Cindy, age 2
She had the same cute little face from the day she was born.
(that sounds silly but you know what I mean)
In memory of my mother, Dottie Monkman.
My stepmother, Marjorie Monkman, violently beat me for the last time when I was 19 years old and home on a break from college.
I start out this essay with that yield sign as I know there are loved ones of hers who may be reading who do not know of what we endured at her hand. If you don’t want to know, I suggest you stop reading now. I’m sorry to put this out there publicly at the expense of completely innocent family members who had absolutely no knowledge or role in this abuse whatsoever. But it’s the truth of our lives, all of us. And it ties other things together. And frankly, I protected her in life and in death for too many years. So I’m talking about it now.
I imagine some of you are thinking “what next?”. No kidding. Yes we lived through the death of our mother to breast cancer, the homicide of my sister, my brother’s mental illness but we also survived a childhood of extreme physical and mental abuse at the hands of our stepmother. Some of that built an unstable foundation for what was to come later, so it may fill in pieces of the puzzle. I once had a therapist tell me that of all I’d endured in this life, the physical abuse had the greatest impact on me in terms of trauma. I will write more about that later as I do have a lot to say about recovery from anxiety/PTSD. Believe it or not, that all happened before Cindy was killed.
My father met Marjorie McQueen a few years after our mother died. They met at work. He was working at a Center for the Mentally Retarded and she was a researcher at a neighboring Research Center for institutionalized children I believe. As I understand it, they dated for a period of months, my father broke things off, then reignited the relationship a year later and asked her to marry him. I remember how odd it was being in early grade school with my father going on dates. Cindy and I would sometimes peer out our bedroom window at the doorstep to see if he was kissing anyone outside equally fascinated and grossed out. Our Grandma was still living with us at the time.
I clearly remember the day Cindy pulled me aside in our bedroom and saying this “Daddy said he’s going to get married again and wants to know if we like Ethel Dreschler or Marjorie McQueen better”. We, age 9 and 10 I think, discussed it and decided on Marjorie because a. Ethel had this son Philip who we thought was a spoiled brat because he, as an only child, got to have three boxes of cereal open at once (we got to have three but for three of us) and b. Marjorie had these fun nieces from Texas who would be fun to have as cousins! That’s the criteria as 8 and 9 year olds. Who comes with the best kids.
But how odd that it seemed my father made a decision to marry before he decided who to marry. Maybe that was our first step in to the world of confusion about relationships.
Our Grandmother never liked Marjorie, plain and simple, she just didn’t like her. She left and moved back to NYC before the wedding. It was extremely traumatic for us kids. Marj used to justify this lifelong feud blaming it on my Grandma saying “she would never accept your father with anyone“. In reality, my Grandma adored my mother. I found a trunk of letters she’d saved of her correspondence with my mother where clearly she thought of her as a daughter. She was just very intuitive and had a foreboding on Marjorie that I now can say was 100% right on.
We were attendants in the wedding, acting all happy and cheerful and on the inside we were dying. I remember very little about that day beyond Marjorie’s sister Carolyn being very sweet and motherly to me. Wondering why we couldn’t have gotten someone like her in our family. I remember the gold velour dresses we wore with these huge velour bows on our heads. I remember Marjorie looking very business like in a tailored suit.
I’m going to say up front that she wasn’t a horrible person or an evil person or anything like that. She clearly had some issues but she wasn’t all bad by any means. Nor were we perfect or angelic children either. I think had my father never married her and remained a friend, perhaps she would have been a cool person to have around. She was very very smart having a PhD in Social Work and very book learned. But she had absolutely no idea whatsoever how to be a mother. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person with less maternal instincts. Including many men, my father being one.
The first year she married my father she spent writing a textbook. Wow I just googled it and it’s on Barnes and Noble all these years later.
A Mileu Therapy Program for Behaviorally Disturbed Children
by Marjorie McQueen Monkman
By the time her book was published, she had already legally adopted us. I remember having virtually no say in this decision but awkwardly going to a Judge’s office and completing some questioning of some sort. I have absolutely no happy memory around this. She later claimed this was my father’s decision as if anything happened to him, he didn’t want us being raised by either of our Grandmothers. I look at that with high suspicion now. It was a rushed thing and one she took great pride in. She’d never been married, was raised in the deep south and had no children. Now she fit in. She had her own children. In writing.
Last weekend I found a copy of my brother’s birth certificate. My jaw dropped as I saw Marjorie’s name on that certificate and her age, 32, as if she had given birth to my brother. I don’t know how that came about or if it’s even legal but my stomach turns right now just thinking about it. How could she trump our mother on our own birth certificate?
After the adoption,we were immediately forbidden to call our mother “our mother”. The terminology was the first thing to change. We were required to refer to our mother, the woman who birthed and nurtured us, as “our first mother” and Marjorie as “our real mother”. I remember the time she slapped me in the face in my bedroom repeatedly until I called her “mother” in “an appropriate tone”.
