The comment was short, to the point: “There is so much more to the Gabby Petito story than we know.” The commentator made the remark in reference to finding out that Gabby had lived with her suspected killer’s family before taking off on that cross-country trip with Brian Laundrie.
That’s the kind of remark I might typically disregard as being obvious were it not for the fact that I’ve spent the past decade working on a murder story in which the public persona of the victim is so vastly different from the facts of the case.
I might have disregarded it had I not just spent months digging into another case in which a young girl was victimized by the legal system simply because the public persona of the young girl was vastly different from the facts.
I might have disregarded it had I not just had a long conversation with another family about a criminal case in which the public persona is vastly different than the facts.
I dare say my public persona is vastly different than the reality my family lives with on a daily basis.
Why is it these things keep taking us by surprise?
People’s lives are messy. Mine is. If I may be so bold, I bet yours is. Certainly, Gabby Petito’s life was messy. So was her suspected killer’s life. And Brian Laundrie’s family is a hot mess. Even the police who suspected Brian of killing Gabby from the get-go are a hot mess.
Having a messy life is not a pre-requisite for being the victim of a violent crime. At times it can be a contributing factor, but here’s what I have learned over the past few years of researching: The more duplicitous our lives, the more difficult the job for those who have to pick up the pieces after our deaths, however that happens.
I think back to a conversation I had some years back with a girlfriend whose husband was in the military. While he was deployed to Afghanistan, she was stateside, working, taking care of house and dogs, and daily life. It was a hard year. She had health issues. She had struggles emotionally and physically. He was only home a short while when one afternoon she discovered him having some sort of medical emergency. He died en route to the hospital. For a year or more, he had been deployed to a war zone and she had worried herself sick with him getting home safely. He gets home and dies from a heart attack. And he was young. His service was beautiful. Her grief intense. Then, a short while later, going through his things, she discovered her husband had been cheating on her. Imagine how that discovery complicated her grief and caused her a whole new level of emotional turmoil. There was no way for her to confront him, to work through things, to pick up the pieces. She was left there, alone in her grief and her outrage, and knowing her husband went to his death bed betraying her.
Lives are messy.
Someone asked me if the family of the murdered girl in the book I recently wrote were on board with the telling of the story.
No, they were not, I replied. They didn’t actually come to me and tell me that. They sent that message to me via my children. They did not and do not want this story told.
It can be a difficult thing to pursue a story that others don’t want you to tell. It can weigh on a person, emotionally and physically. I went through the same thing when I wrote the memoir After the Flag has been Folded. My own mother quit speaking to me for many months. As my sister explained to me during that time, “She doesn’t understand why you have to write this story.”
To be honest, I didn’t understand myself at the time why I had to write it; I just knew it needed to be told. Of course, I had no idea when I was working on the book that we would be at war in Iraq and Afghanistan by the time the book was finished. I had no way of knowing that there would be a whole new generations of Gold Star families. I only knew one thing: Truth matters. And it was the pursuit of that truth – not the public persona of a Gold Star family – that compelled me forward.
Mama came around, of course, when she saw how her struggles gave voice to the struggles of so many widows of the Vietnam war. At her retirement party, her co-workers told me how proud my mother was of me, of my writing. Something she rarely was able to express herself. She loved the connection I made to the veterans their families. While she could not bring herself to go to the Wall in DC or to reach out to the men who served with Dad, she appreciated that I made those connections.
I told her that while I had to write hard things in the memoir, it was important to do so, not to embarrass her or anyone else in the family, but rather to help the American people understand how hard it is for a fallen soldier’s family in the aftermath of such a death.
It was the same thing compelling me forward in the writing of The Murder Gene. The public persona of the victim and the public persona of the killer are one-dimensional in nature. There is a flatness to the image that people have of them both: Good girl vs. Evil fellow. But as every writer knows, that kind of characterization falls flat even in fiction.
The truth is that both lived duplicitous lives. Both had secret lives they hid from their loved ones, out of fear of rejection, out of fear of not being perceived as good people, out of fear of disappointing them. It was those secrets that hampered the investigation, and continues to complicate the grief of those who love them yet.
We are often so busy trying to protect our public personas, it becomes difficult to live authentic lives, or to allow others to live their authentic lives. This is especially true when we weaponize our faith and employ it as a defense mechanism to stop the truth from ever coming forward.
And who can blame us really? Nobody wants to be judged as less than or unworthy, which is, frankly, the whole point of judging others. It is designed for no other purpose than to demean others, to feel justified in thinking less of them.
Whenever I watch that video of Gabby Petito crying, I just want to pull her into the safety of my momma arms and tell her, “It’s okay, honey. You don’t have to pretend anymore. You don’t have to protect him. You need to protect yourself. Just tell the truth.”
I wish the cops had told her that, don’t you?
Karen Spears Zacharias is Gold Star daughter and the author of the forthcoming book The Murder Gene: A True Story (Koehler Press, 2022).