What if depression is more than a chemical imbalance? What if depression and suicide are about despair?
By Jacque White Kochak
OK, there’s been an awful lot about depression and suicide in the news lately. That’s good. Maybe talking about these dark subjects will save some lives.
I know something about depression and suicidal ideation. Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think I have a disease, and I’m concerned about the “medicalization” of depression. If depression is nothing more than a chemical imbalance, then of course the cure is medical – pop a pill to get those brain chemicals back in sync, right?
But what if depression is about more than a chemical imbalance? Humor me here. What if depression and suicide are about despair?
I’ve battled spells of depression since my middle teens. I used to wonder whether someone could cut off an appendage, maybe a finger or an arm, and measure the pain. I know what it’s like to feel like I’m wading through molasses to get the simplest task done, and to struggle to get out of bed. I know what hopelessness feels like.
I’ve researched and devised elaborate suicide schemes. I guess I have the cred – and the medical diagnosis, actually. And yes, I’m probably biologically predisposed to depression, just as I’m biologically predisposed to sunburn. I ought to be medicated, I suppose.
But if depression and suicide are about despair, we have the uncomfortable task of looking at this problem in a different way. For one thing, we have to look at conditions in those states where suicide has increased by 30 to 40 percent in the last few years, and we have to look at our own lives and what we can aspire to change. Sometimes, we have to change our own attitudes, ways of looking at the world, and the messages we tell ourselves.
In a shocking recent report on suicides nationwide, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control found that more than half of those who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition. Relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems and job, money, legal or housing stresses often contributed, the CDC admitted.
Still, I keep reading personal accounts of people who have suffered from depression, pleading, “I have an illness. Don’t tell me to ‘cheer up.’” I’m pretty sure the brand of tough love I’ve imposed on myself is going to get me branded as insensitive, but let me speak my piece.
When I read accounts of depression I say to myself, “But you do have some control.” I ask myself if these people may have experienced something different from me, and maybe they have. But any mental health professional would likely reaffirm my diagnosis. Many in my extended family take antidepressant medication. Some have been diagnosed as bipolar. At multiple times in my life, I would have hit all the high points on a checklist for major depressive disorder. It hasn’t been easy.
So how can I possibly say I’m not sick, and I have some control? On the “sick” part, I know (and most people would agree) that I’m a lot saner than some people I know. And how can something that is so common really be considered a disease, rather than part of the human condition?
Explaining the “control“ part is more difficult. I began grappling with depression at quite a young age, and it was severe. My life was affected, and I’m sure I would be in a different place than I am today if not for my life-or-death struggle with that black dog. The fight took all my energy and destroyed my confidence, and I don’t want to minimize the pain or the destructive effect on my life. But I survived, and over time I developed coping strategies.
I learned to look around me and realize there were a lot of people who had lives a lot worse than mine. I learned to put problems in perspective. I learned not to grapple too long with an insoluble problem, but instead move on. I learned not to ruminate, to take one step at a time, and see the positive. I learned not to think in black-and-white terms and not to berate myself with negative pronouncements about myself. I learned to identify what specifically was getting me down, and see whether there were solutions.
Here’s an example. At one point in my life my time was completely consumed by a man, and when that relationship ended I was destitute. Anyone would have been devastated, of course; the icing on the cake for a person like me, prone to depression, is that I was convinced I was radioactive, all the fault was mine, and no one would ever want to be my friend, let alone be more.
Then I looked around me and saw that almost everyone, no matter how obnoxious, seemed to have a friend. I realized I probably didn’t have to be alone, so the trick was figuring out where to meet people with whom I might have something in common. I put the plan into effect.
That’s a very, very simple example, and probably not a very good one. Since I have a tendency to severe depression, perhaps I should have sought pharmaceutical relief. At some point, however, I discovered my approach has a name, and that name is “cognitive behavioral therapy,” or CBT.
Briefly, CBT can help to restructure negative thought patterns, to recognize the source of depression, and to change the actions that exacerbate it. Study after study has shown that CBT is about as effective as antidepressants, and somehow, through trial and error, I mapped out my own approach.
Consider this: According to the National Institutes of Health, about 20 to 40 people out of a hundred people noticed improvement in their symptoms within six to eight weeks if they took a placebo. Among those who took an antidepressant, about 40 to 60 out of a hundred people saw improvement in six to eight weeks.
Read that again. If you take a placebo, you’ve got a 20 to 40 percent chance of improvement. If you take an antidepressant, you’ve got a 40 to 60 percent of improvement. Them ain’t great odds if you’re struggling with a demon.
This is not to completely discount medication, but I think of antidepressants as being something like aspirin. Aspirin helps the pain, but doesn’t cure the problem (which might not be a “disease”). One friend describes an antidepressant as a way to “take the edge off,” and another requires a mood stabilizer. Neither is a miracle cure, and neither is really enough. A will to change is also required.
Abe Lincoln is often raised up as an example of someone who struggled with severe, chronic depression, so it’s interesting that people usually forget what he supposedly said: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
That’s not the whole story, but it’s something to think about.
President Trump’s proposal to provide $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by his tariff policy has got me thinking about where I came from. Words from an old Highwaymen song keep coming to me, slightly altered: The wind blows hard across the Kansas plains, makes some people go insane. Makes still others pray for rain, that’s where I come from.
I’ve lived in western Kansas, eastern Kansas, the New York City metro area and the Deep South. Believe me when I tell you that people’s general character varies by region, and people from the heartland are definitely not like those in the East. I know these people, and I fear that President Trump and most of his advisers don’t. Maybe things have changed since I was young, but we’ll see.
