HOW COULD SHE?
Reflections on my grandmother, the murderer
BY JESSICA LAMB-SHAPIRO
What if your grandmother, the person who snuck you unsanctioned brownies and gave you all the love of a parent with none of the rules, were arrested for first-degree murder? And not just a murder, but a particularly violent murder? And not just a violent murder, but the violent murder of the other person who spoiled you rotten — your grandfather? As absurd as these questions may sound, they were ones I had to ask myself three years ago when my grandmother, Hope, was arrested and charged with the murder of my grandfather.
When I was a kid, my grandmother seemed to belong in a Normal Rockwell portrait, so typical and warm and staid was she when it came to being grandmotherly. She baked muffins from scratch; she lived on a farm; she was blonde and wore overalls; she had three dogs and seven cats; she raised llamas. She once made me return a pack of gum I had stolen, which had the intended effect of embarrassing me and thus ensuring I would never steal again.
There was a long period between then and now when I didn’t see Hope — first because she was estranged from my mother, then because I was estranged from my mother — but it’s hard to believe that in that time something about her could change so drastically that she would end up in jail for murder. When, exactly, did my grandmother go from an overall-wearing, egg-collecting nurturer to the slack-faced, expressionless figure on Court TV whose disembodied head floated next to the words “Death in the Driveway”?
My grandparents had been married for more than forty years, although it wasn’t a first marriage for either of them, and it was far from perfect: my grandmother had had an affair; my grandfather was emotionally remote; they slept in separate rooms. Still, it’s a long way from an unhappy marriage to a violent bludgeoning. But on June 2, 2004, my grandmother allegedly tried to poison my grandfather with an overdose of Ambien, then left the house to run some errands. When she came back two hours later, she found him staggering around the driveway; she “just snapped,” as a neighbor would later testify, and beat him to death.
At the time of the murder, my grandmother and grandfather lived in the small rural community of Townshend, Vermont, where the most serious crimes were drunk driving and falling asleep at the wheel. Both my grandparents were well-liked members of the community; my grandmother even volunteered at the local library. For the community of Townshend, suffice it to say this was a big story.
I didn’t attend the trial, because I wasn’t even aware it was going on. This is how I found out: one day my friend Mark called me and said, “Uh, I think they’re talking about your grandmother on Court TV.” I turned on the television and sat transfixed for the next four hours.
I tried to visit my grandmother in jail, but she refused to put me on the visitors list. Instead, I sent her a letter with a picture of myself and my dog, Lola. A few weeks later I received a lavender envelope in the mail, which could have been from anyone’s grandmother were it not for the correctional facility stamp. She said she didn’t want me to visit, perhaps because, before the sentencing, she may have reasonably expected we might meet outside of prison. Then she cheerfully asked about my dog, and how my writing was going. She said things like, “I hear you’re living in New York; that must be exciting!” (the irony of this did not escape me). I remember feeling comforted that she was allowed to use her own stationery, since that’s the kind of thing that would have meant something to her.
In order to see her, I went to the sentencing hearing. In person, her eyes were glassy and lifeless; she moved slowly, as if she were sedated. As they led her into the small courtroom, she was not handcuffed. Someone said to her, “Look, Jessie’s here.” Feeling nervous, I smiled and waved. She smiled faintly at me and sat down with her lawyer. I wasn’t even sure if she recognized me. In truth, I hardly recognized her: her affect, her manner, her body language were all unfamiliar. The scene at the hearing was remarkably un-somber; someone in front of me was chomping loudly on potato chips. I didn’t know who most of the people were: members of the community, lawyers, a few reporters, and a cameraman.
The casual attitude of the spectators contrasted sharply with the emotion of the family members present. Bob’s children from his first marriage read statements. Steven, his oldest son, made an odd request of the court — he asked that Hope be ordered to write a book with “all the gory details” of the murder, and that the proceeds should go to his family.” It was an angry, bitter, even nasty request, but I suspected it was coming from his pain, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of incomprehensible loss. He also requested that she not be buried next to his father, because “he should not have to be buried next to his killer.”
