Published on September 21st, 2021 | by Karissa Welch T.0
A Portrait of the Mother as Love on Fire: Death, Forgiveness, and Abolition (part II)
This is the second in a three-part series. You can read the first here.
II. The Shroud Unravels
I never realized that local news is often a family’s only source of information about their own family member’s involvement in a crime. When I’ve read about other crimes, I’ve always assumed the media was part gossip, part public warning. I usually shake my head at what the wrong-doer seems to have done. Now I read each word closely, trying to imagine a scene from my own family history that I didn’t attend, and I can’t hear about any other way. My access to what happened and what happens next is the same as the stranger passing me on the sidewalk.
Hearings and arraignments were scheduled and delayed and rescheduled and delayed, partly due to partly due to legal workings I’m not privy to, and eventually due to the beginning of COVID-19. The timeline and the would-be facts were more mysterious than ever with Victoria* and Charlie calling Joan and Iris incessantly from jail. I’d hear third-hand snippets through siblings who were in touch with Joan and deciphering public record documents, but the details changed all the time, and they made little sense.
At first, both Victoria and Charlie admitted guilt. Then they blamed each other. After that I lost track of who was innocent and who was guilty on what days. Victoria fired her public defender after he lost patience with her. Even through the written news stories, I recognized her self-aggrandizing tone as if it were her audible voice and I empathized with the lawyer. The judge told her she couldn’t fire any more lawyers. She was deemed fit to stand trial.
Meanwhile, the rest of life unraveled. If the strings of our family had been tangled before, now they snapped and frayed and burnt all at once. Joan was convinced Victoria was incapable of having killed Ryan. She said that if the rest of us had treated Victoria better – like accommodating her during the holidays – she wouldn’t have murdered her son. It was intolerable.
My grandmother died peacefully shortly before Ryan did. Two deaths, so different. One, a wonderful person who I knew, and I wish I’d known better. One, a person who barely had a chance to be wonderful, who I did not know at all.
There’s supposed to be a trial this month. It occurred to me for the first time that a conviction probably won’t change Joan’s beliefs. I feel foolish for having thought that things would ever go back to an imperfect normal or that these family relationships could be “good.” I do not know how to imagine the future of a relationship that was already difficult, but now has differing feelings about who murdered a child running down its center.
I don’t have to normalize this dynamic. I thought time eased wounds, but my anger has only heated and seated. I know that my failure to forgive will hurt me more than it hurts the people I need apologies from. I despair of Joan ever taking responsibility for the part she played, but I know of no other first step to mended relationships.
I’m recognizing that I’ve been depressed in some form lately. I didn’t see it before because it didn’t look like the other times I’ve been depressed, which were sort of a dulled, aimless weight on my spirit over nothing in particular. This time, my emotions aren’t dampened and I function pretty normally, but I’ve lost interest in the creative work that I usually want to be doing, I feel intermittently exhausted beyond my ability to recoup through sleep, and my libido is lower than ever. If anyone I know had been through the same six months of destruction, I would be concerned if they weren’t experiencing similar slowed motivations.
I’m harboring anger over Ryan’s death, the lead up, and the fall out, but I’m also angry at the degree of pain caused to everyone in our family. Victoria, Charlie, and Ryan are in the background now, while other tensions are close enough to sear me. Jon and his brothers try to keep relationships with their parents, which start tornados in their marriages. The wives text all day and all night, grieving and gossiping. “We were right all along,” we say with gifs and emojis and profanity. My oldest son draws demons on his class project about rainbows, and we have to find the right tone of voice to tell grade-school teachers about the murder of babies.
I used to think that all mothers were as good as they were able to be, even if I didn’t agree with some mothers.
But there are bad mothers. Mothers who have done bad things in relationship to their kids, and mothers who are too broken to give even a broken love. Does “fit to stand trial” mean someone who is clearly broken was aware enough to know what they were doing? I don’t know how to balance blame for sins that are not imagined and mercy for mothers who could not manage love.
There’s a difference between trying and making mistakes and doing evil. “She did the best with what she had.” That’s what we try to grant our mothers, even when we resent some things. But some mothers didn’t try. They didn’t do their best. They chose things that caused harm, and then kept choosing those things. Then there are mothers who weren’t good mothers but still have the potential to grow as people but choose not to. They do harm and say they’re not doing harm.
