When 30-year-old Crystal Perry was stabbed to death in her Bridgton, Maine, home during the night of May 11-12, 1994, the event sent shockwaves back into the past and forward into the future. For Perry’s extended family and her 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, life changed irrevocably in those horrifying moments, with secrets exposed and destinies altered. It would be a dozen years before police identified, and a jury convicted, the murderer, but even then, disturbing questions lingered.

How do you make sense of a hard-working, devoted young mother being brutally killed while her daughter cowers in a nearby room? That’s the question Sarah Perry attempts to answer in her harrowing, haunting new memoir, “After the Eclipse.”

Two days before the killing, the sun was briefly hidden by the moon during the daytime. Even though eclipses have traditionally been viewed as ill omens and harbingers of catastrophe, “precocious and nerdy” Sarah took a much more positive view of the phenomenon.

Perry writes, “I saw only beauty in that fire-ringed darkness. I didn’t know that one small moment of darkness foreshadowed a much greater one. One that would block out the light entirely, and hover there for a very long time.”

The eclipse also serves as a metaphor for Sarah’s obscured understanding of the terrible night in question. In a difficult to read but riveting chapter titled “The Night,” Perry chronicles her experience of being awakened by her mother’s screams of “No, no, no!” and hearing the sounds of a life-or-death struggle perhaps as close as 15 feet away. She does not see the intruder but waits in her bedroom, terrified, for him to leave, before unsuccessfully calling 911. Unable to reach authorities, she escapes the house in bare feet and bangs on neighbors’ doors until she finds someone who will let her in.

Rather than recount her mother’s murder and its aftermath chronologically, Perry employs a more ambitious structure in the first half of her memoir. Chapters designated “Before” alternate with ones from “After,” establishing a counterpoint that increases the suspense of the narrative and illuminates more starkly the connections between the Sarah’s family and the town of Bridgton. Her accounts of being shuttled among the homes of relatives who want to do right by her but don’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal suddenly with a motherless teen are all the more poignant with the knowledge of the poverty and abuse that affected previous generations. As the case goes unsolved, Perry lets the reader feel her frustration in dealing with law enforcement across the years, including the realization that some local residents think she might be implicated in the crime.

More than anything else, the structure of “After the Eclipse” allows the reader to see a fuller picture of Crystal Perry, to view her as more than just a pretty, red-headed victim, to know more about her upbringing and ambitions, to understand better some of the choices she had made regarding the men in her life – from Sarah’s biological father to her fiancé with whom she had been squabbling around the date of her death.

Sarah Perry Photo by R.K. Oliver

Through the turmoil, Sarah Perry is always able to hold onto the certainty of her mother’s love for her, exemplified by the hours she put in as a sewer in the local shoe factory. Perry writes, “I always understood that my mother worked very hard. But it is only now that I can appreciate her determination, that to work as quickly and consistently as she did meant re-dedicating herself each day, each hour, each minute, to pushing through boredom and physical pain and sometimes despair. She didn’t do this for herself; she did it for me.”

Perry holds an MFA in non-fiction from Columbia University. In her author’s note, Perry emphasizes that, while “After the Eclipse” is a memoir, “it is a work not only of memory but of journalism, and involved a substantial research component.” She states that, while she has granted pseudonyms to some individuals, there are no composite characters. That adherence to verifiable fact distinguishes “After the Eclipse” from many memoirs about trauma. The reader never senses that Perry is taking liberties with the truth or seeking to present her mother’s or her own behavior in a falsely positive light.

While she appears to have no hesitancy in naming her mother’s assailant, Michael Hutchinson, she chooses not to contact him, his family or his friends and associates. Perry writes, “This book isn’t about him. It’s about Mom.”

In an age when true-crime television and ripped-from-the-headlines dramas have inured some people to the actual cost of losing a loved one to violence, “After the Eclipse” is a sensitive, searing and nuanced exploration of family ties torn asunder.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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