Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002

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Shadow stories

In the trial of Lizzie Borden, as in most trials for murder in the first degree under US law, the heavier narrative task is placed on the prosecution, who must not simply tell a story, but tell one that is complete. It must have a central figure, fully equipped "beyond a reasonable doubt" with the motivation, opportunity, means and capability to commit the crime — that is, to engage in a complete action with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The defense is not under the same obligation. Their central figure is not necessarily required to do anything significant. She has breakfast, she sets out her ironing, she looks for a piece of lead. If the discovery of her father's body is significant, it is not a willed action on her part but rather an accident that happens to the unfortunate woman. She calls down the maid, she sends for the doctor, she waits. This is all narrative, of course, but it doesn't tell much of a story. It is all supplemental events. The real story, the one we are itching to know, is a murder mystery. Who killed the Bordens? But all that the defense has to show with regard to this question is that it would have been possible for some one else to have committed these crimes. They don't need to specify who it was or why they did it, only that some other party could have done it. From the defense point of view, then, the story of the murder is a shadow story. It is a story that is incomplete, missing key elements. "It is not your business to unravel the mystery," defense tells the jury at the beginning of his summation. "You are not here to find out who committed the murders.... You are simply and solely here to say, Is this woman defendant guilty?" (287—8). In this narrative, the story of the murder is hidden in the shadows.

Trials are full of shadow stories. At the request of the prosecution, the judge introduces a shadow story in his instructions to the jury when he tells them that a person "may be convicted upon evidence which satisfies a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the act was done personally by another party, and that her relation to it was that of being present, aiding, abetting, sustaining, encouraging" (388). At a stroke, the shadowy outlines of another story begin to glimmer. This is a story in which Lizzie acted in collusion with someone else to commit the murders. But who it was she colluded with (her sister? someone else? more than one?), and who actually did the killing, and why they did it (sympathy? a separate grudge? money?) are terminally missing. Most of the disputed tales in the narrative lattice-work of the trial are to a certain degree shadowy. The story of Hannah Reagan is never resolved. In connection with Lizzie's account that she stayed up in the barn on one of the hottest days of the year, there is the ancillary story of the two boys, called by defense to testify that they went up into the barn , on the day of the murder and found it cooler than it was outside. Were they lying? Were they consciously or unconsciously trying to help the defense? Or were they, well, boys - getting things wrong in the way boys do?

That a trial is full of shadow stories, narratives that are sometimes terribly incomplete as narratives, is not necessarily a detriment to either side. Shadow stories are used all the time, often subliminally and by indirection, as when the prosecution describes (narrativizing reflexively) the jury's visit to the barn in June:

Some kind friend - and I make no misconstruction of it, I do not for a moment suggest it was done with intent to mislead you - some kind friend had opened the front door and windows so that you should not be suffocated by the heat when you were there on that comparatively cool day of June, compared, I mean, with August. (351)

Note how, by denying, he suggests. Protesting his own lack of suspicion, he indicates by negation the shadowy possibility of some "friend," more cunning than kind, who purposely adjusted the atmosphere in the barn to support the defense.


Motivation and personality

A shadow story, it can be argued, is only an extreme example of the in­evitable condition of any narrative. As discussed in Chapter Six, reading narrative is a matter of filling in gaps. Here I am using "shadow story" (nec­essarily a vague concept) to mean a story in which the gaps in the narrative are so great as to prevent the story from achieving some general reader sat­isfaction that it is complete. Yet it must never be forgotten that it is we, the readers, who do the completing of any story by filling its many inevitable gaps. I bring this up at the start of this section because arguably the most important gap that we are called upon to fill in a narrative of criminal law is motive. As I argued in Chapter Ten, character and motivation are of­ten more difficult to make out than actions and events. You can establish with a certainty that specific events happened - that two people were killed by violence. You can often establish to a certainty what they were killed with — in this case, a weighted sharp instrument, most likely a hatchet. These are gaps for which we get a lot of assistance from the evidence. But in the narrative of a trial, motive is necessarily out of sight. It is inferred from evidence, but can never be produced. It is something that you can neither hold nor see. Of course sometimes motives can be obvious, just as sometimes people can appear to be so simple that their motives are trans­parent. But it is also true that people can be highly complex. Moreover, there is always the possibility that someone who appears simple is in reality complex.

In addition to the problem of motive, the prosecution also faces the additional, and often more complex, challenge of narrativizing personality. Motive in itself is not sufficient. One may have the motive to commit murder and yet lack the kind of personality that would enable one to carry through with it. Indeed, one shadow story in the Lizzie Borden trial is that of a woman who passionately hated her stepmother and bitterly resented her father's remarriage and his partiality to this hated stepmother - in other words, a woman who had a strong motive to see them dead - yet who did not have the kind of personality that would permit her to murder them. The prosecution, then, had to work hard to establish not only motive -Lizzie's hatred for her stepmother and her resentment of her father - but also the capability of carrying through such a crime. To this end, they featured what seemed to be Lizzie's "lack of affect" - the fact that she did not scream when she found her father's body, that she sat and waited in the house after this discovery, that she could correct the investigating officer when he called Mrs. Borden her "mother," in short, that "she was cool," to quote Officer Fleet (173). It is hard work, because this lack of affect is a narrative gap that can be filled with other psychological accountings — as, for example, shock. And, as the defense doesn't hesitate to point out, prosecution's task is made all the more difficult by the fact that Lizzie's record up until August 4, 1892, indicates a women who "led an honorable, spotless life; she was a member of the church; she was interested in church matters; she was connected with various organizations for charitable work; she was ever ready to help in any good thing, in any good deed" (253).

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