I got up and Anna pushed me through the doorway of the bedroom. She tried to navigate me toward the bathroom to keep me away from the living room where Vince’s body lay dead. Cassie and I both cried as fear washed over me in waves. I thought this was my fault because I did not listen.
*Warning Graphic Content: The following story contains graphic details of sexual abuse and violence. Please read with caution.
CRAIGSVILLE, Virginia—Other kids had the boogeyman or the monster in their closet scaring them as they tried to sleep. My monster was real. I went to sleep afraid of my father Vince, a man scarier than any monster you could conjure up in your imagination.
My father, Vince, constantly shapeshifted. His prominence made me feel small most of the time. I only felt safe once in a blue moon. You never knew what to expect with him — the sweet, innocent, normal dad or the nightmare you see in movies and on TV. One day, he could take home videos of you playing outside or let you sneak turtles home from the river. The next day, he would become unrecognizable.
Living with Vince felt like walking on eggshells, constantly praying not to set him off. My sisters and I became a well-oiled machine, learning his triggers and warning others when his mood darkened. It was us versus him and we had to protect ourselves.
I never understood why life with Vince could not be good all the time. He began abusing me as a toddler. Far too young for the big feelings I experienced, I wondered why the person meant to love me caused so much pain.
Vince beat us with a belt or made us spend the night with him. Every night, he rotated through us, one-by-one. Like clockwork, we spent the night with him: me, Cassie, and Anna. We knew whose turn it would be according to his shifting mood. If he chose you to spend the night with him, he treated you special first.
Cassie and Anna remember him taking them to catch fireflies. I remember sitting and watching Barney with him on VHS. No matter what, the outcome remained the same. You listened when Vince told you to go to bed with him. The word “no” did not exist in my vocabulary. I had no choice.
The night Vince died he selected me to stay with him. Even after he finished with you, you could not leave his bed. What if he woke up? Sometimes, if I cried, he gave up and headed to the living room for late-night TV or he would roll over fall deep asleep. That night, I stayed in his bed until I fell asleep.
The next thing I knew, my sister Anna jostled me awake. I opened my eyes, feeling groggy, and found her so close our faces almost touched.
“Come on. You have to go,” Anna said. “Dad’s head exploded. Come on, come on! You have to put your arms up.”
It all seemed like some sick joke, or a prank gone wrong. Anna notoriously played pranks like shoving disgusting socks in your mouth or tricking you into eating onions by telling you it was gum.
She’s lying, I thought to myself, as I lifted my arms so Anna could pull a shirt over my head. I always heard loud noises in my sleep like the sounds of trains on the tracks next to our house. Had an intruder entered our home or a gunshot fired, I blocked it out. My brain chooses what to remember from that night, even today.
I got up and Anna pushed me through the doorway of the bedroom. She tried to navigate me toward the bathroom to keep me away from the living room where Vince’s body lay dead. Cassie and I both cried as fear washed over me in waves. I thought this was my fault because I did not listen. I kept crying and crying. “This is my punishment because I’m a crybaby and whiner,” I told myself. I worried our heads might explode too or the killer would return for us.
I returned to the living room and saw Vince lying on the floor with a gaping hole in his head. Just like Anna said, his head exploded. It splattered chunks of his brain all over the place. I killed enough snakes and turtles to know he would not return from this.
Trying to reach for the phone, Anna crawled and climbed onto the couch in what looked like a strange dance. She called 911 and the police came banging on our front door. We made it to the rescue squad station, though it hardly felt like the welcome relief it should have been.
The man who questioned me made me feel how Vince had. It felt like he might use my words against me, and I was the one in trouble. The terror I felt reminded me of a scene in a movie when the criminal heads into the execution room.
My grandma on Vince’s side arrived sometime between the murder and the police interrogation. While they questioned me, her fingers dug deep into my shoulder blades. Her tight grip anchored me in place as the police officer asked me question after question. I do not recall what they said. I simply remember tears running down my cheeks and not stopping.
Once released from the rescue station, grandma’s blue van waited in the parking lot to whisk us away. Early morning set in but the darkness of night still enveloped us. Grandma loaded us into the van. I slid into the back row and did not put on a seatbelt. That van felt posh to me, with its whiteish tan interior and fancy doors. We never owned anything like it.
