A surprisingly gentle story about trauma, recovery – and finding support in the most unexpected of places.
(Full disclosure: I received a free audiobook for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape/childhood sexual abuse.)
Maybe it’s Jason McGinty’s weed or my own desperate, clawing attempt to try to do something to help Dylan, but I get an idea. The beginning of one, anyway. Something hazy and weird and probably screwed up.
Groovy notices the brush in my hand and flips over, squirming in excitement. His tail even wags. I’d have to be a pretty big asshole not to brush this dog right now.
Eleven-year-old Ethan Jorgenson is out riding his bike one warm Texas afternoon when a car runs him off the road. Before he can even process what’s happening, Ethan finds himself crammed on the floor of a truck, surrounded by cigarette butts and Snickers wrappers, a gun pressed to his head. For the next four years, Ethan is held captive by a middle-aged man named Martin Gulliver.
Though Ethan’s abduction is big news in Dove Lake, the police have zero leads to go on. That is, until Marty snatches another boy, eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson, meant to be Ethan’s “replacement.” Shortly before he went missing, Dylan’s neighbor noticed the boy walking around outside, alone – which is unusual, since Dylan has low-functioning autism and never goes out unsupervised. Around the same time, she spotted an unfamiliar black pickup truck with severe damage to the rear bumper. The police traced the vehicle to Marty’s workplace in Houston, a hundred miles away; when they approached him, he slipped out the back of the restaurant and shot himself in the head. When they searched Gulliver’s apartment, they were shocked to find not one, but two missing boys: Dylan and Ethan.
This story is about what happens afterward: the slow and painful recovery that comes after an unimaginable trauma.
Dylan’s older sister Caroline blames herself for what happened to her brother; after all, she was supposed to be watching him that day. In the days since his return, his mental state has continued to devolve. Caroline wants desperately to help him, while their parents would rather carry on as if nothing happened. After all, Dylan was “only” gone for four days; how much could have happened to him in that short time? Unfortunately, Dylan cannot tell them himself: he’s nonverbal.
With nowhere else to turn, Caroline seeks out the one other person who might understand Dylan’s predicament and be able to offer answers: Ethan. What she finds is something else entirely: an impossible, “fucked up” friendship.
From jump street, Ethan’s story reminded me of the real-life case of Shawn Hornbeck. In fact, it seems pretty heavily based on the case: both boys were abducted when they were eleven, held captive for four years, and rescued when their kidnapper took a second, younger boy. Like Shawn, Ethan is lanky and dark-haired, and sports piercings he acquired during his time in captivity that vanish pretty quickly upon rescue. Both boys are from small, Midwestern towns: Dove Lake, Texas and Richwoods, Missouri. Martin Gulliver and Michael John Devlin both worked in fast food places; their MO for the first abduction is identical. Mathieu even puts one of Devlin’s own phrases into Gulliver’s mouth: “You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Unlike Gulliver, Devlin was taken alive; he’s currently serving a life sentence on 78 counts, including kidnapping and molestation.
I’m originally from New York, but moved to the Kansas City area a few years before Shawn was found. It was pretty big news here, for obvious reasons, which is why it stands out so vividly in my mind. To be honest, any such story – about a child kidnapping victim miraculously returned home after several years – is bound to remind me of Horneck, similarities or no. But the many obvious connections really solidified it for me – and made me feel a little anxious to read Afterward.
After Shawn’s rescue, the Hornbecks were, unsurprisingly, inundated with interview requests. If memory serves, Shawn only gave one interview in that first year, to get the media off his back – just like Ethan (Oprah Winfrey to Ethan’s Carlotta King). Like everyone else, I was curious to hear Shawn’s story; after all, rubbernecking is a pretty universal human impulse. But I passed on the interview: it felt too invasive and voyeuristic. Just because they agreed to do it (under duress, most likely), doesn’t mean we have to watch it, you know?
Which is all to say, I had a similar feeling while reading Afterward – a little icky, like I was maybe sort of invading a rape victim’s privacy (?). I do wish that Mathieu had altered some of the details, to give the story more of a “vaguely inspired by” vs. “directly based on” type of feel. THAT SAID, Mathieu handles the story with nuance, compassion, and grace. If you’ve read any of her previous novels – The Truth About Alice or Devoted – this probably won’t come as a surprise.
