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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

SPOTLIGHT: To The Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann @nancyromm @littleabooks @sabrinadax

To The Bridge
A True Story of Motherhood and Murder
by Nancy Rommelmann

If you love true crime, then you NEED to put this on your TBR list.  Publishing in just a few short days, the author takes us deep into a story about a mother murdering her own children.

Please read below for a synopsis, about the author and a conversation with the author that is truly a great read on its own.


Publisher:  Little A
Publish Date:  July 1, 2018
Kindle Edition
303 Pages
Standalone
Genres:  True Crime, Nonfiction

The book chronicles the tragedy of Amanda Stott-Smith, who dropped her two children from a bridge in Portland, Oregon in the middle of the night on May 23, 2009. Her four year-old son died; her daughter, age seven, survived. Amanda was arrested within hours. Rommelmann started following the story the next day, needing to know why—beyond the snap conclusions of “evil,” “revenge” and “no one will ever understand”—a mother who loved her children would seek to kill them.

As a long-form reporter, Rommelmann had covered enough crime to realize that, beyond the natural horror of a mother killing her children, there was a deep reticence to dig into how this incident occurred. In the weeks after the incident, coverage of the crime by local media contained virtually no background material—and never would. 

Rommelmann was determined to understand where Amanda’s horrifying decision had come from. Pursuing the story, she stuck like a limpet to Amanda’s defense attorney. She interviewed family and friends who claimed Amanda had been gas-lighted and abused. She dug through thousands of pages of records, communicated with other killers, and met with people who had and had not seen through the tissue of lies Amanda and her husband Jason tried to project, that of a successful, beautiful, privileged couple living their Christian values. 

In the course of her investigations, Rommelmann also watched the murder be used for political purposes, to fan some flames and smother others. After Amanda was sentenced to 35 years, people needed to tell someone what they knew and thought they knew. Their sympathies and alignments reflected their biases and objectives, and created a hall of mirrors Rommelmann needed to navigate through. 

The more Rommelmann learned about what Amanda had for decades herself navigated – a fiancĂ© who committed suicide, the giving up their child for adoption, Jason’s drug addiction and pathological lying, her own narcissism catalyzed by spite – the more sense, terrible as it was, the crime of Amanda killing her own children made. 

Illustrating the troubled mind behind a crime so unfathomable takes humility and empathy. TO THE BRIDGE is a delicately balanced piece of reporting that does not try to sway the reader as much as offer a deep and nuanced look into how such a crime can occur, to offer illumination, perhaps even hope of averting future incidents. Despite its complexity and resolve not to be told, the story of why a mother would seek to kill her children ultimately does reveal itself, in this gripping and important book.



Nancy Rommelmann is a long-form journalist whose work appears in the LA Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among other publications. Her award-winning articles include features on the actress Jena Malone, the literary hoaxer Laura Albert, aka, JT Leroy, and a crosscountry road trip with a pen pal of John Wayne Gacy’s, to interview the serial killer weeks before his execution. Rommelmann is the author previously of several books of nonfiction and fiction. She grew up in New York City and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. More at nancyromm.com

A Conversation with Nancy Rommelman

What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this book?

Thinking I could get it done. I started with a great deal of energy, staying on the story for a solid year despite few people being willing to speak with me. Once Amanda was sentenced—by a judge, there was no jury trial—I became barraged with texts, phone calls and emails from people eager, sometimes desperate, to talk about what they’d seen in the years leading up to the crime.

Until Amanda’s fate was set, they’d been too afraid to come forward. Once it was, they wanted to talk about what they knew and thought they knew. This made things easier in some ways—more material—and opaque in others. 

People see what they want to see, depending on an uncountable number of factors. They also dissemble, sometimes not deliberately, though in this case there was a pattern of sustained lying on the parts of several people. 

Putting together the story in a way that accounted for and made sense of so many points of view was sometimes a challenge, as was getting access to several thousand pages of legal documents, including some from sources with an active interest in not having the story told. 

Some people will assume the nature of the material, a child being murdered by his mother, will be emotionally rough on the writer. Sometimes it was; as I mention in the book, I don’t recommend reading case studies about child murder in a coffee shop unless you want to practice how to cry without making any sound. But the question of why Amanda had done what she had is what brought me to the story, and it was my job to see it through. 

Is it hard for you to approach family members/friends (of Amanda) for the first time? What do you feel when you do so? What do you hope they feel? 

It took me almost a year to approach Amanda’s family. I knew they were not speaking to the press, and I have never felt comfortable as a journalist camping on someone’s lawn after a tragedy. You are asking people to talk about the very hardest thing that has happened in their lives. Some never did speak with me. Others, such as Amanda’s grandmother, met with me eight or nine times, our relationship over eighteen months becoming a friendship, as unlikely and remarkable as that sounds. 

