On a September night five years ago, when Alice Kaminsky and her husband, Jack, were out visiting friends, their house was robbed. The burglars took silver, a fur coat, antique dishes. No one was home; no one was hurt.
"I didn't have any strong reactions. I felt: They're things. We can replace them," says Alice Kaminsky, an English professor at the State University of New York at Cortland.
When a police detective telephoned the next day, Kaminsky thought it was about the missing items. Instead, he had news of another, infinitely more horrible loss: her only child had been murdered.
Eric Kaminsky, a promising music student, was only 22 when he was robbed of $22, stabbed and thrown onto the tracks in Manhattan's 181st Street subway station. It was one of 1,814 murders in New York City in 1980.
"I have lost people I love, and I have been able to accept that loss," says Kaminsky, whose first husband died in 1945, on their first wedding anniversary. "But with murder, you cannot ever accept it. No ideology, no philosophy makes it possible. There's nothing in the world that can compare to identifying your son in a morgue."
Violent crime finds many victims -- not just the person killed, but the husband or wife, son or daughter, mother or father, friends, neighbors, the community. Mental health professionals say it is possible to recover from such a blow. But Alice Kaminsky has had a different experience.
"If by 'recover' they mean that you go on and lead a happy life, and your life was the same as it was before, I say absolutely never," says Kaminsky. "I only agree . . . if they mean it in the sense where you live with the loss as you do with an amputated arm -- knowing that such a loss is always with you, but never accepting it. You always want the arm back."
Norman Mailer wrote about murder from the killer's viewpoint in The Executioner's Song. In memory of her son and as a voice for changing the criminal justice system, Alice Kaminsky wrote The Victim's Song -- a tale, she says, of "unadulterated hell."
Kaminsky still won't forgive the friends who never acknowledged Eric's death; or the calendar hearing judge who called the case "only a murder"; or the young defendants, one of whom plea-bargained and is eligible for parole in 1989; or the New York court system, which was, she felt, biased in favor of the defendants; or the city itself, which she had grown up in and loved; or most of all herself, for encouraging her son on the musical career that led him to New York.
"Some people have the ability to accept in a way that I don't," says Kaminsky. "Many of them have -- or say they have -- achieved forgiveness. They have . . . a religious tradition that believes the most monstrous things can be explained by a benevolent being in another world.
"I don't buy the bereavement cant."
Eric was a student at the Manhattan School of Music. On warm evenings, the people in his Washington Heights neighborhood would sit in the park that faced his apartment and listen to him practice the piano.
More than five years after the death of her son, Kaminsky still can't listen to classical music. "That's something that's cut out of our lives," she says.
For Alice Kaminsky, memory is always laced with pain.
"There isn't a moment in the day that I'm not aware that my son is dead," she says. "When evil happens to somebody else, it's interesting, it's fascinating: but when it happens to you it's the ultimate horror."
Victims of tragedy often think they will never be fully healed, specialists say.
"Yet no matter how excruciating the situation, there are strategies for people to recover," says Robert Veninga, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.
The most important element in recovery, experts agree, is the passage of time. And it takes longer to get through a tragedy than is often thought, says Veninga, who studied 115 victims of crises ranging from job loss and the breakup of a relationship to death of a loved one, rape and debilitating illnesses.
"Most people think that you tend to get through a crisis in a year. The layman's definition is, six months from now you're feeling better, and after a year, only the loose ends need to be tied up," he says. "So people put pressure on themselves to get over things very quickly. But that's not true. It can take much longer to recover any sense of hope."
One recovery specialist says even that's too easy.
"For some people, some crimes are permanently embittering, and we should be very slow to judge such people -- who knows what our own reaction would be? For one of our children to be killed is almost worse than being killed ourselves," says John Stein, deputy director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).
"Particularly with homicide, we should be very slow to say when the grieving process should be concluded. There are emotional overlays to murder that take a lot longer," he says. "We also see repeatedly that outsiders -- friends, neighbors, reporters, prosecutors -- say, 'You should be over it by now, you should go on with your life.' You don't appreciate how slowly healing takes place."
Dealing with loss involves acknowledging the reality of what has happened, says Georgetown University psychiatrist Stefan Pasternack. A victim must be able to endure the pain of that loss, and gradually loosen his or her ties to the person or the situation.
"That's part of grieving," he says. "Once you've let go of your need for the person, then you'll be open to finding new, enriching relationships. You can remember the good moments you've had with poignancy but without agony. You try to have a bearable sadness."
Such a recovery, Pasternack acknowledges, is much more difficult for those suffering from what psychiatrists call "homicide bereavement" -- the loved ones of a murder victim.
"It is harder to recover than not to recover. You have to peel away the layers that have built up, and expose yourself to get the help you need," says Dorothea Morefield, whose 19-year-old son, Rick, was murdered along with three others in a fast-food restaurant in Annandale in 1976. "It breaks my heart when people say nothing helps. Time alone can't do it. If a bereavement group doesn't do it, there are just so many other people out there who want to help . . .
"Your life has been changed after a tragedy. I have always felt that if I could make one good thing come out of Rick's death, then I could feel that his death had made something worthwhile," says Morefield, who has worked extensively over the past 10 years for victims' rights groups and hand-gun control organizations.
"Nothing I can do will bring him back. He was 19 and shot. Nothing changes that fact. Of course I'd rather have him here. But the work I do is to his credit -- his death counted for something, and therefore his life did, and therefore he does," she says.
The slowness of recovery for the survivors of severe traumatic stress arises out of the struggle to create a new personality, says NOVA's Stein. The victim's world view is usually radically changed by a tragedy.
"Most of us live most of the time in a trusting relationship with our environment . . . When something violates this trust, the world becomes bleak: you don't know whom to count on, and you appreciate the extraordinary danger in everything you do."
Such crises can also produce what psychiatrists call second injury, the negative reactions of others -- a policeman pointing to the lock a burglar broke to gain entry and saying, "You call that a lock?", or the friend of a rape victim saying two months after the crime, "Get on with your life." It's a natural human tendency: Thinking bad things happen to bad people and good things to good people. There is a strong tendency to stigmatize or ostracize the victim.
Which is where friends come in. There must be a middle line between giving unsolicited advice and ignoring the individual, says public health professor Veninga, who advises acknowledging the magnitude of the problem and voicing concern.
A method of dealing with second injury is slowly being put into place -- an outgrowth of the victims' rights movement that has been occurring in recent years on the federal, state and private levels. NOVA, a 10-year-old umbrella group of 3,000 agencies and individuals, is part of this process, providing assistance to some of the 6 million Americans who are victims of violent crime each year, and working to make society aware of victims' rights.
Above all, the specialists emphasize the importance of the individual's will to change.
"If you say, 'I am angry and bitter and I am always going to be that way,' then not only has one life been taken, but then your life, too, is diminished," says Veninga. "If you deliberately choose and say, 'My life is over,' it really is over, and now we not only have one tragedy, we have a second."
For Alice Kaminsky, professional pronouncements are one thing; living with the loss of her son is another.
"The use of the word 'recover' to talk about the loss of a child is an impossibility for anyone who has suffered the loss of a child," she says. "A part of me was killed forever when my son was killed, and it's lying to say this can all be forgotten and forgiven. There's no way my husband and I could ever feel that happiness we felt before."
What, then, is the route of healing?
Like Morefield, Kaminsky mentions involvement in the criminal justice system reform groups as a key to adjusting. But she says the only general advice she would give for dealing with tragedy is "to try to keep doing something -- to keep working intensely, no matter how much it hurts.
"If you don't do anything, you fall into a destructive depression," she says. "You have to keep moving."