In an America of increasing racial and religious tension, an America where swastikas are scrawled on walls and gunmen have recently slaughtered people in churches and synagogues, the signs were anti-Semitic and offensive to her neighbors.
But it’s Bonnie. Bonnie who grew up in Vienna, who was the childhood crush of neighborhood boys, who wears her hair in a bob and has delicate cheekbones, who worked as an observer on scallop boats fighting for coastal health, as her father had.
“Please be kind to Bonnie, she’s such a nice young lady,” said Donna Nelson, a longtime neighbor who watched Bonnie grow up and has always been like an aunt to her. “For her to be friends with an 88-year-old woman, well, we had a really good relationship.”
It’s Bonnie, now 44 and still living in her childhood home with her mother, who came home one day 14 years ago to find the bloodstains that unraveled her family.
It was awful, the worst anyone could imagine.
Her father, Dail Brown, a beloved and deeply respected marine biologist, was discovered in the trunk of the family car, dismembered, in 2006. Her brother, Dail Brown Jr. — known as “D.J.” — was convicted of the murder and is serving a life sentence.
Bonnie Brown, understandably, was shattered.
And those scrawled signs in front of that house are the road map to her struggle to understand that shattering event.
“I know,” she said, one afternoon this week as we sat on her porch having coffee and cookies. “You look at it and think: Hate speech.”
“You think, ‘Oh, she’s anti-Semitic.’ ”
“But I am not anti-Semitic. I am the one respecting Abraham. And I want them to stop mutilating those little boys, those little men,” she said. “My brother was circumcised. And I think that’s where it began.
“This is the problem,” she said. “It affects everything about men.”
And she starts remembering back to when her brother was 35 and violent. He raged and threw chairs.
“It was like taming a wild horse,” she said. “He never hurt me, he never hurt my mom. But he had to get it out somehow.”
After the murder, Brown and her mom decided to stay in the house.
“My mom wrestled with it more than I did. Because it’s also a lot to handle, a big house, for just two people,” Brown said. “I was raised here. I have a lot of good memories here, too, and I keep those memories pretty close.”
She’s not eager to talk about the bad memories. Questions about her days on the coast, her childhood, her brother, her dad, all lead to the same place: circumcision.
She was happy to talk when I came by because she said she feels like a missionary, proselytizing to anyone who will listen to her thoughts about the practice.
She’s not alone, of course. Plenty of educated activists protest circumcision and equate it to genital mutilation. But they don’t advocate for the annihilation of Israel. For Brown, it is far more than a cause.
We all pass these folks with strange signs and off-kilter messages. But rarely do we get the full story behind such an obsession. And in Brown’s case, the story is heartbreaking.
When you talk to her, you get glimmers of the woman she once was, on the ocean, bold and probably pretty funny.
For years, she has been searching for an answer to the unthinkable way she lost half her family.
The answer she has landed on — and the way it has shadowed the vibrant woman she once was — has alarmed her friends and relatives. The neighborhood email list was on fire when she began displaying her signs.
From her front yard fence: “Jesus was not circumcised.”
From her front porch: “Exterminate circumcision from the public square.”
She spent about five days in a psychiatric ward a few months ago, she said, after members of her extended family intervened.
“They said I was unable to take care of myself, and I was delusional because I wanted to run for president,” she said. “Actually, I never thought of this whole running-for-president thing until I was in there. And everyone in the loony bin was all, ‘Yay, Bonnie for president!’ and I went with it. I thought it was funny.”
She said she doesn’t want more counseling and refuses medication.
Before the murder, Brown was a child of the sea, with her dad as her mentor. He worked at the Smithsonian and then was a top official in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Experts from across the field weighed in with praise for his work after his death at age 64.
Brown had been following in her father’s footsteps, handling sea turtles, cruising up and down the Eastern Seaboard on scallop boats, counting the scallops and the bycatch.
“I’m retired from that now,” she said.
Nelson said she isn’t concerned about Brown becoming violent, the way her brother did. The neighbors are worried about her mental health. Many of the families who moved in during the 1960s and 1970s, like the Nelsons and the Browns, have stayed there. Birthday parties, running through sprinklers, barbecues, graduation parties, weddings. The murder. They’ve been through it all together.
“I don’t know what I can do for her. The neighbors talked about bringing some food over,” Nelson said.
Fourteen years ago, they watched Dail Brown Jr. come back home a changed man after living out West. His friends said he was obsessed with assault weapons and began to push people away.
They all knew about his violent tendencies. And, according to court testimony, he had talked about a “Jewish mafia” and was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia.
But the murder, Nelson said, “was a surprise and a shock. Nobody anticipated that.”
On an unseasonably warm day 14 years later, Brown showed me the letter she received from the sheriff’s office about her signs.
“I think they don’t want it on the building,” she said. “So I’m going to make some new signs for the yard.”
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