There are so many things I love about this book. Ethan and Caroline’s weird, messed-up friendship is chief among them. I guess it helps, in a way, that Caroline’s got her own baggage. Her father checked out of the family, mentally anyway, when his first kid was born a girl and the second came out “broken.” Now he’s barely around, rarely acknowledges (let alone helps with) Dylan, and spends most of his free time drinking. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson fight all the time, to the point that a divorce would be a plus. Mom is overworked and Caroline has become a determined underachiever, seeing as her accomplishments go unnoticed anyway. She acts out sexually, often behaving in a reckless or selfish manner.
And you know what? Mathieu writes Caroline with such empathy that, even when she’s acting a bit self-absorbed, even bratty, your heart still aches for her. Ethan and Caroline – because of their shared history and very different emotional needs – are on a crash course, yet it’s impossible to lay blame with either of them. They sometimes hurt each other, because they’re hurting. Yet there’s also hope here, because their friendship ultimate weathers each and every storm fate throws at it.
I also love Dr. Greenberg, Ethan’s therapist. Mathieu’s depiction of therapy seems pretty spot-on; there are no magic breakthroughs or miracle cures to be found here – just tedious, emotionally taxing work. And Groovy! How could you now love Groovy the therapy dog? I wish I had a Dr. Greenberg and Groovy to call my own. But for social anxiety instead of extreme trauma.
Though it’s a difficult, heartbreaking read, Mathieu also imbues the story with hope. She doesn’t lay more on us than we can handle – the abuse Ethan suffered mostly goes unspoken, but is always there, in the periphery – and even adds a little levity here and there, as with Groovy. Afterward is written in the same quiet, understated vein as her previous novels.
Incidentally, I was kind of disappointed by the whole “peeping Jesse” subplot. Twice in the story Ethan mentions how his then-eleven-year-old friend Jesse habitually spied on his babysitter Monica, who lived next door. (In fact, Ethan was en route to Jesse’s house when he was kidnapped; at the time, he hoped that maybe he could get in on it too.) I kept hoping that this behavior would be challenged, but nope. It’s just left to stand on its own, thus normalizing it as “boys will be boys” type behavior – and in a book about rape, no less! Non-consensual sexual behavior – which includes “peeping” – is not okay. Treating it like it is feeds rape culture. Honestly, it has zero relevance to the overall story and could have been omitted without altering the plot. The whole thing just left me scratching my head.
I listened to the audio version of this book by Recorded Books; Nina Alvamar and Jeffrey Brick, who narrate the alternating Caroline/Ethan chapters, are excellent.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: MC Ethan Jorgenson was abducted when he was eleven and is rescued four years later when his captor kidnaps another boy. The story takes place in the year after Ethan’s rescue and focuses on his recovery. He was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused and suffers from PTSD.
Eleven-year-old Dylan Anderson – the second boy taken – has low-functioning autism; he also seems to struggle with PTSD after his return. However, we don’t know exactly what happened to him, since he’s nonverbal. Ethan can’t really fill in the blanks, either, since many of his memories have been repressed.
Their kidnapper and abuser, Martin Gulliver, 43, commits suicide when the police approach him at work.
Dylan’s older sister Caroline blames herself for what happened to him. Their parents fight constantly; dad is rarely around, pays little attention to his kids when he is, and is likely an alcoholic. He resents that his first child was born a girl and the second one came out “broken.” By story’s end, they divorce. Because she’s often overlooked by her parents, Caroline acts out: her grades have dropped, she drinks and smokes pot, and uses sex as a means of escape.
Ethan’s therapist Dr. Greenberg is Jewish. His wife, an atheist, died five years ago from pancreatic cancer. His son, who lives in Atlanta, is a Unitarian Universalist minister.
Caroline works at the Jackson Family Farm, which is actually owned by Enrique Saldana; he pretends to be the manager because he thinks being Mexican-American will hurt his business.
One of their classmates, a senior, is named Fabiola Hernandez.
Animal-friendly elements: Mostly no, though Dr. Greenberg’s therapy dog/assistant/companion animal Groovy is THE BEST.