Season 1 Episode 11: A New Witness
Perhaps I was born to survive this.
Perhaps I was born only with the ambition
to remake myself, again and again—
the way the oak remakes itself each spring.
Whether it’s an acorn, dark and dormant.
Or tall and proud in its gray suit,
Or cut through and hollowed—
- from the poem “lighten up” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
My mother loved her sister. They didn’t always get along. They fought as sisters are wont to do. But they didn’t fight the way that my mother and Joe did.
Had you asked me a year ago, I would have guessed the relative stability of their relationship could be attributed to the fact my aunt was three years older, wiser. Or perhaps because Renee’s sense of humor made it easier to not take the drama to heart. She had a way of making anything funny.
No matter how dark.
But now that I know how my aunt played silent witness to my mother’s chronic sexual abuse, forced to watch her little sister be raped for years on end, it explains a lot of the patience she had for my mother.
And it helps me to illuminate the signs of her own trauma more clearly.
My aunt was my mother’s half-sister. She’d been born to my grandmother toward the end of her first marriage. I don’t remember much about her father except that I met him once when he ran a church in Florida. We’d gone to St. Petersburg when I was six or seven for a least a couple of months so that my grandmother could preach in his church.
So while I don’t know why they divorced, or how much of a role he played in my aunt’s life, they must’ve been on good enough terms that he would share his pulpit with his ex-wife.
This also meant that my grandparents entered their marriage with a child each. Hank Jr. had been two years older than my aunt, five years older than my mom. And while I know that he’d molested my mother, I don’t know if he tried anything with my aunt or how that might have affected her.
It’s possible that they bonded because of this environment of abuse.
One sign of this closeness between them is in my almost-name. My mother had wanted to name me after my aunt, hoping to give me a modified version of my aunt’s name. But this wasn’t to be.
As my mom told it, she’d passed out almost as soon as I was delivered—after fourteen excruciating hours of labor with no-pain medicine—as she’d often liked to add.
When she’d woken up, my father had already written the name Kory on the birth certificate. She’d been mad as hell but there was little she could do about it. The certificate was completed, signed and dated. And she’d at least gotten the middle name she’d wanted: Marie, which was the name as my grandmother’s.
My own experiences with my aunt, with the exception of the very last time we saw each other, are positive.
In my mind, she was cool.
Not only because she wore bandanas and drove a raised Jeep, but there was just something about her. With a cigarette dangling between her lips and a sweating wine cooler in one hand, she just looked like a cool person, whatever the hell that meant to a six-year-old. She was almost always in jean cut offs and a bikini top or tank top.
My aunt had dated mostly women. This pattern was so predictable that when I did see her with a man, it was always a jarring and strange experience for me. I’m sure this image I had of her wasn’t helped by the bandanas and raised Jeep, or the masculine swagger she often projected.
One of her longest partnerships was with a woman who I remember only one thing about. She drank water. Only water. As an adult I only drink water and tea myself, but as a child I was fully emerged in the realm of Kool-aid, soda, and sometimes, if I was good, my grandmother’s coveted sweet acidophilus milk, in its attractive yellow plastic container.
But no one I knew drank water.
This was a mind-blowing concept to me.
We would actually whisper about this? “Have you met Renee’s new girlfriend? She only drinks water.” As if this really was the most scandalous thing happening in my world.
One of her girlfriends had a daughter just a couple of years younger than me. This means I had, at long last, a female playmate. Until then I’d had a male half-cousin from Joe’s marriage to Lana and the two little boy cousins freshly arrived.
I went from being an only child to the self-appointed leader of a ragtag crew. Of course, not that anyone would acknowledge me as their leader, but since I was the oldest by six months, I claimed it nonetheless.
Together we spent warm days in my aunt’s backyard, in the small above-ground pool. It couldn’t have been more than three feet deep but I would float on the surface and watch the airplanes pass by overhead, their white bellies shining in the sunlight.
This view was a guarantee since the airport was about a mile away.
At night we would all pile into Renee’s bed and watch movies.
While it’s true that my aunt was patient with the kids, parrying our antics with sarcasm, she did also like to torment us. One night, as my cousins and I lay down in the dark watching a scary-ish, probably Poltergeist as it was one of my favorites, I looked toward the dark window only to discover a horrible face staring back at me.
It was pig-like with a hooked nose, snarling with monstrous white hair shooting in all directions from the top of its head. And blood streamed down its face.
I’d screamed first. And a chorus of voices rose to meet mine.
Except of course, the screams had been more confused than anything at, until I’d added the illuminating words “The window!” in which they grew more earnest once they saw the face for themselves.
Then my aunt had the audacity to run back inside, mask removed and ask us “What’s going on in here? What’s wrong with y’all?”
And then do her best not to smile while we tried to tell her about the monster outside.
Halloween masks and jump scares weren’t her only tactics.