The sun swelled in the sky as we pulled away from the station. Grandma wanted to get us out of there quickly, desperate to leave behind the night’s events. She came upon the road that led us out of Craigsville. I continued to look back through the rear window.
We left behind the lights, the houses, and the rescue station. Our home where I grew up, raised our dog Ashley’s golden puppies, and ate Martin’s potato chips, seemed so far away. We drove away from our belongings and the memories of Vince. A strange feeling settled in, knowing he could not come with us. It was over.
The house Vince stayed behind in felt more like a jail cell then a haven. The days of running around our endless wraparound porch concluded. I would no longer find solace in Anna’s room, with its purple walls and fruity scent. She left behind her wicked cool lava lamp, which often transported me in my mind from the musty, moldy house we called home. No longer did I have to hide amongst the junk below the stairs, where Vince could not reach me.
I knew, no matter where went now, he could not get me. Our white house of dreams and nightmares became a pinprick in the distance. I watched it for 30 seconds before it disappeared.
I could only see the house for thirty seconds before it disappeared. Grandma’s van passed through, and we made our way to Staunton and to a new life. In some ways, life improved. In others, it remained the same. After leaving Vince’s place, I stayed with my grandma, then with my mom. Living with grandma, I learned the art of silence. She forbade me from talking about Vince, my mom, and especially my brother Chris.
Vince’s family denied the abused us. My grandma blamed my mom and “her horrible son” for Vince’s death. They became enemies to her. While she absolved Vince, who she viewed as pure, she portrayed my mom and brother as evil. I felt unsafe and unnatural talking about my abuse. They wrote it off as a lie.
Sullied by the filth inside and the story attached to it, they tore down our house in Craigsville. It felt like they destroyed what happened to us when they demolished the house. Nothing remained to reveal the true story. Perhaps my grandmother was right about us being crazy.
On one hand, I felt angry. Everyone accepted this “new normal.” I went through so much chaos and craziness, walking on eggshells. Then, suddenly, we had home-cooked meals and a place to play, explore, and be normal kids.
On the other hand, I realized living a normal, boring life was what I wanted. So, I played the part well. Nevertheless, I felt ruined inside – dirtied by what happened to me.
When I realized Chris killed Vince, I felt guilty, like the blood stained my hands too. I grew up in a religious family and used to pray to God to stop the abuse. Naively, I believed one day we could all be together again as a family. I thought God answered my prayers by sending my brother to kill my father. My prayers made it happen and Chris took the punishment for my request. The fault laid upon me.
My grandma wanted Chris to receive the death penalty for murder. I wanted to know why he had to die to save us. The guilt grew inside. It compounded and weighed me down. I wanted and prayed for the abuse to end, but not like this. Chris should not be behind bars in a sterile, cold prison. He gave me the chance to feel warm and safe. I thought of him as pure sunshine.
In high school, I tried to numb my pain by smoking and drinking. Depressed, I planned to kill myself when I went to college as not to hurt the people around me. Eventually, I learned new coping mechanisms from friends in college. I learned to continue on, even when I felt I could not. I began to live, not just survive. No longer would I simply exist.
I quietly advocated for Chris for years to avoid hurting my grandma. I knew she loved me, and I loved her too. Vince, after all, was her son, and Chris is my brother. We both tried to do right by our family.
After my grandma passed away, my voice became louder and louder. I told the public what happened. I began doing interviews, commenting on websites, and sharing Chris’ story with the world. Meanwhile, I lost touch with Vince’s side of the family. I could no longer be their niece, grandchild, or cousin. Instead, they viewed me as the person working to free a monster. My sisters, mother, and I became advocates to free Chris from prison. In 2021, we brought Chris’ story to Dr. Phil, a popular public television show.
I think most kids have superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman. My superhero has always been my brother Chris. Chris could do little to make me feel any less for him.
These days, I try not to move forward too fast in my life. I have my fiancé, but I want to wait to get married until Chris can be there. He should not miss out on the small moments, the big moments, or the moments in between. He already missed so much.
I focus on bringing Chris home before anything else. The rest of the world can wait.
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