When I went off to college, out of curiosity, I found her textbook in the library of my University. I had never really looked at this book she received so much praise for. It was dedicated “To my children Cindy, Kathy and Johnny”. How strange as it was a book about behaviorally disturbed children. Which is exactly how she related to us.
I sat down in the stacks thumbing through this book, angry tears streaming down my face, reading what looked to me like a version of “This is Your Life”.
It was filled with one Behavior Modification Plan after another carefully lined out chapter by chapter, plans I was very familiar with. Plans I was raised with. Things like requiring us to make a chart every week detailing three considerate things we had done for another family member each day. We had to turn in this assignment every Friday to earn weekend privileges. While my friends were just asking their parents if they could go to the ice skating rink on Friday night, I was having to earn it on paper. Like having to dig myself out of some invisible hole I’d dug myself in to while living my life as a popular, cheerleading, smart Junior High student. It was humiliating.
We had to frequently write assignments and plans for our time, not as punishment mind you but as a matter of course in our daily routines. She also instituted budgeting for our yearly wardrobe. We had to present a budget with items and amounts, then take the bus to go shopping for our clothes, return with receipts and get reimbursement. As 7th and 8th graders we were doing this like it was somehow normal.
But that really wasn’t the most horrible part. What I often have said about Marjorie is that when her Behavior Modification Programs weren’t working, on children who didn’t need them, she escalated to violence. She was either in complete control or completely out of control.
She used a variety of weapons from hair brushes (often) to wire hangers to all kinds of kitchen utensils. She once threw a ceramic coffee cup back at us as we were driving down the road in the camper as it was the only thing near her grasp.
I remember Cindy pulling me in to her closet once and teaching me how to cover up the bristle stipling marks on my thighs left from the brush beatings. Since this was an era where we could only wear dresses or skirts to school, she showed me how to choose the most opaque tights to wear under my dress so the bruising didn’t show. I was still in grade school then so I guess she started beating us very quickly after she came in to the family.
One of the most humiliating episodes involved me sweeping sand up at the cottage in Maine as we were leaving the next day. Take a kid in from the beach on the last day of their vacation and make them sweep and see how much fun they’re having. She apparently didn’t like the way I was sweeping or my attitude so she picked up the box of sand and dirt next to me and dumped it right over my head. In front of other kids who were shocked in to silence.
I could go on and on but you get the drift.
I just have to say, what kind of a person goes in to a family and starts beating another woman’s children?
The last incident of physical violence as I mentioned happened when I came home on a weekend from college. I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table with my brother who said something mocking someone as Marjorie stood at the stove cooking. Apparently she personalized this random remark thinking he was making fun of her, grabbed the nearest utensil (metal spatula, wooden spoon, something like that) and within seconds was beating John over the head with it. I stood up in a rare move of protection of my brother, got in the middle and started screaming at her “leave him alone..he wasn’t even talking about you!!!”.
Then she turned her fury on me and began chasing me, beating me over the head and upper back with her weapon. I ran up those wide stairs of our old house with raging Marjorie and her rapid fire blows close behind and something in me snapped. I flipped around, grabbed both banisters and kicked her square in the gut all the way down the stairs. She fell back about 3 steps in to the foyer of our home, still grasping that kitchen utensil looking up at me in a pure state of shock. I’d never hit her back before. At least like that.
I stood on those steps looking down at her punching my finger in to the air “that is the last time you will hit me. That is the last time you will ever lay a hand on me” and ran crying bolting myself in my bedroom certain she would twist this as she was famous for in to some story which would mean I’d never be allowed to come home ever again. And I didn’t even care, I was prepared to be on my own now if that’s what it took to get away from this crazy bitch.
As it turned out, she never told my father. I waited all evening for some kind of talk with him, where a decision had been made that I was banished from the home but he never said a word. No one ever said a word. I went back to college the next day and it was never discussed again.
After the physical violence ended, the mental abuse ramped up in the form of letters or “the documents” as Cindy called them. Her hairbrush morphed in to a pen. Dissertations were sent after every family gathering detailing our various levels of dysfunction and basic screwedupness , often 10-15 pages long, written on yellow legal paper, both sides, and copied then sent out in manilla envelopes to Cindy and I. John does not remember receiving these documents but he remembers Cindy getting them and “just throwing them away in the trash”.
These were the ways Marjorie, the researcher, organized her feelings. She would write and write about our weaknesses in to the margins and add comments arrowed in to sentences as if she’d obsessively gone over and over her thoughts. A typical page might look like a rambling assessment of one of our histories of failures “remember when you forgot your lines when you tried out for cheerleader and you couldn’t get out of bed for two days? You never wanted to take responsibility for how you failed in that just like you’re not taking responsibility for our problems”. Crazy stuff like that. She’d often climb back in to the family tree telling us of other blood relatives of ours she’d never met but had gathered research on who’d also had emotional difficulties in some effort to explain why we were in such massive conflict at every family gathering. She always managed to leave her role out of these “novels” as Cindy also called them. Once she sent it in a cassette tape she’d lectured in to. Sometimes we laughed at them, sometimes we got mad about them, we finally resorted to not even reading them.