She would also lie face down in her pool and pretend to be dead. I’d gotten wise to this game quick, but once she’d done it for so long that I’d thought she was actually dead.
Pulling on her arms only floated her across the surface and when I tipped her over toward the sky with much effort, her eyes had been wide, lifeless, unseeing.
What followed was a blood curdling scream from yours truly, at which point my aunt stood up, wiped the water from her face and said, “You could wake the dead with those pipes. Hell, you just did.”
She’d begun to laugh.
I’d begun crying.
And I’d been at her place when my mother returned after a brief disappearance. I can’t remember exactly how long she’d been “gone” or what the circumstances were, but I remembered her arrival.
I’d been sitting in one of my aunt’s highback peacock chairs, folded completely inside of it, eating a popsicle. Beside me was a tall vase with blue and gold peacock feathers protruding from it, which I liked to run my hands over when my aunt wasn’t looking.
Renee told me they were too delicate to touch, and that I’d break the feathers if I kept bending them like that. She was right. I had done this more than once, but that hadn’t stopped me. Only when she’d snap her head in my direction, trying to catch me, would I turn my attention to the scroll on the wall, pretending to inspect it with the ferver of an art historian.
It was Oriental in style with two tigers ascending a mountain.
I’d been looking at the scroll when someone knocked on the door.
Renee looked through the peep hole, grunted and undid the chain.
My mom burst in, her stride brisk. In hindsight, it’s possible she was nearing mania, or coming out of it.
“She’s right her—” Renee began, but apparently my mother wasn’t here to collect me.
“I need you to take pictures of me,” she announced.
Renee twisted the lid off a wine cooler. “For what?”
My mom inched in close to her and raised a sleeve. A large, black and purple bruise. It looked like a handprint to me. But to my aunt she said, “car accident.”
A look passed between them.
Then my mother pressed a disposable camera into her sister’s empty hand.
My aunt sighed and took another drink before putting the cooler on the counter. “Let’s do it on the balcony. The light is better.”
I rose, intending to follow them out and watch, but my mom shook her head. “Eat your popsicle, baby. We’ll be right back.”
And then they closed the door behind them.
Through the venetian blinds, I watched as my mother undressed, getting all the way down to her bra and underwear.
She was covered in bruises.
They varied in size and severity. Some black. Some fading to yellow. From the neck down, it was like looking at a corpse.
“Christ, Leitha,” my aunt murmured. “What the hell happened to you?”
I don’t remember what my mother said in reply to this. I only remember the look of her body. The cascade of blooming colors like rotting fruit. Like something was dying inside her, rotting, from the inside out.
“You look like hell,” Renee added.
If someone had said this to me, I probably would’ve cried. But my mom had actually lifted her head higher. Her smile might’ve been sad, unsteady at the corners, yet her gaze remained defiant.
My aunt raised the camera to her eye again, snapped another picture, before turning the little plastic wheel with her thumb to set up the next shot.
My mother treated her body with contempt. It was as if she wanted to hurt it as badly as she could and then look into the eyes of the bastard hurting her and say, is this the best you can do? It’s not enough. You still can’t destroy me. I’m still here.
It was probably the only way she experienced a measure of power in her abusive relationships.
Renee took another route in dealing with her trauma.
In the book The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk, one patient from the book spoke of how, after being raped, she’d begun binge eating. By binge eating, she’d made herself bigger.
When you’re big, no one looks at you, the victims had said.
When you’re big, you’re safe.
And how once these women had begun therapy, and shed the weight, they felt great. Until men began to notice them again, sparking off their compulsive eating habits.
In a short time, these women usually regained everything that they’d lost.
My aunt too had cycled with her weight over the years. I have pictures of her as a chubby kid, as a too-thin twenty-something, and an overweight adult.
Had she eaten like this to protect herself?
With so many sexual predators around, had it made her feel safer to be big?
To hide herself within herself.
Some people suffer loudly like my mom. The fallout and shockwaves felt for miles. They will be more than happy to pull up their sleeves and show you the scars. Show you where the world has cut them. Deep.
Then there are those who suffer like my aunt Renee.
They suffer with eyes wide open. Eyes they wish they could shut.
It was December 2003 when my mother called to tell me Renee had died.
I remember the moment clearly. I’d just walked through the door and dumped my heavy backpack on the floor. It was stuffed with my end of semester materials, because I had several major projects that needed to be done before the semester ended. But first, I needed food.
Before I could decide what I would eat, my phone rang.
Through my mother’s tears I heard, “ She’s gone. She’s really gone.”
My first thought was Nana, of course. True, she wasn’t old-old. She would’ve only been 68 at the time. But I definitely thought she’d go before anyone else in the family. I think she’d already had the first of several heart attacks and medical scares by then.
She was hardly a spring chicken as they say.
My friend and roommate Jen must’ve seen something in my face because she mouthed who is it?
