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Courtney Greenberg

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The Girls Are Gone: The story of two sisters who disappeared amid a bitter divorce

The Girls Are Gone: The story of two sisters who disappeared amid a bitter divorce

The Girls Are Gone, by journalist Michael Brodkorb and paralegal Allison Mann, is a powerful testament to how painful and drawn-out a divorce can be. With undertones of a thriller, and, at times, a whodunnit, this true crime book explores the inner workings of a distraught, broken family as they weave in and out of the courtroom. First, the two parents—Sandra and David—must deal with the terms of their divorce. But then, during the bitter battle, they are faced with the sudden disappearance of their two daughters.

David suspects his ex-wife of being involved and pushes police to search for the girls. But there are much deeper issues at hand. Through court documents and transcripts, Brodkorb and Mann reveal how experts on the case believe that parental alienation—manipulating a child to have unwarranted hostility or fear toward one parent— was used on David to turn his kids against him. (He was accused of physically and verbally abusing his ex-wife and his children, although the courts ruled these claims were unfounded.) The World Health Organization is even thinking about adding parental alienation to their diagnostic guide, as it is considered a form of abuse. Sandra maintains that she and her children were assaulted by David—thus, the “he said, she said” begins.

As the tale continues, a web of lies and spies unravels to show the dark side of high-conflict divorce. Some interesting characters make it into the narrative, like Sandra’s lawyer, the outspoken Michelle MacDonald. She comes across as combative and unprofessional in the court transcripts and through her odd interactions with Brodkorb. She uses her position in the case to fight for her own personal vendetta against the court system. At one point, she refuses to verbally acknowledge the judge and is pushed into the room in a wheelchair (after refusing to give her personal information to police for a separate issue.) In March, a judge dismissed MacDonald’s defamation suit against Missing in Minnesota, a website started by Brodkorb to report on news surrounding the case.

While the book relies too heavily on documents rather than a captivating narrative, the story is worth diving into, given the nature of divorce in today’s social climate. The suggestion of using networks to hide children during custody battles is a real issue faced by parents.

A case in Toronto came to mind while I was reading The Girls Are Gone. In February, police issued an amber alert, causing everyone’s phones to go off overnight. Many locals even complained about the alert, but soon learned the heartbreaking news that a father killed his 11-year-old daughter after refusing to return her to her mother. Although The Girls Are Gone is not this kind of story, it shines a light on what a parent could do in extreme circumstances. Drawing a parallel between these two instances, it’s not hard to imagine how the two missing girls could have ended up in more danger.

Spoilers Ahead

It turns out that the two girls were staying at a nearby ranch with a married couple. According to the couple, the girls were active members of their community, took part in daily chores and even went shopping in town. The man and woman later faced criminal charges, along with another woman, Dede Evavold, who was connected to Sandra and asked the couple to keep the girls at their ranch.

The story was researched and retold by ABC in an episode of 20/20.

The book, as I mentioned, could have benefitted from more summaries of the trials and events, rather than transcripts and articles—which usually went on for too long. My attention span wouldn’t allow me to read for more than 20 minutes at a time and I found it hard to get lost in the story because of the technical and sometimes repetitive language. I was more interested in the anecdotes from Brodkorb and Mann and the outcome from the family’s fallout than the extraneous details from court. In the end, they succeeded in compiling all of the information involved in the case, from before the divorce to the girls’ return to charges against those involved. The most intriguing part—perhaps saved until the end on purpose—was the children’s accounts of what transpired.

Summertime read: A Q&A with writer Jason Allen on his new book The East End

Summertime read: A Q&A with writer Jason Allen on his new book The East End

A love/hate relationship with I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

A love/hate relationship with I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara