The Dead Girl

The Dead Girl

by Melanie Thernstrom

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Melanie Thernstrom’s senior thesis was entitled Mistakes of Metaphor, an account of the mysterious disappearance and murder of her best friend, Bibi Lee. That thesis, reworked as The Dead Girl, was published by Pocket Books in 1990 to major critical acclaim.
Berkeley student Roberta (Bibi) Lee went running with her lover Bradley Page on a Sunday in 1984.

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Melanie Thernstrom’s senior thesis was entitled Mistakes of Metaphor, an account of the mysterious disappearance and murder of her best friend, Bibi Lee. That thesis, reworked as The Dead Girl, was published by Pocket Books in 1990 to major critical acclaim.
Berkeley student Roberta (Bibi) Lee went running with her lover Bradley Page on a Sunday in 1984. He came back alone. When she failed to return police mounted one of the largest missing-person searches in California history. Five weeks later Roberta's battered body was found and within hours, Page had confessed to Roberta's murder—a confession he was later to recant. With its enduring themes of innocence and evil, truth and uncertainty, human motives and emotions, The Dead Girl is a complex exploration of the nature of reality and the frail, shifting and suspect ways in which we respond to it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Thernstrom gives an account of her best friend, UC-Berkeley student Roberta ``Bibi'' Lee, murdered in 1984 while jogging with her boyfriend, Bradley Page. stet ``An innovative if self-indulgent approach to the true crime genre,'' said PW. ``Putatively about Bibi, her death, the investigation and Page's murder conviction . . . the book is really a coming-of-age story about Thernstrom herself,'' said PW . Illustrated. (Dec.)
Library Journal
Roberta Lee, a 20-year-old Berkeley student and the author's best friend, disappeared following a jog with her lover, Bradley Page, in 1984. When Roberta's corpse was found five weeks later, Page confessed to her murder--and then recanted. Thernstrom, now a creative writing teacher, has not written the typical true crime book. She focuses on her thoughts and feelings--intense, questioning, metaphorical--about her life and her unhappiness, as well as the death of Roberta. The case is not neglected--Thernstrom attended Page's trial--but while it is difficult to categorize, this book is essentially a coming-of-age story. Although not for everyone, the book's most appreciative audience likely will resemble its author: young, literary-minded, and deeply sensitive to the subtleties of meaning and the complexities of motivation. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/90.-- Gregor A. Preston, Univ. of California Lib., Davis
From the Publisher
“I like this book better than In Cold Blood. It is more honest, more credible, more frightening, and more instructive.” – Harold Brodkey

"…haven’t put it down since I bought it; it’s a haunting and brutal examination of friendship, love, and death that totally upends and redefines the idea of nonfiction." —Bookriot

THE DEAD GIRL is a unique story—powerfully moving, stark, tender and a wonderful read.” —Mary Higgins Clark

“Lovely and compelling. . . An impressive debut and a strong stirring memoir of a friend . . . reminds us what a thin edge we are on, and therefore of how astonishing it is to be alive.” —Anne Lamott, Mademoiselle

“THE DEAD GIRL builds with such graceful momentum that it reads like water flowing. . . the story of a friendship, after the fact, incapable of escaping it. . . hinting, again and again, that for one to have left the other, is a terrible betrayal, a broken promise, of some blood-sister pact made at the age of ten.” —Greil Marcus

“An extraordinary book. . . exquisitely written meditations. Melanie Thernstrom inhabits her book in an entirely original voice, struggling to make sense not only of what happened, but of how to tell it. You will feel changed by hearing her voice and carry it around for a long time.” —Louise Bernikow, Cosmopolitan

“In the tangle of Thernstrom’s unflinchingly honest narrative is a profoundly unsettling portrait of privilege punctuated by despair.” —People Magazine
“A vastly gifted writer”—Kirkus

“A powerful exhaustive memoir of the writer’s grief and recovery” —New York Magazine

“Raises important questions about the nature of reality” —San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle

“What a dark, magical book! THE DEAD GIRL reads like the most convincing of fairy tales, one where childish fears give way to the grimmest of adult realities. Part memoir, part whodunit, this is a passionately self-examined account of a lost friend and the effect of that loss. In its vaulting ambition and its fierce, unironic wish to create meaning, this book is a welcome departure from much of contemporary writing.”—Daphne Merkin, Washington Post Book World

“A powerful moving book. . . THE DEAD GIRL is a testament to the magnetic power of her death, and Thernstrom’s exceptional sensitivity qualifies her as an ideal guide through the darkness” —Daniel Max, The New Republic

