My life has been a paean to the many ways in which society can marginalise, harm, exploit and disempower women. I’ve written extensively about some of those themes — forced adoption, the Magdalene Laundries, and the treatment of women by State, society and religion, particularly in Ireland.
I’m finally ready to write about a part of my life I don’t frequently discuss. It’s been twenty-one years since the event that turned my life upside down and it’s not that I’m afraid to talk about it. It has threads that connect to other parts of my story, who I am — adopted adult, mother of loss, daughter of a Magdalene. I have discussed it before, but typically it’s been through the lens of another journalist or documentary-maker, or as an adjunct to those other topics. Today I want it to be in my voice, and I want to give it the gravitas it deserves.
In 1983, I set off from the home where I was raised outside Philadelphia to take on a new job, a new adventure, in Orlando, Florida. I was 23 and brimming with the joy of being on my own for the first time. It was a move I needed to make. My relationship with my adoptive mother had grown toxic. It had been only five years since I was forced to relinquish my own daughter for adoption, and I hadn’t even begun to heal that wound. My mother’s attempts to gloss over it and get me on a path to “forgetfulness” and “moving on” (classic industry-designed tropes to brainwash we mothers of lost children) were grating on me. I’d spent the better part of five years alternating between self-medicating, sport-fucking and trying the role of “ultra good girl,” all with dismal results. After the shame and stigma I’d experienced being a pregnant, Catholic high school senior, my self worth was too far into negative digits for me to be successful at any type of “healing.” But my adopted self was very good at faking it. I’d been doing that for far longer. So I gritted my teeth and struggled. And when the opportunity came to take a job that would place me far away from the “scene of my crime, ” I jumped at the chance to escape the claustrophobic confines of a controlling environment where I’d always been expected to fit in and act normal. Whatever the hell that is.
Moving 1100 miles south seemed just the ticket. And for a while, it was. Unfortunately, I lost a stable relationship with a good guy as a result. I suppose I naively thought he might follow, since at the time of my move he was unemployed (in fact, he was the one who spotted a job advertisement for the very position I was taking in Orlando, and urged me to apply for it). But I just didn’t count on the strong family and community ties he had in Philadelphia. He simply couldn’t break those, and I resigned myself to it. Inwardly, the negative-digit self worth gnawed at me and I ticked the mental box that said “he’s just too good for me.” After all, I was “damaged goods” in respectable people’s eyes, right?
So I shed a few outward tears and ploughed into my work and new friends. I had some good times, and I made some good friendships and kick-started a great career. At the end of my first year there, my parents and grandmother made plans to come down over the Christmas holidays in 1983. It turned out to be one of the coldest winters on record in Florida, and temperatures plunged to below freezing in Orlando for a few days. I recall being out shopping just a day before Christmas eve when my family was due in, and wearing shorts and a t-shirt out in the warm sun. The next day, I was scrambling for the only warm coat I’d brought with me, cursing that I had no gloves, and slipping on a patch of ice as I walked out the front door to pick up my family at the airport.
What was worse was that we’d made plans to do Epcot and Disney, and temperatures were expected to remain in the 30’s throughout Christmas week. We struggled through it, and by the end of the week, on a trip out to Clearwater, it was warm enough for us to chuck our shoes and wade through the gulf waters (at least briefly!)
One night during the visit, my dad had asked if I would take him to our local bar to sit and talk and have a few drinks. I knew it would be good for us both to get away for a bit from my domineering mother and her equally domineering mother. Plus, although I’d given up smoking before I left Philadelphia, I had taken up the fags again shortly before that Christmas, and while determined not to let my mother know I was smoking again, I was desperate for one and had no opportunity thus far to sneak out during their visit. So off my dad and I went, grateful for the time alone. We sat nursing a drink in the local, me sucking on a cigarette, my dad on his omnipresent stogie, when he suddenly said, “Listen, Mari…you know I’m no good at these things. But I have something I need to tell you. When you got pregnant, I so desperately wanted to be able to help you and Doug [the father] keep the baby. I knew if anyone could do it, it would be you, with a little help. But you have to understand, your mother was about to have a nervous breakdown and was constantly at me to do something. I didn’t know what to do, so to my great shame, we let her have her way. Even your aunt and uncle didn’t agree with her. I want to you to know that. We didn’t want it to turn out that way for you, and I feel miserable about it. But I wanted to tell you that I think about it every day and wish I could make it up to you. It was wrong.”
All I could do was reach out and hug and kiss him, with tears streaming down both our faces. It meant the world for me to hear him say that. Not that it changed anything, nor could it. What was done was done. But to know that it was not his intent meant so much. The rest of their visit was made so much easier by that admission. We went out to Kennedy Space Center, which I knew he would love, and even the time spent with my mom and granny became enjoyable. Soon they returned to Philly and I returned to my life in Orlando, feeling as though at least a ten-pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
But I was still not dealing with the self-esteem issues entirely, and was making some bad choices in men. There were brief flings and one-nights that I knew would lead nowhere, yet it was almost like self-flagellation. I think I was even self-aware enough at the time to know it, yet ignored my primal self screaming out in protest. One night, in our favourite little honkey-tonk on the outskirts of Orlando, I met a guy who looked like a fallen angel. Limpid blue, blue eyes; a tragic countenance that would befit a poet. I was sucked in like a moth to a flame. And as it turned out, this man Alan even saw himself as a poet. After some deep conversation and a few drinks (the type of dangerous bar liaison to which we should all know better than to fall prey), he suggested we go back to where he was living and he’d show me some poems he’d written. He might as well have suggested a view of his proverbial etchings, it was that clichéd.
But go I did. Turned out he was staying with a divorced, middle-aged woman and her young adult son in a comfy rancher on Orlando’s southeast side. I was told to be quiet so as not to wake his landlady, and off we crept to his room. We did read his poetry (it was pretty awful) and nothing else transpired that night, as he had to be up early to help his landlady with a newspaper route she franchised. But we agreed to meet up the next night. Things blossomed pretty quickly from there, and soon we were sharing our innermost foibles in life. I hope readers will see the elements in the story of his life that should have served as a red flag for me. Perhaps they will be a useful road map for some young woman considering a relationship with a man as impossibly damaged as this one was. But at the time, I was completely blind to those red flags.
I told him about my lost daughter, and he seemed sympathetic and kind about it. He told me all about his life. About how his father had physically abused his own mother, to the point where she ran off with Alan, his older brother and a sister who was still in utero at the time. About how his mother ended up with an even more abusive man two states over, with five children of his own; how his mother was nearly beaten to death by this man, and how he, his brother and his now newborn sister were left fighting for scraps of food with the other children. About how the state intervened, removed Alan and his siblings and an emergency phone call was placed to his father in North Carolina to come collect the children. His grandparents years later related to me that when his father got the children and he made a stop on the return at their home in western North Carolina, the three young children were emaciated, withdrawn and ate like they hadn’t seen a meal in weeks. He told me how he struggled in school with what was likely ADHD, and railed against his father and new stepmother. How he said he believed his father had been caught in a homosexual dalliance by his stepmother and a vicious fight ensued, involving his stepmother coming at his father with a two-by-four, and his father attempting to run over her with his pickup truck.
And how he finally ran away at age 15 to be with his mother, who was now finally settled in a good relationship with a new husband in California, but suffering from lifelong (and ultimately fatal) ill-health, a result of the brutal beatings from her second partner. They actually got him on (then new) treatment for ADHD, and he started improving in school in California. But for reasons he didn’t relate (perhaps some petty teenage rage), he ran away yet again, this time back to his father in North Carolina. He got a job washing trucks for Ryder, but was caught when he took one of the trucks out on a joyride, bringing along the 15-year old daughter of a local sheriff, and crossing state lines in said truck. 17 at the time he was nabbed, butt-naked with a sheriff’s 15-year old daughter in the cab, but 18 at sentencing, he was remanded as an adult to Rock Hill penitentiary in South Carolina.
When he told me this last bit of his story, we were several months into our relationship and I had wondered at his unusual reticence at certain sexual acts. He didn’t like to have his ass touched. And then he told me about his prison stint and it came tumbling into place. I should have realized that an exceptionally pretty, golden-haired, blue-eyed southern boy in prison would be juicy “meat.” In greater hindsight, I also wonder if he hadn’t been similarly abused by members of his own family. All the red flags were there. And there was another very odd one that I actually picked up on early. One night, as we lay in bed together, I noticed a strong chemical smell emanating from him. I commented on it, and he quickly brushed it off as some solvent he had been working with on his job at the time, which was applying the outer surfacing to the new Stanton Energy Center towers in Orlando.
But I was blinded by his love and acceptance of damaged-goods me. I was willing to accept his troubled youth, dysfunctional family, prison history and odd smells. We agreed to move in together and took a small townhouse in Orlando. I was the one who began making marriage noises, and he eventually did propose, but later said he felt I had given him an “ultimatum.” My parents were (rightfully so) skeptical of the whole relationship. They didn’t really know Alan, he was a foreign concept to them — Southern Baptist boy to our Irish Catholic — they just didn’t get it, but eventually accepted the situation and our Philadelphia wedding took place in June 1985. I met his family for the first time just two weeks before the wedding, and all his stories aside, they seemed polite, decent enough folks. I particularly liked (and still do) his older brother Will and sister Sherry. His younger stepsister Tracey seemed a bit sullen, but she was a young teen at the time, so I chalked it up to the usual teen angst.
We settled into married life and our home, and things were relatively normal. Alan had an interest in some hobbies that seemed rather strange to me, but nothing alarming. Like most North Carolina boys, he loved his cars. He had a battered old Toyota Corolla when we met, and when it seemed the poor old thing was was about to disintegrate, he came across a nearly as-battered old Chevelle and half-heartedly restored it. When both vehicles gave up the ghost, he talked me into leveraging my ’83 Buick into a trade on a new Toyota truck for him and a slightly-used Toyota Celica for me. I should’ve realized then that I was getting the short shrift, but alas — love. He also was heavily into CB radios at the time. They were long past their mid-70’s popularity, but he was enthralled, and bought a new CB unit for both his car and the house. He would spend hours chatting late into the night with strangers on the home unit. I suppose today he’d probably be in Internet chat rooms, but this was a few years before the advent of the web. And maybe that’s a good thing.
I recall at one point, after one of his late-night CB marathons, I grew exasperated and went to call him to bed. I found him in our guest room, sitting on the floor, going through an old photo album. I’d never seen this album before and asked him what he was looking at. With a sigh, he beckoned me down on the floor with him and pointed out a photo of a stunning young girl. “Who’s that?” I asked. “That’s Shelby’,” he replied, as if I should know who this Shelby person, previously unmentioned, was. I looked at him quizzically, and with another sigh, he proceeded to tell me how after he’d gotten out of prison in South Carolina, he met up with a pretty young woman who he quickly moved in with. While he hadn’t much to say about her, he waxed on poetically for the better part of an hour about how beautiful and exceptional her young (perhaps five or six at the time) daughter Shelby was. I never learned Shelby’s mother’s name — he never said it. But the whole thing was odd, and there wasn’t much said about why his relationship with this woman ended, what happened with the daughter, or anything more on the topic. The whole conversation left me perplexed and with more questions than answers, but that was Alan — ever quixotic.
Several months after that, Alan took on a new job, going into business with a local man. This man was not without his own checkered past: at one time, he was the popular, gregarious Orange County Commissioner, until one fateful night he got into an argument with his then wife and shot and killed her. He served a few years’ time in prison, much to the outrage of many Orlando citizens. When he was released, chastened and with no hope of reviving his political career, he decided to open a lawn spray company around the corner from where we lived. Alan got to chatting with him, and soon, they agreed to partner up (although it was never committed to paper). The business actually began to thrive, and between my salary and Alan’s, we agreed it was time to find a bigger place and start a family. But before that move occurred, I discovered something about Alan that would serve as the Achilles’ heel of our relationship forever.
