Inspire Me –One the Wiser
By J.Z. Bingham
171 pages, Questions for Author Interview
Interviewed by: S. Marie Vernon, Pacific Book Review
Welcome, Ms. Bingham.
We are here to discuss your trilogy, the Inspire Me – One the Wiser Series.
PBR: The year was 1980. You should have had a great life ahead of you; you were a 17-year-old student at New York University. Just as you were about to spread your wings and fly a terrible thing happened to you. Your sister called you and announced that your mother had just shot and killed your father and then turned the gun on herself. Obviously, shocked and shaken, how did you cope with this tragedy in coming days, weeks and years, or your life?
JZB: Thank you. The short answer is I became numb and stoic. I didn’t cry; I tried but couldn’t. I didn’t speak much for months. A disbelief set in immediately because I never experienced death before, except for high school friends dying in car accidents. But those incidents, while shocking and sad, seemed remote because they happened to other people, not to me.
I was never offered grief counseling; not by my father’s lawyer, nor the County Treasurer who became the executor of the estate, nor those at NYU who were notified of the tragedy. As a result, I became reluctant to talk about it because, every time I did, people seemed to treat me like an alien from another planet. They simply didn’t know how to deal with such a devastating act. I became a hollow shell of a human being, coasting through the tedium of day-to-day survival, led along by others who, I still believe, had selfish motives because of my loneliness and vulnerability.
A new job led to my meeting the man I eventually married in 1982. It was at this time when nurturing and love slowly transformed me into a happier, almost normal young woman. In spite of this, my grief was simply buried. The anger and frustration from a lack of closure caused numerous intermittent periods of unrest for the next 30 years. By not having therapy early, I continued to place blame on myself. Also, every time I showed frustration and anger, those closest to me would draw parallels to my mother, insinuating I carried this “crazy gene.” This only led me to continue running away from it until I finally found the love and unconditional support I always wanted, by my daughter and the man I love.
PBR: How old were you when you, seriously, started to collect your writings with the idea that they were helping you to cope with your situation and helping you to heal.
JZB: My effort to collect and elaborate on the lessons of my life began in earnest at the beginning of 2012, well into my forties. Starting as a teenager, I regularly wrote my thoughts on snippets of paper and in journals. Those thoughts began as idealogical manifestos of teenage arrogance but, over the years, became more personal because I then had something real and painful to ponder. But because these writings were tinged with bitterness and frustration, I got into the bad habit of periodically destroying them. I didn’t want anyone to discover them and learn my pain. Ultimately, I wanted to write about happier things.
I began to write a children’s story a couple of years ago to take my mind off my mid-life crisis. That’s when I discovered my ability to write long rhymes. I met someone late last year who inspired me to write him a rhyme, a serious one about myself. This poem was so bittersweet it was evident to both of us there was still a lot of pain inside me. Feeling cleansed from the unrest of the past few years, and having my boyfriend’s support, I was determined to get everything out on paper. I started writing down lesson after lesson, from a seeming vault in my mind that suddenly swung open. These became the inspirational thoughts that are included in the One the Wiser books. There are almost 400 of them; some are actually silly and funny. The serious thoughts then begged for elaboration as to their origins. That was like turning on a spigot: every day I sat down to write, and it seemed new channels in my mind opened to reveal yet another memory of my painful past. I started to connect the dots and show an actual timeline of healing. Seeing this timeline develop on paper made me realize I was now removed from my past. My healing was finally complete.
The exercise of writing Part I of the trilogy made me feel so much lighter that Part II became longer in narrative, and the thoughts became condensed into a smaller sampling of lessons. This book contains the meatiest part of my story because I was able to go very deep into the relationships that comprised my life till now. Part II reads more like a novel told in first person. I write with complete honesty, with candid self-analysis. What would be the point in doing it any other way, for both me and the reader? I’m no longer ashamed of my past. In fact, the turmoil in our world today makes me feel it’s time to bring the pain of tragedy out into the open. Why should we, the victims, have to face these things only when the perpetrators force us to? Survivors need to speak out so others can become aware of the warning signs displayed by the hate-filled zealots of the world. And believe me, there are always warning signs.