I remember as children, Cindy early on having her number, telling me “don’t tell her any of your problems, she will use them against you some day”. Cataloguing our failures for later documentation was a pattern, one that Cindy as a child had a grasp on. I on the other hand would fall for her attempts at counseling and needing to talk with someone, I would confide in her. I would share with her my personal insecurities with, as Cindy had predicted, only to get them levied at me years later. “Remember you’ve always been insecure about…” from some list she’d been stockpiling.
Marjorie heard two common refrains from all three of us all the way in to adulthood “Why do you never own up to anything? Never apologize for anything?” and “Why are you always needing to remind me how screwed up I am?”. Cindy once held her feet to the fire on the owning up issue and she admitted “well I’ve made mistakes too”. Cindy said “yeah? like what?” to which she replied “letting you children get to me“. Even her mistakes were our fault.
She severed ties with me two years before she died because I refused to read her last lengthy diatribe. I sent it back return to sender, as I’d promised her and my therapist, after begging her to stop. I told her that if she had issues with me, she needed to talk to me face to face or pick up a phone. She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t. It wasn’t about a conversation for this professor of Social Work. It was about something else. Something she needed. The therapist in me feels sad about this just writing it.
To give Marj some credit, I do think she believed she was helping us in some way. But as my father later agreed, she had to keep creating situations where we needed help, where we were broken or weak, to somehow justify her role in the family. The family therapist.
The final “document” Cindy received was in the last months of her life. It might have been spurred by our last family trip in Maine. Cindy told me she’d finally had enough. That she’d taken the stack of papers all written up in the margins to a Kinko’s and made a copy of it, used a highlighter pen to bring out the most abusive remarks levied at us and planned to send it to our Dad at his office so she couldn’t shanghai it. She wanted him to know she wasn’t going to be subjected to this anymore and why. I don’t know if she ever did this but that’s how I opened my conversation with my father the day I decided to pop the cork on this whole issue. I simply asked him if he’d ever received that package over twenty years prior. He denied ever getting the documents so I don’t know if Cindy chickened out or what. I just know she’d planned on finally championing for us in this way and to put an end to the current style of abuse that had gone on for about a decade at that point.
Cindy was killed with this hanging in the ether between she and Marj and my relationship with her later severed over her insistence at sending me just one last document after my clear boundary that I would no longer read them. I told her, to her face, that she was vomiting in to an envelope and feeling better herself but expecting someone else to clean it up.
The last time I ever saw her, she was sitting in the same room in our Maine cottage, drafting an outline to a letter she would write me. I could just feel it was coming so peeked at her legal pad when she went up to the restroom.
I: The Family History
A: The Grandmothers
– blah blah blah Kathy blah blah blah
I’m not even kidding. I was sitting in the same room eating cereal alone at the table and she was writing me a document. Just months after we’d discussed that these letters had to stop. When I received that letter all the way back in AZ a week later, it was postmarked the day I left.
I finally shared all of this with my Dad, all of it, while on vacation with him about three years ago, long after Marjorie had passed on. Ironically, I was sweeping in the same cottage and consumed with this voice in my head “I suck at sweeping” and realized where that came from. I put down my broom in the kitchen and stepped outside in to a three hour truth telling conversation with my father overlooking the ocean.
It’s scary to tell a terrible secret you’ve been harboring your whole life. It’s terrifying to think you won’t be believed.
This is exactly what drives people to keep sweeping…under any rug, piece of furniture, corner, anything to hide it.
I’m happy to say my father never acted for one second like he disbelieved a word I was saying. He knew I was telling the truth. Story after story came tumbling out of me right up to her death really. I’d been estranged from her for two years at that point but not my brother. Yet she still managed to justify cutting us both out of her Will leaving a couple hundred thousand dollars to her nieces and nephews. She enjoyed the image all her life from the age of 40 on as a “mother” who’d rescued these orphaned children who’d lost their “first mother” to cancer. In reality she was far more a tormentor to us than anything we’d ever experienced and slapped us in the face on her way in to the grave. I know her side of the family never knew that or any of this. Cindy would frequently say “she will always come out smelling like a rose, it’s not worth it” when we talked about exposing her horrific behavior.