I had been away for two days on business, going downstate to help a new banking client install an ATM network and issue debit cards. It’s what I did, and I loved my job. I traveled mostly within Florida, and got to see a good bit of the state and meet really interesting and nice folks. Sometimes we serviced clients in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Alan seemed proud of my work, my intelligence and my expertise. If we were out at a bar or restaurant with friends, he would often brag about my career. It was nice but oddly uncomfortable at the same time. On this night, returning home from my client, I entered the house and couldn’t immediately find Alan, although his car was outside. So I entered our garage, thinking he might be in there working on something. As soon as I opened the door, I smelled that odd yet familiar chemical odor — the same one I had first smelled early in our relationship. I looked toward the riser at the back of the garage where our washer and dryer sat, and saw Alan quickly trying to conceal something in his pocket. “What’s that?” I asked. At first he tried to act like I’d seen nothing, but after a few moments, he looked down, gave another one of his infamous sighs, and said, “Well, I guess it’s time you meet my mistress…”
With that, he pulled out a crumpled plastic baggie with what looked like snot in it, and held it aloft to me. “What the hell is that?!” I asked. He calmly said, “It’s model cement. I sniff it.” A million thoughts ran through my head: old after-school specials on glue-huffing, vague warnings from teachers in days of yore — none of it was coalescing into a rational thought. I knew what it was, I had heard the stories, but I’d never in my sheltered, suburban life ever met anyone who sniffed glue. Sure, we had all smoked our share of pot, engaged in some under-aged drinking — but this? This was completely foreign territory to me. I began to pepper him with questions: how does this get you high? What kind of high is it? Why do you do it? Isn’t it dangerous? I thought about my own alcoholic adoptive brother and his struggles with the disease, his identity/abandonment issues and the havoc it had wrought in our family. When I met and married Alan, my brother had already been booted from our family home and was currently going through his own serious ups and downs, including a motorcycle wreck and legal battles.
He began to tell me how he was introduced to it: after breaking up with the eponymous Shelby’s mother, he drifted south to Florida in search of work and a fresh start. He wound up in Tallahassee, finding work in construction on new campus buildings at Florida State University and at the state capitol. He also found a room with some girls who lived off-campus. He claimed it was they who introduced him to the art of huffing, and he was immediately hooked. My mind was just blown. Having just come off a four-hour drive, I was exhausted and just couldn’t wrap my head around this any further, so I told him we’d talk about it later and went off to bed.
The next day, he left before I did for work. When I got to work, I looked up numbers for local rehab centers, thinking, “I’ve got to get this guy help. We can’t be starting a family or continue a relationship if he’s on this stuff.” I nervously dialed the number to a facility and was quickly put in touch with a specific substance abuse therapist after explaining what I was facing with my husband. The woman I spoke with was very knowledgeable — she had done her early training on a reservation in Arizona, and had frequently encountered glue-sniffing as a popular, cheap high among the tribe. She explained that the detox for huffing was long and complicated — it took nearly 30 days to clean the system of the chemicals, and then the real head work began. She also explained that the damage done to the brain and other organs was often permanent, unlike with alcohol or other drugs, where full physical organ recovery (before the addiction becomes chronic or acute) has a much better success rate. It sounded very grim to me, and I was determined I would help Alan get off this lethal stuff.
That night, I had a serious discussion with Alan. I explained that I couldn’t see a future for us if he continued down this path of destruction. I told him about the woman I’d spoken with, and that it seemed his best chance for recovery was in a facility with an experienced therapist like her, who understood the substance he was using. By the time we finished talking, he had somehow managed to convince me he didn’t need rehab, but was steadfast in his desire to quit sniffing glue.
And he did. For a while. We made our move into a much bigger, nice rancher in the Belle Isle section of southeast Orlando (not far from where acquitted child-killer Casey Anthony lived). But I quickly discovered that when Alan stopped using glue, he’d increase his drinking. His preference was Michelob beer, and for a slight guy, he could put it away. Sometimes he’d augment this with Crown Royal, which really made him a horrible, angry SOB. I soon discovered that the glue was what made him the dreamy, trippy poet. Alcohol gave him anger and a “mouth” and on more than one occasion, I witnessed him corner himself into a battle with some guy twice his size and get the lights battered out of him.
But after a few clockings by guys he should’ve known better than to tangle with, he started turning his rage on me. At first, as is typical of abusers, it wasn’t physical. It started with possessiveness and controlling where and with whom I went. He had gotten a speeding ticket and because he’d amassed a few before it, he was now at his maximum number of “points,” and as a result, either had to take a defensive driving course or risk losing his license. The night he had his scheduled class, I had accepted a last-minute offer to meet up with a workmate at her place after work, thinking he wouldn’t be home until later anyway. This was some years before cell phones. Unbeknownst to me, Alan had started a pot of beans simmering before leaving for his class. He always fancied himself some sort of master chef, although I never, ever saw him attempt more than a pot of beans. I later learned he had called and left a message at home to tell me he had started the beans. But of course, not being home, I didn’t know. Needless to say, by the time I did arrive, an hour or so later than I usually would have, there was a scalding pot of beans on the stove.
When Alan returned from his class and learned his beans had been burned, he flew into a rage. He shouted about the message he’d left, accused me of “stepping out” on him, and picked up the answering machine, flinging it into (and through) a wall. I was left shaking at the outburst. He’d never displayed such anger directed at me. And his answer to my alleged “stepping out”? Why, to go out until late into the night drinking, of course.
The next day he was full of remorse (typical pattern), apologized for his outburst and said he should’ve phoned me earlier at work to tell me he was going to start the pot of beans. I accepted the apology, and life returned to a somewhat normal pace.
In April of 1986, I discovered I was pregnant. Life with Alan had stabilized to a large degree, and we were both overjoyed at the prospect of being parents. Even my parents were thrilled at the prospect of their first (well, actually second — of course mom had conveniently completely forgotten her first, born nearly ten years prior) grandchild. We discovered a rancher similar to the one we were currently renting, but much closer to both our employers, and decided to make another move before the baby was born. I had a happy, healthy pregnancy and nothing marred life until just two months before I was due.
It was an unusually bitter cold night in late November, and Alan had gone out with a co-worker of his, a lawn tech he and his partner Ed had hired named Charles. I had never liked this man and Alan had frequently mentioned that Charles had some serious drug and alcohol problems. I’d often told Alan to steer clear of him. Association with Charles would certainly not help his own issues, or the company, and Alan largely complied. But this one night, Alan said that Charles wanted to talk to him, so he agreed to meet up with him. Around 10 pm that evening, Alan came bursting through our front door, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. He saw me with a mug in my hand, and said, “What are you drinking?” “Hot cocoa,” I replied. “Give it to me,” he demanded, and gulped it down. “What the hell is going on?” I asked. In a rush, he told me that he and Charles, coming back from a bar, had run off the road and into a neighbor’s yard just down the road from us. Apparently he’d hit the neighbor’s electrical guy wire and totaled both the neighbor’s orange tree and his own pickup truck. I said as calmly as I could, “What the hell? How much have you had to drink?” He said he’d had a few — enough that he’d probably get popped for DUI, but he knew he’d have to call the police, given the property damage involved. However, his rationale was he wanted to try to sober himself up and left the scene of the nearby accident to run to our home. “Where’s Charles?” I asked. He hesitated a moment, then mumbled, “He took off.” “What?!” I asked incredulously. “Yeah, he took off…apparently he had an unregistered gun on him and didn’t want to be caught with it. So he…took off. I’m going to call the police…come back to the accident with me.” “Why on earth would I go back with you? It’s thirty degrees out there, I’m seven months’ pregnant and how are you going to explain I just happened to show up at the scene of this accident?” (again, this was well before cell phones). “I don’t know,” he answered, “You can say you heard it, ran outside to look and realized it was me…” Yes, lame, I know. And yet off like an idiot I went.
As soon as the police showed up , I could tell they weren’t buying Alan’s story. I don’t remember if there was something in the truck that tipped them off to the fact that someone else had been in there or what. And they clearly knew if they did a field sobriety test, Alan wouldn’t pass. Yet there I was, waddling beside him in all my pregnant glory, shivering in the cold night. The beleaguered, pregnant wife. I was Alan’s trump card and I’m sure he knew it all along. As I was to later discover time and again, I seemed to engender a sympathy in law enforcement that has (on many occasions) been to my advantage, but that night it was to Alan’s advantage. The officer let him off the hook and simply said, “Look buddy, I know I could haul you off. But do yourself a favor — take your wife home and look after her. ”
The incident seemed to give Alan a much-needed slap in the face (although astoundingly, he and his partner Ed kept on the hapless, and perhaps dangerous, Charles). In January, I gave birth to my gorgeous daughter Jessica. Alan was over the moon with her and delighted in his role as father. My mother and aunt came down from Philadelphia shortly after she was born, and stayed for two weeks to help. Having not had a tremendous amount of interaction with my family (other than our wedding), nor I with his, Alan was ill at ease with my mother and aunt’s presence. While he put on the Southern boy charm, both they and I could tell that he was antsy, and trying just a wee bit too hard. It was an awkward two weeks, and I could tell that it took a toll on Alan. Not a week later, I could smell the chemical again. The glue was back, and this time, he would go off to an attached workroom off our carport to do his huffing. I was too exhausted from breast-feeding and caring for a newborn to put up much fight, so I just left him to his devices thinking perhaps he’d change as fatherhood continued to put demands on him. The only changes evident were the tighter reins Alan kept on me.
Now that I was a mother, I had somehow become a sort of madonna/whore in his mind. He would isolate me from my friends and my family. If I wanted a night with the girls, he’d somehow connive some unavoidable appointment or work thing at the last minute, and I’d be left with no one to watch Jessica, so I’d have to stay home. If I talked about visiting my parents, he’d insist we didn’t have the money to take a trip. I knew it was all bullshit, and yet I acquiesced. I know now with great clarity that I was simply reverting back to my old role of being controlled by my mother. But at the time, I convinced myself that if I went along and was compliant, it would make him happy, and therefore he wouldn’t huff glue or drink.
About two months after Jessica’s birth, I had a call from my brother, who’d decided to leave Philadelphia and follow my trail south. He had gotten a job with a roofer in Orlando and wondered if he could stay with us for a bit, till he got a place of his own. I agreed, inwardly thinking I’m probably insane to take on an active alcoholic along with my glue-sniffing, drinking husband. But secretly I was glad to have some family near me — someone who Alan wouldn’t feel as ill at ease around or find objectionable. Plus Marty was perfectly willing to help us with rent and groceries (good thing, as that guy could plough his way through milk and cheese like nobody’s business — he had a real thing for dairy!) And as it turned out, it may well have saved my life at the time.
My brother Marty, despite his drinking and frequent bouts of self-rage, was outwardly one of the funniest, most giving guys you’d ever meet. It really was a joy to have him around most of the time. We spent a lot of time catching up. And one of the best things to come out of his visit was a surprise talk we had one night.
Back in 1983, my mother, aunt and my aunt’s husband took a trip to Ireland. It was the first time she’d been back since a trip she’d taken after high school graduation. I was actually slated to go with them, but got my job in Florida at the time, so had to reluctantly beg out as I knew relocating would eat up all of the funds I’d saved for the trip. Part of that journey was to be a stop at the former mother-baby home where I was born in Cork. My mother actually wanted to see if they had any information on my brother or me, our background or birth families, which was actually rather forward-thinking for an adoptive parent at the time. Her interest in helping me and Marty know our own backgrounds stood in stark contrast to her inability to deal with or face my own firstborn daughter and what that had done to me (or her possible future desire to want to know me). But hey, never look a gift horse in the mouth, right? So even though I wasn’t accompanying them, my mother promised to see what she could learn when they visited Cork.
