Katherine Dykstra’s What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl (Norton 2021) is a thoroughly researched and deeply personal account of a woman’s investigation into the death of a midwestern American teenager. It also discusses the through lines that Paula’s victimization has with women’s lives across time, including the author’s own.
Late one night in July 1970, Paula Oberbroeckling borrowed her roommate’s car in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She was barefoot, wearing a summer dress, and planned to be back in time for her roommate to leave for work in the morning. Although the car was later found abandoned on the side of the road, Paula was not found with it. Indeed, her body was not discovered for months. Eventually she was found bound and dumped at the edge of a culvert. The case quickly went cold and sat unsolved and uninvestigated for fifty years before Katherine Dykstra began looking into the case, following in the footsteps of her mother-in-law, who also took an interest in the case. What Happened to Paula follows Dykstra’s investigative efforts and her discovery of deep, systemic injustices that allowed Paula, and so many other girls like her, to fall through the cracks.
The text is a “quintessential Midwestern gothic, the flat landscape and pristine surfaces masking dark underbellies, the veneer of calm and tidy, beauty and success, rolling golf courses with clear edges over a labyrinth of complex emotion, cops who didn’t do their jobs, corrupt officials, a beautiful young woman with a complicated story.” What Happened to Paula innovatively undercuts some of the major tenants of the true crime genre. Although it is ostensibly based on a true crime, the text takes that crime as its starting point and moves in several different directions. As Dykstra says in the opening of her narrative: finding out what happened to Paula is not as simple as catching and confirming her killer. Rather, what happened to Paula was a series of injustices that began long before she left, barefoot, on that July night, and continued long after. Indeed, Dykstra takes up Paula’s story as the untold story of many women in Paula’s position in the twentieth century.
“…over the course of the years I spent researching and writing Paula’s story, it dawned on me that what I wanted to say about her death was less true crime and more sociological study. Meaning, though a girl had been killed, and though the details of her disappearance and death are important and will be included in the pages of this book, this is not about a murderer. … The onus of her death extends well beyond whoever dumped her body down that hill.”
Indeed, beyond Paula, “there are a lot of dead girls in this story.” Dykstra’s narrative examines the laws and social regulations that kept women and other marginalised people as second-class citizens whose bodies were not entirely their own throughout the twentieth century and into the present day. Dykstra’s research includes issues around abortion, race relations, gender stereotypes, financial and occupational exclusion, and, of course, violence against women. The text is extremely well-researched, and Dykstra attempts to provide a full and complete picture of what life as a woman with Paula’s set of circumstances might have been like for Paula, and the choices she might have felt driven to make.
This “was the story of a small city and small-city police, of disappointment and squandered potential, of race and class and sex. A story that became more complex the deeper one dug. A story all the more compelling for the fact that it had been mostly forgotten even though the case still yawned wide open.”
Additionally, although Dykstra is also a journalist, the text has the personal and emotional detail of memoir. Weaving her story and the stories of her mother and grandmother throughout the narrative of Paula’s family tree, the text collapses multiple timelines and histories to speak more widely about women’s subordinate social position and the circumstances that lead to disadvantage, dependence, and danger for women like Paula.
Certainly, if you are a reader who is looking for a more ‘classic’ true crime story, this may not be the book for you. Its engagement with the tenants of women’s writing and memoir are compelling, but they often move away from and beyond strictly investigative journalism. As a true crime reader who is interested in the confluence between memoir and true crime, I found this interesting and compelling, but it was also jarring before I learned how to read and understand this complex text. With What Happened to Paula, it is important to be prepared for a confluence of genres and angles that don’t always stay directly connected to the case. Because Dykstra’s involvement in this investigation is so personal, and because a wide variety of historical research is used to supply evidence and relevant points, the text veers away from the case at hand and what we might expect from a true crime narrative. Dkystra is correct when she writes that this book is more of a sociological study than a true crime text, but her writing poses an interesting intervention in the genre, and asks: is there such thing as closure when “once wounded, we [are] always wounded”?
A story about a fascinating a little-known case, What Happened to Paula is an interesting intervention in the true crime genre, with a socially conscious and relevant narrative viewpoint. I highly recommend this book to anyone focused on women’s histories and interventions in the way we tell true crime stories.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.