I’d mouthed back my mom before sinking into a chair.
It would be almost three years more before Jen would meet my mother herself, see the hook-shaped scar tracing her skull with her own eyes. But already just in the years since we’d become friends, she was beginning to think of my family as “nuts.”
“Renee,” my mom said. “She’s gone.”
Shock shivered through me. “How did she die?”
“An overdose. Joe found her in the bathroom floor of her girlfriend’s apartment. Naked! He’s the one who called the police. My god, what a terrible way to go. Naked on the floor.”
I try to imagine Joe trying to dress her large, bloated body.
I listened to her cry, the minutes stretching on, folding in on themselves. Into her sadness, I said, “I’m sorry.”
My mother sniffled into the phone. “She was the only one who understood me. My poor sister.”
And I was sorry. For my mom.
For me, I was still bitter.
I was thinking things like what did she expect to happen? I told her she needed to quit that shit.
It had been only two years since I’d last seen Renee alive at my grandfather’s funeral. The only memory I really had of the two of us during that visit was of when I walked into the bathroom, found her loading her crack pipe and had reacted with rage. How I’d slapped it out of her hand into the sink.
How I’d screamed at her, demanding to know how could she do this is with children in the house. How could she.
The way she hadn’t even looked at me. Bent over the sink, her gaze down. Wounded.
Was that what she’d looked like in the last minutes of her life? Alone in a bathroom? Loading a crack pipe. Thinking…what? How had she gotten there? Why was her life so out of control? Wondering, maybe, why she couldn’t stop?
Or something simpler?
I’m tired. What will I have for dinner? Any of the mundane things we all ask ourselves during the course of our day.
Was the funeral really the last time I’d spoken to her?
I have a photo that looks like it was taken about the same time as the funeral. In it, my grandmother sits in a chair, holding my arm affectionately and smiling. Renee has her arm thrown around my shoulder.
It’s as if we hadn’t fought at all.
I don’t know if this photo was taken before, or after our confrontation. I can’t put it in the timeline.
But I hope we’d talked after. I would want her to die knowing I loved her. That 37-year-old me understands her predicament better than 17-year-old me. I’m sure whatever I said that day, had all the self-righteousness of teenage hood behind it.
Yet now, it’s no longer, that’s bad, you have to stop doing it! Now! What’s wrong with you?
Today I understand exactly what was wrong with her.
No doubt her addiction stemmed from the horrible things she’d endured as a child. Watching her step-father rape his own daughter and who knows what other dark moments.
Her addictions were only a coping mechanism against the pain.
She wasn’t her addictions.
My real aunt. as smart. Funny in a dark, sarcastic way. She would’ve been a good friend, a good aunt, to have around.
I wish she could’ve known it.
Or at least, known that I’d forgiven her.
If only it could be so easy with Joe. But then again, Renee never put her hands on me. Joe can’t say the same. And that’s the least of it.
I tell all of this to my therapist, the one I got specifically to help me work through my mother’s death and all the secrets that followed.
With her I review my old fears, and my new ones.
I wrap up our latest session with, “I’m terrified of calling the medical examiner tomorrow.”
“Why?” she asks.
“We’re close. They’re going to have an answer. They’re going to tell me…god, I don’t know. What are they going to tell me?”
“What do you think they’re going to tell you?” she asks me.
“That he killed her. They’re going to say she died of a heroin overdose and if it’s heroin, I’ll know it was him. She’s never even used it. I don’t think she even knows how to use it.”
“Let’s assume that you call them and that’s exactly what they say. What will you do then?”
What will I do then?
With the certain knowledge that he killed her?
“I don’t know,” I admit. “Try to convince the police the charge him. Though my confidence is really low. They’ve let him get away with so much. I find it hard to believe a murder charge will stick.”
“It’s also possible that you won’t have your answer tomorrow,” she reminds me. “They might tell you that it was natural causes. Or undetermined. How will you feel if it’s ambiguous?”
“I think that no matter what answer you get, it’s only important that you know what you believe happened.”
“What I believe?”
“Yes,” she said. “For your own sake you need to reconstruct the narrative and tell yourself what you think the truth is. It might be the only way forward for you.”
What do I think happened?
I ask myself this over and over, as I find the medical examiner’s number in my phone and dial it with shaking hands.
My heart pounds in my ears as I listen to the ringtone until the familiar robot voice comes onto the line.
“You’ve reached the office of the medical examiner. Please listen as the following options have changed.”
I push the numbers. I wait.
A human says, “ Medical examiner’s office, this is Cherry. How can I help you?”
“Hello. I’m calling for an update on my mother’s autopsy results.”
“Your mother’s name?” they ask again.
I give my mother’s name again.
The line crackles.
“Yes, ma’am, thank you for waiting. It looks like the medical examiner has finished her report. The cause of death is…”
My arms grow heavy. My vision darkens.