When they returned, my mother and I had a good sit-down in the kitchen one night, whereupon she proceeded to tell me that the nun now in charge claimed she didn’t really have much background on me (which later turned out to be an outright lie), but she did have some information on my brother. She related to my mother that when it came time for Marty to leave for the US, aged two and a half, his mother was told to get him dressed and ready, as was the case for all of us (our mothers, unless they could pay their way out, were required to remain with us in the mother-baby home until we were adopted).
His poor mother, only 16 at the time, was beside herself and didn’t want to part with him. In their efforts to wrest him out of her arms, one of the nuns got solidly punched by Marty’s mother. Now, why on earth this nun would choose to tell my adoptive mother this horrid story knowing it would break the heart of even the most stone-cold human, is beyond me. But tell her she did. My mother sat crying as she told me all this, saying it explained so much of Marty’s behavior…his drinking, his inner demons and always feeling as though he was battling the world and rejected by his own mother. My immediate reaction was, “Mom, you’ve got to tell him this. He’s spent his whole life thinking this poor woman abandoned him.” My mother shook her head and said, “I couldn’t even begin to think how to tell him…I just can’t. What if it makes him feel even worse?” I kept trying to reassure her it wouldn’t, and after she steadfastly refused, I finally said, “Look. Leave it with me. When the time’s right, I’ll tell him.”
So here we were, Marty and I, sitting out on my back patio under a clear Orlando night. Chatting away about funny growing-up stories, laughing at the antics he and my four male cousins used to get up to. Then out of the blue, he asked, “Mari, when mom, Aunt Peg and Uncle Frank went to Ireland, did she ever tell you if she found anything out at…the place we were born? About why we were adopted? Our mothers?” I drew a deep sigh, grabbed his hand and said, “Yeah, Marty…she did. She didn’t find out squat about me, but she did learn about your mother…” and I proceeded to tell him the whole story about how his mother fought — physically — to keep him. He sat for a quiet minute, then began sobbing like the lost toddler he once was. All that sorrow, trauma and loss came bubbling up out of this big, burly 24-year old like a river. And I just held his hand till it subsided.
“Do you think you’ll ever look for your mother?” he asked, wiping the tears from his face. “Yes,” I replied. “I think I will. I feel I have to know. I feel I owe that to Kerry [my daughter, then known as Erin to me], too…I mean, if she ever wants to seek me out. I want to be there for her.” He shook his head slowly and said, “Yeah, maybe I will, too. But I’m not ready yet.” I nodded, and we left it at that. But I saw a change come over Marty…a weight came off him and I think it did mark a huge turning point in his life.
Some weeks later, Marty and Alan had gone out one night together. They were as different as two men could be, but had formed a fragile friendship. I think like the rest of my family, Alan was so different than anyone they knew in their circle, they just didn’t know what to do with him. Marty was no different, and I think had his own unease about him, but hey, guys are guys, and he might as well go throw back a few with his brother-in-law, right? So some number of jars later, the two managed to make it home in a fairly lubricated state. I was still nursing an infant Jessica and exhausted, but waited up worrying about the pair of them. When they rolled in, I was relieved and Marty went off to his room. I heard him humming away. He usually would fall asleep listening to (and yes, even singing in his sleep with) Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman. I was ready to retire myself, and went into my bedroom, only to find Alan huffing away on a bag of glue in our bathroom. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked, “You’ve been out drinking all night…what do you need that for?” His snarled reply let me know right away he hadn’t just been at beer that night. I could hear the Crown Royal raging up his gullet and bringing forth his nastier demons: “I’ll do whatever I want. In fact, I think I want to go back out again…”
With that, he went to grab his car keys off the bureau, but I reached them before he did and snatched them out of his way. “You cannot go back out in that state…you’ll be stopped, and you know it,” I insisted. He lunged for the keys, but I backed away from him toward our bedroom door. Before I even had a chance to draw another breath, the next thing I knew, he had me pinned on the bed, my head angled awkwardly over the wood frame of the waterbed, with his hands around my throat. Something evil and terrible had taken command of him, and he growled at me to give him the keys. I couldn’t even move my arm to comply, but began shouting instead for my brother. It seemed only a second later, I felt Alan’s full weight lift off me and I heard a sudden smack of something against the wall. I quickly leaped off the bed and turned on the bedroom light. My brother had my husband up against the wall, his own hands around Alan’s throat, as his hissed, “If you touch my sister again, I will kill you and not give it a second thought.”
It was one of those life-altering moments when no one knows what to say afterward. We all stood awkwardly for a few moments, until my brother turned on his heel and went back to his room, slamming the door. I stood looking at Alan, who was staring at the floor, muttering , “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…it won’t happen again.”
But it did. There was another night where, in a drunken rage and likely out of his mind huffing glue again, Alan forced me into the car, drove up the street speeding, flipped open the passenger door and tried to throw me out, with me clinging to the frame and screaming at him to stop. He came to some semblance of sanity, and pulled me back in. But I was left badly frightened. On another night, Alan came home late one night while I was in bed, lay down next to me, and I could immediately hear there was something wrong with his breathing. I sat up and asked him what was wrong…why was he breathing like that? He dissembled a bit, muttered some excuse, and finally I snapped on the light. I could see his nose was splattered all over his face. Someone had cold-cocked him, hard. He later admitted he had gotten into it with (yet again) someone twice his size. This time he said the fellow had accused him of coming on to his girlfriend (which, of course, Alan insisted he didn’t). He begged me to tell anyone who asked that he had injured himself while working on the car, and to say that a wrench had flown out of his hands and hit him on the nose. Thankfully, no one asked. Anyone who knew him probably knew the truth anyway.
Sometimes it was just evenings where Alan, completely out of his gourd on glue or drinking, or both, would just crazily ramble about absolutely insane things. But those evenings were just as frightening, because they were evidence that he likely was suffering some irreversible brain damage. I was growing increasingly fearful of his unpredictability.
And still I did nothing. I didn’t leave, didn’t even call my brother for help. Part of me couldn’t believe this was that same gentle, hapless poet. Part of me blamed myself for not doing enough to “change” him.
Barely a few months later, almost within the same week, I was surprised to discover I was pregnant again with our second child at the same time I accepted an excellent job offer from a former Orlando colleague, who wanted me to relocate to Indianapolis to work for a new EFT/ATM service that telecomm giant GTE was starting. I thought maybe the change would be good for us. Things were going nowhere between Alan and his “partner,” Ed — they still hadn’t put anything on paper to solidify the business arrangement, and Alan wasn’t making much. Obviously, his relationship between he and my brother was strained, and Marty had found an apartment and moved out (although he always checked in with me and kept a wary eye out).
So off we went to Indianapolis. Again, with great hindsight, I realized that in addition to the isolation Alan imposed on me by keeping a distance with my family and friends, I was adding to the isolation by moving us to a part of the country where neither of us had family or friends, save for a few former Orlando colleagues of mine who also made the move. I tried to keep up a sense of normalcy throughout my second pregnancy, but I could tell Alan was badly floundering. He found a low-paying job doing building exteriors, but the cold winter put a crimp on much of that work. We lived in a small, drafty rental and were constantly miserable that winter. When our son Alex was born that February of 1988, I had just about had enough of Indianapolis. Neither my mother nor Alan’s stepmother Linda were willing to come help with the baby, so balancing a barely one-year old with a newborn and work had left me enormously stressed. Then my company announced it would be going through massive layoffs. And to top it off, Alan announced one day that he’d bought a gun.
The only gun I’d ever seen or been exposed to was my father’s old service revolver, which he always kept in his bureau drawer with the chamber completely removed. I couldn’t fathom what on earth Alan would need a gun for, and the thought of someone as unstable as he having one petrified me. Soon enough, that problem resolved itself, but was accompanied by another one. After a night out drinking heavily, Alan managed to drive my Celica off the road into a gully. Rather than be pegged for drunk driving, he legged it somehow back to our house and because it was so late, managed to sneak in without waking me and went straight to bed. The next morning, he pretended as though nothing had happened, went out the door as if going to work, then feigned outrage and surprise, announcing our car had been stolen from our driveway. The police were called, and because I was none the wiser, Alan was obviously able to manage to pull it off since I was so visibly gobsmacked when the police showed up. A report was duly taken, and in no time, the police found our “abandoned” car not far away. They also found the gun under the seat, but Alan claimed it wasn’t his — whoever stole the car must’ve put it there. I didn’t learn until later that the gun he purchased was illegal, and so no registration ever tied it back to him. And again, clueless, gullible me played the perfect foil to the police questioning, as I truly didn’t know where it had come from.
I could tell he was coming unhinged. Badly. Something needed to shift and I think it was dawning on me then that it would have to be me doing the shifting. Around this time, we got the announcement that our EFT division was next on the chopping block at GTE. Several of us were offered positions in other areas in the company, but my offer was to move me to Ft. Wayne, Indiana — to even further isolation — and I’d have to be on the road four out of five days a week training. It was an impossible position. Luckily, one of my fellow original Orlando colleagues realized that when we had all been offered jobs by our old boss with GTE, we had signed employment contracts stating that within two years, GTE’s EFT business would be moved to Orlando and us along with it. We were able to use these contracts to force a breach-of-contract with GTE, who quickly offered to pay our expenses and provide generous severance to move us back to Florida. For his part, Alan had reconnected with his former boss Ed, who said he had moved his company from Orlando to Melbourne, FL and this time he really did want to bring Alan in as a partner.
So with a great amount of trepidation, I accepted GTE’s severance and relocation package, and back we went, this time to Melbourne. We rented a house in the Eau Gallie neighborhood, a nice, friendly little enclave. I quickly learned our next-door neighbor was another former colleague from my days in Orlando, and he, his wife and I struck up a good friendship. Harry and Sarah, along with a younger couple across the street from us, Robert and Cindy, became my guardian angels of sorts. Harry and Sarah had young adult children who were out more than in, so they reveled in my two children, and Robert and Cindy’s own three young kids. Our evenings and weekends were full of children’s laughter, clam bakes, and Robert’s funny military stories. Robert and Cindy were both former Army, and had met as fellow MPs in Texas in a rather ignominious way. While chasing a perp who had gone AWOL, Robert became entangled in concertina wire. He called for backup, and it was Cindy who came to his rescue. They were such a wonderful, laid-back family with huge extended family roots in Texas. I sincerely enjoyed their warmth and companionship during my troubled marriage.
In the meantime, I found a job at the local university, Florida Tech, working on a new campus debit card and student ID program. It was a perfect fit given my EFT banking experience, and I had absolutely lucked out getting the job as a walk-in just filling out an application at the right time, and in front of the right person (the then business manager who was in charge of starting this new program happened to be in the HR office while everyone else was out to lunch, when I showed up). I loved the job, loved the family atmosphere on campus, and quickly made good friends. Among them were the campus Telecommunications officer manager, Linda, a salty, funny woman from Oklahoma, who quickly took me on in a half-mother, half-big-sister way; my assistant, a lovely girl several years younger than me, Lisa; and later, a delightfully quirky, pretty brunette closer to my own age named Barbie, who has and always will remain the sister I never had.
For his part, Alan was learning the hard way that Ed was still, as ever, full of promises but no real commitment. Their “partnership” never happened, but Alan continued to work for Ed. Over the next year, I could see Alan unraveling, growing more and more disappointed and angry with himself, and conversely, becoming more angry at me as my own job and friendships were flourishing. He grew incredibly jealous of my time with Linda and Barbie. Less so with our neighbors, but then Robert towered over Alan, and despite his gentle demeanor, I think Alan knew he couldn’t pull one over on Robert. Likewise with Harry and Sarah. I think they copped on to Alan’s issues fairly early, and kept a wary eye on him.
