I was 15 when my father killed my stepmother and her lover in 1992. While I was walking with friends around school after a homecoming game, he walked in on the couple making love in his house in western New York, and he shot them.
When my mom sat me down the next morning to tell me what she knew, waves of coldness washed over me, and I stifled the urge to throw up. Unable to process the magnitude of what he had done, it is only now that I can identify my revulsion, shock, sadness and confusion over his actions. The hope that additional information would make them understandable. Numbness because the situation was so awful. Shame that I was associated with it. Shame that compounded with each article published in The Buffalo News.
Despite the shared last name, I hoped no one would connect me with the sensational story, and I guarded what Mom told me as best I could. Because I believed killing another person was unconscionable. And if I thought this, then what would my friends or teachers think of my dad? More important, what would they think of me?
Most of my friends had never met Dad. They didn’t know I spent my weekends at his house after my parents divorced when I was in elementary school. They didn’t know that after he married Ginny, I attempted a blended family with her and her son on those weekends, which steadily decreased in frequency after I started high school. Further, my friends didn’t know I had always been afraid of Dad’s anger, though I had never thought him capable of killing anyone.
Since they didn’t know any of this, I hoped my life could continue as usual. My elder sisters had moved into their own places by then, limiting the chances of an errant comment or conversation around my friends. Maybe I could still just be the good student who played varsity tennis and loved to dance.
After Mom told me the news, we never again talked about what happened. I was relieved when my best friend turned our conversations to clothes, Erasure lyrics or Marky Mark’s abs. When a caring teacher sent me to a school counselor, I told the psychologist, “I’m fine,” and booked it from her office.
“Unable to process the magnitude of what he had done, it is only now that I can identify my revulsion, shock, sadness and confusion over his actions.”
I tried to limit and isolate my interactions with Dad and the justice system. Though I visited him occasionally with my sister at the Erie County Holding Center and attended the trial and court-related appearances, these things were separate from my “real” life.
Instead of exploring the judgment people directed toward Dad — the horror and disdain that mirrored my own — I tried everything I could to prove I was still worthy in my social sphere. Over the next few years, I followed the school rules, led several clubs and became captain of the tennis team. I was chosen as the lead dancer in the school musical. I built a hiking trail with the Student Conservation Association. My approach was so successful that my peers nominated me for homecoming queen.
But of course, Dad intruded on my neatly sorted life and tripped up the persona I had built for myself. Junior year of high school, in the midst of my first, confusing relationship with a guy, Dad was sentenced, conflating my belief in myself with what transpired in the courtroom. On my way to dance class, the phone rang. “Hello. You have a collect call from a New York state correctional facility. Will you accept the charges?” My shoulders slumped, I gritted my teeth, and I mumbled, “Yes.”
I hated when Dad called or wrote. The phone calls were outrageously expensive, and his letters were aggressive — could I send him a money order? Why didn’t I write back sooner? Or they were complaints about sleeping in a bed that was 2 feet wide and in his bathroom, strangers coming up to ask for food or stealing from him, the fights, the smells, the belching. I didn’t care about his feelings; he never apologized, and his terrible actions messed up my life. I couldn’t be fully authentic anymore because of him.
“I hated when Dad called or wrote. The phone calls were outrageously expensive, and his letters were aggressive – could I send him a money order? Why didn’t I write back sooner?”
I wanted to stop all communication with him, but something prevented me from completely giving up. Begrudgingly, I mailed him checks to buy overpriced toothpaste from the commissary, telling myself that I was doing what a good daughter should. And the summer after I graduated from high school, I visited him for the first time at the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York.
Though the Adirondack Mountains I passed to get to Clinton were picturesque, the experience at the facility was anything but. From subjecting myself to searches and terse questioning to trying to navigate unwritten rules and procedures to the seemingly endless waiting that at one point involved being locked up in a holding room, everything made me want to cry.
I blamed Dad for putting me in this situation, and I resented the guards. I tried to further limit my interactions with him and the criminal justice system. I worked even harder to prove my worth — to society and to myself. I figured if I could make the world a better place, I could in some small way start to make up for his killing two people. And I would never be condemned as he was. I earned top honors in college, became a teacher and shed my father’s name when I married at 23.