Years after I’d left home, one day Marjorie and I sat in a coffee shop sort of processing the status of our difficult relationship. I told her of an incident where something just died inside me toward her, a game changer, that turned the entire trajectory of our relationship in to one of distrust. We were having a preteen/new parent argument in the living room one day and the words “well you’re not my real mother” came flying from my hurt and angry mouth directed right at her (who didn’t see that one coming, right?). Her response though is forever etched in my brain. Her eyes and lips narrowed as she steeled herself and delivered this line slowly and with intention:
“I happen to know your mother was no angel”
It was like a direct hit right in to my soul. I was 12 years old and for the last 6 years had known nothing beyond my mother actually being a real angel. That’s what kids who lose their mother are told. “Your mother is an angel now looking down after you”. I hung on to that reality for dear life. And she deliberately tried to steal it from me.
I instantly started screaming and crying. No words, just screams. My father happened to be walking in the back door from work right at that time. I ran and grabbed him, screaming, hysterical, pulling him in to the living room yelling “you tell him what you just said…you tell him NOW“.
Marjorie, calm as a cucumber in her slow Southern drawl replied “Ah have no ideah what you are talking about”. Then proceeded to deny saying it and I was sent to my room, punished. Yes, something sure did die in me that day.
When I related this story to her at the coffee shop, she denied remembering it but delivered something back like “well you must have needed to hear that. No one is an angel“.
See what I mean? She had an opportunity to apologize, to make something right, but she just couldn’t do it.
I got from my father that day on the porch the best an abuse survivor can ever hope for.
He told me he felt like he’d been a terrible father not seeing this going on. He admitted his primary coping mechanism is denial and avoidance. He seemed both shocked and sadly resigned at the same time of all of the physical abuse that had gone on. But that he truly didn’t see it. I believed him, I believe him now. It was a perfect storm of his checking out from all of it and her craftiness in doing most of it out of view of any other adult.
We both acknowledged that her Behavior Modification programs were unnecessary but he explained he allowed them because he felt like it was her way of fitting in to the family. My Dad was naturally most concerned about how all of this had impacted my brother’s mental health, who at that time was in a state of missing.
It wasn’t Marjorie I was concerned about as I never really cared enough about her to make much of a difference and she was long gone by then. It was that my father had allowed this to go on that had a deep and lasting impact on my radar around and ability to trust men. And that part feels much more resolved now in my heart and mind. He really didn’t see it. And he felt horrible about it. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. He was not a terrible father. She was a terrible and sophisticated abuser.
A year and a half from that oceanfront conversation, John had been found then lost and found a second time. Right before he moved out to Arizona while in a completely psychotic state , he broke down on the phone with me saying over and over “you left me there with her Kathy for three years. I had to deal with her by myself for three years“. He was clearly the most vulnerable and the most affected. That admission was his own breakthrough and the beginning of his healing as on this well I’m hoping. At least we’re talking about it finally.
We’re both free now. I will write later about some truly miraculous moments of rescue both John and I got in dealing with her. I tend to find meaning that way, seeking the miracle and the silver lining but sometimes the ugly truth just needs to be told.
Marjorie Monkman never earned the title “mother” with me. She was never my mother.
My mother was Dorothy June Schlosser Monkman, always was, always will be.
It’s been years since I’ve deliberately gone through family photos. There were years after Cindy’s death when we never even took any family photos.
We were always a real “photo taking” family, lots of photo albums and scrapbooks. Rarely was there an outing or occasion where a camera was not present. My father was always very good at memorializing all our fun times with picture taking whether we wanted it or not (teenagers). This ceased for probably nearly a decade after Cindy was killed. I imagine that’s not too uncommon for surviving families. It’s one thing to have to feel that void in the architecture of your family but another altogether to have to see it, much less document it. No one talked about how we’d stopped taking photos, it just happened. I remember distinctly several years ago noticing we’d started taking pictures again. It took a long time.
One thing that struck me while looking at so many old pictures of my own and John’s recently, was just how physically close Cindy and I always were. Generally if we were in a photo together, we were side by side, often touching. This is very descriptive of our relationship. People often asked if we were twins although we really didn’t look alike and had completely different body types-she tall and lean, me average height and, well, not lean.
I remember my Grandma telling a story often of how Cindy reacted when I was brought home from the hospital. She shared “Cindy would parade you around telling everyone ‘this is my baby!’“. She would tell us often about how we were always close. We rarely had any typical sibling rivalry, that Cindy was thrilled to have a new sister vs what first borns often go through.
I’m not saying we never had conflict. There was a period in high school when she bullied me with her friends one night on a sleepover. They wrapped themselves in toilet paper and paraded around my bed while I was sleeping chanting “Fatty Kathy Fatty Kathy Fatty Kathy”. I remember being devastated but at the same time, not being mad because I knew she was just trying to impress her friends. Besides that, I wasn’t fat. She was just trying to push some kind of button. We laughed about this many years later.
As I look at these childhood photos, I can see physically how strong that bond was formed. Cindy always set the tone. She was a very social person so once I came along it was like she had an instant friend, an instant dress up doll, an instant cheerleader, an instant fan who would basically go along with anything she created. She was the leader and I gladly followed along. Always.