“She loved me in her own way” is what people who have bad parents sometimes try to say in kindness. I used to wonder how someone could care for a child, yet that care come out so twisted? Was it love or was it not love? I read that “love has the quality of the heart from which it comes.” A twisted understanding of love can only produce twisted love.
What does it mean to be a “good” mother?
I wonder if my desire to categorize some people as bad parents is so that I can compare myself and feel good.
More than the death and the trial and the questions and logistics of those things, this is about family. This murder has become an abyss that does not allow for the skipping across the cracks that was previously how we related to one another as a family.
I was seventeen when Jon and I began dating. I did not have categories for the kinds of abuse that were marbled through his family, let alone recognize them at the time. As I did begin to see it, most things were skirtable so it seemed of little consequence that I couldn’t name the smaller abuses. Jon’s parents would say racist things about my childhood, but I brushed it aside as ignorance. Joan would smack me in the head when I did or said something she disapproved of, but she did it “playfully” enough that I just stood a little further away. She said I looked like a sex worker for showing cleavage, but she didn’t mean it as a compliment. There were wounds and puzzlements, but they were forgivable. Or at least I thought they were forgettable enough. I never felt comfortable, but I didn’t expect to. No family is perfect, I knew that.
With death, and time after death, my resentments have begun to take names and shapes. The repeated paper cuts have become a wound, and suddenly a wound so tender that even the suggestion of a touch makes me twist away. I don’t know that any family’s trajectory has an inevitable destination, but when I look over my shoulder at ours, I can trace the path. And I couldn’t stop it.
I think about getting a tattoo to commemorate Ryan, my nephew. He’s worth it, but do I want to immortalize the enchilada of sorrow and hardship I’ll always associate with this season of my life? Not that I can ever forget it, but it’s good to let acute pain or anger fade with time, I think.
I started going to therapy at the encouragement of my sister-in-law, who was telling me about specific validation and healing she was getting from therapy. If I expected therapy to solve everything a) because I resisted it so long and b) because I tend to think life has hidden keys if only I could find them, it hasn’t. If I thought my therapist was going to tell me that everyone else is off their rocker and I see the world perfectly clearly, he hasn’t.
I don’t think therapy has made my heart harder, but it’s given me firmer footing for some choices to protect myself and my family that previously felt mean or that I didn’t want to confront because it was unbearably uncomfortable. If I had been more present in Victoria’s life, would she have had enough love in her? Should I have tried to connect with her in her postpartum depression? If I had been better at confrontation, would Joan have been moved to tackle her own demons? Should I have ripped Ryan from Victoria’s arms and loved him with a holy love? Am I a bad mother for trying to let my kids have grandparents despite all the trouble I recognized? I can still wonder, but I feel less tortured by things that weren’t my responsibility. I am not Joan’s mother, I am not Jon’s mother, I am not Victoria’s mother, I was not Ryan’s mother.
I hope letting go of some guilt evolves into feeling less out of control when I face upsetting reactions to my newly forged boundaries. Therapy has been a sobering look at the work I have to do in myself instead of focusing on the work that other people need to do.
My therapist is teaching me to recognize the feelings in my body when I have an emotional reaction. I think it’s a good skill, but now I’m so aware of how agitated I get surrounding topics related to this murder. I am working so hard to breathe through these holidays. I’ve taken drastic measures. I stayed home by myself at Thanksgiving when Jon took our boys to be with his family. I made wine-poached pears alone and since this is the one time of year that I remember that I still don’t own a corkscrew, I used a screwdriver and a hammer to push the cork into the bottle. What a fucking mess, the kitchen and the family. I feel like there’s an angry, sullen, licking, erratic fire in my chest.
I felt so angry so often and had such visceral reactions to contact with Joan that I became afraid at my inability to scale back those feelings. It felt like those feelings ruled me instead of me ruling them. I would shake when Joan came by our house. I thought that therapy would push me toward mending some relationships, but expressing the years of discomfort and dysfunction that I witnessed and endured resulted in my choosing to end contact between myself and my in-laws.
*All names have been changed.
**Dated areas correspond to journal entries I made over the past years, but are interwoven with recent reflection and/or backstory.