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The Land of the Free

10 January 2012

We spent two weeks in the U.S. over Christmas, and it had been two years since my last visit. Two whole years. I tucked a small notebook into my backpack before we left, thinking I might want to write down some first impressions as I did after a semester abroad in Costa Rica when I was twenty-one. Returning from that trip, the immense size of everything was enough to inspire awe. I looked with wonder at the straightness of the roads, the endlessness of the landscape, and the sheen to every desk, every carpet, every water faucet and every smile. The U.S. is a very shiny country.

This time landing in the U.S. seemed no more than stepping into the house of a relative I hadn’t seen for awhile. Someone I’d kept in touch with on Facebook and Skype. Nothing had changed. It was exactly as I had pictured it these past two years. Flat, expansive, tree-less. Every other building flaunting the bright, screaming sign of a chain restaurant. Six-lane highways, semi-trucks and strip malls. Four-car garages and empty yards. Eight cars, shooting exhaust out their backsides, lined up at the drive-thru Starbucks. Nature reduced to county parks and dots of land marked “Available for Development.”

And yet this trip was unique: it was bookended by two gruesome murders that took the breath away from the city and from my family.

Late at night on Thursday, December 22, just 2 1/2 miles away from us as we slept in our comfortable beds, a babysitter murdered nine-year-old Aliahna Lemmon with a brick and then dismembered her and hid her remains. I felt much of our trip was marred by this news – the initial belief in her disappearance, the search parties and “Missing” posters, the candlelight vigils, and the daily unfolding of the details from the TV in the kitchen. The fact that Aliahna was partially blind and deaf made the story even more unstomachable.

On Jan. 2, our last full day in the U.S., when updates were still appearing about Aliahna’s murder, I browsed the headlines on my laptop in the darkness of my bedroom, groggy-eyed and not yet ready to move towards the coffee machine. Something new topped the headlines: Allen County’s first homicide of 2012 had occurred overnight. It didn’t take long, I thought cynically, and shut my laptop.

Upstairs my dad was already awake, sipping his coffee in the early stillness of the half-lit living room.

“Can you believe Allen County already has its first homicide of the year?” I asked, slumping onto the couch.

“Are you kidding me?”

“Yah, just over there, too,” I said, pointing out the window and over the lake. “In Huntertown.” Huntertown is about 8 miles northwest of my parent’s house. A rural area where friends and I used to go driving in the dark to be spooked by the myths of Devil’s Hallow on Cedar Canyon Road.

My dad found the news on his iPod touch. I watched his face fall as he read the report.

“I think I know who that is,” he said, his voice tense with urgency.

This was followed by an “Oh no,” and then a longer, more painful, “Oh no.”

We listened to the video accompanying the story and confirmed the address.

Scott West, the son of a close family friend, had shot and killed his ex-girlfriend. He then drove off, parked his car, and shot himself. While trying to make these facts fit some sort of new reality – Scott was dead, Scott had killed the mother of his two children – I could not push out the fact that he did this at his mother’s home. His ex-girlfriend had moved there for protection from him. His mother and his two children were inside the house when he killed her.

The cloud that dropped over our family that day has not left me. It follows me to the sink when I wash the dishes, stands next to me at the stove, hangs over the mirror while I brush my teeth, it sits with me in bed at night before I sleep.

Scott West: the angry kid from my past who always wore black tee-shirts and who didn’t want to be friends with any of us. Scott West, who pretended not to listen when we spoke to him, who was not afraid to shout curse words at adults, but who still showed up at the church youth group on Sunday nights, if only to tell us that God didn’t exist.

As I sipped my Starbucks in the relaxed luxury of my parents’ suburban house it occurred to me that murder is just the price of doing business in the U.S. Fort Wayne and its 250,000 inhabitants rank as an average city on the national homicide list, but it’s a statistic we can live with, or at least one we don’t care enough about yet. The murders in our community are little more than a marginal nuisance given the fact that life is otherwise so wonderful. Because in this country we can still have whatever we want whenever we want it. So much new and improved, extra special, extra strong, extra rich aromatherapy dish soap, foam-tastic shower cleaner, super-tomatoes, healthier milk. Life, but better.

“Mommy! Did you know that in America they have a soap that kills all bacteria?” my five-year-old reported excitedly one morning, taking a break from the TV. “All the bacteria in the whole world, Mommy!”

Oh, land of opportunity. That, my friends, is what you can’t get in other countries.

