Girl in the Leaves, The – Book Review
Publisher: The Berkeley Publishing Group, Penguin Group, Inc.
Cover: Diana Kolsky
Summary: Tina Herrmann, her son Kody, and family friend Stephanie Sprang are murdered in Apple Valley, Ohio and convicted arsonist Matthew Hoffman confesses to the crime.
We read about people like Matthew Hoffman all the time. Our questions about them have a center. Empathy, compassion, basic decency—how can anyone survive without at least a drop of these traits of the human experience? In what vacuous crack of human community could such a person live and mature? These are the questions. The why of their heinous crime is not really the quest. Certainly no crime book can answer the why of a crime. Even the perpetrators themselves have no reasonable explanation for their errant behavior. But what a crime reporter can do is take an expositive snapshot of the lives lead by people like Matthew Hoffman. From that snapshot, the reader is left to make up their own mind about the why. The best example of taking a snapshot is Jeannie Cummings’ A Rip in Heaven (reviewed here in April 2005). Cummings’ standard may be a bar too high. Still, there is Jerry Bledsoe’ Death Sentence, about the life and murder conviction of Velma Barfield (reviewed here in August 2003). THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES by Robert Scott does not approach the level of a picture of Matthew Hoffman, either by accident (making it writing malfeasance), or design (making it editorial pandering).
THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES is a book about the physical victims of Matthew Hoffman. There is a problem with this. A big problem. The victims of Hoffman’s crime go far beyond Tina Hermann, her children; of Stephanie Sprang her family and friends. From the law enforcement men and women who responded to the crime, to the community at large who woke up on the morning of November 11, 2010 to discover that two women and possibly two children had been murdered, to the communities around them—they were all victims of a senseless, incomprehensible crime. Most people experienced this sense of victimization upon hearing of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012. Why would anyone walk into an elementary school and gun-down 27 children and teachers? But that really wasn’t the question people were asking themselves. The real question was how could anyone do such a thing.
On November 10, 2010, Hoffman entered the house of Tina Herrmann, killed her and her friend, Stephanie Sprang and later, upon the arrival of Tina’s son and daughter from school, killed the son and kidnapped the daughter. Four days later, authorities recused the daughter, Sarah Herrmann, who was being held in the basement of Hoffman’s house. The most salient unknown presented in THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES and the question asked by Herrmann’s ex-husband, Larry Maynard, is why Hoffman chose to invade the house lived in by Tina Herrmann and her two children. To the author’s credit, he does lay out enough information on this point for the reader to rule out the most obvious possibility. It is the possible reason that so irked Larry Maynard.
By sticking to the official chronicle of events, this book comes across as a newspaper report: a bad newspaper report in which erroneous and misleading tips to the police are extensively reported. Nothing substantial in the book is related to the “tips” with the possible exception of a reported connection between Hoffmann and Stephanie Sprang. But if Hoffmann knew Sprang or they had any sort of encounter prior to Hoffmann murdering her, the book does not provide any conclusion one way or another. It is as if the “tips” are reported in the book are written merely to pad the word count of the book.
In a scant four pages, designated Chapter Four, we essentially learn that Matthew Hoffman was a “weird” child and teenager. Later, we learn of his hiatus in Colorado.
Hoffman’s September 2000 arrest in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for setting a fire in a condo and stealing city property road signs is the reader’s introduction of Hoffman’s criminal tendencies. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, six years of which he served before moving back to his native Ohio in 2007. The author mentions that Hoffman presumably set the condo fire to cover up his theft of property and the fact that, over a period of time, he had entered the condo surreptitiously. Scott writes that Hoffman had a psychological need to invade homes, reveling in the feeling of being in a place where others lived. Hoffman himself mentions the “thrill” he got from being in the home of others when the owners did not know he was there. This psychological need is presumably the reason for the invasion of Tina Herrmann’s home.
In providing the foundation for an answer to the question of why Hoffmann invaded Herrmann’s home, Scott does not take the next step and provide possible reasons that Hoffman resorted to murder. If there is an answer to the question, it is most likely found during the time Hoffmann spent in Colorado sneaking into the homes of strangers. Like the motivations of people who never outgrow an infantile fascination with fire and the invasive behavior of peeping-toms, such behavior sometimes matriculates into more monstrous behavior. But the Matthew Hoffmanns of the world are not ethereal monsters. That our social and legal systems are unable to effectively corral these people once they are identified is testimony to the real confusion we have about their victims. We are all their victims. But then, to accept that judgment, we are forced to ask whether we are not also responsible for their very existence.
It is difficult to recommend THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES. It does report the facts and the facts are important. But a good newspaper article also gives us the facts. What THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES is missing is a perspective.