In 1990, a co-worker and friend at Florida Tech, knowing my original background as a theater major (we had discussed my love of musical theater many times, as he managed the campus auditorium), suggested I audition for an upcoming play by the local Melbourne theater group. They were using Florida Tech’s auditorium while their own stage was being rebuilt, and my friend Gary was stage-managing the production for them at Florida Tech. I hadn’t been on a stage for nearly fifteen years, and other than singing lullabies to my kids at night, hadn’t professionally sung in just as long. But at Gary’s urging, I decided to give it a go. At first, Alan was somewhat supportive. I think he never thought I’d make it past the audition phase, and frankly, neither did I. But the night of auditions, I went in prepared to sing — of all things — Ariel’s ‘The Girl Who Has Everything’ from The Little Mermaid (hey, this is what singing to toddlers brings you to). I was able to pull off the dance audition without tripping myself, and was astounded to learn I’d been cast in the production, which was Neil Simon’s They’re Playing Our Song.
As I said, I don’t think Alan expected me to get past auditions, so although initially supportive, he quickly became jealous and enraged as rehearsals and eventually performances took much of my time. By the time the production was over, he had lost any veneer of sanity he once had and his behavior toward me became more and more bizarre and ugly.
Each morning, before leaving for work, he’d make me stand in the front doorway with full sunlight to my back, to make sure (as he put it) that you couldn’t see my privates through whatever skirt or dress I was wearing, and that it was long enough to cover my knees.
My contact lenses had been destroyed when a young, curious Jessica discovered them in the bathroom one day, thought they were some sort of cool mint, and tried to chew them. When I’d suggest to Alan that I needed new ones instead of my badly out-of-date clunky ’80’s tortoise-shell glasses, he’d insist we couldn’t afford them and my old glasses were fine. I wasn’t allowed to buy new clothes, and was only saved by my mother and aunt, who had opened a consignment shop in Philly, and sent down things for the kids and me. We weren’t allowed to have a phone because we “couldn’t afford it.” Granted, I wasn’t making huge money at Florida Tech, but I knew it was enough to pay the bills and afford a phone. Yet Alan demanded I hand each paycheck over to him. He’d deposit enough in our bank account to cover the rent, utilities, and lob me some grocery money. The rest went into his pocket, along with whatever he was making with Ed. I never saw it. Sometimes I’d get lucky enough when he was drunk and passed out and find the odd $20 in a pocket of his pants I was preparing to wash. I’d carefully hide those found bills in an envelope tucked in a photo album.
Not having a phone proved to be crucial when, in October 1989, my family tried to reach me. The only number they had was Alan’s work number and my own, and it turned out my dad had suffered a massive stroke, aged 60. The hospital called both my work and Alan’s work and left messages. Alan got in to work early, just before I left, so by the time I got to my desk, he had already received the message. He phoned me at my work to deliver the bad news. All we knew was massive stroke and he was on life support. I quickly called my uncle, who filled me in as much as he could. He also arranged to cover flights for both my brother and I out of Orlando. As it turned out, my flight from Melbourne to Orlando was delayed, and I couldn’t get up until the next morning. My brother got in ahead, and collected me from the train station outside Philadelphia. The news was not good. Marty told me that our dad had, for all intent and purposes, been declared brain dead. He said he was being kept on life support only as long as it took for me to get up and for us to convince our mother that any hope of his surviving the stroke was long gone.
When we arrived at the hospital, my mother was beside herself with shock and grief. She had just been at the travel agent’s the day before to pick up plane tickets for her and my father to come down and visit us. It would have been his first trip down since I’d moved in 1983, and her first since Jessica was born. They had planned it for their 35th wedding anniversary. I knew the minute I saw my beloved father that he was gone. No amount of tubes or breathing machines could convince me it was anything more than smoke and mirrors. But my brother and I had to somehow gently talk my mother into letting go. We went outside the room for a bit to confer with my father’s eldest brother, my Uncle Ray, who had just arrived. Ray went in to chat with my mother, and Marty and I stood in the hallway, uncertain how to proceed. As we held up the corridor walls, I caught a slight figure coming down the hallway, all in black, and bustling at a rapid and familiar gait. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I blinked and looked again: sure enough, striding toward us (but not yet seeing us) was the figure of one Father Francis Sabatini. Father Sabatini had been my director in high school plays, and had actually married Alan and me. My father, in his salad days, used to do technical directing at a local Catholic girls’ high school. It was his passion — he loved electronics, gizmos, recording equipment, special effects — you name it. I’m actually certain that listening to his collection of old 33 rpm show recordings as a young girl were the inspiration for my love of musical theater (along with a fairly sizable genetic predisposition). Plumbing was his family legacy, but he had a true gift for all things electronic and would have been an enthusiastic user of today’s tech wizardy, had he lived to see it. When they adopted my brother and me, my father gave up his theater work. But when I got into theater in high school, and discovered the school’s tech director was giving it up, I knew just who to ask. And my father very enthusiastically agreed. So for years — even long after I graduated and moved away — my father continued to work with Father Sabatini and manage the technical directing of his plays. They had a deep friendship and admiration for each other, while my mother had rather a love-hate relationship with Father Sab, as we called him. I think because he got so much of my dad’s spare time, especially after I left, my mother was a bit jealous.
But now here he was, coming down the hallway of Chestnut Hill Hospital. And I could think of no better man than him to help my mother through the crisis. I called out, “Father Sab?” He looked up and I think he thought he was seeing ghosts himself, “Mari T — is that you?” I rushed up and gave him a warm hug. “What are you doing here?” he asked. I think when he took in the scene and my brother standing there with me as well, he knew immediately. “Oh no…is it your dad?” I broke into tears and nodded. He took both our hands and bustled into the room, but not before I explained to him where we stood and what we needed to do.
He embraced my mother, who was equally shocked to see him, and my Uncle Ray. Then he blessed my dad, and went back out into the hallway with my brother and me. Fortunately, at that point, my father’s doctor (whom we had already met and with whom we had already tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my mother to let my dad go) arrived back, and we quickly explained the relationship between Father Sab and my dad. He seemed relieved to have a “holy” backup, and the two again approached my mother. This time, with all of us, including my Uncle Ray, we were able to gently persuade her it was time for my dad to go.
While at my mother’s, preparing for my father’s funeral and burial, I had a visit from my old boyfriend, the one whom I’d lost moving to Orlando. I knew how much he hated funerals (he lost his own mother at a very young age), and was not surprised when he said he didn’t feel able to make it to my dad’s, but wanted to come by personally to express his condolences to my mother and me. We sat and chatted for a long while. He told me how he used to run into my dad at dad’s favorite watering hole. They’d talk congenially about everything and nothing, but the one thing that stood out to my friend Ron (and to me) was that he said my father expressed how worried about me he was. He felt (even without seeing it firsthand or me telling him) that Alan was a danger to me, and he constantly fretted over it. My mother was more of the school of “she made her own bed, now she can lie in it,” so I suppose she managed to keep him from “interfering” in any way. I dunno. A part of me wishes he had come and rescued me. Perhaps between he and my brother, I would have felt strong enough to break free before it was too late. And I hope that I in no way contributed to any stress that could’ve caused my father’s stroke. The doctor told us it was likely a congenital abnormality (my dad was born a preemie in a time when preemies weren’t supposed to survive) that led to weakening of the arteries in his cerebellum, leading to a cerebral hemorrhage. But there are days I feel the guilt, regardless. And I deeply miss him.
But at least after that event, we finally got a phone at home.
Once back in Melbourne, and the misery that was my marriage, fate stepped in the way again. I discovered I was pregnant again. This time I was panicked and I knew there was no way I could bring another child into the increasingly toxic mix that was our relationship. One day, I slipped out during work and quietly made an appointment with our local clinic. After the initial appointment, I scheduled a date for an abortion a week later. That weekend, Alan, the kids, and I were driving to just outside Orlando to visit with old friends of ours, a fellow Alan had worked with and his wife, whose company I had enjoyed. We spent a relaxing day with them, but by the end of the day I was feeling crampy and very ill. We got home and I told Alan I was going to take a shower to ease the cramps. After about five minutes under the hot water, all I remember is feeling incredibly dizzy and nauseous, and seeing a huge amount of blood swirling toward the shower drain. I thought I screamed several times, sure Alan would come running, but I don’t think a sound was actually coming out of my mouth. At some stage, Alan did come into the bathroom, found me collapsed on the shower floor, and called 911.
I came around just as the EMTs showed up — a panicky young fellow who had clearly never seen that much blood in his life, and his more calm female superior, who took charge and knew immediately what had happened. I had miscarried, fortunately very early. But I still lost a good deal of blood. I recall being told at Holmes Regional Medical Center that I needed blood, and asked if I was a donor. I said yes, I had been a regular donor in Orlando for years, especially as I was A-negative, and asked if I could be sure I would get my own banked blood. When they told me no, they could not promise that, I told them I would refuse any blood given. I was just too leery and aware of the problems the Red Cross had with blood pre-1992, and I wasn’t taking any chances. So they reluctantly released me after an overnight, with instructions to eat large amounts of liver, dark greens and a prescription for iron supplements.
Alan played the attentive care-giver while I recuperated. It was just before Christmas and his father, father’s girlfriend and her young son were supposed to be down to visit us. I was hardly in a fit state to be hosting company, but after they arrived, Alan demanded I play the role of good hostess and had me up and down non-stop. Thankfully, even his father and his girlfriend realized I was in no fit state and urged me to rest, admonishing Alan for forcing me to do all this work. While he acquiesced during their visit, afterward he became a tyrant, reminding me they were no longer around to give me an excuse to sit on my “lazy butt.”
His demands grew crazier. One night, I had dutifully fixed supper but Alan was a no-show. After waiting several hours, I finally took his plate, wrapped it, and placed it in the fridge. When he eventually arrived home late that night, drunk, he flew into a rage that supper wasn’t hot and ready for him at the table. My parenting skills were questioned, laundry wasn’t done right — nothing seemed to please him. Sex became rape — he took it when and how he wanted it. There was no foreplay, no loving embraces leading up to it. Just brutal, cold sex when the mood hit him. There were two incidents where he became physically aggressive and I called the police. But on both occasions, I lost my will and declined to press charges. On the second occasion, I got a stern lecture from a female officer who explained that the next time I might not be so lucky, and I would be well wise to leave him. I took it on board, but like so many others in my position, convinced myself that “next time” wouldn’t come.
In late 1991, I got a phone call from him late one night. He’d been arrested for open container and needed me to come bail him out of jail. We barely had enough to cover our expenses, and I had to scramble to come up with $250 dollars in one night. But dutiful idiot that I was, I drove to the Melbourne municipal jail, paid his bond and drove him home.
Following that, I was cleaning out our back laundry room one day, which included some shelving full of Alan’s tools and assorted stuff. I spied a phone wire coming from somewhere amid a jumble of things, only to discover it led to a hook-up to both our telephone and a tape recorder. As I played what was on the tape, I realized Alan had set up this elaborate yet amateurish recording system in hopes he catch me out cheating on him, which I had never done nor given him any cause to believe I was. I was astounded, to say the least. I left the system in place, thinking it could potentially backfire on him, giving me evidence of his insanity and brutality.
