Down city A daughter's story of love, memory, and murder

Leah Carroll

Book - 2017

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True crime stories
New York : Grand Central Publishing 2017.
First hardcover edition
Physical Description
228 pages ; 22 cm
Main Author
Leah Carroll (author)
Review by New York Times Review

two very short sections open Leah Carroll's memoir: the description of her mother's murder in a seedy hotel room, and the description of her father's death in an equally seedy hotel room 14 years later. Carroll proceeds from these haunting twin plot points through a patchwork of vignettes, reportage and reflection that reaches after her absent parents with sensitive longing. Carroll was only 4 years old when her mother was brutally strangled by two drug dealers with mob ties, the cold description of which she reads as an adult in newspapers. The drug dealers had suspected her mother of being a police informant, and were ultimately offered light sentences for their horrific crime in exchange for incriminating information on an important local mob family. Carroll writes about her discovery of her mother's murder used as a bargaining chip by the state with understandable bitterness: "I'll never know if my mom gave confidential information to the police or not. I do know that almost everyone involved . . . saw her as a disposable person." Five months pass before one of the killers reveals where he'd dumped Carroll's mother's body beside a highway, and in the meantime, she is introduced to an ever-shifting family structure with her volatile, alcoholic father at the helm. He remarries and moves Carroll from gritty "down city" Providence to a comfortable suburb until this family, too, breaks apart; caught between two worlds, Carroll renders meticulous and empathetic portraits of both sides of Providence in the '90s. Carroll's writing is most evocative when she describes, with a heartbreaking mixture of tenderness and disappointment, the moments of intimate connection between her and her father, her struggle to enjoy spending time with him even as she knows she will later find him drunk and helpless on the kitchen floor. "It seems we cannot spontaneously feel important enough to ourselves, sufficiently worthy of carrying our absurd figure through the tangles of life, unless at some point . . . we were privileged enough to derive a sense of mattering limitlessly and inordinately to another person," Alain de Botton wrote on the crucial role of a parent's unconditional love to a healthy psyche. While Carroll occupies herself with tracking down the details of her parents' lives, her readers become increasingly aware of what not "mattering limitlessly and inordinately" to either parent can do to a child as she grows; in Carroll's case, how a mixture of manic depression and powerful addictions to drugs and alcohol overwhelmed her parents and left her estranged. The power silence has to impose a kind of order on disordered family relationships is not lost on Carroll, as she connects the threads of her family's silence over her mother's death to the "invisible barrier, years of so much unsaid," between herself and her father. When he dies, she offers her readers both the full text of his last note to her - which appears to read like a suicide note - and his autopsy report, which claims he dies of an enlarged heart and diseased liver due to his alcoholism. These documents offer, as she describes it, "proof" of him, a few pieces of tangible closure after years of uncertainty. Ultimately, Carroll untangles her identity from her parents', acknowledging her mother as "a woman who existed entirely outside of my existence," and the acceptance of this fact offers closure and inspires a pledge to ensure her mother's life - and her father's life - mattered deeply, and are redeemed by Carroll's compassionate reflection on their lives. ? Carroll was 4 years old when her mother was brutally strangled by two drug dealers. MOLLY BRODAK is the author of the poetry collection "A Little Middle of the Night" and "Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 9, 2017] Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* When Carroll was four, her mother was missing for several months before her body was found, off the side of a highway a state away from their home in Rhode Island. Years later, her father, long suffering from depression and alcoholism, was gone, too. For the traumatic parental losses, Carroll divides her first book into two parts: her long-simmering inquiry into the murder of the mother she barely knew and her account of the brilliant, charming, Vietnam-veteran father she watched diminish. In recording the outsize tragedies of her small family, Carroll maps the social topography of her small state (down city denotes a Providence neighborhood), contextualizes organized crime's power there as well as its involvement in her mother's death and tells an intersecting story of print journalism's significance and demise. Using the present tense to narrate past experiences, Carroll grasps fleeting moments and memories with confidence and disarming delicacy. We're witness to her animal-loving, addiction-addled mother, an amateur photographer whose photos Carroll includes here; her handsome, beguiling newspaperman father; and young Carroll herself, writing poetry through the classes she's flunking. So rich in mood, feeling, and genuine love, this investigative memoir is a true tribute.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this somber, moving blend of memoir and reportage, native Rhode Islander Carroll confronts the ghosts of her parents-two bright, charming, and extremely damaged people, both talented amateur photographers and addicts. Carroll's Jewish mother, carefree and reckless, was snorting cocaine in a motel room with two mafia toughs when they strangled her at age 30. Carroll's Irish-Catholic father, a charismatic autodidact, turned to alcohol after serving in the Vietnam War and was found dead, possibly by his own hand, in a flophouse at 48. Carroll intensively researches their deaths, going so far as to examine her father's autopsy report and interview the imprisoned son of her mother's killer. She explores how they lived while also recounting her troubled childhood. "Down city," a term used by locals to describe central Providence, circumscribes the decaying realm of blue-collar jobs and rough taverns in which her parents lived and died. Carroll's understated prose complements this daunting material, and her struggles as an unhappy, rebellious teen seem almost idyllic in contrast to the dysfunction and tragedy that shadow her. Nevertheless, Carroll's determined grappling with the burden of her past is honestly and skillfully done. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by School Library Journal Review

