Jennifer was bright; her inner light glowed in an excited, hungry-for-life kind of way. She was kind, she was earnest, and she was honest. You always knew where you stood with Jenn on any given day, and it sometimes varied. Her fair, pink-hued skin, naturally blonde hair, and light blue eyes would’ve made her a natural stand-in for a townsperson in Disney’s Frozen. She talked loudly and laughed loudly, and she demanded that life be fair and just, despite behind-the-scenes circumstances in her own life that were anything but fair. We didn’t agree on everything, but our friendship respected those differences.
For all the things Jenn was and would become, there was one thing she would not be.
Jenn would not be a domestic violence survivor.
[A caution for those who have experienced domestic abuse in any of its many forms – the story that follows may be a trigger.]
The news of Jenn’s death reached me on Christmas Eve day in 2007. I had finished my early morning shift at the news station where I reported, followed by a late lunch with my mom and younger sisters. Christmas Day would be filled with love, warmth, and board and card game challenges, all with the people I loved best. There would be a fire crackling in the farm house where I grew up, and I’d spend most of the day there relaxing, soaking up the memories of the past, while hoping the new chapters I’d planned would take root in the coming year.
But as I stood against my kitchen counter opening the mail late that afternoon, my growing baby bump starting to get in the way, all of those hopes and thoughts were traded in for a single, overwhelming emotion:
In that day’s mail was a Christmas card I had mailed to Jenn two weeks prior. It had been returned unopened, with a bright yellow sticker that read “not deliverable as addressed.”
That’s strange, I thought, reviewing the marks I had made on the front. She said that was her new address.
In the same stack, there was a manila envelope with a return address label bearing the name of Jenn’s mom.
Oh, I reasoned as I eagerly opened it. Plans must have changed. Maybe she’s still staying with her mom for the time being.
There were two things inside that manila envelope that would dash all hope of that: an unopened envelope with a Christmassy border, addressed to me in Jenn’s own hand, and a single sheet of white paper – a letter. The writing seemed cramped, and as I read, I could feel the intense pain behind each word. It was from Jenn’s mother; her signature stood alone at the bottom, bearing witness of something too terrible to fully comprehend:
I don’t know if you heard or not, but Jennifer, Olivia and Magnus were killed last Friday by Jenn’s ex-husband and the kids’ father. In the process of cleaning her apartment we came across some Christmas cards that she was getting ready to mail. I don’t know if you will want to keep this but I thought I would go ahead and send it to you. Jenn talked about you often. I know that your friendship meant a great deal to her. Thank you for being her friend.
I gripped the kitchen counter, blinded by tears as I choked out unintelligible sobs.
Jenn had been killed?
Her children had been killed?
As I continued to process this information, my mind sifted through the previous months. That summer, Jenn had included me on a friends and family email, explaining that she was gay, and would be leaving her husband. What she left unsaid was that her husband was becoming increasingly abusive, and she was desperate to escape. Their marriage had not been the rosy picture their personal and family websites painted to the outside world. Behind the excited announcements of vacations, home births in water pools, mindful mothering, midwifery, and community involvement, there was turmoil.
There was a hidden fissure deep below the surface that threatened to tremble and quake with a magnitude that would break that carefully crafted façade into a million tiny, jagged pieces.
At first, Jenn took refuge with her mom. She said she’d have unlimited visits with her children while they continued to reside with their father in their family home, as Jenn got on her feet and figured out a way forward. I didn’t know at the time that his custody had more to do with her feeling that she didn’t have the strength to fight him. That would take time. As time went on and in subsequent emails, Jenn explained she’d fallen in love with a woman — someone much older — someone with whom I presume she felt safe. She then moved in with her girlfriend, and those close to her would later say she was putting a plan in place to get custody of her children.
As I sorted through these thoughts, I went in search of news coverage from Florida, where Jenn had resided ever since moving halfway through high school. With police and family members providing the missing pieces, reporters there developed a clearer picture of the events on the day Jenn died, December 14, 2007.
Jenn had become increasingly afraid of her ex-husband, going so far as to speak with a domestic violence specialist with the local police department, in an effort to form a safety plan. Her family described a marriage that had become more and more violent – one that left her afraid and desperate to escape. They described physical violence after the divorce that caused Jenn to fear for her personal safety.
I never knew.
For as much as Jenn did share, there was so much she didn’t.
It appeared her ex-husband had been something of a dreamer and a big spender, without the necessary career path to keep up with the mounting debt. During and after the divorce, his anger towards Jenn blossomed into hatred and instability. He seemed intent to fixate on what he perceived as a rotten hand of cards he’d been dealt, believing that fate, along with the actions of others, had backed him into a corner with no real way out.