A few nights after that discovery, about mid-evening, I heard a commotion out front. Alan hadn’t come home at dinner time (a pattern I’d grown used to). But now he was outside and I could see a Melbourne police cruiser, lights flashing, and my neighbors Robert and Harry holding Alan down on the hood of our car. I was almost afraid to even go out, but eventually crept out the front door and quietly stood by the kerb, watching this tableau unfold. Alan was clearly out of his mind, blindly trying to fight the much-larger Robert and stronger Harry. The police officer stood by ready to intervene, but I think he felt (as I did) that Robert and Harry had the situation well under control. After they finally got Alan subdued, they let him up and he stalked sullenly into the house. I stood outside a few moments more, looking to Robert, Harry or the cop for some sort of answer. After Robert explained that I was the lunatic’s wife, the cop told me he had pulled Alan in our neighborhood for suspected DUI. Alan, enraged, got out of the car intent on ignoring the cop. Robert and Harry happened to both be outside chatting when all this unfolded. They were trying to convince him he needed to stay put and talk reasonably with the police, or risk being arrested for resisting on top of the DUI. He decided to resist both Robert and Harry, which is where I came in. The cop decided the better part of valor was to just let it go, although I later learned a more detailed reason why that happened years down the road.
Back inside, I tiptoed around Alan, not wishing to poke the bear any further. I didn’t even wince when he decided to take sex in his usual brutal manner. The next day, a Saturday, Alan didn’t rise with his usual post-binge remorse. He awoke still angry and decided to take it out on me. I don’t even remember what triggered it, but before I knew it, he had grabbed me hard by the arm and flung me against the front door. I took the proximity and opportunity, opened the front door and ran outside. He chased after me, grabbing me again and flinging me to the pathway outside our door. Luckily, Sarah happened to be outside. She knew better than to second-guess, and immediately ran over, ignoring both Alan and me, grabbed the kids from inside and ran back with them to her house. Apparently there, she called the police, then came back outside to grab me. I think her quick actions left Alan standing there motionless and shocked. The police arrived quickly, chatted with me, examined the bruises now showing on my arm, and arrested him on the spot. I was given the same lectures by the police as the last two calls, but this time I knew that Alan had unraveled beyond any point of redemption. I knew they were right, I knew what I had to do, and although frightened of what lay ahead of me, resolved to do it.
Because it was the weekend, Alan was being held in the county jail until he could face a judge on Monday morning. I had been advised by police to file a restraining order which would keep him out of the house until his sentencing. That Monday, I submitted a copy of the restraining order to our campus security office, as Alan would probably attempt to contact me there first. I ignored all phone calls from him, and kept to my shaky resolve to be free of him. Eventually, we did talk by phone which involved him being conciliatory and cajoling — begging me to drop charges, he would seek treatment, etc. But I told him the charges were beyond my control, which was the truth — the Florida State Attorney’s office has the discretion to proceed with a case of domestic assault even if the victim elects to drop charges, and in this case, they were moving ahead. As far as him seeking treatment, I told him that was great, but until it happened, there was no way he could be in my or our children’s lives.
I had been invited up by my mother to visit that June of 1991. I was really looking forward to getting away from the morass my life had become. But there was a snag. Alan was demanding that our son Alex remain home and he be allowed to spend the time with him. He even threatened to come take Alex or stop him boarding the plane if I didn’t acquiesce. After several exchanges with my mother, the State Attorney’s office, and the police, it was agreed that for my son’s safety and my own, Alan be permitted to have his way to avoid any potential for violence. It killed me to do it, but Jessica and I went to Philadelphia and tried to enjoy the time with my family. At one point during our visit, my brother phoned. I hadn’t talked to him in a while, but I suppose my mom had filled him in on the situation with Alan and me, and when she handed the phone to me to speak with Marty, he was livid. He couldn’t understand how I could let Alan have Alex, but did calm down somewhat when I explained the tricky situation. Then he coolly told me that it was long past time to “take care of Alan,” and that he could find easy ways to do just that. I begged him not to — imploring him that it wouldn’t help me or my mom if he ended up going to jail for murdering my husband. Thankfully, he listened. Much as that would be an easy solution, I knew it wasn’t the right one.
When Jessica and I returned to Florida, I had no choice but to have some limited interaction with Alan. Leading up to his trial, he would attempt to come by the house or phone me, persistently begging me to drop charges and ‘resolve it’ as a couple. Somehow, we finally made it to the trial date. I had been appointed a State Victim-Witness Advocate, a lovely young woman who was my rock throughout the ordeal of his hearing. He sat at the front of the courtroom, and I in the back with the VWA. I watched as his jaw worked non-stop, clenching and unclenching as the judge read out the charges and adjudicated him guilty of battery spousal abuse. His “sentence”? The toughest under Florida law at that time: six months probation, one anger management course and twenty hours’ community service.
He was taken to the back of the courtroom by a bailiff to complete paperwork, and my VWA went along. When she returned, her face was ashen and she told me we needed to go down the hallway and file a second protection injunction (my existing one was set to expire). She explained as we walked to the clerk’s office that my husband had threatened in front of her and the bailiff to take the kids and flee the state. She signed an affidavit for the clerk, indicating she had witnessed this threat, and recommended that he be given no contact whatsoever with either me or the children (our prior order gave him every-other-weekend visits with the children).
The clerk, accompanied by the VWA, took the PVO request into then family court Judge Tanya Rainwater, a woman with a reputation for siding in favor of fathers in custody cases. When they came back out, my VWA’s face was even more ashen. She looked absolutely shocked. “Rainwater has approved your PVO, but she says your husband has ‘rights’ and deserves unsupervised visitation with the kids, so the every-other-weekend still stands. I can’t believe it — despite that I told her his history and the threat to leave the state, she still agreed to this shit.” I was just as shocked. The only good news was this restraining order was good for eighteen months.
Alan did eventually enter into treatment, and things were blissfully quiet for a week or two. Then I discovered I was pregnant again. I suppose I thought the stress of the trial and everything leading up to it had just thrown off my menstrual cycle. But two months in, I knew. So again, I made plans to schedule an abortion. Several nights prior, I’d been invited by my friends Linda and Barbie to watch Trains, Planes and Automobiles at Linda’s, with the kids. It was such a wonderful night — we laughed until we wet ourselves over the movie, over silly things. And then suddenly I was wracked by that familiar cramping. I rushed to Linda’s bathroom, and after several tense moments, the pain passed and I thought perhaps it had just been a brief scare. I had some spotting on my underwear, but based on my previous miscarriage, there was nothing to alert me to anything drastic. I went home that night and slept fitfully, knowing I had a unavoidable meeting scheduled with Alan and his treatment therapist the next day, and the appointment at the clinic looming two days after.
I went to work and started suffering more cramps, but soldiered on until I was due to meet with Alan and his therapist. I drove to Twin Rivers, the local rehab, and was directed to a room where Alan and his therapist, a woman, were waiting. As I sat on the couch, I immediately began to feel lightheaded and nauseous, and the cramping began again. I must’ve looked horrendous, as the therapist immediately became concerned. “Are you alright?” she asked, as she placed a hand to my forehead. “You look as white as a ghost.” No sooner were the words out of her mouth than I blacked out on the sofa. Apparently they called for an ambulance, which in hindsight seemed quite silly to me, as the hospital was directly across the street from Twin Rivers. I came to as they were strapping me on a gurney. Alan was loping behind me, with his therapist telling him to come back. Luckily, he listened. I gave the therapist my number at work and asked her to alert my colleagues.
I was placed in a wheelchair and pushed into the corner of the emergency room waiting area, where I sat painfully for a good twenty minutes. During that time, my friend Barbie arrived and found me facing the wall. “Are you being punished, girl?” she asked, brightening my spirits immensely. But then just as quickly, I was hit with a massive cramp and asked her to wheel me to the restroom. While in there, I passed what I thought was a huge clot, became lightheaded again, and pulled the nurses’ call cord next to the toilet. They came rushing in and immediately took me back to the treating area. After an ultrasound, examination and further testing, they felt pretty certain I had suffered another miscarriage and that there was some evidence I might also have fibroid tumors. I was told to arrange for further testing with my doctor.
When I was finally released (this time I didn’t require blood and didn’t feel as weak as the first one), I did schedule a biopsy with another hospital, having heard horror stories about the local Melbourne hospital. I opted instead for one further north, with a better reputation. My friend Yvonne’s husband David (who we affectionately called Gonzo) offered to take me for the outpatient biopsy and wait with me. As I came out of my anaesthetic fog, the first thing I saw was the fuzzy image of Gonzo’s purple satin LA Lakers jacket — a comforting sight, indeed. They discovered I had two massive fibroid tumors, one internal to my uterus and one external. I was told I had the option of a full hysterectomy, leaving the ovaries, or they could remove the fibroids leaving my uterus intact, but with no guarantee I wouldn’t develop more down the road. Given that I was only 31 at the time, I know the hospital staff probably saw a young woman capable or desirous of having more children. But they didn’t know my story, so I think they were caught off guard by my decision to go with the full hysterectomy. Jessica, Alex and my lost daughter Kerry were all I ever needed or wanted, I reasoned. And with the way things were going, more children were clearly the last thing on my mind.
By the time my hysterectomy was scheduled, we were approaching Christmas 1991. I was able to work the surgery and recovery around our work closing for the semester break. But what I didn’t count on was the fact that Alan was now out of treatment, ‘clean and sober,’ and ready to take on the role of doting husband and caregiver while I recovered. He insisted he wanted to be there for me, see me through the surgery and help with the kids when I got home. I suppose I was just too weakened physically at that point to protest. But I by no means saw it as any kind of permanent reconciliation. Too much water had gone under that bridge.
So I allowed him to drive me to the hospital, care for the kids while I was in there, and take me home afterward. But I very carefully explained as I finished my recovery heading into the new year, that I just couldn’t get back together with him. His sobriety was too fragile. And luckily at that point, he had chosen my friend Linda (herself a recovering alcoholic at the time) as his sponsor, so he was permitting himself to be very much guided by my wishes and her advice. He stayed away after that Christmas and New Year. At least for a while.
I could tell when he fell off the wagon immediately. In the spring of 1992, the phone calls became bizarre again. And I had one from his brother Will, who related to me that he was getting crazy, long-winded, late night phone calls from Alan as well. He warned me that he thought Alan was dangerous and to protect myself. Linda was concerned as she hadn’t heard from him and he had missed numerous AA meetings. And even despite a new restraining order, I was increasingly besieged by calls from Alan and attempts to come to the house. He was unhappy and angry that I wasn’t willing to reconcile. He was making threats of physical harm, and again, of kidnapping the kids. I called the police and asked what I should do. Their suggestion was pretty blunt: I needed to move to a domestic violence shelter. And fast. My friends and work colleagues felt the same way.
So one day at work, we all sat down in the cafeteria to discuss the plan. A napkin was brought out to write it all down. I was going to arrange with the Melbourne police to have an officer on site while I cleared out my belongings and packed a few bags for the kids’ and myself. My friend Gary, manager at the campus auditorium, agreed to store furniture and household effects for me until I found a new place to live. He also lent me the use of an old black Buick, since Alan and I only had one car at the time. My boss gave me a cell phone to use for emergencies — one of the early Motorola phones that looks like a big, gray brick. He also set up a trap on my work phone, to catch any calls or messages left by Alan. I was going to stay with a work colleague for two days until the local Cocoa Beach DV shelter had a spot available for us. Alan didn’t know this colleague, so we felt it would be safest. I was and will always be grateful to the Florida Tech community who rallied around me. They kept me steady, focused and safe.
When I arrived with the kids at friend and colleague Nina’s house, I couldn’t have been made more welcome. Nina shared her own story with me, which was eerily similar to my circumstances. When she had to flee her own abusive husband, with two kids in tow, a friend took her in. Nina was embarrassed that she had no money to help with groceries, etc., but the friend told her not to worry. “One day you’ll have the opportunity to pay this forward to another woman in need, and that’s all the payment I need,” she told her. So Nina was now doing exactly what her long-ago friend had done. And I couldn’t be more grateful to her for it. She gave us normalcy and safety in those two harrowing days, knowing my life was going to change irrevocably once we entered that shelter.
