When I was about my 10 years old, my mother and I sat locked to the television as a woman on screen was stabbed repeatedly by her ex-husband in front of their 2-year-old child. The film that my mother and I were watching was based on the true story of Tracey Thurman, whose heavily documented abuse and brutal near-fatal stabbing in front of her own child helped forever change the way police treated domestic violence cases.
I remember the actress playing Thurman ("Jo" from one of my favorite shows at the time, The Facts of Life) dying. I remember the stabbing taking place out of the frame -- all we saw was the woman's legs from behind a kitchen counter. I remember thinking, "Women get stabbed to death in their own homes, in front of their own children and no one cares." I absorbed this idea into my subconscious over a decade before I found out this is how my grandmother was murdered.
No one ever made a movie about my grandmother's story. No new laws were signed into effect in South Texas in the 1970s when my grandmother was raped, tortured and murdered. She was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in her own home in front of her 10-month-old granddaughter whom she was babysitting, my older sister.
Today, the man accused of murdering my grandmother is out from prison. My mom found out this man was free by seeing him drive past her in his car. She said no one notified her of his early prison release for "good behavior." She feared he would show up at one of her daughter's schools and hurt one of us -- hurt me.
They never spoke of the awful crime or really of my grandmother at all. She became a mystery, an enigma, a void. It took me about 6 months to admit to my mother that I had done research and knew that my grandmother hadn't died of a heart attack or in a car accident -- ways I had been told she had passed away throughout the years.
Nothing could have prepared me for a front page headline that said "Local Grandmother Slain" in giant heavy letters. Italicized phrases like Police think Lillian may have been tortured in bold extra-large font typeface would haunt me for years. From this day forward, I would see tragedies on the news or in the newspaper and I could think was, "That is someone's family. They will never be the same. This isn't just something that will go away once the camera stops rolling or once the newspaper reporter stops asking questions."
I suffered from post-traumatic stress for a couple of weeks after reading the gory and detailed newspaper articles. If "tortured" was part of the headline, imagine what was hidden in the small print. For days after, I would get dizzy when I would see a sharp object. I went to a therapist for the first time. But I couldn't tell my family what I knew. I was especially afraid to tell my older sister what I had found out, since she was actually there when the sexual assault and murder took place.
Once, when I was a teenager, I got caught lying that I was still at work, when really I was out with a boy. A gay boy, but he was still a boy and I wasn't allowed to be alone with boys. All we did was walk through the doors of the mall where we worked, walk across the parking lot, cross the street and go to a popular late-night diner. We talked about our lives. I guess my parents had called to see when my shift was over and they were told I had already left.
When I got home that night, both my older sisters' cars were there as if there was some sort of emergency. I walked in and my mother wasn't just crying, she was wailing. I don't think I've ever heard someone cry like this before or since. It was like she was mourning me. She believed I was already dead. She believed that my legs were sticking out from some kitchen counter somewhere, while a man raped and stabbed me countless times. I had no idea why she was so worried.
Another time, my mother told me she had a dream I was a little girl and I had been riding my little red tricycle and someone had run me over. She said she was walking down the street she grew up on and she could see a crowd of neighbors gathered around outside her parent's house. When she pushed through the crowd, she saw me laying there with broken bones, dead. Years later, I would think about the significance of this dream occurring outside the house where my mother's mother was murdered.
Even tonight, although I'm 31 and live in a different state, my mother reminded me to lock all my doors as we hung up the phone. She never needs to remind me this. I lock and double-check to make sure my doors are locked in a way that would make you think something terrible had happened to me, but it hasn't. It happened to my family.
To this day, my older sister and I have never directly spoken about our grandmother's murder, though we once emailed one another about it in a vague way. My sister is probably the most well adjusted person I know. She has a master's degree, had a successful career, and now raises her two children whom she adores. We have never talked about how a 10-month-old was in the same room when her babysitter, our grandmother, was raped, tortured and murdered.
The week before I moved 2,000 miles away for college, my family had a farewell dinner for me at the restaurant my mother, her sister and their mother used to go to. After waiting an obscenely long time for our meals after we placed our orders, my aunt, who was prone to fits of temper, stood up and yelled at the top of her lungs, calling our waiter a "faggot." I was so embarrassed I vowed to never talk to my aunt again.
About three years later, while doing research on a documentary film I had intended to make about my grandmother and the secrets my family kept about her, I would learn who found my grandmother's brutalized dead body: my aunt, who was only 16 years old at the time. When she was a teenager, a photo of her was featured in the local paper as Girl of the Month, because she was pretty and charismatic and her high school saw her as destined for greatness. When I was sitting in the library, I found another photo of my aunt. One where she was in shock, in her Catholic high school uniform, holding my older sister, being escorted by a female police officer. I could see the wind in their hair, the rush to get out of the frame. I would never look at her the same way. In fact, I marvel at her strength to even exist.
The next photo was of my grandfather looking on as medical technicians carried a body bag that carried his wife in it. Her body was halfway out the door. He stood outside, looking down, trying to grasp at any evidence that the life he knew had previously existed. That photo looks like someone took all of the air out of the room, except he is outside. My next thought was that this is when the whole world stopped.
My grandfather continued living in the house where his wife was murdered until he had a stroke, in the bedroom he had once shared with my grandmother, many decades later. I spent 20 years visiting that house, but it was sold by the time I knew all that had occurred in it. I think about that house all the time. I have dreams about it.
I never finished the film I was making my senior year of college or at least, I never finished it the way I wanted to. It turned out that you can't make a documentary film when you are scared to talk to all the people you need to interview. My professor said the film I did end up making, which was abstract and involved the animating of old family photographs, was hiding what it really wanted to say. I unknowingly re-created the atmosphere I had grown up around.
I know my grandmother must have been so much more than the way her life ended, but everyone is afraid to talk about her. Everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing, so everyone stays silent. My grandmother's name was Lillian. She would have been 83 years old this Halloween.