I could barely breathe as I read the story. It was just a couple of paragraphs in the newspaper, yet they leaped at me. On May 29, in rural Ohio, an 18-year-old boy named Scott Moody had methodically shot six people, four of them members of his own family, before turning his gun on himself. There was only one survivor, Moody's 15-year-old sister, Stacy. Shot in the neck, she managed to call for help and was taken to a Columbus hospital.
The details were all too familiar. Twenty-one years ago, when I was 16, my brother roved from room to room in our home in rural Oregon, killing my mother, my father and my little sister, leaving me to live with the consequences. Like Moody, he was 18. Our family, like Moody's, lived in an isolated house and had endured hardships and economic woes that threatened the family farm. Both Stacy Moody and I were confronted by a bloodied brother who had just annihilated our families. There was just one difference. My brother spared both himself and me. Or did he?
In the aftermath of a parricide -- a child's murder of one or more parents -- most of the attention focuses on the killer and the deceased parents. Little, if any, attention falls to any siblings who may have been left behind. It was with no small amount of dread that I felt the memories of my family tragedy resurfacing as I read Stacy's story.
I knew that only a handful of people, myself among them, could shed light on some of the daunting challenges she may face if she survives her physical wounds. The psychic wounds take much longer to heal and require a lot of arduous work. But first, she must survive the day-to-day. She'll have to overcome depression and despair, complete and utter alienation -- and guilt. Personal and profound, the trademark tattoo of the sole survivor, that guilt will sometimes be overwhelming. Why didn't she see what he was planning? What could she have said or done to prevent it? She will spend years looking into the abyss, ever searching for the answer. I know, because that's what I did.
In the early morning hours of April 27, 1984, I was awakened by the sound of my 11-year-old sister, Becky, screaming. Minutes before, my brother, Billy Frank Gilley Jr., had picked up an aluminum baseball bat and killed our parents, Bill and Linda Gilley. Interrupted by Becky, he killed her, too.
The screams and pounding I heard downstairs convinced me that Billy had done something terrible. I listened transfixed as he climbed the stairs to my room. Clearly, I was next. But when my brother entered my bedroom covered in blood, he was not carrying the bat. Agitated and pale, he kept repeating the same phrases over and over: "We're free. I'm not crazy. Do you think I'm crazy? It was so bloody. I'm not crazy."
Before the murders, my brother had accumulated a long and increasingly violent police record. Starting with fights and drug use, he graduated to larceny and arson before dropping out of school and working fulltime for my father's failing tree service.
My parents were uneducated, poor and religious fundamentalists. They exerted a twisted combination of control and abuse. Yet their incessant belittling and physical retribution toward my brother had mostly abated after Billy dropped out of school. I never imagined that he could kill my parents or my sister. Until that moment.
I remember thinking: Please tell me this is not really happening. I had always turned to books to escape. Now I looked up at the familiar row of paperbacks on my shelf. This is only a story, I told myself. I'm simply a character in a book who needs to figure out a way to call the police, which I eventually did.
Hours later, Billy was arrested. I was the sole material witness at his trial. He was diagnosed as a sociopath, convicted of three counts of aggravated murder and given three consecutive life sentences in prison.
Billy's life, like my parents' and my sister's, was effectively over. But I was going to go on living. It was unclear to me at that point whether this was a gift or another version of a life sentence. My future stretched before me formless, colorless and forbidding. I stuffed my emotions deep inside, hoping one day to have the ability to really deal with what happened. And slowly, painfully, over time, I did.
At first, I stayed with neighbors, who wanted to adopt me. But when we went to the local legal aid society for guidance, the executive director there decided to take me in, somehow seeing the salvageable amid my broken spirit and poor grammar. Eventually he and his wife became my legal guardians -- the first and best in a long line of caring adults who invested enormous personal and financial resources in helping me survive.
Over the next several years, I led two lives. On the outside, I was a normal teen trying to fit in. But internally, I was struggling against all odds to understand what had happened to our family and why. What I didn't know then was that I wasn't alone.
