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When Your Dad Is A Killer, How Do You Cope?
Originally published on Thu May 16, 2013 2:32 pm
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program we will speak with writer and scholar Mark Anthony Neal about his new book, "Looking For Leroy." It's about how black men on stage, screen and on the radio shape and reshape how we think about black men in everyday life. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to touch on one of the stories that's both fascinated and appalled this country recently. It's the story of the three women in Cleveland who were apparently held captive for a decade by a local man named Ariel Castro. He's been charged with kidnapping and rape, and initially his two brothers were arrested also but later released after police found no evidence that they knew. They've also denounced their brother in the strongest terms and so has his daughter, Angie Gregg. Here she is.
ANGIE GREGG: My father's actions are not a reflection of everyone in the family. They're definitely not a reflection of myself or my children. We don't have monster in our blood.
MARTIN: That got us thinking about what family members must go through when one of their own, someone they've loved or at least lived with, is found to have committed a crime, and not just any crime, but one that most of their friends and neighbors find shocking and horrifying.
With us now are two people who've lived through that. David Kaczynski's brother Ted became known as the Unabomber. He's now serving a life sentence for mail bombs that killed three people and injured more than 20 others.
Also with us is Melissa Moore. Her father, Keith Hunter Jesperson, was convicted of killing eight women. He's currently serving life in prison and Melissa Moore is co-author of the book "Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer's Daughter."
And they're both with us now. Thank you both so much for speaking with us and talking about something like this.
MELISSA MOORE: Thank you.
DAVID KACZYNSKI: Good to be here.
MARTIN: So this isn't the only story recently where family members have been brought in. We're thinking about the Tsarnaev brothers, who are suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing, and their family members, some felt - were very divided about this.
And so, Melissa, I wanted to ask you, when you heard family members come forward, obviously people in the media like myself were seeking them out, but did you have any particular reaction to that?
MOORE: Actually, I was really proud of them for their courage to speak out. A lot of the people that have reached out to me since writing my book, "Shattered Silence" - they're underground. They're hiding. They've changed their last name. They don't want to be associated with the criminal or the crime and they go in complete hiding.
So to have the courage to speak right now, I mean I'm astonished and I'm proud, to be honest, of their courage.
MARTIN: Why do you think it's important to speak out? Why do you think that has been important to you?
MOORE: For me, I've kept it a secret for over 15 years before I started coming out and sharing my story and writing about it, and it harbors the shame and it harbors the guilt, and to pretend that I don't have the past I have, that wasn't being honest, so it was just a huge burden. So I'm thankful that they're not going to follow in my footsteps.
MARTIN: Just briefly, Melissa, before I turn to David, can I ask you? You were 15 when you found out that your father had been charged by the police for the crimes for which he was later convicted and is now serving a sentence. Your parents were already divorced by that time, but do you remember what went through your mind when you first heard about this? I understand that your mother gathered the kids together and told you.
MOORE: Right. My mother gathered the three of us. I'm the oldest of the kids and she said that my father was in jail, and my brother had the courage to ask for what, because we could tell by the look on her face that she didn't want to talk about it any further, and she said for murder. And that was it. There was no more conversation after that. We just all just scattered and went to our own rooms and I was laying on my bed, just wondering and pondering, what kind of murder? I mean he's six foot, six, 300 pounds. Did he get in a fight?
And then I had a memory from my childhood when I was six. There was a black stray cat my brother had found and my dad grabbed the cat and strangled the cat in front of us three kids, all screaming, of course, and horrified. So my memory went back to that cat incident and then I realized that my dad's definitely capable of killing a person.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. You know, David, speaking of the burden of dilemma and the burden of knowledge, you faced the moral dilemma of whether to turn your brother in. I mean you played a critical role in solving the case. And do you mind talking a little bit about that?
KACZYNSKI: Yeah. I mean, there was a great deal of soul-searching and I would be the first to say that without my wife Linda's insight I probably never would have suspected my brother. I think when you're close to someone, you love someone - I thought my brother was incapable of violence, but later on, when Linda urged me to read the Unabomber's manifesto, I began to grapple with the realization that the voice in the manifesto was - sounded like my brother's voice. And then we faced this awful dilemma, feeling morally impelled to stop the violence but not wanting to unleash violence against my brother, and hiding from it really wasn't an option.
MARTIN: I was going to ask, did you ever consider not turning him in or trying to just persuade him to stop?
