Six years after her murder, I still sometimes dream of my sister Laura as a kind of living ghost; pale, weak, perhaps mortally wounded. She is in a stateof shock, humiliated by invisible stigmata, and ; her connection to life is frail. Yet she is still Laura, however drained and demoralized. She might be saved. For this possibility we, her family, are filled with the same awful gratitude that must have greeted Lazarus’ rising, In life, our amazement went in the other direction.
Laura Ellen Weaver was 24 on the night of October 24,1977. A small woman, dressed in white I pajamas, she sat writing on a legal pad in the basement family room of our parents’ house in Arlington, Virginia. She was trying to sort out what was happening with her attempt to end her i relationship with the man who had been her lover and suitor over the year. Her efforts to I break things off didn’t to be working. She was bad at confrontation, she had told a friend the-day before, and John was adept at circumventing final scenes.
A tap at the window interrupted her. It was John, using the method they employed when the rest of the householdóour parents and our younger sisters, Becky and Catyóhad gone to bed. Laura let him in at the kitchen door and the two stood talking quietly. She had no way of knowing that hidden in John’s jacket pocket was a;, knife he had brought from his house.
Visit the evidence box. Here are the burial objects disentombed from a cardboard carton: the police photographs, at which I do not look; the knife found on the kitchen floor; John’s dictating machine; and the maudlin tape recording.
There is something of Laura present in the fine red dust sealed in plastic envelopes, in the sight of her black pen. She has even left a last bulletin, the note she was writing when John tapped at the window. I read it on the yellow legal pad:
Not exactly a journal, this, but perhaps it will serve the same function: to clarify, organize, release. I’m feeling like I must be a hopeless neurotic-tomorrow is the day I’ll call the doctor.
I talked to John. He was quiet, gentle, talked incessantly, almost hypnotically. He came to many “startling” realizations about himself this weekend, and just knew on the basis of these fresh insights that we could work things out. I stood firm. I’ve heard this before. One of us has to do it, John, 1 said, and distasteful as I find it, it’s got to be me. The conversation ended with what sounded to me like a suicide threat: “I just want you to remember one thing about me, Laura, that I don’t blame you for anything. I know I’ve destroyed our relationship.”
“You don’t think he’ll kill me, do you?” she had said lightly, embarrassedly, when a friend dropped her off that night.
It was hard to believe, even after it happened, that a woman-feminist by conviction, perceptive, not naiveócould lose her life because she had rejected a man. Yet many women and teen-aged girls are murdered in this country each year for that reason. The phenomenon is so common as to be almost invisible. Few people realize that male fears of rejection and loss of dominance are major factors in the murders of women. In one of the few studies of the phenomenon, researchers characterized more than 60 percent of husband-wife killings as “sex-role-threat homicides.”
These are stereotyped killings. The mass media either lump them together as generic “domestic” violence or romanticize them individually as tragic “crimes of passion” resulting from the killer’s almost laudable, if excessive, capacity for love. The first submerges the sex-specificity of these killings; the second, their vindictiveness. For these are tactical murders, with no more relation to love than rape has to desire. The “passion” is for possession, control, winning.
And the killings achieve their ends. Whatever happens to the killer, however many or few years he spends in jail, in that very intimate struggle, it was his will that prevailed, hers that was defeated.
“Woman Dies in Lovers’ kill Quarrel.” The headline in the suburban paper made it sound like spontaneous combustion. To The Washington Post, it fell into the sordid-domestic category: a stabbing in a kitchen. Four paragraphs, buried in the city pages. But “during an argument”? She, a “topographer”?
There was no argument, and Laura, who worked as a typographer, had as her epitaph a newspaper typo. She would have liked that, and the Nabokovian joke that sent Officers Sweet, Flowers and Rimer to the bloody, glaring kitchen of love-gone-wrong. If he couldn’t have her, then no one else could. A stereotyped death, fixing her forever in someone else’s banal design.
Her murder incriminates her. It goes without saying that her offenses were sexual, emotional, the crimes of a woman. Murder has reduced her, not just to victim, but to guilty victim. Detective Robert Carrig knew. “Your sister had been around a little bit now, hadn’t she?” “She was playing games.” “She had a nice figure.” He must have noted it at her autopsy.