I know our mother had so much fun dressing us up identically like two little dolls. There just was never much space between us.
Then I found this.
I look at this picture and I know instantly it was taken around the time we lost our “Mommie” as we called her and how she spelled it. Or maybe around the time she was sick and in the hospital. I know we were showered with gifts at that time including these little ballerina outfits. Our pain is washed all over our faces. Even with a camera pointed at us, we couldn’t find our smiles. My posture just looks so crushed.
We survived together. We huddled together for safety and warmth and we drew an invisible line around our union that was rarely penetrable. I feel sad for my brother when I think of his isolation in our family. It was pure survival and I think we did very well, all things considered.
This is a blurry picture but it’s what inspired this post. Cindy and I often sat together like this. So close it was almost like we were sitting on each other’s lap. I remember feeling so safe in her sphere, always.
In our 20’s we did a lot of partying, of course. We started noticing a pattern, that whenever we were together, we attracted men like flies unlike any other time we went out with friends. There was something so unique and so magnetic about our dynamic that two of our good friends labeled it “The Monkman Sisters Syndrome”. We could be covered in salt and wild hair with no makeup or in any way “dolled up” after a day at the beach and men would be falling over themselves to buy us a drink. That almost never happened when we weren’t together. I’ve not ever found that dynamic again.
When I think about it, I think it was that we didn’t really care if anyone approached us because we were having such a good time together. We had our own language, our own nicknames, our own jokes and we were completely entertained. We had a hard time finding boyfriends actually because no one really was as interesting to us as us. We would find ourselves describing a new man to each other with phrases like “he’s just like YOU..” in one way or another.
This was a family Christmas picture in probably around 1980 or so. Again you can see how I’m practically in her lap.
The Christmas before Cindy was killed, she insisted we take this “family photo” together. It was all her idea. She even wrote a little letter to go along with it. We handed them out and gave them to our friends. She showed up one morning with a friend to take the picture and we just walked in to my front yard and stuck our childhood Christmas stockings to the palm tree and snapped it. I’m so glad and so sad that she did this. As you can imagine Christmas has never been the same since 1988. We’ve rarely taken another Christmas picture as a family again.
It’s a breakthrough of sorts for me that I can even look at these pictures, much less share them. It’s taken over two decades but I’m finding ways to still feel that closeness even if it’s through a memory. Or now as I’m seeking guidance and signs.
I know that I’m lucky to ever in my life have had this kind of connection. Many people go through their whole lives never finding anything remotely like this with another human being.
It’s hard to feel lucky sometimes though when you also feel haunted with this memory.
Nothing ever replaces growing old with your soulmate. Nothing.
Last weekend John and I went up to Sedona (finally) receive delivery of all his worldly possessions he left behind when he abruptly moved to Arizona just about one year ago. He’s spent the last year living either in my home or my father’s condo with basically what he brought with him in one suitcase and other people’s stuff. He’s never complained about this though. John rarely complains about anything.
When we bought a brand new property in beautiful Sedona earlier this year, we knew the next step was getting it outfitted and furnished, ya know, to live in it! John came back to Tempe from that trip and spent his days combing furniture stores for good quality and deals. One day he told me he thought he’d found the right store with great prices and a great selection of good quality furniture. For years with his level of dysfunction, no one would have expected John to perform such a monumental task. So this declaration, and my trusting it, was one of many illustrations of the many milestones he played leapfrog over to get to a nearly normal level of function in just a few short months. John took me out to Mega Furniture, introduced me to the salesperson who had helped him pick things out and I was both shocked and pleased that John was absolutely right. This store had the best quality and prices of any other place we’d looked and the furniture he’d already picked out was perfect for our new place. He even showed me the large room of mattresses and how he’d laid down on every one and found the perfect one, at a remarkably reasonable price that felt “just like sleeping on a cloud, Kathy. It’s just like a caahhhloud”.
Here is a little collage I made of the furniture John picked out.
Now by this point, John had been the person who saw the sign which brought us to our new house, is the person who is picking out the new furniture we need and the rest is to be furnished and outfitted out of his tiny apartment he vacated back in Illinois. He has been the focal point of the creation of our new home. Our new life.
I never saw John’s apartment in Illinois. I just couldn’t stand the thought of it honestly. I don’t want to even write about it because it’s too upsetting to me. He lived in a tiny apartment in subsidized housing for twelve years. I am also upset with myself that I didn’t intervene sooner. After John lost many of his services in Illinois, things just started falling apart and I couldn’t see any alternatives. To be honest, I stopped looking. In many ways I abandoned my brother as well when he needed me the most. I left it all up to my father to manage him. As the situation became increasingly unmanageable. I have a lot of making up to do with him.
Illinois had proven at one point to be the best place for him to live in terms of mental health care. When that deteriorated, so did my faith and I hate to admit it but I just kind of checked out. It took a crisis to wake me up finally and I promise I will write about that in detail soon.
