How My Sister's Killer Helped Me Grieve
By Helen Kirwan-Taylor
Photo Credit: Jillian Edelstein
When the phone rang in my house in London last month, I answered it abruptly, assuming it was a telemarketer. The voice sounded hesitant. "This is the Madeira School," a woman said slowly. "I thought you would want to know that John Gilreath died today."
What do you say when someone tells you that the man who brutally — no, sadistically — murdered your 14-year-old sister on her school campus over 30 years ago has died?
I'm so glad you called?
I just stared straight ahead. John Gilreath was 22 years old when he killed my sister, and nearly 7 feet tall. Two months before the school called, in a bizarre catharsis exercise at a weeklong psychological and spiritual retreat, I had battered his "body" (a cushion) to pieces with a plastic baseball bat. I then buried it and spit and trampled on its grave over and over again. The bashing exercise took me the better part of an hour and left me with several blisters on my hands.
My sister's murder is a chapter of my life I try and close, but every time I do, something comes along to open it up again. The therapists at the Hoffman Institute, in Kent, where I attended the retreat, felt that this painful exercise was a necessary part of closure and that my beating Gilreath to death would somehow atone for the way he beat my sister to death. When the call came to say he was actually dead (he was 58 and had been ill), I didn't know what to think. If you believe that the universe listens to your messages, this was proof. But for me, the call just served as a trigger. Now everyone else concerned, including the administrators and students at the school where she was killed, could "move on," as everyone likes to say. Tasha could finally be forgotten.
Grief, particularly the kind that comes with murder, never fades. You can ignore it, bury it, sublimate it, deny it, or bash it. You can busy yourself with work, but whenever you stop, it comes right back. And each time, the pain feels brand new.
But who am I to complain? My father, who had the worst time of us all, has his own unspeakable anguish. Then there was my eldest sister and my younger brother's pain to think about and, of course, Tasha's. Does writing about my pain mean I am going to give them more of it? If I speak out (because it helps me to do so), does it violate others' silence? Is there a hierarchy of pain? We never spoke about the murder as a family. We had no counseling, and to this day I fear bringing it up. I have not yet told my family about this article. Had they objected, I know I would have dutifully scrapped it. But this is part of my problem. Children of bereaved parents suffer a double bereavement. They lose their sibling and their parents at once. What's more, they're too worried about their parents' agonizing pain to mention their own.
Tasha would be 50 today. She would probably have children. She was a loving, fearless girl with big blue eyes, wavy blonde hair, and a deep love of animals. I imagine she would now be living on some farm in Connecticut with lots of dogs and children. I grieve every summer in Long Island when I see large extended families sitting together on the beach surrounded by children. I think, That could have been me. I am still angry that the forces of darkness chose us and not someone else. Tasha's death could have been prevented in any number of ways. How does one get over that?
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I remember very little about my childhood prior to Tasha's murder except that I was euphorically happy. My parents described me as "calm" and "obedient." My father was an American diplomat who, after years of serving in Germany, France, and Russia, returned to Washington, D.C., for a four-year home tour. My Russian mother (who died of stomach cancer a few years ago) was an interpreter for the Nixon White House.
I was 12 on the day that Tasha died. My two sisters both attended the elite Madeira School, a private secondary school in McLean, VA, not far from our house in Arlington. I was still in elementary school. On the morning of October 29, 1973, my sisters left our house on the school bus. I only know the events that followed from a letter written to the Virginia parole board by Susan Craig, a classmate of Tasha's. (Each year, friends and relatives were asked to write letters to protest Gilreath's annual application for parole.) I only read this letter for the first time five years ago. It shocks me even now.
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"On Monday, October 29th, Tasha had gone to the Chapel that crisp fall day for a mandatory meeting just before lunch," it says. "She had taken the time to walk a school bike up the steep hill to the Chapel. All of us knew that it was best to stash a bike in the bushes to be sure it was available for the ride down to the dining hall for lunch after chapel. Tasha was probably hungry and thinking of the afternoon schedule when she went to retrieve the bike." She never made it to lunch.
I returned from school that afternoon to find my mother in an agitated mood. Tasha had missed the school bus home. The first call was to the headmistress, who turned out to be absent that day. (Had she been there, she would have sounded the alarm bell much sooner.) My parents called all the friends Tasha might have gone home with. There were no cell phones in those days but also no school shootings. They didn't panic immediately.
We ate dinner as a family, but my parents were growing anxious. They called the police, who wrote it off as typical teenage behavior, and, tragically, only came to investigate several critical hours later. By nightfall, my parents were terrified. I went to bed and said my prayers.
The rest happened as I slept. When the police did finally arrive at the campus at 9 p.m., all they found were Tasha's bicycle and satchel of books near the thick forest that surrounded the school. It had rained heavily, covering any trace of scent for the dogs. The search was called off. My exhausted and worried parents, who had already been to the campus once, apparently fought over what to do next. My mother urged my father to return with Tasha's beloved golden retriever, Tilly. Finally, at 6 a.m., after being up all night, my father drove to the school. Tilly didn't need any time. She found Tasha's body within minutes.