Almost every day in the United States, a child kills his or her parent, and sometimes the whole family. In most cases, the murderer is a white male who has been severely abused, can no longer tolerate life at home, and has no trusted adult to whom he can turn. In some cases, that young male is trying and failing to support a family. Those who knew him suggested that Scott Moody may have been under an enormous amount of pressure to keep his family and farm together. It may have been too much, and rather than watching it further devolve, he destroyed it in order to "save it." In only a small percentage of parricides are the killers cold-blooded sociopaths.
Frequently, red flags are everywhere, starting with the murderer expressing an interest in or intention of doing harm. Often, nihilistic comments or unusual behavior -- like Scott's not participating in his graduation party, or Billy's practicing batting on cardboard boxes -- are dismissed as common symptoms of being a teenager.
The kids who kill their families are often the same kids who kill their classmates. Are their actions preventable if caring adults reach them before they act out so brutally during the treacherous teen years? In most cases, yes. Kathleen Heide's 1992 book, "Why Kids Kill Parents," is a clear-eyed study of parricide drawn from hundreds of interviews with adolescents who killed their parents. The earlier "The Kids Next Door," by Greggory Morris, also illuminates the roots of parricide, which almost always include isolation and denial that a problem exists.
My brother showed plenty of warning signs: his increasingly violent and inappropriate responses to social cues, his drug use, his refusal to stop eating and drinking high-sugar, low-nutrient foods that doctors had said would increase his irritability and propensity for violence. We found the medical reports and recommendations in the rubble of our family's papers.
My parents chose to ignore all these red flags. Why? Perhaps it was just good old-fashioned denial, or a distrust of outside interference. Perhaps they couldn't admit that their own behavior had at least partly fueled his. Maybe he had been told one too many times that he was a loser and was going to end up in prison, and fulfilling that prediction was some twisted capitulation to their expectations.
Possibly he could have gotten help. Then again, it's possible that he was a time bomb that couldn't be defused, that was irrevocably fated to destroy everything in its path -- family and strangers alike. That's not for me to decide. And for that, I'm grateful.
Because her brother killed himself, Stacy will not have to deal with that legacy. That is, after she finds a way to survive. Often, survivors are told to behave as normally as possible, to do what we would normally do. But there is no normal anymore. There is only before and after. And the after is filled with shock and loss, depression and despair, the erosion of your most basic values, beliefs and trust in humanity, all of which take years to rebuild.
There is also the day-to-day survival that Stacy will soon confront: figuring out where to live, who will be her guardian, whether to keep her name, the funerals, school, what belongings to keep, auctions, bills and all the hundreds of details that are both painful and a blessed distraction because they force you to deal with the here and now.
I remember the painful discomfort on people's faces whenever they recognized my name. You are left wanting to downplay what happened, leave town as soon as possible or change your name, all of which I did. I remember all the questions that never seem to end: What happened? Why did he do it? How did you survive? How is it that you are so normal? You must answer them politely, even though you have no good answers for them or for yourself.
Only with time can new relationships and happy experiences and a future fill the gaping hole where family and normalcy and "before" existed. I hope that Stacy is lucky enough to receive the same gifts that I did: smart, caring adults who expended enormous energy making sure that I received the help and direction to succeed in life. Despite what happened on April 27, 1984, my guardian convinced me that if I worked hard enough I could learn to fly a plane, ski, get straight A's, travel the world and get into Georgetown University, all of which I did. Afterward, I armed myself with a greater understanding of the human condition by immersing myself in Dostoevski, Holocaust literature and Jesuit mandates to give back -- which I've tried to do ever since, from helping survivors of female genital mutilation write about their experiences to serving on a commission that addressed the problems of youth violence.
But I am always conscious that I'm one of the lucky ones. I was plucked out of the muck. Rescued. And now lead a very rich, fulfilling, healthy life with great prospects and relationships. Stacy can, too -- as long as there are adults out there willing to ask themselves the questions that she may someday be asking, and that I still do: What can I do? Can I prevent another tragedy? Could I be that trusted adult for a troubled youth? Worth looking into the abyss for that, I think.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jody Arlington, a former vice president of the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard and former chief of staff for President Clinton's National Campaign Against Youth Violence, is a communications consultant in the arts.