More than Mystery: Katherine Dykstra Interviewed by Tana Wojczuk​

Resisting the true crime genre and shifting focus to the prevalence of violence against women.

What Happened To Paula 1

You might mistake What Happened to Paula (W.W. Norton) for a true crime thriller, but it is so much more than that. In the summer of 1970, Paula Oberbroeckling left her house barefoot in a thin babydoll dress and disappeared. When Paula’s mother called the police, they were lackadaisical about it: Girls run off. Things happen to them sometimes. Four months later her body was discovered, bound hand and foot, too badly decomposed to provide much evidence about who killed her. 

Fifty years later, journalist Katherine Dykstra became obsessed with finding the answers. What she discovered raised more questions about Paula’s rumored pregnancy, about the racial segregation in Cedar Rapids and how that made Paula’s relationship with her Black boyfriend taboo, and the few options Paula had as an independent-minded beauty with only a high school education and little money of her own. Why, Dykstra wonders, has no one been held accountable? Who, in any case, is to blame?

What Happened to Paula resists the true crime genre which, like the police procedural, depicts a woman’s murder and the sexual abuse she experiences. Even if we are rooting for her, we are waiting for someone to murder her. In a twisted sense, it creates a sense of anticipatory excitement. The climax is when a woman is killed and the reader is complicit in expecting this. “The truth about our happiness comes out / How much it owed to blackmail and philandering,” writes W.H. Auden in his poem “Detective Story.” But What Happened to Paula creates tension and excitement in other ways. Dykstra states at the beginning that we don’t know who killed Paula. The book doesn’t rely on her 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

Tana Wojczuk How did you come to Paula’s story?

Katherine Dykstra When I met my husband in 2006, his family, spearheaded by his mother, was working on a documentary film about Paula’s homicide. Susan, my mother-in-law, had gone to school with Paula. They never overlapped, but Paula’s case had stuck with Susan. Then in 2008, Susan organized a trip to Cedar Rapids to do a series of interviews for a documentary about Paula, and I was invited. Because I’m a journalist Susan asked if I wanted to be involved, but I did not. I was eager to go on the trip and enjoy myself over the summer and spend time with my boyfriend’s family but I wasn’t interested in exploring this homicide, frankly, because it terrified me. The idea of thinking of what could have happened to Paula was very destabilizing to me as a young woman.

Then my husband and I got married and moved in together. I got pregnant and had a child. Not long after my son was born Susan approached me again. She had given up on the idea that Paula’s story could be a documentary; the biggest problem was that there was no answer. When she brought it to me again, I was more open to hearing her. After my son was born, and after I learned more about her case, I saw the ways Paula was hemmed in, some of which paralleled things I was noticing about my own womanhood. I started feeling more anger than fear. That anger made it so I was able to think about working on this project.

TW You knew pretty early on that Paula was likely pregnant when she died.

KD That was one thing that jumped out at me after that first visit. I didn’t know all the details of her case, but that felt so clearly relevant. Studies have been done to show that women are at a greater risk of harm (from boyfriends, husbands, partners) when pregnant. 

TW What were the most challenging parts of reporting and writing this story?

KD Because it’s fifty years old, many of the players are no longer around. Three of the detectives have died, Robert is now dead, the chiropractor from the file is dead. Another giant challenge was the fact of the flood, which destroyed evidence and case files and judicial transcripts. History that will be lost forever. On a more personal note, the most challenging thing has been letting it go. I feel like I’m still reporting. I’ve never stopped. When something comes up or a name gets mentioned I do a deep dive into the files. Just last month someone who went to Washington High with Paula came to me and said, “I just found a Bowie knife buried blade down six inches underground right around the area [where Paula was found].” The fact that it was buried blade down seems very deliberate. 

There were challenges writing the book as well. When I started working on it I heard a lot of the same things Susan heard: “This is a fifty-year-old homicide; it’s not interesting without a solve. Who would care about this?” I was shocked by that, because once I became open to looking into Paula’s story I found it inherently interesting. Everything about it was interesting to me, from her circumstances, to the time period, to issues with race, issues with reproductive rights. There was so much there for me. I thought, Wow, how could you not think this was interesting? 

I am someone who writes a lot of first-person pieces, but when I started this project it was not going to be in first person. It was a twenty-five-page reported piece. But I had so many readers look at it and say, “You know, this is not interesting.” Then in a writing group someone asked, “Why are you interested in this?” And I thought, If I can show the reasons Paula matters to me, maybe I can also show the reasons why she should matter to other people. 

Black and white photo of a white woman with brown hair.

Photo of Katherine Dykstra by Averie Cole.

TW Did you feel conflicted about including personal material? How did you make that decision?

KD I did feel conflicted about it. Paula died. There are things about us that are the same because we are both women and so many things that are not. To compare myself with her and suggest we had similar experiences was not what I wanted to do. But when I started pulling apart the circumstances of Paula’s life and extrapolating, I saw so many commonalities between her and other women that she knew and that I know, including myself.