"On Tuesday, October 30th, Tasha's battered, bruised, scraped, and dirt-stained body was found nude from the waist down by her father and family dog," Craig's letter says. "Tasha's hands were bound by blanket scraps and tied to a tree. Her hands were blackened by the tightness of the bonds. Her screams had been silenced by a gag stuffed in her mouth. There were dozens of cross-marked puncture wounds on her back and lower chest that were thought to have been inflicted by a pointed sharp instrument. He had probably used a Phillips-head screwdriver to puncture her flesh." I can hardly type the next few sentences. "Tasha's had been a particularly brutal murder as numerous cuts and bruises on her face and body clearly indicated prolonged torture," it says. "But she had put up a furious resistance. She had bled profusely. The temperature had dropped to 30 while she had been bound. She died from shock, exposure, and fatigue. She had endured 10 hours of agony before she died." I subsequently learned that she was not raped, but there were huge open wounds on her ankles from desperately trying to set herself free. My father found her in the forest, just 400 feet behind the Chapel. What happened next I have never been able to ask him.
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Tasha weighed only 90 pounds and was barely 5 feet tall, the size that my 15-year-old son is today. Did my father carry her in his arms? How long were they alone together? I can't help but imagine myself in my father's shoes. I don't want to, but the mind doesn't care what you think.
I woke up the next morning and was packed off to school. Nothing was said. That afternoon, I was called out of class and told to return home. I remember the moment well. A woman from the office walked in with that awkward face that we all know comes with bad news. This bit is very hazy. My parents told us Tasha was dead, and then we were dispatched to my Russian grandparents' house in Maryland to get away from the dozens of reporters camped outside our home. From then on, it's a blur until the funeral.
My Russian Orthodox mother chose to display Tasha's body in the coffin as is customary in a religious funeral. As she stood up to kiss her, I began to shake. I was next in the line. I went up and kissed Tasha's cold face, which was covered in thick costume makeup to hide the bruises. I found it strange that she was dressed in a party dress. (Tasha had always been a tomboy.) Her body was the most grotesque sight I will ever see. Afterward, she was buried on a cold, wet day in an inner-city cemetery in Washington, D.C. When her body was lowered into the ground, I saw my father choke up with tears for the first time. It was also the first time I cried.
John Gilreath should never have been at large. He had been convicted of seven sex-related assaults. He once jumped out at a woman, hit her over the head with a brick, and after she screamed, threw her into the Potomac River. "He then abducted and molested another 14-year-old student at Madeira for two hours," writes Craig. "Gilreath received a suspended 20-year sentence for this attack. Less than two months later, he was arrested back on the school grounds." Gilreath said at my sister's murder trial that he had returned to prove that he had suppressed "irresistible" impulses to assault girls.
"Gilreath was released from state penitentiary by Judge William G. Plummer, who ordered the sentence later be suspended on condition that Gilreath be confined to a private mental institution until such time as the judge approved the release," wrote William Raspberry in The Washington Post on November 9, 1973. But in a succession of shocking legal errors, Gilreath's treatment was suspended, he was released by the Psychiatric Institute without the judge or parole officer's approval, and the Fairfax police never notified the school of his release. So on October 29, Gilreath returned to Madeira and murdered my sister with a screwdriver as her classmates sat a few hundred feet away.
My parents did not attend the trial at which Gilreath was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. But only two weeks after Tasha's death, they testified before a House subcommittee (sitting next to a portrait of Tasha painted by my mother) to amend Senator Walter Mondale's Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to cover child molestation and to provide grants to teach children self-defense. I have the newspaper clipping in front of me. Both look much older than their 40-some years. My mother's eyes look heavy and puffy.
My parents received thousands of letters. The phone rang hundreds of times a day. Camera crews were parked outside our house, but I wasn't aware of any of it. We were cocooned in my grandparents' tearful embraces, which I now realize is the reason the three of us survived those initial weeks. Years later, when I started consulting experts, I learned from David Trickey, a chartered consultant clinical psychologist and trauma expert, that "bereaved children don't need a lot of fancy therapy or anything special. What they need is to feel safe."
Last summer, I took my two boys, ages 15 and 13, to Berlin, where my family had moved shortly after Tasha's death and where we patched up what little we had left of family life. I decided this was the time to finally tell my children what had happened to us. "For kids, not talking about things makes them think, What is it that they're not talking about?" says Trickey. "They often assume it's worse than it was." I had to explain why I need constant reassurance that they have arrived safely at their destinations and why, even now that they are teenagers, they are not allowed to go into the ocean unless I am close by. The story spooked them (I spared them the details), but my closest friend from Berlin, who lost a child himself, said, "Better it comes from you than from someone else."