Reaching out to people, you need to get past your nerves. You need to carefully think about how you are going to make the approach, what you will say to encourage them to speak with you. It is can be difficult to convince people you are not here to sensationalize or exploit their pain. 

My hope from the beginning was that understanding how this incident occurred would make things hurt less. Closing our eyes and saying, a mother murdering her child is inexplicable and always will be; I don’t see how that helps anyone. During Amanda’s sentencing, after her former husband, the children’s father, said in court, “the murder will never make sense to anyone,” my immediate thought was, yes, it will. 

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing To The Bridge? 

How willing people are to keep buying a line of garbage, rather than confront a problem. Each time a story in the news is unraveled, and we see that X did something poorly, which led to Y failing, which led to the whole thing tumbling down, I think, yes, and the end result is sometimes two kids being thrown from a bridge. 

People think they are being polite or stoic or living their Christian values or whatever, by not calling out others’ bad behavior, when in hindsight we see (if we choose to see) it’s avoidance or willed blindness or a failure of courage or, at its worst in this case, cruelty masquerading as kindness, which makes me think of something I recently read: “If you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.” 

What do you hope your readers will take away from this book? 

Aside from constructing the story in the way that makes sense to me and, hopefully, keeps the reader engaged, I have no agenda for what the reader gets from the book. They are going to take what they will and we won’t all agree and huzzah for that. Let’s have coffee and talk about it. 

You moved to LA to pursue an acting career, and then switched to journalism. What prompted the switch? 

Like a lot of people who move to Los Angeles to pursue acting, I wasn’t doing much acting. I was working for a caterer, serving food on the sets of TV shows. (NB: Ed O’Neill, then on Married with Children, was very nice and friendly.) 

Then I became pregnant and wanted to be home with my daughter, so started making money reading scripts and writing coverage for the agency ICM. This led to a gig as an assistant for a wacky old-school screenwriter—he used to send me to the bar in Dana Tana’s to hand $10,000 checks to famous people who were constantly floating him money between script sales—which led to journalism. 

My first assignment was in 1994, for bikini magazine, not a magazine about bikinis, but anyway, it was to cover the opening of a genital piercing shop in Los Feliz. When I asked a couple who were there getting their “engagement rings” installed what they would do when people asked to see the rings, the wife-to-be smiled and said, “We’ll show them.” Without trying to sound corny, her response felt as though it had dropped from a little star. I knew at that moment I would pursue journalism and nothing else. 

What triggered your move from Los Angeles to Portland? Do you think it influenced your writing? 

In 2003, seventeen year-old Jesica Santillan received a heart-lung transplant of a mismatched blood type at Duke University Medical Center. Her story, and photo, in a post-op coma, wound up on the cover of The New York Times. Though she was four years older than my daughter, they looked near identical, and I fell headlong into the story.

I would eventually write about Jesica (“Grief’s Gravity”), but before I was able to do so, I was not myself; I was underwater, barely able to cope. That was the first (and last) time that happened, and my husband, who had moved to LA in 1998 to be with my daughter and me, sat me on couch and said, “I need to be the **ck out of here within a year.” This had as much to do with his disliking Los Angeles as his concern over my state of mind. We started looking for houses to buy in Portland, where he had grown up, and by August 2004, had relocated. 

One thing I always miss about Los Angeles, are the stories. People for the most part come to Portland with their achievable dreams, to open a bike shop or a bakery, and that’s fine; everybody’s story can be intriguing. That said, the hyperbolic dreams people bring to LA, whew doggie, they are right there all the time, and when the dreams fail, especially when they fail, they have a pulse I really, really want to write about. 

One of my favorite stories was “40 Bucks and a Dream: The lives of a Hollywood motel,” where I stayed at the Saharan Motor Hotel on Sunset Boulevard and talked to a dozen people in the rooms, the jilted Russian mail order bride and her young son who roller-skated around the pool; the hairless wannabe cult leader and his stripper girlfriend; the actor who’d had bit parts in the 1940s, who loitered on the balconies talking about how he might make a comeback yet and by the way, could we appreciate how impossibly handsome Errol Flynn had been? 

As long as Los Angeles holds out the promise of fame and fortune, the city is an ever-replenishing banquet, and one I am privileged to write about. I recently put together a collection of stories from Los Angeles, called Forty Bucks and a Dream, so let’s see where that goes. 

What do you hope to accomplish with your writing, collectively?

 To put good work in the world and to have that work lead to more good work.

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