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May 6, 2011

A Family Affair

max and melissa

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Tamplin

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Back in Texas, I took an active role in the investigation, pleading with the father of one of my high school friends, a detective on the police force, to retrieve the bank's surveillance footage the day after the funeral. Max had turned himself in after the body was found, and police had the evidence to convict both teens, but I needed to know who was at the ATM 40 minutes after our mom was murdered. When I saw Max on the tape, covering his head with a sweatshirt as he withdrew $300, I was stunned and disappointed. I desperately wished I was seeing someone with a gun to his head, forcing him to make the withdrawal. I couldn't believe he had taken the cash of his own free will — or that my mom had given her life for such an insignificant sum. Her assets and bank account were frozen, so it wasn't possible for us to pay for his defense, but even if it was, I'm not sure if I would have after seeing that tape. (Our dad, completely devastated, couldn't afford the fees.) So Max had a public defender.

I did buy him a suit and tie for the trial so he wouldn't have to appear in his jailhouse jumpsuit. I hoped that would help the jury see him for who he was: a good kid with a solid family. He was convicted of capital murder anyway. Max didn't kill our mother, but since he conspired with Chris to rob her, under the Texas penal code he was liable for the slaying, too. Both boys were sentenced to life in prison. I've always wondered if a more expensive attorney could've gotten Max a shorter sentence. Instead, he'll serve 40 years before he's eligible for parole in 2039, at age 57.

My dad and I held hands as the verdict came down and, in one moment, the jury defined my brother's life — and our family's. Anger, shock, and devastation pulsed through me as I realized Max's life, as he'd known it, was over. Although I hadn't been able to pay for his defense (and besides, there were too many unknowns around the crime, and I'd wanted to digest all of the evidence revealed in the trial for myself), I thought his punishment was too harsh. He got the same sentence as Chris, who, in a chemical frenzy, literally sat on top of my mom, stabbing her to death. Am I living in a nightmare? I kept wondering. Will I ever wake up? Still, I'd promised Max I would be there throughout the trial--and I was, every day. And despite my disappointment, the verdict and sentencing were also a relief after months of testimony.

According to the social workers on Max's case, criminals don't usually process their crimes for at least five years. You can try talking to him, they said weeks after the murder, but you won't get the truth. Still, I was obsessed with knowing what had happened. One night, in a desperate attempt to understand how our mom felt as she died, I went to the kitchen, got a knife from the drawer, and held it to my flesh. I was tempted to penetrate my skin and share in her suffering. For the first year or two after her death, I was absorbed in logistics: the crime, the trial and sentencing, and issues around her estate. (Only 51 when she died, she didn't leave a will.) I didn't truly process my rage and sorrow until six years later, when I went on a trip to Australia — alone, after some friends bailed out. One morning, at a bed and breakfast in the Hunter Valley wine region, I woke up suffocating with grief, feeling the despair, deep pain, and presence of pure evil around the crime as strongly as if it had just happened. I cried like never before; overwhelmed and unable to sleep for a desperate 24 hours, I felt like I was being tortured. When I returned home a week later, I learned that just hours after I'd woken up in despair in Australia, Chris had killed himself in prison.

I followed the social workers' advice, and in the years immediately after the murder, Max and I rarely discussed it during my visits. When we did, he denied his involvement, saying he didn't belong in jail. Seven years after the murder — five years ago — when Max again insisted he didn't kill our mother, I said, "You're not spending your life in prison because you physically murdered someone. You betrayed your family. You brought a maniac into our house, and you didn't fight back." He hadn't intended any of it, he replied: "It was a series of bad decisions — skipping school, doing drugs, hanging out with the wrong kids, going to get money in the middle of the night."

Those decisions robbed me of my mother and my brother. I just got engaged, and I want my fiancé to meet Max, but I'm not sure about my unborn children. I do want them to know about my family, however. Some of my fondest memories are from the three-week camping trips we took every summer, when my mom would pack the car with homemade goodies and whip up gourmet meals out in the wilderness on a propane stove. We visited 46 states by the time I was 16, Max and me in the backseat as we drove, giggling and playing car games.

I'm still in the process of forgiving Max. Therapy helped, and then, seven years ago, I got involved with Priority Associates in New York, a Christian organization that connects young professional. I started building strong friendships with the women I met there, so I did what I thought my mom — who had a cadre of lifelong friends — would do and organized a weekly breakfast for us. Seeing the group members struggling with their own issues allowed me to be honest about what had happened in my family without fearing judgment, and I started healing as I talked about it. In 2008, our small group grew into a nationwide network, PURE, which hosts conferences where women can meet, network, share their stories, and reflect on what matters most. (To learn more, visit thepureconference.com.)

Back in the prison, staring at Max through the glass, I struggle for common ground. I start by asking what he misses most about Mom's cooking. We agree on her desserts — chocolate peanut butter squares and magic cookie bars — then laugh and glance at each other as if we share a secret no one else knows. My mom always wanted to give us a childhood full of great memories, saying, "When you're 80 and looking back on life, it's not the things you owned or the house you lived in; it's the places you went and the people you were with you'll remember." So many years later, though our lives are changed forever, Max is still my brother. And although I don't know what lies ahead for us, Mom was right about the past. It's the people I remember — the people we were.

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