With the 2009 Easter holiday and college graduation only a few weeks away, even the most random moment for Amy Butcher — young, sheltered and carefree — was a catalyst for celebration.

From the fire escape outside her apartment in Gettysburg, Pa., Butcher watched a pink sky usher in the new moon, then cast shadows over the student dorms until all she could see was a tour guide’s swinging lantern, lighting the way for ghost-hunting Civil War tourists. She phoned her friend Kevin. He sounded distant, but they met up at a bar to toast their undergraduate years.

The night wound down and Kevin insisted on walking Amy the one block to her apartment; insisted on seeing her to the safety of her doorstep.

Within hours, Kevin stabbed his ex-girlfriend, Emily, 27 times, killing her.

“We had no idea what our futures held, and that’s precisely what we talked about the night he killed her: how we were scared, no, terrified, because we had no idea what came next,” Butcher writes in her riveting and visceral debut, “Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder.”

What came next for Kevin was an arrest, a psychiatric report, a plea deal and 27 to 53 years in prison.

What came next for Butcher — on the surface, anyway — was a move away from her raw memories of Gettysburg and toward the safety of graduate school in Iowa.

Underneath, an obsession grew. That carefree feeling she’d once enjoyed was just an illusion. Fear — of men, of being alone, of a glance lasting a beat too long — took its place just as that moon usurped an innocent pink sky.

“What Kevin had done — though I would never admit it — had somehow become my story, my trauma, tangled my life up in ways I still find complex and uncomfortable,” she writes.

She does admit it, though. Butcher is unflinching in her self-examination, and she is masterful at it. Less so her remove from Emily and Emily’s family, her ruminations on the politics of mental illness and her placement of Kevin alongside the grim names Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza. Butcher’s intimacy with a single violent and senseless death is powerful on its own, without such headlines.

Ultimately, Butcher delivers her own verdict: “I’d only ever been brave from a careful distance, the space allotted to me on the page.”

 

Mardi Jo Link is the author of several books of nonfiction, including “The Drummond Girls: A Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance,” forthcoming in July from Grand Central Publishing. She lives in Michigan.