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Event Spotlight: Journalist Laura Tillman Talks Murder, Poverty and Mental Health At Booksmith

Tomorrow night, investigative journalist Laura Tillman is making an appearance at Booksmith (1644 Haight) to read from her first book, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, a heartbreaking analysis of how murder can affect a small community, well beyond a funeral. 

Back in 2008, Tillman was a reporter at the Brownsville, Texas Herald when a brutal triple murder took place. Parents John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children, all under the age of of four.

The killings shocked the community, and the subsequent trial was covered extensively by the media. But Tillman's piece digs beyond the headlines into the early lives of both the parents, in a hunt for where this vicious crime might have first originated, and how it's affected Brownsville. 

We spoke on the phone with Tillman, who lives in Mexico City, last week about her book's themes of mental health, crime, and poverty—themes that also have relevance to our Upper Haight community. 

Photo: Amy Stephenson/Hoodline

You've been a journalist for many years—what made you select this story as the topic for your first book?

I was looking for stories that would help me dig to a deeper level and understand the city, and the things people told me about Brownsville. Until the murder, I'd been covering arts and lighter topics, but nothing that would provoke a conversation about morality and faith, and the notion of where the lines of history would be drawn in this neighborhood.

This story was hitting a deeper place, and was much more expansive than anything else I'd written about. There was so much more to it than I'd be able to cover for a newspaper. 

Do you feel that this murder brought the neighborhood together, or pushed it apart?

A huge cross-section of the neighborhood attended the funeral. They didn't know the family, but there was this incredible sense of communal morning for these kids. In that way, they came together.

But for the families, I think it pushed them apart. It was very hard to deal with that; they couldn't lean on each other in the face of it. 

What are some of the longer-lasting effects you witnessed of how violent crime affects a community?

There are a lot of crime stories, and it's hard to track them over time, but one of the takeaways is that there's also these subtle changes that spring into a community after a crime happens. People might not always attribute them to the crime or notice them. But they're happening and they're worth acknowledging, because they are the changes in people's paradigm—and in how they look at each other.

The crime has all these tentacles that reach out, and unless you're looking for them, you might not realize how much of a reach it has. 

How have you seen poverty affecting mental health? 

This couple [in Brownsville] was experiencing a lot of different kinds of pressure. I felt a little of this in Mexico City—we lost water in our apartment for a week, and it was stressful. You don't even realize how much a reduction in quality of life affects how you feel and how you're able to concentrate, until you're bathing in a bucket with a pitcher of water every day.

Fortunately, there were institutions in the community that Rubio and Camacho were connected to, that were providing assistance. But there's one man I talk about in the book who goes from one neighborhood to the next looking for $3 for food, and with every "no," there's this intensity that builds. Fortunately, I've never lived on that edge, but how many things would have to be taken away before you start to just feel like you can't function? 

I don't think being poor is a determinant of this type of crime, but it's hard to look at the situation [the parents] were living in and feel like it was sustainable. 

Do you think that keeping kids busy is an effective tactic for reducing a life of crime? 

There's nothing [in Brownsville] for kids to do, nothing to keep them occupied. I think there's something a lot of us can relate to: how extracurriculars created accountability, and filled your time. It's a powerful thing.

I just learned that in Brownsville, they're creating arts education programming, which will be free for young kids in the neighborhood. I think it goes to show that there's something to that intangibility. You see someone participating in a painting class or learning to sing, and it seems ephemeral in comparison to putting money into public housing, but it reaps real benefits. 

What's one way you think this community can change for the better? Is any positive community work being done?

I wish that there was better funding for Child Protective Services in different states. The case workers are doing their jobs, but their time is split, and the time periods that they're required to monitor could be longer.

I'd also like there to be an organization for helping adults with mental health problems. Many people aren't diagnosed with schizophrenia [which Rubio had] until after high school. 

But I'm hopeful. The region is going to get its first ever medical school—until now, there hasn't been one. So when people want to become a psychologist, they leave and don't usually come back. I'm hoping that new mental health professionals will be born and raised here, and will have better connections to the community. 

Laura Tillman will read from The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts at Booksmith this Tuesday, April 12th at 7:30pm. 


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