Next, Tim, Steven’s brother, spoke. “Living in a bad marriage is commonplace; murdering your spouse is not commonplace. Well, Hope, you can’t do that,” he said. “You can remove his children from his will, but you can’t get away with murder.” Although his words addressed Hope, he didn’t look in her direction. “A woman who murders her husband deserves to go away for the rest of her life. You don’t take a life, Hope. Write me a letter and tell me, why did you not just divorce this man? Why did you marry this man? Why did you kill this man?”
I couldn’t help but notice that both Bob’s sons asked the court for things it couldn’t give them: letters, explanations, remedies. We all wanted answers, but none were forthcoming; Hope never testified or spoke to anyone in my family about what happened.
Both sides had already agreed on an acceptable sentence; all that was left was for the judge to approve it. She said, “People in the community were afraid … If this woman, who has had so many advantages — education, money, career — a trained professional, is capable of this horrendous act, then who among us is not capable? This crime tears down the belief that we can depend on each other. Only she can assess the impact on her own conscience. We must make it clear to [Hope] that she may not do this again and let the community know that this will not be tolerated.”
Citing “the fact of her unblemished record and the fact that she is not a young woman,” the judge imposed a sentence of seventeen years without possibility of parole (this means that when Hope is released, she will be ninety-three). The judge banged the gavel, and three officers led my grandmother away in handcuffs. I haven’t seen her since.
Listening to Nancy Grace make jokes about my grandmother, listening to the sentencing hearing statements — it’s all information that washes over me, leaving nothing that makes any sense in its wake. I often felt numb or removed from the situation, because I was, a bit. There are reasons why my reactions to this event may not have been typical, since I hadn’t kept in touch with Hope for some time, and because she wasn’t my biological grandmother (I was adopted on my mother’s side). On the other hand, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a typical reaction to something this atypical.
I felt terrible for Bob’s sons, yet I couldn’t accept that the woman they described was my grandmother. I’d never even seen her angry. I honestly couldn’t fuse the woman they spoke of with the person I had known; no matter how many horrible things I hear about my grandmother, I just can’t imagine her as a violent person. In an attempt to force myself to accept this new version of her, I read and reread the police report, which describes my grandfather’s body:
In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Steven Pinker wrote that “the first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal.” There is evidence that we do have what Pinker calls a universal “moral grammar” (after Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar); even rhesus monkeys refuse to eat before they will harm one of their own. Yet most often people who show signs of “morality blindness” do so from the time they are children, exhibiting signs that they are incapable of empathy, such as torturing animals. This could hardly be said of my grandmother.
One of our most fundamental beliefs about each other is that there is such a thing as who people are. It’s what people mean when they talk about “character” or “personality.” I have thousands of memories of my grandmother, each a tiny pixel of information that together added up to what I assumed to be a clear picture of her character. When new information appeared — information that would alter, blur, or obfuscate that knowledge — I simply rejected it. This tendency toward binarism is exactly why it was funny when Nancy Grace said my grandmother looked like the chief librarian (which she was), as if somehow her appearance was an implicit argument against her ability to commit murder.
No one wants to think that people are collections of random impulses, that morality can be both universal and variable. We don’t want mothers to murder children; we don’t want priests to molest altar boys. And when they do, we call them “evil” or “crazy”; we take great pains to differentiate them from us.
As silly as it may have sounded at the time, the Court TV message boards raised a critical point: how can someone who loves and cares for animals murder another human being? Was my grandmother always a murderer waiting for a crime, or was she an essentially good person who crossed a sacred line? And if the latter, why? It is tempting to ascribe some disease (dementia) or moral deficit (evil), because without that, we would be forced to confront the discomforting and downright frightening idea that the only thing that distinguishes us from Hope — and everyone else in jail for crimes we find unfathomable — is time and circumstance. &