Katherine Dykstra’s What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl is much more than a book about murder. It starts with a close study of the death of eighteen-year-old Paula Jean Oberbroeckling, who disappeared from her Cedar Rapids home in the middle of the night in July 1970. Oberbroeckling’s remains were discovered four months later, and despite rumors that her death was connected to an unwanted pregnancy, her case remains unsolved. Dykstra’s goal, however, is not to solve the case. After covering the details of Paula’s case, she embarks on a deep, often personal exploration of women’s experiences with violence over the past few generations, through the multiple lenses of the many women in Paula’s life, and in Dykstra’s. As a historian whose work deals with murder, gender, and what links the two, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to sit down with Katie to discuss her book.
One of the things that got me most excited to read your book is the fact that it moves between a lot of different genres. It starts out as a very classic true crime narrative of an unexplained death, but then you branch out quickly into a broader genre of narrative nonfiction that incorporates history and memoir. How did you come to take that approach with the book?
It was an evolution. When I first came to Paula’s case, I saw it as a longform narrative nonfiction piece that was strictly journalistic. I was just going to tell this story, everything I knew about it, from start to finish. And I wrote a version of that, and I shared it with a number of people, and I could not get anyone interested. Because we don’t know what happened to Paula, because I never was able to solve the crime, I think people questioned, “why am I reading this? Why is this interesting?” I was shocked, because I was fascinated with the subject, and I thought there were so many interesting components. I realized after talking to a number of different writers that a way into Paula’s story was to illustrate the reasons I found it interesting and the reasons that I thought it was relevant.
What surprised you in the research process – either in the history, or just in the process of learning more about Paula’s death, but also Paula’s life, and Paula’s world?
Not long into my work, I began interviewing people, and one of the people that I reached out to was one of the cold case detectives. The first time that I spoke with this detective, he was super open to my questions, and was very kind. But the interview very quickly flipped, in that I wasn’t asking him questions, he was asking me questions. It was over the course of that interview that I realized that I knew more than the cops did. I understood and was closer to the case than they were. That really was telling for me in terms of how important they considered her death – i.e., not that important at all. That was a huge surprise to me, to realize that I was the expert. Someone who had just picked this up six years ago, and she’s been dead for fifty years.
Your book is not straight true crime, but it deals in some of the same elements. As somebody whose work also partly fits within a true crime genre, I think a lot about the ethics of writing about, thinking about, and spending a lot of your time focused on the worst things that happen to strangers. Is that something that you have had to grapple with?
That’s been a question from the beginning. I come from a life of privilege, [and] my situation is so different from Paula’s – is it ethical for me to even consider what happened to her? But I’ve really come to the conclusion that not considering what happened to her is a greater injustice.
Earlier this week, I got a Facebook message from a girl named Paula Jean Oberbroeckling, who grew up in Cedar Rapids. She told me that she’d just finished the book, and that she’d been obsessed with this case since she was younger, because obviously she shared a name with Paula. But she told me that in her entire life, not one person has ever made a comment about her name. Meaning that despite all the contacts she’s had and all of the people that she’s met living in Cedar Rapids, a city of 130,000 people, no one was like, “Oh, you share a name with the girl who was killed in 1970.” It just shows you that she had been literally completely forgotten. So I think about that a lot: had I not written the book, I don’t think anybody would be talking about her, and she would continue to be this open question.
The other piece of it became: how do I subvert this true crime genre? I was never a true crime reader in the past – I’ve read tons since I started this project, but it wasn’t a genre that I knew very well. [In] most true crime books, you start with your girl, and you watch her move within her life and you’re waiting for the violence. I feel that in that way, the reader becomes complicit in what happens to her. But in my book, you never see Paula die. She’s already dead when the book starts, in a way. I hope that readers aren’t necessarily waiting for that moment, but more thinking about the dangers that were circling her.