John, on the other hand, was disintegrating yet responding to some sort of larger calling at the same time. He had started, during that last year in Illinois, amassing new furniture and furnishings for some reason even unknown to him. When I asked him this weekend what was motivating that, he said “I just felt like it was time for a change”. Now his mental illness in the past has driven him in to some bizarre shopping/spending behavior so we could blame this all on that. He crammed a 700 square ft apartment with a large suede look sofa, two dinette sets, a large leather recliner, two sets of new dishes, three sets of new flatware, new pots and pans, a new (nice!) coffee maker, a new waffle iron, bedding and boxes and boxes of new clothes.
You see something in John was falling apart, yet something else was sprouting. That’s the best way I can put it after going through all of those boxes and furniture with him this last weekend.
John had told me for months “you’re going to really like my stuff Kathy, it’s all going to go perfectly in our house”. Now my father had taken on the monumental task, at 82, of going to John’s apartment in IL and closing it all up, hire a moving company, sort and pack much of it and kick starting the whole process that led us to this moment.
There were five of those huge crates containing at least 25 large boxes and a large rustic suede look sofa, his leather recliner, two dining tables, chairs and an antique bed and dresser that were my father’s father’s.
As piece after piece came in John beamed and kept saying “I told you you would love my stuff Kathy”. In reality, it was like a designer was bringing new things in to that house that they’d been picking out specifically for it. The size, style and color of everything was amazing. I kept thinking this wasn’t purchased for Illinois, this was purchased for Sedona.
Yet John’s crisis- forced move to Arizona nor this new home purchase was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye when he set about shopping.
We opened box after box of items that just fit perfectly in this space–dishes called “Santa Fe” for, as John said “casual dining” then a more elegant Paula Deen set for “dinner parties”. I am sincerely loving every single thing. My schizophrenic brother has amazing taste. We both kept marveling at how it seemed like somehow he just knew all of this was coming.
What moved me the most deeply though was watching John open a box of old family photos, ones he claimed he’d not seen before. He had to call my Dad to make sure they came from his apartment as he repeated over and over, somewhat disturbed by it “I’ve never seen these pictures before”. Most of the ones he referred to were of our mother in her younger days. One of them is on the right here. That’s our mother Dottie when probably she was just in college.
I went upstairs to work on some boxes for awhile and came back and John had created a little montage of photos across the fireplace mantle. He interspersed his beloved Marilyn Monroe with photos of our mother and of ourselves as kids.
John’s obsession with Marilyn Monroe goes back years. Let’s just say there was a whole lot of Marilyn paraphenalia in those boxes. Mostly posters, calendars, note cards, post cards. I told him he could hang exactly three posters in his bedroom, the Master bedroom in our house so he had to choose carefully. We laughed at my comment “you are not allowed to turn this in to a Marilyn house”.
I’ve often wondered what drove that obsession. John knows every bit of trivia about Marilyn Monroe in a savant like way. You can ask him any question about her personal life or career or movies and he will have it immediately accessible. If there was some kind of “Marilyn Monroe Jeapordy” game I’d sign him up immediately. He also has frequently heard Marilyn Monroe talking to him in his hallucinations. In fact he did this past weekend while in Sedona. He also heard our mother.
Marilyn Monroe died tragically at the age of 36 in 1962. Our mother died tragically at the age of 36 in 1965. Our mother, a brunette, in the last two or three years of her life dyed her hair platinum blond and had a short hairstyle that I imagine many women were getting in those days inspired by Marilyn’s.
So to find this photo display was something I found very poignant and we left it up all weekend. It’s still there.
There were probably 18 boxes of clothes of John’s in that delivery. As we opened box after box, often the acrid odor of 12 years of indoor cigarette smoking, rose out of them. John methodically sorted through clothes, washed some, hung up others and created a huge pile of discards for the Goodwill.
What got my attention though were the boxes and boxes of clothing still in the plastic packaging from the King Size catalog he’d ordered from. I kept telling him he could open a store with all those clothes. There were no less than 75 shirts, 5 coats, at least 15 sets of sweatshirts/pants, on and on it went. I had such mixed feelings going through all of this thinking this crazy purchasing was all symptomatic of his illness yet at the same time it was this ray of hope peeking through him. That one day he would have a life where he could wear all of those clothes that he was preparing for. I think I’ll stick with the latter explanation now that I’m writing it out. He does have a life now where he can wear all those new clothes, just patiently waiting for him in all those plastic wrappings.
The most difficult moment for me going through this what felt at times like “Schizophrenia in a Box” weekend involved John’s mattress, the one he’d been sleeping on for nearly twenty years. It’s not that it was in horrible shape. I laid on it and it was amazingly comfortable. It’s just that it was so drenched with the horrible odor of chain smoking that it filled our entire new beautiful home with it.
