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On Motherhood and Murder: A Conversation with Nancy Rommelmann

SHORTLY AFTER ONE o’clock in the morning of May 23, 2009, Amanda Stott-Smith drove her two young children to the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon, and dropped them more than 90 feet into the Willamette River. Forty minutes after screams were first heard, a rescue boat pulled the children out of the icy water. Stott-Smith’s daughter, Trinity, age seven, survived; her son, Eldon, age four, did not. Stott-Smith was arrested and sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 35 years.

This true story shocked all who heard, including Portland author and journalist Nancy Rommelmann, who, within minutes of hearing the news, was drawn to her desk, where she began researching what would become To The Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder. Over the next seven years, Rommelmann meticulously pored over public records and interviewed more than 80 friends and family members to try to make sense of this incomprehensible crime. The author of four previous books, Rommelmann tells this deeply reported story with emotional clarity and compassion, as she investigates the motivations and aftermath of an unforgivable crime. Writer Nick Flynn calls To The Bridge “a tour de force of both journalism and compassion, in the lineage of such masterpieces as In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.”

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Rommelmann and I sat down over coffee to discuss her new book, what role and responsibility journalism occupies in telling these stories, and why we should not look away.

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HEATHER JOHN FOGARTY: To the Bridge covers some harrowing ground. Can you talk about your initial emotional response when you first heard this story on the news?

NANCY ROMMELMANN: My emotional response upon first hearing about what Amanda had done was confusion. It made no sense that a mother would drive to a bridge in the middle of the night and drop her two children to what I presumed she thought would be their deaths, and in Eldon’s case, was his death. The confusion, I would later realize, was because I was seeing her actions through my own lenses: because I could under no circumstance see myself throwing my daughter off a bridge in order to harm her, I did not see how anyone else could. The confusion led me, within minutes of learning about the crime, to my desk to start trying to figure out how something like this happens.

Seven years and 80-some interviews later, do you now have some understanding of the “how” if not the “why”?

Yes, I do. There are many factors that led Amanda to do what she did — nothing comes out of the blue, and this certainly did not. Seeing what catalyzed in her, how she (and others) made one false step, then another, how the lies piled up, the end result does make sense. As someone in the book said to me, “It’s ludicrous for people to say they didn’t see this coming. Everybody knew it was coming, in terms of Amanda and Jason’s behavior.” The only qualification I will add is, people did not know what “it” was.

What was the most challenging part of writing To the Bridge?

The most challenging part was getting people to talk about what happened, but even when people are not speaking to you, or when they are lying, they are telling you parts of the story. As soon as Amanda was sentenced, about a year after the crime, my phone and email started to blow up, with people wanting to talk. This communication would seem to make the job of telling the story less challenging — and it did; more information is always good, and necessary — but it also meant I had something like 32 voices in the room, and that took time to get into its proper form.

As far as emotionally challenging, writing about the murder of a child can be hard stuff to sit with; you have to do it with a measure of calm if you are going to see things through.

Your work grapples with some intense questions, often asked of people intimately involved with the victims. What were the challenges of talking with those so directly affected by this crime?

One called late at the night to say he would not speak with me and then talked until my cell phone went dead in my hand. Another requested that, should anyone she knew see us together, I was to say we knew each other from work. The subterfuge had to do with the fear and anger people had, in the years both leading up to and after the crime. Fear can make you feel complicit and helpless. People needed a white board of sorts to talk about what they knew and thought they knew. I don’t think I did one interview that lasted less than five hours.

The most remarkable relationship was with Amanda’s grandmother, Jackie. She was 78 years old and got around with the help of a gnarled wood staff. No one in her family could talk about what Amanda had done — they took to calling it “the incident” — including with each other. But Jackie needed to talk. We wound up meeting eight or nine times over the course of 15 months, meetings that began as all sorrow and progressed to a friendship where we went out for Thai food and watched daytime TV. She trusted me with her family’s story two reasons. First, so people would understand that while what Amanda had done was unforgiveable, “you have to think how she got to that point.” The second was to leave a record for Trinity, who after the incident was not permitted to see her mother’s side of the family, including her half-brother, Amanda’s older son from a previous relationship, with whom she had been raised. Jackie saw this separation as a deliberate cruelty perpetrated by Trinity’s father, and she wanted Trinity to know how much she was loved and missed.

