INTERVIEW: JANE BERNSTEIN, AUTHOR OF BEREFT- A SISTER’S STORY DISCUSSES HOW SHE DEALT WITH THE MURDER OF HER SISTER.
JACKI LYDEN, host:
To be bereft is to be deprived of something against one's will or expectation; to lack something needed and loved. Bereft is not merely loss but the daily knowledge of that loss. And although such awareness is often numbed with time's passage, sometimes only the niiml mess remains. Writer Jane Bernstein's family suffered an enormous loss when she was 17 and her older sister was 20; an older sister she's always looked up to because she was outgoing, confident and pretty.
Professor JANE BERNSTEIN (Writer): Laura was small and slender and argumentative. She was the firstborn daughter, so she was the daughter that went into everything kind of head on. I used to think of her as a kid, a teen-ager, who didn't have any honey. She didn't know how to be sweet and manipulative the way I could, as the second born, who kind of watched and saw exactly she got into trouble. And so in a certain way, she wasn't the right kind of girl for that era,
for the '50s. She wasn't voluptuous and she wasn't kittenish in those ways. She was smart and fierce.
LYDEN: When Laura Bernstein went off to college in Tempe, Arizona, far from her New Jersey Jane Bernstein deeply missed her. Only 10 days after Laura's departure in 1966, a phone call came in the night.
Prof. BERNSTEIN: In those days there were two phones in the house. There was one in my parents' bedroom and there was one downstairs. My room was close to my parents' bedroom. I thought of myself as a heavy sleeper, but that night the phone rang and I woke up immediately. And it was as if even before I heard the words, I knew something horrible had happened. And I got up and out of bed and I stood by their door and I listened to a piece of the conversation. And then somehow I boldly went in the room, and I heard my mother say, 'Our baby is dead.' And I knew everything. And that's actually as much as I ever heard directly from my parents. No other
details were ever discussed to me directly.
LYDEN: Yet Jane did know some basic facts. Laura had been murdered by a stranger as she was chaining her bicycle to a railing in downtown Tempe. As murders go, it was routine. Six stab wounds; the suspect, about Laura's age, apprehended. Jane was the sole remaining child in the household. And the Bernstein family tried aggressively to quickly move on. The family mantra was: Least said, quickest mended. But as Jane's recounts in her book that mantra would in time become the reason the family was left doubly bereft of even its own memories.
Prof. BERNSTEIN: My parents responded the way they had been taught to respond, which was not to cry, not to grieve in public, not to mourn, not to make a fuss, not to ask of anything extraordinary from anybody else, and I took that on. I was the only child left. I was the only one left. And I knew that instantly, that everything--that I had to be extraordinarily good. I had to be everything for them. And that, to me, I interpreted very quickly as: Don't show emotion, don't cry, don't lose control, don't make a fuss, don't make people look at us.
And so I got on with business. I stayed home for the few days of Shiva. And I entertained my
friends when they came to visit me. I remember feeling the sense of having to control the
conversation and make sure that there was enough lightness and laughter so that they wouldn't be too uncomfortable when they came to visit. And those were the strategies I used when I went back to high school. So in many ways, if somebody had looked at me, if there had been an overhead camera studying me at that period of time, I would have looked really fine. And for pieces of time, I was really fine. I had this world that was out there, so I wasn't really able to see the ways that I was wounded and would grow more wounded as time passed.
LYDEN: You married. You had two girls. You wrote a couple of books. You wanted to be writer. What was the pivotal moment decades later that caused you to want to investigate, as you put it, to search for your feelings and what had happened to Laura?
Prof. BERNSTEIN: One clear thing for me is that when my firstborn daughter was born I made certain promises to myself. And one promise is that I never wanted her to be afraid. I wanted to make sure that I would be able to tell her everything; that she wouldn't grow up in a household full of secrets. And I wasn't able to fully do that. But I tried really hard. And I was aware of the fact we would go back to my parents' house, and it was the same house that Laura and I had grown up in, and the beds my daughters slept in were the same beds that Laura and I had slept in. In fact, Charlotte slept in what my mother referred to as Laura's bed.
LYDEN: Charlotte your daughter.
Prof. BERNSTEIN: Charlotte is my daughter, my firstborn daughter.
But Charlotte--no one had ever discussed Laura. There were no pictures of Laura around. Who was this Laura? So I started to see that she was uncomfortable about this and that she had developed a kind of vigilance that I saw in myself--a fearfulness and a vigilance--and I felt responsible for not having those nightmares--nightmares that really belonged to me, that didn't belong to her; that I felt like I didn't want her to pass down that piece of my history that way. And so that was one of the reasons that I felt it's really time for me to be comfortable with this; to kind of unbury some of this unknown stuff. And I always needed to know.
LYDEN: And so what were the first things you did, and how many years after the actual incident had occurred, the murder?