So he sat down and devised a way. That deranged way out would ultimately end five lives: that of Jennifer, their two young children, and Jennifer’s girlfriend. Each was shot more than once. A determined killer, he took no chances. The fifth life he ended would be his own, to avoid facing the consequences for the atrocities he had committed.
Miraculously, the 4-year-old daughter of Jennifer’s girlfriend was unharmed during the killing spree. That’s in sharp contrast to Jenn’s children, Olivia and Magnus. Their calculating father placed a phone call cancelling their school pick-up that morning, claiming he’d be keeping them home to “do something fun.” He didn’t want his horrific crimes to be discovered before he had finished the entire string of them.
In the days and weeks that followed the murders, police sifted through the home Jenn had once shared with her ex-husband (though I know his name, I choose not to write it – nor did Jennifer’s mom in the letter she sent me). Along with the child pornography hiding away on his personal computer, authorities found a rambling manifesto in which he talked angrily of Jenn’s supposed psychological shortcomings, as well as those of his children, who he labeled “future time bombs” due to the influence of Jenn. That, he reasoned, would justify ending their lives.
The result of these carefully planned pre-Christmas killings is this:
- Jenn’s children are gone – their lives snuffed out not long after they began.
- Jenn and her partner, who worked to help others as employees of the local Hospice chapter – are gone.
- Somewhere out there, a 12-year-old girl has likely endured years of pain and emotional trauma – a result of being present as her mother’s life was extinguished.
- The lives of loved ones have been ripped apart and reshaped again, as a result of this heavy burden.
Why do I share this?
I share this because Jenn’s story matters. Her life mattered. Her children’s lives mattered, as did the life of her girlfriend. Her ex-husband’s life mattered, though I struggle mightily to understand the path he chose and the evil he embraced.
Sometimes, we compartmentalize abuse and all its forms — physical, emotional, psychological, and so on — into a specific week or month of awareness. We talk about it when someone famous behaves reprehensibly, or when someone famous is on the receiving end of that reprehensible behavior.
We talk about it less when it resides next door, or across the street — when we suspect that someone in our extended family or at work is in trouble. And unimaginable as we might wish it to be, we have a hard time talking about it when it remains carefully masked in a church pew next to ours. It’s a delicate subject, after all, and we don’t want to embarrass, make things awkward, or cause undue pain.
Then before we know it, the pain, the ugly, and the unthinkable are all clawing their way to the surface, and suddenly, the thing – domestic violence – is threatening to beat the door down for want of recognition.
It’s especially unpleasant to give it thought during the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s – it’s so easy to become wrapped up in the reverie, or just as easily the stress, to see that there are people who are experiencing intense grief and pain. Among those, there are people whose fears are mounting, because those they fear are expressing anger, hatred, or increased bouts of delusion. It’s not an altogether new phenomenon.
My grandfather saw it back in the 50s and 60s, as he served as an assistant police chief in our hometown. On his rounds one day, he found a man inside a local watering hole, gripping the sides of a juke box, tears streaming down his face. The mournful sound of Blue Christmas came out through the speakers; that was the song the man had wanted to play after killing his wife in a holiday rage. Even now, when my mom hears that song, she says that haunting story is the first thing that comes to mind.
The holidays can be difficult. As much as they remind so many of life’s goodness and bounty, they also serve to remind others of life’s deepest forms of despair.
There are people you know who are silently suffering this holiday season. They may be looking for support or help. Maybe they haven’t gotten out yet. Maybe they’re like Jenn – out, but facing real and immediate danger. Or perhaps they’re dealing with the painful ghosts of the past that can visit unbidden in thoughts and in nightmares, creeping in after years of struggle.
My hope is that we can stop for a moment and look around us –- that we can see those who are in need of help — and that we can find the strength to offer that help, even in the smallest of ways.
Jenn would’ve done it for someone else. She wouldn’t have hesitated. Although I hadn’t seen her in person since we were teenagers, that’s the kind of person she was then, and I like to think that’s the person she became as an adult. Maybe in some way, our noticing of others can honor her memory, and the memories of so many others like her.
Merry Christmas, Jenn. You are missed, but your memory lives on.
Sarah Elizabeth resides in a small Southern town with her husband, son, and their not-quite-therapy comfort dogs, a miniature Schnoodle and Goldendoodle. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning reporter, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about life observations, experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, chronic illness, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane and Sweeten the Lemons are her thinking places. Click here to follow on Facebook.