In May 2011, a 13-year-old girl named Hana Williams was killed by her adoptive parents in a rural town in Washington state's tulip country, an hour or so north of Seattle. She had been adopted from Ethiopia three years earlier, into an isolated, fundamentalist Christian family, and for much of that time endured almost incomprehensible abuse: Hana was shunned by her adoptive parents and their seven biological children and was made to sleep variously in a barn, a locked shower room and ultimately a locked closet too small to lie down in. She was fed frozen food, compelled to use an outdoor toilet, repeatedly shorn of her braids, and regularly beaten with a variety of implements. When she died, late on a cold and rainy spring night, she had been kept outside for hours until hypothermia caused her to fall down repeatedly, ultimately leaving her face down in the mud. When her adoptive mother finally called 911, she suggested to the operator that Hana had killed herself as a final act of rebellion.
Hana's death is among the most upsetting cases in a small roster — although not small enough — of stories of extreme abuse suffered by adoptees at the hands of the families who took them in. Two years after Hana died, I traveled to Mount Vernon, Washington, to cover the beginning of the murder trial of her adoptive parents, Carri and Larry Williams, who were ultimately convicted of assault, manslaughter and, in Carri's case, homicide by abuse. The trial was an often-searing experience, eliciting cries and gasps from the gallery when autopsy photos of Hana's bruised, emaciated body were shown, or when her younger brother, the only other adoptee in the family, used sign language to testify that he didn't understand where his sister had gone. It was also surreal to emerge from the courtroom into the bright sun of an idyllic Pacific Northwest summer. At times during the weeks I attended, I found myself spontaneously weeping at traffic lights around the town.
I wasn't alone. Besides the parties to the case, and the Williamses' family, a small crew of regular observers filed into the courtroom gallery each day, often including delegations from the greater Seattle Ethiopian diaspora, and a handful of heartsick adoptive parents, who could too easily imagine their children having ended up in the Williams home instead. One of those parents was David Guterson, author of the bestselling novel "Snow Falling on Cedars," who attended all but one day of the seven-week trial — the longest trial in county history, at least that the prosecutor could recall. At first, Guterson says, he came as an adoptive parent, in solidarity with the region's Ethiopian community. In time, he came to feel that Hana's life required a longer-lasting sort of witness.
This January, Guterson published his new novel, "The Final Case," which tracks many of the contours of Hana's and the Williamses' story — rendered in the novel as Abeba and the Harveys — intertwining a story of shocking cruelty with the more pedestrian tragedies of the narrator's life, as his father, an effectively retired criminal defense attorney, assumes the thankless task of representing Betsy Harvey. It's a story suffused with loss — whether in its monstrous forms or as the "eternal human norm" — and the question of how to live a meaningful life in the face of both. The narrator encounters all this as a midlife novelist who thought he'd left fiction writing behind. "If that leaves you wondering about this book — " the narrator says at one point, "wondering if I'm kidding, or playing a game, or if I've wandered into the margins of metafiction or the approximate terrain of autofiction — everything here is real."
Guterson spoke with Salon this January.
We met covering the Williams trial, which was one of the most affecting experiences of my career. What was it like for you?
At the time I can't say that I was there as a writer. I was there for personal reasons. We too adopted a girl from Ethiopia and our daughter appeared on the same, as they call them, "available children" DVD. So when I heard about this in May 2011, it struck me right away that, very easily, our daughter could have been in Hana's shoes. And I got emotionally involved, not as a writer, really, just as a parent. By that point I was also pretty involved in [what's now called] the Ethiopian Community in Seattle (ECS). So besides the personal emotional reaction, I was part of a community that was reacting to it.
Do you remember when you learned of Hana's death, and what you thought as an adoptive parent?
The initial moment was reading the newspaper, and all it really said is that this girl has died of hypothermia in her yard and the parents and the circumstances are under investigation. You read that and a lot of people immediately jump to the conclusion that something terrible — something criminal has happened. I didn't immediately jump to that conclusion because the way I was raised, with a criminal attorney for a father, you're innocent until proven guilty, and let's not wholesale decide ahead of time that the person's guilty. So my immediate reaction was, this is terribly tragic, but I don't know that something criminal has occurred. But then, as the summer wore on and more and more information came in, and [the Williamses] were arrested, I was increasingly upset in a new way. It was clear to me that even if they weren't guilty of a crime, they were guilty of a lot of other things.
I'd wanted to ask about your choice to tell this story from the perspective of a defense attorney.
During that summer, the whole time we were at the trial, my father was in a steep decline, and he died. I was preoccupied during the trial. After the day's proceedings, I would make the requisite daily phone call and see where things were at and sometimes there'd be some kind of crisis. All those things that were going on in my life simultaneously converged for me, creatively and psychologically. That's one reason the book turned out to be what it is.
I fear misstepping here as a nonfiction writer, because this book is fiction, as you underscore in an author's note. But your narrator also says, early on, that "everything in this book is real." Can you talk about that particularly blurry line in this book?
When I first got involved and went to the trial, I wasn't there as a writer. But by the end, I was starting to think about it in writerly terms. I went to Ethiopia partly with this idea that there's something I would write about. I started trying to write it as nonfiction, and I found out, after struggling in that vein for quite a while, that I didn't know how to do it. It morphed into a novel and it was kind of stuck in between. That's what you see in that language about reality.