Here’s an example. As generous as he was to others, my Grandpa White had very strict ideas about taking handouts from the government. When Uncle Joe, Daddy’s older brother, was discharged from the Navy as World War II ended, he sought to take advantage of government programs for returning veterans. Part of the GI Bill was the 52-20 Club, which directly paid veterans $20 a week for 52 weeks while they looked for work.
When Uncle Joe walked out of the house to go down and sign up for the benefit, Grandpa White was working in the yard. He asked his oldest son where he was headed, and Joe told him.
“Dad hesitated a moment and said, ‘If you do, all your clothes will be on the front steps when you get back. No son of mine is going to take charity,’” Uncle Joe remembers. “I knew the conversation was over and I said, ‘I won’t go.’”
The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel.
The lesson stayed with Joe, and Daddy too, I guess. Uncle Joe says that when he turned 67 and went down to sign up for Social Security benefits, he was thankful he didn’t have to face his father—even though Social Security doesn’t fall into the category of a “handout.” And for all the years when I was growing up, times when we didn’t have enough to eat and couldn’t pay the rent, I’m sure it never occurred to my father to accept a government handout.
That self-reliance and disdain for anyone who takes a “handout” are ingrained in the people in my part of the country, the vast expanse of flyover country most people will never visit unless they drive west on I-70 for a vacation in Colorado. After that long trip, they’ll grimace and say the drive is awfully flat and very boring. I was born right in the middle of the United States, where the rolling prairies rise to the High Plains, inching upwards toward the continental divide at the summit of the Rockies. People in the more populous states to the east and west tend to dismiss us, repeating “Kaan-sas?” with mocking incredulity when we tell them where we’re from. That, or they immediately ask about Dorothy and Toto from Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.
The treeless, windy North American steppes were the last part of the growing United States to be settled, because the landscape was so alien and barren to a people whose sensibilities were shaped by the wooded contours of first Europe and then the eastern United States. As an editor from West Virginia once told me, it feels like there’s no place to hide. The first time my eight-year-old son accompanied me to visit my parents in western Kansas, his initial reaction was terror at the immense sky and the slanting shadow of a rainstorm in the distance. His second reaction was to ask why they didn’t build some buildings since there was so much empty space.
I find most people imagine that the people who settled the region were losers pushed out of the more comfortable environs to the east. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel. The luxury of clapboard homes would come later, when the railroads shipped in wood.
The natives joke that you’ll know a Kansan because his grandmother drives 70 miles per hour in a snowstorm. In the Deep South they try not to drive at all in a snowstorm, and that’s not surprising. But they’re also reluctant to drive in New York City, where snow is common. I think that tells you something.
When we lived in the New York suburbs, a little lake up the street froze over every winter, metamorphosing into a natural ice-skating rink. The sport’s popularity was a revelation to me, because in Kansas the wind is too cold and too piercing to ever enjoy outdoor activities. I was awed to learn that below-freezing weather isn’t particularly unpleasant when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and there’s no such thing as a wind-chill factor.
School tended to be canceled with only the slightest dusting of snow, however, and one snow-day my young son wanted to invite a friend to ice skate. “Oh honey, none of these mothers will drive in this weather,” I cautioned. Joe called his friend Will anyway, and a half hour later Will’s mother turned up on my doorstep, her son in tow.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I ventured.
“No—Western Slope, Colorado,” she proudly replied. I nodded in recognition of a kindred soul.
My friends in the Deep South avoided driving in the snow because of lack of experience. In New York, however, the attitude was different. People seemed to wonder how Mother Nature dared to be so impertinent. In the Kansas of my youth, by contrast, people had few illusions about their importance or their right to expect anything of the weather. They didn’t think they were entitled to anything, ever, and so were thankful when their hard work brought modest rewards.
My roots twist deep into the black prairie soil, and I’ve got dust in my blood. I was born a Kansan, and Kansas is the reddest of the red states. The Big First—the sprawling congressional district that encompasses western Kansas—is one of the most conservative districts in the entire country. These are the people liberals love to hate, and by all rights I should be one of them.
I’m not, but I think I’m beginning to understand why rural people don’t trust those big city folks and their self-serving plans to fix all their problems. Indeed I do.
This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work.
I’ve got a bone to pick with Dr. Sarah Parcak, the celebrity Egyptologist who is an associate professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She annoyed me so much that I impulsively unfollowed her on Twitter, but don’t worry, I’ll be back. I’m an archaeology junkie.
What could this bright, funny young academic possibly have done to annoy me enough to forswear feeding my addiction to daily snippets of archaeology news? Nothing much, except tweet one sentence, accompanied by clapping hands. “Anybody who asks me about work and family in future will get the same response,” she said, with a finger pointing down to an excerpt from an interview with author Laura Groff. The interview appeared last week in the Harvard Gazette.
Gazette:You are a mother of two. In 10 years you have produced three novels and two short story collections. Can you talk about your process and how you manage work and family?
Groff:I understand that this is a question of vital importance for many women, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.
OK, bear with me, because I know I’m swimming against the current here. The Twitterverse has been full of praise for Groff, and the Huffington Postcrowed, “Pushing back to sexist questions has been a slowly emerging sea-change for those in the public eye.”
The need for family-friendly workplaces: Here’s the problem for me, Dr. Parcak. This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work. Not even a rewarding career; just plain old work to put food on the table. They need successful women who will talk about the difficulties of managing both, without sugar-coating, and talk about the need for subsidized child care, paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and flexible, family-friendly work hours.
So why am I calling out Sarah Parcak and not Laura Groff? I suppose a little background is required. I know how Laura Groff does it, because I’ve done it myself. A writer has that most necessary prerequisite for having a family—flexible time.
When my children were young, I worked from home as a contributing editor for a national trade magazine. I woke up at 5 a.m. to write and was able to get by with a babysitter for a few hours a week to conduct phone interviews and take the train into New York City to visit the office. Full-time childcare for several children would have been much too expensive. I met deadlines shortly after giving birth and kept my newborns with me while the older children were in preschool or childcare. I nursed my babies to keep them quiet while I interviewed company execs.
