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On November 24, 1984, Roberta Lee went jogging with her boyfriend, Bradley Nelson Page, and another woman along some trails in the Oakland Hill area approximately 10 miles from University of California Berkley, where they were all students.
While they were running, Lee--who was angry at Page because he had gone out with another woman the night before--veered onto a different trail. It was typical of Lee, who was moody, sensitive and unpredictable. Assuming she would catch up with them, Page and the friend waited for her at the end of the trail. She never arrived.
The Dead Girl
By Melanie Thernastrom
430 Pages; $19.95
When they returned to the place where Page had parked, Lee wasn't there either. Page left the woman in the parking lot in case Lee returned, and drove the car along the highway that follows the trail Lee had taken. Twenty minutes later, he returned without her.
After an extensive five-week search a police dog found Lee's body. On December 9, Page was called in for routine questioning, during which he finally claimed that he had found her, and may have struck her once or twice.
It wasn't until later in the evening that he confessed: he found Lee; they argued; he broke her nose, and bludgeoned her in the back of the head three times with the blunt side of a tire iron. He then pulled her body out of sight. He returned nine hours later to the park to commit an act of necrophilia, and bury her body in a shallow grave under a bush.
He later recanted.
This admittedly is the stuff television movies are made of--sordid romance, good-looking co-eds and one dead girl. It is also the stuff of best-selling paper-backs. Pocket Books was thinking the same thing when it offered Melanie R. Thernstrom '87 the largest advance in publishing history for a story that began as the author's senior thesis. $375,000 for one unpublished author's attempt to come to terms with her best friend's disappearance and grisly death, and the trials that followed.
In chronicling this story, author Thernstrom lost a cherished friendship with the Lee family. She was also criticized in the press for publishing the work in its current form. The story of how the book came to be, for many, reads as follows: A murder is comitted. A family greives. A friend grieves, investigates, writes and sells 400 pages of recollected family conversations, letters and grief for a sizeable sum.
And a dead girl becomes, literally and figuratively, a cold, slick marketing strategy. Some say the book, which has a grainy, close-up photo of Lee on the cover, even looks tastless. And that the title, The Dead Girl, seems exploitative. The letters between Thernstrom and her friend published in the book are fictional; Thernstrom could not obtain copyright permission from Lee's parents.
And in a way, the charges are justified. In a way, Thernstrom exploits the very person she sets out to elegize. She exploits Lee as a symbol of innocence, a generic representation of society's victimization of and violence against women. But as Thernstrom writes, "Elegies to reality are hard to write."
And it is to Thernstrom's credit that she makes this elaborate tale of injustice seem so real to the reader. She accomplishes this by strongly, effectively communicating who Roberta Lee was, what she liked, what she wanted, what pained her. Thernstrom does not allow Lee to become a two-dimensional character doomed to die. The senselessness of her friend's death is never forgotten by the book.
Or by the reader. Thernstrom avoids overblown prose, and her work is mimetic. She cannot explain the reasons for the egregious crime, because, she suggests, there is not always an answer to why. Given the topic and the author's near-brutal realism, The Dead Girl at times reads like an extended obituary. But the work never fails to be engrossing and rewarding.
The Dead Girl is imbued with a poignant warmth. The digressive book is given to flashback and careful detail, and Thernstrom writes intimately about Lee and their frank discussions. It seems odd to some that events like Lee sabotaging her own chances of going to MIT, or Lee's first sexual encounter and pregnancy scare would be included in a popular work like The Dead Girl. But in reading, it becomes obvious that Thernstrom wants--indeed needs--the reader to know the artistic and capricious girl she knew. And although Lee, in Thernstrom's candid depiction of her, is not always likeable, the reader never doubts their friendship.
In a number of ways, this is as much a book about Thernstrom as about Lee. The Dead Girl is a memorial to a friend, but it is also a ventilation of personal outrage. For Thernstrom, knowing her "characters" also means knowing her conciousness of them. And knowing of her loss.
Thernstrom, in the story she tells, loses not only a friend, but her notions of justice and retribution. Page eventually beats the murder charge, and is convicted of a lesser charge of manslaughter, free on bail. He still awaits the results of an appeal, while Thernstrom awaits the arrival of a lost friend in her dreams.
The Dead Girl, despite a few sensationalist tendencies, is at once a genuinly sensitive, intelligent, humane and literate book that deals honestly with the dangers, especially for women, of coming of age in a violent time. It raises some unsettling questions about friendship, love and trust.
Writing the book was obviously a very redemptive act for Thernstrom, and she writes in a courageous voice. But it in the end, it is the tragedy that resonates. As the author writes in the Postscript, "[N]o one can write for another because no one's spirit is like another's. The loss is, as it was, irreparable."
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