After our two days with Nina, we drove to Cocoa and the Salvation Army shelter in July 1992. We were checked in and the rules were explained to us: NO contact with the abuser, lists of shared chores, etc. We settled in to our room, which contained a single bed for me and bunk beds for the kids. We met the other women and children there and sat down to our first communal meal. I had been in touch with my mother, who although initially horrified, I think was ultimately glad I was taking the first steps to break free of Alan.
Life there was interesting. There were stories far more harrowing than mine, women who had been violently battered by their spouses or partners. There were women who continued to be cajoled by their abusers, sweet-talked back into reunions, and one woman booted out for violating the no-contact rule. Since I was one of the few with a car, I would take groups of us and our kids to the beach on the weekends, where we could momentarily forget our misery and watch our kids play in the surf. Getting from Cocoa to work was a bit of an adventure: although I was grateful for the transport Gary had loaned me, it had a bad habit of overheating on the 13-mile journey to Melbourne. So I frequently ended up using the brick phone to call while stranded on the side of the road. But we got through it. And as part of the shelter living, we also had regularly scheduled meetings and counseling, which helped me enormously to understand what I was going through and how many others like me experienced it.
There were a few times on leaving the shelter when I would spot Alan’s old Dodge station wagon parked across the road, so I was under no illusions that he knew where I was and likely followed me quite frequently. But he never tried to make contact, other than leaving pleading and bizarre messages on my work voicemail. And of course, every other weekend, I’d have to meet him at the Melbourne police station for his unsupervised visits with the kids, which always made me a nervous wreck. I’d count the minutes and hold my breath until 6 pm on Sunday, when his car would roll back into the MPD parking lot. At that point, I didn’t even know where he was staying or where he was taking the kids. But I knew enough from talking to the police that if I violated the PVO, I could go to jail.
The shelter policy was a 45-day stay, so I knew I’d have to quickly find a new place to live. I located a small rancher for rent in nearby Palm Bay, and with the help of my mother, was able to secure a used Toyota and move in August 1992.
Things were quiet through that fall. There were still the every-other-weekend visits, and Alan had managed to convince MPD to allow him to pick the kids up from my home (I was NOT happy that he now officially knew where we lived, but figured he’d already followed me and found out anyway). Unfortunately, by moving to Palm Bay, I had also placed myself outside of MPD’s jurisdiction. He told me he was staying in a friend’s work shed in Rockledge, north of Melbourne, which had been fitted with a bed and kitchenette, and that when he had the kids, he would bring them to another friend in Melbourne who had a single-family home. Trying to be conciliatory, he told me I was welcome to come check this place out so I knew the kids were safe, and arranged for me to pick them up there on one of the Sundays. I found the owner of the house, I guy whose name I don’t even remember now, to be odd. A divorcee himself, and somewhat older than Alan, he gave me the creeps. But his house was clean and when I arrived to pick up the kids one night, they were finishing up what looked to be a normal dinner of home-cooked spaghetti and meatballs. The kids always seemed withdrawn and quiet whenever they’d leave their father. I’d ask if they were okay, did they have fun, and typically got affirmative replies, but never much detail.
That Thanksgiving, I decided to hold a party — sort of a thank-you to the friends and family who had helped me through this ordeal. I had also met a new friend and neighbor, a woman my age with two kids about the same ages as my two, girl and boy. As a stay-at-home mom, Brenda offered to provide daytime afterschool care for my two, and we quickly hit it off. My mom came down from Philly and we all had an enjoyable time. My mother and I agreed it was time to begin the process of filing for divorce, so while she was in town, we made arrangements to meet a female attorney who’d been recommended to me and filed the initial paperwork. I was starting to feel normal-ish.
By the beginning of 1993, Alan was served with the initial divorce paperwork, which caused him to become agitated again and ramped up his stalking behavior. I’d find his car parked outside our house late at night. There were legions of messages left on my voicemail. One night after picking the kids up from his weekend at his friend’s house, I found him following behind me. Petrified, I drove to the Melbourne police department and went in to file a report. They noted this stalking attempt, and took a report of previous times I’d found him outside my home, and suggested I start recording his calls and messages. I told them I didn’t have a phone in my home yet (couldn’t afford one), but that he usually called my work phone and my boss had already set up a recording trap on that phone.
They walked me and the kids out to my car and thankfully, Alan seemed to have been put off by my last-minute decision to pull in at the police station. I spent the next month or so in a constant state of vigilance and agitation, never knowing when I’d see Alan in my rear-view or outside my home. And still I had to comply with the visitation terms of that damned restraining order.
In February, our first hearing before a judge on the divorce was scheduled. Alan had somehow managed to retain a legal aid lawyer, and we had been informed they were filing a motion for counseling and to dismiss the divorce proceedings. My attorney and I met them in a court chambers in Melbourne. We presented the legal history of his abuse, my restraining order, the police reports and taped evidence on his stalking. When it came time for them to present their motions, Alan spoke about his numerous stints in rehab, his attempts to get sober and his desire to try rehab again and further counseling for both of us to save our marriage. The judge looked at him blankly and said, “Mr. Steed, going by that litany, I’d have to say that you are ‘counseled out’. If you haven’t gotten it by now, you never will. Motion dismissed.’
He was enraged and when we were all walking outside to leave, he shouted across the parking lot, “You know you’re not going to get away that easy.” My attorney told me she never felt so chilled in her life.
More threatening phone messages were left after that, their intensity increasing every day. Friends, work colleagues and campus security amped up their vigilance and I was rarely left alone.
One Friday, April 2, 1993, I came home from work to collect the kids from my friend Brenda’s. Alan was scheduled to pick the kids up that evening at 6 and had already left an annoyed message to “have them ready” at my work. When I walked inside her house, Brenda had a serious look on her face and asked me to come into her bedroom for a minute, while the kids were all watching TV in her living room. She sat me on the bed and said, “Listen, I have something to tell you that’s going to be hard. Jessica told me something today. She said that her father had been touching her and described it in great detail. I really don’t think she was making it up.” The room began to swim in front of my face, and I stopped breathing. Breathe. Do it.
What I relate here will be the simplified, clinical version. The entire narrative is ultimately my children’s to tell, particularly Jessica. And only if she ever wants to.
When I was able to gather breath and power of speech, I only managed to squeak a “What?” to Brenda. She elaborated. I wanted to throw up. How had I missed this? Why didn’t Jessica tell me? Images and words banged around in my head, as I scrambled over the last year of interactions with her father, searching for any clue that might have told me this was going on. The only outward sign I could remember was their quietness after I’d pick them up from Alan’s friend’s home. Brenda continued on, “I don’t think Alex was molested, but I think he was made to watch it.” The nausea rose up my throat again.
I ran into the living room and clutched my kids to me. I don’t even remember what I said, but apparently I had enough presence of mind to reassure them they were brave, they were right in telling, and I would make it right. I turned to Brenda, “I’ve got to go to the police.” She nodded. “But Alan is due to pick them up in half an hour.” “Don’t worry about that,” Brenda said. “No doubt if he finds you not home, he’ll come to my house. George [her husband] and I have no problem telling him to fuck off, that we don’t know where you are. Just go.”
So I jumped in my car and sped to the Palm Bay police station. After carefully explaining to a desk duty officer why I was there, I was asked to sit in the waiting room while they went to find a detective. While we were waiting, I used the pay phone to call Brenda to see if Alan had been by. “He has — and he’s hopping mad, ” was Brenda’s reply. “He’s on his way to PBPD to file a report on YOU, if you can believe that.” Oh Jesus. On his way to where I was at that very minute. I ran back to the desk duty officer and explained this new development. Thankfully, as we were talking, he looked behind me and said, “Detective Santiago is coming down now…here he comes.” I turned and a detective was approaching me. I blurted out the disturbing news that my husband was on his way and I felt unsafe standing in the lobby.
He quickly ushered us upstairs and we sat and talked about the circumstances. As it turned out, my husband was NOT in fact on his way — that was a bluff to Brenda and George. He had phoned the police, but Detective Santiago had put him off saying he’d phone him back later. He took a statement from me, then said he’d need to interview both children without me being present. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of knowing your children are having to explain something so awful, at such a young age (they were 6 and 5 at the time), to a complete stranger, albeit a police officer. They were videotaped and I could not be there for them, although I completely understand why. We reconvened back at Santiago’s desk afterward, and another officer took the kids off to a play room to watch a video while Santiago spoke with me.
He started by saying that Jessica was one of the most credible 6-year old victims he’d ever encountered. She was able to describe in great detail what her father did (thankfully, shy of intercourse, he believed), using adult terminology for body parts. I explained that I had never been a fan of using cutesy, childish terms for the children’s genitals and always taught them to use the correct anatomical descriptions. “Well,” he said, “You have no idea how much that helps.” At the end of the interview, his phone rang and it turned out to be Alan. To this day, I’ll never understand what transpired next, whether it’s proper police protocol or what, but in the course of the conversation, Santiago told my husband he was under investigation for suspected sexual abuse of his daughter and endangerment by having our son witness it. I almost fell off the chair. I was seriously concerned that if Alan knew he was under investigation for these charges, he’d do something completely deranged.
When Santiago hung up I asked him what was next. “Well, we’ll need to have a state child protection agent interview the children tonight, and then schedule for a physical exam for both children on Monday morning. I feel pretty certain what’s happened is exactly what your children described, but we need to have all proper documentation. Once the physical exam is done Monday and all the evidence is prepared, we’ll have a warrant issued for his arrest.” He gave me the address of the medical practice where the exam would take place, and I gulped when I saw the name. I knew exactly where it was — directly across the street from the auto yard and shed where Alan was currently staying. He continued on, “The problem now is that he’s living in Rockledge, so the warrant will have to be served by them. And he won’t give us that address, so we don’t know where in Rockledge he is.” “But I know exactly where he’s living,” I said. And I proceeded to tell him where, and what his car looked like. “So my kids need to be interviewed again tonight?” I asked, looking at my watch. It was already after 9 pm by this point. “Yes,” he replied. “Unfortunately we do need to send someone out tonight. I’ll try to have them out there as soon as possible. And we’ll have an officer keep watch on your house, in case he tries to show up there.”
We left the police station, and I drove home on autopilot, still not over the shock of the last four hours. When we got home, I could tell the kids were exhausted, and normally they would be the ones begging me to stay up and watch TV. But tonight they were beyond that, and I felt like the world’s worst mother trying to force them to stay up as we sat on the couch waiting for the CPS investigator. She rolled up about 15 minutes after we arrived home, but Alex was already solidly out like a light when she arrived. Gratefully, she agreed that his interview was not critical and just questioned Jessica. The whole interview took no more than half an hour, and I was permitted to be present.
The rest of that weekend was a blur. There were no phone messages from Alan, but now this was a more terrifying thing than the usual nuisance. I spoke with my friend Linda, who offered to put the kids and me up at her place, but I felt it unwise to risk her and her family in case Alan tried to do something truly stupid. Besides, I had seen the police cruiser outside my house Friday evening, and there had been several cruiser drive-bys on Saturday. We somehow made it through Sunday, and I went off to work like a zombie Monday morning, leaving the kids at Brenda’s until it was time to collect them for the physical exam in Rockledge at 1:30. I was completely distracted at work, but managed to hang on until it was time for our appointment.
When we arrived in Rockledge, the first thing I made careful note of was that Alan’s car was parked in the auto yard where he was staying. I phoned Detective Santiago from my brick phone and let him know he was there. He advised that Rockledge would be serving the warrant on Tuesday, after the full report was written up. We entered the medical clinic and were met by another CPS investigator, a kindly man named Mark Foley, who immediately put me at ease. He very patiently explained the procedure, and seemed well versed on our case. While both children were being examined, he sat with me and seemed to genuinely care for what we were experiencing. It was over and done within the hour, and Foley promised he would rush the report back to PBPD and FL CPS. He felt certain they’d get a warrant within hours.
