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.

I had my first taste young, around age three. Just the tiniest of sips from cans of Old Style my stepdad (number one, not the killer) drank on Midwestern fishing trips, or at the bar in the restaurant where my mother worked. A spoonful of whisky and honey and lemon when I was six and sick. At nine—with stepdad numero dos (not the killer)—shot-gunning the keg spout when the old boy and his pals sent me on refill errands at summertime bashes. By age eleven—in a gesture both inherently badass and major cause for alarm—Numero Dos had traded a fat sack of marijuana for a big upright Culligan water cooler filled with moonshine. I was a latchkey kid—my mom worked second shift while unemployed Dos spent his days getting stoned with his old high school buddies—so I had free reign. How many times did I take to the living room, where the cooler sat right next to the TV, and bubble that moonshine while watching cartoons? Why was the agony of it so sweet as it burned a hole in my prepubescent bowels?

The wicked irony of alcoholism, of addiction, is that the cure is denial: Either we’re in denial of our patterns or we’re denying ourselves what we need. The point here is that my mother married four men in her lifetime, and every single one of them abused her—and still my mom kept this nightmare circus that killed her a secret from even her closest family and comrades. Never speaking of this gentle giant—who we all had seen as the peaceful antithesis of the bad boys preceding him—rattling her in fits of rage. She kept the battering clandestine because this was the hand she felt she was dealt: if she divorced this base man, there would only be another one waiting in line because that is all the world has to offer. That, and enough distilled or pharmaceutical peace to shotgun the futility.

After he’d knocked her down—but before she was unresponsive with foam bubbling out of her mouth—he went to the grocery store. There, he bought two cases of beer and three jugs of Sunny Delight.

I’ve consumed a thousand beers with my mom’s husband. In the courtroom, his defense was her alcoholism; that she was out of control. He was “trying to straighten her out,” he pleaded during the police interrogation. Yet the evidence spoke volumes. Receipts, timelines. After he’d knocked her down—hatching the egg that would kill her—but before she was unresponsive with foam bubbling out of her mouth, he went to the grocery store. There, he bought two cases of beer and three jugs of Sunny Delight. After wine, my mom loved vodka most. Vodka and juices.

My mother’s husband is currently facing up to 15 years’ incarceration and up to—but not exceeding—$7,500 in fines. “Up to” is a curious abstraction because it includes the number one and even fractions of the number one, such as probation. For taking this life accidentally after purposefully assaulting her, after a decade of purposefully damaging her, of intent to harm, of scores of injury, any one of these instances capable of having gone where things did on May 27, 2011—each assisted in part by alcohol or the lack of it. The sad omission is that his episodes of uncontrollable rage had to have come from his own savage dealings, from his cradle all the way to my mother’s grave. Drinking seems to have diverted his problem, but unsettled anguish will rear up and spit venom until it is properly slain. I cannot blame alcohol, I can only blame the man.

The only respite I have from hypotheses is the cruel anxiety of a real question—what will his sentence be?—and the curiosity about how much alcohol and substance abuse, both my mother’s and her husband’s, will factor into the actual sentencing. What kind of tremble, if any, will be clawing or absent in the room, including in my own jumping hands.

Joseph Mattson is the author of the story collection Eat Hell and the novel Empty the Sun. The Speed Chronicles, an anthology he edited about crystal meth, was published this year and excerpted in The Fix.


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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.