Finding Susan

November 7th, 2007

On an idyllic August 5, 1994, while I hiked in the mountains of northern New Mexico with my husband and young daughter, 2,000 miles away in Baltimore my older sister, Susan, was spending her last day on earth. A photo of us taken by a passing hiker distills the tragic irony of that day: there stand Mike and Alison and I, a happy, safe family group posed against the backdrop of a serene Southwestern sky, blissfully unaware of the horror facing Susan. I stare at the picture now, obsessively scrutinizing it for some small sign that a catastrophe was occurring offstage, yearning to step into the frozen time-frame and divert the inexorable course of my sister's life.

Our relaxing vacation was cut short by an urgent phone call informing me that Susan, who was on the verge of leaving a violent second marriage, had disappeared on August 5. We now know that she was murdered that day. At first, though, we - my three brothers, Susan's two grown sons from her first marriage, and I - clung to the hope that she was alive. But with each passing day, it became clearer and clearer that this was not the case.

For twenty-eight months we lived a surreal existence. We were convinced Susan was dead, but with no body to prove it, we couldn't find comfort in the rituals that make a conventional death more bearable. Then there was the social awkwardness: I would run into an acquaintance I hadn't seen since before Susan's disappearance, and when he or she would ask how I'd been, I'd go through a high-speed mental calculation to assess whether I knew this person well enough to spill my story.

I found it increasingly difficult to relate to people in normal situations, and my non-work life became restricted to activities related to the investigation. I talked compulsively on the phone with family members, police, lawyers, and private investigators. I spent hours trying to drum up publicity about the case in the hope that someone, somewhere, would step forward with information. It's amazing the desperate lengths a family will go to in a situation like this. While we are ordinarily rational, skeptical people, we found ourselves contacting psychics and urging police to follow up on even the weirdest leads phoned in by kooks.

This frenetic activity, though, is what kept me going. As long as I was focusing on the search for Susan, I could keep myself from facing the finality of her loss. But reminders of the goal of this search kept intruding. In the early weeks, whenever the police used the word body, I would flinch, and a graphic image of Susan, clad in her thin summer clothes and lying exposed to the elements, would fill my mind. After a while, the word became more of an abstraction. Just as I was becoming numb to it, though, the police began replacing it with remains. This evoked an even more devastating image: my beautiful, vibrant sister reduced to a scattering of bones and shreds of clothing. Early in the morning of December 5, 1996, I received the phone call I had both dreaded and desired for more than two years. My brother Bill spoke the grim sentence: "They've found Susan." Two hikers had discovered her skeleton in a remote wooded area in northwestern Maryland.

I began to tremble uncontrollably. All the words I had mercifully transformed into abstractions suddenly resumed their power to conjure up horrifyingly graphic images. I became hysterical reading the front-page account in the Baltimore Sun, faxed to me that day. "She's not some 'skeletal remains,'" I screamed. "She's my sister!" I was overwhelmed by a primitive desire for revenge: That monster - that animal - who snuffed out my sister's cruelly shortened life was not going to get away with this.

Now, five years after Susan's death, I realize with bitterness that the murderer is most likely going to get away with it. The case remains in limbo. Despite compelling circumstantial evidence, the lawyers are reluctant to prosecute a case without more physical evidence. The small comfort I have is that we at least were able to give Susan a proper funeral and to bury her beside my parents in a Boston cemetery.

Gradually, I find myself healing. I am now able to wear Susan's clothes, which still bear traces of her favorite perfume, and to take comfort in doing so. I can smile now, without tears, when I recall moments from our childhood, such as the time she taught me to perform the Sisters, Sisters song-and-dance routine from White Christmas. Most important, I have discovered the therapeutic power of writing about tragedy, by working on a book that I hope will help others who have lost a loved one to murder.

Molly Hurley Moran teaches in the Division of Academic Assistance at the University of Georgia.

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Related Issue
July / August 1999