Murder, suicide and wrestling with demons
“Dancing at the Shame Prom: sharing the stories that kept us small” is a new 242 page book edited by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter published by Seal Press. In this weighty tome are essays by 27 talented women sharing their intimate stories of shame and releasing that pent up pain and reclaiming their lives. The stories are moving, raw and honest but rather than share with readers the stories from the book, I’d like to share one of my own.
I couldn’t read this book without thinking of my own shame. It’s a story I’ve told before but that I can tell now without wearing that cumbersome cloak of shame.
On Mother’s Day, May 13, 1990, my older brother Ken got a ride home from jail from a friend after being arrested the night before for disorderly conduct. Ken, a correctional officer at California State Prison Solano in Vacaville, California, put on his uniform, stripping off his nametag and patch and drove to the Parkway Lounge in Fairfield, California where his estranged girlfriend worked.
He sat in the parking lot drinking vodka and eating. Shortly after noon, he entered the establishment with a 12-gauge shotgun and shot and killed his girlfriend. Then he walked outside the bar, put the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Suddenly, in addition to mourning my brother’s death, I felt shackled with the shame of being related to a murderer. I felt guilty because I’d help move his girlfriend into his house when I knew their relationship was a disaster. For months, I’d babysit his girlfriend’s two kids at his house when they would go out for a night on the town. I was close to the children and good at directing their attention away from my brother and his girlfriend arguing in the bedroom.
And in the aftermath, I never got to see the kids again. My brother had cruelly taken their mother away and I felt guilty for that. While I never knew the relationship was going to end in horrific violence, I knew it wasn’t a healthy relationship. I felt guilt by association. I failed to sound the alarm.
Unfortunately, my devastation and anger afterwards was directed at everyone but the person whose fault it was: my brother. I blamed his girlfriend, his work and myself for not being prescient enough to see where that relationship was going. I massaged this guilt and shame with food and alcohol.
I began going with my mother to various support groups. We started with the Compassionate Friends. Then we attended an eight week group in Davis, California. Finally, I help found the Bay Area Survivors of Suicide. But all the while I was sadly welcoming survivors into the group and helping them deal with the nightmare that is losing a loved one to suicide, I felt like an imposter. My shame was that my brother wasn’t merely a suicide but a murderer. A murderer that left two children without a mother. I felt I didn’t have a right to my pain.
Years later I heard that the children’s father was killed in a traffic accident.
It was nearly 20 years later that I found the boy I used to babysit on Facebook. I reached out to him, terrified of what his response may be. I was shocked and humbled when he told me I had nothing to feel guilty for, that he never blamed me and was actually glad that I’d reached out to him. He and his sister, despite the tragedies in their lives, have turned out remarkably well.
And that’s when I felt I could dance at my own shame prom, reveal my shame and let it go.
When you read this powerful book, you can’t help but be confronted with your own shame, your own pain. There’s such a wide variety of topics addressed that someone is going to leap out at you and speak to you personally. By the time you finish, hopefully, you’ll lay your burdens down.
I wrote this column last September and I’m running it again because we’re closing in on the anniversary of my brother’s death. I’m happy that I’ve let go of the pain and misplaced feelings of guilt and shame. I’ve been to hell and back and I’m not going back to that dark place again.