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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Untouched Minutes

Donald Morrill

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To purchase The Untouched Minutes

Title: The Untouched Minutes
Author: Donald Morrill
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 99 pages
Availability: The Untouched Minutes - US
The Untouched Minutes - UK
The Untouched Minutes - Canada
  • Winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize

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Our Assessment:

B : an intermittently interesting attempt to deal with a harrowing experience

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Untouched Minutes describes a traumatic experience and its aftermath. On 4 February 2001 a man broke into the house of Donald Morrill and his wife, Lisa Birnbaum, while they were there. He threatened them, stole some money, and then their car. Events clearly could have unfolded differently -- in some sense the couple was lucky -- but it was understandably still a deeply disturbing experience. The book relives the attack, but also focusses on the aftermath (noting that, for example, "society had given them three months to speak of" the events, but after that "they were embarrassed to breach it"), and also taking in two other horrific events: the brutal murder by of two Dartmouth professors, Half and Suzanne Zantop, earlier that week, and then, half a year later, the attack on the World Trade Center.
       The book is clearly not only an attempt to describe these events but, for the author, an attempt to deal with them. The author, in fact, teaches creative writing, and the book itself is an exercise in writing, an attempt to find the cathartic in the act of writing, of trying to see what can be accomplished through it.
       Morrill doesn't offer a straightforward narrative: alternating parts consist of a letter addressed to the intruder and a third-person account of the events and the aftermath (suggesting the author doesn't want to relive it entirely in the first-person).
       Whatever works for him, one wants to allow. He was the victim, and should, of course, do this any way he pleases. The problem with the personal approach is that it can be too personal, tailored to his specific needs. Even the sympathetic reader might wonder: 'What's in it for me ?' And in The Untouched Minutes there's not enough that is.
       Morrill describes the entire home invasion -- eventually. He draws it out, revealing the details bit by bit, and interrupting for other musings and examples. The extent of the crime -- whether or not there was rape or murder or other extreme violence -- is fairly clear from early on, but Morrill withholds details for as long as he can -- and it feels like forced suspense, an attempt to ensure the reader won't go away.
       Morrill's (and, where he includes them, his wife's) comments, admissions, and reflections are of some interest: the lingering effects, in particular, and the speculations of what-if, and on the seeming arbitrariness of life-changing (or at least profoundly affecting) crime. The comparison to the Zantop-case (which he describes in some detail) is also of some interest, and yet the connexion remains too tenuous.

       Morrill writes:

     I've often preached to my writing students, "Experience doesn't matter just because it happens to you," or, "Your experience is of interest because it is experience, not because it is your experience."
       The Untouched Minutes is fairly successful at conveying experience -- his, in this case -- but is less convincing in justifying why it should be of interest. Morrill appears to suggest that experience is of interest per se, but it's not, and just because an experience was profound -- as this one was, shaking Morrill to the core, with a long-lingering effect -- doesn't mean it's interesting either. (Presentation has a lot to do with it, as even uninteresting experience can be presented compellingly, but Morrill's varied attempts with what one might imagine to be potentially gripping material isn't.) What happened to Morrill was, for want of a better word, important to him, but he fails to convey that importance fully. He tries -- very hard, with different tenses, tones, and approaches, and mixing hard facts, subjective memories, and emotional responses -- but the account ultimately reads only as authentic (and sincere).
       As in all memoir-writing, the success of the piece can be measured differently by reader and writer. Morrill imposes a huge burden on his text, as he means, if not quite to free himself from what happened, to at least deal with it in this way; one hopes it worked for him. The rewards for the reader are less clear.

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The Untouched Minutes: Donald Morrill: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Donald Morrill was born in 1955 and teaches at the University of Tampa.

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