On the day she was abducted Annie O’Sullivan, a thirty-two-year-old realtor, had three goals: Sell a house, forget about a recent argument with her mother, and be on time for dinner with her ever-patient boyfriend. The open house is slow, but when her last visitor pulls up in a van as she’s about to leave, Annie thinks it just might be her lucky day after all. Interwoven with the story of the year Annie spent captive in a remote mountain cabin – which unfolds through sessions with her psychiatrist – is a second narrative recounting the nightmare that follows her escape: her struggle to piece her shattered life back together, the ongoing police investigation into the identity of her captor, and the disturbing sense that things are far from over. The truth doesn’t always set you free. “Still Missing” is a shocking, visceral, brutal, and beautifully crafted novel about surviving the unsurvivable – and living to bear witness.
It has been a long time since I have read a novel, or any book actually that has affected me as much as this one. This novel is about Annie O’Sullivan who is abducted by a sadistic psychopath who considers himself a survivalist and the ultimate husband. Of course, he considers Annie to be his wife and he expects 100% submission and her to be well-groomed and frilly, cook and clean and never ask any questions. If Annie doesn’t please him 100% then she has to be punished and his punishments will hit you like a punch in the gut.
From the very beginning, you know that Annie escapes. She is there, present in the story, talking to her shrink. Stevens juxtaposes the story of Annie’s captivity with the real story – a woman desperately trying to reclaim her life. But the person she was is gone, and now she is someone else entirely. Survivor Annie is harsh, angry, strong yet so incredibly breakable. Her captivity forced her to places she never imagined she would go, and to do unimaginable things. This is also a story about redemption, real and imagined, and a woman trying desperately to find her way and figure out who she is now, and what’s left for her. Annie is smart, it is her intelligence, ingenuity and those dark places that are the only reasons she survives and ultimately escapes – she knows the girl she was before the abduction will never be again. She’s gone, and now Annie has to figure out the person who remains.
Annie is a smart ass, and that alone is reason enough for me to love her, and her voice. But more than that, Annie personifies trauma or picking up the pieces from violent trauma. Every word she speaks, everything she does, and everything she avoids… They say so much, not just about who she is now, but what she has been through.
The entire time reading, I was like, “Yep.” I read this not just as a reader who loves thrillers, or as a writer (we’ll get to that in a minute), but as a survivor of violent trauma. I was amazed at how Stevens was able to illustrate, so authentically, the after. By no means, is everyone’s post-trauma experience the same, but I do believe that some of the elements or concepts are universal such as the anger, fear, shame, and blame. They latch on and manifest differently, but they are rooted in this very universal and residual pile of crap. Some of the things that Annie did or thought or felt I had instant recognition with. I understood it on a deeper level, the needs and motivations were also universal. And I found myself wondering how the hell Stevens captured this so brilliantly, so accurately. There are actions, thoughts and feelings that I have never even shared with my husband, and yet I was like, “Been there, glad I’m not now.” And of course some of those things, I will always be. The need to be in control, when you had no control for so long… Annie says it well on the third page of this novel when she is talking to her shrink, “Oh, and in case you’re wondering? No I wasn’t always such a bitch.”
The Freak, as Annie calls her captor, was also a surprisingly rich character. Don’t worry, you’ll hate him, there is no way around that, but Stevens has created a perfectly “reasonable,” “civilized,” and “intelligent” psychopath – he isn’t some raving looney – he is an actual person. Even if he is a completely broken one.
Everything about this book was right. The voice, the characters (and not just Annie), the pacing, the surprises, and the portrayal of trauma, and what happens once it is over. “Interesting that hardly anyone asks how I feel now, not that I’d tell them. I just wonder why nobody cares much about the after – just about the story. Guess they figure it stops there. I wish.” While Annie’s actual captivity is captivating and it never feels like a story being retold, the danger always feels imminent and real, I found myself more engrossed with the story of the after. Granted, where Annie’s mind wanders and the empathy she has for those she left behind are touching, and sometimes gripping – the woman that is left is by far the more interesting story. Probably because it is the story that no one ever tells. Just like Annie told her psychiatrist, people think it stops at the end of the story, but it never really stops for the person who lived it.
As a writer, part of me is like, “Oh my God, I wish I wrote this!” And I do. I have tried to write about Post Traumatic Stress, and violent trauma, but whether I wasn’t ready or it just never worked, I never could find a specific story I wanted to tell (no way in hell, am I telling my own story – that is locked up in a box and buried) and how I wanted to tell it. And like I said, this book is just, “wow,” the entire way through. I rarely feel a strong urge to get in touch with an author just to say, “You got it.” But with this book, I really, really do.
People may wonder where the suspense is, when you know Annie survives her abduction, and I am not sure what to say, except to promise that every single page is alive with it. And just when you think it is over, and you think you have it all figured out, you realize you really don’t. There are more surprises in store for Annie, and this time they are all real, and none of them imagined. Going through this sort of trauma, you always feel like it isn’t over, and in ways it never is. But for Annie, it actually isn’t over and the last eighty pages deliver something so twisted you won’t be able to not react. You’ll feel sick, as if you guts are twisting until they shred themselves, your breath will catch in your throat, your ears will ring, you may feel just a tad dizzy and you will certainly feel something heavy in your chest. And if profanity isn’t a turn off, I guarantee you’ll be chanting, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!”
While the last pages of the book are like a knife that keeps on twisting, the last line is something else all together. It is sad and tender and full of possibility and relief and most of all beautiful. You’ll feel it, and while it is tinted with pain, it will bring a smile to your face, and you’ll think that maybe, just maybe, everything will be all right.