Circles and cycles. A true story has neither a beginning nor an end. Space-time binds only flesh-and-blood characters. We, the living, may know the dead only through the boundless medium of narrative, and in the attempt may find something approximating truth.
In the autumn of 1973, in the rural northwestern corner of Connecticut, a couple months after I was born and a couple miles up the road, Barbara Gibbons was murdered. Stabbed to death in her dilapidated cabin abutting swamp and woods. On the evening of 28 September, Barbara’s half century of earthly life came to an end that was as abrupt and violent as it was permanent. She left behind overdue library books. She left behind a teenage son.
For everyone outside of our small community — and for local children too young to have known Barbara when she was alive — her story seemed to begin with her death. Books would be written. A movie would be made. Police botched the case. Barbara’s son was wrongfully convicted and later freed. The real killer — or killers — got away.
From my earliest days on this earth I have been haunted by Barbara’s last minutes. Haunted by the very hills and dales of bucolic Litchfield County, which seemed to swallow Barbara’s screams that night. Her neighbors, some twenty yards away, heard nothing. Heard cicadas and frogs, maybe an owl, as Barbara was beaten and slashed.
Growing up in the aftermath shaped my understanding of the place I called home, and it seeded questions that I could not articulate until I was older: questions about intersections of the visible and invisible worlds; about the stories we tell in order to revise the lives we live; about the difference between concrete evidence and captivating theories; about which truths must be hidden away — in the trees, along some quiet stretch of river, in some shady knoll, or maybe buried deep inside the earth — in order to preserve a postcard image of a quaint New England community.
The exact sequence of Barbara’s injuries is unknown; it’s possible that she had no chance to scream. The gashes to her neck deep enough to expose her vocal chords and all but remove her head. The bones of her face, her ribs, even her thighs, shattered. Some of her wounds — such as violent penetration of Barbara’s sexual organs “with an unknown object” — were post-mortem. Her killer was not satisfied by murder alone; he needed to humiliate and desecrate Barbara’s body even in death.
I learned to read and write very early, and although I can’t say for sure — memory being such a malleable thing — I like to believe that A Death in Canaan was the first book I ever read. The authoritative nature of a hardcover, its frightening blood-red title and inverted black-and-white images, all promised a story that would explain, in the words of a professional journalist from New York City, what exactly had happened in my little corner of Connecticut.
Nearly five decades later, however, Barbara’s case remains unsolved. And although we locals like to believe that we know who took her life, the only thing certain is who that person was not.
Barbara’s son, Peter Reilly, age eighteen and attending a local youth group at the time of her attack, had the dire luck of returning home within just minutes of his mother’s death. For the next twenty-four hours, police interrogated the traumatized teen. He had no blood on his clothes and had called paramedics and police and neighbors as soon as he found his mother, but he was polygraphed nonetheless, then told that he had failed. Police told him that he couldn’t remember killing his mother because he’d blacked out. By the end of the interrogation, Peter had “confessed” — complete with “details” of the crime that didn’t actually match the evidence at the scene.
Police had no experience with false confessions at the time, because it was Peter’s case that would bring the phenomenon to national attention. Today Peter’s confession is discussed in every Criminology textbook and class, but in 1973 it was not a study, not a story, not a cautionary tale; it was merely Peter’s life. Despite a room full of alibis, and despite the lack of blood on Peter’s clothes, and despite later evidence pointing to a certain neighbor of his, Peter was tried and convicted in Litchfield Superior Court, home of the oldest law school in the United States.
Peter’s later exoneration was hastened by celebrity involvement and pressure, but only the court system itself can reopen a prisoner’s cell door. Peter was freed only because the State’s prosecutor died of a heart attack and left behind the exculpatory evidence that he had withheld from the defense.