Dr. Parcak is different. Although her work is glamorous, she doesn’t work for herself. She is beholden to an employer; she works for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, so her situation is more like that of most women. To do what she does, she needs an amenable workplace, a supportive spouse, or family nearby who help out. Ideally, she has all three.
I work for a university in Alabama too, so I know she’s got plenty of sick and vacation time to take off when one of her children is up all night crying with an earache. Only 46 percent of service workers and 47 percent of workers in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry occupations had paid sick leave benefits as of March 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And clearly her husband, Dr. Greg Mumford, is supportive, since she works in partnership with him to survey and excavate projects in the Sinai and the Nile delta. For many women, however, Prince Charming turned out to be a jerk. They don’t have that kind of support, and the cost of daycare is killing them.
Using satellite imagery and other remote sensing tools, Dr. Parcak explores subtle differences in topography, geology and plant life to expose forgotten sites from multiple lost cultures, explains Smithsonian magazine. “She and her team have expanded the civilization’s known scope, spotting more than 3,000 ancient settlements, more than a dozen pyramids and over a thousand lost tombs, and uncovered the city grid of Tanis, of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame,” the article notes.
I admit it, she’s living my dream life. But that gives me a clue that maybe, just maybe, Dr. Parcak also gets help from her family, or at the very least a live-in nanny who likes to travel. For all my flexibility, there’s no way I could have managed a working trip to Egypt with my kids in tow, since my family lived more than 1,500 miles away.
None of this is to criticize Dr. Parcak. She’s amazing. But she is a woman of talent, intelligence and, yes, privilege. We need women like Dr. Parcak to tell the world that children need lots of time and attention. They aren’t always easy. They can be messy and inconvenient. They aren’t like wind-up dolls that can be put away on a shelf when you’re through with them.
A bigger problem: There is a bigger problem here that is talked about only sporadically, which is that the U.S. population, sans immigrants, is not replacing itself. The “replacement” fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age is generally considered enough to renew the population. In 2017, the total fertility rate dropped to 1.76 in the U.S., continuing a slide downward that started in the early 1970s.
Given concerns about resources, some might say that is a good thing. This “replacement level,” however, is considered an important measure of demographic health. Young people are needed to replace an aging workforce and to generate stable tax revenues to continue to fund programs like Medicare and Social Security, whose costs will balloon when the population skews geriatric.
I don’t think there is any way to pretend that one of the reasons the birthrate is plummeting is because the rate of women in the workforce has soared. In fact, it is my observation that men often expect their wives (or significant others) to work, valuing their role as cash cows over their role as mothers. And let me tell you, combining a career and parenting is damn hard work, whether the primary caretaker is man or woman, and even if they completely share responsibilities.
I’m old enough to be Dr. Parcak’s mother, so forgive me for seeming old-fashioned and not appreciating how “sexist” it is to ask about managing full-time work and full-time children. I am of an age where I had friends who were discouraged from being anything but nurses or teachers. My widowed grandmother told me to never stop working, because men die or they go away. And my father told me I’d have to work twice as hard as any man to get the same recognition. I’m glad those days are over.
“Having vulnerable, beautiful, beloved dependents is like having had my own heart replicated and sent out into the world,” Laura Groff also told the Harvard Gazette. “Nothing feels more urgent to me than that.”
She gets it, and I’m sure every other celebrity mother who will stop and think about it does, too. And it would be most helpful if Laura Groff and Sarah Parcak and every other celebrity mother out there talked about the challenges, because I will certainly tell you that being a parent was the most demanding and difficult and fascinating job I ever had.
I like to say my grandmother’s uncle won women the right to vote.
The state of American politics these days has got me ruminating about the uncle who died six years before I was born—a minor character in the drama of history, a forgotten footnote to a very important chapter.
He’s also my hero, a testament to the consequences of personal and political courage.
I pray that today’s legislators will learn to be true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.
Albert Houston Roberts was first a schoolteacher, then an attorney, then governor of Tennessee. He took office in 1919—just in time to help change history.
That year, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, 39 straightforward words that inflamed passions nationwide. If ratified by 36 states, the amendment would enfranchise women.
One by one, 35 states signed. One more was needed to complete the “Perfect 36,” but none of the recalcitrant Southern or Western states looked ready to budge.
August 1920 was muggy in Nashville. If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment in special session, it likely would die. Family lore says Roberts passionately believed women should vote. Opposition in Tennessee ran high, so Roberts called in every favor and used every ounce of influence to force the issue. In a close vote, the measure passed.
As a child, I discounted the story. My children still do. But journalist that I am I sensed a story. I wrote to American Heritage magazine, suggesting I research the story and record the process.
If the editor deigned to answer, I expected a thin letter. Instead, I got a thick packet. The story—far more dramatic than I imagined—already had been written.
That oppressive summer, the nation focused attention on Nashville, which teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston. Suffragists wrote letters, staged rallies and canvassed legislators. Telegrams shot back and forth between the White House and the State House in Nashville. Tempers flared.
Supporters wore yellow roses. Those opposed wore red. Legislators showed their sentiments by pinning roses to their lapels—and the roses showed the amendment would be defeated, 49-47.
A motion to table was defeated when one legislator switched sides. A vote on the amendment was called, and again legislators split, 48-48. A second vote was called, and young Harry Burn—red rose pinned brazenly to his collar—broke the deadlock and voted to enfranchise women. Pandemonium erupted, and Burn climbed out a a third-floor window to escape the mob. He hid in the Capitol attic.
Later, Burn explained that he wore a red rose, but in his pocket he carried his mother’s telegram. His mother’s wishes won out over political expediency and superficial coalitions. He voted for the controversial amendment.
