Thursday, October 01, 2009

Shattered Silence: Daughter Opens Up About Her Father, the Happy Face Killer

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Parents lie to their children all the time. For the most part, the untruths are harmless - "Don't sit too close to the tv or you'll go blind" or "Yes, of course, Santa Claus is real" - meant to preserve childhood and protect innocence. Sometimes, though, parents lie by omission, by keeping their deepest, darkest secrets to themselves, promising their offspring that everything's fine, it will all be okay. Shrouded in such secrecy and lies, the truth - once revealed - can be utterly devastating, damaging a child's psyche forever. Just ask Melissa G. Moore author of Shattered Silence (co-authored by M. Bridget Cook), a memoir about growing up with the man who would come to be known as the "Happy Face Killer."

As a child, Melissa knew Keith Jesperson only as Dad. He was the strapping, fun-loving man who romped with his children and brought them special treats. His job as a trucker kept him away from home for days at a time, so she and her two siblings were always happy to see him. Well, almost always. Melissa remembers the sadistic delight he took in killing small animals, ribbing her about her fears and insecurities, and the cruel words he flung at her mother. Sometimes he frightened her, but mostly he made her feel special and safe. His huge bulk seemed powerful enough to protect her from any danger.

While Melissa says her father was "the adamant protector of our physical bodies" (10), never laying a hand on his children, he allowed them to suffer from squalor and neglect. After Jesperson divorced his wife, she was left to provide for the family with only occasional help from him. They lived in a succession of tiny dwellings with little food in the cupboards and little affection from their exhausted, distant mother. Jesperson popped in and out of their lives. His visits always meant treats for the kids, items their mother could never afford like Jordache jeans and sugary cereal. While she enjoyed those rare delights, Melissa felt increasingly uneasy around her father. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but she knew something about him wasn't quite right. Her intuition proved correct: During Melissa's childhood, Keith Jesperson brutally murdered 8 women.

Melissa's already troubled existence turned even worse as she dealt with the guilt, shame and abject horror of knowing her father's crimes. Her own life spiraled out of control, spinning her in directions that led to even more traumatic situations. Shattered Silence is, at its core, about what happened next, the process by which Melissa was finally able to heal. It involved hard resolve, fervent prayer and going head-to-head with Mr. Tell It Like It Is himself, Dr. Phil McGraw. Hers is an incredible journey of faith, hope and forgiveness.

Shattered Silence reminds me a little of The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule's book about her friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy. However, if you're looking for a Rule-like true crime story, you'll want to look elsewhere. Shattered Silence is Melissa's story, not her father's. She gives very little detail about Keith Jesperson's crimes, focusing instead on how she went from worshipping her dad, to fearing him, to loathing him, to separating what he had done from what she could become. It's a heartbreaking, ultimately triumphant tale told in an honest, very readable manner. The story sometimes lacks focus and wants better editing to fix typos and tighten prose. Overall, though, it's a worthwhile read that is as compelling as it is memorable.

(Note: You can check out clips of Melissa's appearances on various news programs here on the website of her publisher, Cedar Fort. Many thanks to Liz Carlston for sending me a copy of Shattered Silence to review.)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language, violence and mature themes

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