Jeanine Cummins

A Rip in Heaven

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A Rip in Heaven Summary

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A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and its Aftermath is a 2004 nonfiction true crime account by American author Jeanine Cummins, whose own family is at the center of the horrific crime featured in the book. Combining the genres of memoir and true crime, Cummins recounts a chilling tale in which nineteen-year-old firefighter Tom Cummins, Jeanine’s brother, is attacked along with his two younger female cousins, Robin and Julie, at night on the banks of the Mississippi River. The women are raped and murdered, and all three end up in the Mississippi River, although Tom survives, later becoming the police’s number one suspect.

Late at night on April 4, 1991, Tom, Robin, and Julie are on a walk in the St Louis area when they are approached by four young men on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. The four men are pleasant enough at first, but before long, they begin to savagely beat Tom and gang rape the girls. Once finished with their horrifyingly savage crimes, they throw each victim’s limp body over the side of the bridge, fifty feet down to the Mississippi River.

After Tom manages to free himself from the violent currents and reach dry land, he reports the crime immediately to local police. Meanwhile, the families face the unimaginable horror and grief of losing Julie and Robin so young and under such savage circumstances. But astoundingly, the trauma has only just begun for the families. The police suspect that Tom is the murderer. The authorities bring Tom in for a grueling interrogation session. The police’s suspicions of Tom only grow when he fails a lie detector test. They even go so far as to charge Tom with the girls’ murder and incarcerate him overnight. Even worse, Tom is under suspicion of having an incestuous and obsessive relationship with his cousin Julie. But after the district prosecutor determines there isn’t enough evidence to hold him, Tom is released.

Cummins also discusses the media frenzy surrounding the crime, as talk shows such as Ricki Lake and law enforcement channels like Court TV invade the families’ privacy while sinking their teeth into the story. The author, who refers to herself by her childhood nickname, Tink, devotes at least as much time to the toll taken on the family due to the media as she does to the pain and trauma caused by the police. Moreover, the author makes sure to focus on remembrances of the two murder victims, Robin and Julie, suggesting that too often books of this type spend more time on the victims’ deaths than on their lives.

Not long after Tom is released, he is finally exonerated in the eyes of the authorities after they elicit confessions for the attack from four youths who match the descriptions offered by Tom. The men eventually convicted of the crime consist of three African-Americans and one white male: twenty-three-year-old Marlin Gray, nineteen-year-old Reginald Clemons, sixteen-year-old Antonio Richardson, and fifteen-year-old Daniel Winfrey. While one attacker is serving a thirty-year prison term, the rest are on death row. There is also a debate over whether Richardson is fit to serve trial or if he suffers from a mental disability too great. After introducing these four characters, Cummins goes so far as to imagine their conversations and mind-frames around the time of the brutal attack.

The final chapter, however, represents a shift in the storytelling. Cummins abandons the third-person journalistic approach and begins to tell the story in the fashion of a more traditional first-person memoir. This is the most emotionally-charged passage as Cummins no longer distances herself from the tragedy but rather addresses the reader in direct terms as not only a family member of the victims, but a victim herself—along with the rest of the family—of unfair treatment at the hands of the police and the media.

Even though Tom is ultimately exonerated, Cummins makes it clear that her family will never be the same, as it’s been rocked by traumas on three fronts: the original tragedy, the police’s near-certainty of Tom’s guilt, and the harassment the family receives by various journalists and other members of the media. Some have criticized the book for being told in a journalistic voice when the storytelling is clearly informed by Cummins’s own biases as the sister of the only surviving victim and the chief suspect. But while Cummins’s biases are obvious—and, frankly, understandable—as a journalist, she approaches the subject with great rigor, poring over police records, court transcripts, journal entries, and countless interviews with principal figures related to the crime. As Publishers Weekly writes in its review, “For someone so closely related to a crime victim to strike such a fine balance in chronicling it is a highly admirable feat.”