There's a lovely passage in the book where you write about how everybody in the gallery is bearing a sort of witness.
As things geared up towards the trial, I began to reflect on the practical and literal possibilities in bearing witness. The idea that when the judge looks out into the gallery, there are people who are watching what's going on here. This isn't happening in a vacuum. This isn't happening in a place where nobody cares and nobody's paying attention. I think it made a difference in this trial. I think just sitting there silently, and making that symbolic statement that you're paying attention, makes a difference. And I think bearing witness is not just a symbolic thing.
There's a moment in the book where the judge admonishes people for making emotional noises and crying as they have to look at things that are very difficult to look at. It's very clear that the judge is aware that people are out there and have feelings and they're reacting. It's an inescapable fact. And when she's ruminating later on what kind of sentencing to bring to bear on these two people, that's partly in her consciousness, since she even says that — my fictional judge says in her sentencing that this is a denunciation, this is society letting you know how they feel about something like this. That entered into the judge's thinking, I believe, also in the real world.
There were a lot of upsetting moments during the trial. It was emotionally difficult to be there, in a sustained way. Also, with all the research I was doing, I was looking at things that weren't even entered in the trial, reading background stuff you could get if you asked for it. That was not fun to read. You've probably experienced this too as a journalist, but in some weird way, the deeper you immerse yourself in something, you become inured; after you've looked at 20 grisly pictures, the 21st isn't as bad. That may not be a good thing, but it sort of inevitably happens.
What happened on your trip to Ethiopia?
That was November 2013. The trial ended in August. My father passed away in October. The sentencing happened and then I went to Ethiopia.
I knew the orphanage Hana had come from. I went there first and they were willing to share some material from her file, which included the name and photo of her uncle and the town [where he lived]. I went to the town and started showing people the photo and the name and eventually someone said, yeah, I know who that is. When I got there, I explained myself. I had a letter and some money from Seattle's Ethiopian community that they wanted me to give to the family. And the letter said if there's anything we can do, tell David and he'll let us know. And I said I felt the same way: if there's anything I personally can do, I want to. And I did end up helping the family.
The family knew well [what had happened to Hana]. The news appeared on Ethiopia's equivalent of "60 Minutes." It actually was a story that contributed to putting a stop to international adoption in Ethiopia. So, of course, the family knew intimately about it, and they were both angry and sad about it and also couldn't understand it at all. So partly when I showed up, it was, OK, here's somebody who maybe can explain this nightmarish thing that happened, that just seems so impossible.
I feel I would be at a loss to answer that question.
That's probably the first thing I said: that this is completely inexplicable. But I did say, you might have certain assumptions about America and what kind of a country it is. But one thing you might not know is what a deeply religious country America is. And many people in America are deeply religious in a way that makes them prone to raise children in an authoritarian way. That the people that Hana went to were those kind of people, and it went down the road that you can imagine it would go down in a family like that, where authoritarian child rearing is the status quo.
In the book, you go into a lot of detail of what happened to Hana. I know why that's important in journalism. Can you talk about making that choice in fiction?
There are pieces of the real story that are completely left out, which is a way of saying, as a fiction writer, I had to pick and choose and balance considerations: At what point is it too much, where a reader would feel I don't want to read this? And at what point is it not enough, so that people don't grasp the reality of it and don't bear witness?
That makes me think of another of the narrator's observations. He's writing about his wife and begins asking himself whether that's wrong: to boil down her life to certain anecdotes, and whether that erases people as much as them being forgotten. That's an observation that I think has some bearing on journalism too.
And also my conflicted feelings about what I was doing with Hana's story in fictionalizing it, and about mythologizing my father on the page. I mean, the real person was a person with a huge number of faults and frailties like all of us. But the guy on the page seems like a great guy all the way around, in every regard. The real person is lost, and it's troubling to me to do that.
The other way to look at it is maybe the real Hana's story is somehow buried by what happens in the novel. One possibility was I'll tell her story as a nonfiction writer, which it turned out I couldn't do. At that point, I could have given up. Or I could say, I'll do this as a novel and it will, at least in some ways, bring her story into the world.
A lot of the same questions exist in nonfiction too. You say one thing about a person and not another. The record is always incomplete.
Well, there's another point in the book where I quote from Janet Malcolm. And it's so true what she said — I'm interviewing people out at Boeing [where Larry Williams worked], I'm talking to these people. And I know exactly that, even though I might view myself as being altruistic and trying to make the world a better place, I'm also really interested in getting the story and totally willing to do what it takes. It's a strange place to be.
Tell me about weaving together the story of this case with that of the narrator's family, which is so lovely and also so sad?
A couple of responses I've gotten about this book is that in some ways it can be thought of as a way of comparing two different families: the Harvey family and the family of the narrator. And that just by juxtaposing those two families, there's something thematically useful for readers. I didn't really think of it that way.
To me, I was working with this notion that your life and your work can be meaningful and important, and love, not just for your family, but love in the broader sense, is the guiding force. If you want everything you do to be meaningful, if you're guided by love, whether in your life or your work, it's going to be. That's the way to handle every situation you're in. That's what you need to bring to it if you want to be happy and fulfilled. And that's how my dad was.
In the book, this final case just happens to be the last instance of that in a long life. So I was weaving together these two things. But for me, they gather up under a different heading than a comparison of two families. They come under the heading of the final case: This is the last instance in a long life of living this way, of being this kind of person.