After the Eclipse: A Mother's Murder, a Daughter's Search
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)
Twenty-three years after an annular solar eclipse cut across North America from southern California to northern Maine, another eclipse has just shrouded the nation in darkness, moving southeast from the Pacific Northwest to the American South. If the paths of both eclipses were laid across each other, they would form an X over the continental United States.
In mathematics, X indicates multiplication. An X or cross can also be used to represent negation: “no.” Sometimes X is the substitute for a signature. And in apocryphal tales of buried treasure, X marks the spot.
After the Eclipse is not a story about treasure, although it is a story about signed affidavits and the multiple times a woman said no. It is a story of personal horror, and an event that became a rural town’s haunting legacy. In compelling detail, After the Eclipse is the true story of a murder and its aftermath, as told by the only witness.
When Crystal Perry was murdered in her kitchen on the night of May 12, 1994—two days after the solar eclipse—her twelve-year-old daughter Sarah was just down the hall. Now a Brooklyn resident and adult who has aged past her mother’s shortened life, Sarah Perry has managed to tell the story of that murder as both a researcher and daughter, while avoiding the culturally-clichéd, but tempting, tropes of blame and revenge.
Alternating between Crystal Perry’s life before the murder and the author’s life afterwards, After the Eclipse is a strong, gritty memoir of murder and its fallout in the white working class town of Bridgton, Maine. Though set amongst the idyllic lakes and forests frequented by Northeastern elites fleeing the heat of urban summers, the only docksides here are the hand-stitched Sebagos that Crystal threads as she ekes out a living as a single-mother. More than a chronicle of violence, Perry’s book presents an intimate peek into the family history and turbulent lives of a white world far from the country club, and the choices made by women with few choices at all.
To be honest, there are very few “good guys” in Perry’s saga, and I mean literally good men, with the exception of an investigator whose persistence helps to finally bring Crystal’s case to a close twelve years later. Perry’s family, her mother’s love interests, the town, law enforcement, and her own life are all populated by temperamental and antagonistic men. The ubiquity of such threatening personalities may seem aberrant or the result of confirmation bias, but statistically it is not so unexpected.
In the United States, over 90% of murderers are male. Among female victims, over half are murdered by their romantic partners. Another 19.7% are murdered by an acquaintance and 15.7% by strangers. For 15.2% of murdered women, the relationship is simply unknown or unclear.
Perry’s handling of male violence and suspicion in her and her mother’s life builds the primary tension of the memoir. Early on we know that the murder has occurred and how. But like Sarah and the investigators, the reader is left analyzing the male figures of their lives for signs of complicity and guilt. The book becomes a tantalizing whodunit, whose dramatic irony is all the more amplified by the knowledge that the author herself had to wait over a decade and not 347 pages for answers.
While the title is a literal reference to the eclipse that preceded the murder, it is also a metaphor for the all-consuming darkness of grief. Even after the murder is solved, the delineation of before and after persists. The murder is, unsurprisingly, a cosmic reckoning in Perry’s life, and she addresses its emotional impact with the plain language of stark self-awareness: “So much of what I’d thought was true had turned out to be an illusion. I saw the people around me living by these illusions—that love and safety could be counted on, that life had meaning and the future could be controlled—and I did not feel that I could ever again share their suspended disbelief.”
This story is as much about Perry’s determination to create a life and hope from the chaos of her experience, as it is a daughter’s investigation for answers. Passed from relative to friend to relative and on and on, she finally has an opportunity to start over as a student in North Carolina. At Davidson College, Perry carries the memory of her mother like a specter that only she can see. The secret is as much a cause of her otherness as class differences with her peers. Their gleeful declaration that Marisa Tomei is “soo [sic] white trash” after seeing In the Bedroom together only underscores the gulf of experience between them. They will never know her world, and she will never truly be able to share in their delight and inexperience.
As I was reading After the Eclipse, I got the sense that Perry’s investigations into the whys of her mother’s death were like ad-hoc rituals of exorcism, as though to under- stand the murder might cure her heart of its hurt. But the opposite seems true. As she sifts through testimony and evidence in the florescent lit rooms of a Maine police station, a singular loneliness suffuses the endeavor. Here is a woman, once girl, remembering her mother in pieces of ephemera saved by strangers because of their significance to a someday trial. Truly: to bear witness is to be alone, with few mechanisms for comfort.
I will not tell you who murdered Crystal Perry. If you must know before you read the book, you can look it up on Google, although I’m not sure that knowing the name will tell you much about these two women’s lives. Nor will it tell you about the other figures left alone by the murder. Linda, Crystal’s best friend, and Dennis, her once-fiancé, are two among many residents of Bridgton whose lives are irrevocably altered by Crystal’s death. Perry navigates the complications of having known them in her childhood and then later reconnecting as an adult with careful precision and nervousness. She feels no right to them, even as she wants desperately to know their perspective on her mother’s life.
Perhaps in someone else’s hands, the tragedy of Crystal Perry’s murder might have become a hagiography proving her sainthood, but Sarah is too honest for such romanticism. She is not interested in erasing any corners of her mother’s personality or their relationship. One of the book’s touching anecdotes presents a small row between mother and daughter over whether or not they will watch Seinfeld together. Amplified by the timing of the murder, the way in which such an insignificant disagreement becomes frozen in memory by what followed, illustrates how little resolution is afforded the survivors of calamity; they get neither answers or dénouement—just an end.
Similarly, After the Eclipse offers the reader no pat resolution. There is, at last, a trial and conviction. But Perry makes it clear that the reverberations of her mother’s death are ongoing, and that Crystal’s killer was not so aberrant as our comfort might wish us to believe. Ultimately, what the book illustrates best is the gulf of loss and the continuing significance of one life taken before its time. Grief, after all, is not a tidy emotion. It echoes through and beneath every subsequent experience (“the colors and sounds and textures of the world still seem to conspire to bring her back to me”). This book is just one of the many repercussions of a life cut short.