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The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City

3.35  ·  Rating details ·  997 ratings  ·  184 reviews
In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angel
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Scribner
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Stuart The exploration of how the community in Brownsville was impacted by this tragedy exposes the spiritual cancer that leads to a search for meaning and h…moreThe exploration of how the community in Brownsville was impacted by this tragedy exposes the spiritual cancer that leads to a search for meaning and healing that we explore along with the author who becomes part of the community in the process. It is a hard topic that has no easy answers and maybe this is why some don't appreciate the book the way I did. I found it very moving and beautifully written. (less)

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Average rating 3.35  · 
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Nov 12, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: netgalley
When I described The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts to my husband, he said "I didn't know that you read true crime". I hadn't thought of it as true crime. I requested it on Netgalley because it sounded interesting, and I like to read pretty much anything that will teach me something about a part of the world or events I don't know; this sounded like that kind of book, granted with a pretty gruesome triple infanticide at the centre. In one of the poorest parts of the US -- Brownsville, Texas, on the ...more
Elyse  Walters
Jan 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley
This is a very sad story written by a brave woman.

John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children.

"Chapter 9"
"Don't Read This Chapter Before Going To Bed"
.........."I would do anything for them"
----John Allen Rubio
*note...Chapter 9 won't be easy to read before - during - or after lunch either.
So, I'm not even going to talk about it here either.

Laura Tillman, ( bless her skill, commitment, and the personal grief she must have experienced to follow this project throu
Richard Derus
Jan 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
My review is live today at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud.

I give the book 4 stars, as a first book it's very good but has some structural infelicities.

#ReadingIsResistance to the invisible poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness that we'd rather not think about. The infanticides that this book details are proof that only a callous, uncaring, selfish people would not fight for better and more complete services to help prevent this happening again.

I refuse to believe Americans are callous, uncaring,
Alisi ☆ wants to read too many books ☆
This book is terrible. This book is, hands down, the worst I've read all year. It ranks right up there with The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer. The biggest difference is that, while Wilderness diverts into all this aimless, boring stuff that has nothing to do with the crime, Tillman manages to make everything about herself.

The book is completely aimless. It is written as a journalist would when taking on an undefined topic. That is,
I don't know how familiar you guys are with the concept of journo-procedurals, but I had never heard of it until I was reading up on THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS by Laura Tillman. Essentially, what an author of this genre does is writes about the process of writing a story, and instead of focusing on the story at hand they more focus on the process of getting the story. It's a way of personalizing an event that may not otherwise be personal. I think that the closest that I have come to readin ...more
Book Riot Community
Tillman started out as a journalist writing an article about the proposed fate of a building in Texas where a horrific crime took place. Some of the town’s residents wanted the building demolished, while other people in the neighborhood thought it should stay. While investigating her article, Tillman ended up with an amazing work of nonfiction, not just about the building, but about poverty, mental health issues, superstition, ghosts, crime, the death penalty, and more. This is not an easy book ...more
This is an important story written by a reporter who is far braver than I am. I am glad the victims' story was told, but I agree with other reviewers who think it would have worked better as a long-form article rather than a book. ...more
Julianne (Outlandish Lit)
This is a true crime book for people who don't read true crime. If you go in expecting a lot of details about the murder of three children by their parents or the court case, you're going to be disappointed. Rather, this is an unflinching look at class and poverty in America, and some of its subsequent effects on communities. It's like classy true crime with a social justice bent. But there is totally a chapter titled "Don't Read This Chapter before Going to Bed."

Tillman's journey started as she
Apr 06, 2016 rated it liked it

3.5 Stars

I think readers going into this with a perception of it being "True Crime" might be disappointed. I've read a few books in that genre, and this one doesn't seem to fit. There is no in depth analysis of the crime, or even many details. The author discusses the murders directly in just one chapter, and seems to try to maintain a certain distance even then.

