recent thread on DorothyL (a subscription on-line list for mystery
lovers) centered on "killers we have known." It's strange, but
I didn't relate to the thread at first. "Strange," because I
do know a man who killed his wife; her murder, and the spousal
abuse she suffered, are central to DEAD AIR.
Around five years ago a woman who was part of my community was
strangled by her husband. A few years prior to that she and
her husband and their three daughters and one son lived only
a few blocks from us at the time, and I had no reason to suspect
that she was in danger. I had met the husband once when he came
to our house to take our youngest daughter, who was a classmate
of one of his daughters, along on a family trip to the snow,
but I never really talked with him.
The family moved to another neighborhood, across the street
from one of my closest friends, who told me he was occasionally
violent towards his wife, yelling at her loud enough so that
the neighbors could hear. One time he went to the elementary
school that his children (and mine) attended, and twisted her
arm and thumb. She went for counseling to a social worker, and
left him, I believe, once or twice, but eventually returned.
Then she disappeared. Her friend told the police she feared
that the husband had killed her, but they believed the husband,
who convinced them he was worried about his wife's disappearance.
Days later, after more prodding by the friend, the police investigated
and finally found her body in a warehouse six blocks from our
house. He had apparently strangled her while the children were
in the house. He fled, taking his young son with him, but for
some reason he returned and was apprehended by the police.
Although there had been indications that the husband was abusive,
we were all shocked by the murder, and a collective sense of
guilt permeated the community. We tried to assuage our guilt
with bits and pieces of information that we gleaned: The victim
had been advised by the social worker to leave her husband and
had worried about her children being fatherless. Her parents
had urged her to return to her husband and be a "better wife."
At her funeral, the rabbi, his voice breaking, spoke about our
having failed the dead woman. The cantor, improvising during
her eulogy, cried out bitterly against "the murderer" who had
taken her life. Her mother had always appeared to me to be somewhat
off balance. When she learned that her son-in-law had fled with
her grandson, she professed to be relieved. "At least he'll
have one parent," she told someone. After the funeral, as she
exited the hall, she assaulted the friend who had reported the
daughter's disappearance to the police.
The husband was found guilty of second-degree murder. The prosecutor
couldn't go for first degree unless the children testified,
and the court psychologists advised against that. Her three
daughters were adopted by one family, her son by another. He
seems to be leading a normal life, and I heard that his sisters
are doing the same, but I wonder how that's possible.
I wonder, too, what will happen when and if their father, who
will be up for parole in a few years, will be released from
prison. His wife's murder, and the gnawing possibility that
it could have been prevented, has haunted me for years. It's
at the core of Dead Air, which deals in great part with domestic
violence, though I didn't always realize that. I suppose I wrote
the book because I wanted to empower her and give her a fighting
chance to survive. I wish it were that simple.