KACZYNSKI: You know, we were really struggling with if he was responsible for these crimes. In some sense I felt this was a manifestation of his mental illness. I don't think there was any kind of agreement or promise we could have got from him that would have satisfied us, and you know, I think we really felt that we had to stop him from hurting anyone else.
MARTIN: Was the hardest thing making that first phone call or was it after you had decided and, say, telling your mother? What was the hardest thing about the whole experience?
KACZYNSKI: Well, certainly making the decision was so difficult and that was - kind of unfolded over a period of time as we read Ted's letters and Linda and I discussed and we wrestled with the moral dilemma that we were facing and with the urgency to act. At that time I didn't actually tell my mother what was going on. She was elderly, had worried about Ted for years. Believe me, this was way beyond her worst nightmare about what could be wrong with Ted.
And so when the FBI asked me to approach my mother and tell her not only what was going on but the role that I had played in alerting the authorities, I really didn't know if Mom could forgive me for this kind of betrayal. We all knew Ted was vulnerable because of his mental illness, that he was - he needed - we thought he needed protection. We didn't know that society needed to be protected against my brother.
So when I sat Mom down and kind of began telling the story and some connections we had made, she was just looking at me with this kind of look of horror and disbelief on her face and I truly feared that I might lose her love when I told her what I'd done. And then, when I did finally tell her that I'd gone to the FBI and they were investigating Ted to see if he might be the Unabomber, Mom was really extraordinary. She got up out of her chair and without saying a word came and put a kiss on my cheek and she said, David, I know that you love your brother. I know you wouldn't have done this unless you truly felt that you had to.
And then, later on, as things unfolded in the years before she passed away, she really said, David, you really saved your brother. You saved him from himself. You saved him from the death penalty. You saved him from the harm he was doing to others.
MARTIN: Do you feel that way?
KACZYNSKI: Yeah. I certainly do. It certainly was not good for Ted, let alone society, for him to be unleashing this kind of violence, and I don't know if he is at peace. I hope he is. He doesn't communicate with me, but I'm at peace with the decision that we made to stop him.
MARTIN: Our guests are David Kaczynski. He's the brother of Ted Kaczynski, who's known as the Unabomber, and Melissa Moore, who's the daughter of convicted serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson. We're talking about how families cope when one of their own is involved or is accused of a notorious crime.
Melissa, I wanted to ask about - you know, you were telling us that you know other people who've reached out to you who have the same experience that you have and you say a lot of them are underground. Why do you think that is? I mean do people shun you, blame you? What is it that would cause people to want to withdraw like that?
MOORE: Most of the reasons why they tell me is that they're afraid of how people will respond to them and they're afraid that they'll lose their jobs or what will happen to their new life that they've built for themselves. Some feel ashamed. They feel guilt for being related. You know, she mentioned monster in my blood. I mean you don't want anybody to make a prejudgment based on your family about what kind of character you have.
MARTIN: Well, what about you? Did you have that experience? You know, you were 15. That's a point in your life when friends are really important. Did your friends treat you differently after it became known that this was your father, even though you hadn't been living with him for quite some time?
MOORE: Right. My friends' parents actually wanted them to stay away from me. They didn't want them to eat lunch with me. I remember the very next day after the news had broke about my father, their parents had seen it on the news and they told their children not to hang out with me. And so when I went to school that very next day, which I'm glad I did go to school because I wanted some sense of normalcy after that shocking news. I just wanted to feel like something's normal. But I could hear my last name being whispered in the hallway and I heard, you know, murder and I heard - just under people's breath and then go with my lunch tray to my group and then they say, I'm sorry. You know, my mom doesn't want us to be around you.
And, I mean, then, I really started to feel like it's my fault, that somehow I'm guilty by association, that somehow I'm the reason why they don't want to be around me. Something's wrong with me. And so, after that, I changed schools, but the experience really gave me the precursor of what I thought anybody else in my future would think of me and so that's why I kept it a secret for so long until my daughter finally started to ask me questions when I'm a - you know, a young mother. And that's when I started to speak out.
MARTIN: How do you understand that? I don't understand that, but how do you understand why they would react that way?
MOORE: Well, I know I'm not the only person that's experienced a similar situation like that. I've heard from a therapist across - in Europe reach out to me when a professor was found out to be a serial murderer and he had two young girls and the young girl - when she went to school, certain parents had asked for her to be removed from the classroom, so I know I'm not the only one that had a similar situation to that. I think it's just lack of knowledge.
