Now a major Apple TV+ series starring Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul—produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine!
Serial meets Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood in this inventive and twisty psychological thriller about a mega-hit podcast that reopens a murder case and threatens to unravel the carefully constructed life of the victim’s daughter.
The only thing more dangerous than a lie…is the truth.
Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay.
The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.
When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a megahit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, questioning whether the wrong person may be behind bars, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.
Are You Sleeping Excerpt from transcript of Reconsidered: The Chuck Buhrman Murder, Episode 1: “An Introduction to the Chuck Buhrman Murder,” September 7, 2015
I didn’t know what to expect when I first met Warren Cave. By the time we were formally introduced, I’d spent several long afternoons with his mother, Melanie, a classically beautiful woman of enviable style and impeccable poise. Melanie’s son is one of her favorite topics, and she speaks highly of him, extolling his warmth and generosity, his skill with computers, and above all, his faith.
In addition to—and in contrast with—Melanie’s glowing characterization of her son, I had done my homework on Warren Cave. I scoured the police notes, trial transcripts, and articles profiling him.
Like most people who have even a passing familiarity with the case, the image I had of Warren Cave was that of a skinny kid with stooped shoulders and acne, his hair stringy and dyed black. Photographs depicted him perpetually clad in all black and never making eye contact with the camera. Warren Cave was the kind of teenager most of us would cross the street to avoid.
I had difficulty reconciling that image with the young man his mother had so favorably described. Had her maternal love blinded her to her son’s true nature? Or was the hardened image of his youth nothing more than posturing? Did the truth lie, as it so often does, somewhere in the middle?
When I first met Warren Cave in the Stateville Correctional Center, the maximum-security prison near Joliet, Illinois, where he’s been living for the last thirteen years, I didn’t recognize him. He has embraced weight training and replaced his skinny frame with hulking muscles. As he explained to me, his weight-training regimen is more for necessity than pleasure. In prison, he says, one cannot afford to be weak. This is a lesson Warren learned the hard way: his face is marred by a scar stretching across his left cheek, a harsh reminder of an attack by a fellow inmate one year into his sentence.
Warren, who keeps his hair close-cut and natural ash-blond now, still avoids eye contact. His expression is usually guarded, but he smiles warmly when I mention his mother. Melanie drives two hours every Sunday to visit her son, and he says that she is his best—and only—friend. Aside from his mother and Reverend Terry Glover, the minister at First Presbyterian Church in Elm Park, Warren has no other visitors. Andrew Cave, Warren’s father, left the family shortly after Warren’s arrest and died from prostate cancer eight years ago. None of Warren’s friends from his youth have kept in touch.
I don’t waste any time getting to the important questions.
If you didn’t kill Chuck Buhrman, why would his daughter say she saw you do it?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself every day for the last thirteen years. And you know what I’ve come up with? Diddly-squat. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Are you saying she made it up?
Well, I didn’t kill Chuck Buhrman, so, yeah, kind of. But I guess I can kind of see how she might’ve gotten confused. Back then, I had strayed really far from the path. I was using a lot of drugs and listening to music with satanic themes. The beast had its claws in me, and I have to wonder if she saw that somehow. It must’ve confused her. She was just a kid.
You were just a kid yourself then.
I was old enough to know better.
Had you spent much time with her or the family before Chuck was killed?
No. We moved to Elm Park in 2000, so we’d only been living there for two years by the time Mr. Buhrman died. I wasn’t exactly the block-party-attending type, if you know what I mean. I mostly kept to myself. I don’t think I ever spoke to Mrs. Buhrman. Sometimes I’d spot her in the garden, but other than that she basically never left the house. She was kind of weird, you know. She joined a cult, right? I did talk to Mr. Buhrman once, though. One afternoon my mom was having trouble with the lawn mower. My father was traveling for work, and I was too much of a jerk then to help her out so Mr. Buhrman came over to give her a hand. He and I ended up talking about the Doors for a while. He seemed pretty cool.
Did you know your mother was having an affair with Chuck Buhrman?
Maybe it was the abruptness of the question or maybe it was the strength of his religious beliefs which condemn adultery, but Warren visibly tensed when I asked this.
My mother is not an adulteress.
So you had never witnessed anything that made you wonder whether your mother was sleeping with Mr. Buhrman?
Don’t come here and insult my mother.
I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m only trying to get to the truth. I understand that, at that point in time, your father was frequently away on business and your parents were having marital problems.
Can we move on?
Warren was rigid and almost noncommunicative for the remainder of our meeting. His strong reaction left me with a bad feeling. Had Warren known that something was going on between his mother and Chuck Buhrman? There’s no question that Chuck was having an affair with Melanie—she herself admitted to as much on the witness stand, her husband left her over it—but it’s unclear whether the affair was common knowledge at that time.
This is an important point. The affair is, after all, the motive the State ascribed to Warren. The State argued that Warren, already a troubled teen, was so upset about his mother taking up with the neighbor and destroying what was left of his parents’ already strained marriage that he killed the object of her affection. But an impartial reading of the trial testimony shows that the State was unable to prove that Warren had known about the affair, and it had difficulty producing witnesses who could testify to widespread knowledge of it.
In the end, the State’s failure to prove motive didn’t matter because there was an alleged eyewitness. But a question continues to nag at me—and not just for the reason that you might think. Did Warren know about the affair? And if Melanie’s family knew about the affair, what about Chuck’s? What exactly did his wife and children know?
