It’s one of the most famous unsolved murder mysteries in America, the story of Lizzie Borden, who is believed to have murdered her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was accused and put on trial for the crime but acquitted due to lack of evidence. Both Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally butchered with an ax, and it was hard to believe back then that a woman could commit such a horrific act of anger. But if you read this new fictional account of what may have happened, it’s not at all hard to believe.
Author Sarah Schmidt came across this infamous case by chance in a second-hand bookshop. The accidental discovery inspired her to write her first novel that focuses not as much on a search for truth as on the dysfunctional family dynamic. In alternating chapters dated the day before and the day of the murders, we get personal perspectives from Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget and a depraved boy named Benjamin. Be forewarned. See What I Have Done is gruesomely realistic and highly disturbing. Indeed, it’s impeccably imagined in all its vile darkness.
Lizzie comes across as demented and simple-minded in her first-person narration the day of the killings, especially when she displays a sick fascination with her father’s dead body in the parlor. Neighbors, police and the doctor believe she suffers from shock, but before they find her stepmother’s body in the second floor guest room, Lizzie looks up at the ceiling, as if she knows it’s there, tipping us off to her culpability.
Emma is out of town pursuing her artistic studies and staying with a friend. She’s thinking of never returning home, where Lizzie burdens her with neediness and ruins her life with selfish manipulations. Also, their father restricts the lives of his daughters with harsh rules, and the indifferent stepmother repulses them. Emma’s hopes of escape shatter when she’s urgently called home because of the murders.
Meanwhile, the girls’ Uncle John hires the homeless, criminal Benjamin to do away with Andrew Borden. It’s never really clear whether John is angling after Andrew’s wealth or affectedly concerned for the well-being of his nieces, who suffocate under Andrew’s parenting. (John promised their deceased mother he would watch out for them.) Propelled by the promise of big money for the job, Benjamin stealthily finds his way to the Borden household, only to discover someone killed Andrew before he got there. Benjamin hides in the Borden’s barn, where he finds the bloody ax-head and takes it. His presence in the plot cleverly provides an idea of what it could look like if an intruder had committed the murders.
Schmidt perfectly creates the psychological crazy-making in the Borden household, from Lizzie’s passive aggressive manipulations of her sister and father to Bridget’s witnessing of the dysfunction as she serves meals at the family dinner table and cleans the house. Schmidt also excels at the atmospheric details, such as the smell of sickly sweet pears from a nearby arbor; the presence of bits of bone and blood; and the haunting tick of the mantel clock.
The novel concludes with the funeral of the murdered parents, and also, 13 years later, with Benjamin visiting Lizzie and Emma. He shows them not only the bloodied ax head but also a piece of Abby Borden’s skull, which he has kept all this time. Horrific as that is, Benjamin’s final act is not as chilling as Lizzie’s utterances on the last pages of this grisly, excellent novel.