I again made it through Monday night on autopilot, with still not a sound from Alan. At work the next day, I arranged with a co-worker to go to her house in Palm Bay that night with the kids. Her husband had undergone some sort of nasal surgery, and she had two young children and a new baby. She asked for my help with her kids while she nursed her husband. I thought it might be a welcome diversion, so off we went after work. We had a nice evening fixing dinner, watching our kids play, and listening to her husband’s constant moaning. It was nearly 10 pm when I told my friend I needed to leave and get the kids to bed.
Upon my return, I immediately got the sleepy kids to bed and went on to my bathroom to draw a bath. A subtle movement by the bathroom door caused me to turn and I thought that perhaps one of the kids needed a final trip to the bathroom. To my horror, I was facing my husband with a drawn .357 magnum.
I screamed hysterically, which only made him hysterical. So I eventually calmed down, somehow figuring this would have the same effect on him. For a while it did. Alan was obviously drunk and I could tell he’d been sniffing glue. He rambled on and on about “what I was doing to him” and, if convicted of sexual abuse upon a child “what they’ll do to me in prison.” He repeated over and over that he would not “lose his freedom.”
This siege continued for about two hours — him flailing his gun around, which I could see from the close proximity of its barrel had five cartridges in it, me sitting naked and shivering on the bathroom floor against the tub. I finally got him to allow me to wrap two towels around myself. Eventually and somewhat bewilderingly, his thoughts turned to sex . Although this was Alan, after all. Nothing in our eight years together had made sense. Why should it now? He raped me, with the gun in his hand on the pillow beside my head. Afterward, I wrapped two bathrobes around me — I could not stop shivering, although my rational brain told me it was not cold, but shock.
He forced me back into the bathroom, and pulled the door. But obviously, one or both of the kids had wakened. The words guaranteed to tear a mother’s heart out escaped from their bedroom: “Daddy, are you going to shoot mommy?” I don’t even know which one asked it. Calmly, he replied, “No…go back to bed. Mommy and daddy are just talking.” He continued to lean on the sink, with the gun trained on me as I sat on the edge of the tub. He babbled incoherently, talking to himself. He just stared…at me, at the floor…off into space. We both chain-smoked. Then, strangely enough, when we had both run out of cigarettes, he permitted me to go into my kitchen to make coffee, albeit with his nasty gun trained on my back.
In retrospect, I know my mind reviewed and discarded a hundred possibilities of getting away from him. But I guess I was so paralyzed with fear and shock, I simply exercised every ounce of concentration I had in talking to him. Trying to get him away from his suicidal and murderous plans. He wanted to kill me, then kill himself, sending the children to my sitter’s house three doors down before doing himself in. This was replayed over and over again as he seemed to consider it himself. I felt that if he was still weighing all these options, I might just have a chance of convincing him that NOT doing it at all was also an option. At one point he posed a hypothetical: “What would happen if I were to just leave now, walk away — what would you do? Would you call the police?” I responded that if it meant my life, I would never tell another breathing soul he had ever been in my house.
This seemed to, if not appease him, at least make him sit and think. And it was at this point that I, in a state of shock and total exhaustion, sitting next to my deranged and estranged husband (we were now just two weeks shy of the final divorce decree) on the sofa, fell asleep or went into total shock around 5:10 a.m. At 5:20, I awoke to the feeling of someone or something punching my right jaw — hard. Oddly, it didn’t really seem to hurt. I felt it in an objective sort of way — pressure more than pain. Following that, I heard a loud explosion that lifted me completely out of the fog and sat me upright with the realization that he had fired the gun. I never really looked at him, at least I don’t remember doing so, but knew instinctively that he had shot himself and that I had been hit in the side of the face in the process.
Friends and police told me after the fact that I must have gone to my bathroom to survey the damage of the hit. They found evidence of bloody hand prints on bathroom faucets and door lintels. They also found my hand prints on the door lintels in my children’s room where I hastily awakened them. I vaguely remember telling them that we had to get to my friend Brenda’s house and call 911 (I still had no house phone and the brick phone’s battery was dead). I took them by the hand and remember passing the living room at a great rate of speed, where Alan lay gasping his last breath. My children have no recollection of actually seeing their father on the couch. Although at one stage, they both talked as if they did recall it, and that they thought their daddy was wearing the “funny sunglasses.” At the time, I had a pair of chintzy plastic turquoise and pink novelty sunglasses, probably from some local carnival. The kids always took turns wearing them, playing at “rock star” are just goofing off. Whether they saw those glasses or the remains of their father’s head, I have no idea. I think I don’t want to know, and more recently, my now-adult children say they don’t really recall ever seeing him that night, other than going into the bathroom.
We made it to Brenda’s house, where she exercised great presence of mind in a) answering her door at 5:30 in the morning to a crazed woman wearing two bathrobes, grasping the hands of two frightened children, and streaming blood from her face; and in b) getting me help and keeping the children safe until my mother was notified and arrived. I remained pretty much conscious, albeit still in shock. I went in to Brenda’s bathroom while she dialed 911, and promptly spat out two teeth into her sink. I still wouldn’t look in a mirror and had no clue how I appeared. When I came back out to the living room, Brenda had already shooed the children into her and George’s bedroom, where George had them watching TV, while she was on the phone with 911. There seemed to be some sort of problem: I heard Brenda shouting into the phone, “No — 781 Angle is where the shooter is. 801 Angle is where the victim is. No, fuck 781. I don’t give a fuck what’s going on there or what happens to that asshole. You get your asses to 801 and take care of the living!” Bless Brenda. Moments later, an EMT crew arrived, strapped me on board, and we silently rolled through the early morning toward the local hospital. One of the female EMTs, in touch with the ambulance behind us, felt it necessary to tell me the second ambulance was transporting my husband and that he was still breathing, as if this was amazing and wonderful news to me. I turned my head away from her and simply closed my eyes.
When we arrived at the hospital, there was much bustling about as they took information from me, including where to reach my mother and Alan’s father. I guess I was able to provide all this — I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I recall being very thirsty, and they brought me orange juice. I quickly gulped it down, and then just as quickly threw it back up, along with what looked like a quart of dark blood. At one point, I recall a nurse coming in to tell me that my husband (brought to the ER room next to mine) had died. I shed one single tear — it burned as it rolled down my good cheek — for all that could have been and the life that had been wasted. It was the day before my 33rd birthday.
They took me up for x-rays, trying to determine where the bullet had ended up. They didn’t do much else beyond that, and I absently wondered if they’d found it, and why weren’t they removing it. Shortly after, I saw that familiar purple LA Lakers jacket at the foot of my bed. It was my friend Gonzo, the knight in shining purple satin who had gotten me through my earlier biopsy. He and his wife Yvonne were among the good people who had been my ballast over the past several years. It was comforting having Gonzo there. He looked like a less-gray Jerry Garcia and was one of the funniest and smartest humans I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. He was trying to explain that Linda, our mutual friend, wanted to come immediately, after Brenda had called her to tell her what happened. But Linda’s husband Jimmy had wisely advised her that she’d never seen a gunshot victim before, and it might be better for Gonzo, the Vietnam vet, to see me first.
I’m guessing Linda didn’t listen to Jimmy, because moments later, she too entered the room, taking charge in her non-nonsense Okie way. Just behind her was Barbie. Gonzo asked them how they’d managed to get in, considering he had been given a hard time by the ER staff and had to tell them he was my uncle in order to get in. Linda and Barbie told the nurses they were my sisters. When the disbelieving nurses apparently looked sideways at them, Barbie quickly countered with, “We’re sisters. We just had different mothers.” I love that girl to bits. I felt bad for Linda, as I knew she had just sat vigil in this very hospital not two weeks prior, where they lost her 8-year old niece. She had been admitted with a flu bug and some mild dehydration, and ended up dying from a staph infection she contracted in the hospital.
I tried to fill them in on what happened, but was so woozy and out of it, I’m sure none of it made sense. They knew the obvious: Alan was dead and I had been shot in the process. That was enough. But where was the bullet, and why hadn’t they removed it, they both wanted to know? Suddenly, Linda leaned down directly over my face, and peering intently at me asked, “Honey, did you have mascara on?” “No,” I weakly replied, “Why?” “Well, you got a little smudge of somethin’ black next to your nose. Oh God. Darlin’, whatever you do, don’t sneeze.” I swear, those were her exact words. She ran to get a nurse, who quickly summoned the doctor. They had found the bullet. It was lodged in my sinus cavity just under my eye. Without a moment’s hesitation, the doctor ordered the nurse to bring him a pair of tweezer-grabber thingies, a small metal bowl and some gauze. When asked for the gauze, the nurse queried the doctor, “Sterile?” Linda turned on her like a cobra and hissed, “Is that what killed my niece? You’re going to go spelunking up this woman’s nose into an open wound, and you need to ask whether the gauze should be STERILE?!” The nurse backed away like she’d been bitten and the doctor sternly replied, “Yes, of course sterile.”
Moments later, I felt a small tug and heard the clink of metal on metal, followed by a new rush of blood out of my nose and down my throat. I threw up again. The bleeding was staunched. I was checked into a room and scheduled for maxillofacial surgery the next day. I had a wonderful surgeon who did skillful work on the side of my face as well as the destroyed upper right section of my shattered facial bone, jaw, gum and teeth. My mother was later thrilled to hear he was a graduate of Temple University’s excellent school of dental surgery.
When I was returned to my room and came to after surgery, I was somewhat horrified to realize that I had not been cleaned up one bit. I took my first look in the mirror and saw bits and pieces of my late husband still stuck in my hair and on my face. I called for a nurse and asked if there was any way they could wash me off. She calmly responded by turning on the bathroom sink and was starting to show me how I could turn my head upside down under the sink tap and use the hose extender to wash myself off, when I wheeled on her and in my best Linda impersonation, said, “I’ve just been shot in the face and my head feels like it’s been in a vise. You seriously want me to bend my head upside down under a tap and wash myself?! Are you people nuts?” They never did wash me. I tried to do the best I could, upright, with a wash cloth. Such was the treatment I received at Holmes Regional. It wasn’t until I’d left two days later and was staying at Barbie’s house (while mine was cleaned by professional crime-scene cleaners) that I was able to take a shower and wash what was left of Mr. Steed off me.
My mother arrived the day I was in surgery. It had somehow been arranged she would also stay at Barbie’s. I also didn’t learn until afterward that Brenda had done something very, very brilliant. Somehow she knew that if my mother was a day away from coming, and the police knew there was no other living relative on the scene, that they could quite literally take my children into state care. And if that happened, it might have been weeks until I’d get them back. Brenda later told me Detective Santiago came to her house the day of the shooting, looking for the kids. She had wisely moved them to her own mother’s house, several blocks away, and told Santiago that my mother was already here and they were with her. Smart lady. But now I knew they were safely with my mother and Barbie.
Alan’s father arrived that same day, along with Alan’s sister Sherry. I didn’t know what to say to them. We spent an uncomfortable several hours at the hospital with me trying to explain what happened. I think they understood and accepted that Alan was very, very sick and they were not surprised it ended the way it did. Because Alan had indicated he wanted to be an organ donor on his license, they couldn’t take possession of his body. But I promised to keep in touch with them and let them know if any service would be planned for Alan, or if they wanted his ashes, they could certainly have them. His father, W.A., said he’d take care of the car, which police had found a block from my house. Evidently Alan had broken into my house while we were at my friend’s that night. He lay waiting, hidden in a dark corner in my bedroom. I never saw him before I went in to draw my bath, even though I had gone into my room to put my glasses on my bureau.
W.A. and Sherry left the hospital later that day looking ten years older each.
