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May 22, 2007

When Mom Has a Secret

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A week after meeting with Emily, I am standing next to Sophia in the kitchen of the Tudor-style house she shares with her father, a chunky gray cat, and a collection of towering potted plants dating back to the '70s. It's on a quiet, suburban street with leaf-strewn lawns and blue recycling bins on the curb. Though Olson has not been here since 2002, her influence is apparent: The kitchen smells like Kona Blend and nine-grain bread; cookbooks clutter the shelves.

It's Monday, the day after Sophia's jazz-club performance. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she is wearing cat's-eye glasses, jeans, and a gray sweater. While brewing a cup of coffee, she talks about Rossi's Blue Star, her love of reggae, and her dreams of studying at the New School in New York City's Greenwich Village. (City Chic: An Urban Girl's Guide to Livin' Large on Less is lying on the table.) In the meantime, she's studying psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Sophia misses her mom — a lot — and can hardly believe she is in prison. "In the end," she says of Olson's sentencing, "we had to watch our mother be pulled away by two big cops. The aftereffects have been debilitating. I don't know if people can understand that." Her family was always considered weird, she says, because the girls actually liked their parents. As if on cue, the phone rings. It's Olson, calling from Chowchilla.

Sophia goes upstairs to take the call, and I wander into the dining room, which is decorated with crystal vases, pewter candlesticks, and flower-print curtains. An antique case displays a collection of miniature milk jugs and ceramic creamers. A pack of Orbit Wintermint gum is on the table, alongside an abnormal psychology textbook, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Her phone call finished, Sophia comes back downstairs and tells me no one can understand the suffering her family has experienced. She has a flair for drama: Describing her mother's reaction to the second World Trade Center tower collapsing, Sophia places her hand over her heart and slouches toward the ground: "She said, 'I'm screwed.'"

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