“An astonishingly delicate and sensitive memorial to a lost friend. . . the struggle of two privileged young women trying to find a place in the chaotic world of the mid 1980’s.” —The Boston Globe

“Thernstrom is such a good writer, you’ll follow her almost anywhere. . . a great many funny, sad, wise and compelling things about life are said in this book. . . It seems to validate one of the tenets of her friendship with Roberta, a theme expressed repeatedly in the book, that there is no sensibility so sharp and true as an adolescent’s and so powerless against the grown-up world.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Raw honest and disturbing—not just because of the violence at its center, but for the facts about a particular all-too-common young womanhood, pressured to please, pressured to succeed and clouded by self-doubt and fear.” —Self

“A fiercely honest and lyrical account. . .Thernstrom shows us a new generation, poised on the brink of adulthood, that knows the crucial difference between self-awareness and self-absorption.” —Pearl K. Bell

“Imaginative, complex and impassioned, THE DEAD GIRL is as much about growing up as it is about murder, as much about life—the life of young people today—as it is about death.” —Linda Wolfe, author of The Preppie Murder

“A truly remarkable exercise in insight and objectivity: the day to day concerns, joys and woes of this group of privileged young Americans are chronicled in this fierce light of tragedy and horror without a single false note being sounded.” —Conor Cruise O’Brien

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Atria Books
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Introduction by David Shields

Hegel says, “I know an object only in so far as I know myself and my own determination through it, for whatever I am is also an object of my own consciousness, and I am not just this, that, or the other but only what I know myself to be. I know my object, and I know myself; the two are inseparable.” In the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov mentions a “newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” The observer effect in physics: The perceiver by her very presence alters what’s perceived.
The only serious portraits are also self-portraits. Literary examples: Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Jean Stafford’s A Mother in History, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception, Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol, Beckett’s Proust, Sebald’s The Emigrants, Hilton Als’s The Women, V.S. Naipaul’s A Way in the World, Nicholson Baker’s U and I. Self-reflexive documentary films that perform the same magic trick: Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect, Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, Steve James’s Stevie, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness.
I’m interested in book-length essays that, through the sheer force of their intelligence, violate their subject, transform what may at first glance appear to be “journalism” or “memoir” or “scholarship” into blistering philosophical investigation. The most exciting “nonfiction” uses its “nonfiction” frame as a sort of existential trampoline off which to bounce into the most serious epistemological questions: What is “true”? What is “real”? What is knowledge? What is memory? What’s a self? How much can one self know about another self? See Lauren Slater’s Lying, Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen, Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia, John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile, George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, Didion’s “New York: Sentimental Journeys,” Stendahl’s On Love, Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.
In Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, she talks about attending a funeral of an accomplished doctor whom Gornick didn’t know well. The usual eulogies tell her little about the deceased, then a young woman (the esteemed doctor’s junior colleague) gets up on stage and talks about herself, in vexed relation to the deceased. The arrow pointing outward toward the world and inward toward the perceiver perceiving the world: it begins and ends with nerve. In The Dead Girl, Melanie Thernstrom has the temerity to place herself on the same stage as the deceased, Roberta “Bibi” Lee, her BFF, murdered during their junior years at different colleges. In so doing, Thernstrom transforms a (mesmerizing) murder mystery—
“By the way,” asks my friend Jerry one day almost a year [after the murder] later, “whatever happened to Brad?” [Brad, Bibi’s boyfriend and the prime suspect in the murder, confessed to the murder and then retracted the confession.]

