Monday, March 4, 2019

Flashback 1999: Murders in Naperville hit too close to home

Detail of "The Slaughter of the Innocents," Vatican Museum, Rome
   There's a lot of sorrow in the world. As a columnist, I spend a good deal of time processing it for readers, or trying to help them process it, giving voice to something that, I hope, helps somehow. 
     Today is the 20th anniversary of a notorious Naperville crime, when Marilyn Lemak killed her three children. Why? Maybe because she was depressed. That's what she said. Maybe, as prosecutors insisted, she was trying to get back at her ex-husband. I suppose it doesn't matter now. I was curious what I wrote, and this is it: notice the date: 10 days after the crime. Even then, I was a fan of  waiting. A helpful strategy not only in writing, but in life in general. Time is our friend, until it's not.

     The murder of the Lemak children is the sort of crime that echoes. It sneaks into your safe and warm home, folded into a newspaper or leaking through the television, and it stays there, for a good long time. It is an evil vapor, a poison cloud in the corner, which you strain to ignore while trying to figure out how to make it go away.
     The Naperville neighbors, of course, are shocked. But parents in general are also shocked. For all parents, this is not only a hideous crime but also a betrayal of the cause. How could one of us have done this?
     It isn't that children are never murdered. They are. But we have, in the backs of our minds, a filter, a cast of usual suspects we expect to do the deed—selfish 15-year-olds, babbling crack heads, longtime lunatics. We understand it then.  

Marilyn Lemak
    But this one just doesn't fit. Forty-one-year-old Marilyn Lemak, with her cranberry Victorian house and her active-mom schedule, doesn't seem cut out for the role. She's miscast, unqualified, which magnifies the horror of the crime she is charged with committing. So we search, as experienced processors of such terrible stories, for the key that makes this one understandable. To explain it, or rather, to explain it away. To get it out of the house.     
     We could blame the struggle over a divorce, but the evidence is mixed. In the Lemaks' house, a small knife was found plunged through a wedding photo. Yet Mrs. Lemak's attorney said it "seemed like a garden-variety type of divorce," and the couple had worked out visitation and custody.
     We could blame mental illness, though there is a circularity to that reasoning. Anyone who could do such a thing must have been mentally disturbed at the time, obviously. But what about the day before? Or the week before? Was it there all the time and nobody saw it? Or was it not even there?
     That's why this is all so extraordinarily chilling. Being a parent is hard, at times very hard. It flays you down to a single raw nerve. I remember my wife, when our second boy was a sleepless newborn, stepping into the bathroom to pound the radiator and scream, out of exhaustion and frustration. I would have done the same thing, but I was too tired.   

     This is not to say that parenthood is grim. I tell my childless friends, when they survey the wreckage of our formerly elegant lives and ask what the appeal of this intrusion could possibly be, that having a child is like giving somebody the world. Literally, the great big spinning globe, handed over free in a gift box. There are tiring times, but the reward is that you can slap your knee one morning and announce, at your whim, that today carousels will come into being. Then you head down to Navy Pier and plop the boys on a couple of gaily painted horses and take videos while they go up and down, delighted, and if you didn't actually conjure the carousel from thin air yourself, then the result is exactly the same.
     If having a child is like giving somebody the world, then killing a child is like destroying the world. It has the same finality, the same terrible tragedy. The staggering senselessness defies understanding, but we go over it again and again anyway, looking not, I believe, for understanding, but for reassurance. We want to locate a comforting fact that shows us that we ourselves are not capable of this act, that it came from some foreign, alien place, the land of the psychotic. But if a nice soccer mom could just crack, spontaneously, then what is to say that any of us—all nice, all normal—couldn't someday crack, too?
     Our view of these murders is skewed because they happened here, not in France, not in California. They loom huge in our views because they took place down the road, in that nice house, the house everybody aspires to. Proximity means something. The Internet be damned, distance is still real. Half of a sub-Saharan nation can rise up and slaughter the other half, and we don't have the energy to raise a yawn. But even an area as big as the Chicago metro region is still a community. The same identification that lets you feel pride when the Bulls win a championship forces you to feel the proximate horror of this act. As if we all lived on that street.
     Now that understanding is slow in coming, I want to suggest that, if the comforting explanation is finally revealed, we not embrace it too eagerly—that we recognize that the gulf between those who crack and those who carry on is not as wide as we might desire.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 14, 1999


  1. William Manchester, the biographer of JFK, also wrote "The Glory and The Dream"...a two-volume narrative history of America from 1932 to 1972. I seem to remember the mention of a woman (in New Hampshire, I believe) who drowned her children in the late Forties. After being tried and declared insane, she served a number of years in a state mental hospital. Upon her release, she remarried, had several more children, and murdered them the same way in the mid-Sixties.

    I can't recall her name, or else I'd mention it here, mainly so that other readers could find out if anyone ever came up for an explanation beyond severe mental illness. I'd do the digging myself, but it's already too sad and too depressing to pursue any further.

    Lightning often strikes twice...and many more the same place (Empire State Building). Towns (in the South and the Midwest) have been destroyed by tornadoes--and are hit again minutes or months or years later. But shrugging and saying "she just snapped"--twice in about fifteen years? Can't buy it. Some people are just evil...or what used to be called "natural-born killers."

    1. I spent a good deal of additional time trying to research this dice. Not sure of the exact years the murders occurred...or even the state. Manchester's two-volume history was not much help,'s almost 1,700 pages long.

  2. I remember thinking many years ago when I was helping raise my granddaughter, who was a difficult child, how understandable it was that a few parents, some drug addled, some alcohol impaired, some depressives, but others normally kind, considerate and helpful, fly off the handle and throw a child across the room or shake an infant hard enough to damage its brain.
    "It's a wonder," I thought, "that more kids who won't sleep when the should, refuse to wake up when they ought, are never satisfied with whatever clothes you try to dress them in, scream bloody murder in nice restaurants, and puke up whatever fast food they make you buy for them, don't end up in the morgue."

    But to sit back and say, "I'm tired of this kid (these kids) and I'm just going to get rid of them."
    That is something way beyond my ken.


  3. IIRC, that woman kicked her husband out of the house and then became furious when he proceeded to go ahead with his life, finding a girlfriend etc. Despite what her attorney said about her "garden-variety divorce," my take is that she went into despair once she realized how badly she had screwed herself over--a 41-year-old woman with three kids and no husband, and with no one but herself to blame for her situation. This morphed into homicidal rage.

    I'm guessing she'd probably had anger issues for a long time. Was she crazy? Who knows. I've found that the line between being a jerk and being crazy is often blurry. IIRC, a few years ago the Sun-Times published an interview with her in which she offered up the whiny self-justification common to murderers.

    In case you haven't guessed, I have no sympathy, or even empathy, for this woman.

    1. I don't know the stats, but I'm guessing that men do this kind of thing more often than women. They can't get at their estranged wife, so they kill the kids and themselves. One guy that I know of made sure he took his wife's cat in the car with himself when he started the car in a closed garage.


  4. "Men can get used to anything, the scoundrels." Crime and Punishment.

    Still, the first responders had a good deal to get over.

    There was no evidence of 'homicidal rage.' A professional nurse, she medicated and then suffocated them one at a time. Then turned herself in.


    1. "Homicidal rage" doesn't necessarily mean you slash someone dozens of times or bash their heads in with a hammer. You can be as methodical and calm in your murdering as someone buying groceries, but the rage is still there.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.