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May 20, 2010

The Day My Cousin Vanished

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ellen hover snapshot

Ellen at a friend's home in the early 70s.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sheila Weller

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Ellen's death changed my life in many ways over the years. For one thing, it altered my political philosophy. I've always been a liberal, but now my liberalism has a big asterisk hung on it — I'm the outlier at dinner parties who shocks my supposedly like-minded friends by disagreeing with the conventional wisdom that capital punishment is barbaric. I'll calmly say, "The death penalty? My problem with it is not that it exists, but that it isn't carried out swiftly enough."

Ellen shaped my career as well, inspiring me to become a writer specializing in crimes and injustice against women. I have spent more than 20 intense, gratifying years authoring three books and dozens of magazine articles on variations of that subject, and that entire output was for Ellen. During the 1990s, I also sat on the board of directors of a large domestic-violence agency — in Ellen's honor.

Writing and advocating on behalf of women has been empowering (and has even made a difference in some lives), but none of these after-the-fact deeds can undo the telephone receiver I slammed down in the summer of 1977. The more I write about victims, the more I remember the one I unintentionally turned my back on saving. Why wasn't I nicer when my mother called? Sometimes you only get one chance to be nice in a way that counts; the problem is in knowing when it counts.

Perhaps the most important lesson is one I learned this past January. When I heard that the new trial for Alcala was about to start, I felt a flood of anger — I'd actually thought that this man had been executed years earlier. (What right did he have to all this extra life?) I followed the new trial religiously, through daily clicks on the courtroom coverage. I started contacting Ellen's old friends; I wanted to follow this monster's trial along with them. I felt we needed to be a community for her, and they felt the same way. I also e-mailed Vicki, the half-sister whom Ellen and I shared. (My sister, Liz, and I had located Vicki in the late '80s and had been in intermittent touch with her over the years.) What I found was incredibly heartening.

To the people who had loved her, the memories of Ellen had never faded. Ellen's old boyfriend Bruce, whom she'd tentatively broken up with just before meeting Alcala, told me, "Ellen was the love of my life." My half-sister, Vicki, said in an e-mail, "She was my best friend, my confidante. She was pure love." Ellen's three close friends, Terry and Nina and Anita, regaled me with details about Ellen — her turns of phrase, her gestures, even her favorite Beatles song; they also suffered from their versions of the lifelong what-ifs that had plagued me.

From all these raw, as-if-yesterday responses, I have come to see that there are two kinds of death: death in the flesh and death in the heart. Ellen stayed alive in the hearts of her closest friends throughout their lifetimes — lifetimes she herself was cruelly denied from sharing. If one can say that a murderer wins when he extinguishes not just life, but feeling, then Alcala lost.

"Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" my sister, Liz, an L.A. lawyer, said into my cell phone the moment she heard the verdict this past February. The guilty verdicts were for the five California murders; as for Ellen, it is almost impossible that Alcala will be extradited to New York and tried, or deemed responsible, for her death. When I wrote to DA Matt Murphy to congratulate him on the other guilty verdicts, he immediately wrote back: "One of the most frustrating aspects of this case is that we were precluded from including Ellen's murder in the penalty phase. She was such a stunningly beautiful and nice person, it just broke my heart."

Ellen, I am so, so sorry I didn't call you, not because it would have changed anything, but because I missed knowing you — the adult incarnation of the little girl who marveled at the Snow White figures in the palm fronds. The joy you would have spread in your life of medicine and music and friendship we can now only imagine. Because of Rodney Alcala, imagining will have to be good enough.


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