BRIDGTON — Sarah Perry woke to the screams of her beautiful red-haired mother fighting for her life in the kitchen beyond her closed bedroom door.

When the frightened 12-year-old finally ventured out, their usually immaculate house had become a gruesome murder scene. She fled the small black-and-white ranch, into the drizzling darkness, and ran barefoot down the country road, from one house to the next, banging on one door after another, until finally someone answered her pleas for help.

What she found that night in 1994 – when her mother, Crystal Perry, was brutally murdered by a man who would not be brought to justice until 2007 – was a champion and taskmaster within who helped her to strive and survive against odds that might have destroyed other people.

“I had this feeling that night of dissociation from myself, almost like I was two people,” Perry explains, sitting in a park near the Bridgton House of Pizza she once frequented with her mother. “There was little, scared, 12-year-old me and there was this more capable person who stepped in and knew what to do.”

In her newly published memoir, “After the Eclipse,” Perry has stitched together details of that horrible night and her mother’s colorful and complicated life, driven by a desire to better know herself and the woman who raised her. Her first book, it reaches back through generations of a family plagued by poverty, substance abuse and domestic violence in an unsparing account that’s getting glowing reviews and is featured on Barnes & Noble’s Great New Writers list.

It’s the culmination of an extraordinary six-year project, when Perry pored over binders and boxes of police reports and other documents, interviewed dozens of family members and friends, and mined her own diaries from her youth, hoping to reconnect with her past and bring that part of her life into focus.

“I wanted to be the person who knew the most about my life, instead of there being officials who knew very personal things about me that I didn’t know,” Perry says. “It’s not that I minded that. I just wanted to also have the information myself.”

It’s also the realization of her childhood dream to become a writer, one that was recognized and fortified when she was in elementary school and bolstered when she got a master’s in nonfiction writing at Columbia University. It helped that a famous Maine author spent summers in nearby Lovell.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” Perry says. “I wrote a ton at Bridgton Elementary. I was really fortunate that my teachers arranged for me to have a creative writing tutor who was a Bridgton Academy student. And because Stephen King was around and people knew him in town, I had a concept of what a writer is. I credit him with my having the idea of growing up to be a writer and having that as my identity.”

Sarah Perry with her mother, Crystal Perry. Self-employed mason Michael K. Hutchinson was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to a life term in Crystal Perry’s slaying. At trial, Sarah Perry said that she lay in bed, paralyzed with fear, as she heard the two struggle in the kitchen. Photo courtesy of Sara D. Davis

FROM THE PAST INTO THE PRESENT

Crystal Perry’s murder shocked Mainers twice. First, when the 30-year-old single mom who hand-sewed shoes for a living was found dead in her home, stabbed more times than the medical examiner could count exactly. Then again in 2006, when DNA evidence led to charges being filed against Michael K. Hutchinson, 31, a self-employed mason who lived in Bridgton. He was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison following a high-profile trial, during which he claimed to have had consensual sex with Perry that night but said another man broke in and killed her while he was there.

At the trial, Mainers got a glimpse of the grown-up Sarah Perry, who was then 25, a college graduate and an administrative assistant at the University of North Carolina. She testified at the trial how she sat frozen with fear in her bed while she listened to her mother scream “No!” again and again. How she heard the clattering of a kitchen drawer, a repetitive thudding and the low grunt of a male voice.

The courtroom experience brought the past into the present, awakening thoughts and feelings that had been shut down for years and blurred by bouts of anxiety, binge drinking and serial relationships as a young adult.

“It was a good catalyst for starting to think about what had all this loss meant, what had it all added up to,” Perry says. She hated police procedurals that she saw on TV, with a “ridiculously disproportionate amount of maimed, dead and raped women.”

“I wanted to tell a different kind of story,” she says.

Perry’s desire to write had been nearly snuffed out in the years immediately following her mother’s murder, when she stayed with an aunt for a few years in Texas, and then returned to Maine for high school, again staying with family members.

When she did try to write, her imagination became a scary place. The night of the murder would intrude.

“When Mom died I didn’t write any stories anymore,” Perry says. “I was still good in school and that’s where I got a lot of validation, but I was very much in survival mode. ‘Do the things you’re supposed to do.’ You don’t have a lot of room for taking risks. I think creativity is always inherently risky because you’re sort of opening yourself up to your subconscious. That’s work that became dangerous for me because there was a lot of dark stuff in my head that I was not ready to examine. But I always had that kernel of how I envisioned my life would be later.”

When the hunger to write returned, the tug to tackle her own story grew stronger. Her mother always seemed to be calling for her attention.

“I always knew this was the story I had to tell first before I could do anything else,” Perry says. “I’d sit down and try to self-motivate and write some fiction or explore some other things, but it was sort of like Mom was waving at me. I’d always end up writing about her.”

KNOWING THE TERRITORY

Perry decided that writing her memoir would give her an advantage, bridging the gap between the sanitized college thesis papers she wrote with ease and the creative writing she feared but wanted to embrace. She enrolled at Columbia to get started.

“With a memoir, you know the territory,” Perry says. “You know the people who are going to be in it. The imagination part would be off the table and taken care of. I could learn the rest of the craft with this first book and maybe write fiction next.”

Perry gleaned dialogue in the book from various sources, including records of interviews conducted by the more than two dozen police investigators who worked the case through the years. Sometimes, it was her own voice that surprised her the most.

