The first Notable Narrative for August recounts the history of Vernetta Cockerham, a woman whose estranged husband killed one of her children and very nearly ended her life, too.

The story, from O, The Oprah Magazine, opens with a narrative account of the day of the attack on Cockerham. But as the article’s title shows, the piece takes on more than the existence of domestic abuse. Freelance reporter Phoebe Zerwick traces the spiral of escalating violence, but focuses on how tragedy could happen to a woman who had filed for a protective order, kept police informed, and ostensibly got word from two officers that they would follow and arrest her husband the night before the unthinkable happened.

Having laid out her most dramatic moment up front, how can Zerwick keep her audience reading when we know what lies at the end of the road? Zerwick creates tension by narrating Cockerham’s efforts to protect her family as the violence increases. With the police aware and engaged, we wonder how she will end up facing a knife-wielding husband in her own home. Will it be a series of unforeseeable events, or will it be something truly preventable?

Zerwick has to incorporate a slew of legal details on domestic violence, as well as how much the police knew and what their obligations were. And to her credit, she includes contradictory points of view on Cockerham’s case. In the long run, Zerwick’s approach results in a less-than-fully-narrative vehicle for the story but may well strengthen the reader’s confidence in the tale that she tells.

[To see more of Mary Ellen Mark’s extraordinary photographs, visit the online version of the article or her website.]

Read “Why Didn’t They Stop Him?” by Phoebe Zerwick

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