The battle wasn’t over, however. Opponents managed to delay official ratification. Anti-suffrage legislators fled the state to avoid a quorum, and their associates held massive rallies. The coalition held, however, and Tennessee reaffirmed the vote.
On Aug. 28, my uncle signed the bill. Two days later, women earned the constitutional right that white men had possessed since the nation was born, and that black men had possessed since the 1860s.
What did Roberts’ courage win him? Absolutely nothing, in the pragmatists’s view. He’s not mentioned in the history books. Family legend says he was considered for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage but missed the cut. He failed in his bid for re-election and took up the practice of law with his son in Nashville.
He left a legacy, however, a legacy of which his family, his state and his country can be proud. Now, as a government shutdown threatens and rumors of corruption are rampant, I pray that our legislators will become true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.
Photo: Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts (1868–1946) certifying the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Memphis suffragist Charl Williams stands watching. Photo credit: Nashville Tennessean (in the Tennessee State Library and Archives).
This was written one day after 9/11 and published two days later. I think it is worth remembering the raw anguish of that terrible day.
By Jacqueline Kochak
I want you to see the World Trade Center through my eyes.
I lived in metropolitan New York City for 17 years. My children were born there and grew up exploring lower Manhattan. I want you to see the World Trade Center through their eyes.
To understand the importance of this landmark to the city—we always called it “the City,” with a capital C—you have to understand the geography of Manhattan.
Manhattan lies at the center of a vast metropolitan area, stretching west into New Jersey, north into the foothills of the Catskills and east onto Long Island. The other four boroughs are congested and heavily ethnic, full of neat small homes bursting with barely assimilated Italian, Polish, Jewish and Irish families, along with a smattering of Germans and a little bit of every other nationality on earth, just for spice.
If you’re a fan of old movies, think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, not Woody Allen in Manhattan.
I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.
The island of Manhattan is different. Manhattan is the city of our dreams, the city we love to hate, where skyscrapers rise to breathtaking heights and green space is limited to a generous series of parks. The streets are clogged with honking cabbies, trucks belching exhaust fumes and exasperated businessmen trying to get across town.
Manhattan is raucous yet refined, bumptious yet big-hearted. This is a young, vigorous city that has welcomed immigrants since its birth. Those immigrants have produced offspring just assimilated enough to move to the suburbs, and their descendants have percolated out into the rest of the country.
Every language on earth can be heard on the streets of Manhattan. You’re lucky if you catch a cabbie who speaks adequate English, but the street vendors selling pretzels, Nathan’s hot dogs, knishes and exotic delicacies are priceless.
The city itself is a patchwork of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality. To the north, along the East River, is the tony Upper East Side, home to the wealthy. Across vast Central Park is the funkier Upper West Side, home to the up-and-coming. Below Central Park, the broad boulevards of a great metropolis sweep southward. At the heart of Midtown is Times Square.
After running straight as an arrow from Harlem south, the boulevards lose their confidence somewhere below 14th Street and prove no match for the tourists’ favorite haunt, Greenwich Village, or its grimier cousin, the East Village. Lower still, there’s little planning in Chinatown or the Lower East Side—and stay out of Alphabet City, locals will warn you.
The massive bulk of the World Trade Center’s twin towers once loomed over lower Manhattan, shading the world’s financial nerve center, Wall Street. The buildings were so enormous, so dazzling, so overwhelming that only American wealth—and American hubris—could have dreamed them and built them.
Here, the American colossus flexed its muscle. American business ruled the world—still does, I guess—and the World Trade Center was a shrine to newness, bigness, brashness and brawn. Underneath the giant towers, the subways converged at a major station. Above, several floors of shops and restaurants comprised the ultimate shopping center. Above that rose floor after floor of offices occupied by the best and brightest of the business world.
The top of one tower was a favorite destination for tourists and school groups. I can’t forget the clusters of schoolchildren who made regular pilgrimages up to the observation deck, to “ooh” and “aah” at the spectacular skyline.
The air in lower Manhattan is salt-tinged, because the island juts into New York Harbor where the Statue of Liberty raises her beacon. I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.
People keep comparing this to Pearl Harbor. They’re wrong in a way, because the casualties are much higher and they’re civilians. They’re right in a way, too, because Pearl Harbor woke up a sleeping giant. Once again we are feeling our power.
When Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.
By Jacqueline White Kochak
I am in my Grandmother White’s powder-blue living room in her house on Second Avenue in Dodge City, Kansas. The living room is perfect and neat, with low plush carpeting and a fireplace at one end of the long room. She has lived in this house since before my grandfather died, since before I was born, and I will always associate my grandmother with the soft shade of powder blue.
On this day, Grandmother White has decided to share a family secret with me, a family secret so awful that it had been buried for some 40 years. I am 20-ish and staying with her—I don’t remember why—and we don’t often talk about anything serious. With no preamble and without words, she hands me a yellowed newspaper clipping that she has obviously kept hidden for decades. The story covers the whole front page of the publication, and the aging newsprint is splitting along the fold lines.
We are a family that keeps and guards our secrets zealously. The corollary to that family trait is that secrets so carefully protected must at some point be shared, passed on, in homage to their power. Not shared carelessly, but not lost forever. If never spoken, they might never have existed, which for some might seem a good thing—but how can unspeakable pain be denied completely? For some reason, my grandmother chose me to carry the secret forward.
A SENSELESS FAMILY MASSACRE: I can’t forget the story. On the hot morning of June 25, 1927—a Saturday—my grandmother’s cousin William Payton Justice was out plowing a distant field with his father and older brother, John. The 13-year-old boy—I suppose they called him Billy—paused, shaded his eyes as he looked at the vast blue sky, and announced he was going to make a trek back to the house to get his gun. The day was stifling hot and humid, with no shade and no relief from the sun. He was going to shoot the crows, Billy said.