“There were a lot of moments when I’d read police reports of myself at 12 and I’d recognize my essential nature,” Perry says. “I’ve kind of always been me. There were some sentences that I uttered when I was younger, when I read them I would just laugh to myself and think, ‘God, that sounds so much like me.’ I mean, people change, but really they just don’t.”

In doing her research, Perry created a detailed family timeline, compiled in a 100-page Word document, starting with her grandmother’s birth and ranging through various marriages, births, deaths, arrests, breakups, beatings, near drownings and other personal violations, triumphs and tragedies.

She learned about her mother’s difficult upbringing, the youngest of 10 kids, her marriage at 15 and becoming a mother at 18, and her often heartbreaking struggle to find a man who would love her but not control her.

The book details her mother’s skilled labor in a shoe factory, her appreciation of the little joys in life, her sometimes violent battles with lovers, and her dedication to her daughter. Perry was especially gratified to learn that her recollection of their relationship was accurate.

Crystal Perry in March 1994. Sarah Perry found that her family struggled with poverty, substance abuse and violence across generations, but Crystal Perry “was really devoted to me.” Press Herald file photo

“I actually wanted to know who she was and have a realistic sense of her,” Perry says. “So I went out and tried to find other stories and make a more well-rounded picture. I feel like I know her better now. She was really devoted to me and she was a really extraordinary person.”

Sometimes Perry’s investigation was harrowing, especially when she came across a close-up photo of the crime scene that she hadn’t seen since the trial. She attacked the project as a detached journalist, trying to ignore the fact that she was reading details of her own life and her mother’s murder. Eventually, she realized she had to pace herself.

“I would sit with autopsy reports and documents and be alone in my bedroom for hours and hours,” Perry says. “Then I would stop working and the horrible dark feeling would descend upon me in the night, and I would feel out of commission for a little while.”

Not wanting to back down from anything just because it was difficult, Perry wrestled with whether she would interview Hutchinson, her mother’s convicted killer. Ultimately, she decided against it.

“I thought about it for probably a good two years,” Perry says. “But I just thought, it’s not going to be productive. I didn’t want to give him the platform. I wanted to be thorough, but I wasn’t looking to be fair and balanced.”

SCHOOL A GIRL’S SAFETY NET

Named for an eclipse that she and her mother saw two days before the murder, the book has a distinct sense of place that Mainers will recognize. Perry, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, says she’s pleased when people tell her that the book feels authentic. That it sounds like Maine.

“Coming here has been interesting, because at this point I feel like a summer person sometimes,” Perry says. “It’s a great relief to me anytime somebody tells me it does sound authentic, that it doesn’t sound like some outsider who’s coming in and telling the story. Maybe (that’s) a totally bizarre anxiety for me to have, but I do because I’ve been away so long.”

Published in September by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book has already attracted some interest for a movie deal, Perry says. She’s been promoting it at readings in Maine, Vermont, Chicago and beyond. While she was here, she reconnected with family members and friends she doesn’t get to see as often as she’d like.

One person who’s not surprised that Perry has thrived is Liz Shane, her sixth-grade teacher who is now the academic leader at Stevens Brook School in Bridgton. In the months following the murder, Perry found refuge in Shane’s classroom.

“I think it was a safe haven for her,” Shane says. “She stayed in at recess and we talked about books and she read. It’s what she loved to do and it was a good escape for her.”

Shane says Perry’s success in writing the book makes sense to her. She’s especially proud that Perry has been able to break the generational cycle of issues that challenged her family in the past.

Sarah Perry with her mother, Crystal Perry, in July 1993. In the years after Crystal Perry’s slaying, Sarah stayed with an aunt in Texas and returned to Maine for high school. The young girl loved to write, but memories of the murder made it nearly impossible to do so. Photo courtesy of Sara D. Davis

“She had an unusual intellect and maturity even then,” Shane says. “Her mom and I had met to discuss having her skip two grades, though I recommended skipping only one. Her mom always told her she was going to college. I’m glad she was able to achieve her goals and that she wasn’t sidetracked by the tragedy that happened to her.”

Perry, who at 35 is older than her mom when she died, says her love life has been more stable than her mother’s.

“The men I’ve dated have been notably gentle, thoughtful, intelligent people, but I have very finely honed my radar on that,” she says. “I really don’t put up with little denigrating comments about women from any man.”

THE GATHERING NIGHT

A greater concern for Perry is the way women are treated in America as a whole. It’s a political issue she finds impossible to avoid given the recent flood of news reports about sexual assault perpetrated by prominent men. Putting her mother’s killer in prison and writing “After the Eclipse” hasn’t resolved a list of issues that she rattles off.

“We still have a really toxic culture when it comes to rape and consent and toxic masculinity and how we expect men to be and violent families creating violent offenders,” she says. “Having (Hutchinson) in jail didn’t make me feel any safer because I’m still a young woman and we’re all vulnerable in this culture.”

Writing the book did help Perry reconnect with her past and perhaps gain a better understanding of herself as a person who is both creative and capable.

“I have a great sense of satisfaction that I have gathered all the information I could about the crime, about Mom’s life and about myself,” Perry says. “I had compartmentalized my childhood and just tried to keep pushing forward. That’s a great coping skill to a degree. At some point you just feel disconnected from your own life.”

Now, her life story feels more coherent, she says. But it’s still difficult to return to Bridgton, where the gathering night can generate some anxiety for her.

“I think there’ll always be that shadow under everything,” she says. “It will always be a little complicated to be here. I don’t want to be that way. I don’t want to hold onto that, but that’s just kind of how it is.”

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Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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