In 2009, Antoinette Davis was convicted of handing her 5-year-old daughter over to a known pedophile (allegedly to cover a minor drug debt). The child was subsequently raped, asphyxiated and the body found dumped in a ditch. The media vilified Davis as a monster with no soul; the pedophile was convicted and sentenced to death.
It’s impossible to read Davis’ story, as chronicled by Asheville-area author Abigail Hickman in This, That and the Third, and emerge unchanged. This is not, however, a simple tale of Davis’ life leading up to her arrest, trial and incarceration. Hickman interweaves her own life narrative, ultimately creating a tale of redemption and grace — and a call for humility when it comes to judging others.
Published late last year by Asheville-based Grateful Steps, the book challenges readers’ beliefs about race issues in the South, the U.S. criminal justice system, the Fayetteville Department of Social Services, personal responsibility, guilt, shame, pedophiles and religion. It’s an ambitious undertaking that’s worth the wade into its deep, dark waters.
This, That and the Third is a fractured and sometimes disorienting tale that raises substantial questions about Davis’ 2013 conviction. By the end, readers (especially white, suburban readers) will have a better understanding not only of the subculture of poverty and desperation that Davis grew up in, but also of the world of shame inhabited by a broad swath of society who see themselves as victims.
Hickman draws parallels between her own childhood of abuse and neglect and Davis’, contrasting society’s different reactions to the two damaged women: one poor and black, the other white and educated. The author pulls no punches in exploring the events of Davis’ life and is equally unsparing in her first-person account of what it was like to survive her own severe childhood abuse. Through trial and error, both women were challenged to rise above victimhood.
Half-confession, half-documentary, Hickman’s nonfiction narrative wanders into and out of many stories. The style can be disorienting, confronting the reader with alternating, chaotic tales of desperation, but it can be seen as a metaphor for the nightmarish confusion that both Hickman and Davis endured.
Readers are first plunged into Hickman’s life as an abandoned/sexually abused child growing up in Georgia, her adult life in a Christian cult where she committed regrettable mistakes (including endangering her own kids) in the guise of “missionary work,” her later epiphany and subsequent escape into something better.
Cross-cut throughout this, though, are episodes concerning the author’s unlikely parallel-universe counterpart, Antoinette Davis — who also experienced a childhood lacking in basic care and safety, but for whom epiphany and escape did not come. Instead, she was launched into a nightmare of loss, accusation, betrayal and incarceration, with one child dead and two taken away by the DSS. Hickman, meanwhile, recently completed graduate school and sent her youngest child off to college.
The author meticulously researched the events surrounding the crime that shattered the Fayetteville community in 2009, when 5-year-old Shaniya Davis disappeared. The book traces Davis’ traumatic childhood, teenage pregnancy, employment as a private stripper and ordeal as a suspect in a high-profile murder case. Against that backdrop, Hickman argues that Davis’ confession may have been forced, that the extenuating circumstances surrounding the crime were never examined, and that the verdict was deeply flawed. In the end, the reader is left to question her guilt and to ponder society’s sometimes fatal inequities.
Hickman’s book concludes with the author’s visit to Davis — the first time anyone has come to see her in the four years she’s been behind bars. Tall, quiet and reserved, Davis would prefer to forget the past and hope that everyone else does, too. The book’s cover photo is both a commentary on the peculiar prison visitation rules and a metaphor for the thin but profound barrier that separates the visitor from the imprisoned.
Davis has now completed her GED diploma and is working on the prison grounds crew, a job she finds relatively enjoyable. She has 12 more years to serve.
Xpress spoke with Hickman recently; here are excerpts from that conversation.
Mountain Xpress: What do you consider to be the takeaway from your book?
Abigail Hickman: I think we all are guilty of horrible things, and when we cast judgment on a person who is easily vilified, it somehow seems to lessen or alleviate our own [sense of guilt], and so we kind of rally round the bad guy. I think the book is written to expose the bad guy in all of us. My goal was to show that each one of us has a little worm in our shiny apple.
But your apple wasn’t very shiny.
We all want to belittle the things we’ve done wrong in light of the mammoth things others have done wrong. The reader has to put on a cloak of honesty, and if they’re not willing to do that, to say, “This is who I truly am, and I do acknowledge that I stand guilty,” then the book isn’t really for them anyway.
Why did you choose Antoinette Davis?
Because I don’t think you can find somebody more evil, or kind of a throwaway …
I don’t need to know if Antoinette is guilty or innocent. In fact, my premise works better if she’s guilty. Because I’m trying to compare myself — I stand in for the reader — to someone who is really horrible and rotten, easily identified as “other” or “bad.”
In some ways, though you don’t dwell on it in the book, this is a scathing indictment of our judicial system, which will take someone who’s psychologically very injured, the “wrong” color, had the wrong education, the wrong address — and basically torture them for four days to get a confession.
And she’s pregnant, and her kid is missing, and she’s lost custody of her older kid.
She probably hasn’t slept in four nights.
It was pretty horrifying, what happened to her. But even her defense attorney said there wasn’t any way they would choose to go to trial. I was thinking, “Gosh, if you’d just taken her to trial, there was nothing against her except that confession — nothing” — and with no evidence, I feel like she could have walked away. In effect, the defense attorney said: “No, not with the hype and the frenzy and the chaos of the sharks, the blood in the water. She was facing three life sentences, and she would have gotten them.” Antoinette was already considered guilty. People … already have their bad guys: They’re not going to look at these other players. It’s a closed story for her. They took a plea; now she’s got 17 to 21 years.
Susan Hutchinson is Xpress’ Advertising and Art & Design Manager.