Bright Young Women

By Jessica Knoll; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

From the first chapters of this novel, which opens in a sorority house at Florida State University (FSU), Tallahassee, on Jan. 14, 1978, you’ll get an eerie sense of deja vu.

As the story unfolds, you learn that two young women are murdered and two grievously injured at the sorority house that night while a fifth is assaulted a few blocks away.

The temptation to go to the internet and find this event will be irresistible. Author Jessica Knoll has told interviewers that this was her goal.

The name that comes to mind is Ted Bundy. The story, although fiction, is clearly based on Bundy’s assault of four women at the Chi Omega Sorority House in Tallahassee on Jan. 14, 1978.

Knoll doesn’t use his name. Her narrator, Pamela Schumacher, sorority president in the novel, believes he’s been given too much attention. She follows the lead of the court reporter in his trial and refers to him only as The Defendant.

Knoll does in this novel what true crime books and murder mysteries almost never do: She flips the focus from the killer to the victims. In the process, she shines an unforgiving light on the ways law enforcement, the judicial system and the media failed the young women who lost their lives and the people who loved them.

Pamela is the only eyewitness to tie The Defendant to the sorority house that morning. She had awakened a little before 3 a.m. hungry for a snack. As she heads downstairs to the kitchen, she hears fast running feet in the upstairs hallway. She pauses in the shadow of the main stairs between a coat closet and the kitchen doors. She’s facing the double front doors.

She sees a man coming down the stairs and darting across the foyer. He is fully lit by the front hall chandelier. He pauses at the door holding what looks like a child’s wooden baseball bat, the end wrapped in a dark fabric. Bloody fabric, Pam realizes later.

In the hours to come, Pamela and her sorority sisters will learn that two of their friends, Denise Andora and Roberta (Robbie) Shepherd, have been murdered and two others, Jill Hoffman and Eileen Neilson, have been seriously wounded. The killer’s spree took a mere 17 minutes.

In a typical “true” crime story, the focus would move to the police investigation and the hunt for the killer. Little further attention would be given to the victims.

In this book, however, you soon see that even survivors never get over the event. As Pamela narrates the story, she numbers the days of her life from the date of the murders. The book opens on Day 15,825 since the tragedy.

This book is at its most poignant when it juxtaposes the young women robbed of their lives or their sense of security with the killer and how he was portrayed in the media.

Pamela’s best friend Denise, had a passion for art and had been hired as an assistant gallerist at the soon-to-be opening Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL.

Eileen Neilson survived the attack with serious injuries. She decides she is not going to let her disabilities and fears rule her life. She moves to Tampa for business school.

“To get over her fear of strange men she began driving taxicabs at night,” Pamela tells readers. “Eileen could have chosen to view the world as an ugly and hostile place, but instead she was nimble in her life in a way that most everyday people can’t manage.”

The Defendant was repeatedly described in the media as a handsome, charismatic law student who represented himself at trial. As Pamela, who became a lawyer herself, points out he scammed his way into an Utah law school with forged letters of recommendation and mediocre scores on his law school aptitude test.

Even the judge who sentenced him to death, described him as “a bright young man” who might have made a good lawyer whom the judge would have enjoyed watching practice in his courtroom. A shocking statement to come from a judge about a man who brutally murdered 35 women and escaped from prison twice.

He used depositions with witnesses to relive his crimes. His legal team works around his courtroom posturing and self-indulgent depositions to do the real professional work of defending him.

In Pamela’s view, a series of law enforcement ineptitudes and a failure to take crimes against women seriously enough “created a kind of secret tunnel through which a college dropout with severe emotional disturbances moved with impunity for the better part of the seventies.

“Law enforcement would rather we remember a dull man as brilliant than take a good hard look at the role they played in this absolute sideshow, and I am sick to death of watching them in their pressed shirts and cowboy boots, in their comfortable leather interview chairs, in hugely successful and critically acclaimed crime documentaries, talking about the intelligence and charm and wiliness of an ordinary misogynist,” Pamela says. “This story is not that.”

Pamela insists that The Defendant targeted women who had “a light that outshone his. . . . He wants to extinguish us—we are the ones who remind him that he’s not that smart, not that good-looking, that there’s nothing particularly special about him.”

This book is chilling, haunting and provoking. The blend of fiction and fact is unsettling at times. What really happened and what is made up? But it’s clear from Knoll’s story the same thing could be asked of the media coverage of serial killer Ted Bundy’s trial and activities.

BRIGHT YOUNG WOMEN was nominated for 2024 Edgar Award for Best Novel by the Mystery Writers of America.

The Author: Jessica Knoll (1984 – )

Jessica Knoll‘s debut novel was the best-seller LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE. The story is about a successful young woman struggling with effects of a sexual assault.

Actress and producer Reese Witherspoon optioned the film rights and Knoll wrote the screenplay. The movie was released in October 2022.

Knoll publicly stated in 2016 that the gang rape depicted in the novel was drawn from her own experiences in high school. At the time, she was too young to recognize that she had been raped. When classmates taunted her and called her names, she internalized the message that the event was her fault.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, she moved to New York City.  She worked in magazine publishing. Eventually she was hired at Cosmopolitan and rose to become a senior editor.

She started writing LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE as a way to address the issues raised by her experience.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here