What lies behind our obsession with true-life murder?

I think we like true crime at arm’s length; we will watch it on TV or listen to a podcast, but knowing the details about what happened to the little girl down the street, no. The terrible fact is that 500 children are killed by a parent in the United States each year, and chances are you read about none of them last week. The circumstances of anonymous people killing their kids are too tawdry, too sad — too somehow private to look into. After Amanda was caught, nearly all the comments that appeared online were some version of “Hang the mother from the Sellwood Bridge.” People want to register their outrage and to have that part of the story end as quickly as possible. Later, they may have the stamina to learn more about the crime, to get caught up in Serial or Dirty John. Perspective takes time.

Is filicide, defined as the murder of a child under 18 by a parent, more unforgivable when committed by the mother?

Yes, for sure, to the point we may blot out its existence. My mother-in-law read the stat citing that half the filicides in the United States are committed by mothers, and immediately asked me, “But it’s mostly fathers who do it, right?”

When we hear, “Mother drops two children off bridge in the middle of the night,” I think a sort of self-preservation kicks in, where we brand the perpetrator as “evil” or “crazy.” Whether either of these is accurate does not matter; we need people like Amanda to be “other,” to be not us.

But what does it do to the picture when you learn that she played the piano beautifully, that she was good at math and an excellent cook, that she slept nuzzled up with her babies? How Amanda Stott-Smith went from the girl one of her college friends described as a “mother-goddess-earth-mama” to a woman standing on the bridge at 1:19 in the morning determined to kill her children, was my job to figure out.

To the Bridge has been compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979). But unlike those two works, this story is about a woman, a mother, written by a woman. In a genre that is typically male, how did your perspective as both a mother and a journalist inform the way you approached this story?

I am drawn to stories where things look (and have been reported) one way, and don’t seem that way to me at all. Several years ago the Oregonian newspaper reported this hearts-and-flowers piece about a woman who killed her daughter and herself, in which the paper mentioned the mother having fibromyalgia as a possible explanation, and I thought, what the hell? I discovered the mother suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, wherein caretakers fabricate medical conditions for those in their care, often their children. I wrote about Jesica Santillan, who died in 2003 at the age of 17 after receiving a heart-lung transplant of the wrong blood type at Duke University Medical Center, a story that wound up a national maelstrom, one in which Jesica was defined only by her death. I don’t think I enter the stories of dead children in order to commemorate them, but in the writing this does happen, and I am glad for that.

The tragic stories of both Gary Gilmore (in The Executioner’s Song) and Amanda Stott-Smith begin in Portland, where you have lived for the past 14 years. Joan Didion wrote that “[t]he very subject of The Executioner’s Song is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fadeout, trail off, like skywriting.” To what extent does a sense of place or the Western experience contribute to Stott-Smith’s story?

When I first moved to Portland, I was having what I thought was a spirited debate with a native Oregonian (her people had come over by covered wagon), who was becoming alarmed. “Don’t get so excited,” she said, which I took to mean, we do not impose ourselves on others here.

The determination not to impose presented a double bind for Amanda, some people in her life refusing to intercede as her and her children’s situation skidded toward disaster, others manipulating her increasing isolation to what they thought would be their advantage. But there was something more insidious at play. Five people described Amanda’s relationship with her husband Jason as “toxic,” a characteristic that, paradoxically, had the power to bedazzle. Jason, especially, was able to make people believe black was white and white was black. “I’m telling you, the guy is good. He will knock your socks off,” his best friend told me. “He’s like a pimp.” One whose actions, to go back to the Didion quote, would fade out without consequence, until Amanda decided otherwise.

There are some who say certain stories should not be told, that journalists are exploiting an already painful situation. Is this one such story? And what is our obligation as journalists? 

Our obligation as journalists is to follow the hard stories where they want to go, to construct the story with the care it demands, and to act as a set of trusted eyes for the reader. That’s it.

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Heather John Fogarty writes for the Los Angeles Times, Marie Claire, Los Angeles Magazine, Playboy, and other publications, and her work has been featured on NPR.

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