PBR: Were you angry during this time? Who, exactly, did you blame the most for your traumatic situation? Were you angry at God? Did you have periods of depression as well? Did your writing help you to rid yourself of this blame, anger and depression?
JZB: Yes I was angry; and very hurt. Unfortunately, I carried this anger for almost 30 years. At first, just before they died, I blamed my father for my mother’s depression which, ultimately, led to her desperate act. He seemed to disappear from our life just before I went to college. My feelings of abandonment began that summer. Even after the tragedy, I felt my father let his guard down and made himself vulnerable. I felt she displayed enough warning signs to both him and others that this whole thing should never have happened. I first felt sorry for my mother because she seemed heartbroken and lost. Over the next year, however, living in the hell her act created for me, my anger shifted solidly toward my mother because she took both their lives, not just her own.
I didn’t blame God because I grew up without faith. By the time they died, it seemed no use to turn to God for, if He did exist, why did He let this happen? My life was a struggle even before the tragedy. Faith afterward seemed pointless. Also, since you bring up the question of God, let me ask a question: Did no church read the headlines of the newspapers in our small community? Where were God’s representatives in 1980? Why didn’t any one of them step in to offer God’s word to help me and my sister to heal? There was silence. I found God only recently and I have faith now, but only after realizing the struggles of my past can perhaps help others deal with the pain of today.
As far as depression goes, it set in that first year in the form of numb apathy. Once I got married, it lifted as I kept busy with married life, work and going back to college. Depression again entered my life in my early 40‘s due to the onset of premature menopause. I discuss this in greater detail in Part II of the trilogy. No one expected this at my age so my “depression” snowballed into a real fear that I was turning into my mother. By the time it was properly diagnosed and corrective measures were taken, my second marriage fell apart and my daughter went on to college. Being alone again brought me right back into a state of despair about life.
This last depression from the empty-nest syndrome was a doozy, but I’m glad to say it’s finally over. My faith in God now is strong because I can see that my past pain didn’t prevent me from finding true love, becoming wise for my age, having a wonderful daughter, and being able to write about difficult things with the possibility of inspiring others who may have some parallels in their lives. Writing these books, both for adults and for children, has proven itself to be the most gratifying way to heal. I look forward to writing every single day.
PBR: In the US, there is no agency that currently tracks the number of murder-suicides that occur. The Violence Policy Center in Washington does scour the internet for this information. http://hamptonroads.com/2012/01/record-number-murdersuicides-here-l.... They estimate there are 1,000 to 1,500 people who die in murder-suicides each year. About 94% of these are men who kill their intimate partners. That leaves a very small percent of women who kill their intimate partners. In fact, it has been stated that women will kill their children and then themselves before they kill their husbands. Did you or your sister ever feel that you were in danger from your mother? Was your sister at home the day your mother killed your father?
JZB: This is a very interesting and perceptive question. No, I never felt I was in danger while she was alive. The two times she committed violent acts against my father, my sister and I were not home. At the time of the murder/suicide, I was back at NYU and it was a weekday so my sister was at high school. She realized something was wrong when my mother didn’t pick her up. Our lawyer’s wife got her and took her home. My sister ran upstairs immediately and discovered their bodies. Not until 30 years later, did I learn she sensed a rising tension building at home; to the point where she expected to find what she did that day and was actually relieved it was over. I can’t imagine why she kept this to herself, back before they died and for years after. This “look-the-other-way” attitude borders on complicity, of which many were guilty, law enforcement and court-appointed psychiatrists included.
I often wondered what would have happened if I had not been away at school. In hindsight, I believe my mother felt my sister and I were beyond her control and, therefore, not within the scope of her revenge. She was never a nurturing mother, and showed little compassion for others. She was so wrapped up in her own world, I believe she simply didn’t care enough about her daughter’s honor to include them in her act of violence. There is no doubt this was an “honor killing.” The fact that she committed the act with secret premeditation that must have taken weeks to plan, and did it when she could be alone with my father, indicates the extent of her self-absorbed righteousness. For that I’m grateful.
