MAY 20, 2015
FOUR WEEKS BEFORE GRADUATING from Gettysburg College in 2009, author Amy Butcher said goodnight to 21-year-old Kevin Schaeffer after a late night out with their circle of friends. He’d offered to walk her home, and she accepted, hugging him goodnight before she closed the door. Hours later he stabbed his ex-girlfriend Emily 27 times with a steak knife. Psychiatrists concluded that he’d had a psychotic break. He has no memory of the crime. Nobody saw it coming.
Such is the premise that Butcher lays out in her literary debut, Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder. “Something had turned inside of Kevin, and I want[ed] to know if it could turn inside me, too,” she tells us, suggesting how severely affected she was by the crime. Despite or because she developed survivor’s guilt (she was eventually diagnosed with PTSD), she wrote Kevin monthly letters — and later admits that she became closer to him after his conviction. “Minds can break,” she writes early on, asserting that the murder was the result of untreated mental illness. She goes on to say that “even now, all these years later, I find it hard while enjoying anything not to think of my parallel: a man my same age and height who — because of those few dark hours — will now spend the majority of his life in a maximum-security prison.”
A graduate of Iowa’s MFA program and an assistant professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, Amy Butcher is an award-winning writer with a story she unravels slowly and with attention to suspense. For those tracking the zeitgeist, the book’s publication on the heels of the podcast Serial and the HBO series The Jinx is fortuitous. But Butcher’s role in this murder mystery — where the question is why, not who — is complicated. She’s obsessed with the crime, she says, though she hardly knew the victim and had grown somewhat apart from the killer by the time it happened. To her credit, she addresses her place on the periphery in the first chapter:
For all the freedom that is mine to enjoy, I’m unwillingly tethered to that trauma; often, when in transit, I find I take a seat beside a stranger and find myself navigating to the subject, to this story that is not mine.
The book actually begins with a prologue that summarizes Butcher’s interaction with Kevin just hours before the crime, then flashes forward three years to a scene in a hotel room, where she’s dressing to visit him at a correctional facility. (This visit acts as a frame for the narrative and receives fuller treatment in the final chapter.) These first tense pages are testament not only to Butcher’s strengths as a storyteller but to her ability to render vivid detail: the necklines of the shirts she’s brought along, she says, don’t cover the straps of the sports bra she’s wearing (wires, we learn, aren’t allowed); yet bra straps need to be concealed during visitation. She removes the dollar-store ring from her left hand. “Sometimes I find I wear one now just because: in new cities, at cocktail parties. I […] pretend it signifies some sort of love, but of course it signifies fear; Kevin has made me wary of strange, new men.”
Early on Butcher cites “youthful naïveté” as a reason for her fixation on the murder. She and Kevin grew up 30 miles apart in rural Pennsylvania and developed a fast friendship during college orientation. Compared to other new friends, neither one of them, she claims, had suffered any “defining difficulty”:
Kevin and I had both been raised in relatively easy, carefree households, and what art could we ever create, we joked, from cartoon shows about adventuring aardvarks? […]
“I mean, we ran out of apples from time to time,” I joked, “but that was pretty much it.”
“My mother once took a second job,” Kevin said, “but I just looted the cabinets for fruit snacks.”
This portrait of innocence makes it easier to understand the shock of Kevin’s snap, and Butcher’s question about what it was in him that could turn in her, too.
So it comes as quite a surprise nine chapters later, three before the epilogue, to hear of Kevin’s suicide attempt during Butcher’s semester abroad. If this structuring helped Butcher shape the arc of her story, it feels insensitive, not to say irresponsible, to manipulate the reader thus. It also highlights a missed opportunity, since by now Butcher has all but abandoned the subjects of mental health and incarceration raised in Chapter One. Leaving out what she knows in order to build suspense prevents her from investigating themes that might have layered this work with meaning and texture. Even in the middle chapters, when she writes about suffering from PTSD, she gives her bad experience with an antidepressant surprisingly short shrift. And there is only the briefest mention that she was aware that Kevin had suffered depression, though it turns out she knew a great deal more. Why withhold information that provides a nuanced picture of Kevin’s psychological history? And how else might she be holding out on us?
Phillip Lopate, who recently published a craft book, To Show and to Tell, has talked much about the importance of developing a “double perspective” in literary nonfiction: first, from the point of view of the I-character protagonist who experiences the story, and second, from the narrator, who is currently able to reflect on those experiences, “making use of intellectual hindsight.” In an essay titled “Reflection and Retrospection,” he writes, “I cannot wait until page 200 for the intelligent narrator to arrive!”