This book is more about the issues and factors that played a part in creating circumstances ripe for this kind of tragedy. Tillman look
Aj Sterkel
Mar 21, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
The Good: This isn’t your typical true-crime book. Instead of focusing on the crime itself, it focuses on the events that led up to the crime and the community’s reaction to it. The book is mainly an examination of how poverty impacts the lives of people in a city along the US/Mexico border. John Allen Rubio and his wife decapitated their three children after Rubio became convinced that the kids were possessed by demons. Rubio and his wife were both severely mentally ill, but they didn’t have ac ...more
Apr 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Wow. I am so glad that Tillman ended up where she did with this! Interconnectivity. That is what we humans so often seem to overlook, ignore, or simply never realize! See my full review @ Smoke & Mirrors: (Warning: it's a rather long one!) Though I don't personally believe in the concept of "God," neither do I believe that we as human beings have any business acting as "God" (at least that concept as defined by many Christians) by deciding who should liv ...more
Apparently, this book began as a story about a building in Texas that a horrific crime had taken place in. There was a great deal of controversy about whether or not the building should be destroyed. But, it became much more - the exploration of a horrendous crime, poverty, mental health, superstition and more. There was such potential here but it never came together for me. It was fine but it didn't stand out or engage me quite enough. Other reviews indicate that the book DID work for a lot of ...more
Janet Wolkoff
Apr 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I have known Laura Tillman since she was a little girl through my friendship with her parents. I knew I would like this book because Laura has proved to be an excellent writer in her many journalism pieces I have read and enjoyed. However, I did not expect to read a book that I think is extraordinary in every way. I did not know that the author is such a deep thinker and has the capacity to raise, explore and write about virtually all of our most important social policy issues in America. I am t ...more
Mar 18, 2018 rated it did not like it
What an extremely disappointing read. This book promised a lot after being recommended to me by a friend, however if it was not for this recommendation, I would have stopped reading after the first 50 pages. Unfortunately the book did not improve and was littered with structural flaws. I feel like I learnt more about the author's story and movements than I did about the actual crime this book was supposed to feature. There is really only one chapter about the murders themselves. Whilst I underst ...more
Apr 25, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2016
I first heard of this book after reading about it in the Times, in what was very likely the most savage book review I've ever read in the genteel NYT. It ventured somewhere past negative into the personal, made all the more shocking because every other review I've come across has been no less than effusive in its praise.

Thing is, personal or not, I don't think the reviewer was too far off.

This is a shockingly listless examination of a gruesome triple murder involving very young children, a rote
Jun 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: june-2019
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City is journalist Laura Tillman's first book.  In it, Tillman investigates the aftermath of a terrible crime.  In March 2003, in Brownsville, Texas - one of the poorest cities in the United States, and located just metres from the Mexican border - a young couple named John Allen Rubio (22) and Angela Camacho (23) murdered their three young children; three-year-old Julissa, one-year-old John Stephan, and two-month-old Mary Jane.

Jeffrey Bumiller
Oct 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There is a chapter in this book, about half way through, titled, "Don't Read This Chapter before Going to Bed." Normally I would have stubbornly disregarded that instruction but in this case it was circumstance that stepped in for me. I read a good amount of this book in Pittsburgh in a hotel lobby that was simultaneously hosting a library conference and a very loud Halloween dance party. I didn't have much else to do and I was really invested in the story so far, so it was there that I read the ...more
Katherine Addison
This is an excellent, sad, hopeful book about Brownsville, Texas, and a terrible murder that took place there in 2003. John Allen Rubio and his common-law wife Maria Angela Camacho murdered---decapitated---their three children, all under the age of 4. Rubio was sentenced to death. Tillman's inquiry is about the murder; about the history of the building it took place in; about the man who did it (and to a lesser extent about the woman---Rubio agreed to talk to Tillman and Camacho did not); in one ...more
Sep 28, 2018 rated it liked it
3.5 stars.

I believe I first heard about this gruesome story from the Sword and Scale podcast (diehard fan!) and I’ve been intrigued ever since in picking up the book by Laura Tillman.

This is a reporting of the murder of three children by their father with the help of their mother in Brownsville, Texas on March 11, 2003. This explores many issues, such as the death penalty, mental illness and poverty.