“Whatever Happened to Brad indeed,” I say sarcastically. “That’s a very good question—that ought to be the question of the year. That is, in fact, precisely what I want to know.”
What happened to Brad, I explain, is nothing. The trial keeps being postponed because Brad’s lawyer says he needs more time, and there are endless pretrials to debate what evidence is admissible and whether the confession was forced and that kind of bullshit and it doesn’t matter because nothing is going to happen because people like him don’t get convicted. There’s this New Yorker cartoon which shows a jury foreman standing up to read a verdict, and the caption is: “We find the accused not guilty, but not all that innocent either.” No one thinks it was anyone else, and we’re not about to go back to looking for the Man with the Van [a previous suspect]—but they won’t send him to jail. There’s no evidence, they say—other than his own personal extended detailed confession, to be sure.
into not only a meditation on the apparently unbridgeable abyss between men and women—
I am having a fight with my father as we are driving. This is a series of threats: he says he is going to make me get out of the car; I say fine. He says he’ll never drive me anyplace again; I say I don’t care. He says he is not going to pay for school and, determined not to feel threatened, I tell him to fuck off, and he roars: “I WILL LOCK YOU IN THE TRUCK OF THE CAR.”
Even as he says it, he realizes how ridiculous it is. The last word is broken by laughter, and the fight ends. I hear this—that it has disintegrated into a joke before he has even finished saying it—but it has broken a second too late for me not to get upset.
“You frightened me,” I sob violently, bursting into tears.
“It was a joke,” he says, embarrassed now.
“It wasn’t a joke! It wasn’t a joke!”
“Of course it was. Do you think I would literally try to tie you up and lock you in the trunk? You wouldn’t eve fit. You’re too big.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” I scream. “You know where you got that image from? You got it from a murder mystery. And you know what goes in the trunk? The body goes in the trunk—the dead body. It’s when you’ve been murdered.”
“I would never hurt you,” he repeats. “You are so incredibly aggravating and impossible to deal with that I occasionally think I would like to kill you, in fact I would like to strangle you with my bare hands this very minute, but I would never do anything. I haven’t laid a finger on you for years. When was the last time I hit you?
“In fact,” he says, stopping to think about it, “I don’t think I’ve ever hit you.”
“Thinking counts,” I shriek, and start to cry harder because this is so true. “And it doesn’t help to say that it’s a joke. What is a joke? A joke is something that has emotional reality without literal reality, and the discrepancy is supposed to make it ‘funny.’ Well, I take emotional reality pretty fucking seriously, besides which men really do rape and murder women and put them in trunks of cars and beat them and leave them in shallow graves. So that distinction—that line about which you think I should be so confident as to depend on it for my safety and well-being: the line between psychological and other realities—is a little thin.”
“Well, I’m sorry, hon,” he says, “but I think you are reading a lot into one remark, and taking the whole thing A LITTLE TOO SERIOUSLY.”
Just to make sure he doesn’t have the last word, I repeat that he did make me feel Unsafe, and he mutters that he is a simple man from Michigan and he can’t imagine how he ended up in a family of such emotional women.”
but also an excavation of her own (our own) spiritual deadness—
I woke up in my body this morning, and it was all right then, and it’s been all right for a while now—it’s been all right since the morning after the funeral, in fact, when I was so sick I couldn’t move. And then it went away. There must therefore be a simple connection between the news and the feeling, I think analytically. And therefore, although it feels so powerful and absolute and true—as if it weren’t a feeling but a truth—it must, actually be only a consequence of the news. It is a farfetched connection: three months later someone tells me the killer raped the corpse as well—Veronica says that Brad said that he had sex with the body, wrapped it in his blanket and made love to it—and I hate myself. Brad committed necrophilia, and I feel fat. Connections are so interesting, I think, so hidden and cunning, like strands of invisible heart-threads, threaded through everything. I stand there distracted and busy, puzzling, and waiting to figure out what it is—and forgetting, of course, to keep feeling while I am thinking. I am different this way from other people, not being able to think and feel at the same time.
and a brilliant and extremely nuanced exploration of the fictional nature of the construction of “nonfiction,” the elusiveness of absolutes:
The retrial—the mythical long-awaited fabricated and refabricated trial—takes place in the spring of 1988, three and a half years after the murder. . . .What are you doing here, Melanie? I repeat, overcome by an odd floating sensation of unreality, unlike even the old sense of being in a story. It’s a parody, I think, a curious futile parody of the first search, three and a half years ago, when we didn’t find her. And it is all so really far removed from Roberta: the retrial to discover the truth of the first trial which the first trial could not discover, the truth of the search in which we were searching to discover what happened, but didn’t, and by the time you finish trying to sort out the sentence the word truth has lost all meaning. It’s too many years later, and the “we” is not even the same we, although it is me, after a fashion or some version thereof, and we’re vaguely trying to have the hold conversation, and I’m too really tired even to pretend that it might lead somewhere, that we might learn anything more about what happened to Bibi on November 4th. She’s been dead so long now, I think to myself, wonderingly. So long.
The Dead Girl is a book that I first read when it was published in 1990, it opened up for me the possibilities not of “creative nonfiction” (a term that makes no sense whatsoever) but of destructive nonfiction, and it’s my honor to have hectored Pharos Editions into reissuing this extraordinary work now, nearly a quarter of a century later.

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