Publication Date: March 15, 2014
Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group
Retarded Girl Raised in Dog Pen by Lauren Leigh is a spellbinding murder mystery that offers a sympathetic look at the struggles faced by individuals with disabilities.
Baby is every adoptive parent’s nightmare—blind, paralyzed from the waist down, unable to speak, and diagnosed with developmental and intellectual disabilities. For the first 10 years of her life she is raised outside in a dog pen by a cruel adoptive father, a Mississippi deputy sheriff who values his bird dogs more than his daughter.
Retarded Girl Raised in Dog Pen is the story of Baby’s placement in a Mississippi mental institution for individuals with profound retardation after the brutal murder of her father and the arrest of her mother, and her desperate attempt to escape the institution.
Once the mother is convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the story takes a bizarre twist as mental health professions discover that Baby is capable of communication, despite being trapped inside a grotesque body that holds her prisoner.
How much does Baby know? Can she prove her mother’s innocence?
As the mother sits on death row, the clock ticking, a brilliant psychologist has the shock of her life when she discovers that Baby is not who she seems. The question is will the psychologist be able to solve the mystery in time to save the mother’s life?
Similar to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the manner in which it reveals the inner workings of a mental institution, it is, in the end, about the triumph of intellect and passion over indifference and cruelty. It is written in the tradition of The Sound and the Fury and To Kill a Mockingbird, two novels that address the complex issue of intellectual disabilities.
When Thad Vanderbilt arrived at the county jail, he was eating a hamburger that he’d picked up at the drive-through window of a fast-food restaurant. He took bites of the burger and sips from a cup filled with iced tea as he walked into the building and asked to meet with Rivers in a private conference room.
As she walked in the door, he was in the process of wadding up the paper wrapping around the burger. He tossed it into a nearby trash can and then took a sip from the cup, gurgling the last few drops from the bottom of the cup before discarding it. Left behind was a touch of mayo that stuck about an inch from the corner of his mouth. Rivers noticed it, but said nothing, not really caring whether her lawyer looked foolish or not.
Thad stood and extended his hand as she approached the table and sat in a folding chair. His fingers felt damp from the soft drink cup, and she wiped her hand against her jumpsuit.
“I’m Thad Vanderbilt,” he said. “I’ve seen you around town, but I don’t think we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.”
“I’ve seen you in your convertible.”
Thad laughed. “Yes, and it will be paid for in another three years, just in time to trade it in for a new one.”
Rivers didn’t think that was funny and she did not respond with a laugh of her own.
Thad looked at a legal pad, reading over his scribbled notes.
“I see your husband was a deputy.”
“And you have a little girl named Baby. Is that correct?”
“Yes. Have you seen her?”
“No, I haven’t. I understand she was taken away and placed at Silverstone Retardation Center.”
“That’s what the sheriff told me.”
“She’ll be well taken care of there.”
“I hope so. She’s not used to strangers.”
“They are used to people like her.”
“What do you mean, people like her?”
“You know, retarded.”
“How do you want to plead on this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Guilty or not guilty.”
Rivers didn’t answer, sort of drifted away, lost in thought.
“Did you hear me?”
“Guilty or not guilty?”
“What’s the difference?”
“If you plead guilty, there is no trial and the judge decides your sentence. If you plead not guilty, you go to trial and listen to people say a lot of bad things about you, and then the jury decides if you are guilty or not guilty, and then, if you are guilty, they pass sentence.”
“And if the jury decides I am not guilty?”
“Then they send you home.”
“In that case, who goes to prison?”
“The prosecutor will decide if there is someone else he wants to prosecute. If there is, then he will go after them and try to get a conviction.
“So what do you want to do?”
“Did the sheriff give you any information about Angus?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Did the sheriff give you any details about what happened to him?”
“Would you mind telling me what you know?”
“No problem.” He looked over his notes. “OK. They found his body yesterday, buried along the tree line of your property, about fifty yards from the dog pen.”
“Did he look upset?”
“Did it look like he was upset over being dead?”
Thad paused again, this time to collect his thoughts. “Ma’am, when you’re dead I don’t think you necessarily look upset or not upset.”
“I see.” She lowered her eyes, looking down at her lap, where her fingers were intertwined in a knot. “Does it say anything about how he died?”
“Yes, ma’am, it says he was struck in the chest with an ax.”
“No, it says he was hacked on a little bit.”
“Do they have the ax?”
“Apparently, it was buried with him.”
Rivers sat quietly for a while. Then she put her hand on her chest, feeling her thumping heart. “Would you mind seeing after the burial?”
“That’s not really what I do.”
“Baby and I are the only family he’s got. If not you, then who?”
“Ma’am, you’ve put me on the spot.”
“I know that.”
Thad doodled on his legal pad as he struggled with her request. He had moved to Murphy County from Memphis, where lawyers played by a different set of rules. In Memphis, her request would have been laughed at, but not in a rural community where everyone knows everyone else, or if they don’t, they know of them or have heard stories about them.
“That’s not something I usually do,” he said. “But I’ll make an exception in your case.”
“But you still haven’t answered me.”
“About your plea.”
“Can I decide what goes on the tombstone?”
“I don’t know for sure, but assume that would not be a problem. You are his wife.”
“Will there be flowers?”
“Yes—if I have to send them myself.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, ma’am, but I need to know your plea.”
Rivers looked up, as if searching for the answer on the ceiling. Inexplicably, a serene look appeared on her face. “What will happen to me if I plead guilty?”
“It is a capital offense to kill a police officer, so the penalty would be death by injection.”
“Is that what you would like to do?”
“Yes, I believe it is.”
About the Author ~ Lauren Leigh
Lauren Leigh is a mental health professional who has devoted her life to working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. This is her first novel.