Book Review

If You Tell: A True Story Of Murder, Family Secrets, And The Unbreakable Bond Of Sisterhood

If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood

  • Author: Gregg Olsen
  • Genre: True Crime
  • Publication Date: December 1, 2019
  • Publisher: Thomas & Mercer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: mention of addiction, child abandonment, death of a parent, graphic and violent child abuse, graphic violence, depictions of torture, murder, blood, gaslighting, emotional abuse, forced drugging, fatphobic comments, suicide attempt, homophobic comments

After more than a decade, when sisters Nikki, Sami, and Tori Knotek hear the word mom, it claws like an eagle’s talons, triggering memories that have been their secret since childhood. Until now.

For years, behind the closed doors of their farmhouse in Raymond, Washington, their sadistic mother, Shelly, subjected her girls to unimaginable abuse, degradation, torture, and psychic terrors. Through it all, Nikki, Sami, and Tori developed a defiant bond that made them far less vulnerable than Shelly imagined. Even as others were drawn into their mother’s dark and perverse web, the sisters found the strength and courage to escape an escalating nightmare that culminated in multiple murders.

I won this book in a giveaway online and it’s been languishing on my Kindle for quite some time, and I figured I’d give it a read. Once my friend noticed my Goodreads update, she commented “buckle up,” and since she’s an avid reader of horror, I knew I was in for a bumpy ride. I had no idea how bumpy, but by then, I was hooked and couldn’t stop reading. Honestly? It was like watching a car crash, where you don’t want to look but somehow can’t tear your eyes away.

At first, I kind of felt bad for Shelly. I couldn’t imagine what she must have gone through in her early years to turn her into what she became. But no matter what, she was an incredibly sick woman. She derived pleasure from controlling, humiliating, and torturing others. By forcing the people around her to participate in her abuse of others, she ensured that she had leverage over them. And when it came to her children, she exerted control in various ways. Either she forced them to abuse others, or instilled the fear in them that the younger siblings would receive additional abuse or be separated and put into foster care.

This was an incredibly difficult read. I had to take frequent breaks, and read something light and fluffy to relax. It’s graphic and heartbreaking. Shelly physically, mentally, and emotionally abused all of her victims, systematically breaking them down step by step. She separated them from their supports, then decimated their self-esteem, forcing them to believe that they deserved everything that was being done to them. While it is easy to say, “why didn’t they just leave or ask for help?” this book really shows an insight into the mindset of her victims, especially her daughters. These girls were abused by their primary caretaker, who was a master at manipulation, and was capable of showing just enough love to ensure their compliance even as things kept getting worse.

However, from a purely literary standpoint, this was written in an overly simplistic style. The sentences were short and somewhat choppy, with a lot of foreshadowing used. It was very well researched, and allowed us to empathize with Shelly’s daughters, while painting her in an unvarnished light, showing us exactly who she was. It also absolved her husband of a lot of blame, though, showing him as someone who was just in love with a toxic woman, working his fingers to the bone to make her happy and ignorant of how harmful the things he was doing were, even when they were blatantly obvious. Come on, who doesn’t know that bleach is harmful to skin? PS I’ll never be able to look at bleach the same.

Overall, I’m amazed that the three daughters portrayed in this book are even capable of living normal functional lives after the upbringing that they suffered. It goes to show how incredibly resilient human beings can be, and that the way someone is raised doesn’t always dictate the way their life will turn out. This is probably one of the most horrifying books I’ve ever read, and truth is even more terrifying than fiction in this case.

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