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This exclusive excerpt is from "The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing," a memoir by Betsy Bonner in which she searches for answers after her sister is allegedly found dead in a hotel room in Tijuana, Mexico.
NPR listed it as one of the Best Books of 2020, saying it “Offers more plot twists, shocking revelations and shady characters than most contemporary thrillers" and The New York Times called the book “riveting. ... A haunting, mind-bending memoir.”
Published by Tin House, "The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing," is available in paperback Oct. 19.
On June 25, 2008, a young woman with my sister’s IDs was found dead on the floor of a hotel room in Tijuana. Her body had needle marks in the left arm, a wound on the right middle finger, and a bruised cranium. She wore blue jeans and a brown T-shirt that read GOOD KARMA. Two syringes were in the room: one on the nightstand, one in her purse. The police report said that the IDs—including an American passport and a California driver’s license issued to “Eunice Atlantis Black”—did not appear to match the body. The autopsy report said the woman had green eyes and weighed less than one hundred pounds. It estimated her age to be twenty to twenty-five years old. The cause of death was a pancreatic hemorrhage.
My sister had hazel eyes, like my mother’s. She was thirty-one and running from felony charges in a prescription drug case in the state of California when she disappeared.
By the time I heard the news, the only thing that might have shocked me would have been if my sister had found a way to live. Just in case of some miraculous mistake, I called Atlantis’s phone—it seemed to be on—and left a voicemail message. Then I typed an email: “Call me as soon as you can if you receive this. I love you.” I had no expectation of hearing back from her.
Nancy was my canary, ahead of me in the dark.
Our mother was manic-depressive and suicidal, so Nancy and I were raised mostly by our father. He was a conservative Catholic, and he had rules for us.
When the devil—often in the form of Nancy—tempted me to do something bad and fun, I usually managed to get away with it. In confession, I learned how to lie in an honest voice. Like most Catholic children, if I couldn’t think of anything to tell, I invented wrongdoings that would elicit the penance of a few Hail Marys.
Nancy seldom did what she was told; nor did she attempt to hide her disobedience. Our father tried to beat her into submission with brutal spankings on her bare skin, and threatened her with his belt, though I don’t remember seeing him hit her with it. He wasn’t drunk; he just flew into rages, especially over his firstborn, little Nancy.
In 1994, my seventeen-year-old sister, with the artistry and self-generation of a true Atlantean, gave birth to a new self; for Atlantis Black to exist, she had to get rid of Eunice Anne Bonner. She never went back to high school. She got her GED and was accepted to Loyola University in New Orleans—she’d set her heart on that city for its musical soul—and said that no one with such a boring name as Bonner would ever make it there. Eunice Anne Bonner drove herself to the hearing and emerged Eunice Anne Black. It cost more money to change both names, she said, and getting rid of Bonner took precedence. Later on, she forged the original document to make Atlantis (not Anne) her middle name. I never knew how she came to choose the name, but it seems perfect: the Atlantis of legend is mystical, self-destroying, and forever lost.
At first, Mom said she had “no interest” in identifying the body or in obtaining the police and autopsy reports, so I planned to go to Tijuana with my aunt Tina. I wanted to secure my sister’s ashes, which I hoped to scatter quickly; I was superstitious about her restless ghost.
I was furious that my mother would take no part in helping clean up my sister’s mess, but at the last minute she changed her mind and said that she would make the trip to Tijuana—“alone.” Was she having another manic episode? No, Mom said, she wasn’t. But she wanted to find her truck—the one Atlantis had been driving for the past eight years. The police hadn’t located it, and it was still registered in Mom’s name.
I reminded Mom that two people needed to do the identification and insisted on meeting her with my aunt at a Hampton Inn in San Diego. I wrote to my cousin Elizabeth that I feared for Mom’s mental health; Elizabeth said she was willing and able to fly down from San Francisco. Elizabeth was five months pregnant, and she’d need to stay behind in San Diego rather than cross into Mexico, but she would support us in any way she could.
Hector Gonzales, the director of Funeraria del Carmen, had offered to pick up my mother, my aunt, and me at the border and to escort us to the Tijuana morgue. I didn’t know if it was the usual protocol for a funeral director to provide his own taxi service, but we accepted his offer. It was hot, and all of the Buick’s windows were open. With my thighs sticking to the back seat, I gazed out the window at the produce and soda stands, the tequila bars, and the shopkeepers standing around in the sun, smoking cigars and staring at the strangers passing through. They knew Hector—some of the men nodded at him—and they probably knew why we were here.
At the morgue, an attendant escorted us all to a windowless room with potted plants in the corner, then took my mother and aunt into the back. I was worried that my mother might have a breakdown, say the wrong thing or change her mind again, and I’d have to step in. Then I heard a low, human cry. Mom came back into the room bent over at the waist, hanging on to my aunt’s arm. “Bunny, oh my little Bunny.” She was weeping. “Why does she look like that?”
When we were small children, Mom used to call my sister “Bunny.” I was the “Bug.”
“It’s her, isn’t it?” I said.
“It’s Nancy,” my aunt said. She put her arms around Mom. “She looks like that because she was sick for a long time. She’s not hurting anymore.”
Still weeping, Mom signed a set of papers identifying the body of her firstborn. I thought she was being theatrical, like those Greek women tearing their hair and rushing at the sea; but all grief seems theatrical to those who witness it.
I still have questions. At the time of my sister’s disappearance, she had driven away everyone to whom she mattered. Is there anyone now who could tell me what really happened to her? That is, anyone who could be believed?
If she were still alive in the year I write this, she’d be forty-two. But she’ll be thirty-one forever.
My own life has been shaped by what I inherited: most of all, my sister’s story. I’m still living off of her fortune.
Excerpted from The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing by Betsy Bonner. Printed with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2020 by Betsy Bonner
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