Laura was small, broad-shouldered, with long, sexy legs. She had a jaunty elegance that sat atop her basic awkwardness like a hat at a rakish angle. Her eyes held light or swallowed it, and ranged from star-tlingly blue to gray. She was punctilious in her dress and make-up: rarely pretty enough for herself.
At 24, Laura had spent most of the preceding two and a half years living at home, in a city where she had few friends, working at a temporary job that had become permanent. She had never learned to drive. An attempt at college, in the small town in upstate New York where the family had once lived and she had grown up, had been a disaster. An ardent, critical reader with a passion for books and language, she has failed two courses in poetry. She had been paralyzed at the thought of revealing* herself in the required writing exercises.
She had dropped out of school, working at menial jobs and spending roisterous evenings with the local literary crowd. She began to fear that she might be prone to alcoholism and depression. A psychologist told her that she defined herself sexually and “downgraded herself as a person.”
She came home, to where our parents now lived. Here she would be safe while she mustered her nerve. “I am scared of going to college, afraid of deciding on a ‘career,'” she wrote to a friend. “What it boils down to is that I’m afraid of beginning my life, thereby committing myself to its end. Highly irrational, since I’m not in a state of suspended time by doing nothing.”
Only in the last few months of her life did she begin seriously planning. to resume her “real” life. On her 24th birthday, she jokingly quoted a line from an Anthony Powell novel to describe her state: “Senile decay seemed already to have laid its hand on him while he was still in the grip of arrested development.”
Riverboat Gambler / You can defy all the odds / You can draw diamonds to fill out your flush / You can find someone to trust. And I won’t steal your chips / I won’t steal your pride / Won’t you take me on faith / Won’t you let me inside. Riverboat Gambler / Under our velvet and lace / You’re an old vagabond, I’m a poor waif / Let’s make a place that’s safe.
Laura met John O’Neill in the summer of 1976, when he made a sales call to her office at the Organization of American States in downtown Washington, D.C. John sold electronic typesetting equipment. His commissions were large and he was ebullient, self-assured, ambitious.
Laura’s attraction to John speeded up her break with her boyfriend of 18 months, the first man with whom she had lived. In late summer, she moved out of the apartment she and Lalo had shared for nine months and back into our parents’ home. Lalo telephoned repeatedly, weeping and begging her to come back. He frightened the family by parking outside the house one night and following the car in which Laura left. Happily, the calls ceased in a week.
John pursued Laura extravagantly and singlemindedly. He took her to expensive restaurants and sent her flowers and gifts. Almost immediately, he asked her to marry him.
“My, he has a horrible smile,” remarked my grandmother after meeting John.
“I can’t stand him. He has fascist instincts and he is a fascist,” said my mother to my father.
“Who is this middle-aged man and what is he doing in our living room?” wondered 17-year-old Becky, who could see no connection between John O’Neill and the romantic suitor of Laura’s stories, the one she sang about when she sang along with Carly Simon.
I met John at a family Sunday dinner, about six weeks after Laura started going out with him. He was a brown-haired man in his early 30s, but looked older. He had a relentless smile; with his arched eyebrows and crescent eyes, it made him look to me like a jack-o’-lantern. He was dressed with aggressive formality in a black pinstriped suit, complete with vest, gold tie pin and watch chain. Already a frequent visitor, he must have known that everyone else would be in jeans.
Yet John acted not as if he felt overdressed, but as if the rest of the group, or the occasion itself, was not up to his style. He stood in the center of the room, talking animatedly, rattling the change in his pockets. He
radiated an artificial bonhomie that was edged all around with contemptófor us and for Laura. He was like a stage villain who comes to foreclose and stays to seduce the ringleted daughter. The way he called me “sweetie” and “dear” only pretended to be casual; he knew before he said it that I wouldn’t like it. In the same way, he acted as if his control of Laura was effortless, complete, not even conscious.
I lived only 25 minutes from my family’s house, and Lauraówho was just a year younger than Iówas very close to me. Yet I could not imagine who she saw when she looked at John, how she could be so deaf to the contempt in his voice, or, most incredibly, why she was acting like his passive wife. The magnitude of her delusion was chilling. All there was to do was to wait very quietly for it to go away.
