Who Named the Knife: a Book of Murder and Memory|
by Linda Spalding
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by Nancy Fischer
I used to know a fellow whose grandparents missed the Titanic. To their brief chagrin, some connecting conveyance failed to deliver them onto that doomed boat failed. Happily, their bad luck is why he was around to tell us that story. We all know tales like this one, and we love to share them. They are occasional proof of something that's usually invisible: every event, however trifling, may prevent or enable other, more significant events. Linda Spalding's Who Named the Knife: A Book of Murder and Memory is an absorbing memoir about the strange and potent connection between Spalding and her subject, Maryann Acker. It's more than a fascinating dinner-party story though; in Who Named the Knife Spalding mingles her own history with Maryann Acker's. The result is an extraordinary meditation on chance, atonement, family ties and the frailty of memory.
In 1978, as Linda Spalding was preparing to leave Hawaii for a new life in Canada, she was summoned to jury duty. Stirred by a host of motives¨the desire to participate in the process that had consumed her lawyer father, a tentative willingness to sit in judgement, a sense of civic duty¨she found herself an alternate on a jury at a murder trial. One thing led to another. She ended up on the jury. The accused, a remote and beautiful young Mormon woman, was charged with murdering a man. There had been a series of robberies that left one other man dead. The state's star witness was Maryann Acker's husband William, a career criminal serving his own life sentence in another state.
For Spalding, the trial was short, mysterious and ultimately unsatisfying. Her notes and recollections described William's often bizarre testimony, her questions about his credibility, her confusion at the defendant's demeanor, and her sense that more questions were being raised than resolved. Try as she might, she could not decide if Maryann Acker was a killer.
It wouldn't matter. As a result of being five minutes late on the last day of testimony, she was dismissed from the jury. In just under two hours, the other jurors convicted Maryann Acker of first-degree murder. Spalding and her family moved to Canada. Acker went to prison.
Eighteen years later, Spalding finds the notebook she kept at the trial. She makes inquiries and discovers that Maryann Acker is still in prison. What began as reasonable doubt congeals into an awful certainty: "If I had been there that morning, been there on time, you'd be free." She writes to Acker, and the two begin a correspondence that ripens over several years. It's an odd bond: on one side, Spalding is overwhelmed by guilt about her part in Maryann's fate, while on the other, Maryann Acker prefers not to focus on what might have been. Spalding wants to tangle with fate's inscrutable twists: "I wanted to dwell on all the what ifs. What the poet Tomas Transtomer calls a book that can only be read in the dark." In contrast, Acker wants to talk about the degree she has earned in prison, her hobbies and the work she does with various organizations. She is earnestly philosophical, even optimistic¨sometimes she seems freer than Spalding.
Spalding's ties with Acker, whom she calls "my prisoner", deepen against the background of Spalding's own life: Spalding's elderly mother is failing, her daughter is pregnant. Spalding draws out some of Acker's history, and considers her own. Their lives have an eerily similar geography. Both had fathers whose military service left them much altered. Both lost siblings tragically. Each left home early, burning bridges with friends and family. Each made a hasty marriage, in defiance of her parents' wishes. Repeatedly, we get the sense of these two as versions of one another, their lives shaped by the knife-edge of happenstance. Spalding's reflections are punctuated by irresistible, unanswerable questions: "What do we make ourselves and how much is circumstance?" "Would one go back in time?" "Is all grief more or less the same?"
Prison walls can limit, even sever, our connections with one another. Maryann Acker's relationship with her parents and sister is a still-life portrait of confusion and disappointment. But as Spalding knows, liberty is no guarantee of "sufficient joy"; she mentions "a depression so dark that at times it swallowed me." She struggles with expectations¨her own, and others'. The unreliability of memory is a repeated chord, most tellingly struck when she finds proof that she has been misremembering the details of a childhood experience. Unlike Acker, however, Spalding has the opportunity to revisit thorny relationships. Talking with childhood friends, going through her parents' papers, she can recast her difficult, demanding father in a more sympathetic way. In visiting, then in mourning her mother she begins to understand herself as "a link between what is gone and what is to come."
Throughout, Spalding's writing is spare, honest, elegant. She has an exquisite sense of place¨Hawaii, her cottage on the Canadian Shield, the California prison where she visits Maryann¨are plainly and compellingly drawn. In one particularly remarkable passage, she sums up her mother with stunning poignancy.
How do our lives spin off down different paths? Perhaps the closest thing to an answer is in one of Spalding's conversations with Acker. They are recalling moments when they were angry with their parents.
"What was it with your mother?" Maryann asks now.
"She told me to give up a certain boy."
Maryann is quiet. Then she laughs. "Lucky you."˛