‘She seemed like every girl who at eighteen had to sort out alone how to behave in the world, how to both invite interest and fend it off, how to have fun without getting into trouble, how to direct attention between her body and her mind.’ – What Happened to Paula by Katherine Dykstra

August 6, 2021 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  In July of 1970, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nineteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling suddenly and inexplicably went missing. Her remains were found four months later in the vicinity of the Cedar River.

At this time in her life, Paula had been seeing two young men, Robert and Lonnie. Robert was Black. It appears that he was her true deep love. At this same time, Paula’s relationship with her mother had grown increasingly fraught. That Spring, as soon as she finished school, she’d moved out of the family home and into rented digs with a school friend.

The date 1970 is an important one to keep in mind regarding this case. Although things were beginning to change, attitudes about interracial dating and romance were still quite negative, more so in some places than in others. And it is also vital to remember that in 1970, Roe v. Wade was still three years in the future. An unwanted pregnancy placed a woman in dire straits, with few options.

Although Paula’s death was ruled a homicide, the investigation never turned up any conclusive evidence.

The case went cold.

Almost fifty years later, Katherine Dykstra, an author, writer, and teacher, is drawn into the search for Paula’s killer. This book is about that second more recent investigation – what it found, what it failed to find, and this author’s motive for involving herself in it to begin with.

In fact, Dykstra finds a number of elements in Paula’s life that run parallel with her own experiences. Possibly too many. I’ve noticed this characteristic becoming increasingly common in true crime narratives; namely, the author’s life becoming a more prominent feature in the narrative. In my view, a little of that goes a long way. Where books in this genre  are concerned, a prefer the light to shine, laser-like and unrelenting, on the subject at hand. (See I’ll Be Gone in the Dark for an excellent exemplar.)

There’s some awkward writing in What Happened to Paula – not much, but enough to jump out at the reader – at least, it jumped out at me. To wit: “Teenagers are meant to cleave from their parents.” A true enough statement, but “cleave from” seems an infelicitous locution. On the other hand, there’s this passage concerning the lack of disclosure by law enforcement to the affected families. Dykstra contends that the police were pretty sure who the culprit was, but lacking the proof of their suspicions, they felt duty-bound not to divulge them to the Oberbroeckling family.

The Oberbroecklings, the Farleys, the families of the estimated 200,000 homicides that have gone unsolved since the 1960s have no idea what happened to their loved ones. These people have been left to state into a gaping abyss where nothing is true and everything is possible. And so, by  considering a homicide internally solved but never informing the family or arresting the culprit or even closing the case, the powers that be have denied the Oberbroecklings and anyone else who cared about Paula closure.

One can understand the position of law enforcement in a situation like this, but one can also readily sympathize with the family and other loved ones of the victim.

Finally, I have to say I wonder why the decision was made to include to photographs in this book. When I Googled Paula Oberbroeckling, I was momentarily stunned:

Paula Jean Oberbrockling 1952-1970





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