In Visiting Hours, the intelligent narrator arrives on page 186, with only 56 to go. It’s no surprise that this chapter, excerpted, won the 2014 Iowa Review Award in nonfiction; it’s a powerful stand-alone piece in which Butcher reflects on a morning spent with Kevin at a Civil War reenactors’ theme house, where they amused themselves and each other with toy weapons and period costumes. (Their antics are entertaining, a reminder of how corny college life can be.) She hadn’t seen Kevin in some months; she’d been away the semester before, when Kevin had been found hunched over a bathtub he’d edged with plugged-in electronics.
“I had no experience addressing issues of mental illness or suicidal tendencies; it seemed beyond me to even try,” she writes, so she kept the tone playful that morning. Then, “Kevin left and I forgot: about his hospitalization, his depression, any responsibility I had to him as his friend. […] An entire year went by,” she says, and though they socialized in groups, “never — in all that time — did I ask Kevin how he’d felt, or how it was that he felt now.” Later, Butcher learns from the police report that the night he killed his ex-girlfriend, Kevin had been trying to take his own life. Emily had attempted to stop him.
However, with this insight — into Kevin and herself — arriving so late, the pages between feel like another missed chance, this time to exercise “intellectual hindsight” about her role in the story. Instead, what populates many of these pages is perhaps just the opposite: Butcher imagines the view from Kevin’s prison cell window: “a blinking downtown in the distance, a well-lit corner on his horizon.” When she hears of a fatal stabbing on campus and doesn’t know who’s involved, she imagines a boy from biology, “then his lanky body in a gutter. I pictured the girl who worked the mailroom, then her pleated skirt along a sidewalk.” The next day, when Kevin doesn’t return her calls, she “pictures” him, too: “his thin frame hunched over a desk, his head turned toward a window where, blocks south, detectives were combing through his living room, taking fibers from his floors.” But what is the reason for this extended picturing and imagining — some of it quite rosy, as when she thinks of Kevin in the courtyard at prison, maybe “lying on a picnic table,” “surrounded by open fields, casting his gaze upward, drawing animals from the swollen sky, imagining not brutality at all but a rhinoceros, a hippopotamus”? Perhaps these dissociative moments are meant as a literary device to reflect her own diagnosis of PTSD? The problem is that it’s unclear how much distance the narrator has from her imagining protagonist: or does she suffer from PTSD, too?
Which brings me to another key piece of withheld information: close to the end of the book, Butcher reveals that she experienced “suicidal ideation” when she was 13. But having characterized her childhood as easy and sheltered (with no “defining difficulty”), having earlier insisted she had “no experience addressing issues of mental illness,” this admission is suspect — as is her earlier candor. Moreover, it’s difficult for the reader to believe that when Butcher sat next to a gun in a closet “for hours at a time,” her “profound unsettlement” (which lifted a few months later, instantly, while looking at the Seine) was “the same pain that Kevin likely felt for months, for over a year.” If it were the same, how could it be given such a light touch in the book?
And this isn’t the first time that she exhibits an uncomfortable inclination to identify with Kevin. Referring to both him and the victim as “my parallel,” she writes, “what I’ve identified in Kevin is something I’m nearly certain is in everyone.” This line of thinking results in a kind of horror and sympathy for the narrator she may not have intended. And when we come to a passage about how Butcher’s boyfriend withdrew from her in the aftermath of the crime — “He understood then what would take me years to figure out: that there was no way to make what had happened make any logical or emotional sense” — it’s easy to nod along.
As the last few chapters approach those eponymous, if uneventful, visiting hours, Butcher finally circles back to her research about incarceration, mental illness, and male violence, as introduced in the beginning. Much of this reportage is woven deftly into the narrative; except at this point, it’s the author’s reflection that would have lent as much or more support and credibility to her story, just as an earlier discussion of mental illness might have given us a clearer “picture” of what motivated not only Kevin’s crime, but Butcher’s consequent desire to get close to him after the fact. Did that stem from PTSD? Or from something else, something deep-rooted? Butcher has explained that as a teen she “crafted careful, detailed statements to parents and victims of national tragedies,” and that a response from a mother of a Columbine massacre victim was “pinned […] to my bedroom wall as an achievement.” About her self-appointed role, she continues, “I saw it as my duty: giving support to those who lacked it. For years, I awoke early to watch the news beside my parents, always waiting for the people I believed needed me the most.” And justifying her monthly letters to Kevin, she asks, “So who but me would take care of [him] in the aftermath of what he’d done?” The question is, does she continue to feel this way now?
Butcher ultimately pens a truthful and straightforward letter to Kevin, an act that brings their communication to an end. “I had failed him,” she writes, because she was afraid to admit to the presence of mental illness in her own life. But by the time this sense of self-awareness swells, in the epilogue, the reader isn’t sure the narrator can be trusted. That being so, she has failed herself and her reader as well.