I woke up in such a funk that morning and couldn’t figure out why. This was a very fun , exciting project to be involved in in a place of paradise! I realized it was that damn mattress. After figuring out that’s where the smell was coming from, I did my best to clean it, spraying it with vinegar, sitting it in the sunshine, Febrezing it, until I realized some things, no matter what it took to get them moved, just have to go.
As much as the stench was filling the air, so was the imagery that came with it. My brother, alone, with limited support sitting inside that tiny apartment and chain smoking.
I could scrub and polish those antiques, Fantastik off the film on DVD cases, picture frames and things that like but this mattress needed to be replaced. It doesn’t fit in our life anymore. Letting it go in my mind was some kind of saying NO to his past.
Interestingly John said to me at one point in the weekend “Kathy I will never smoke in this house. I will only smoke outside even if it’s cold in the winter.”.
This is also one of the reasons I insisted John take the beautiful Master bedroom in our house. It has a balcony off of it facing the mountains. It also has a grand master bathroom with a deep tub facing more mountains and a huge walk in shower, two huge closets. He gets that bedroom because of the smoking section off of it. But more than that, he gets that bedroom because he deserves it.
This is the view from the Master Bath.
John has taught me in the last year what a mother’s love feels like. It feels like you want to sacrifice for the well being of someone else. Giving John a place of honor in that home is not only deserved, it’s balancing out the universe of my own timeline.
So we’re letting go and rebuilding. Hopefully someone else can use all these boxes. We’re finished with them.
And this is what it looks like for someone, finally at the age of 51, to step in to a new reality, a new mastery of his domain both internally and externally.
When I walked in to that Maricopa County Courtroom on that January day, I have to admit I knew very little about Travis Alexander. I had seen a 48 Hours episode detailing this horrific crime that happened in my neighboring city, Mesa, one that held so many memories for me. Yet I had no real clarity on why I was showing up beyond just a draw. The fact is I’d seen the killer on that news show and was so blown away by the unusual species I’d just been exposed to that I rewound right back to the beginning and watched it all over again in one sitting. I’d never seen such a thing before me. I’d been watching this case unfold in the news and waiting for this trial for four years.
When I showed up that day, I didn’t even know what the courtroom set up was like or if there would be any chance at all I’d be able to get in. I just had an afternoon off so went down to the courthouse. As it turned out, there was no formal system for public court watchers so a line formed outside the courtroom door. We were told that just about 12 people would be allowed in. I counted and found myself something like number 23 so had no hopes of getting a seat. There was a strange man in long shorts and a T shirt carrying a clipboard and an attitude who made a makeshift sign that said “Looking for a number under 12”. He paraded up and down the line loudly laughing and displaying his stupid sign. I kept my distance and to myself.
As the line inched up to the courtroom door, I saw they were letting more and more people in. In fact suddenly I found myself second in line when Mr. Clipboard rushed in front of me declaring he’d had a spot in line ahead as an elderly woman waved him forward. They cut that line off with the person right in front of me being the last person to get in. I looked at the friendly fellow in the bow tie sort of monitoring all of this at the door and widened my eyes and shook my head with one of those “did you just see that?” looks. He shrugged and closed the door. This was just a couple of weeks before something like that would never happen again in that courtroom. They were just unprepared for this kind of spectacle.
I sat outside the courtroom that day and met someone who would become a lifelong friend who also didn’t get in for that afternoon session. Or so it seemed. We introduced ourselves, caught up on what we knew what was happening in the case (I’d been out of the country when it began so had really no idea about details) and dodged a woman in leopard pants, dyed waist length jet black wispy hair which she should have left behind in the 80’s when she was maybe an appropriate age for that hairstyle who had an absolute lack of respect for personal space. Katie, my new found friend and I tried our best to figure out a way to get inside the courtroom that day while attempting to carve out a private conversation.
Mr. Bow Tie at the door kept peeking out at us and clearly felt bad about the earlier mishap and would frequently whisper to us “I’ll get you ladies in if I can” as the first afternoon session continued. As court recessed for afternoon break, Mr. Clipboard emerged with his smarmy smirk and I couldn’t resist confronting him “you took my place in there” to which he informed me that I personally was the reason he was single in life. Indeed. Welcome to what I later deemed “The Nut Factory”.
Just a few moments after the gallery took their seats for the second session of the afternoon, Bow Tie Man peeked out to the hall and waved us both in. We stood silently in the foyer and I stepped to the side and invited Katie to go in ahead of me. She’d been there in the morning and she deserved it. She graciously declined but I insisted. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll get in”. And that spontaneous move, was the way I was ushered in to the life of the Alexander family.
I was taken to a seat not to the right in the public section but to the left in what I later discovered was the family/media section. Of course I had no idea where anything was laid out. This was just where I was escorted. I found myself sitting next to the Victim Advocate for the family of the victim Travis Alexander. On one of many breaks or sidebars in this trial, I found myself making small talk with her and then she, a curious sort, asked me what got me interested in coming down for the trial. I responded that I was the sister of a homicide victim and I just wanted to come down to see if there was anything I could do. I really honestly didn’t know why I came down. All that came much later. I just felt like going and I did.
