The geography of pain for crime victims
By Petula Dvorak,
She can see the park where it happened from her spot at the local coffee place.
And she can see the stretch of street on Capitol Hill where her husband tried to stagger seven blocks home that night after being robbed and beaten, looking for help while his brain was bleeding. Thomas “TC” Maslin, a solar energy analyst, finally collapsed and began seizing in front of an empty house.
“I can’t not see it every day,” says Abby Maslin, 30, who looks amazing given the hell she’s been through since the August attack that nearly killed her husband.
Geography nearly always haunts the victims of violent crime and their families, especially when it happens in a home or in a beloved neighborhood. Those places become tainted by trauma.
Amid everything else — the why, the how, the realization that life will never be the same — is always the question of where now.
“That’s big for victims. For so many of them, they just can’t go back. They just can’t do it,” says Kristy Dyroff, who works for the National Organization for Victim Assistance, based in Alexandria. “And we try to help them find assistance for relocation.”
That decision is gut-wrenching for Abby Maslin. She loves Capitol Hill. As a kid growing up in Arizona, she visited her aunt and uncle in the neighborhood. She walked to Eastern Market.
After living in a hardscrabble part of Boston as newlyweds, Abby and TC promised themselves they’d pick a better neighborhood when they moved to Washington in 2009. Someplace safer.
TC trusted Abby when she told him that Capitol Hill would be perfect. “And he was like a kid in a dream when we first got here,” Abby says, “he loved it so much.”
It all shattered two months ago. TC, who just turned 30, went with some friends to a ballgame, then stopped for a drink at a neighborhood bar. On his 10-minute walk home, he was jumped in a pocket park between his condo and Eastern Market. His attackers took his credit card, his phone and life as he knew it.
He spent about eight hours fighting to survive near that park, until someone found him in the morning and called 911.
Two months ago, he was a force in the world of solar energy, giving lectures to an international audience and being quoted in the New York Times as a 20-something senior expert in a complex field.
This week, his wife made him a set of flashcards with her face on them. “ABBY” and “WIFE” is under a picture of her. He calls her “Seventeen” and “Mom,” unable to find the word “wife” in the battered part of his brain.
One of the only people he absolutely recognizes is their 2-year-old son, Jack. And, despite the brain injury helmet and the swollen face, the blind left eye and the wheelchair, Jack recognizes Dad, too.
The day before it all crashed, Abby was in her classroom at Brent Elementary School, a Capitol Hill mainstay, getting it ready for her fourth-grade class. But she never met her students.
Instead, she’s met hundreds of other people. Strangers who write to her about their own experiences with traumatic brain injury, friends who show up at all hours to feed her, to take her son for a haircut, to help her make it through another day. Acquaintances have become vital friends. Good friends have become family. She is embraced daily by arms, words, good deeds and love.
Brent Elementary will give the money earned in an annual fundraiser — Ward 6 Fall Safety Festival on Oct. 21 — to the family. In her painfully honest and eloquent blog, loveforthemaslins.blogspot.com, Abby details the recovery process as well as her gratitude for all the help her family has received.
Yet, the place that is so obviously their home can also feel so very wrong.
“For the first couple weeks after it happened, I’d park illegally if I had to, just to be right in front of our door,” she says. “I just couldn’t walk alone.”
And at any time of night, when she sees someone strolling in a part of town known for its walkability, she wants to yell at them: “What are you doing? Don’t you know what could happen?”
The decision whether to stay or go has been made for her largely by logistics.
Once TC returns home from inpatient care, their condo, with all of its stairs and spaces no bigger than a closet, won't accommodate his wheelchair. So for now, Abby plans to move the family to St. Mary’s City, where her family lives and where she and TC met at college.
“It’ll be therapeutic by the water,” she says. “And quieter. And easier.” And being away, as painful as it sounds, will help her heal, too.
The surge of emotion she feels every time she sees the park where TC was beaten or the street where he collapsed is undeniable.
It’s physiological, the chemicals in the brain realigning the feelings your mind associates with home, says Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance.
“What is home? A place of protection, solitude, comfort and love,” Marling says. “And now you have this incredibly complex conflict going on.” Because now violence is in the mix.
Most of the time, only families that can’t afford to flee the memory of a terrible crime stay put. Once in a while, though, a family refuses to leave a beloved house or neighborhood. That was the case with the Kankas, the New Jersey family that endured the loss of little Megan, whose murder gave birth to the sex offender regulation known as Megan’s Law. There, the Kankas remained after the local Rotary Club bought the house across the street, where Megan was killed, and turned it into a park.
Eventually, Abby says she wants to return to Capitol Hill. She believes the love that the community has shown the family will be enough to block out the memories of the violence. So will the satisfaction of seeing her husband’s alleged attackers in jail.
She stared down two of the suspects in court on Friday.
And that scene added another dimension of tragedy to all this. They looked like babies. Short, little guys. One had a pencil neck and eyeglasses that he removed and cleaned with his orange jumpsuit during the court proceeding. He is a 17-year-old senior at a local high school and YMCA volunteer. Abby knows one of his teachers.
And as D.C. police detective Robert Saunders took the stand and recounted the interviews, Tommy T. Branch, the 21-year-old who allegedly drove the three suspects that night and told detectives that he shoved TC to the ground, shook his head “no, no, no” while scanning the courtroom crowd for a familiar face. I don’t think he ever met Abby’s sad eyes.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.