December can be a long, dark month for someone living with the grief of bereavement. The media pulls out all the stops, with movies and stories about miraculous reunions, of sadness turned to joy and appreciation, and hard hearts moved to compassion. All of it underlines our great loss. Although this was my second holiday season without my boys, I found it difficult – in part because of the national obsession with the Caylee Anthony murder. Every article rubbed salt in a wound that is too raw and recent, and my heart was wrung with sympathy. My sadness was not just for Caylee but also for her grandparents and the rest of her extended family. You see, I know something of the hell that they are all facing.
On August 8, 2007, my daughter-in-law, Manling (photo left below), ran screaming out of her front door in Rowland Heights, California. The neighbors who rushed to her aid found my 27-year-old son, Neal, lying dead in a pool of blood. He had been stabbed repeatedly. A frantic search found my two grandsons, Devon, who had just turned 7, and Ian, three-and-a-half. They had both been smothered in their beds with a pillow. Manling was in police custody and, within a couple of days, was charged with 3 counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances. In a way, it was the end of my life as well – my life as I knew it had come to an abrupt halt, and I entered the world of a murder survivor.
Having a murder in the family brings along with it a lot of repercussions. You may be suffering unbelievable loss, but you are doing so in public. Reporters staked out my house and office, and my neighbors were asked to comment. I was followed after court hearings. Family photographs taken from my dead son’s MySpace page were plastered all over the front page of local papers. This made it easy for strangers to recognize and confront me in public, as though I was just another character on their favorite cop show. They were eager to pose their theories and hoped for inside information, but they failed to remember that I was a mother with a broken heart.
It was probably a good thing that I was still in shock during those early months.
Sadly, relationships don’t always survive a murder. Some friends watched me as though they expected me to go crazy. Others avoided me like the plague. Even those who were kind and sympathetic at first often quickly tired of the whole thing. As anyone with a long-term illness can tell you, people get fed up if you don’t get better right away. They want you to get back to normal – to be the person you used to be. The trouble is that that person is gone. There is no recovery. You have to reshape your entire life, and that takes time. We are an impatient society and expect a quick fix. So we murder survivors withdraw, little by little, until, before we realize what has happened, we have become marginalized. Loss follows loss!
If you are a fan of murder mysteries, as I was, you may believe that you have a good idea of how the process works. That may not be the case. By the time the police and defense had finished their investigations of the murder site and a hazardous materials cleanup had been arranged, six months had passed. The autopsy reports on my two beautiful little boys weren’t finished until after the first of the year, four months after their murders. Forensics took even longer. On CSI they may get their results in 10 minutes, but the reality was that it took until May 2008, ten long months, for the crime lab to finish their report. These delays caused delays in the court proceedings as well. I anxiously prepared for each court appearance, only to have nothing happen yet again.
The first time I heard any actual evidence was at the preliminary hearing this last November. Those people who wanted me to give them the inside scoop were wasting their time. I didn’t even know that the murder weapon was a sword until I read it in the local newspaper. It was at the preliminary that I learned that Neal had been stabbed 97 times. Ninety-seven times! How can a person stab someone 97 times? I am still trying to absorb it. The rest of the evidence waits for the actual trial. When will that be? Six more months? A year? No one can tell. Until that happens, I am left with a lot of questions and nothing but theories to answer them.
I think the speculation is the worst part – at least for me. I know that I will never understand the why of it, but I still would like to know more about the how. It is the speculation of others that is the most painful though. People who hear about the murders immediately ask, “What did he do?” Like in a rape case where a victim is presumed to have provoked an attack, spectators are certain that my son did something to provoke his murder. Their second question is even worse. They want to know if I had any “inkling” beforehand.
It’s not that I haven’t gone over every moment that I spent with my son and his family, looking for insight. Believe me; I’ve spent many sleepless nights doing just that. Unfortunately, hindsight is very different from real time. In all honesty I can tell you that there is absolutely nothing that would have alerted me to the possibility that my daughter-in-law might murder her family. It never occurred to me. When you know someone, no matter what your relationship (and I thought I had a good relationship with Manling), you may still be shocked if he or she commits murder. Why? You know them and have spent time with them. You know that they are human. And one of our fundamental beliefs about what it means to be a human being, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is that parents will always love and protect their children. The people we read about in the papers that do horrible things, they must be monsters. There must be something that sets them apart. Because if they seem normal, is anyone safe? The answer isn’t something you want to hear.
So, am glad to see the back of December. My journey through grief hasn’t ended, but I have jumped one more hurdle. I’m proud of that. And I hope that Caylee’s family and friends will have the strength to weather their journey. I wish them peace.