So when you don’t get what you want, when your ex-girlfriend locks herself in a bedroom to keep away from you, you shoot her through the door. And then open it and shoot her again. And again. Then you shoot yourself because life hadn’t been what they told you it would be – that job, that house, those two cars. Or a car and a truck. That old American Dream turned out to be just that, didn’t it? A dream. Available to everyone but you.

In the running narrative that never leaves my head these days I ask Scott why he didn’t just kill his two children as well, the children he left with the rings of blood around a body they once called Mommy. They too will grow up not getting what they wanted out of life, angry at the have-nots. Beginning with the parents they have not.

But I can’t blame you, Scott. You never got the help you needed. And I can’t blame the system. That would be too meaningless, too sweeping. And I won’t blame your mother, because she was trapped, just like you.

When we learned the horrible truth about Aliahna’s murder, the details that the Fort Wayne Police refused to give, but which we read on the internet – her head, hands and feet tied up in bags in the freezer, the rest thrown into a dumpster at a gas station – we also learned that Aliahna’s grandfather was a convicted child molester, as were fifteen other men living in the mobile park. All unable to live anywhere else.

And Aliahna’s mother? A single mother of three, with the flu and a high fever, just looking for someone who could watch her kids for awhile so she could get some rest.

So many people trapped in this place we call the Land of the Free.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. James Hofman permalink
    10 January 2012 15:34

    I read this with a lot of breathless, eerie deja vu.

    3 years or so ago, shortly after we moved to Guam, I was in a coffee shop next to my office and, while waiting for my order, absently started flipping through the paper. That, by itself, was a bit unusual — the local paper is a rag, and I very seldom read it, or even skim it.

    But in the “US Mainland” news section, a picture leaped out at me. My eyes went right to it, and I knew who it was. It was Troy. We went to elementary school together. I hadn’t seen him in about 25 years, since we were 8 or so. But that was him. I didn’t need to read the accompanying caption to know.

    The previous day, Troy had murdered his wife and two of their children, including their infant son. He shot them down in the front yard of their Florida home with a rifle after he and his wife had argued, and she tried to leave the house. His oldest son ran for his life, and Troy chased him through the garage, firing at him and missing until he tripped over a bike and the son escaped to a neighbor, who called 911.

    Then Troy sat down in the front yard and put one last bullet through his own head.

    I couldn’t concentrate on too much for much of the next week or two. I kept playing that scene out in my mind. It didn’t (and doesn’t) fit any narrative that I can recognize.

    Unlike Scott, Troy never struck me as particularly troubled. I think his folks were divorced, but he was a good natured kid. He had fat, freckled cheeks and he often made a face that we found hilariously entertaining — a “Monchichi face” as we all called it.

    I try to think about what doors have to open (or slam closed) in someone’s life for them to find themselves down in such a hellish black hole that they can do something like that.

    But I can’t ever quite get all the way there.

    I don’t believe in an interventionist God. I don’t stay up late asking the universe or a Deity “Why?”. I think instead that what I do is just think of the people I love, and my soul tries to curl into a ball, to shield itself, and them. And if I do anything like pray, it’s not so that I can go to Heaven, or even be a better person. It’s much more selfish.

    It’s just a small, desperate plea that this kind of monstrous horror never visits my life. That somehow there’s some blood already above my door, and that blackest raven doesn’t stop–just keeps on flying.

    And finally, a further thought occurs to me, which is that ironically, to remain safe and alive means continuing to hear and have to absorb stories like these, and thus knowing that such a fear can never completely be banished.

    “‘No pleasure but meanness,’ he said, and his voice had become almost a snarl.”
    — Flannery O’Connor

    • 11 January 2012 09:26

      Hi James – Eerie indeed. That it didn’t fit into any recognizable narrative is a very good way to express the simple inability to process it — why, I think, we continue to obsess about these things long afterward in an attempt to make sense. The strange thing, or not so strange thing, about Scott was that it did fit the narrative. It made sense, and yet that was the problem. How does that story happen? Why isn’t it stopped or changed in the middle? I want to say that this has nothing to do with God and everything to do with a political, economic and social system that is broken. With people who snap because they are trapped in a space in which they cannot live. (A point I tried to make in the post. Unfortunately this includes Breivik who felt as though the left-wing socialist democracy of Norway did not have a place for his extremist views, and so can I really blame the U.S.?).

