October 2005

Aja Gabel

nonfiction

The Lost Night: A Daughter's Search for the Truth of Her Father's Murder by Rachel Howard

Late one summer evening, in the stifling heat of the central California valley, someone entered Stan Howard's home, stole a knife from the kitchen, and stabbed him to death in his bedroom, just down the hall from his sleeping 10 year-old daughter, Rachel.

Nineteen years later sees the publication of Rachel Howard's memoir The Lost Night. The added-on subtitle, A Daughter’s Search for the Truth of her Father’s Murder couldn’t be more than a marketing scam. Luckily for us, this refreshingly honest memoir isn't your run-of-the-mill true crime mystery. In fact the difference is so extreme that the subtitle seems almost to be an ironic jab at such pretensions. There is no pat ending here that tells exactly who did what in the library with the candlestick, or even any semblance of vengeance or justice. Instead the story turns out to be a penetrating journey into the nature of memory, both suppressed and imagined, and the resulting traumas that reverberate for decades after such a violent loss.

Howard’s day job as a dance critic for the San Francisco Chronicle utilizes her skills of relating the details of an event that is just beyond the reaches of conventional storytelling. And here those skills are on full display. On the second day after the murder, her mother takes her to a lake where she says “we sat at the hottest, dullest, most treeless lake in Fresno County, picking our way through a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The nails in the picnic bench scorched my thighs like lit cigarettes when I accidentally sat on them.” The tortured languor of the days after the murder, and then the years that follow, is palpable throughout.

This feeling of eerie idleness permeates Howard’s narrative, and it is when she paints the central valley scene where she perhaps succeeds the most. She never explicitly calls the adults in her childhood "white trash," but drops juicy descriptions of acid-wash jeans, Rod Stewart obsessions, and a make-up caked stepmother, Sherrie, liked to Debbie Does Dallas.

While the tale is an unconventional crime mystery, it is not without some conventions, and Sherrie is certainly the monster here. She is the evil stepmother, complete with “twiggy arms and pert breasts,” who smiles with sickeningly sweet puffy lips when Howard’s father is in earshot, and scolds with a harsh tongue when he’s not. Though even this caricature does not succumb fully to conventions, as Howard confronts Sherrie in her investigation nineteen years later and finds her no more than a farmer’s wife with a penchant for plastic surgery. Yet Howard succinctly conveys the chaos of her childhood with Sherrie, plus a verbally abusive stepfather called Howdy at the other home, and two parents too lost struggling over custody to take control.

Howard takes the reader through the rest of her peripatetic youth spent denying any emotional contact with her anything having to do with her father, and is almost uncomfortably honest about the psychological ramifications of her many relationships with men. Of losing her virginity on the couch in an unemotional incident, Howard says she was “too stupid to see how desperately I was trying to compensate for my father’s lost affection, how intensely I was playing out his love for me and his sudden disappearance, night after night.”

But Howard’s bitingly frank voice and her smart avoidance of sentimentality and melodrama are an appropriate background for a tale already saturated with built-in drama. The distance Howard takes with events that should otherwise be sappy is demonstrative of the main theme of her story; the fact that memory is fallible, that lives are built around imagined memories, and most importantly, that the truth she is searching for might not matter.

The prologue tells about her trip to the detectives, when she first decides to investigate the murder herself, and her shock when they are not exactly forthcoming with the facts. The next chapter ends with Howard’s account of what she said to her mother just after the murder: “Someone killed my dad. But I’m OK.” Howard insists, “This is what I say to her, verbatim. I know it now for fact because she never forgets.” In those two opening chapters we get two statements: there are certain things Howard knows for fact, and certain things she does not. Howard finds out soon enough that both are at stake, in her search for the “truth.”

What the truth ends up being, then, is the mystery of this story. Howard states, “I never set out to ‘solve’ my father’s murder. But then what had I set out to do? And how would I know when I had done it?” In the course of revisiting the monsters of her past, she finds out that things may not have been how she remembered them through her 10-year-old eyes, and that some of what happened the night of the murder will probably always be in that gray area. It turns out that coming to terms with that makes for a lot more interesting mystery than the latest Patricia Cornwell.

The Lost Night: A Daughter's Search for the Truth of Her Father's Murder by Rachel Howard
Dutton
ISBN: 0525948627
288 Pages