Berlin is where I had reinvented myself as a happy girl with two siblings and a dead cousin. When asked who the blonde girl was in the family photo, I would reply that it was my cousin who died in a horseback-riding accident. I didn't know anything about post-traumatic stress disorder or delayed grief then. What I did know was that you can't be 13 and stick out. So I killed Tasha off. She only came back into my life at age 16, when I watched the movie The Deer Hunter. The moment Christopher Walken holds the gun to his head in the Russian roulette game and we don't know whether he will live or die was the first time I had felt anything in years. The idea that you can die for any stupid reason at any time profoundly resonated with me. I had to be taken out of the movie theater because I was choking with tears.
It was only 13 years ago that I found out what really happened to Tasha. At the time, I didn't even know the name of her murderer. By then, I had married an Englishman and moved to London. After having just given birth to my second son, in a state of exhaustion, anxiety, postnatal depression, and extreme guilt (for my good fortune), I decided to see a psychiatrist who specializes in bereavement. Dr. Mark Berelowitz, a member of the department of child psychiatry at the Royal Free Hospital in London, explained that murder is the messiest crime of all because the victim is dead and the murderer is probably lying. He suggested I call the Madeira School, go through all the facts, and think about it. The idea, he said, was to kick-start the grieving process I had skipped because I had been too terrorized to feel. Disassociation or numbness, he said, is a common side effect of trauma. After learning the truth about what had happened to Tasha, I spent weeks sobbing and worrying that something equally sinister would befall my children.
About eight years later, still suffering from anxiety, I consulted Chris Brewin, professor of clinical psychology at University College in London. I had read about his latest research on PTSD. He explained that my amnesia around the events before and after Tasha's death was there for a reason. He wasn't sure that living the event over again, or even talking about it, would help. In fact, the psychological debriefing that is now routinely administered after any sort of trauma may not help at all. Going over the horrific details of my sister's death, he argued, might have caused more harm than good.
Why can't I, a happily married woman with two lovely teenage boys, just decide to forget a bit, or at least stop thinking about Tasha's death so much? I think it's because you can't live a happy life when the life of someone you loved ended so unhappily. It's because psychic pain is simply stored, waiting to come back again. Anke Ehlers, a professor of experimental psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, explained to me the psychology of traumatic memories. These memories are so overwhelming, she says, that they have not been fully processed in the brain and keep intruding on everyday life. "The trauma feels as if it's in the here and now," she says. Tasha's murder keeps interfering with her death. "Traumatic memories get in the way of grief," says Ehlers. "All survivors remember is what the victim went through. They're still dealing with life and death." This is also called "pattern matching." When scared, your brain immediately sets about matching it to another scary event in the past.
In my case, I believe all scary moments must end in death. I think the worst possible scenario will always happen: The plane carrying my children to Maine will crash; the school's swine flu outbreak will be fatal. When things are really going well is when it gets really ugly. If my husband gets a promotion, I assume he will have a car accident. Happiness makes me feel anxious because I fear the punishment. I think, Why should I be so lucky?
When my youngest son went away to boarding school, I put away his photographs. I identified with childless or bereaved couples. The pain was so overwhelming that I dosed myself with wine every night and then sobbed in the bathroom. When it didn't stop after four months, I decided I wasn't just another mother missing her children. It was old grief coming to haunt me.
This is when I checked into the Hoffman Institute, where I was awakened to the possibility of a spiritual life and to the idea that if you sit with a painful feeling long enough, it passes. Avoiding difficult thoughts, says Ehlers, only makes them come at you more frequently. I found this extremely helpful. Trauma is like an illness: The more you know, the less scared you are of the symptoms. Even now as I type Tasha's name, I feel she was real and not some flashback from a horror movie.
I have also recently found hope in reading about something called post-traumatic growth. Several studies have found that trauma can be a force for good. "These changes," the study says, "include improved relationships, new possibilities for one's life, a great appreciation of life, greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development."
A grief counselor told me that it's probably too late for me to have any sort of proper "intervention." I can, however, change my mental outlook and even repair some damage (this is called neurogenesis) by improving my general emotional and physical health. This takes work. To create new, positive neural pathways means putting some brakes on my lifestyle. It means accepting that my nervous system will always be dodgy. Yoga, exercise, breathing exercises, rest, and nutrition are just part of it, but so is avoiding physical "triggers," such as the woods, for example, which terrify me. Alcohol, the PTSD sufferer's favorite self-medication, can make everything flare up again — particularly anger. It covers the pain momentarily only to make it much worse later.
About a year-and-a-half ago, I started a self-help book group with six girlfriends, which helps me feel supported and connected. I still worry too much, but I now remind myself that it's more likely to be a tripped switch (or neural leftover from 1973) than an actual emergency. In short, it really helps to know that what I think, feel, and fear is all perfectly normal, given the abnormality of what happened when I was 12. "Think of it as a permanent limp," says Trickey. "What happened to you is going to color your world, but it doesn't have to color your world too much."
I'm never going to get over Tasha, but I might eventually get used to living with her.