Later that day, after asking me many questions about our case with which she’d had some peripheral knowledge, she handed me her card and told me “from now on, you’re sitting with us over here”. I asked her if I could pass a card to the family and she replied “of course” and so the next day I showed up again silently passing my condolences to Travis Alexander’s siblings through her with my card.
Now as I was not really familiar with the case, I had no idea that I, as a homicide victim’s sibling would be sitting in solidarity with a group of other siblings. That and so many things unfolded in the coming months showing me just how directed I was and how connected we all were that I couldn’t possibly put all of that in one blog post. Not even two. Or three.
I sat in quiet support of another homicide victim’s siblings and as time went on bonds were formed and deep connections were forged.
It wasn’t until the trial was over that I sort of synthesized the similarities in our cases which were so much to digest I think I was spared them coming at me all at once. But I can see why I was guided to be there not just for any support I could offer this family but for the healing that came my way while walking in a quiet alliance along side them.
Sometimes you have to excavate an old would for it to come to the oxygen that’s needed. And sometimes the only shovel found is the one thing that is so alike, so familiar that it slides right in to that hard compressed dry earth like it’s moving through soft butter.
I find that it’s sometimes easier to manage an out of control chaotic emotionally charged event with a degree of organization so I’ve compiled this list of uncanny, uncommon similarities between this family and mine, between Travis and Cindy, that I believe drove me in to that courtroom, in to that seat to allow things to unfold as they did and continue to do.
So here it is:
1. Travis and Cindy were both 30 when they were murdered. They both struggled with that turning 30 transition for nearly identical reasons. They were both vulnerable in the same ways in that moment of their life. Cindy was killed in 1988, Travis in 2008, exactly 20 years apart.
2. Both were living in Mesa AZ at the time of their death. Travis lived in far East Mesa, Cindy’s body was found just outside the Mesa city limits to the East just a short drive past Travis’ house. Both investigations were handled by the Mesa Police Dept. The Alexanders had the incomparable Det. Esteban Flores. We had an equally stellar Det. Mark “Jigsaw” Jones. Our prosecutors, Juan Martinez and Catherine Hughes know each other well and had offices adjacent to each other at the time of her retirement.
3. Both were murdered by a sociopath of the opposite gender with whom they’d had a very intimate relationship.
4. If you were to line up the autopsies they would be nearly identical in numbers , types and locations of wounds with one exception, there was no gun used on Cindy (that was not an easy one to write so just got it over with).
5. Both Travis and Cindy were raised by a Grandmother whom they dearly loved.
6. In both cases, the most significant piece of evidence used against their murderer was a camera containing photographs left behind in each of their homes.
7. Both had evidence of their killer stepping on their body.
8. Both Travis and Cindy had very big, outgoing personalities, were popular, funny, loved spontaneity and making up songs and silly games.
9. Both trials for their murderers were death penalty trials.
10. Both Cindy and Travis were in danger far longer than they realized and kept believing, even against their own ambivalence in the goodness of their killers.
11. Both sought counsel of some sort in the weeks before their death feeling a need for self improvement.
12. Cindy and Travis were both avid journal writers. Some of which showed up at their trials.
13. Both were / are deeply loved by their siblings who have been left behind to put together their lives.
I’m sure there are more and I will add as I think of them but that was an exhausting list to write. I write it though because it’s important, at least to me. I felt a calling to head down to that courtroom and honestly there are few people on the face of this Earth who could truly understand what this family was going through better than me. I walked right through the fire with them nearly every day right up to the guilty verdict and continue to do so , all of us coping/healing/falling apart/gathering together/showing up as best as we can do. I will never abandon them. I’m here for the duration if they need me. I’ve grown to dearly love each and every one of them.
I can’t say I honestly understand all of it. What drew me there was an unavoidable force. As the Vicomte de Valmont said “it was beyond my control”. I think that’s sometimes a good thing. I’m sure I don’t know all the gifts that were seeded in me during that tumultuous and rewarding five months of my life.
What I do think though is that there just could be some connection with Cindy and Travis in the beyond up there somewhere. Maybe Cindy was one of those who extended a hand and a smile to him as he passed over. Maybe she was the one person in Heaven who knew better than any one other soul what was needed to give him something he needed in some unique way. Who could understand.
I’ll sign off with an adapted version of one of my favorite quotes from Steel Magnolias, a gem of unexpected wisdom from the plain simpleton character Annelle:
So they went to a place where they could be guardian angels.
They will always be young.
They will always be beautiful.
And I personally feel much safer knowing they’re up there on my side.
My heart and thoughts have been with Travis’ family all day today on the anniversary of his entry in to Heaven five years ago today.