By Joyce Alexander, RNP (retired)
Recently I found a book in a “junk book store” that caught my eye. Its title was I Don’t Want to Live This Life, and it was written by Deborah Spungen. The book is about her family trying to raise a “difficult child,” her first daughter, Nancy. Nancy was murdered by her boyfriend, a “rock star” named Sid Vicious, in the 1970s.
Nancy’s birth was problematic with the cord around her neck, and a rare blood disorder caused her to need a total blood exchange transfusion immediately after birth. From the day that she was brought home from the hospital, she screamed and fought her caregivers. By the time she was 14 she was out of control. By the time she was 17, her parents helped her set up an apartment in New York just to get her out of the house so that there could be some sort of peace for themselves and their other children.
Deborah was at the point of suicide at several times, but with much willpower, stayed to fight for the rest of her family and to try to find some way to reach Nancy. She tried to help Nancy get off drugs and out of the sordid life of prostitution and intermittent homelessness.
The book tore at my heart. Deborah and her family suffered terror, pain, confusion and guilt at Nancy’s self made hell-on-earth existence. I read with recognition the confusion Deborah felt in trying to decide how to both protect Nancy and her other children. I too have felt that tearing in trying to give something to one child by depriving the other child of what they also needed from me.
I also identified with Deborah’s frustration that nothing she did seemed to work, so she tried harder to do the same thing. A wise man once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Deborah and her husband Frank turned to the “experts” in medicine from the time that Nancy was a baby. They prescribed Phenobarbital to quite her screams as an infant. Did that drug as an infant set her up later to require drugs to “self medicate” her pain?
They put Nancy into a mental hospital at one point, and got her into methadone treatment multiple times. Gave her food, but not money, paid her rent, but didn’t give her cash. They did the best they knew how to protect their daughter from herself. It still didn’t help, and she stayed with a man who was as disordered as she was, and who was more violent, even after he had beaten her.
After the murder
After Nancy’s murder, and getting out on bail, Sid Vicious overdosed and died. Either accidentally or on purpose, who knows which? Before he died, he wrote letters and called Nancy’s mother vowing his love for Nancy and wanting to see the family and have them validate his love for Nancy, and to receive solace for her loss from them. I can’t even imagine how Deborah must have felt receiving these letters and calls.
The press hounded the family and after Vicious’ death, his mother even had the gall to call Deborah and want to bury him next to Nancy. The press hounded the family even more. The press vilified Nancy, one headline reading, “Nancy was a Witch!”
Deborah and her family eventually got into therapy and also saw a television show with Bob and Charlotte Hullinger, who were the founders of Parents of Murdered Children, to support other parents who had lost a child through murder. At last, Deborah and Frank and their two surviving children were no longer “alone” in their grief. Deborah and Frank became advocates of the group, forming a chapter in their hometown, and becoming very active in comforting others. No longer feeling the shame of their daughter’s life and her death, but finding new purpose in their own.
Grieving the loss
Anyone who has lived with a person who is disruptive, disorderly, and disordered can relate to Deborah and Frank’s pain in trying to deal with that person. When the person is no longer there, either through death or through no contact, there is a loss there that somehow must be filled.
We grieve over the loss of a person who is part of our “family” no matter what the relationship is, mother, daughter, father, son, lover, spouse, or how we lost them, either through death or no contact. What kind of relationship we had with that disruptive person, the person we cannot please, that we cannot save from themselves doesn’t matter. We grieve. We feel the different stages of grief; the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the sadness, and if we grieve appropriately, we eventually come to a state of acceptance of the loss of the person or the relationship. The deeper the love, the deeper the grief.
Shame about the situation
Sometimes, we also feel like Deborah did, the shame that comes when people in our community learn about the disordered behavior of the one we loved. In Deborah’s case, it was nationally public for her and her family. There was even a sketch on Saturday Night Live about Sid Vicious and Nasty Nancy that popped up when their son David was watching TV with friends. And when their daughter’s professor was doing roll call in class and he got to her name he said “Spurgen, no kin to that nasty Nancy Spungen who was murdered.” Their daughter left the class in shame and tears.
Sometimes, we are involved with the justice system, either the criminal justice system, or the “family courts” where we may be raked over the coals by a system we believed would protect us. Or, others who are closer to us do not believe that the disordered person is the one at fault, but instead blame us, shame us, or desert us, leaving us to feel even more betrayed.
In my own case, for nearly twenty years I felt the shame of my son’s crimes, hid them from my extended family and friends, essentially lied to them when they would ask about where Patrick was living. “Oh, he lives in Texas and works for the State of Texas, and doesn’t get to Arkansas much.” While that is “technically true,” it is deceptive and essentially a lie to cover up my own shame at my son’s failure to be the kind of man he was raised to be.
Some kind of peace
I’m glad that Nancy’s family has finally come to some peace, and that her parents have found a cause that they can focus on to help other families who have violently lost children. For those of us on the “other side of the coin,” though, who are the parents of the murderers, we also have “lost” sons and daughters by the crimes they have committed. While Nancy was indeed a troubled soul, she did not deserve to die violently at the hands of her lover. Her parents suffered in a futile effort, trying to save her from herself, and they suffered again because of her murder.
Like Deborah, I too, do not want to live that life. I do not want to live in self doubt about why my son became what he is, or why he killed Jessica Witt. Though my son still breathes, he is as dead to me as Nancy is to Deborah and her family. As I work on protesting the next parole hearing for Patrick, I have reached out to the group Parents of Murdered Children to assist me with that protest. They have warmly received my request and have put me into contact with people who do understand even my position as the parent of the murderer, and are willing to help me.
While Deborah never gave up on her daughter Nancy, and spent 20 years in trying to deal with a person who was unable to attach normally to a family’s love, now that Nancy is gone, Deborah can move on.
We must disengage
Many former victims of people who are unable to attach normally, such as psychopaths, also spend decades trying to save that person from themselves, and to save themselves from more abuse. There comes a time, though, when we must disengage from those people in order to save ourselves and to save our children from those disordered persons. It isn’t easy. I’m not sure what would have become of Nancy’s family if she had not died that day, but in the end, Nancy’s death may actually have been the salvation of the rest of Nancy’s family because her disruptive presence was removed from the home. Though her family did not want to lose her, they couldn’t save her, but after her loss they were able to save themselves.
I didn’t want to “lose” Patrick either, and I held on to him with denial for many, many years even after Jessica’s murder. It was only his attempt to have me killed that shook me loose from that denial and made me face the truth that he is truly, as my attorney said, “a baaaad man.”