After I was discharged, spent a few days at Barbie’s, and my mother returned to Philadelphia, I began the slow process of recovery. There was the physical: I had to do these ridiculous exercises with increasing numbers of stacked tongue depressors, holding them between my upper and lower teeth (or what remained of them) every day. I had a clear plastic protective bandage over the wound in my face that I wasn’t permitted to wash for weeks and had to change daily. It took another almost two years of ongoing orthodontic, maxilllofacial and dental surgeries to continue the internal repair work to my face. I still have remaining dental work to be done to this day, but after two years with my mouth stretched in never-ending dental dams, I just couldn’t take it anymore.
After three weeks, I returned to work and the welcoming arms of the Florida Tech community, who rallied around me, raised money, made food and otherwise kept me sane and steady.
We held a very small service for Alan. I felt it was something the kids and I needed for closure. It was Kafkaesque, to be honest. None of Alan’s family came. My mother was there, and my close friends. The legal aid attorney who worked with Alan on the divorce showed up, oddly. She tried to talk to me, but I wasn’t in exactly the right mood for that. She awkwardly backed off, signing the guestbook and departing with murmured condolences. Much later, Linda, the kids and I gave Alan’s ashes a send-off at a spot on the St. John’s river where he used to like to airboat. I was a bit disconcerted when we went to launch his ashes out of the container and a small metal disc fell on the ground. One of the kids went to pick it up, and we discovered to our horror that it was obviously his toe tag. We left it there. Soon after we spread the ashes in the water, we saw a small alligator rise to the surface and gobble them in. Fitting.
I also received a bill from the hospital for $300, representing the oxygen they had used to keep Alan’s organs ‘alive’ until harvesting. While one is not supposed to know such things about organ donation, I did discover that Alan’s heart had gone to a local man, an employee of the hospital, who had been in need of a transplant for some time. I knew this because the story had been in the paper. The man had a rare blood type — same as Alan’s — and he had received his transplant the day after Alan died. Too coincidental. I also received letters from the regional cornea and marrow banks, thanking me for those donations. So I sent copies of the story on the transplant and donation thank-you letters to the hospital, along with the bill, and explained that I was fairly certain they had been repaid their $300. I never heard from them again. In 1994, on the anniversary of the shooting, as part of my ongoing recovery, I wanted to bring a bouquet of flowers in to the ER nurses at Holmes Regional as a way of saying thank you. When I entered and explained who I was and presented the flowers, I was met with a cold “just put them right there,” response.
In the aftermath, I became obsessive and hyper-vigilant around my children, sort of a mama grizzly on steroids. And then there was the PTSD. That’s been a bit longer-term and harder to deal with. Popping balloons, police sirens, or even just the the muscle-y sound of a police cruiser going at great speed down a street can trigger audial hallucinations. I’ll “hear” the gun going off and instinctively jerk and go into a panic attack. I even to this day avoid watching any live coverage of traumatic events, as they can be triggers. I made the mistake of watching the horror in NYC unfold on 9/11 and immediately regretted it. It triggered a series of audial hallucinations and had me nearly under my sofa.
One day, shortly after I’d returned to work, I was trying to send a fax from our cramped, temporary Telecomm headquarters (our office was being remodeled, so we were squeezed into a corner of the university copy center). Linda and Barbie were next to me, chatting, and I was wearing a sleeveless linen dress that day. Suddenly, our current campus business manager, a man despised by many of us and later fired over sexual harassment and assault on one of our female employees, had unbeknownst come up behind me. He discovered my bra strap had slipped from under my dress strap and took it upon himself to fix it for me. I physically jumped on top of the fax machine when he touched me, shaking like a leaf, while Barbie and Linda nearly tackled the jerk. I don’t know what was said to him once those two hustled him outside, but I’m sure he’ll long remember it.
I did take advantage of the on-campus psychological counseling offered to all employees. The kids and I were matched up with wonderful individual therapists, and it was through those sessions that I began to repair and heal not only what I’d been through with Alan, but the issues that led me to seek someone like him in the first place. It was the first time I’d acknowledged the loss involved in my adoption, as well as losing my own daughter. And it felt good. It set me on a path of self-discovery and awareness that has only resulted in positive answers and outcomes for me. And for my children as well. They flourished under their therapists. Their school was sensitive to what had happened as well. Shortly after the shooting, I remember picking them up from school and was asked to meet with the school counselor for a moment. She wanted to show me a picture Jessica had drawn. She pulled out a beautiful colored drawing of a woman standing with her arms outstretched, a rainbow, sun, fluffy clouds and birds over her head. She said she had asked Jessica to draw how she felt about me, and my being shot. When she drew this gorgeous picture, the counselor asked her what it meant to Jessica. Jessica replied, “It’s my mom…she’s free now.” I can’t even type that, much less tell someone those words, without sobbing. My kids rock.
At one point in our recovery, I felt an urgent need to remember all the events leading up to that final shot. Did he say something meaningful? Admit his guilt, finally, in sexually abusing our children? Did he say I love you? Good-bye? Fuck you?
It was at the gentle urging of Gonzo, who has sadly now passed on, that I finally abandoned this idea. Gonzo would ask, “Why do you want to know? What good would it do? Live for your future. This asshole did you the biggest favor he possibly could have. He had nothing valuable to say to you.”
I think he’s right. And I’ve learned a bit more compassion along the way, and have forgiven Alan. He was sick and tortured, and lord only knows what he himself suffered as a child. I don’t have much contact with his family anymore. Shortly after W.A. and Sherry returned to North Carolina, I had a call from Detective Santiago. He wanted to warn me that Alan’s younger half-sister, Tracy, had been in a bit of denial over Alan’s death. She had contacted a local Raleigh sheriff, insisting that I was somehow the one who pulled the trigger and shot her brother, and she wanted it investigated. Of course, I think the sheriff knew better, but went through the motions of calling the PBPD. Santiago certainly knew better. The official police report read that Alan had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and that I was shot “accidentally.” I’m not sure about the last part, especially considering how many times Alan said that night that he could do a “two for one” and take us both out. Maybe at the end, he didn’t mean to hit me with the bullet exiting out of his head. But I do know, as does Santiago and anyone with a rational brain, that there was no way I could have reached around to Alan’s right side and shot a gun through his head and managed to hit myself in the face. I understand Tracy’s grief and that she only knew Alan the poetic, dreamy teenage brother. She’d had no real dealings with him once he left home at 16. She didn’t know the half of it. I called W.A. after I spoke with Santiago and it turned out he was unaware of what Tracy had done. He was upset and said he’d speak with her and get her “straightened out.” I left it at that and never heard another word about it, at least from Tracy.
I stayed in touch with W.A. , Sherry and Will for a while. We visited them over the years. Even the fences with Tracy seemed somewhat mended, and she shyly met with us on those visits. Nothing was ever said about her earlier claims. But one year, shortly after I relocated back to Philadelphia in 1998, W.A. invited the kids to come down and stay with him. Several days into their visit, I got a call from Jessica that left me deeply disturbed. She wanted to leave Pappow’s. Right away. She wouldn’t tell me anything more than that she felt uncomfortable there, as did Alex, and would I come get them right away? I made the 5-hour trip to his house, now in Virginia, and not much was said when I collected them. The drive home was equally silent. Neither has spoken about the visit since, although I did try to ask Jessica about it not long ago. At that time, she said that she didn’t really remember what had bothered her…something vague about not liking the way he was treating his then-girlfriend. I hope that was it. And I think if there was anything else, she would tell me. But even now that they’re adults, I’m forever vigilant.
Sherry and I kept up phone contact for a bit longer. Having never known her mother since she was given back to her father as an infant, she was curious. She knew her mother had died in 1986, but as I was the only other person besides Will and Alan who’d had contact with Joyce, their mother, she wanted my take on her. I’d only ever spoken to her once, but found her a sweet, soft-spoken woman who seemed to have genuinely found happiness with her husband Don in California. Unfortunately, each time I spoke with Sherry, I was constantly reminded of Alan. She always seemed drugged-out or under the influence of something when she called, and her questions or conversation were often bizarre. Thankfully, her calls were few and far between.
In 2005, while I was on a trip to Ireland and to visit my mum in England, my daughter Jessica called to tell me Sherry had phoned. None of us had heard from her in probably five years at that point. In this conversation with Jessica, she was now claiming a suspicion that I had killed Alan. I don’t know where this came from, what spurred it, but Jessica had the presence of mind to essentially tell her she was sadly mistaken, and that Tracy had already been corrected on this same assertion years before. We have not heard from any of the Steed family since. I would love the opportunity to talk with Will again, who seemed the one member of the family I could relate to. But he’s remained silent and I no longer know where he lives or how to reach him. I would hope he hasn’t bought into the Tracy-Sherry delusion that I was somehow responsible for Alan’s death. As the recipient of many of Alan’s late-night, incoherent phone calls, Will would be the only one who knew most what was going on in our marriage, and how his brother suffered. Perhaps that’s why he’s stayed quiet and out of contact.
In the intervening years, I’ve come across many former acquaintances of Alan’s who have shared stories of his behavior and occasions on which they prevented him from returning home after drunken binges, briefly sparing me his inevitable violence. I also learned that the man whose property he was staying at was the one who gave him the .357 and a supply of .38 wad-nose cartridges — the bullet I with which I was hit. I learned that a young woman I worked with at Florida Tech (ironically the very woman our ex-business manager had sexually assaulted) had befriended Alan during our separation and had given him a box of hollow-point bullets. As my late friend Gonzo explained, the hollow-points would have most assuredly ended my life had he used those. They were found in his car along with an ungodly collection of empty Old Milwaukee beer cans, dried out glue baggies and what little else Alan had left on this earth.
About a year after the shooting, I was attending the wedding of a friend and former co-worker. Her sister, who I also knew, and brother-in-law, a Melbourne police officer, were seated at the table with the kids and me. As we got chatting and the Melbourne officer realized who I was, he related to me that he had been the officer on the scene the night Alan had gotten into it with our neighbors, Robert and Harry. He told me the only reason he had let Alan go that night was that he was well-known to MPD, and it was his assertion that if he had arrested Alan, the aftermath of me being forced to bail him out yet again and the potential for escalated violence against me outweighed the benefit of taking him into custody that night. He may well have been right.
I’ve often thought that even if I had managed to divorce Alan, I’d never be truly rid of him. We could move to the opposite side of the country, or even abroad, and he would still have found ways to make our lives miserable, no doubt leading to the same, sad conclusion. One bad bar hook-up was the catalyst for that conclusion. One bad mistake on my part, driven by feelings of desperation and self-loathing. I hope no young woman ever finds herself in that place. I hope every young woman reads this and learns to recognize those red flags and avoid it.
It seems unbelievable that life changed so radically nearly twenty-two years ago. I’ve learned so much since then — about myself, about the dynamic between partners and the violence often prevalent between them. I know how lucky I am to still be alive, after what transpired. In a six-week span following my shooting, there were six murder-suicides between Brevard and neighboring Orange Counties in Florida. Of those six couples, I was the only one to survive.
I know how badly the Florida system dealt with domestic violence then, and how much still needs to be done to make it safer and better for women, children and even men in those situations. To this day, I cannot fathom why a female judge, Tanya Rainwater, would allow such an obviously deranged man as my husband have contact with children. It’s a question I know my daughter wants answered, and she has vowed to write to Judge Rainwater seeking an explanation. I can’t wait to read the response to that one.
With partner violence and rape so much in the news throughout 2014, I’ve read all the sage attempts to explain it. But the only points of view that ring true for me are those written by actual survivors. One standing outside it can only offer a subjective point of view, because until you’ve walked a mile in our shoes, you’ll never get it right nor keep it from happening,
For my part, I’ll just tell my story as warning, and hope to continue to “pay it forward,” as my friend Nina once did. The physical hole in my face has been largely repaired by skilled surgeons. The psychic hole has taken longer to mend, but I’m getting there day by day.