TW I was struck by the moment when you say to your mother-in-law that you’re hooked, you want to work on this, and she says she’s relieved because there’s someone else to share the burden of caring for Paula.

KD She really felt like it became her responsibility to tell this story. That if she didn’t do it, it would remain untold. So even when she realized she couldn’t tell it, she was still burdened with having to find someone else to do it. I don’t think she ever would have let go of it if she hadn’t found me. 

TW Including Susan’s story in the book helps us see what it looks like not to turn away from these stories we’ve all been touched by and what it looks like to share that burden. There’s an important turn the book takes where you talk about trauma as something shared. 

KD A couple of things happened as I was reporting. I kept having these experiences where I was speaking to someone and they would bring in their own friend or mother or sister or whomever who’d also had a similar experience with rape or domestic violence or even murder. It was almost like I couldn’t have a conversation with someone without them saying, “Oh that happened to me” or “That happened to someone I know.” It became impossible to ignore the sheer prevalence of these violences, and that is a kind of shared trauma. So many women live with these hurts and they feel alone. Like Susan and her abortion—she didn’t tell anyone until she told me. She said that she thought she was the only woman who had had one. Since these things are so widespread but not talked about, it becomes a collective trauma. All of these things work together to make women feel ashamed, to keep them in their place. They have specific ends.

TW The incessant question of why we should care if the case hasn’t been solved, and the fact that the case wasn’t solved because nobody cared, is a closed loop. It’s also a form of silencing, that if I speak up or tell someone else’s story, no one will care. You quote Judith Herman, “All that the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing.” How do we avoid the temptation to be a bystander?

KD I’m convinced it’s all about speaking with women and giving women a platform. Even in our lifetime, this has changed. My grandmother’s unwed pregnancy was her biggest secret and her biggest shame, but maybe she wouldn’t have felt so ashamed if she knew she wasn’t alone. As Herman says, perpetrators depend on silence. The #MeToo movement is shifting things. For decades, women said nothing about microaggressions they underwent at work or in public. Once Tarana Burke coined the phrase and it worked its way into the zeitgeist, men and people who used to breach these boundaries without thinking now have to think twice. It hasn’t fixed everything, but the more we talk about it, the better it gets. I was just listening to a TED talk by Lera Boroditsky called “How Language Shapes the Way We Think” about the power of language, and if something hasn’t been named it’s like it doesn’t exist. 

TW In the book, you talk about many ways women are punished—for having sex, for being female in the first place. What do you want the book to say about the way women are punished?

KD Paula’s time was stark, and things are better now. But we’re not even close to being all the way there. I’d be interested in what millennial women have to say about this. As a mother, I see so many ways that women are shamed. You’re shamed if you don’t have children, if you are a single mom, if you have too many or too few, for the way you care for your children, for your partnership. If you do anything outside of this small box, you’re made to feel that you’ve done something wrong. 

It was toward the end of my process that I read Kate Manne’s book Down Girl, which is an exploration of misogyny. That book really changed the way I looked at all of this. Manne describes the difference between sexism and misogyny: Sexism is that a woman can’t do something because she is a woman, that she can’t play football or be a CEO because she is a woman. Misogyny is a deliberate tool for coercing women into doing what’s best for the patriarchy, for the powers that be. Shame becomes a tool for misogyny. Women restrict themselves in order to avoid shame. If we shame single mothers, then we’ll have fewer single mothers and women will have kids the “right” way, with a husband. If we shame women working and not staying home with their kids, then we’ll have fewer women in the workforce. And this works for so many of the choices women make throughout their lives. 

TW What kind of response do you hope the book gets? 

KD The book was marketed as a true crime book, but that’s not exactly what it is. There isn’t an easy category for it. It’s more than one thing. It’s memoir, it’s social history, it’s women’s studies. It seems like true crime because it centers on a cold case, but I worry that it will pigeonhole the book for readers who are only interested in finding out who killed Paula. My hope is that it finds people who understand that it’s more than a mystery. I hope that readers will become outraged when they find out what happened to Paula and that these things still happen today.

TW Can you say more about the title?

KD The thing I always liked about the title is that it’s not a question. It’s a statement. It’s not, “What happened to Paula?” It’s this happened to Paula: She had two boyfriends and very little education and lived in this shabby home with her roommate. She had to leave her childhood home because of trouble with her mother. She was castigated for dating a Black man. She might have been pregnant. And then she died. After that, the police spent next to no time on her disappearance and only a couple of years on her case, and then they gave up even though there were still leads to follow, even though there were still unanswered questions. The media did nothing to create outrage about why her homicide wasn’t solved. That’s what happened to Paula. No matter where she turned, she faced risk and danger. So many different things could have happened to her because her situation was so fraught. And that’s the situation for so many women, even now.

What Happened to Paula is available for purchase here.

Tana Wojczuk is the author of Lady Romeo, a narrative biography of the actress Charlotte Cushman forthcoming from Avid Reader Press (a division of Simon & Schuster) in July 2020. She is a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica and teaches writing at New York University in the Expository Writing Program.

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