If I Am Missing or Dead
Although the title If I Am Missing or Dead and the dust jacket subtitle A Sister’s Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation led some readers to anticipate a true-crime account of a murder and the subsequent investigation, Janine Latus’s memoir primarily addresses her own early relationships with her father, the men she lived with or dated, and her marriage to “Kurt” (a pseudonym), a doctor whom she eventually divorced. After a one-page prologue introducing the moment that Latus learned of her younger sister Amy’s disappearance, Latus follows with a straightforward time line from the girls’ childhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan, through their first relationships with men, their marriages, and then Amy’s divorce and her involvement with the man who would kill her.
Janine and Amy Latus were two of five children born to Pete, an insurance salesman, and Marilyn, a qualified nurse who stayed home to raise her children. Pete belittled Janine and her sisters, criticizing their bodies, crudely and publicly assessing their sexual attractiveness, and often making sexual advances toward them. Latus left home before she graduated from high school but stayed in touch with her father, even after he had his twenty-four-year marriage to Marilyn annulled. As Janine dances with her husband at her wedding, Pete comes up behind her and tells her that she has sexy legs; at both of Amy’s memorial services, he tells two offensive stories about her and, surveying a collage of photographs of Amy, calls her fat.
In the spring of 2002, when Amy Lynne Latus failed to report to her job as a cost analyst at Kimberly-Clark in Knoxville, Tennessee, her coworkers searched through her desk and found a letter Amy had taped inside a drawer, addressed to the Knox County sheriff. The letter detailed the financial obligations Amy’s boyfriend Ron Ball had incurred toward her during their brief relationship. Paradoxically, Amy remained romantically involved with Ball, who had a criminal record, but still felt compelled to document their financial situation for the authorities in case he decided to resolve his debts by killing her. Within two weeks of her disappearance, Amy’s body was found at a rural construction site, wrapped in a tarpaulin and buried in a shallow grave. She had been strangled. In 2004, Ball pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and abuse of a corpse; he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Latus calculated that he might be released in sixteen years, in his fifties, young enough to find a new girlfriend and start his life over. Prosecutors told the Latus family that it would have been too difficult to convict Ball of first-degree murder under Tennessee laws.
When Amy was killed, she had known Ron Ball for ten months, having met him in an Internet chat room. Ball had quickly moved into Amy’s house; using her own credit cards, she bought him a truck and supplies to set up his own business as a house painter. Ball refused to have sex with Amy and was obviously pursuing other women. He had spent time in prisonshe believed for nonviolent financial crimesand was jailed for driving under the influence while Amy was out of town visiting her family for Christmas. Nevertheless, Amy had high hopes for the relationship, downplayed these warning signs to her family, and stopped speaking to at least one friend who questioned the wisdom of her commitment to Ball.
Amy’s story is told mainly through Latus’s recollection of telephone conversations between the sisters; the book’s final fifty pages include excerpts from Amy’s journals expressing her longing for a stable relationship and her disillusionment as she begins to realize that Ball is not the man she had hoped for. In describing Amy’s relationship with Ron Ball and her own with Kurt, Latus allows events to speak for themselves, recounting what happened or what was said with no need to explain the psychology that led both women into destructive situations. Her style is journalistic, factual, and lacking metaphorical language, but it is emotionally wrenching in its flat honesty. Latus unflinchingly records shocking events: her father suddenly tongue-kisses one of her sisters, who promptly faints; she is molested during a babysitting job by a neighborhood man, then her parents tell her to keep it a secret or be considered a slut; during Thanksgiving dinner with her boyfriend Michael’s parents,...
(The entire section is 1799 words.)