Instead, when he got to the house, he shot his family. He killed his 45-year-old mother, Minnie, and his 8-year-old sister, Emogene. Billy’s older sister, 18-year-old Mary Evelyn, was bending over the icebox on the back porch, and her younger brother’s assault was so rapid and unexpected that she didn’t have time to straighten herself or react. Billy’s shot glanced off her spine, causing her to limp the rest of her life. Then Billy shot himself. Three dead, a senseless family massacre that today would be reported in newspapers all over the country.
I have no idea why my grandmother chose to share this story with me, her eldest granddaughter, and I have no idea why she chose that particular day. My Grandmother White was not a talkative person, nor was she a gossip. She was always proper in both dress and behavior, cognizant of her illustrious Southern forebears. I don’t remember her ever joking, or laughing uncontrollably, or “letting go” in any way.
I think we both knew I was a lot like her, bookish and quiet. My grandfather died before I was born, and when I asked Grandmother White why she never remarried, she admitted, “I couldn’t imagine crawling into bed with another man.” She cautioned me to maintain my professional skills because “men die or they run away,” and when I graduated from college with a degree in journalism, she told me she was proud of me because when she was young, women could be only nurses or teachers. She was a second-grade teacher for some 30 years after my grandfather died, even though she hadn’t worked while he was alive.
I try to imagine the shame that would have choked the extended family—including my grandmother, her siblings and her parents—a shame so heavy that only hidden memories remained, with no words to pierce the shadows. Even today, my husband cautioned me that perhaps I shouldn’t be telling people this horrific story—and we don’t live in a rural county where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they are not close relatives. I wonder sometimes if those ghosts have left their sign upon me.
There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness.
I try to imagine Cherokee County, Kansas, in the late 1920s, before Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression engulfed the country. I know from experience that the June heat is searing and the humidity is oppressive. The local newspaper speculated young Billy “went crazy from the sun,” a diagnosis that makes some sense if you’re familiar with the region. Billy also suffered from measles or chicken pox—I can’t remember which—just a few weeks before, the newspaper said. Now I can’t find the article.
Although the Justices were all farmers, Cherokee County occupies the western edge of the Ozarks plateau, and the rolling land is rich with minerals like zinc and lead and also with coal. Mining was important to the economy, and the small town nearest to the Justice farm—West Mineral—is so-named because of the nearby coal mines where miners stripped coal from shallow veins. In the 1920s, the area produced a third of all the nation’s bituminous coal, which fired the kilns that processed the zinc and lead mined in the region.
Iron foundries, cement plants, tile and pottery manufacturers, glass pane factories, lead and zinc sheet mills, and brick plants transformed southeast Kansas into the most industrialized part of a state known for its agricultural prowess. The dirty, dangerous jobs required workers, and so the immigrants came. Census records note that one of the Justices’ neighbors was born in Italy.
But the Justices, all of them, were without exception farmers. My great-grandfather, Joseph Curtis Justice, was the son of one of three brothers who migrated west to Kansas with their families in the 1880s. John Wesley Justice, Billy’s father, was my great-grandfather’s older brother. They came from Illinois, but from the part of that Yankee state that is totally Southern, located across the Ohio River from Kentucky. The area is called Little Egypt because the major city is Cairo, pronounced “Kay-ro.”
LIFE ON THE FARM:I know exactly what young Billy’s life on the farm was like because of my Uncle Joe’s recollections about his grandparents. I can also see that sturdy farm couple, my great-grandparents, in my mind’s eye. Joe Justice was about 5-foot-10, lean and hard. He had sandy hair, chewed plug tobacco and smoked a pipe. He sat in a rocker by the window to watch people go by on the road outside, so Grandma Justice put paper under the rocker along with a bucket full of sand for her husband to spit in. For her part, Laura Justice was small and lean and wore long dresses. Her hair, which she wore in a knot on the back of her head, nearly touched the floor when unbound.
The Justices worked from daylight until dusk, keeping so busy they almost ran from chore to chore. Laura, my great-grandmother, got up first and started a wood fire in the big steel stove equipped with water storage on each side so they had hot water. Grandpa Justice replenished the water every night as well as filling the wood bin, and his wife made biscuits every morning to accompany fried eggs, gravy, ham or bacon, and coffee. Then they milked as many as 10 cows every morning; my great-grandmother always milked two, while my great-grandfather and Houston, the only child left at home by the time Uncle Joe made his debut, milked the rest.
When that chore was done, they carried the milk to the cellar where they collected cream in a cream can to sell in town. Milk they intended to use was hung in the cool depths of the well, while the rest was fed to the hogs. The family raised chickens, too, and grew vegetables. Profit from selling the little bit of leftover eggs and cream to the general store was used to buy flour, sugar, coffee, and cornflakes. They enjoyed ice only on Saturdays, and only if they were making ice cream.
Both Justice families, like all their neighbors, still farmed with mules, smart but balky animals. When old Joe Justice went to the barn and got their harnesses out, the mules knew they were going to have to work. They didn’t like that, so my great-grandfather would take a mule’s ear in his mouth and bite down until the stubborn beast stood still and let him finish getting them harnessed.
When Houston graduated from high school, he told his parents he absolutely would not stay on the farm unless they bought a tractor. He said he wouldn’t walk behind the mules ever again, because the obstinate beasts are famous for passing clouds of gas that engulf anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Houston’s stubbornness turned out to be a good thing, because the farm never had a money crop until they bought a tractor and planted wheat.
At the time Billy was working in the field with his father and older brother, though, they were still dealing with balky, smelly mules. Billy’s life wasn’t easy, no question, but why would he turn on his mother and sisters?
He learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
A TAINT OF INEFFABLE SADNESS: Joe Justice was a good man and well-respected, but my Grandmother White described him as a man who was very serious and not given to smiling or enjoying himself. My grandmother was the same way, and that has made me wonder about the dark stain of depression that runs through my family and might have touched young Billy, the boy who killed his family.
Volumes have been written about children who kill, and more particularly children who kill their families. Of course I didn’t know Billy’s family, but I know his cousins and their stories. There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness. As I have pondered this story, that illness has caught my attention.
Most children today never experience the discomfort, high temperature and spreading red rash of measles or itchy bumps of chicken pox, but in Billy’s day almost every child succumbed. As childhood illnesses that were so common they were expected, diseases like measles and chicken pox don’t sound very scary at all. Even today, however, medical books note the existence of a rare illness that can occur many years after exposure to these viruses and cause brain damage, including behavior changes and bizarre actions. When I dug a little deeper, I learned that in the late 1800s, infection was accepted as one of the causes of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
Emil Kraepelin—the German physician who is considered the founder of modern psychiatry—described rare cases of insanity following such once-common diseases as chicken pox, scarlet fever and measles, with brain inflammation the suspected cause. By Billy’s time thinking had swung around to the belief that insanity was caused only by experiences or by genetics, and only recently is infection once again being considered as a cause.
PERHAPS SILENCE WAS KINDNESS:I have pored over what records I can find, trying to reconstruct that place and that time in my mind. I imagine Billy’s father and older brother returning to the house to find a bloodbath on a hot June afternoon. From census records, it looks entirely possible the shattered family continued to live in the rural farmhouse, located on a dirt road in the county’s northwest corner. Billy’s father lived just six more years, dying in 1933. His older brother John and his surviving sister Evelyn lived out the rest of their lives in the area; John was buried in the county seat of Columbus some 40 years later.
I have wondered how a secret of this magnitude could be kept for so many years. My father never knew until I told him, although my Uncle Joe heard some of the story from his uncle Houston, an inveterate gossip. Far more puzzling, Billy’s older brother John—the one left alive in the field when his mother and sister were slaughtered—went on to raise a family who were unaware of the tragedy.
As best I can determine, his two sons grew up in southeast Kansas, in close proximity to the murder site, attending high school in nearby West Mineral. Yet no one ever breathed a word of the family shame. At the time of the crime, some 30,000 people resided in the county, but just a handful of them—a few hundred—lived in the rural townships where my family members lived. Perhaps the murders were just a quickly forgotten curiosity, or perhaps in a rural neighborhood where everyone was related to everyone else, silence was kindness. Perhaps the silence was like a scab covering an open wound, allowing healing to occur.
Mary Evelyn and her brother John apparently grew apart. She had no children herself, and John’s sons did not know they had an aunt named Evelyn until one of them got interested in genealogy. Seeking information about his father’s family, he ventured into a public genealogy forum and learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
In fact, to the best of my recollection, my grandmother and I never again spoke of the family’s heartbreak after I folded up that yellowed newspaper and returned it to her for safekeeping. I have wondered if the story is really mine to tell, or if by telling the story I will be causing pain to some descendant who doesn’t know his or her family’s bloody history. Yet, when Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.
On Sunday mornings, strange thoughts waft through my cluttered mind. Oh, the blood (and DNA) will tell!
Jacqueline White Kochak
I do my best thinking about people when I’m sitting in a choir stall at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on a Sunday morning, gazing out at hundreds of mostly white faces. I’m euphoric as my choir mates and I sing, but then my mind wanders. I know I should be minding Father Bill’s pithy homily, but the temptation to ruminate about people and their foibles, with such a wealth of examples laid out before me, is irresistible.
I watch a trim, handsome widower as he links arms with a young woman who once attended Mass with her former husband and their young son, and I wonder how the transition came about. I look for my friends. I wonder why that skinny teenager is dressed as though she is going to the beach. And often, the thought that wafts through my cluttered mind is that I’m more closely related to Paula Whatley Matabane, a “black” woman, than I am to any of these parishioners.
Most of the people in my church are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Polish and Italian and Irish and German immigrants from Europe, the Catholic refuse that washed up on America’s shores. I am separated from these people by many, many generations, and we share little but pale skin. My family, on the other hand, has been here since the 1600s and early 1700s, fanning out from Virginia and moving west.
I am separated from Paula by a mere five generations, and my mother is even closer to her—and my grandmother closer still. We both know the sad history that made us distant cousins, and that is another thing I ruminate upon. How could I, in my amnesiac present, not know that my family owned slaves? Many slaves, apparently.
I’ve seen their names in my forebears’ wills, parceling out Sally to a daughter, Tom to a son, sometimes with specific instructions that one not be sold, but that her “increase” be divided among the heirs. The passage of many years and many miles is part of the reason my family has been blessed with amnesia. Otherwise, the understanding might be unbearable.
Editor’s note: The artwork is from my daughter’s current show in Miami. Paula and I are writing down our thoughts about our new relationship, so I might share a few of them here. You can learn more about Natalya Kochak’s project here. And here is an interesting article on the subject of skin color.
I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players ‘take the knee’ to protest what they perceive as injustice.
I’ve never been interested in football. My head is full of every kind of trivia except sports trivia. Until this last weekend I was only vaguely aware of a guy named Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling protest, and my impression was that perhaps he was somewhat melodramatic and self-promotional.