It can't have been easy growing up the daughter of a cocaine addict who was executed in a sordid hit sanctioned by the Rhode Island mob in 1984. Carroll's memoir reveals the scarring effect of losing her mother, a petite Jewish woman who loved her child, photography, dogs, and drugs. The motherless four-year-old grew into a writer who pursued the truth about the murder, which was sloppily prosecuted by a system more interested in evidence of organized crime than justice. Carroll combines information she learned from police, court, and medical examiner records with anecdotes and family revelations about Joan Carroll. Carroll's father had issues of his own, namely his struggles with alcohol. Kevin Carroll was a trusted and charismatic longtime employee of the Providence Journal, but Leah, world-weary and skeptical by the age of 18, wasn't shocked when her father was found dead in a flophouse. Carroll's clear writing is authentic, but her tale is not as arresting as other memoirs of growing up victimized, such as Cylin and John Busby's The Year We Disappeared or Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle. Still, this one will find an audience among young adults. VERDICT Recommend to readers of gritty true crime or memoirs of hard-luck childhoods.--Suzanne Gordon, Lanier High School, Gwinnett County, GA © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

A debut memoirist tells the story of her mother's brutal murder and her difficult relationship with her father, who followed his wife to the grave 14 years later.When Carroll was 4 years old, police discovered the body of her mother, Joan, on the side of the highway. Fourteen years later, they found her father, Kevin, who had died from an enlarged heart and liver disease, in a room in a cheap Rhode Island hotel. The question of who her parents were and how they had come to such tragic ends haunted Carroll into adulthood. Determined to find answers, she scoured her memory, newspaper accounts, and police records for clues and interviewed people who had known them both. Carroll speculates that her cocaine-addicted mother got involved with drugs through her father, a man who may have given Joan pills from the "collection" he took to manage mental illness. Joan's addiction eventually led to ties with the Mafia drug lord who killed her out of fear she would turn him in to the police. Not long after his first wife's death, Kevin remarried and moved the family from Providence to Barrington, an upscale Rhode Island town that made them all feel "normal and wealthy and safe." Yet alcoholism and manic depression took their tolls. Kevin and his new wife eventually divorced, while Carroll moved between homes and through high school in a haze of angst-ridden confusion. Yet it was after her father's death that she was finally able to "reinvent [herself] as wholesome, and capable" and begin the long, difficult task of making sense of her family's tragic history. Unsentimental and simply told, Carroll's quietly powerful story offers a courageous, cleareyed vision of a broken family while exploring the meaning of forgiveness. An honest and probing memoir of coming to terms with family. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.