My Auntie and “The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You”

Today is my aunt’s birthday; she would have been 58 today. She is not 58 today because 3 months after her 55th birthday she was shot in the head by my uncle, who subsequently shot himself. This is the truth as the forensic evidence suggests. Forgive my graphic description, but it seems essential recently. Lately all I’ve wanted to do is to tell the truth, clear the air, share my story… Share her story. It’s not an easy story to tell, but I think it must be told. I think my aunt would now want me to tell it.

There used to be a cartoon many years ago that caricatured “The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You,” and I would always joke with Larisa that this was based on her. She was effortlessly beautiful, a fantastic dentist, a devoted wife, an adoring sister, a dutiful daughter, a loving mother, a loyal friend, a superb homemaker, and of course, a wonderful aunt. And it seemed it all came naturally. Larisa never seemed to have a hard day, never complained, never was tired. It’s the sort of description that might make you want to hate her, but she was also loving, gregarious, funny, and just quirky enough that you had to love her. She literally charmed everyone. I remember clearly the first and only time I saw her sick, so feverish on Christmas Eve that, although she managed to prepare a multi-course meal, she simply could not join us for it. Visiting with her in her bedroom, it simply seemed impossible that Larisa could be this ill, to struggle with anything physical or mental to the point that she would actually need to lie down. I expressed this sentiment to her and, still dressed in formal Christmas attire with her hair and make-up done, but for once actually looking like hell, all she said was, “Oh, Jenny… If you only knew.”

The truth is that my aunt had her struggles and she would share them if one spent enough time settling in, letting her be herself, letting her share. But the truth is also that for the most part, we didn’t. Of course, now we all would have said she could be different, she could be weak, she could be fragile, she could have come to us, but it becomes impossible to believe. We all wanted her to continue to be effortlessly perfect Larisa. She did not become who she was through some egomaniacal drive and we did not keep her there through some sort of pathological selfishness, but the end results were the same. Larisa may have built herself a cage of perfection, but we all held the keys conveniently out of her reach.

In the year prior to her death, Larisa slowly stopped being Larisa. She wanted to do something different. She wanted a divorce. She wanted to make art, move somewhere else, make mistakes, and make a life for herself. At the time, it seemed like a madness had descended upon her, but what I think now is that she had a newfound sanity. She was simply done. She was done being dutiful. She was done being perfect. She was done being defined in relation to others. She was about to get wild and she had big dreams that she confided to me at my father’s (her beloved brother’s) funeral, only three months before her own death. But she was also scared. She thought my otherwise passive uncle was going to kill her. There was no history of domestic violence and the idea seemed absurd, paranoid… Except he did. My uncle, with the goofy sense of humor, the perpetually untamed shock of hair, and the utter devotion to his children, laid in wait in my aunt’s bathroom one morning, ambushed her, and shot her. Larisa was about to tell the truth about the most important thing that she could, herself, and for that she was stopped in her tracks.

Some of you know this story already, maybe you saw it on the local news, whispered about it, or wondered about it. What you probably don’t know is that for all intents and purposes, it should have been me. I was the one that had escaped domestic violence. I was the one that was grabbed, pushed, shoved, dragged, and kicked, but far worse than any physical violence was the emotional manipulation. The constant erosion to my sense of self that had me convinced that I was inadequate and unlovable. My ex promised that if I ever told anyone or did anything to damage his military career that he would kill me. There’s a fair chance that he still might.

There is no way that 3 years ago I could have told you I was the victim of domestic violence. I couldn’t even tell myself. It couldn’t have happened to someone like me; it couldn’t have happened to someone like my aunt… I had all the excuses that so many victims have. And the whole time it was happening, I smiled at you at parties, responded to other peoples’ crises, had the right answer in class, chatted about the latest restaurant, and pretended like nothing was wrong. It’s taken me a long time to turn around and confront what happened to me and not just run from it.

At the beginning of this year, I was called upon, fairly out of the blue, by the US Army to testify about my ex. For the first time ever, I sat down and told my whole story to a complete stranger. After hearing my story, the Army promptly issued a Military Order of Protection for me. But in telling the story, in telling the truth, I truly became a survivor of domestic violence. I can now honestly say I’ve put it down, I neither wish my ex well, nor do I wish him ill, but I’m certainly not afraid of him. He has simply become a non-entity to me.

I wish my aunt had gotten this far. I wish she had a chance to write her own story and tell it to anyone who would listen. I can’t help wonder what she’d be doing today if she were still here and I can’t help marvel at the idea that I still am here. I wanted to tell you this today because in light of what I can only presume is an ongoing investigation, I have no reason to believe that my ex wasn’t serious about his promise to do harm. I wanted to tell you because I wanted you to know now and not wait for a much more properly edited version way far down the road, if ever. I wanted to tell you as a tribute to my aunt, who never got to tell her own story.