While the story was heartbreaking and devastating, I found the writing somewhat lacking. I jus
Rebecca Thatcher-Murcia
Mar 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I was reluctant to read this because as a fellow Brownsville Herald reporter I've covered my share of heart-breaking, inexplicable tragedies that emerge from the poverty and brokenness of my beloved Brownsville. But huge credit and five stars to Laura Tillman for taking a deep, extremely humanistic dive into the horror story of drug addled parents killing their children. I could not stop reading and felt as though I came away with enormous respect for Tillman's research, interviewing and writing ...more
Mar 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a sad book. The murders themselves are horrific and not for the faint hearted, but it’s more about the city of Brownsville, mental illness and substance abuse. It’s a study on all influences that led up to a terrible moment.
Janet Morris
I don't know how to explain my feelings toward this book. It is an extremely compelling story, but the writing quality is poor. There seemed to be no real outline or backbone to it. The purple prose only highlighted this flaw, as did the repetition of unimportant things and the lack of refreshers given for details that seemed more important.

If all you knew about the case was the manner in which Julissa, John Stephon, and Mary Jane died, then it would seem impossible to feel bad for John Allen R
IN COLD BLOOD is one of my favorite books, in part because it's a story about true crime and also because it's a book about journalism and the process of figuring out the story.

Tillman's book does something similar. This is a compelling read about a journalist being pulled to a story of three children being brutally murdered by their parents and the legacy such a crime leaves on a small patch of the world. It's an uneven read, in that it doesn't delve enough into the story itself and focuses far
Susan (aka Just My Op)
This is undeniably a tragic, heartbreaking story – in 2003, three small children murdered by their (step)parents in Brownsville, TX, because of demons. And this is nonfiction. Real people killing real, innocent children. The parents were poor, not well educated, and the mother had a very low IQ. Still, can you murder your children, and horrifically at that, because you believe they are possessed by demons? Sadly, you can. They did.

Despite the very touching story, the telling of it did not impres
Mrs. Danvers
Aug 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Thoughtful and compassionate, this sad but lovely book considers the big questions of humanity, questions of moral responsibility, the existence of evil, self-perception and the meaning of community, and does so with an almost lyrical command of language.
Miabi Chatterji
May 03, 2016 rated it did not like it
The book is subtitled "Murder and Memory in an American City," but a better subtitle would have been "Various Musings of a Journalist about One Building and Evil." Tillman's slim volume - no index, bilbliography / further reading, or further notes on the people interviewed -- shouldn't be described as an "inquiry" into the murders of three children in Brownsville, TX in 2008 as it is on the flap, because only about 20% of the book covers the murders, the people involved, or the two trials that e ...more
Penny Schmuecker
Jan 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
In The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, author and journalist, Laura Tillman, writes of the murder of three children in Brownsville, Texas in 2003. The unthinkable aspect of the crime is that the murders were committed by the children's parents, John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho.

Tillman began writing about the crime in 2008 when she was a journalist for the Brownsville Herald. Five years after the murder was committed, the building where the children were killed was still standing and many reside
May 07, 2016 rated it liked it
This book had a lot of potential, particularly regarding the analysis of the M'naghten rule in British and American law. Unfortunately, not from any error of the author, although harder work or at least speculation would have deepened this subject, the book is largely about a horrendous murder of three very young children by their father (with assistance from their extremely low IQ mother) in Brownsville, Texas.

The legal question in play is the "insanity" defense. The father had been diagnosed a
Paul Pessolano
Feb 06, 2016 rated it liked it
“The Long Shadow of Small Things”, by Laura Tillman, published by Scribner.

Category – Crime Publication Date – April, 2016

This is a wonderful book for those interested in crime, especially those seeking to determine the reasons why certain crimes are committed. This is an excellent study of conditions that could cause criminal behavior.

The reader should first realize that this is a story of horrific murders, the beheading of three small children by their parents, a murder that most of us could
Aug 03, 2018 rated it did not like it
Oh this book. It could not decide what it wanted to be. A ghost story? A true crime novel? A psychology textbook, a history book, or a story about a building?

I had to painfully slog my way to the finish line on this one. I was familiar with the crimes of John Allen Rubio and picked up this book after listening to a podcast about the crime in which this author was interviewed. I am not a person who needs all the gory details about a crime, but this book felt SO CONFUSING. I went into it expecting
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