Less Than a Ghost
Updated: Feb 28
Have you ever read a story so brutally haunting that it stalked you not only in your dreams but in your waking life too?
I have. I did—yesterday. When I started reading If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood by Gregg Olsen, I didn't realize what I was getting myself into. So, let me tell you what I've learned so far about Shelly Knotek from Battle Ground, Washington.
It seems as though Shelly started out as bad as they come, displaying narcissistic tendencies from the time she was young. This was more than likely due to having an abusive mom and an even more abusive and manipulative grandmother. As a teenager, she falsely accused her father of rape, and things really only got worse from there.
She raised four children, one of them being a nephew who had been abandoned by both his parents. And from the time these kids were in his household, they were smothered, beaten, neglected, manipulated, and tortured in every way one could unfortunately imagine. For instance, she lied to the children and told them the well was running out of water, so they weren't allowed to bathe or use the bathroom without her permission. (They didn't have a well.) The kids knew she was lying, but they played along anyway. They were locked in closets, forced to sit naked in the snow for hours, only allowed to bathe once a week if they were lucky, and smothered with pillows.
But things got better for the children when Shelly's friend, Kathy, moved into the house to help her take care of the kids ... because, then, her control turned to her friends. She started out small by berating her for eating things she knew she never ate, but over time, Kathy started to believe the #gaslighting. So, the abuse got worse and worse.
She stripped her of all her belongings, only leaving her with one outfit, a pair of panties, and a bra. Soon, the outfit was taken away. Then, Shelly took away the bra and panties, forcing her to walk around the house and the yard completely naked. She literally stripped her of her entire identity. The children called her stupid because they didn't understand why Kathy didn't just leave. After all, she was an adult, and she had a choice. The kids did not.
One night, Shelly decided to punish Kathy for some made-up transgression. So, her and her husband, Dave went to town on Kathy. (By this time, Dave got involved in the abuse as well because he thought going along with Shelly was better than what she'd do to him if he went up against her.) They forced Kathy to go out in the snow and ice naked and sit up on a hill on their property for punishment. When she made to the top of the hill, Dave drug her down the hill, scraping her ass on the snow and ice as she moved down the hill. They did this over and over and over that night.
The next morning, the kids looked out their window and saw how brutal Kathy's punishment had been. There was a huge blanket of blood all over their property where the ice and snow had rubbed her skin raw repeatedly.
The only time she was allowed to bathe was outside with a cold garden hose being turned on her. Then, afterward, Shelly washed her body with bleach, being careful not to miss the open wounds Kathy had from being abused relentlessly by her.
Of course, Kathy tried to escape, but Shelly was a skilled hunter—of humans, that is. She always found her, and she always brought her back. By this point, Kathy was so broken down that she no longer had a will to live. Emaciated, no teeth, and poor health ... Kathy's story is one of the most haunting things I've ever read.
And I made the mistake of reading this right up until bedtime. When I closed my eyes, I saw Kathy's haunting figure hovering above me, and I just couldn't will myself to sleep. It was then that I wondered if there was a way I could sleep with my eyes open because I couldn't keep them closed for longer than three seconds.
I was so terrified.
Now, I haven't finished reading the book, but I know it gets worse. It gets so much worse because Shelly is currently residing in a women's prison in Washington State, set to be released in 2022.
Monsters are alive and well—and they don't always creep under our beds. Sometimes, they live in our homes too.
Olsen, Gregg. If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood. Seattle, WA: Thomas & Mercer, 2019.