Along the same lines of how you chose to construct the story and deal with the ethics of it, you spend a lot of time considering all the different possible narratives of what could have happened, and, towards the beginning of the book, trying to understand who Paula was as a person. At one point, you wonder if you’re “giving Paula too much credit.” How did you balance between the different interpretations you had of Paula, of her story, and of her motivations?
That’s a major challenge, and I’m still challenged by it. Because I didn’t know her, and the information I had about her was limited, inherent in [my reconstruction of her] is my own perspective. I realized that I couldn’t tell the version of Paula’s story I wanted to without telling my own. That was another reason that I attempted to use the stories of other women, because I decided that if I wasn’t going to solve Paula’s death, then what I could do was bring to the fore all of the circumstances and experiences and systems that might have worked against her. So bringing in my mother-in-law’s abortion, or the abortion ring that killed Sharon Wright two years before Paula died, or Shermalayne [a woman who got an abortion from the same chiropractor implicated in Paula’s case] – bringing in all those stories, it was like, “Okay, maybe this didn’t happen to Paula. But it could have, and it did happen to these women.” It’s a way to think about what might have happened to her. If I couldn’t find truth in Paula’s story, because I don’t know [what happened to her], then maybe I could find truth in these other women’s stories.
As you say, your book is the story of so many different women, and not just Paula. What was the process of finding those other women’s stories? How did you decide which other women this book would be about?
The thing that struck me very early on was that almost every person I spoke with on the themes of domestic violence, reproductive rights, class, and divorce in Paula’s story was able to say, “Oh, that also happened to this woman in my life, and let me tell you the story.” I’m talking all the way to murder! Near the end of the book, I meet Beth DeBoom [a Cedar Rapids woman who protested the demolition of water-damaged houses after the 2008 flood]. I met her in order to talk about the flood and how much work she’d done in that capacity—having no idea that her mother had been murdered. I began to see how you couldn’t really talk to anyone who wasn’t affected by some sort of violence against women, and that’s when I decided that if I layered these [stories] in, the whole would be more than the sum of its parts.
It’s interesting to contrast that with, again, this idea that people are looking at this story and saying, “Oh, it’s not interesting, who cares” – when there’s also that response of, “This happened to me.”
It’s like they needed it spelled out. They couldn’t just care about Paula. And these are women in my writers’ groups, women that I respect and that are intelligent and educated and care about women’s issues – and this is what I was hearing from them. Susan [Dykstra’s mother-in-law, who introduced her to Paula’s case] had the same problem, long before I came on board. She tried to approach this story in a thousand different ways… and the thing that she heard over and over again was, “Who cares? Who cares about a fifty year old murder? It’s irrelevant.”
Violence against women and restrictions on women’s health care have moved into the public eye in a new way since 2016. How did that change your approach to the book, as things started happening in the present connected to these issues? Do you think that we’re going to see things continue to change?
I struggle with this question. So many improvements have been made… but I don’t really sense that it’s changing as much as you would like it to change, because these violations are still happening. Bill Cosby’s out of jail. There are all of these systems that still protect those in power, while sidelining women. It almost doesn’t matter what women say. I think that there’s no denying that the more we talk the better it gets, but this has to be taken to a policy level.
I started this book in the Obama years, before Trump. And maybe that’s why there were so many people who couldn’t see the point of it. Maybe we were in a good cultural moment, and though all of these trespasses were happening, they were happening behind closed doors. This was before #MeToo, so women were suffering in silence. Maybe then, women felt, “Well, maybe I suffer, but I didn’t know that everybody else did too, so… maybe this isn’t interesting.” The subject matter definitely only grew, for me personally, more relevant as the six years that I worked on it elapsed.
As readers finish this book, what would be the one thing that you’d like readers to do or think afterwards?
I go back to that Judith Herman quote: [“When traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator… It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing”]. If you keep quiet, the perpetrator wins; all the perpetrator asks is that you don’t say anything. All the perpetrator needs is people to feel ashamed or coerced into silence, and then he’s won. The more we speak, we’re giving voice to these traumas. The speaking is important.
- Judith Lewis Hermann, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 7. ↑