Beyond Legend: Unm Professor Searches For Truth In His Mother’s Desert Murder

Unm Professor Searches For Truth In His Mother’s Desert Murder

Nora Hickey
5 min read
Beyond Legend
(Eric Williams
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Justin St. Germain was in his home state of Arizona one summer when he had two realizations: first, that one of his former stepfathers was trying to sell him on a pyramid scheme involving gemstones, and second, that he could, and would, try to trace the complex path of circumstances that led to his mother’s murder.

The lengthy journey that followed culminated in St. Germain’s recently released memoir,
Son of a Gun. In strong, lucid prose, his debut details a world marked by a mother’s death.

Just 20 years old when his mother Debbie died, St. Germain was a junior at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a few hours’ car ride from the mythic and misinterpreted town of Tombstone where he grew up. Down at the O.K. Corral, actors dressed as lawmen and outlaws had long replayed the infamous Wyatt Earp gunfight for tourists over and over again. But Tombstone encompasses much more than “the most famous gunfight in the American Old West,” St. Germain’s book tells us. Tombstone was also home to his five stepfathers and a series of impermanent homes, from mansion to trailer. It was in this last home on the outskirts of Tombstone, “the worst” of them all, where St. Germain’s mother was shot by Ray, her fifth husband.

“When you live in a place that just celebrates this one moment of violence so much,” St. Germain says of Tombstone and the O.K. Corral, “then it kind of subtly seeps into your subconscious. I’m not saying that’s why my mom died, but I also don’t think it’s totally unrelated.” Indeed, St. Germain sees connections between Wyatt Earp, himself, his mother and Ray, a former Tombstone marshal who kept his mustache thick and guns close. Debbie, too, owned firearms and used her determination and ex-Army toughness to secure opportunities for her family. By researching Earp and seeking out the stepfathers (both hateful and humorous) who made his Tombstone adolescence complicated and often bleak, St. Germain tries to understand the shocking culmination of Debbie’s life.

The complexity that he finds in Tombstone’s most famous figure, and in his mother, renders the city much more than a legendary locale. Yet even with these painstaking details, St. Germain’s Tombstone is simultaneously “the same as anywhere else.” It’s a place where “history might be different if Wyatt hadn’t been so lucky.” A place where a kid can read voraciously but learn not to tell his friends. A place where kids fire pellet guns at passing classmates for the fun of it. A place where a woman can be shot by a man who makes a horrible decision.

Violence, says St. Germain, "can happen. A lot of people are capable of doing it, and it can happen to a lot of people." Altering that dynamic requires a change in thinking about "the class issue, guns in America, attitude[s] toward masculinity, women [and] violence against women. If any one of those things is different, it might change everything."

St. Germain, who teaches in the Creative Writing program at UNM, hopes his readers will see beyond the arresting storyline of his mother’s death and the consequent grief. “Whether you’re writing about murder or anything else, it’s about way more than that … it has to be more than that,” he explains.

As reviews for
Son of a Gun multiplied, it became clear that people were seeing the layers St. Germain worked to build. In a New York Times book review that appeared the Sunday before his book arrived in stores, Alexandra Fuller concluded, “[A] single elegant sentence proves that if the brilliance of Son of a Gun lies in its restraint, its importance lies in the generosity of the author’s insights.” St. Germain said he was glad readers recognized that his memoir deals with American violence and related issues. “I was so grateful for the New York Times review,” he says. “She was like, ‘this is about more than [loss].’”

After three years of writing and two years of edits,
Son of a Gun emerges as a carefully researched and structured work. St. Germain turned what could have been a straightforward account into a nuanced and insightful memoir. “It wasn’t like I was trying to seek closure or get closure; it was more about trying to see the truth of the moment.”

Son of a Gun, St. Germain is a captivating interpreter of violence. He is a tall man: muscled, deep-voiced. After talking about Wyatt Earp, the lure of the Old West and the realities of modern day Tombstone, it is easy to imagine St. Germain in dusters and a black hat. See for yourself on Saturday, Aug. 31, when he’ll be speaking at Bookworks. But in his book, he enacts his own events: real, lived.

We see the simultaneous magnetic and repulsive quality in O.K. Corral reenactments, in bullet holes and bloodstains left intact for tourists. Violence that has become spectacle, shined and softened through the passage of time. In the end, though, this holds little power in contrast to the immediate, intimate violence of his mother’s death. “You always have to be telling two stories,” he tells me, “the present and the past.”
Beyond Legend

Beyond Legend

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