Laura broke up with him before Thanksgiving, annoyed with his bossiness and pressure for marriage. John told her that her refusals to commit herself on the question only showed how her parents dominated her. But in a pattern that was repeated over the year, he called and apologized. He had been wrong to press marriage so soon, he said. Within a couple of weeks, their relationship resumed.
John was going to be rich, with a life like a Chivas Regal ad, except that he never drank. He dismissed his $30,000 income as paltry, but he was perversely proud of his huge debts. All of his tastes and attitudes seemed to emanate from his Gatsby-like vision of the upper classes. He was fond of squash and sailing, the ballet and the symphony. He liked to bait my liberal family with his reactionary politics. All killers should be executed, he told Laura and our parents at the conclusion of a television documentary on capital punishment. Re-
habilitation was a sham; he knew from experience how prisoners learned to con the system. “You can kill anyone and be out in five years,” he said.
John had had a terrible childhood. His father had died when John was six. His mother had suffered from a severe drinking problem. The family–John had two sisters–had been poor, and John had been in and out of reform schools throughout his teens.
He had also served time in prison in his early 20s for offenses that were vague: car theft or check kiting or embezzlement. “White collar” was the phrase he used, as if even his crimes had to be upwardly mobile. That was all far behind him, although he remained proud of his fund of criminal knowledge. He told my mother that he knew how to break into houses.
John quit his job in July over a salary issue. He was filled with plans for starting his own company, Electronic Publishing Systems. In the meantime, he began to borrow money from Laura and to talk about declaring bankruptcy to abolish his debts, which amounted to $18,000.
Laura, meanwhile, was at last seriously planning to go back to school. The writing program at the University of Iowa was her half-secret ambition; she said she might go there first as an undergraduate. John immediately sent away for catalogs, hinting that he would go with her, but it was clear to Laura that the relationship was ending. She was becoming more confident, more certain about what she wanted. She was even learning to drive.
John’s bad temper worsened as it became clear that all his strategies were failing. His hatred of losing had been apparent all year; now his outbursts and sulks grew frequent. Laura told our parents, who were growing impatient with the drawn-out ending and with John’s constant, surly presence, that she was ending the relationship in her own way, in her own time.
One night in early October, Laura and our parents argued about John for the first time, and all their ill-concealed loathing for him spilled out. They said he was manipulative, sexist, boring, cold-blooded, humorless. My father recalled the fight shortly after the murder:
“I remember telling her that there was nothing to John, that he was hollow and shallow. I told her that John didn’t love her, that John didn’t love any women, that all John was interested in was victory and winning, that he never referred to her by name: she was always ‘babe,’ ‘honey,’ ‘dolly.’ He didn’t know her name; he didn’t know the name of any women.”
“My deepest impulse is to flee,” Laura wrote to a friend. “I feel trapped, paralyzed and powerless, and despise myself for at least the last two of these emotions… My parents say that John is controlling me, robbing me of my self-confidence and self-esteem, wearing me down… Yes, John is many of the things they mentioned (not all). He is also, or used to be, imbued with other qualities. Something attracted me to him and still does, though not as frequently or as strongly. The relationship has been winding down of its own accord. I want a rational end to it, not another Lalo scene.”
The day before Laura got her driver’s license, on October 12, she wrote a friend that “it appears that my yearlong entanglement, love affair, friendship and neurotically dependent relationship with John has ended.” She went out that week with a man she had known slightly for several months. The next week, he invited her to go to the mountains with him and some friends of his over the upcoming three-day weekend. John had wanted her to go to dinner with him and his mother, who was visiting, but he and Laura had fought on the phone the day before and he hadn’t called back to make plans. When he telephoned Friday night, as Laura was preparing to leave, he tried to mask his anger with a show of concern: he questioned the wisdom of going away for the weekend with a man she hardly knew. “See you in the mountains,” John said finally and then hung up.
As Laura and her friend talked and walked in the woods that weekend, it seemed to him that Laura dreaded more than a confrontation. He asked her if John had ever been violent toward her or if she thought he was capable of violence. Laura answered that John had pushed her a couple of times, hard enough to frighten her, she said, but had not actually hurt her, and she hadn’t thought of it as “violence.” She didn’t answer the second part of his question.
