It Happened To Me: My Parents Adopted a Murderer

In 1984, in the quiet and modestly affluent suburb of Cape St. Clair, Maryland, a 17-year-old boy named Larry Swartz murdered both of his adoptive parents. In 1993, after serving nine years of his 12-year sentence, Larry was released from prison and came to live with us.

Sep 6, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Every other day or so, my father emails pictures to me. They are photos of me as a child, apple-cheeked and smiling -- there I am with long braids the color of wheat, squinting into the sunshine. There are pictures of my little sister, too -- she’s tiny and delicate, her doll face framed by thick chocolate-hued bangs. Most of the photos were taken outside, so they are washed in a faint, glimmering light, like half-sucked butterscotch candy. It’s a wholesome collection, a visual diary of two seemingly sweet and contented children. By sending them, my father is saying, "Look, look how happy you girls were. Here is proof."

He is sending these virtual photo bombs because I have stopped speaking to him. Three months ago, my sister and I mutually agreed that we were breaking off all contact -- divorcing him, disowning him -- and by extension, our mother, who apparently just doesn’t have it in her to defy him. We did this over email (admittedly, perhaps not the best way to do it, but you try verbally telling a parent it’s over -- it’s hard, y’all) and held our breath. After an initial barrage of angry emails, which devolved into apologetic emails, we’ve arrived at the photo bomb stage. No actual email, just the photos.

The thing is, though, those happy little children in the photos? They’re nothing but ghosts, tiny spirit-girls haunting old Polaroids. When you are used to pretending that everything is ok, that you are a normal family with loving parents, you develop a really excellent false smile. You can do it on command, like a trained dog. But if we’re going to get real, if we’re to bring any semblance of verisimilitude into this, let’s look at the true pics: my father drunk and vicious, smashing up a bedroom suite, or beating the dog, or whipping my sister and me with a belt, or getting blind drunk and forcing us into the car, where he’d drive and scream at us for hours, or, in a series of nightmarish images, like some flipbook from hell, let’s see my father wrap his hands round my mother’s throat and strangle her. See me and my sister punching and kicking at his legs, trying to stop him? See our little teeth biting ineffectually at his pant cuffs?

The light in those photos is markedly different than the sun-washed gold of childhood. It’s stark and cold and white, like horrible bathroom lighting that picks out every flaw, every line or scar or mark. This kind of light is ugly. But it is also real.

I could compile a whole album of other pictures: the stark insides of empty kitchen cupboards; a still life of the last heel of bread, spread with the last curl of generic margarine and sanded with white sugar; bruises blooming like black dahlias on arms and legs and backs. Maybe a candid of my mother, her hands swollen and battered from factory work, a book covering her tired, hopeless face as she tries to ignore my father.

However, the reasons that I disowned my father are more complicated than a horrible, if sadly-all-too-typical, abusive and dysfunctional childhood. On top of all the aforementioned stuff, there’s the piece that brings us to Jerry-Springer-broadcasting-live-from-Dante’s-seventh- circle-of-hell. (In case you’re rusty, the seventh circle is the boiling river of blood reserved for the violent.) And stay with me here, because we’re about to go down the rabbit hole. There just isn’t any elegant way to travel down there, either -- we’re gonna have to go with arms and legs flailing.

In 1984, in the quiet and modestly affluent suburb of Cape St. Clair, Maryland, a 17-year-old boy named Larry Swartz murdered both of his adoptive parents. The father was stabbed to death with a steak knife; the mother was stabbed and also bludgeoned with a wood-splitting maul. The case drew a flurry of media and legal attention, resulting in a bestselling book, "Sudden Fury," and an NBC TV movie starring Neil Patrick Harris as Larry.

My mother, a rapacious reader, picked up the "Sudden Fury" book and read it; my father ended up reading it as well. The book detailed the case and tried to illuminate Larry’s formative years -- abandoned by his mother as a baby, Larry spent his life shuttling through the foster care system and suffering physical and verbal abuse. The next thing we knew, my father, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, started writing to Larry in prison -- a prison roughly two hours away from our home on the Eastern Shore. The letters progressed, they struck up a friendship, and eventually we started going to visit with Larry. The murderer. In prison.

I was 13 years old. My sister was eight.

We were already a pair of lost girls, children who were used to keeping secrets. We kept our heads down and just tried to get through our shitty lives as best as we could. And now, we were going to a prison to visit a murderer our father had befriended. I remember loud voices and molded chairs in primary colors and vending machines. And Larry. He was quiet, with dark Bambi eyes -- you wouldn’t have looked twice at him on the street. Not a particularly big man -- not scary or anything, once you made yourself forget what he had done. And somehow, a life that I already wore like some Rei Kawakubo piece, all dissonance and holes, was even stranger.

The visits kept up regularly; this wasn’t just some wacky, momentary lapse of reason by my parents. In fact, Larry was legally adopted by our family. In 1993, after serving nine years of his 12-year sentence, Larry was released from prison and came to live with us. I now formally had a brother, one who legally shared my last name. 

