More notes on a murder, this week's culture picks, cookies
Working on hard stories, ones in which people are murdered, are not stories that easily fizz off the skin. It takes a while, both because sometimes you need to, in a sense, shape-shift while getting the story, entering the worlds of others and asking them to open up about what is, in most cases, the very hardest thing they have been through. Sometimes they never talk to you again, or talk to you at all. Often during the reporting you find yourself in your hotel room after 11 hours of interviews, sitting on the floor eating take-out and watching the most brainless TV you can find. And then you sit a while with all the information, and you write it, and it works its way into the world, and maybe people think at this point you are done, but you’re not done. You’re still angry, or sorrowful, or the things you thought might happen (not that you’re going for any particular reaction), maybe some cosmic rectification machine kicking into gear or someone reaching out to say, hey, let’s talk some more, when these don’t happen — and the latter often do — you are left there with what’s left of the story, pulsing in your hands. And so you will indulge me one more essay about the Rachael Abraham murder and then maybe I can let it rest for a while. There’s dessert at the end, I promise.
What would you give to keep your community safe? And by "give" I mean, give up. How about the life of the woman next door? If that does not sound appealing, no less plausible, how about one who lives 90 blocks away, in a neighborhood different than yours, one where strip malls sell discount phone cards and $1 Chinese food. There may be other differences. She may have a different skin tone than yours or speak a different language. She is almost certainly in a different income bracket. In a city of 2.1 million, you will likely not have crossed paths with this woman. Maybe she works cleaning bathrooms. I once met a street food vendor originally from Bosnia who, upon arriving in Portland as a refugee in 2003, did not resume her career as an electrical engineer but took the first job she could find, scrubbing toilets at the airport. It was better, she told me, to sell the flaky palm-sized cheese-bread called pita sirnica out of a trailer downtown than to deal with American women in a public restroom, women who did not see her as human, who did not see her at all. Cheese-bread had given her back personhood.
As for the woman in question, the one who does not live next door to you, she works, as she has for more than a decade, as a caregiver for the elderly. I'm not sure if you have experience with old people, or old people who are failing - to keep themselves clean, to take their pills, to remember your name - but they need a lot of attention. In my experience caring for an old person is not unlike watching a toddler, except old people argue more, and you can't force them to take a shower, or take away the phone with a simple, "Give it to me." It can be a smelly and thankless job but is nonetheless necessary, and the job of the woman who lives 90 blocks from you.
This woman also has six children. The oldest is fourteen, the youngest is two. There's almost no chance you know these children. They don't play with your children or go to the same schools, they are, in the day-to-day sense, hypothetical children. Nevertheless kids are kids and most of them love and rely on their mothers. Also all of this woman's children are girls. A very young girl losing her mother has always struck me as a devastating fate, the four- or seven-year-old destined to chase any memory of her mother, the sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, into the dark. I am not trying to wring sadness from you for people you have never met and whose neighborhood you never see except when you drive to the Costco. I am saying that a woman who, based on the speed with which her murder slipped from the news, was deemed by news-consuming people as regrettable but not precious enough to sock into the memory banks.
Fair enough. There are a lot of things to worry about, including the premise of this conversation, concern for the safety of your neighbors and friends and the circle that widens from there, which might include other people you have never met. As nearly every news-consuming person knows, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, and we took him to our breast, felt to varying degrees the sharp injustice of his death while in police custody. This event created a seismic splash that washed over most of the world. When the waters receded, to stretch the metaphor, certain items appeared on shore. People picked up these items and made of them what they would. The more industrious and mercenary fashioned them into tools that of often did not fix old problems but did create new ones. The woman with six children fell into no fixable category. Had people heard of her, they might have thought it tragic that she was repeatedly beaten and strangled and threatened with a gun to her head. They had not heard of her. They were instead fixated on one of the tools they found on the beach, one that was able to reframe events, to refract and rehabilitate, it worked like an optometrist’s lens machine and, depending on where you lived and whom you trusted, made the situation clear: the woman's right to safety held less primacy than the rights of the man who beat and strangled her and held a gun to her head. Until he killed her, whereupon the optometrist's machine was deemed problematic, or hidden away for another day, or conked out by design. No matter. People's eyes had warped to the shape of the machine, they could easily defend their new vision, could see things no other way.
"This is a very fucked-up story about a woman whose ex-husband killed her after a Portland bail fund bailed him out for his previous domestic violence charges, after which he attacked her multiple times before killing her. It's also shockingly dishonest," wrote the publisher of Wonkette, of the story you wrote about the women's murder. "People who may be innocent should not languish in jail just because they're too poor to have $2000 [bail]. People who are an actual danger should not be freed, whether they've got money or not. That's on judges. And they, being human, fuck up all the time."
The problem as Wonkette saw it was not the person doing the strangling and stabbing, it was the judges and their human fallibility. Which might have held a bit of water had it not been seven judges setting the would-be killer free. Seven judges in three months suggests a pattern, suggests policy, suggests leaning into "may be innocent" despite knowing the man has stepped on his ex-wife's windpipe and told her she was going to die, suggests those extra-clear new lenses were clouded if not blacked-out. If it were up to me, those lenses would shatter upon word of the murder. If it were up to Wonkette, it would remain clear that blame for a woman stabbed and strangled to death with her three youngest girls in the next room lies in a human fuck-up, happens all the time.