I first knew J. Reuben Appelman as a fellow Flying M frequenter. He was quiet and reserved, but I always had the impression his mind wasn’t a quiet place.
Eventually, we started talking. He was soft-spoken and friendly, with kind eyes, and I felt he bore a lot more than anyone would ever really know. Over time, I learned that he was a writer, worked as an investigator of some sort, and had been a lecturer at Boise State and a documentary filmmaker. He had some kids, practiced martial arts, and was working on a book.
The book was about the kidnappings and murders of four children in the Detroit metro area in the 1970s. I later discovered that Appelman lived near Detroit at the time of the crimes and was almost kidnapped himself, potentially avoiding a similar demise. So when I finally opened this book, ten years in the making, I was ready to digest a narrative about one insidious killer, and Appelman’s own encounter with him. Boy, was I wrong.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell
A Woven Web
The Kill Jar, a title drawn from the “kill jar” entomologists use to trap insects in that eventually die from suffocation in the enclosure, is not just about one man and four asphyxiated kids. It’s not just about Appelman, either. What becomes clear very early into this story is that there are goings-on that we are never aware of when a town is shaken by such heinous acts; the stain of its impact is never cleaned, whether the killer is found or not, and having lived in that town can forever haunt its residents even after they’ve deserted their stomping grounds.
The Oakland County Child Killer (OCCK) is where the story starts but the path The Kill Jar goes down veers from the case of four murdered children and starts meticulously collecting bits of information about the happenings, like shards of glass from a broken vase, and laying them out one by one. These pieces show us something more than the motives of the OCCK. They unveil a string of suspect men, many related, as Appelman says, by “one degree of separation,” the proximity of several of their homes to those of the victims also worth pondering.
Many of these connections breach the OCCK case and lead us to the seedy world of porn syndicates, buildings reserved for older men to lure and molest young boys in and, more disturbing, a “youth camp” for troubled boys that was used for the whims of wealthy men to satisfy their sexual desires. All the while, the men who founded the camp received county, state, and federal funding, up to $1,250 each month per boy in attendance.
“Lost” evidence, questionable suicides, dirty police work, and even a “murder wall” Appelman created to pin all his findings on. This is the real thing, folks. Appelman’s obsession was fueled by his closeness to the case, curiosity, and perhaps an emptiness that he hoped to fill. “The main push was never about myself entirely, but to explore both worlds,” Appelman said. “The one that I existed in at home, or my internal world, whether as a kid or an adult, and the very dark world that seemed to parallel my internal life and was haunted by these killings as well as the attempted abduction on me as a boy… exploring the darkness that colored my childhood, my adult relationships, my ability to function in a world that wanted me to wear only a false positivity and bright colored ‘Life is Good’ t-shirt, which isn’t a prescription for truth.”
The “Murder Wall.” Photo courtesy of J. Reuben Appelman
Down the Rabbit Hole
In structure, the book is fast-paced, almost clipped. The chapters are short, which helps move you forward, and leaves you wanting to flip to the next page over and over. This helps with the reader’s absorption of information. There’s a lot going on in this case, and more is revealed the further you dive in.
Keeping the sections short builds a sense of order to what can easily become Alice’s rabbit hole. It also divides the two storylines – Appelman’s investigation into the killings, and that of his own personal history – in a way that stacks them neatly side by side rather than clumping them together. Because of this, the book offers more than what’s usually expected of true crime – a human connection and relation to one’s own world.
Most of us never have the opportunity to read a work like this by someone we actually know, so maybe that’s why, less than one hundred pages in, I felt a closeness to this story unlike any book, movie, song, sculpture, play, or dance I’ve ever read, watched, heard, or seen. A true crime novel about a child killer may not seem like a piece of art, but with Appelman’s narrative, it becomes one. It’s a grisly piece of artwork, but artwork nonetheless.
Knowing Appelman and reading this book meant I would learn a lot about him I could never have imagined: the violence his father inflicted upon his mother, brother, and himself, his own self-inflicted violence to remember how to feel. His extramarital affairs, his deepest fears, shame, self-hatred. I knew there were things going on in that mind of his – that his past still weighed heavily on him. Now that I know what those things are, it helps me flesh out the acquaintance I’ve known for the past several years.
There’s an interesting parallel between the storyline about the OCCK – a man inflicting violence on children that ended their lives and forever changed the lives of everyone around them – and the storyline about Appelman’s relationship with his father – a man inflicting violence on his family, leaving a mark of darkness that affected Appelman, and his wife and kids by proxy. Obviously, the differences between a serial killer and an abusive father are incomparable. But as I read, I felt the sense of a larger point being made about how the reverberations of one person’s terrible actions never silences. I believe it is that exact notion that makes The Kill Jar more than just a closer look into unsolved murders. It’s a closer look at humanity: darkness, pain, unanswered questions, lack of resolution, acceptance, and healing, if only in part.
“I really don’t feel relief or catharsis, I just feel different,” Appelman said. “I feel like I stepped through a world that was darker than I imagined it would be, in both my exploration of the murders and in my exploration of childhood and, invariably, my divorce, and I came out after a decade or more and continued to move forward, but that world is still on my clothing and in my skin. I survived it and I moved on, and now I am something else, but that’s all.”
Rummaging through the past can unpack bags too difficult to put back again. Appelman dug deep, and as a reader, I appreciate the drive and motivation he had to keep going. For what it’s worth, I’m proud to know, even just barely, the writer of these words. It’s a wonderful light to shine on Boise’s literary scene, but it’s also a meaningful piece of work, no matter where the writer may be from.
A four-part series following the OCCK case with Appelman as the on-screen investigator will air on an undisclosed “big network” sometime in the near future. Appelman is also currently working on a fictional crime novel based in Boise, Detroit, and Mexico.