As they drove up to the house on Monday night, Laura saw John’s car idling in the driveway. “Drive on by,” she said, panicked. But John had recognized her. “I’m so embarrassed. I’m so embarrassed,” he told Becky, when he telephoned for Laura a few minutes later. He had been waiting in the driveway for Becky to bring out a tape he had dropped off that morning for Laura. When she had not returned by evening, he told Becky that Laura didn’t “deserve” to hear it.
Laura was home the next time John called, at around midnight. After speaking with him, she told her mother and Becky that she didn’t want to be melodramatic but that John seemed to be threatening suicide. They had agreed to talk again the next day.
John had called an old friend at 5:45 that evening, a woman named Leslie, with whom he had remained friends after breaking off with her a couple of years before. “He said he and Laura were not doing very well,” Leslie recounted in a police interview two months later. “He said, ‘It’s a long story .. . the essence of it is that I want to marry her and she doesn’t want to marry me. I want to put my life together. I want the little house on the hill with a fence and a couple of kids. She says she wants her independence; she wants to live her own life for awhile.'”
“I’m so mixed up,” John told Leslie. “I don’t even have any sex drive any longer. When I’m not in control, when I’m not on top, when I’m not the dominant person in the relationship, I can’t have sexual relations.”
John also told Leslie that he had visited a gun store to buy a gun with which to kill Laura and himself, but that when the store owner went to get the gun, he had suddenly realized what he was doing and had run out of the store. Leslie asked him why he would want to kill Laura. “Because I hate her,” he answered.
Leslie called John back half an hour later. She told him that he needed therapy. She offered to fly up from Florida or to call someone to take care of him. He told her he was O.K. and that she had given him a lot to think about. He told her not to worry.
Riverboat Gambler / Hiding that ace up your sleeve / I can see through all that debonair style / The irony bending your smile. And I won’t tip your hand / I won’t do you in / I want to stay near you / I want you to win.
“I am writing this over a tape that I was going to send you this afternoon that explained some…feelings that I had…when the storm clouds cleared away for a while and I was thinking a little bit on the lucid side… . This has not been easy for me at all this week…it’s been very painful. I tried not to sit around here and mope. As a matter of fact, I drove all the way to Massachusetts on Friday night, spent Saturday up there and drove back on Sunday. Waited for your call…
“While I was up there on the beach…things sort of came together….I now have an understanding of the worthlessness that I carried around with me and the…distrust and anger and hatred that I generate… . There was an old boat there, washed up on shore. I thought, God, how appropriate, the nautical motif. I’ve sailed a couple of oceans over the last years. I’ve sailed them in wooden boats and I’ve sailed another kind of ocean, this life ocean…and there are some interesting parallels to be drawn, I think, between the way we move through life and the way the sailor moves through the ocean… .
“The fact that you have to keep your boat in shape is well understood by any sailor. It has to be in absolute perfection to tackle the oceans. The sea is the proverbial cruel mistress. The same is true of your body boat or mind boat: it has to be in top shape.
“I had managed to maintain the gloss on my mind boat, but the inside is just rotten… . I’ve been doing that all my life, just bouncing around from port to port or situation to situation and just not ever getting rid of the
diseases. They just piled up and up. So by this time, I’m charting a…zigzag…across an ocean and I’m carrying a boatload of death for everything I touch.
“I’m sorry I touched you with that. God, I am so sorry… . My boat has had a few mates along its cruel course and…some of them needed their own way to go…but I was a hard master and an unreasonable master…
“The boat has got to sink…the cold dark water, God, it will almost seem like a blessing….I don’t want anyone to think they had anything to do with the ship going down. It’s the master’s fault: he just never repaired those cracks….God, I wish I knew, I wish…I knew a way to…I wish I knew…another way…but I don’t.”
(–from the tape in the evidence box)
John took a knife from his kitchen and the paper bag containing the new tape he had made and his dictating machine. He walked outside and drove his Volkswagen Rabbit to my family’s house, five minutes away. He usually parked in front. That night, although the street was deserted, he parked around the corner, a block away. It was a little before one in the morning, a cool clear night.
Not realizing that anyone was up, my father went downstairs to turn off the kitchen light and interrupted Laura and John as they stood talking. “Hi, Daddy,” Laura said. She was leaning against the wall, barefoot, and her voice was light and affectionate.
