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Lullabyby Chuck Palahniuk
The medical examiner kept the photo covered with a sheet of paper, and he said, "I'll pull the paper back very slowly."
He said, "Tell me to stop when you've seen enough."
In 1999, the examiner said, my father had been at the top of an outdoor stairway when someone shot him. The bullet entered through his abdomen, bursting the diaphragm as it traveled up into the chest cavity where it collapsed both lungs. This is all evidence stated in court, bits of forensic detail put together after-the-fact by the detectives. After the shot, he dragged himself — or someone dragged him — inside the apartment at the top of the stairway. He lay on the floor next to the woman he'd just taken to a country fair. He must've died within a few minutes, the police say, because he was not killed by a gunshot to the back of the neck. What the police called "execution style." The way the woman was.
In December 2000, a jury in Moscow, Idaho found Dale Shackleford guilty of both murders. As part of victim's rights law, the court asked me to make a statement about the extent of my suffering caused by this crime.
As part of that statement, I had to decide: was I for or against the death sentence.
This is the story behind the story in Lullaby. The months I talked to people and read and wrote, trying to decide where I stood on capital punishment.
According to the prosecution, Shackleford returned to the scene of the murders several times, trying to start a fire big enough to mask the evidence. It was only when he broke a window to give the fire some air that the building burned. As the second-floor apartment fell into the first floor, a mattress fell on my father's body, shielding it so only the legs burned to nothing.
The photo under the sheet of white paper is what was left under that mattress.
The lack of soot or smoke in the throats of both victims proves they didn't burn alive. Another test, for increased carbon monoxide in their blood, would be conclusive, but I didn't ask about it. You want to quit while you're still ahead.
The medical examiners showing me the evidence after the trial is over. I've given my statement in court and been cross-examined. Just the two of us looking at the sheet of white paper, we're in a back office with no windows. The rooms crowded with shelves full of books and bulging file folders. The medical examiner says few families ever want to see more than the first half-inch of an arson victim photo. He slides the paper aside until a sliver of photo shows, very slow, the way you can only see the sun move when it's either rising or setting on the horizon, and he says, "Tell me when to stop, and I'll stop."
When I reach for the paper, I say, "Just show me." I say, "I'm sure I've seen worse."
He lifts the paper, and my first reaction is how my Dad would hate the way they'd wasted a good sheet of plywood, cutting it into an angled, irregular shape to carry his burned body. The body is face down, the legs burned down to stumps. The skin is gone and the muscle is burned black, the muscle sheathes ruptured with red showing underneath. My second reaction is how much it looks like barbecued chicken, crusted black with sauce under the crust.
A year before this, my sister's husband had died young, of a stroke while they worked in the garden. At the mortuary, she went into the viewing room, alone. A moment later, she stuck her head out the doorway and whispered, "It's not him. They've made a mistake." My Mom went in, and the two of them circled the open coffin, squinting and looking, trying to decide. Alive, Gerard had been so funny and bossy and active. It felt silly to cry over this object.
Long story short, I'd worked in hospitals. I'd been a crime reporter. I know a dead body is not the person. Looking at the barbecued mess that had been my father, all the drama evaporated.
Still, did I want the man who did this to die?
In court, it came out that Shackleford had a life-long history of physically abusing women and children. He'd lived most of his life in mental hospitals and jails. The woman Shackleford had shot point-blank in the neck was his ex-wife. She'd gone into the prison system to teach legal skills, and taught him to be a para-legal. Using these skills he'd learned from his victim, he'd already filed an appeal to his murder convictions.
He told the court that he and a group of white supremacists had built and buried anthrax bombs in the Spokane area, and if the state killed him those bombs would eventually explode, killing thousands.
He told the police that I was harassing him, sending him things in the mail at a time when I didn't even know his name.
The prosecution team started calling his kind of grandiose yarn a "Shackle-Freudian" lie.
But still, did I want this man to die?
A friend of mine told me Karl Marx's theory that in order to commit a crime, you must make your victim your enemy. You justify crime after crime by making more people your enemy until you're left alone. You're isolated in a world you've decided is entirely against you. At that point, Marx said, the only way to bring the criminal back into humanity is to capture and punish him. His punishment becomes his redemption. It's an act of kindness.
Another friend, a Buddhist, said how every life requires the death of so many other things. Plants, animals, other people. This is life. Life is death. We can only hope to make the best use of the lives we live at the cost of so many others. He said, a terrible person should not be allowed to continue taking the lives of any other living things.
With all this on my mind, I finished the final re-write on Lullaby and sent it back to New York by next-day Fedex on September 10th, 2001.
What had started out as a dark, funny book about witchcraft became a story about the constant power struggle that is life. The struggle between generations. Between people and animals. Between men and women. Rich and poor. Individuals and corporations. Between cultures.
On a trivial level, the book is about my neighborhood's struggle to deal with a local woman who opens every window and blasts every sunny day with her record collection. Bagpipes, Chinese opera, you name it. Noise pollution. After some days and weeks of her blaring noise, I could've killed her. It got impossible to work at home. So I traveled, writing on the road.
A month later, the State of Idaho sentenced Dale Shackleford to die.
While I was on book tour, my neighbor packed her huge stereo and million records and disappeared.
I wrote the court, asking if I could witness the execution.
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
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