      On another note, you and Beulah Baker have reminded me of Flannery O’Connor again. Thank you!

  2. 10 January 2012 15:45

    Horrible! Devastating! Unthinkable!

    I am so sorry Jena.

    Hugs,
    Kimberly

  3. 10 January 2012 17:46

    Jena, it’s hard to say welcome home to someone and then have to show them what life has become. Yours is an all to common daily scenario in the U.S. I don’t think this is what they had in mind when they said, “Freedom isn’t free.”

    • 11 January 2012 09:30

      Jon, I have thought a lot recently about this thing called “freedom.” In the wake of Aliahna’s murder parents wanted to keep their kids inside, keep away from public parks (never mind that she was not killed by a stranger in a park but by a “friend” next door!) I looked around at people driving everywhere because the lack of sidewalks makes it unsafe to walk. Every time we went outside we were the only ones around. “Where IS everyone?” my husband asked as we walked through the subdivision. “Trapped inside?” So I’m beginning to wonder what, exactly, this freedom is that Americans want to defend so desperately. And looking at “what life has become” (in your words) I said to myself that no, this is not a country worth fighting for. But then I took my own words back because I am certain that it is. I just don’t know why anymore.

  4. anett permalink
    12 January 2012 11:33

    I am sorry to hear about the horrible happenings that came so close to you. :(* There seem to be no end to man’s cruelty and I’m left with a feeeling of despair and helplessness.

  5. Heidi the less enthusiastic one permalink
    18 January 2012 16:56

    This was such a well-written post, and one that I can relate to so strongly, as I too am an ex-Hoosier now living in Scandinavia in Denmark.

    Cheers,
    Heidi (friend and commenter at This Indonesian’s blog)

    • 25 January 2012 20:33

      Hi “Heidi” – I really thought I replied to this and now I see nothing here. Hmm…. what I recall saying was: Wow! Another Hoosier in Scandinavia?! What are the odds! And that I bet we’d have lots of stories to share! 🙂 Thanks for reading and for your comments.

  6. 25 January 2012 18:49

    Jena, I don’t want to say “thanks” for sharing such a horrifying story but I must say one of the things I greatly appreciate about you is your bravery and boldness to speak out on real life issues.

    My perspective on this issue (and, it is a big issue- I’m an American. This stuff happens in my neighborhood all the time) is that we are addressing the behavior but not the heart.

    I was just discussing this with my dad the other day. In these kind of situations, what went wrong? What drives people to do these horrible things? It really is a heart issue. Behavior comes out of our hearts and if we fail to address the heart and only correct the behavior one day it isn’t going to matter anymore.

    I’m going to pick on a common disciplinary form we use in America all the time: prison.

    Prison protects us from vicious murderers that, frankly, we just don’t have the time, energy, or skill to correct. Sometimes, all the skill in the world won’t keep certain people from hurting others. Prison doesn’t ultimately solve problems because the problem lies in the heart.

    So, prison is great when you don’t want to take the time to fix the heart and you just want to get the problem under control. If there wasn’t prison we wouldn’t be able to protect the good things that we have from the things we can’t control. However, if we are going to solve the problem of murder we have to stop just correcting the behavior and start changing the heart.

    • 25 January 2012 20:40

      Hi Tina – Thanks for this these thoughtful words. I would definitely agree that prison does not truly help people (nor is it a deterrent to crime … and black males are sent to prison much more often than white males for the same crimes … I could go on and on with what is wrong with the US prison system!) But, as you might guess from the angle of many of my posts, I blame a nation that has forgotten how to take care of it’s people and a nation that has lost a sense of community in which everyone looks out for each other.

      The problem is in the heart – I agree, but I would take it further and say, what has made everyone so sad and so angry? What has pushed people to the brink of despair? I think a lot of people feel trapped in the US, trapped in their lives, in their economic situations, in their relationships, whatever. And at the same time they are being told to put their faith in the American Dream. An empty dream for many. Why do we as a nation insist on punishing those who can’t manage to climb the corporate ladder instead of helping them to succeed in other ways? Why is happiness in the U.S. defined solely in terms of success in one’s job and the ability to buy a lot of stuff? (i.e. The American Dream seems to mean having the ability to purchase whatever you want, rather than simply being happy and secure in one’s life.)

      I’m glad you shared your thoughts on this – it’s always interesting to hear the opinions of others and engage in dialogue. It keeps me thinking and wondering.

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