Love, Memory, and Murder

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Love, Memory, and Murder

By Brian Whitney 04/10/17

We talk to Leah Carroll about her memoir Down City, in which she attempts to unravel the mystery of her mother's murder, her father's descent into mental illness and alcoholism, and the legacy she inherited.

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The cover of the book Down City
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Leah Carroll’s mother was murdered by drug dealers when Leah was just four years old. Her murderers thought she was a rat, but they were probably mistaken. Leah's father, a charming alcoholic who was tortured by mental health issues, died in a divey hotel in downtown Providence, Rhode Island that rented rooms by the week. He was 48. Leah was 18 when he died. In her book Down City: A Daughter's Story of Love, Memory, and Murder, she asks "Who were these people, my parents, and how did they come to this place?"

Of course this question could be asked about any of us, no matter what our lot in life, but when it comes to having parents who are in the grips of addiction, the question becomes a bit more profound, and also more heart wrenching. Through police and public records and numerous interviews, including one with the son of the man who killed her mother, Carroll attempts to unravel the mystery of what happened to a mother whom she never truly knew and a father whom she adored, even while he fell apart in the grips of alcohol and madness.

Leah talked to The Fix last week about the experience of writing this raw memoir, and where it has brought her today.

Your book has been out for a month or so now, what has been the response so far?

The response had been really good. Although because the subject matter is so personal, sometimes when I talk to people about it [they] want to tell me things about themselves, which can be really strange at times.

How long had you been thinking of writing Down City?

Years ago I started Googling my mom's murder, to try and find out more about what went on, and I really started thinking about it then, about how it would be a really important thing for me to write, so I started working on it as my thesis at the University of Florida in 2005. When I talked to people about it back then, I got a really positive response right away. The first couple of pages of the book are almost word for word from a draft that I wrote 10 years ago.

I read in an interview that you were influenced by My Dark Places by James Ellroy which is about his mother being raped and murdered when he was 10 years old, and the aftermath of that event and how it molded him into who he became. I loved that book. It is rare to read something so brave and honest.

I was entirely influenced by it. The immediate thing that comes to mind is that we both wrote of our mother's murder, but he also went into many dark things about who he became and how he allowed his parents to become symbols for the reason he did things, almost like fetish objects. And then at the end of the book he wanted to reclaim his mother as a person, and not just as his dead mother. Because my mother died when she was so young and I didn’t have many real memories of her, that book was definitely inspirational to me. She had been my mom a much shorter amount of time then she had been anything else, and I wanted to know who she was.

How much of this was something that you looked at as a viable commercial project and how much was something that you wanted to do for yourself?

It was a bit of both. I was confident enough in the story that I knew I should wait until I was ready to tell it right, and that someone would want to hear it in some form. I think it was really important that I let some time pass, and that I tackled it when I was in my 30’s and had sufficient time to get some distance from it and know what I really wanted to do with it.

Do you find yourself to be more or less forgiving in your life when it comes to people that have certain issues, whether it be drugs and alcohol, or mental health issues?

I spent a lot of time researching this book and I sold it as a proposal in 2014, then I really spent the next two years writing it. I basically cried every day. Sometimes from happiness, but everything about it made me cry, and part of that was because of empathy. When I started this book I was really angry at the police officers who let my mother's killers go. I felt like they owed something to my mother almost more than anyone else, even the guy that killed her. In so many ways I feel empathy for people who grow up in these bad situations, even if they end up becoming violent or criminals because they don’t see any other options. So many times the system does not work. There is no black and white, so many times the justice system fails the people that are the most vulnerable.

People who have addictions or have mental illness are frequently looked at as people with character flaws, but obviously it is the people that killed your mother that have the character flaws, not her. So often people act like someone like your mother is disposable because of their choices.

There were reasons why my family didn't talk about this, and why the people that killed her were able to get away with it. My dad didn’t even want to talk about it; he would say not to tell people that my mother was murdered because people would assume she was a bad person. She was an addict, she had an addiction, my dad had an addiction, but none of that made them bad people. This could happen to any of us, it is rarely a moral decision to become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

I have a friend whose mother has some addiction and mental health issues, and although they had a tough go of it in some ways, in other ways the places he is able to go with her, and the honesty and the intimacy he shares with her, is way different than the relationship that I have with my “normal” parents. You obviously had a lot love for both of them, and I wonder if their openness about their flaws might have something to do with that.

I was an extremely loved child. My dad loved me. He was a terrible parental figure, but an amazing person. He wasn’t that well-equipped to be a dad, because of his PTSD and because of his alcoholism, but I do know that the way that he could connect with me was inspiring. A lot of our parents have a goal for us not to know a lot about them, and it was totally different with my dad. He one hundred percent shaped who I am as a person. My mother was murdered, that is a headline, that is easy to explain, but what is more difficult to explain is the aftermath of living with my father and what that was like. I knew my dad, and I miss my dad as a person every single day.

In my life, I am drawn to really intelligent people who are different, who are flawed, and who sometimes people think of as rather crazy. Sometimes people don't recognize how many positives people like that bring into the world.

If you weren't my father's daughter he was awesome! He was incredibly charismatic and really fun to be around. He was special, and his life mattered. So did my mother's.

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