Naomi Butterfield

In late spring of 2009, in the middle of the night, Amanda Stott-Smith drove to the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon, and dropped two of her children over the railing. They fell 75 feet into the Willamette River. The 7-year-old, Trinity, survived the fall (and more than half an hour in the cold river). The 4-year-old, Eldon, drowned.

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When the story briefly entered the news cycle, the public dismissed Stott-Smith as a villain. She pled guilty and was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in prison. That was the end of the story. But Nancy Rommelmann, a journalist and a mother herself, wasn't satisfied. She wanted to know more, wanted to try to understand the motivations of a crime few could ever hope to understand.

To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder presents an exhaustive—and occasionally exhausting—investigation into the life of a modern Medea. During the course of Rommelmann's reporting, she realizes that her Medea has a figurative and literal Jason: Amanda's former husband and father of the children is named Jason Smith. If there's a great woman behind every great man, Rommelmann's reporting suggests, there may be a terrible man behind every terrible woman.

Rommelmann talks to an overwhelming number of people directly involved with the Stott-Smith family. Each has their own ideas about Stott-Smith's motivations, and the inability to locate one "true" narrative is part of the book's point. But the story that emerges is one of a deeply religious woman searching for financial stability from a con man and drug addict. The couple seems to have physically and emotionally abused each other throughout the marriage, taking turns neglecting their children. When Amanda begins to believe that Jason is cheating on her with a high-school friend named Keli, shit really starts to go south.

At times, Rommelmann's glut of details and interviews feels, strangely enough, empty, pointing to comprehensiveness in reporting but not the selectivity needed for useful context. Some facts are telling (like the trashy cologne Jason liked to buy in high school), but I didn't need to know every detail of a little boy's autopsy. I didn't need to know how many grams his heart weighed, or whether his spleen "gleamed" in his split-open chest—what else could it have done? Nor did I need Rommelmann to go the bridge itself and rehearse the whole "reporter in the murderer's shoes" scene, especially since the scene leads nowhere.

But Rommelmann's research and attention to detail often lead her to write sentences that feel like literary short stories all on their own. For instance: "Jason wooed Keli the way he wooed Amanda, buying her jewelry and designer jeans and fifty-dollar pieces of cheese."

Those sorts of sentences, for me, composed the major part of the book's appeal. But her fire hose of facts builds to no single satisfactory argument. Did the mental-health-care system or the justice system fail? Not exactly. Does Amanda unfairly bear too much blame? Uhh, maybe? Is infanticide more of an issue than one would imagine it is? Kinda. But the book does usefully complicate a story that seemed, on its face, uncomplicated or impenetrable to many, helpfully reminding us to resist jumping to conclusions, even when the villain seems easy to spot.