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LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING



There are two very different aspects to our nature. We are thinking but also feeling beings. Reading about the mental aspect of feeling in David Gelernter's new book, The Tides of Mind, I came across a quote by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who wrote: "He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent...betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." 

Even when no words are spoken, much meaning is conveyed, and body language flows just as automatically as spoken language (author's words) and the eyes are windows to the soul (a proverb). Jane Austen wrote of a character in Mansfield Park: "He looked very ill; evidently suffering under violent emotions, which he was determined to suppress," because like it or not your feelings will get out.

I went on to read about free association, in which an object gives rise to a thought about a seemingly unrelated topic. And I found myself thinking about my Aunt Sheri, now deceased. Specifically about her last boyfriend, Rob. Rob was a police officer whom Sheri began dating when she was in her 30s, years after her marriage to my Uncle Jeff ended in divorce, though it produced two kids, my cousins Tom and Jennifer. Sheri entered the police academy herself, and so she bought a gun. But Rob and Sheri had their problems. He was gruff and overbearing, liked to rough-house, and my grandmother didn't approve of the manner in which he played with Sheri's daughter. Jennifer was barely a teenager at the time. Rob's version of horsing around included patting Jennifer's behind, maybe when she was fresh out of the shower and only wearing a towel. Maybe he even ripped her towel away to expose the supple skin beneath. Not my grandma's idea of a good time. Hannibal Lecter's, maybe. But my recollection of the scenario is hazy, since decades separate me from its report which was based on hearsay from sources who are if not unreliable at least under the sway of powerful emotions. 

At some point Rob pulled my grandmother over on the road in her perky little Jetta, fire engine red, and though he was not in the traffic division he cited her for some minor infringement, failing to come to a full stop before turning right against a red light is what comes to mind, that or making a right turn in front of a bus that had come to a stop to discharge its passengers. Which actually could be dangerous. Rob's view was that his mother-in-law-to-be had broken the law, hers was that as a future family member he should let the infraction slide. Well he never became family, and whether or not the traffic citation started the rift is beyond me. But the rift grew ever wider, until it was a yawning chasm, which is another word for a four letter word, begins with d, rhymes with bed. Can you guess?

Yes, one morning Sheri was found in bed, dead. It pains me to write this, but her brains were essentially blown out of her head. These rhymes - bed, dead, head - are inadvertent. I use them perhaps in lieu of a more poetic term than "brains blown out," because there is no amount of poetry to be found in the act or the sight, and fortunately I wasn't there. Rob was, however. He found the body. He and Sheri had fought and he had yelled at her to move out of the apartment they were sharing, which I think had been his, initially. As he later told it Sheri was devastated. As she told it, too. Apparently she left a suicide note. 

But questions always loomed. Who puts a gun to the front of their forehead, the way Sheri did? my family wanted to know. The conventional notion is of the gun being inside one's mouth or against the temple. But these images come from movies, which may or may not be based on realism. But the police are known to cover for one another. Might the two lovers have had a quarrel which escalated into pushing and shoving and then in a fit of rage might Rob have shot Sheri, rather than storm out and leave her to her own devices? The crime scene was closed and Rob's colleagues cleaned it all up, so these answers were left unresolved but lingering. I seem to remember also that my grandmother reported Rob for something or other, and as a result he was ineligible for promotion within the force. This may have had to do with his antics with Jennifer. So there may have been resentment on his part. She ruined my career is something that could have flowed out of his mouth as easily as blood. Gruesome. 

You know what they say about mothers-in-law. Can't live with them, can't kill them. So he killed... ?

But why even think for a moment that he'd shoot Sheri? After all, he was ordering her to leave. He wanted her out of his life, not out of life in general. In cases of domestic violence it is often the rejected or jilted lover who "gets medieval." In this case Sheri would have pulled the trigger, which she did. Only she pulled it on herself. There are some personalities that would rather hurt themselves than somebody else. And for Sheri life may have become unbearable - even with two little children who adored her. But even her kids were already being raised more and more by my grandmother, who is a dominant figure in their lives today. Sheri was felt to be "weak." Maybe my aunt felt that Tommy and Jennifer didn't need her, that they'd do fine without her, that they'd be taken care of. Who knows what goes through a mind strained to the breaking point.

It could be that the family concocted the murder scenario because, though tragic, homicide represents a less humiliating alternative than suicide. As a society we don't go easy on a person who takes his own life. It's the ultimate outrage. What gives you the right? we say. And yet parents treat their children however they choose, or do whatever they can get away with, which is increasingly less, and it is countenanced simply because those kids are extensions of mom and dad. If you really feel weak, in a dead-end relationship with a family life that is imploding, maybe taking your life is the last expression of power that remains to you.

I attended Sheri's funeral with my mom - who was her big sister by 13 years, and who had named her, but not for the song, which came later (see below) - and the rest of the family. I was 19 at the time. Sheri was 33. It was the first funeral I had been to as an adult, or adult-ish. I had been to the ceremonies of my grandfathers on both sides, one who died when I was 8, the other when I was 14, but I remember this one more vividly because it was more recent and because I was more mature, in a frontal lobe is bigger sort of way. It was also because I really loved Sheri. When she would visit us she'd come straight into my room, even if I was in bed or in the shower (now I know where Rob got it from!). She taught me how to blow-dry my hair, and how to read the ingredient's list on a cereal box (there's more of the stuff that comes first). With Sheri there was never that invisible but formidable barrier that exists between adults and kids. Because Sheri was always a kid herself. There were as many years between us as there were between her and my mom, so basically Sheri was like a sister to me.

I particularly remember during the ceremony, which was standing room only, and for that matter I was standing outside, Rob made an appearance. He hadn't been seen or heard from since the day Sheri was shot, and it seemed he didn't wish to cause any stir. He simply crept up to me, and stood beside me for about a minute. He said nothing. He just looked at me with the saddest eyes. They were red and wet, and pitiful. Like Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, there was a kind of confession in his looks. Like Ivan Ilyich's brother-in-law in Tolstoy's classic Death of Ivan Ilyich, who knows Ivan will die, he "looked up at [me] for a moment without a word." 

The stare tells Ivan everything. But I couldn't tell what Rob was trying to say. That he was sad, very sad, I could see. But there was also an element of desperation to his grief, as if he wanted to be seen to grieve! It sounds so judgmental of me to say, but there was something forced. The tears of a man unaccustomed to crying, perhaps. The police force does attract the "strong silent" sort, and Rob was most assuredly that, was what I gathered in the 3 or 4 times we had interacted. Was he really sad, or just acting the part to save face, or save his behind? And was he sad simply because Sheri was dead, or was it also because he had played a part in her death, either through abandonment driving her to kill herself or even doing the deed himself? 

I will never know. That was the last time I ever saw Rob, and though Sheri's name often comes up, always with sadness and regret, Rob almost never gets mentioned. But the family still thinks he did it. I'm on the fence, but one thing is certain:

Despite what Freud would say, looks can be deceiving.



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