“Mike, how are you?” said John with unusual warmth, smiling pleasantly.
“I’m very tired, John,” my father replied. “Why don’t you go home now, and you and Laura can talk this over tomorrow,” he said, leaving the kitchen.
He was just getting back into bed when he heard Laura cry out.
My father caught Laura as she staggered across the kitchen, bleeding from stab wounds in her nose, lips, chest, back, arms, hand, abdomen and thighs. She sagged in his arms next to the open kitchen door. Framed under the streetlight, running down the middle of the street, was John. “How could you do this to her?” my father shouted, but John did not hear or answer if he did. He kept running until he disappeared around the corner.
Laura was absurdly polite as she lay dying. She thanked the orderly who lifted her from the back seat of our parents’ car. She courteously, firmly, corrected the police officer who got her name wrong. She whispered–she was not able to speak–to my mother that she was sorry.
John had stabbed Laura 15 times in the 30 seconds after my father had left the kitchen. Perhaps he held her. There was no sound, and except for two wounds on her right hand, all the wounds were on the left side of her body. Two chest wounds were five inches deep. One had cut into the pulmonary vein and the aorta. The wound in her nose continued one and a half inches through her upper lip and penetrated the lower. She had been stabbed four times in her left thigh. One of the wounds was three inches deep. She had been stabbed twice in the back.
It was impossible. She was bleeding too much, too fast. The doctors could not stanch the bleeding inside her chest well enough to begin surgery.
She died at about 2:25 in the morning.
I gave her the tape and just started arguing with her. I told her that… there was no way that I could go on and not see her and…I thought it was mean of her to go away for the weekend with somebody else….I told her that I wanted her to listen to what was on the tape and that I was going, I was gonna leave and…would never see her again…and would she, I wanted to, just wanted to hold her…and she pushed at me, pushed me in the door…no harm done…She said she just couldn’t and I cut her.”
“Why did you bring the knife with you from the car?”
“I was gonna kill myself to make her understand those things I felt…I wanted to hurt her by making her watch me suffer because she didn’t see me suffer on the weekend that she wasn’t there.”
“Then can you tell me why you cut her? Instead of yourself?”
“I don’t know.”
(–from the tape of John O’Neill’s confession to Detective Carrig at 5:30 a.m., October 25, 1977, about three hours after he turned himself in)
John’s trial for first-degree murder lasted two and a half days. Advised by his court-appointed lawyer that juries can be capricious in sentencing, John chose to be tried before a judge. The proceedings were never transcribed, and so the only printed record of them is in reports carried by the Northern Virginia Sun:
Defense attorney Thomas McKit-trick tried to paint a picture of O’Neill as a man coming apart at the seams, grabbing at threads to hold himself together, but eventually popping loose. McKittrick also attempted to show that his client had not planned Weaver’s death in advance and that he had intended to commit suicide.
“Despite what anyone says to the contrary, I had meant to kill myself
that night… with the knife,” O’Neill testified.
When asked directly in court by prosecuting attorney Helen Fahey whether he had killed Weaver, O’Neill gave evasive answers, responding only that that was what he told police in his confession.
“I have so many scenes going through my mind, and I can’t distinguish one from another. I never wanted Laura to die. I never intended to hurt her,” he said.
…During his testimony, O’Neill said the story he told [his former girlfriend, Leslie] about the gun was from a dream that he had over the previous weekend, when he went to Cape Cod with some friends.
“I was trying to explain to her what I had done over the weekend,” O’Neill said. “I told her I had a dream or something about going in and trying to buy a shotgun or rifle.
“1 had to tell her It was a dream…because I knew it was a dream,” he said under cross-examination from Fahey.
O’Neill said he tried to commit suicide at his home. He said he turned out the pilot lights on the stove and furnace, turned on the gas and went to bed.
However, he awoke later feeling sick and decided not to try to kill himself, he said.
He testified that he made another tape recording for Weaver, took a knife from his kitchen and went to her home, where she had finally arrived.
…O’Neill said under questioning by his attorney that it was late at night and that he hadn’t expected anyone to be awake at the house…
O’Neill said he planned to leave the tape recorder and tape on the back porch, where it would be found the next day by Weaver.
