I don’t recall ever being told that my father had been murdered. I have no memory of a day when my mother sat me down and slowly and carefully unwound the story of how he had been reckless with his life and that he had been murdered as a result of it. I don’t recall her telling me about the other woman … about that woman’s husband shooting my father.
His death … his murder, which occurred in 1973, long before the invention of the Internet, has been as much my story, in some ways, as it was his own.
Being the daughter of a man embroiled in scandal, infidelity and ultimately life-ending violence defines you in ways beyond comprehension.
As a young girl, when introduced to a friend’s parents, there was no mistaking that faraway look in their eyes as they tried to recall why it was that my last name raised a feeling of alarm. This was typically followed by a wave of recognition, when their memory brought back pieces of my story. Their eyes said what they could not say aloud: “Oh … she’s the daughter of the man who was murdered by his best friend,” followed by the struggle to decide whether or not they should allow their child to be friends with me at all.
For years, in an attempt to connect with my father in some way and make sense of his loss, I asked to hear the stories over and again. In those days, long before the Internet, stories were told face to face—and when you're looking someone in the eye there are choices you make about which pieces of a story to emphasize, and which to suppress.
My mother had never shielded me from the truth, yet somehow she still painted my father in a positive light. She prefaced her version with reminders that he was young … that he carried wounds from his time in Vietnam, and what he saw there forever altered the way in which he viewed life and his own mortality.
My grandmother spoke of her son, her baby, with an unwavering belief that it had all been some terrible mistake. Her son hung the moon. The newspapers were wrong. When the edges of his story told by others left me raw, I went to my grandmother and she sat with me and spoke of my father until those edges were polished smooth.
These stories, pieced together, gave me his story.
I was raised in a town that relied just as much upon the local newspaper as on stories passed through the community, from one person to another in the glaring light of the grocery store, musty church basements and small, local diners.
We often joke about there being seven degrees of separation in any situation, but in Waterville, Maine, in 1973 (perhaps even still today), that number was more like two. If you didn’t know my father, you knew his mother or his cousin or his sister.
And while I knew his story from the bits I gathered and hoarded, I came to wonder just how many specifics were omitted from the story. So I decided to find out.
On a bitterly cold day in January of 1991, in the dimly lit basement at the local college, I waded through years of microfiche, from his murder through the trial, through the subsequent appeal. I was then 19 years old and I’m still not certain if I was on a quest to fill in any gaps in my father’s story or if I was looking for inconsistencies in the versions that had been told to me over the years. What I do know is I spent hours there in the dark that day, illuminated by the screen, loading microfiche and devouring everything I could find about his life and death until my eyes grew tired and my heart heavy.
Young and impetuous, my father abandoned my mother and me for his best friend’s wife. My mother, ever certain that he would ultimately realize the mistake he made, waited for him to come home. Before she could know if he ever would, his best friend, overwhelmed with grief over watching his family fall apart, abruptly ended my father’s life. A crime of passion, his attorney insisted.
Although I knew he had been shot, my mind never lingered over the graphic nature of gunshot wounds. Rather, I always saw him, in my mind, lying peacefully on the ground, just gone.
It was there in the basement that I read that after being shot in the chest, my father raised his hands and plead for his life. I read, too, that his pleas fell on deaf ears as his murderer rose from his own chair, approached my father, stood over him and shot him directly in the face.
In the basement, I read words that weren’t buffered or shaped for me. I read the medical examiner’s testimony about my father’s chest wound being “completely incompatible with life.”
I struggled with disbelief that I had been left in the dark about those details, and simultaneously felt immeasurable gratitude that I was.
Several years ago, when we first began using Google as a verb, I typed my father’s name into that familiar search box and hit enter, expecting a flood of results. I was shocked that there were none. Zero results returned. In 0.4 seconds, Google had concluded that my father didn’t exist. My disappointment was palpable and left me feeling as though in some way, Google makes us more real. If our names don’t show up, it’s as if we don’t exist at all. My father had long been gone, removed from my life by his best friend, and according to Google he had never existed in the first place.
If you Google my father’s name today, the results are a bit different. There is still very little, but all of it involves his murder. There’s no link to a Facebook or Twitter profile, no note of awards received, promotions earned or any other such thing that we would find if we Googled our own names. The three returned results illustrate that in the Internet world, he is defined solely by his death.
If his murder occurred today, his story would be undoubtedly be exploited across the Internet. The scandalous details would likely give it that clickability that is irresistible.
I’m not sure I would have survived my father’s murder if the Internet was spreading his story like an adult version of telephone tag. As I was growing up and putting together the pieces of my own identity, and who I was both on my own and in relation to my father, his story was never splashed across a screen or shared on Facebook by shocked readers who were filled with both a general compassion for the victims and an intense relief that they were distant from it, that they were different.
If his story happened today, Googling my name would return an electronic jumble of his story and pieces of my own. My identity would undeniably be intertwined with his death. Any of my own accomplishments would be countered, perhaps even drowned out, by his loss.
And while there’s still a tiny part of me that wishes that I could Google my father’s name to find some random, wonderful, new piece of his story, I’m incredibly grateful that the Internet didn’t exist when his death occurred and in the subsequent years. Learning his story through those who loved him and saw him as a person, not a sharable, sensational news story allowed me to digest what happened in a way that was in line with where I was intellectually and emotionally at that time.
And now, as an adult, with a mixture of the facts that I read on the microfiche that day and the narrative gifted to me by my family over my lifetime tucked away in my heart, I realize that the truth lies in a combination of both facts and personal narrative. I suspect that a great part of the healing that comes after losing someone you love lies not only in the stories that we tell after they’re gone, but also in how we choose to tell them. And I’m grateful that I had the time to seek out the rest of his story and sort through it all on my own … in my own time.