My Grandmother Was Raped & Murdered In 1969, But The KKK Is Still Alive
When my mother was 11, she came home from school to find her mother's body — strangled with her bra and shot four times — in her rural home. It was 1969 in Indiana, at a time when DNA testing evidence was an impossibility. The man or men who orchestrated the killing of Helen, my grandmother, were never found, but the KKK, who had ties to the police force at the time, will always be suspect in her murder. And when I learned of the death of Heather Heyer — a woman who was reportedly fighting against hate when she died on Aug. 12 during a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — I couldn't help but think of Helen.
You see, my grandparents were champions of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1922, Indiana had one of the largest KKK populations in the nation, and in 1969, their presence was still formidable. After my grandparents invited prominent civil rights activist Medgar Evers to speak to the staff of the mental health facility where my grandfather worked, the John Birch Society, an extreme-right group, labeled my grandfather the most dangerous man in the entire county.
But my grandparents kept living their lives as they always had. As a child psychiatrist, my grandfather was committed to serving the poorest of the poor — many of whom were African Americans. But his actions did not go unnoticed. He received death threats from hate groups: They called his home and told him that they would kill him, his wife, his four daughters. He also realized his phone had been tapped.
It is a fury that has burned inside of me since I was a young girl.
I cannot say with any certainty that the man or men who killed my grandmother were involved in a hate group, but they may have been. I can, however, say with absolute certainty that the men who raped and beat and strangled and shot my grandmother were sending a clear message. She was a victim of toxic masculinity, hate, and violent misogyny. And as the events of Charlottesville, and other events like it have proven, these are not traits that have vanished in the almost-50 years since her death.
Last year, the KKK said that it was in the midst of a revival with a "surge in membership across the Deep South." A civil rights group called the Southern Poverty Law Center is currently tracking more than 1,600 extremist groups in the country. Nazis did not die with World War II, and misogyny and racism often go hand-in-hand. Hate is hate is hate is hate.
Since I was a child, I've fantasized about meeting the man who killed Helen. I learned of her brutal killing when I was about six, maybe seven, and since then, I've spent countless nights luxuriating over the details of our meeting that would never be. My version of this fantasy varies, but always ends the same: I look him in the eyes, and then I destroy him — dismantling him bit by bit.
It is a fury that has burned inside of me since I was a young girl, and it has always manifested itself in my writing. I will never meet the man who killed my grandmother, and in order to deal with this, I've crafted a reality in which I can. Aside from being a journalist, I am also a screenwriter. Over the past several years, I have penned scripts that always, whether I realized it at the time or not, feature a woman who is forced to face extreme hate, violence, and misogyny. Most recently, these themes have manifested themselves with utter relevance in my TV pilot, 14 Words.
14 Words refers to the most popular white supremacy slogan in the world, and writing this script was my attempt to get inside the minds of the men who may or may not have murdered Helen. I spent four months doing research on modern neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups. I read autobiographies from recovering skinheads and court case documents, and fell deep into truly horrifying white supremacy forums.
The result is a script that thrusts a young woman into the middle of a vicious, misogynist, and completely believable hate group. But unlike Helen and Heather, my protagonist will have the ending she deserves. She will win against hate and discrimination and men who hate women.
But this doesn't mean that I am helpless, or that Helen and Heather were helpless, either.
I finished the first draft of 14 Words moments before Trump was elected president of the United States, and though my script is technically fiction, the events of 2017 have proven that it is based more in reality than I, or perhaps anyone, could have ever anticipated before Trump's election.
Yesterday, a television executive who had read my script sent me a message. He wrote: "I was thinking about your script today. It's horrifying to see the characters of 14 Words on CNN."
Although it's been 20 years since I learned of Helen's death, the revenge fantasies continue to play in my head on tired repeat. The brutality, the injustice of her case, and of so many cases like hers... It is occasionally too much to bear, and I often wonder what kind of person I would be if Helen had lived. I wonder who my mother would have grown to become if her mother hadn't been taken from her. And if I have children, will my daughter be burdened by this dark history, too?
Because the fact remains that I will never have the kind of closure I so desperately seek. I have to come to terms with that. It is my life's biggest burden. But this doesn't mean that I am helpless, or that Helen and Heather were helpless, either. Both of these women fought against true monsters. Their last breaths were in direct opposition of one the biggest real life evils we face today.
There is a GoFundMe page for Heather, which includes a quote from her mother: "She died doing what was right. My heart is broken, but I am forever proud of her."
And I am proud of my grandmother Helen beyond which I can express. She chose the difficult path, and her death does not represent her defeat, but rather, her strength. As does Heather's. These women are separated by nearly 50 years, but their bravery in the face of concentrated evil will be celebrated and, I hope, not forgotten.
Malcolm X, a man my grandmother admired, famously said: "If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything." I write stories in which women win, in which hate and toxic masculinity is squashed and demolished and humiliated.
This is how I cope. This is how I live. This is how I've chosen to fight.