But during cross-examination by the prosecution, Fahey questioned why O’Neill would take the knife if he expected everyone to be asleep.
In his confession to police, O’Neill had said he went to the house to kill himself in front of Weaver “to make her understand the things I felt.”
O’Neill responded to that line of questioning, saying, “There are inconsistencies in the things I say. They’re not lies; they’re confusion.”
…While he had said in his statement to police that they were arguing, O’Neill said in court that they were not really arguing.
According to his police statement, he had tried to hold Weaver, she had pushed him away and he had “cut her.”
He said his recollection of the incident is hazy and that all he can remember is that “Laura’s hands and arms were cut.”
“The testimony shows that John O’Neill was hurt, angry and humiliated that Laura was breaking off their relationship.” said Fahey. “He lulled Michael Weaver into a false sense of security by not appearing upset…He knew exactly what he was doing.”
…Defense attorney McKittrick argued that “if’John O’Neill is guilty of anything, it is voluntary manslaughter. I’m frankly surprised that the doctors didn’t find, at least, that my client was temporarily insane. He loved Laura Weaver and he still loves her. He certainly wasn’t sitting at home, planning how to kill her.”
“He loved her and he still loves her”óthis is the standard defense used by men accused of killing the women who have rejected them: He was a “regular” guy, a pretty good guy, but with unsuspected fault lines, “dependency needs,” in the modern catchphrase. He loved her terribly; she was everything to him. He needed her so badly, loved her so fervently, that when she dropped him, he went wild with grief and a sense of love betrayed. He never meant to kill her; how could he plan to kill the woman he adored? If his act seems rational, deliberate, calculated, that is only further evidence of how far gone he was, automatonlike. He simply went crazy, lost control (call it what you like: “insane,” “fit of passion,” “extreme emotional disturbance,” “diminished capacity,” “irresistible impulse”) and all because of that love which she herself had aroused in him and then snatched away (“provocation”) in her innocence or callousness, putting stress on those subterranean cracks in his character. This is heady, romantic stuff. In the hands of a skilled defense lawyer, it is the raw material of manslaughter convictions or even of acquittals. Every man an Othello here.
This defense works best, as it was designed to work, when the victim is not present to rebut the romance or deflate the descriptions of love. It works best when the victim is dead, female and “sexually experienced.”
But to us, John was more lago than Othello. His shambling, head-down walk and slumped posture at the defense table seemed as simulated a portrait of the broken man as his salesman’s hearty manner had been of a successful one. When he testified for two and a half hours, he shielded his eyes as if in shame, but I could see the angry set of his mouth. The single time he looked up, it was to glare at his defense attorney and snap at him contemptuously.
He acted furtive, cagey, like a man who is pretending he does not know he has gotten away with something. What he had gotten away with, of course, was that Laura was dead and he was alive: still eating, watching
TV, talking to psychiatrists, planning to get up in the morning. He had managed to control his suicidal impulses: he had never seriously-attempted to kill himself. His remorse extended to a single remark: he was sorry, he said, that he had taken the life of “a human being.”
John had made his case. Not in court, but in what he had done. The fact of the murder itself was irrefutable evidence that John had been damaged. It had always been impossible not to feel sorry for John, not to wince at the pathos of his pretensions, even if we simultaneously judged him a malignant bully. Now it was the same. In the face of that monstrous egotism, which had made Laura its object and instrument, we would always swing between disgust and reluctant pity. The world had damaged him; the world had not loved him; and we were the luckless stand-ins for that failure, the world’s proximate representatives. We had not loved John either.
The judge found John guilty, but he shocked and angered us with the sentence he handed down: 25 years, only five over the minimum for first-degree murder. Today, only six years after Laura’s death, John is already eligible for parole.
John has been a model prisoner, for a time working as a prison librarian. He is among a small minority of prisoners who earn a day off their sentences for each day they serve. In the unlikely event that he is not granted parole, this “good time”ó provided he continues to earn it at the same rate–will unconditionally free him at the end of 1990, 13 years into hits sentence. He will be 47.
“I think I failed Laura in a number of ways,” John told his presentencing interviewer. “I think I failed to help her achieve some degree of independence from her family. I also feel that I failed her in not taking a more dominant position.”