Book Review: ‘Dear Sister,’ by Michelle Horton, and ‘My Side of the River,’ by Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

DEAR SISTER: A Memoir of Secrets, Survival, and Unbreakable Bonds, by Michelle Horton
MY SIDE OF THE RIVER: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

After Nicole Addimando killed Chris Grover, the father of her two young children, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 2017, she said he’d threatened her with a gun. She’d shot him in self-defense after enduring years of physical and sexual abuse. Prosecutors claimed that Addimando killed Chris Grover while he slept and that the bruises, bite marks and burns on her body were somehow self-inflicted.

The case became a media sensation, an emblem of the #MeToo movement and our country’s appetite for stories about imperiled white women. Now comes a memoir by Addimando’s sister, Michelle Horton, who chronicles the aftermath, including efforts to care for her sister’s children and to help organize a defense.

One of the book’s most surprising revelations is the fact that Addimando hid Grover’s abuse from her family — a pattern Horton blames on a tendency to avoid “unpleasant news.” When friends in her social circle inquired about suspicious injuries, Addimando would confide in them. In “Dear Sister,” those women describe, in gut-wrenching detail, how Grover texted death threats to Addimando; how he filmed himself raping her, then uploading the videos to Pornhub; how he burned her vulva with a hot spoon after she “disrespected” him.

The book is most successful as a behind-the-scenes look at how a society, a legal system and a family failed a woman who had been sexually abused by a series of men, starting when she was 5 years old. (“I did find blood in her underwear,” Addimando’s mother tells the author a decade after a sleepover at the home of a neighbor.) Horton sometimes glosses over basic facts — including what, exactly, happened on the night that Grover was killed.

Despite her sister’s tireless advocacy, Addimando was convicted in 2019 of second-degree murder and illegal possession of a weapon; a year later, she was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison. After she appealed in 2021, she was resentenced under New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, to seven and a half years, including time served plus five years of parole supervision. On Jan. 4, Addimando was released on parole.

Another memoir of secrets and survival is “My Side of the River,” by Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez. The book expands on Gutierrez’s viral TED Talk about being raised by undocumented parents in Arizona and eventually choosing a career that would help her support her family.

When Gutierrez was 4, her parents moved to the United States in hopes of giving their children more opportunities than they would have had in their “violent little narco town” in Mexico. At first the family lived with an uncle and his family in a crowded motor home; later, they relocated to a shed behind another uncle’s home. It was so close to a railroad track, the entire structure shook every time a train barreled past. Gutierrez’s parents insulated the windows with Styrofoam and hoped that the next generation would make their sacrifices worthwhile.

In the meantime, Gutierrez explains what her parents were up against. Employers took advantage of their undocumented status, refusing benefits such as health insurance. They took a graveyard shift cleaning a movie theater, placing their sleeping daughter on a bench as they worked. After her younger brother’s premature birth, Gutierrez’s parents were stuck with a hospital bill of more than $50,000. Her father worked a dangerous factory job, flipping cars on the side to earn extra cash. On Saturday mornings, the family collected empties to sell for scrap.

When she started kindergarten, Gutierrez’s mother told her: “Elizabeth, tú tienes que ser la major. You have to be the best.” She soared to the top of her classes.

Arizona was a particularly punishing place for undocumented families. In 2010, Gov. Jan Brewer signed the “show me your papers” law, which allowed the police to ask for proof of legal immigration during routine traffic stops. Fearful of being deported, Gutierrez’s parents made the agonizing decision to leave their children with a family friend while they went back to Mexico to apply for a new tourist visa. When their application was denied (twice), they sent for their son. But Gutierrez, then in ninth grade, insisted on staying behind to finish high school.

“I knew that I could be separated from my parents,” she writes, “but I refused to be separated from my education, from the future I couldn’t see but so devoutly believed in.”

She had the support of her community, including a family who took her in and a school counselor who signed her up for a free lunch program. Ultimately, she fulfilled her parents’ hopes, receiving a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Later she landed a lucrative job and became her brother’s legal guardian.

Although “My Side of the River” is occasionally marred by puerile jabs at people Gutierrez feels wronged by, her story is a testament to the abiding allure — and often daunting reality — of the American dream.

DEAR SISTER: A Memoir of Secrets, Survival, and Unbreakable Bonds | By Michelle Horton | Grand Central | 352 pp. | $27

MY SIDE OF THE RIVER: A Memoir | By Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez | St. Martin’s | 272 pp. | $29

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