In Memory of a Son

I put off reading Mary Westra’s After the Murder of My Son for as long as I could, and I did so for entirely selfish reasons: as a parent, I couldn’t bear to read about the loss of a child. It was not so much the senseless and brutally violent death of Peter Westra ’99 that kept the book unopened on my desk for one, two, three months, as it was the abject fear of a mother’s grief in all its rawness, its horror, its anger; but not just the grief itself as it lay on the page, but its power of transference. I feared that the virtually unspeakable terror that all parents keep hidden in the deepest recesses of their minds would leach to the surface, would pervade my thoughts, haunt my dreams. And I was not two paragraphs into the book’s preface before coming face-to-face with my cowardice: it does not take an ounce of courage to read this book, not when compared to writing it, to living it. And so on I read, and now here I write, encouraging, urging, pleading, really, with you not to make the same mistake I nearly did. Find this book and read it, for it will teach you more about love and hope and the human condition (and, yes, agony and gut-wrenching grief, too) than anything else you might ever read.

If, as a reader, approaching this book is based on confrontation (as my approach was), then know that this memoir is predicated on confrontation—from the crime that was committed outside an Atlantic City strip club in the early morning hours of July 8, 2001, to Mary Westra’s (and her family’s) continuous confrontation with the tragedy, its aftermath, and her own complex and ever-changing feelings.

At the heart of this book is a violent assault—five men kicking and bludgeoning a 24-year-old until he is dead—and there are passages in After the Murder of My Son that are as raw and as blunt and as brutal as the repeated blows that landed on Peter’s body. Beginning with the darkest hours and days that immediately followed her son’s death and continuing through each milestone (month-by-month anniversaries of the date of the killing, holidays, a birthday) that inevitably arose, Mary Westra confronts her grief and anger and confusion with unsparing detail. We bear witness to the awful moment of notification (and the appalling degree of confusion that preceded it by way of a disrupted phone call), to the unanswered questions Mary has for Peter, and, eventually, to the questions she’s afraid to learn the answers to—those of his friends and Middlebury classmates who were with him that evening and morning.

The story reaches its climax with the trials of the accused, the bouncers and employees of the Atlantic City strip club. Again, Mary writes with gripping detail and searing honesty—we are voyeurs as she visits the scene of Peter’s death, we sit in the courtroom as she faces the man accused of taking her son’s life, and we are invited to join her in grappling with the confusion (and rage? more hurt?) that accompanies a denouement that one could reasonably argue was unjust. (Let’s just say that the title of the memoir has even more of an edge once you reach the end of the book.)

However, it is not the conclusion that has stayed with me but a sentence from earlier in the book, a sentiment, a fear that Mary espoused a few months after Peter was killed. She worried that she would forget him, that others would gradually forget who he was, that their memories of her son would fade with time. By writing this book, she has ensured that that will never be the case.

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