“She was the most obsessive artist I’ve ever known,” writes Betsy Bonner of her only sibling, guitarist and singer-songwriter Atlantis Black. The sentence strikes an ironic note: The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing (Tin House, 2020) wouldn’t exist without Betsy Bonner’s own writerly obsession with her sister’s life and disappearance. Part memoir, part true crime mystery, Bonner’s book opens with a description of a dead body in a Tijuana hotel room. While IDs belonging to Black are found on the corpse, the police report notes that the passport and driver’s license don’t “appear to match the body,” which has been cremated without further attempts at identification. Drug paraphernalia is found at the scene. Bonner suspects foul play. What follows is an unflinching, haunting portrait of Black, the bizarre details surrounding her vanishing, and the enduring bonds of sisterhood.
The memoir portion of Bonner’s book explores the childhood experiences that set the sisters on divergent paths. Growing up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Black—born Eunice “Nancy” Anne Bonner—was the wilder, carefree sister, “the girl who could drink boys under the table at parties and still stay skinny enough to walk out of a department store in two pairs of jeans.” Black was also the girl who was physically and sexually abused and inherited their mother’s suicidal tendencies. The lyrics that Black eventually writes reveal the cynicism of a young woman who has developed hard edges in order “to escape the misogyny of her small town”:
hand job queen
my sweetest dream
bring it over for the team
for the team
Bonner, by contrast, was the self-described “stable sister,” the sister who “had all the luck and Atlantis had nothing.” She experienced normal-enough early sexual encounters and, as an adult, secured a prestigious job in New York City at the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center, where famous writers like John Updike and E. L. Doctorow once read their work. In candid, somber prose Bonner writes:
That was just how life went for us; our destinies were already written. It was because she was born first and had been kicked around more than I was by our father. It was because she’d been molested. It was because she was mentally ill. My sister was not the worldly woman she thought she was. She was a sad, pitiful creature. If she couldn’t kill herself, she’d find someone to kill her.
As a young woman, Black was resourceful, depressed, and dangerous—especially to herself. In the wake of her disappearance (or death), she left behind a motley crew of characters who had been drawn to both the beauty and thrill of her, some who paid for her company and others who shared her proclivity for drugs. Their social media monikers make them sound as if they were written for American film noir, their presence adding to the intrigue of the true crime portion of the book. Guitar Girl. Psychobunny. The German Gentleman. Sugar Mama. The Millionaire From Mexico. Pascual Perez.
Despite the shifty people Black surrounded herself with and the police reports that never quite add up, most readers will eventually find themselves questioning Bonner’s motives for her assiduous investigation into her sister’s disappearance (or death), seven years of “uncertainty and denial” spent combing through Black’s social media accounts, demos, videos, emails, and belongings. Bonner, anticipating her readers’ doubts, writes:
But what was I doing there, digging like a rat through my sister’s junk? There’d been a time when Atlantis had taken herself seriously. She and I had both considered it important that she finish her second album, for her mental health and for the music itself.
Bonner has good reason to dwell on her sister’s musical aspirations and look for clues that Black was “more sinned against than sinning.” Before her downward spiral into drug abuse and desperation, Black once met with Steve Lyon, the producer for Depeche Mode and the Cure, to record an album. She opened for Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde in San Francisco. Time Out New York took note of her song “My Machine.” Readers may find themselves doing their own searching: I found several of Black’s songs online and recognized “the riot grrrl songs […] inspired by punk and goth bands.” By Black’s own accounts, however, she was “a depressed girl who can’t sing and doesn’t give a fuck.” So, was Black a star in the making? Bonner never quite says, but that’s beside the point of her obsession. As she succinctly puts it, “it didn’t matter to me whether or not she was any good.” The message is clear: sisterly love transcends all—the hurt, the lost hope, and the unknowns. Although, perhaps it’s not enough to transcend Bonner’s grief.
With her debut memoir, Bonner has written a spellbinding page-turner, a true crime hybrid that will satisfy readers who seek out advanced literary stylings along with readers who want a wildly entertaining, suspenseful tale. Bonner’s background in poetry—she’s the author of the poetry collection Round Lake (Four Way Books, 2016)—shows in imagistic flashbacks that illustrate coming-of-age moments and childhood mischiefs that take on a foreboding tone when juxtaposed with the reality of Black as an adult. The only thing I found missing was a deeper exploration of Bonner’s anger toward Black, touched on only briefly.
Of the many interesting narrative choices Bonner makes, my favorite is her choice to include transcribed passages from an interview with Black that was recorded three months before she vanished. The short passages are interspersed between chapters, printed in white font on black pages, to chilling effect. This one reads like a prophetic voice from the grave:
I got it—my next album will be called Glamor. Spelled the American
English way, not the British. Glamor is just a Midwestern girl who
wants to get to Hollywood. But she doesn’t make it.
Perhaps Atlantis Black did make it after all, here within Bonner’s solidly crafted pages.