Then Donald Trump brought himself down to the state where I live, Alabama. In a rambling speech, the President of the United States mused, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when someone disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”
I was shocked, and ashamed. On Sunday, other football players followed Kaepernick’s example. Some of them explained why, in eloquent terms. Their actions ignited a firestorm of controversy, including on my Facebook page. One casual friend sanctimoniously posted, “Memo to the millionaires of the NFL from Americans who understand the price of freedom: Fallen Vet Lives Matter. That’s what the flag represents to all who have been handed one after it was draped over the remains of their loved one.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t see what the protest had to do with “fallen vets,” and I’m willing to bet she’s never known a single one herself. To me, football players kneeling quietly didn’t seem disrespectful, but I get it. I understand that for some, the protests were inappropriate. Still, “fallen vets”?
Being the mouthy troublemaker that I am, I posted a picture of an unkempt, stringy-haired Kid Rock dressed in—you guessed it—an American flag. “Tell that to Kid Rock,” I said, noting that he had been invited to the White House.
“I don’t know a thing about Kid Rock, but if I see someone clothed in a flag or having a flag draped over their dead body residing in a coffin, I think ’That person is passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for,’” she responded.
I was dumbfounded. Foul-mouthed Kid Rock, who used the “f” word in announcing his interest in running for the U.S. Senate, who starred in a 1999 sex tape, who has used the Confederate flag as an on-stage prop, was “passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for.”
I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting.
I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players “take the knee” to protest what they perceive as injustice.
So who is the patriot? I’ll put my credentials up against hers any day of the week. My ancestors fought in nearly every war in this country’s history, including the American Revolution. In fact, some of them brought their anti-English sentiments and penchant for independence with them when they were transported as Scottish prisoners of war.
Some claim that one of my forebears, an Overmountain Man by the name of Samuel Shannon, fired the shot that killed Major Patrick Ferguson at the pivotal Battle of King’s Mountain in the American Revolution. Another ancestor worked as a surveyor with George Washington, then joined the young general at his request when the spirit of rebellion spread. My family were the rough frontiersmen who pushed west so my friend’s family could immigrate many years later and live in comfort. They fought on both sides in the uncivil Civil War, and in almost every war since.
And who respects veterans more? My grandfathers were veterans, and my father. So are both of my brothers, my sister-in-law, my nephew and my son. I deeply resent the suggestion that I am somehow less patriotic because I don’t agree with people who are promoting what I believe to be a false narrative, who have cynically co-opted the flag and fallen heroes as their own symbols and told me I don’t belong in their club.
These super-patriots, without exception, identify themselves as “conservative,” and spit out “liberal” as if it were a dirty word. They’ve also frequently donned the cloak of religion, and that brings me to the idea of cheap grace, grace without paying a price.
The grace of some of these “football patriots” is cheap and easy; they may be Christians who have been forgiven, but they are not Christians compelled to examine their own lives or follow the narrow path of loving one another, even when it is difficult.
They’re comfortable, wrapped in their flags. And that brings me to Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. In writing about Adolf Eichmann, Arendt described his absolute and thoughtless symbiosis with Nazi norms, which allowed him to commit unspeakable evil as the man who managed the logistics of transporting Jews and others to their deaths. Within those warped norms, Eichmann was deserving of respect and approval.
I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting. To protect her worldview, she was able to distort reality, moving pieces around until they fit in a way she wanted them to fit. She needed to pretend that somehow the President was justified in his statement—no matter how offensive—and therefore the football players had to be bad.
What could be worse than disrespecting fallen veterans? Never mind that not one of the protesters ever suggested such a motive, and some are veterans themselves.
For that brief Facebook moment, I believe my acquaintance abandoned the critical thought and questioning mind that are fundamental to authentic morality. And for that brief moment, I understood that unquestioning allegiance and a sense of righteous zeal can be an ugly combination. I glimpsed a place I’m afraid to go and a person I’m afraid to know.
Editor’s note: So yeah, I overthink things. My acquaintance is, in fact, a good and caring person whose unthinking comment sent me to a bad place. Most of the conservative Christians I know are kind, sincere people, and so are most of the liberal Christians of my acquaintance, as well as the non-Christians. I had a bad day.
A 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she met a nice man on match.com. In fact her suitor was a hacker who stole $20,000 from us, and she laundered his money. You could be a victim, too.
Last April, I took a guided tour through the world of cyber-crime. I learned brand-new (to me) words like “phishing” and took a peek into the dark world of catfishing and romance scams. I was lucky—my education cost only $20,000. Others have gotten the same education but it cost them 10 times as much.
The cast of characters includes my husband, my adult daughter, a lovesick lady I don’t know who lives in the Chicago suburbs, and a South African scammer. And the cast includes me, of course, as well as a hapless realtor and the executives of a prominent Chicago realty firm.
She wasn’t talking with the real estate agent. She was chatting with a hacker who may have been in South Africa.
The story starts in midtown Chicago, where my daughter Emma lived in a tiny, crowded basement apartment with her significant other and young son, Damien. The little family needed a bigger place. When my husband’s father left us a substantial inheritance several years earlier, he stipulated that part was to help our children buy homes.
My excited daughter, Emma, started condo shopping. Working with a well-known Chicago realty firm, she found a nice, updated condominium with wood floors and a new kitchen, located on a tree-lined street near busy Lincoln Square on the city’s north side. Once she found the property, she communicated via email with the realtor, who I’ll call Sheila Kennedy.
The realty company, @properties, is the largest real estate brokerage firm in the state of Illinois and one of the top 12 residential brokers in the U.S. With more than 20 offices around the city, the company is respected and successful. We certainly didn’t expect any problems.
CHATTING WITH A HACKER:Emma frequently exchanged pleasantries with Sheila. We later learned, however, that she wasn’t talking with Sheila much of the time. She was chatting innocently with a hacker who may have been in South Africa, someone who had commandeered Sheila’s account against her will and without her knowledge. Maybe it was that 400-pound hacker working from his bedroom that then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump mentioned during the first presidential debate?
