Publication Date: November 14, 2011
Rachel Corbett grew up knowing that her mother’s ex-boyfriend had killed himself, but not knowing the full details of his death. When she finds out that his death was the suicide part of a murder/suicide, she launches a quest to find out more about the crime and why this man she considered a father would have done such a thing.
In the synopsis I may have overstated what A Killing in Iowa: A Daughter’s Story of Love and Murder is about. It’s a short book written with the intent of being something a person will read in one sitting, and that’s where it suffers. Corbett starts her narrative with a history of Iowa, and while I think she tries to paint a picture of desperation born of poverty, I don’t think she quite pulls it off and could have better used those pages for more information about the crime and her connection to the killer. This is less a story about Scott Johnson’s killing of his girlfriend, his dog and himself (after putting the girlfriend’s son out in his truck where the child sat until the bodies were found), but Corbett’s desire to rationalize Johnson and make him a sympathetic killer while balanced with a healthy dose of “It could have been me”.
The only real connection to the crime itself, beyond bare and brief facts, is the son, who Corbett tracks down. She tells us that she had to find him and doesn’t seem to know her own purpose in doing so, but in the telling, it comes off as not really caring what impact she has on this young victim as long as she gets what she wants. The real information, which she doesn’t seem to have considered before despite the large amount of drugs found in the house, is that the boy believes that Johnson was probably taking hallucinogenic mushrooms when he killed his girlfriend, his dog and ate his gun.
The information Corbett gives the son in return is that his mother was found naked, a fact he must have already known (not to mention she was shot on a water bed that, then punctured, leaked and bloated her body so that the people carrying her out could hardly carry her). When he reacts with anger, she seems to believe it’s because she has bettered herself by escaping Iowa, and he hasn’t. This person’s mother died, and you’re giving him the tritest bit of information you could find and you think his reaction is jealousy? We know, as readers, that her implication was that the boy’s mother has made a pact with Johnson, pure supposition on Corbett’s part as there’s no way she could know this information. Corbett wants the son to feel the same sympathy for Johnson that she does. This is true crime and the man who killed his mother and left him without parents (his dad was in prison), is not going to say, “I understand my mom was probably complicit in her murder and now my life is all happy and good.”
In A Killing in Iowa: A Daughter’s Story of Love and Murder Corbett projects the arrogance and all-knowing nature of youth and those qualities pour from the pages of this book. She remembers Johnson as gentle and so sensitive that it was him that needed to be comforted when he accidentally dropped her. She has the love of a child for an adult but not the perspective, even as an adult, to understand that maybe she didn’t know him that well. She hints that was maybe the case but goes back to alternating between feeling sorry for him and the rejections he faced (she regales us with a memory of his spending the night at their home the night before and asking her mother to sleep with him—platonically—and in her words, “once again being met with rejection”) and the fear that it could have been her.
I think everyone reading this will know how annoyed I was with the author. I would have loved to read a full-length book about the crime, but what I read was a self-serving narrative by a person who comes off as arrogant and superior and who I’m not sure I believe was as close to the crime as she thinks she was. It’s not a book I’d recommend.
Rachel Corbett writes for the first online art publication The artnet Magazine.