Prof. BERNSTEIN: It took me 23 years. And I flew out to Arizona. It turned out my then
husband had a conference there, so I had a reason and a justification for actually going at that period of time. And I went out. And the first thing I did was go to the library and start to look up microfilms of the newspapers. They didn't have an index. And I sat there for a very long period of time and unearthed everything.
And then I went to just phone books and listings of attorneys. And I was rather stunned to find that so many people who had been involved in the case, whose names I'd seen in those clippings from 1966, still had listings in the phone book. One still worked for the Tempe police. One was still an attorney in Phoenix. One was a judge. And these people--I just called them cold and they were very generous about speaking to me. So it began that way. I kind of worked through my fear and awkwardness because people were very responsive. I kind of expected that I would get out there 23 years later and somebody would say, What? This is 23 years ago. No one cares about this anymore. This was trivial.' But, in fact, her murder really shocked people. And there were a number of people who just never forgot it. And that was something that I needed.
LYDEN: What was interesting to me was that, in a way, your own memory had been like a very small, indistinct, black-and-white photograph, tiny, wallet-sized. And when you went to Arizona, to Tempe, and talked to the detective, the policeman, you eventually would visit the killer's father, it was like a Technicolor movie. Suddenly it was a big two-hour-long epic extravaganza, but a very personal one.
Prof. BERNSTEIN: That's absolutely true. And again, it reminded me that my way of dealing with things at the time, to minimize and to apologize and to say, 'Well, this didn't matter that much,' that there was something really wrong about that.
LYDEN: What did you find out about David Mumbaugh, the young killer who murdered your sister?
Prof. BERNSTEIN: I found out that on one level he was the kind of good boy we read about in newspapers. All of the people who were interviewed, all of the neighbors, had nothing but stellar things to say about him. He was an Eagle Scout. He played with the neighborhood kids. He was the kind of boy who said, 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' He was polite to elders. He was just the essential good boy. But as I began to try to get beyond that I saw suggestions of someone who was—who had a veneer of being able to be good, but had this kind of rage inside. And he was not in control of that rage, so that in a prison situation, for instance, he was a very good worker in prison where its hard to be bad, he was able to abide by the rules. He was able to be good and he was able to be dependable, just as he was able to be good and dependable in his daily life before the murder. But then he would clearly have these kind of surges of anger and emotion. And they would come out of--seemingly out of nowhere because, again, he had neither the language nor the therapy nor the situation which anybody gave him the opportunity to understand what was going on inside him.
LYDEN: He was such an unremarkable young man except perhaps for his correctness. He had never been in trouble before. His parents had recently moved to Arizona as well. But you found out one thing about him that he had said when he ultimately confessed to Laura's murder.
Prof. BERNSTEIN: He said, I've always wanted to kill someone.' He said--I mean, he
expressed in the confession that he made and that was written down--to his mother he said things like, You know, jeez, I've always wanted to kill someone. Once I got into a fight and I couldn't stop and you should have stopped me then.' So there were several statements in which he basically said something about what was kind of raging within him.
LYDEN: Does it seem odd to you now that such a smart, clever person as yourself, someone who's a college professor and an author, could ever have been such a suppressed person, both in terms of dealing with your sister's death and your own life?
Prof. BERNSTEIN: It's shocking to me, it really is. But at the same time, I think lots of us are so deluded about pieces of ourselves and I think that one of my big flaws is that I'm articulate and I love language. I also have had a history of using language and coming up with kind of scenarios and explanations that really mask rather than open. But I think that intelligent people do that as well as inarticulate people.
LYDEN: Has writing Bereft helped you put a frame around this? Or now that you're back in
touch with the grief and sense of loss you feel, is Laura a person that you think about every day?
Prof. BERNSTEIN: Oddly, I do think about her every day. I may be reminded of her when I look at a picture, when I look at my daughters smile, when I see someone on the street, when I hear something about the '60s. So she's a living part of my life in that sense. She's about as alive to me as she could be given the passage of years.
LYDEN: And before your search for her, she was literally dead to you?
Prof. BERNSTEIN: She was absolutely dead. And including her love for me, which was a terrible, terrible loss. I mean, I lost her and that was awful, but I also lost that really steady love that she had for me.
LYDEN: Do you have pictures of Laura up in your home now?
Prof. BERNSTEIN: I do. I do. I have one absolutely wonderful one where she's perched on the
hood of a 1954 Hudson with my grandmother and my Aunt Dora. It's a picture I really love. And I have one of us as little girls kind of wiggling on our parents' laps. And I have one with her fiancÈ taken just several months before she was murdered, and they're very meaningful to me.
LYDEN: Jane Bernstein. Her memoir is called Bereft: A Sister's Story. And for this evening, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
LYDEN: And I'm Jacki Lyden. Good evening from NPR's WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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