Rachel Rear’s Catch the Sparrow: A Search for a Sister and the Truth of her Murder (Bloomsbury, 2022) tells the complex and devastating story of Stephanie Kupchynsky’s 1991 disappearance and murder. Rear grew up in Greece, New York, and was fourteen when Stephanie went missing. She remembers the case well and spends many poignant passages in the book discussing how the story unfolded around her. Eventually, Rear’s parents would seperate, and her mother would go on to marry Jerry Kupchynsky, Stephanie’s father. Their nuptials would occur after Stephanie went missing, so Rear never got the chance to meet her stepsister. This fact is part of what makes this text so complicated, and so compelling: while investigating her stepsister’s disappearance and murder, Rear gets to know Stephanie for the first time, attempting to reveal the woman behind the victim while she simultaneously reckons with her own past and family history.
Catch the Sparrow is part memoir, part true crime investigation, and part eulogy. Rear eulogizes her stepsister’s memory as she learns more and more about her, interviewing family members, friends, and old boyfriends. Rear also spends much of the text interviewing key investigators and lawyers on the case, earning their respect and trust. The investigative aspects of this text are detailed and paint a broad picture of the case. The text opens with a section entitled “Discovery” in which two young boys discover Stephanie’s remains in the Spring of 1998. Stephanie had already been missing for eight years at this point, and the text suggests that the inability of the Greece police department to make any headway in her case was largely due to the extreme corruption that was rampant in those years at the department. Opening the text with the discovery of Stephanie’s remains was a strategy that captured me instantly as I needed to know what lead to this brutal discovery and why Stephanie’s remains went undiscovered for so long.
I also really appreciated the memoir aspects of this text. Rear oscillates between an investigative and memoirist approach, exploring her own abusive childhood against the abusive childhood she begins to suspect that Stephanie also experienced. Rear sees herself in Stephanie a great deal, and this discovery was bittersweet for me as a reader. You get the sense that Rear and Stephanie would have had a lot to share with each other, and you cannot help but mourn for this lost opportunity.
The only thing about this text that gave me pause was Rear’s decision to reveal, via transcripts from police interviews, how Stephanie was killed. Eventually, the investigators narrow in on a suspect for Stephanie’s murder, and Rear is able to get a hold of the tapes that were recorded by investigators wherein they interviewed the suspect. In 2012, the suspect reveals how Stephanie was killed, and these details are included at the end of the book. The reason including this information made me uncomfortable as a reader was because Stephanie’s biological sister asked Rear not to include the details of Stephine’s death in her book. Rear offers a response for why she did so, and I found her reasoning legitimate and understandable. Learning that members of Stephanie’s family did not want these details published did, however, made me hesitant to read them, and this hesitancy made me wonder about the way we read true crime.
It is sometimes easy to forget, while reading true crime texts, that we are reading about cases that brutally affected people’s lives. In order for true crime to exist beyond sensationalistic tales of violence, readers, publishers, and authors alike will perhaps need to reckon with the ethical dilemmas that true crime evokes. I appreciated that Rear included the information about Stephanie’s sister asking her not to publish the details of Stephanie’s death. Rear just as easily could have left this out, but by including it, she is giving her reader the option of reading on or leaving Stephanie’s death a mystery. Rear is also implicitly drawing attention to the complex nature of writing (and reading) books that include such brutal violence. Whenever you stand on this issue, Rear’s book is absolutely worth checking out for its beauty, complexity, and compelling narrative.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.