To your point about women instigating murder/suicides against their children more so than against their intimate partners, my mother would have made an excellent subject for in-depth psychiatric evaluation. All I know about the psychology of some famous cases of women, like Andrea Yaeger, seem to point to postpartum depression, and they tend to spare themselves and their husbands for some reason. The depression that took hold of my mother was deep-rooted and aggravated by prescription sedatives. Her condition went undiagnosed, even by my father who, as a doctor, should have seen the signs. I have no explanation; only regret that so many neglected to step in.
PBR: What is your thought about guns in the home since you’ve had to live through this kind of nightmare?
JZB: That is a complicated issue and, unfortunately, still very timely. In the wake of the recent shootings in Aurora and Oak Park, there is a certain validity to the argument that if more people are armed, those intent on murder may be stopped or the extent of the damage they cause can be mitigated. In my own experience, I feel the ease by which my mother was able to obtain a gun, even after she was arrested and released on attempted murder the summer before they died, certainly contributed to the deadly act. The more difficult it would have been for her to purchase a rifle, the less likely she would have committed murder, in my view.
Personally, I am terrified of guns. My father had a rifle in our home for protection because we a had large and lavish home on a desolate back road in the woods. (This gun was removed after my mother’s first attempt on his life, for which she used our landscaper’s axe for some reason.) He was an experienced shooter, having done military service before medical school. He let me shoot the rifle once in the backyard and it terrified me with its deadly backfire of force. I could never touch a gun again. Years later, my daughter, only six years old at the time, discovered a gun in the drawer of my husband’s side table. She picked it up and asked, “Mom, what’s this?” I leaped up and grabbed it from her hands and my trembling didn’t stop for hours, even after my husband assured me it was only a bebe gun for shooting at squirrels.
The potential for deadly accidents from guns in the home, for me, outweighs the protection they offer in the rare instance I would need it. I’m more willing to take my chances and not have one. There are other potential weapons in the home that I would turn to, like a frying pan, a wine bottle, or a cell phone call to 911. Those are all preferable options for me.
PBR: Ms. Bingham, you have healed your life to the point you can discuss openly the particulars of such a personal and horrible event. Do you see yourself becoming more of a spokesperson for others who have experienced this type of tragedy? Possibly leading seminars, workshops, or leading support groups, in your area or even around the country, for victims of murder-suicide?
JZB: In a word, absolutely! I know full well how difficult a topic this is to discuss with others. If I had some support years ago from people who could help me process the gut-wrenching feelings of guilt, blame, abandonment, and despair that this act placed on my life for so long, I firmly believe I could have reached where I am today much faster. As you pointed out in your previous question, this is a rare crime, but it does exist, as do senseless random acts of murder. The hard lessons learned from my 30 years are all being put out there in my trilogy. In fact, they are so numerous and intricate, it took three books to tell the story.
I think it’s a shame that victims of violent crimes, murder/suicide in particular, are still treated at arms distance. Most people are sympathetic but invariably someone will look at me like I have two heads or something. This is like rubbing salt into the wound. The worst thing a victim can do is keep this hell private. Only time and discussion can help alleviate the pain. My preferred method is group therapy. In today’s world, this could be done via the Internet. I’m starting a blog to discuss anything my readers want to share. This could be a starting point for anyone who needs to vent and get some validation for personal loss of any kind. The life lessons I share are not limited to murder/suicide. Loss is loss.
PBR: For anyone who has experienced a murder-suicide of their parents what do you think is the first thing they might do to help themselves? Especially, if they’re young like you were?
JZB: If they have any family left, cling to them. Stay together as a family and get through the initial pain as a loving unit. The worst thing the adults in charge did in my case was to keep my 15-year old sister under their care and leave me at 17 in New York City. They may have put a roof over her head and fed her and took her to school but she suffered greatly from abandonment. I discuss this in greater detail in Part II of the trilogy. What we needed was to be together and lean on each other.
