Leah Hayes

Reena Virk thought she was going to a party. When the telephone rang that night in November of 1997, she was slurping soup in her family's house in suburban Victoria, British Columbia. Her long, dark hair, later described in an autopsy report as "luxuriant," would have hung around her shoulders as she ate.

"Come on, Reena, come and party," pleaded the girls on the other end of the line. Around View Royal, a suburb of Victoria, both girls were known as "badasses," while Reena wasn't known as much of anything at all.

"We're not mad at you anymore. Just come on," the girls pleaded.

Reena was unsure. But somehow the girls assured her that they didn't want to fight, and that she had been forgiven for her teenage crimes, which included stealing an address book from one of the girls and wearing the wrong boy's jacket. So Reena left her family's house, promising her mother she'd be home by 10:00 p.m.

As anyone who lived in British Columbia in the late '90s knows, Reena never made it home. Instead, she was lured to a dark place under a bridge, punched and kicked so fiercely it looked like she'd been in a car crash, then drowned, her head forced under the water of an inlet called the Gorge and held there until she died. The perpetrators were other kids not even old enough to drive, and all of them, except for one, were other girls.

Reena's death drew international headlines and led to a sputtering moral panic about violent schoolgirls. Agonized newspaper columnists asked how and why something like this could have happened, especially in Victoria. There were 2,679 media articles—blaming hiphop, absent parents, a godless society. Almost none of them involved interviews with the kids themselves.

In a new book called Under the Bridge, author Rebecca Godfrey (she wrote the novel The Torn Skirt) talks to the teenagers involved in the crime. Using material from official records and court proceedings, in addition to countless interviews, Godfrey re-creates the time before and after Reena's death to paint a deeply sympathetic portrait of the town and its teenagers. Godfrey spent seven years on the book, gaining the trust of many of the people involved, and her immersion shows in the details she includes (the weather, the color of the girls' nail polish) and the sheer verisimilitude of the stories she re-creates. We learn about Reena waiting to meet her crush at the corner store, wandering the aisles of candy bars, full of desperate hope for a boy who never arrived. We learn about Josephine Bell, "so blond and white and heartless," her skin the color of "Summer Sand" thanks to stolen Maybelline. And we learn about Warren Glowatski, the lone boy in the case, who dressed his mom while she was "dizzy from drink" and whose dad skipped town with the line, "See you in the movies."

Amid all this detail, there is something missing: the final moments of Reena's life. We never learn exactly what happened after the fighting teenagers scattered that day in 1997, and only two—Warren Glowatski and Kelly Ellard—followed Reena over the bridge and into her twilight minutes.

There is a practical reason for this absence. After the teenagers scattered, the threads of the story became too tangled, the night too muddy, and it is simply too dangerous to try to say who did what in the final moments of Reena's life. Yet, in avoiding an attempt to re-create Reena's final moments, Godfrey also avoids addressing the "why" that agonized journalist after journalist. As much as possible, she sticks to the words of the teenagers themselves, and refuses to allow hindsight, artistic license, or specialist understanding to "explain" the murder. She allows the act to remain incomprehensible.

Instead of answers, Godfrey offers us a portrait that inspires compassion for everyone involved. This is no small accomplishment. Reading Under the Bridge, I couldn't help being reminded of Charles D'Ambrosio's essay "Mary Kay Letourneau," where he reminds us of the great moral thinkers who advocate sympathetic identification as the beginning of understanding and the necessary starting point for judgment. D'Ambrosio quotes P. B. Shelley: "The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification..." Identifying with Reena, the victim, is morally easy; what Godfrey's book forces the reader to do is morally difficult—identify with her killers.