And what surprises me the most, though, now that I look back to that time period, is that the school counselors must have heard it on the news, but yet none of the school counselors, you know, reached out to me. So that surprises me, too, when I look back.
MARTIN: David, do you have thoughts about this, this whole guilt by association question? I'm wondering if you dealt with that. Also, it's such an interesting question because you - for many people, you were a hero. Tell me, what's your thought about this?
KACZYNSKI: Yeah. I think there is a stigma. It doesn't surprise me, in a way, that people in similar situations just want to stay out of the line of fire. They want to stay out of the limelight and I think one thing that is different for our family is that, having turned Ted in, in a sense, inoculated us against some of the stigma.
I don't think it's all of it, though. I mean, certainly, I hear whispers at times and, over the years, I've made many friends in the victims' community. Even one of Ted's victims has become my best friend and, when people are involved in these kind of tragedies, whether on the offender's side as a family member or on the victim's side, there's some sense out there in the world that people shy away a little bit as if it were contagious or probably more likely because they really don't know what to say and so they end up kind of avoiding you.
MARTIN: There was a substantial reward. You turned it down. As I recall, you asked that the reward money be given to the victims' families. Do I have that right?
KACZYNSKI: Well, actually, we did and the government said, no. They couldn't do that. So we had to set up a - like a private foundation and distribute money to victims that way. Doing that with the reward money was not a difficult decision. The last thing I would ever want to think is that, you know, I turned in my brother for money and to be able to do something, however inadequate, to help the victims was very meaningful to us.
MARTIN: You mentioned earlier that you tried to reach out to or connect with your brother through the years. Has he ever reached back?
KACZYNSKI: No, he hasn't. You know, when Mom was alive, we both wrote to him with some frequency and I still send him a letter two or three times a year. It's kind of hard sometimes to know what to say anymore. I do think about him every day. I don't think of him as a monster. I think of him as a person I love who did things that I despise and he did them because he was confused and disturbed and I just wish he had gotten treatment for his problems.
MARTIN: Melissa, what about you? Do you have any ongoing connection to your father?
MOORE: I chose to cut off my connection with my dad. He used to write me letters and I remember feeling so nervous when I'd go to the mailbox and see the white envelope from the correctional facility. As I started to come forward with my story and started to speak, then the letters that came - started to come in the mail would be controlling and angry and accusatory and that's when I decided I wanted to stop contact with him. I wish I would have made that choice earlier, though, to be frank and to be honest.
I still felt that, as his daughter, I had this duty, I guess, to stay in contact with him. Every holiday, I would think about him and think that I needed to send him a Christmas card. I just felt a responsibility as his daughter, but then, as I started to take care of myself and realized that this is an abnormal situation and I don't have to stay in contact, that's when I cut ties and it was the best thing that I did for myself.
MARTIN: Well, thank you again for speaking with us and thank you both for your candor and openness of heart about something that has to be difficult, you know, even now.
I wanted to ask each of you just - your circumstances are unique, but yet they're not. You know, I mean, a lot of people have experienced, unfortunately, you know, family members doing things of which they are very ashamed, things that have harmed other people. And I just wondered, if somebody was listening to our conversation, if you had some advice for this. I don't know. Maybe, Melissa, I'll start with you and then, David, I'll ask you to have the final thought.
MOORE: Yeah. You know, I felt like just speaking. For me, that's been the number one thing that's been helpful and I hope that others that are out there - that they will be inspired by David and hopefully by my story to know that it is possible in these horrific circumstances to find a ray of hope, a ray of light. And there truly are still good things to come after a situation or a past like this.
KACZYNSKI: So much of what Melissa just said resonates with me. I think that, clearly, we didn't choose what happened in our families, what our family members did. We can choose how we respond to it and I think we can respond in a constructive way by educating people, by reaching out to others. I mean, it breaks my heart that Melissa was never approached by a counselor at school. I think there are so many children traumatized in our world and our society who don't get the help that they deserve and need.
And I strongly believe that going through a tragedy like this can make one more sensitive and more committed to trying to create a better and kinder world.
MARTIN: David Kaczynski is the executive director of a Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, New York. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Melissa Moore is the author of "Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer's Daughter." She was kind enough to join us from a studio in Dallas, Texas.
I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
MOORE: Thank you.
KACZYNSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.