One imagines hackers as brilliant guys who know all about various programming languages and how to write code to exploit weaknesses in a network. They seek out open ports in a system, figure out a way to crack passwords (that’s why strong passwords are so important), give themselves administrative privileges, and create backdoors so they can get back into systems. Then they take over, wreaking havoc if they wish but usually just sneaking around gathering information and hiding their “footprints” as they go.
If that sounds complicated, it is. And that’s probably not how the hackers got access to Sheila’s email. They probably used a simple “phishing” scheme, meaning they sent her an innocent-looking email from someone she thought was a friend, asking her to click on a link or download a PDF. Somehow—I’m not knowledgeable enough to know how—communications from my daughter to Sheila were then diverted.
“The scheme was very sophisticated,” I heard over and over again from bank and police officers both at home in Alabama and in Chicago.
Sheila’s last real email was dated April 8. She asked that a check for $2,000 earnest money be mailed to Dream Town Realty. Her following e-mails—from the same gmail account, with all the same addresses and slogans at the bottom—came from the imposter. The new emails even boasted, “Top Agent Magazine, 2014 & 2015,” and “Chicago Top Producer 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 & 2014.”
“I have a busy schedule today with closings and meeting, I will wait on your email,” says one. “I hope you are keeping safe from all the storms and tornadoes,” reads another, and “I hope you had a nice Easter,” says yet another.
The one thing all the emails had in common was continual reminders about the necessity of wiring the $20,000 down payment to the title company. The emails continued to be friendly, their tone casual.
“Sorry I was in a showing since 8am, just got your email, I am walking into another meeting till 4pm, Let me know once the wire has been done,” the hacker wrote, for example.
AN ARDENT SUITOR: In the meantime, a 73-year-old widow by the name of Margaret thought she had met a very nice man on match.com. A devout Catholic, she lived in the northwest Chicago suburb of Algonquin and had built a reputation as a talented artisan, arranging beautiful floral arrangements in collectibles such as vintage china or a tiny child’s wooden sled. Margaret’s Swiss-born husband, Walter, had died recently, so she was testing the waters after many years of marriage. She was the perfect prey for a romance scam—catfishing, it’s called.
Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China, and he needed emergency funds.
Romance scammers prey on nice people. They look for kind people, people with empathy. They build trust, setting their snares. When they need help, the nice lady or the nice man responds. Margaret is lucky she didn’t lose a lot of money; the criminal behind this particular elaborate scheme only wanted a legitimate bank account in the Chicago area where the marks—my husband and me—could wire money without our suspicions being aroused.
Margaret wasn’t suspicious, either. Her suitor was a businessman building a hospital in China. He had a need for emergency funds. When the money was wired into her account, she immediately sent it on to China. At least that’s where she thought the money went. Police later told me they traced our $20,000 to South Africa. Technically, Margaret was a money-launderer. Nobody thought of pressing charges, however.
We would have been on guard immediately if we had been instructed to wire money to a foreign account. In fact, we were on guard soon after, when “Sheila” asked us to wire another $60,000 as part of the purchase price. We knew that didn’t sound right because that money should have come from mortgage proceeds, and we hadn’t completed the process. We immediately started asking questions.
As soon as we confirmed that Sheila knew nothing about the $20,000, we contacted an @properties vice president I’ll call Wayne Kelly. He let slip that another couple turned up for a closing that same afternoon, thinking they wired $60,000 to a title company. As I researched the subject, I found this type of wire fraud is common in real-estate transactions. People have wired hundreds of thousands of dollars into bank accounts controlled by criminals.
AVOID BEING A VICTIM: What would I tell someone to do to avoid being a victim? Some states actually require that funds be transferred before closing via wire transfer—ironically, to avoid scams using fake cashier’s checks. When you get wire instructions for your closing, call your closing agent or your real estate attorney to verify those instructions. And use the phone number you’ve been using with them, not a new phone number emailed to you.
Also, absolutely refuse to communicate with your realtor or any other party to the transaction if he or she is using a free email server like gmail. Free email accounts are more vulnerable because they don’t have the firewalls, virus protection and other security of company-issued e-mail accounts. Any real estate company that hasn’t warned its agents is negligent—but the law is sketchy, so that can be hard to prove in court.
If you don’t want to be an inadvertent money launderer (or worse, get scammed yourself), be cautious on dating sites. Anyone can put up a fake photo of a debonair gent or beautiful young woman, and these scammers will spend hours drawing you out and listening to your dreams and schemes. If they profess their love too soon, be suspicious—especially if they’re in a foreign country and claim to have no family.
Some are more patient, though, and will spend months wooing you with intimate conversation. As soon as they ask for money, though, run the other direction.
I’ve tried to find Margaret to learn more about her experience. She’s no longer at her home in Algonquin, and her phone is disconnected. I tracked her down on Facebook and learned she’s moved into a retirement community. I tried sending her a message but got no reply. I’m sure she’s embarrassed, but I bear her no ill will. I just want to share the story so others will be careful.
I’ve had to tell the story to bank officials, our investment adviser (who took care of wiring the funds), and police officers in two states, as well as filing a report with the FBI and Equifax. The worst thing was enduring an interview with an embarrassed representative from a local senior services agency, who was tasked with determining whether I was in full possession of all my faculties.
As I talked to all these people, I learned that variations on wire fraud scams are shockingly common. One wealthy man in the small town where I live lost over $250,000. Fortunately he could afford to lose it, a police officer told me.
A ghost has haunted my dreams for more than 30 years. He is evanescent and ephemeral, in the way of dream figures. Unlike most ghosts, however, today he exists somewhere, most likely balding, with a pot belly.
Long ago, I knew him well. His name was Tim—still is, I guess. He was a frat boy with a houseful of Beta brothers all bound for law and medical school. His daddy was a doctor, and the golden boy was on the same track. He had a loving family, with two sisters, a brother…