It was only a few months ago that I read Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a novel that, though not without controversy, I could not put down. I had the same experience with her memoir/true crime A Rip in Heaven. I was about 40 pages along when I settled in to read the other night and I finally had to turn off my light at 2 a.m. It was a school night and that’s way past light’s out for me, but I just couldn’t stop reading it.
In 1991, 16-year-old Cummins, her younger sister, Kathy, 14, and older brother, Tom, 18, are vacationing in St. Louis with their parents. Both sides of the family are there, so the siblings have lots of cousins to hang with and it’s a happy time. Tom, in particular, has developed a close bond with his cousins, Julie and Robin, and on his last night in town, he sneaks out to visit the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, where Julie, an aspiring poet, has left some of her poetry by way of graffiti. Mostly the cousins don’t want their time together to end.
Although it was never officially accredited as a landmark, the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge was widely recognized as one, and the city of Madison was loathe to have it torn down. A couple of decades came and went while the old bridge stood silently straddling the Mississippi and gathering rust. […] Local affection for the bridge, combined with the enormous price tag of demolishing it, kept it standing. By 1991 the bridge, though structurally sound, was in a terrible state of disrepair, and it had become a favorite local hangout for teenagers and graffiti artists from both banks.
It is on this bridge, sometime after midnight, that the trio encounter 23-year-old Marlin Gray, a smooth-talking, good looking, layabout; Daniel Winfrey, “an awkward scrawny kid,”; Reginald Clemons, “a shy, and quiet man of nineteen” and Antonio Richardson, Clemons’s cousin, who was “just plain bad news.” At first these four seem relatively benign to the cousins, but it doesn’t take long for things to take an horrific turn. Tom and his cousins end up in the Mississippi; Tom is the only survivor.
The actual crime is so mindless and so awful, it’s almost hard to believe. It turns out, that’s part of the problem for Tom. When he is finally able to get help, the cops don’t believe his story. The cops employee ever dirty tactic in the book to get him to admit to their version of events and he is finally arrested and charged with two counts of first degree murder.
Cummins writes A Rip in Heaven in the third person, adopting her childhood nickname, Tink, as a way to somewhat distance herself from this story, which is both devastating, and riveting. Like I said, I couldn’t put the book down and had to force myself to turn the light out so I wouldn’t be a hot mess at school the next day. The book follows Tom’s time in police custody and the subsequent trials, which Cummins has pieced together from court documents, police records and interviews. It is also a plea that we not forget the victims in cases such as these. Cummins acknowledges that “As a society, we have a certain fascination with murder and violence. […] We want to know why atrocities happen; we want to understand the causes of wickedness.” But as Cummins points out, “The dead can’t tell their own stories,” so often the perpetrators of the crimes find themselves at the center of attention. This was also the case for the four young men involved in this case.
By all accounts, Julie and Robin were amazing young women, and their deaths left a hole in the lives of all those who loved them: a rip in heaven. Cummins has managed to capture the trauma, the drama and the way this family banded together to survive it. It makes for compelling reading.