It Happened To Me: My Family's Private Tragedy Became Front Page News

My grandfather was in terrible pain and had had every joint in his body replaced by plastic. My grandmother’s head shook constantly and the medicine she took gave her hallucinations that made her think my grandfather was cheating on her. He shot her in the head and then shot himself.

Dec 7, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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“Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.”

It’s possibly the worst front page headline a newspaper has ever ran, and the New York Post was -- in its typical fashion -- screaming it Tuesday, each word underlined in bold and superimposed on a horrifying photo of Queens resident Ki Suk Han. A 58-year-old husband and father, Han was shown trapped on the train tracks after being pushed there by a deranged street peddler, indeed about to be struck by an oncoming subway car. The image, captured by freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi, focuses on the headlights of the rapidly approaching Q train, illuminating Han in a ghostly glow, his tiny head turned away from the viewer but visible just above the all-caps caption:

DOOMED.

It’s gut-wrenching stuff, and it had all of my Facebook (and real-world) friends talking on Tuesday about how unbelievably callous, unethical and tasteless The Post editors are for publishing it.

I’m invested in stories like these and why we feel compelled to gawk at or reject them because in 1995 my grandparents committed double suicide. Or “murder-suicide,” as it was termed by local law enforcement and more than one local news source. “News” of my grandparents’ sad demise was printed on the front page of my hometown post and in a much larger nearby city’s major paper.

“Murder, suicide cited in deaths,” The Palladium-Times said. “Murder, Suicide Suspected In Oswego,” teased the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Read ‘em and weep. I did.

I’m not sure I can convincingly convey how surreal it is to have a tragedy like this happen in your personal life, in spite of the fact that my life has been defined in many ways by overwhelming tumultuous events. Murder. Suicide.

When the newspaper is telling you someone in your family is a murderer, should you believe it? Would your own grandfather, a man you always knew to be, yes, a curmudgeon, but a loving one -– would he commit murder? Could he commit murder? Did he commit murder? Or did they talk about it first?

Did my grandfather, as Hugo Schwyzer recently asserted, commit the “inherently misogynist act” of killing his wife “based on a man’s assumption that a woman’s body belongs to him?” Or was this, as a commenter on Schwyzer’s Role/Reboot post suggested, a “typical murder-suicide” by an “older couple where one or both have serious medical problems?”

The truth is it was probably both. And I can tell you why I think that using the “long story short” explanation I developed long ago to be able to tell people as quickly as possible about this part of my life. 

My grandfather had rheumatoid arthritis and my grandmother had Parkinson’s disease. Before it was cool. Thanks Mohammed Ali/Michael J. Fox! (Note: I try to throw a little joke in there so the anecdote will be less uncomfortable for the listener, but I probably just prove how awkward I feel about telling it.) My grandfather was in terrible pain and had had every joint in his body replaced by plastic. My grandmother’s head shook constantly and the medicine she took gave her hallucinations that made her think my grandfather was cheating on her. He shot her in the head and then shot himself.

And, yeah -– that’s where it ends. That’s how it ends. Because that’s how their story ended. What else am I supposed to say after that? I suffered from grief for years? I was 18 and this was how the people who raised me died –- they killed themselves -– or they died in a mercy killing and a murder. I mean, suicide is murder, after all. You are murdering yourself. My grandfather is a murderer, is that what you want to know?

But of course my grandfather wasn’t a murderer. Or a criminal. Very far from it, in fact. He was an orphan by 12 who was abandoned by his older siblings to be raised by his great aunt. He was an electrician in a union and he worked very hard to provide for his four children, who all grew up to be dysfunctional thanks to their perfectionist father and fragile mother who was in and out of the mental hospital their whole lives.

She grew up in an alcoholic family and was dropped on her head as a child. She probably suffered a brain injury. She had terrible anxiety her whole life. As she raised me, before I was old enough to be in school, she’d sit nearby me in her overstuffed sofa rocker and shake and cry and pray with her eyes shut tight and her hands around her rosary, telling me she was “nervous.” No one helped her. No one tried to help her. These were the people I grew up to love. A crazy lady and a murderer. If that’s what you want to reduce them to. If that’s how you like your “news.”

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I understand why the editors at the Post thought the Ki Suk Han photo might fly. After all, many Americans were begging to see photos of a dead Osama Bin Laden. We’re still transfixed by images of 9/11, even all these years later. Violence is a celebrated part of our cinematic culture, and even after an event like the "Dark Knight" massacre, thousands will fervently argue that our films aren’t too violent, that Americans don’t have a twisted love affair with guns but rather a right to own them and carry them in public, and that gangster movies and the 87 cop shows on TV every night are all in good fun.

However, I think what really sets the Post photo and story apart and elevates it above our sometimes base enjoyment of death is the fact that we perceive Han to be an innocent man. The story goes that Han was trying to protect other passengers on the platform from being harassed by the crazy man who eventually threw Han on the tracks.

Han is an Everyman sort of hero here; most of us can imagine having the (in Han’s case, alcohol-fueled) cojones to ask a peevish nuisance to behave themselves for the sake of the public good. Any New Yorker who’s lived here for more than a day can imagine being met as a result of their quiet moment of bravery with a counterattack. Public quarrels happen. But they should never end in death. Especially not when the person who dies is a “nice guy.”

That said, it’s easy to justify making a personal tragedy front page news when we feel that somehow the victim deserved to die. Or that the victim’s family deserved to suffer. We soak up personal tragedy when we feel that someone is clearly to blame for the event. We do want to revel in death, just not innocent death.

Think about the horrific story of the Krim family who lost two of their three children when their nanny slayed them and left them bleeding in the bathtub. When the news broke that a “beloved” servant -- who by all accounts was like a family member -- killed the children in her care, only a few people in my circle of friends balked at the idea of this personal tragedy running as “news.”

And that’s precisely because there are so many people and things in that story to vilify, to project our own insecurities and failings on. Many who reacted to the story were quick to blame the mother for not taking care of her own children, suggesting that she “got what she deserved.” Others blamed the family for not treating their employee with enough respect, or felt them contemptible because of their wealth.

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Another faction of the audience let their racism show itself or blamed “the liberal agenda” for the poor background check system available to domestic employers. Those who were able to evaluate the story as a tragedy that needed no blame attached should have been able to recognize that this story is not “news” to be consumed: it’s a horrifying turn taken in the real lives of real people.

Seventeen years have gone by since my family’s private tragedy was shared with the world (or our little world, anyway) without our consent. Without any warning. And probably without thinking about how we might feel when seeing our loved ones’ deaths used as raggedy gossip disguised as crime reporting. 

Shock! Awe! An elderly couple is dead! Passion! Drama! MONEY MONEY MONEY.

Grief. Pain. Deep, lasting trauma.

These are the byproducts of tragedy, whether or not it is bought and sold. But to profit off of someone else’s pain? It seems unconscionable. And yet, it will go on. Because we believe we have a right to know. And maybe we do. But not without cost.

Posted in It Happened To Me