Reading Group Guide
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This readers group guide for Are You Sleeping includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your readers group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
After an adventurous period touring Africa and Asia in her twenties, Josie Buhrman has settled into a comfortable life in New York City. Her job at the neighborhood bookstore is steady and pleasant, and she can rely on her live-in boyfriend, Caleb, when not away on business, to share leisurely hours in their apartment with cups of coffee and the daily crossword puzzle.
But Josie also keeps a secret past from her dreamy partner. Her father was murdered when she was just a girl. Grief-stricken, Josie’s mother abandoned her twin daughters to the care of their aunt and joined up with a strange cult in California. Her sister, Lanie, also grew increasingly distant, ultimately severing the last remnants of their once-fierce bond by stealing Josie’s high-school sweetheart.
And when enterprising young journalist Poppy Parnell turns Josie’s private ordeal into a very public trial with a hit podcast revisiting her father’s murder case, her long-absent mother suddenly commits suicide, and the newly laid foundation of Josie’s new identity begins to crack beneath her. In order to fly back to the Midwest and make arrangements, Josie has to come clean with Caleb—but comes to find that the truths still buried at home go deeper than those she even knew to hide.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Are You Sleeping makes inventive formal use of social media at the end of each chapter, from podcast transcriptions to representations of threads on Twitter. How does the author’s choice to reveal many of the Buhrman family’s secrets through social media, rather than from Josie’s point of view, affect the way she structures the story?
2. Josie spends a lot of time weighing her decision to lie to Caleb about her past. When she does finally come clean, she explains to him that she had told him her mother was dead because “she abandoned us [. . .] For all I knew, she was dead. [. . .] I’d devoted a lot of time and effort to distancing my old life from my new one. I tried to forget about my family” (p. 149). How did you first react to this admission? Do you agree or disagree with her reasoning?
3. People react in a variety of ways to death, as Barber keenly depicts when Josie must struggle to swallow “inappropriate laughter” at her mother’s visitation (p. 92). How do you see Josie’s feelings about her mother changing over the course of this difficult occasion? In what ways does she compare herself to Lanie through the ways each sister chooses to grieve?
4. Aunt A understands her sister’s abandonment of her children as a symptom of guilt—over the deaths of her brother, her parents, and finally her husband. For which circumstances, given what you learn at the end of the novel, do you feel Erin rightly assumes blame? How much does her victimhood during her marriage explain her actions after Chuck’s death?
5. Josie’s feelings about Lanie and Adam’s union depend a lot on whether Adam confused one twin for the other when he first slept with Lanie. How much consolation do you think it offers Josie to trust that the affair started as a case of mistaken identity? Do you think she ever genuinely believed that explanation to be true?
6. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina held an important place in Erin’s heart during her life. How might she have related the novel’s famous opening line—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (p. 184)—to her own experience? What other features of Tolstoy’s novel might help explain why she would choose to convey her suicide note to her daughters on its pages?
7. When confronted with the argument that the unvarnished approach of the Reconsidered podcast might have contributed to Erin’s suicide, Poppy emphasizes that “it wasn’t a group of strangers” that killed her, but “the ghosts of her own past” (p. 194). What do you think of this interpretation? To what degree is suicide a personal choice or a tragedy of circumstance?
8. Josie feels steadfastly that the podcast has turned “[her] father’s untimely death into a commodity” (p. 195) and “taken the single most horrible thing that’s ever happened to [her] and repackaged it as entertainment” (pp. 196–197). To what degree do you think journalists have an obligation to treat living subjects with sensitivity? Does the need to inform the public outweigh the risk crime reporting runs of commodifying the pain and suffering of victims?
9. Photographs appear frequently in the novel as windows into the past and clues about the circumstances surrounding Chuck’s murder. How do photographs like Lanie’s unhappy portrait at her wedding (p. 73), the snapshot of the family at Mount Rushmore, or the photo in the garden with a glimpse of Melanie Cave in the background (p. 220) illuminate details beyond the reach of memory? In which ways do they also mislead?
10. While Poppy easily dismisses that “Lanie Buhrman is not a victim” (p. 231), Josie comes to realize at the end of the novel that her sister’s pain “went beyond witnessing his death, it even went beyond seeing our mother be the one to pull the trigger—it was the unrelenting torment of unconsciously believing she could have done something to stop it, that she was responsible for the loss of our parents” (p. 306). How does this realization shed light on Lanie’s development as a character? Is her self-doubt about motherhood justified? Is her marriage a healthy bond?
11. As a result of the trauma she has experienced, Lanie’s memory of the words of her father’s killer evolves from “first the girl” (p. 87) to finally “first Pearl, and now . . .” (p. 289). Consider the theme of memory in Are You Sleeping. In what ways does Barber demonstrate how the mind alters or constructs reality? How reliable should a child be as an eyewitness to the murder of his or her parent?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The format of Reconsidered bears some striking resemblances to the first season of the investigative journalism podcast Serial. Listen to the series and discuss in which ways Serial might have been an inspiration for the language and style of Barber’s fictional podcast. Compare Sarah Koenig’s journalistic approach specifically to that of Poppy Parnell.
2. The title Are You Sleeping could be taken a few different ways. Put together an argument for an interpretation of the title’s meaning that might surprise the other members of your book club and present it to them.
3. Fans and critics of Reconsidered alike use Twitter to express interesting ethical points at various times during the novel. Choose one of the Twitter handles Barber has invented and stage a debate in which each member of your book club maintains the point of view of one of the fictional users regarding the role investigative journalism should play in our society.
Kathleen Barber’s first novel, Truth Be Told (formerly titled Are You Sleeping), has been adapted for television by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. Kathleen was raised in Galesburg, Illinois, and is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and son. Follow Me is her second novel.