Thursday, March 26, 2020
"If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood" - Gregg Olsen
"If You Tell" is based upon the true story of an almost unfathomably abusive family led by the iron fist of Shelly Knotek, a domineering woman whose abusive ways seemingly have no explanation yet whose ways are inflicted upon nearly everyone who crosses her path including boyfriends, husbands, her three children (Nikki, Sami, and Tori), and some misguided souls who unfortunately cross her path and pay the ultimate price.
"If You Tell" goes into detail, brutally so, regarding the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of the three children and the impact it had on their inability to end the cycle until lives had been lost including those of at least two boarders. "If You Tell" also provides remarkable detail regarding these crimes, as well.
This isn't a book for the timid reader. Best-selling author Gregg Olsen doesn't shy away from the brutality of this household and these crimes. A good majority of the book is centered around these actions, while only a brief section in the beginning goes into Shelly's early years and an even more brief section at the end goes into the post-conviction lives of the three girls who seemingly have managed to build normal lives despite childhoods that were anything but normal.
Several of the reviews have commented with disbelief regarding the actions, an understandable and even refreshing response given one would like to believe that everything that unfolds in "If You Tell" is the exception and not the rule. It's difficult to fathom a parent being this brutal to so many people and so many people for so many years simply not reporting it.
While we could spend days discussing the cycle of trauma that helps to explain the lack of reporting, to a healthy heart and mind it's simply difficult to believe.
In some ways, "If You Tell" reminded me of one of Indiana's most famous homicide cases - that of Sylvia Likens in 1965 when a young teenager who'd been staying with a neighbor while her parents were traveling with a circus ended up being brutally assaulted/murdered by the mother, her daughter, and several neighborhood children. The same kind of questions arose to the surface - "How could a family do such things?," "How could children be involved?," and "How did no one notice until it was too late?"
While it's important to note that the children were not involved, other than simply being aware of it and being too terrified to report it and being under a sort of authoritarian spell by a mother who could justify anything, the dynamics are very similar in the stories.
If there's a beef I have with the book, and there is, it's that Olsen focuses so much energy on detailing the brutality yet does a relatively weak job of setting up the characters in the story and an even weaker job in providing a satisfying ending. Without giving the ending away, there's so many possible ways to explore questions, pending issues, and possible conflicts that aren't that far off in the future that "If You Tell" feels incomplete and, in the end, feels like it's exploiting the story and its subjects.
While there's a possible reason to document the stories so brutally, and as someone who has written a book myself from the perspective of being a survivor, it's ultimately the structure of the book that I find insufficient as I wanted more about the lives of the three sisters and how they are ultimately preparing for the future. There is reference to the relationship with the father, but it's practically an afterthought.
While "If You Tell" is far from a weak book, it's ultimately a book that sells the drama more than tells the story. The survivors deserved much more than that.
Richard Propes is an award-winning writer/activist/minister who has traveled over 6,000 miles by wheelchair over the past 30 years raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for children's organizations on his acclaimed Tenderness Tour events. Author of "The Hallelujah Life," Richard is the founder/publisher of TheIndependentCritic.com and has been the recipient of numerous awards for his activism including Indiana's Sagamore of the Wabash, Kentucky's Order of Kentucky Colonels, and Prevent Child Abuse America's highest honor, the Donna J. Stone Award. Richard is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association.