New friends told me that I was the most normal person they had ever met, and I perfected the wholesome facade. Years passed. I moved to Pennsylvania, had a daughter, then another and started teaching at a university. My life was almost entirely removed from Dad’s. By the time I was 30, my visits to Clinton dwindled to once every other year, if that.
But I constantly thought about him. I started writing about our life together, poring over details from my diaries and newspaper clippings and reading scholarly articles about incarceration. Trying to understand why he did what he did and why I still couldn’t talk about him.
Then in my early 30s, I had a son. Exhausted by the never-ending demands of young children, roiling hormones and the soul-sucking imbalance of postpartum depression that increased with each pregnancy, I lost it. I slammed doors, screamed at my husband and wanted to hit my kids to get them to listen. (I didn’t.) Overwhelmed, I acknowledged that I held the same anger and fear as Dad within me. It terrified me. Was it possible that I also inherited his capacity to hurt and destroy? Could I pass that on to my children? I needed to know exactly what brought Dad to the point of killing two people. I had to resolve my feelings toward him because someday the kids would want to know about him; telling them their grandfather was imprisoned for murder without also giving them the tools to navigate the questions that plagued me was not an option.
“I had to resolve my feelings toward him because someday the kids would want to know about him.”
So two decades after I hurried away from the school psychologist, I finally sought professional help to deal with all those repressed feelings and fears. My therapist said that individuals who are at genetic risk for high rates of aggression can also be the most warm-hearted and sensitive people. She stressed that society and upbringing play roles in how people develop and can shape how they view themselves and others.
While this softened my view of Dad, it didn’t settle my shame associated with him. I was working through this when he grew sicker, weaker and less defiant. His letters, which until then had been filled with righteous indignation over his treatment and what was happening in the prison, turned to thoughts of death. He asked me to look into funeral costs and options.
Something shifted in me. Not only did he show vulnerability, but also I realized I was on a tighter time constraint to resolve my relationship with him.
Soon after that, however, Dad suffered a heart attack, and he waited to say something until it was severe enough that the correctional facility had to take him to an outside hospital. My sister and I made the trek there, and the guards spoke with us as if our father were more of a nuisance than a family member to whom we were saying goodbye.
Dad was being kept alive with breathing tubes, and since I was his health care proxy, it was my decision whether to remove them. His cardiologist thought Dad had a fighting chance. The doctor described the medical procedures Dad had survived, how he was working for Dad and how he hoped Dad would recover. His zeal to help my father, even though he had taken two lives — viewing Dad’s life as one of equal worth — undid me. It had been so long since anyone outside the family had shown Dad compassion. My eyes watered with gratitude. And I told him I thought Dad had gone to the hospital to die.
“His zeal to help my father, even though he had taken two lives, undid me. It had been so long since anyone outside the family had shown Dad compassion.”
Since I was one of the few people who still spoke with Dad, it wasn’t surprising that his obituary went mostly unnoticed. But another prisoner wrote a letter that revealed a version of my father that I could admire, what I had unconsciously yearned for since 1992; he said Dad was a poet and an advocate for the voiceless, a fighter of injustice. I cried the tears I didn’t shed when I learned of his crime, when he was sentenced, when I walked across those dirty prison floors. All along, I had tried to separate myself from my father’s actions, in fear of social rejection and condemnation, but any judgment directed toward Dad had also hit me. Silence only delayed and heightened my pain.
There’s no reason for anyone to discover my association with Dad’s crimes anymore. Yet now I want to connect my story with his, to claim him as my father. I have to. Because in my struggle to disassociate myself from him, I had dehumanized myself.
I had believed that people who commit crimes — especially murder — were criminals and should not be given any special consideration. I did not want to think too hard on this or find evidence to the contrary. But this shortsighted view was flawed for many reasons, not least of which is that it did not allow compassion for my or any other person’s suffering due to the incarceration of a loved one.
The doctor’s actions and the prisoner’s letter allowed me to see my father’s humanity. And they finally gave me the courage to recognize my own.
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