Piecing Together a Life Cut Short

Colleen Brown’s first book If You Lay Down in a Field, She Will Find You There arrived in my letter box just after my own mother died. With my grieving so fresh, I wasn’t sure I could read the memoir about the author’s mother, who was murdered in 1974. However, the beautifully written vignettes and the focus on life, not death, lured me in.

The collected snapshots, which vary from dialogue to the more meditative, to scenes of research and discovery, are remembered from the point of view of Brown and her siblings and honour the untold story of their mother Doris. This slim book, interspersed with black and white photos, uses a poetic specificity to recall and piece together the private life of a woman who was previously known (and even dismissed) by the public as a victim. In many ways it attempts to answer the question: how does one remember a life, a person, obscured by the violence of her death?

Brown, who is a sculptor, employs form and prose to reclaim and remould “the unexplored life cut short”. By doing this for Doris—a strong enthusiastic woman with her own dreams, challenges and quirks, including an amazing ability to drive away unharmed from near-catastrophic car accidents—the reader is able to imagine the deeper lives of other victims who have been overshadowed by the “more compelling story” of the perpetrator and what happens next. This gentle book isn’t simply about searching for understanding, justice and resolution for family and friends. It’s about how those left behind are also left to find a way to free themselves from the story society tells us about the people they love.

“Victims of violence,” Brown writes, “have a difficult time establishing themselves in our interior landscapes. They get reduced or flattened in the process of dampening the horror.”

Colleen Brown, the youngest of Doris’s five children, has succeeded in rounding out her mother’s life through this book.

More than that, readers of this memoir will be left questioning society’s current fascination with true crime. I can’t resist suggesting that those who work in the media and all facets of the legal system spend a couple of hours with Brown’s words. In fact, it was so exquisite, I’ve passed it along to a friend who works in the Superior Court of Ontario.

If You Lay Down in a Field, She Will Find You There, by Colleen Brown. Published by Radiant Press, October 2023.