The other important thing is to start grief counseling as soon as possible. In my case, I was numb and I couldn’t even shed a tear. I didn’t want to talk about it, but I know now from experience that it’s better to talk about it early rather than waiting. It will never go away until you go through the painful but cathartic process of talking. In my experience, talking one-on-one to a therapist was not effective. A group setting which included others who suffered from personal tragedy of any kind offered the solace, validation, and compassion that helped me open up and see that I was not alone in personal suffering.
It’s very important for young people to dive into the healing process early. If they don’t, the feelings of guilt and despair may lead them to test their own mortality with the use of mind-numbing drugs and alcohol. These will only deepen their depression and may lead to attempted suicide. People need to wake up and offer help to anyone they know who suffers from tragedy.
PBR: As an author, you also write children’s, rhyming screenplays. Tell us about the themes in these screenplays.
JZB: These are extremely fun to write because rhyming is quite a challenge and it becomes funny when you realize you’re reading a whole story and every two lines rhymes. It’s both entertaining and educational, and very gratifying for me when children and teacher’s give positive feedback from our testing of the current book. The themes contain traditional values of family, rules and consequences for actions. The characters are all animals in these stories; the main characters will be recurring in subsequent titles but I’ll be adding new characters in each book.
The first book is called Gansevort, which is the name of the fictional island on which they have their adventure, and the name of the King who controls this island. Along the way rules are broken, challenges are faced, and lessons are learned. There is a bit of a rogue element to many of the characters and I suppose this reflects my own rebellious nature. But like me, they all have heart and are sensitive to each other’s needs and ultimately strive to do the right thing.
My publisher calls it a “screenplay” because it’s a mix of narrative and character dialogue, all of which rhymes. Gansevort is rather long and, depending on the layout, which is currently being done, it will be between 68 and 76 pages. But it’s illustrated with wonderful hand-drawn vibrance by Curt Walstead and these drawings make the “screenplay” come alive and make you want to turn the page to see what happens next. It’s been well received by our small test group and I believe children as young as three and as old as eight will enjoy this book.
One of the important attributes about Gansevort is the playfully challenging rhyme which makes story time fun for the adult reader as well as the child. Also, knowing every last word of stanza pairings rhymes makes it a bit easier for a young reader to learn new words. The rhyme has a lyrical beat that makes it easier to remember and recite. All of these things improve reading comprehension and add incentive to read. More reading means more learning.
We hope to release it Fall 2012 in hard cover and e-book formats, and will move into the development phase of an interactive i-Pad app for Summer 2013.
PBR: After you r Inspire Me-One the Wiser Series is completed, do you anticipate any more healing books like these or will you concentrate on writing that has lighter messages like those in the children’s screenplays you are publishing now?
JZB: There will be more true stories of human perseverance in the Inspire Me series. I wanted to set an example for the theme of this series by initially introducing my own story. My publisher is currently looking into the stories of other’s, which I could help write if assistance is needed. My next project is the second children’s book, which we hope to introduce next Fall. Aside from these, I have always wanted to write adult fiction. Sometime next year, I hope to start on this kind of project. Also, I have a weird sense of humor about life and relationships, and am contemplating a more lighthearted, comedic novel in the future.
PBR: If you could leave your readers with only one great message from your Inspire Me-One the Wiser Trilogy, what would that message be?
JZB: I suppose the message to be gained from my trilogy is for all of us to open our eyes to our own humanity. Lose the hate and bitterness that can so easily permeate our souls and learn to have some tolerance and compassion for the next human being you encounter. We all have stories; burdens to bear. If we try to appreciate that fact, and give each other the benefit of the doubt before we jump to judgement, we lessen our own load. Also, think about the legacy you leave while you are young; don’t wait until death looms to start touching others.
PBR: Ms. Bingham, thank you for your interview today. You are truly an inspiring woman. And, good luck with each of the books that yo