What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl (Hardcover)
A CrimeReads Best True Crime Book of 2021
A People Best Book of Summer
A New York Times Most Anticipated Book of the Summer
A riveting investigation into a cold case asks how much control women have over their bodies and the direction of their lives.
July 1970. Eighteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling left her house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Four months later, her remains were discovered just beyond the mouth of a culvert overlooking the Cedar River. Her homicide has never been solved.
Fifty years cold, Paula’s case had been mostly forgotten when journalist Katherine Dykstra began looking for answers. A woman was dead. Why had no one been held responsible? How could the powers that be, how could a community, have given up? Tracing Paula’s final days, Dykstra uncovers a girl whose exultant personality was at odds with the Midwest norms of the late 1960s. A girl who was caught between independence and youthful naivete, between a love that defied racially segregated Cedar Rapids and her complicated but enduring love for her mother, and between a possible pregnancy and the freedoms that had been promised by the women’s liberation movement but that still had little practical bearing on actual lives. The more Dykstra learned about the circumstances of Paula’s life, the more parallels she saw in the lives of the women who knew Paula and the women in Paula’s family, in the lives of the women in Dykstra’s own family, and even in her own life.
Captivating and expertly crafted from interviews with Paula’s family and friends, police reports, and on-the-scene investigation, What Happened to Paula is part true crime story, part memoir, a timely and powerful look at gender, autonomy, and the cost of being a woman.
About the Author
Katherine Dykstra is a writer, editor, and teacher. Her essays have been published in the Washington Post, Poets and Writers, and Real Simple, among other periodicals. She lives with her husband and two children in New Jersey.
Dykstra casts a searing light on racism, sexism, and the stigma of being a ‘bad’ girl. This is the perfect blueprint for any true crime writer moved to investigate a cold case.
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Paula’s story is riveting—not only for her time, but for our own. This book is fascinating, heartbreaking, and empowering all at once.
— Abby Sher, coauthor of Sanctuary
A sharp and seductive investigation into the unsolved death of a young woman fifty years ago becomes, in Dykstra’s telling, an investigation into the genre of dead-girl true crime itself. A bracing and powerful book, unsentimental and sleek, and a roadmap for actual change.
— Lacy Crawford, author of Notes on a Silencing
A vivid, unflinching account, with its share of rage and sensitivity, equal in power and tenderness, What Happened to Paula is the story of the daring task of living in a female body. This deeply moving investigation is required reading for anyone who is or knows a woman.
— Mira Ptacin, author of Poor Your Soul and The In-Betweens
A book like no other. A murder mystery. A powerful exploration of what it means to be a vibrant woman in this cold, unfeeling, and somehow, still wonderful world. Debut author Katherine Dykstra will blow your mind.
— Marcy Dermansky, author of Very Nice
The most chilling thing about What Happened to Paula is that although Paula died fifty years ago, her story could be that of a teenage girl in 1990 or 2000 or today. This is essential reading, as gripping as any thriller.
— Julia Dahl, author of Invisible City and The Missing Hours
The missing-girl narrative can create a sort of pleasing cleanliness around the idea of violence against women: a heinous act, an innocent girl, all to be properly vilified and mourned. What Happened to Paula upends and unpacks all the smaller, subtler, scarier violences that live inside of this: what of all the ways the girl wasn’t innocent, what of all the ways none of us are?
— Lynn Steger Strong, author of Want
A missing person, an unsolved mystery — but this is no typical true crime book. Instead, Dykstra looks at the context, the life Paula lived, in all its small moments of violence and violation, before she was murdered. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.
— Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe
A provocative true-crime
page-turner on how
sexism, racism and
public opinion set up
women for violence.
What Happened to Paula resists the true crime genre...The book doesn’t rely on [Paula’s] homicide to be the climax. It resists playing into the very problem it is critiquing. The book is an unspooling of all the people and systems that conspired in Paula’s death. It has not one cause, but too many.
— Tana Wojczuk - BOMB
What Happened to Paula is not only the story exploring theories about the crime that ended Paula's life; it also reflects on other true crime stories with women as their victims, including rape and rape-murder stories, and on the burdensome costs of being born in a female body. What Happened to Paula is sobering, insightful, and a highly recommended addition to both true crime and women's issues collections.
— Midwest Book Review
Rather than simply trying to piece together a perpetrator from the facts of the case, Katherine Dykstra takes a different, more thoughtful, approach to Paula’s story, examining how stifling community standards, antagonism against interracial relationships, and assumptions about “bad girls” worked in tandem to condemn Paula and bury her story.
— Molly Odintz - CrimeReads