This, all of this, is clearly, unequivocally, bat shit crazy. WHO DOES THIS? I know that somewhere, somehow, there has to be someone with a similar experience, right? But I’ve never met anyone that has, or heard of anything like this happening. It makes me feel like I lived in that Edward Hopper "The Nighthawks" painting, only it was just me in that glowing, desolate fishbowl -- I couldn’t get out and no one could bust in.

Back then, my sister and I just went along with it. What else could we do? We were kids, and my father wielded all of the power. The really weird thing, though, is this: Larry was actually very nice to us. I mean, really nice. Most of the time, it was like we forgot what he had even done. He bought me my first pair of Doc Martens; once we sat and watched Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" together. He and my sister grew to be really close. He wasn’t this terrifying killer dude -- to be completely honest, I found my own father a million, billion times scarier. And actually, my dad toned down his behavior a lot, once Larry came to live with us. With Larry, my father tried to act loving and sane; in order to perpetuate that lie, he couldn’t treat us as horribly as he normally would have. So that was kind of an unexpected side benefit to the whole thing.

That isn’t to say, thought, that things weren’t weird. Because they definitely were. Like the time Neil Patrick Harris, old Doogie Howser himself, called our house to talk to Larry (character motivation, I guess). Or the fact that we all sat together as a family and watched that made for TV movie -- I’m pretty sure the dictionary definition for meta-surreal is something like "Watch the scene where Doogie Howser, playing your adopted brother, brutally kills his parents on TV, as the real killer, your actual brother, eats popcorn in your living room."

As time went on, shit got weirder and weirder. The more Larry tried to rejoin the world, to work and hang out with people and date, the more controlling and obsessive my father became. There was at least one fistfight, a lot of yelling, just bad times all around. The final blow came when Larry and his girlfriend had a clandestine wedding and informed my parents they were moving to Florida. That was it for my parents. They cut Larry out of the will and disowned him. They talked about all they had done for him, all the money they had spent. They said that Larry was a manipulator, a user. I had left home by this time, had moved to another state at seventeen. And I never, ever spoke with Larry again.

Larry did move to Florida and had a child, though he and his wife got divorced. As the years passed, my dad eased up, and would occasionally talk to Larry on the phone. Larry went through rough times, but eventually ended up happily remarrying. As far as I can tell, the last few years of his life were good ones. He died, of a heart attack, in 2005. He was 38 years old.

I regret not talking to Larry as an adult -- I wonder if, together, we could parse the craziness of our family or reach any kind of understanding. I wonder what he really thought about all of us, about the situation that he was thrust into, and then out of. Mostly, I just feel sorry. For him, and for my sister and me. What he did can’t be condoned, but I understand how fear and anger can drive you to desperate, illogical action. I think of him like one of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan -- no real parents, existing in this altered netherworld of part make-believe, part threat, all sorrow.

As we all got older, the flow of literal photographs diminished. I think I have one photograph of Larry; in it, he is sitting on a couch and mugging for the camera, wearing a stupid gardening hat adorned with a floppy flower. My mental photos of those later teenage years, the time Larry was still with us, are not ones that I would want to be documented: crimson slashes on the pale undersides of my wrists, a succession of older boys taking because they could, the black dog of depression always at my side, baying and howling and always, always hungry.

After I left at 17, though I could never be considered close to my parents, I called on birthdays and holidays and saw them every few years; I said I love you at the end of phone conversations with my father. Every Father’s Day, I would get nauseous right before I called him. It got harder and harder to even say the word Dad -- that simple little word would swell in my throat and choke off my breath like I was swallowing thorns. And still, I lied, I pretended. We never really talked about all of the past tragedies; we just acted like everything was fine.

And then, one day, I was talking with my sister, and we started walking down memory lane -- or rather, tripping and stumbling and dodging bullets and getting really, really pissed. We talked about our childhood, about how unbelievable it all truly was. And gradually, we came to the shared realization that we didn’t have to lie and pretend anymore. Our father couldn’t hurt us. We could sever our ties; no one could stop us.

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My sister, Grace.

I can’t emphasize enough what a truly revolutionary, libertine idea this was, and is, for us. We had spent so long just sucking it up, just dealing with it -- the idea that we could just stop was an epiphany of epic, unparallel proportions. So we did -- we sent an email, short and succinct, telling our father that we wished to have no further contact with him due to the years and years of abuse. In some ways, it seems a very clean action, like snapping off a wishbone just right -- that negative space in between the two halves. In other ways, though, it’s wretchedly messy and bloody. You can’t resolve decades of misery just by winnowing it all away.

I don’t know what will happen, with any of this. It’s strange to be an adult and feel like an orphan; only, I chose to be one. If I have children, they won’t have grandparents. If I made a family tree, there would be two huge barren spots, limbs with no leaves.

When I look back at those girlhood photos, the one my father sends me, I don’t have the urge to spout platitudes, like abuse survivors that tell their inner child "You are strong, you’ll be OK." I just can’t do that. Instead, I do this: I lean in close to that child, and I tell her, "Run, girl. Run."