My Mother's Unsolved Murder

By Joseph Mattson 11/15/11

I knew about my mother's alcoholism and addictions, but nothing about the beatings she endured from her fourth husband—until the night in May he killed her. Why did she keep that secret?

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The writer, his mom and their two-tone pickup in 1974 Courtesy of Joseph Mattson

On May 27, 2011, my mother was murdered by her husband. She died seven days later.

Biblical, that seventh day—June 3, 2011—in the sense that even banged and bruised and brain dead, twisted up in the machinery of modern medicine and motionless save for the rising and collapsing of her chest, the barest minimum of breathing on her own accord and the rest at the mercy of intensive-care apparatus, her small auto-mechanical breaths enough to declare her “alive” in the eyes of Michigan law (the doctors wanted to pronounce her dead upon arrival), she remained beautiful and victimized—in investigative terms, she was holy.

She didn’t die from drinking.

My mother was an alcoholic. She was riotous, fun, feral, hopeful, sad, resigned, addicted to pain, addicted to killers of pain by the sacrament: self-medication. I can say without hyperbole that she could out-drink anyone I’ve ever shared a toast with, including a stable of legendarily bad-for-the-wet writers, guitar gods, filmmakers, painters, gamblers, and outlaws in action—including Hunter S. Thompson. When she was slain, her blood alcohol level was 0.33% by volume, enough to kill your average social drinker. Such a percentage results in stupor, incontinence, the inability to walk, and unconsciousness. My mother was doing the dishes and brushing her cat. In addition to the drink, she had a penchant for the loveliest anti-anxiety meds—“use as directed” be damned—because she lived a life of extraordinary pain and disappointment. Like many of us, she did not imbibe simply to feel good—she clutched for relief. Poison and medicine. She was an alcoholic, if we must bow to labels, but she cannot be reduced to it.

When my mother was slain, her blood alcohol level was 0.33% by volume. Such a percentage results in stupor, incontinence, the inability to walk, and unconsciousness. My mother was doing the dishes and brushing her cat.

She was already bruised from neck to foot from altercations with her husband during the weeks prior—vile tangos I had no knowledge of but that, according to police records, went back at least seven years, including being manhandled two months after having open heart surgery—when the man, all six-and-a-half feet of him, pushed with his two mechanic’s hands flat out against her chest, knocking my mother’s five-foot-four-inch drunken frame flat back, her head bouncing off the kitchen floor.

I have to wonder: if she were sober, could she have escaped this?

My mother’s husband is not my father, and murder is a term that I cast here by misery, not by law. In Ottawa County, Michigan, on November 4, 2011, a jury found my mother’s husband guilty of a lesser felony: involuntary manslaughter, caused by assault and battery. My mother’s husband was not drinking on the night of the homicide, though he too is an alcoholic—albeit of lesser caliber. And I have to wonder: if my mother’s husband had been drinking that night, would he not have knocked my mom down to the relatively impact-absorbent kitchen linoleum with such a force as to shake her brain inside her cranium, causing the brain bleed that ultimately took her life? My mother’s husband, who is not a brutal thug when buzzed but a big, jolly glowworm smiling in the only peace I’ve ever, in hindsight, really seen him in?

To ask such questions (standing in that kitchen after she’d died, next to her lifeless body in the hospital, standing in the courtroom while our lives were smeared into the public sphere) is fruitless, futile, sickening—as hypothetical questions often are. And, for the first time, I am unable to derail them, no matter how pointless it may be to have to wonder. Before the homicide, hypothetical questions were of course at the disposal of logic. Now, they roil me. They are winning, at times.

Is the hand, no matter what it is driven by, measured in the bottle it does or does not pick up? The hand chosen to hit—to push—with? Or the hand, no matter the rushing urge, that instead inoffensively rests?

The hand, in this investigation, is the person.

I too am an alcoholic—by pamphlet standards. A high-functioning boozer—by society’s mark. A brash, hard-drinking hero whose legend precedes him—by hyperbolic friends’ appraisals. What is it called to go to the edge, dangle two shoe-tips over and breathe in the chasm, but never cross over because no matter how delicious imbibing is in all of the romantic and idiotic ways, it cannot beat love, it cannot beat friendship, it cannot beat writing? What’s the label? Episodic sobriety? Selective insobriety?

Denial, many readers will say.

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Joseph Mattson is a writer, editor, and designer, living in the Los Angeles area. He is the author of several books, including, The Speed Chronicles. Find him on Linkedin.