going back. I didn’t want to take a chance. I didn’t want to be a victim, so I made the best of it.”
Considering the plethora of sexual harassment stories that have made the front pages of many news outlets these past few months, it can’t be a surprise that Perry felt this way when put in a situation that she felt was out of her control. I also can’t help but think that maybe her mother’s screams of “No!” played over and over in her mind, reminding her of what could happen to her if she fought back against something she didn’t want.
Difficult as it was, Perry went through the many existing police files about her mother’s case. She learned that her mother had not only been stabbed multiple times, but she had also been brutally violated. That the killer had stood over her body and left droplets of his own blood. And that most likely, her mother had known him.
The moment that Perry reveals the identity of her mother’s killer is a turning point in the book instead of the climax of this story, because it leads to other revelations made by friends and family members about him. Many things are, however, ultimately left in the dark. Forgotten memories, a name that might have been uttered but with no great percentage of certainty. Perry’s ultimate decision was not to interview her mother’s killer in prison and ask him why he did it. “I decided that hearing whatever he might tell me wasn’t worth the psychological danger of being near him,” Perry writes in her author’s notes. “To be in conversation with someone, you must cooperate with them, however briefly, and I have no wish to cooperate with him.” In the end, Sarah Perry’s book is her brave personal stand about the tragedy of losing her mother. Her final quote in the notes makes that clear: “This book isn’t about him. It’s about Mom.”