A new book about a soldier who murdered his girlfriend examines the similar traumas of combat veterans and Katrina survivors.
In October of 2006, Zackery Bowen, a 28-year-old Iraq war veteran and Hurricane Katrina survivor, jumped to his death from the roof of a New Orleans hotel. In his pocket was a note directing detectives to his apartment, where they would find the dismembered corpse of his girlfriend, Addie Hall. Even the hardboiled New Orleans homicide officers were shocked by the scene they discovered. During the week between Hall’s murder and his own suicide, Bowen had attempted to dispose of her body by cutting it into pieces, roasting her legs in the oven, boiling her head in a pot, and refrigerating her torso. He had spray painted messages across the walls: “LOOK IN THE OVEN,” “I’M A TOTAL FAILURE,” “PLEASE HELP ME STOP THE PAIN.”
Journalist Ethan Brown, author of Snitch and Queens Reigns Supreme, first encountered Bowen’s story while on vacation in New Orleans with his wife. The news of the gruesome murder/suicide had just broken. Brown saw a larger story than could be told simply by recounting the macabre details. Shake the Devil Off, his understated exploration of Zackery Bowen’s collision-course of a life, is a study in nuance and empathy, and a carefully researched depiction of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bowen was a young husband and father with few prospects when he enlisted in the army in May 2001. He served in Kosovo and took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. By all accounts, he returned to the United States a changed man. Once a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving gentle giant (he was 6’4”), Bowen had become sullen, angry, and unpredictable. He refused to talk about his time in the military and was smarting from what he felt was an unfairly issued “general” discharge that jeopardized his military benefits. As his marriage unraveled, he took up bartending and embarked on a tumultuous drug- and alcohol-fueled relationship with Addie Hall. Hall was a fellow New Orleans bartender and bohemian princess of sorts, who wrote poetry and was an accomplished seamstress.
The beginning of their romance coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, and Brown evocatively describes the couple’s days as Katrina holdouts. They made camp in the un-flooded French Quarter, throwing improvised dinner parties for friends by candlelight, and making love in the middle of the deserted streets. For two people already undone by trauma—Hall had been sexually abused as a child—the chaos of Katrina made a kind of sense.
The disaster seemed to have washed away their pasts… and created a world in which they could fall in love. On the rare occasions when Zack and Addie left the perimeter of the Governor Nicholls apartment, they biked down the French Quarter’s streets holding hands as they pedaled.
As “survivors” they thrived. But as city residents slowly began to trickle back into New Orleans and life regained a sense of normalcy—jobs, rent, rules—Bowen and Hall found themselves bound together by a connection that could not last. The relationship became increasingly toxic. Bowen sought out relationships with other men and Hall hinted to friends that, despite his nice guy image, he had done terrible things in Iraq. They would wake from a night of heavy drinking and find themselves covered in bruises that neither could remember inflicting on the other. Their precarious attempts to maintain the basic necessities of life, like a steady paycheck and a place to live, would culminate with Bowen strangling Hall in a dispute over the lease to their apartment.
Ethan Brown sees in this tragic story the reflection of two of the great tragedies of our generation: the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. Just as the government bungled its response to the storm, leaving hundreds of New Orleanians dead and thousands permanently displaced, so too, he argues, has it failed to recognize the emotional, physical, and financial needs of soldiers returning from Iraq. He makes a compelling case that the effects of the storm on its survivors are closely related to the effects of PTSD among war veterans. The skyrocketing murder rate in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the continuing stories of violence among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, are strong anecdotal evidence that death and killing does not stop with the initial trauma. In dissecting the extreme case of Zackery Bowen, Brown shows how little is being done by the government and the military to help the victims and veterans when they return home.
To write the book, Brown immersed himself in Bowen’s world. He traveled across the country to interview Bowen’s friends in the Army, spoke extensively with his mother and ex-wife, and eventually moved to New Orleans, where he found himself squarely within the orbit of Bowen’s and Hall’s world. Some reviews have suggested that Brown sides too strongly with Bowen, telling his story at the expense of Hall’s, and there are certainly moments in Shake the Devil Off when he seems to explain away Bowen’s every indiscretion as the result of PTSD and focus unjustly on Hall’s flaws. But Brown’s willingness to engage so fully with the life of such a disturbing figure is one of the book’s great strengths. Where many saw only a lurid murder story, Brown looked deep into the heart and mind of this troubled killer. What emerges is a picture of a specific place and a specific person that holds universal implications for the psychological state of an entire generation of soldiers and survivors.