I was ready to give Allegedly five stars. It’s a gut-wrenching thriller that hammers with pinpoint precision at the status quo and the intersection of the criminal justice system, bodily autonomy, racism, mental illness, and child abuse, as well as the struggles and roadblocks that prevent the most vulnerable and in need of help from ever getting any. The writing is tight. The plot is gripping. All of the characters have depth beyond their first impression. Also it turned my emotions into a bloody mess.
And then the last five pages happened. And I want to unpack my response.
(This will be a SPOILERY review).
When she was nine years old, Mary Addison killed three-month old Alyssa Richardson. Allegedly. Her story was sensationalized in the media as that of a psychotic black child killing a white infant. Her Momma condemned her as a devil-child in front of everyone. Having spent the last six years of her life in baby jail, Mary now resides at a group home, run by two neglectful and abusive elderly women, where she rooms alongside other teen girls who are in some cases more violent than she is.
Mary has a problem though. She’s pregnant. Through her mandatory community service at a nursing home, she met a fellow parolee named Ted, who became her one source of warmth, affection, and trust. Mary wants her baby, and she wants a future with Ted, but the state doesn’t agree. They’ll take her baby, unless Mary can convince them she’s not the baby-killer the world believes she is. But to do that, she’ll have to reopen a case six years buried, filled with painful memories, and confront the person Mary loves and hates the most—her Momma.
Allegedly is Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut, and like other people have said, it is a stupendously written debut. The story is not simply about who killed Alyssa, or who deserves to take the blame for Alyssa’s murder. Instead, Jackson paints a grim picture of a mother, a daughter, and a daughter about to become a mother clawing for their own survival by whatever means necessary. In Mary’s case, she never considered fighting the court’s verdict until she became pregnant—overturning the verdict is not so much about reclaiming her innocence in Alyssa’s murder as it is fighting to save herself so she can keep her baby and be a mom to her child.
Which leads me to the ending. Specifically, the reveal that Mary did, in fact, have a hand in Alyssa’s murder, beyond the throwing. She gave Alyssa the pills meant for her in order to calm her down, because she was being a “bad baby.” The reveal occurs just after Mary pleaded with her attorney to drop the reopened case about Alyssa’s murder, which would have almost certainly put her Momma in prison, because (as we already learned), Alyssa choked on the cross her Momma stuffed down her throat trying to get the pills out.
When I first read that reveal, I felt betrayed to learn Mary had more of a hand in Alyssa’s death than she’d previously said. After sitting with it for a few days, I’ve gotten over some of that betrayal, and I now think what the reveal says about Mary’s struggle even more meaningful. Allegedly is rooted in grays. Mary and her Momma are innocent and guilty of the murder, in different ways. (As is Ted for his crime— he’s not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted (rape), but he is guilty of abetting his buddies in that very crime.) Even as a nine-year-old, Mary wanted out of her life, and it would be patronizing to assume that, given all she went through at the hands of her Momma and Ray, Mary wouldn’t have been calculating or desperate enough to take advantage of any situation that might have gotten her away from her Momma. It makes sense that nine-year-old Mary believed her Momma that Mrs. Richardson would come visit her, and that Mary believed she could convince Mrs. Richardson to forgive her and take her away.
However, other elements of the reveal continues to chafe, and those are the change in Mary’s narrative voice, which takes on a child-like tone and cadence, and Mary repeating that she needs to take her pills so she won’t end up like her Momma.
Mary’s Momma was suffering from a mental illness (possibly bipolar disorder, but as I don’t personally have it I don’t feel comfortable saying for sure), and her being off her meds was a significant factor surrounding her abuse of Mary. But Mary saying she needs to take her pills, and the latest doctor saying that Mary had had a psychotic break years ago as a child? After Mary and her attorney stated (or claimed) that Mary had been misdiagnosed and drugged up since even before the murder, then over-diagnosed afterward? This new information doesn’t make sense. It makes Mary appear “crazy,” like everything she did in the entire book, all of which made sense within the defined context and confines of the story laid out, was a result or influenced by Mary not taking her pills that whole time, and being “crazy.” I was disappointed and upset that I finished the book not trusting anything that had happened the whole time.
There’s a fine line with unreliable narratives and narrators, keeping the story unpredictable and the truth hidden while ensuring the revelations are unexpected and make sense simultaneously. In my opinion, Allegedly had trouble maintaining that line in the last five to seven pages. The seeded clues about Mary’s mental health and her pills were too subtle, and the narrative was stacked too high in Mary’s favor for the reveal that Mary does have mental health problems that require medication and could affect her ability to be a good parent to feel natural. Nor does the abrupt switch to the more childlike voice.
Overall I loved reading Allegedly. I love the way Tiffany D. Jackson writes characters that are innocent and guilty, at fault and blameless, telling truths and telling lies. Craft-wise, it’s near flawless. The book was so close to being a perfect read for me, if it weren’t for some of this reveals in the last five pages. Still, there’s no denying Allegedly is a powerful book, and I do recommend it, albeit with some reservations.