Cruel Deception succeeds in the face of two significant challenges. First, as topics go, "Mothers who kill" is depressing. Second, any book on the topic of Munchausen By Proxy stands in the shadow of Nancy Wright's great "A Mother's Trial. In the hands of true crime master Gregg Olsen this tale, while still full of horror, is downright uplifting and a worthy successor to Wright's book.
Tanya Thaxted Reid - Tonto to her family - appears to be a typical small town girl at the start of the book. She wants nothing more than to live in the town she grew up in, have a doting husband and two perfect children. Under the surface things weren't so simple or typical. Tanya was the youngest of four girls raised by strict parents. Like many teens, Tanya wanted to stand out AND fit in. But Tanya lacks the will or personality or inner strength to make and stick to tough decisions. At times she seems unable to make any decisions.
Except when there is a crisis. In the glare of ambulance lights and surrounded by concerned onlookers Tanya is pillar of calm, decisive strength. She isn't just at her best during a health crisis, she's most alive. At first it's impressive, then it's creepy and then it's scary. When her baby daughter has repeated episodes of asphixia which ultimately take her life, it's a tragedy. Then her sons starts to have a have similar spells. EMTs, doctors and nurses, even neighbors all slowly come to the conclusion that something is wrong but none can articulate it. Or maybe they can't bring themselves to say it out loud: Tanya is purposely causing her children to stop breathing. That last sentence is tough even to type. It makes you want to take a shower just reading it so how impossible would it be to believe that someone who could do that would look and act normal. She should look like a monster. She should be a complete enigma. Gregg Olsen doesn't let us get off that easy.
Olsen is unique among true crime writers in that he writes about the criminals not sympathy or admiration masquerading as disgust/details (you know you've read a few true crimes books where the author spends way too much time detailing the crimes themselves and the murderers "brilliance" at evading capture) but with empathy. He tries to view events from their point of view. As a reader you find yourself not understanding Tanya but truly seeing her. She's lonely, she's desparate for attention - of the parental approval kind - and she's angry. Angry at her husband's lack of attention, angry that she's been dragged away from the only place she's ever wanted to live, angry that she's not accepted, angry that she can't have the career she wants, angry that she just can seem to crack the code of human interaction. Tanya is furious. She just can't show it.
What keeps this from being unrelentingly depressing is the way Olsen balances Tanya's story with that of the people trying to stop her. Melodee Hardin is the anti-Tanya of the story. She's a successful attorney with a daughter she dotes on. At first I wondered if Olsen wasn't just a little too impressed with the fact that Melodee used to be a ballerina. When the courtroom scenes come along, you get it: there may be a tutu in her closet but Melodee is a street-fighting kinda gal. Try to evade a question on the stand and Melodee will mess you up. All in the name of justice for abused children, no less.
This is another great true crime entry from Gregg Olsen who's become as reliable as Ann Rule, Kathryn Casey and late-greats Jack Olsen and Shana Alexander at delivering the goods. A must for serious true crime fans.
Kindle note: there are photographs but no table of contents in the Kindle edition.