A Lesson Learned From Family Tragedy

On July 27, when pictures of a smiling, 11-year-old Judith Barsi were shown on the 11 o'clock news, the last thing I expected to hear about the talented young actress was that she'd been murdered. Judith's mother, Maria, told me her husband had threatened to burn the house down, but she never confided, nor did I ever suspect, he might kill his wife and child.

I felt unable to breathe as the anchorman told how 55-year-old Jozsef Barsi shot his wife and daughter through their heads, poured gasoline over their bodies, lit a match and then took his own life.

Crying, I remembered that Maria and I, Hollywood moms on the audition circuit, frequently ran into each other at casting offices and in waiting rooms around the Southland. I recalled a day in May when my 11-year-old daughter, Andrea, and I met Maria and Judith in a studio parking lot. "Does your family have any vacation plans?" I asked.

"I want to take Judith to Hungary," Maria said, "because she has never met my relatives. But, if we go, I'm afraid my husband will burn down our house."

What a tyrant, I thought, the kind that manipulates with threats. I shook my head.

"He means it," she said.

I looked at Maria. Is she letting off steam? Or are things really that bad? It didn't occur to me that Maria wasn't the kind to exaggerate or overdramatize. She was a straightforward person, blond hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, clothes little more than functional. It was her custom to chatter private remarks to Judith in Hungarian. To others she said, in English, exactly what she thought, without embarrassment or apology. I never imagined Maria as a victim.

"He showed me where he keeps the gasoline can," she whispered, "and told me how he intends to use it." I groped for a reply. There was none.

"He will do it," she said.

I put my arm around Maria's shoulders . . . and she looked away. We said goodby and departed in different directions.

I thought about Judith and Maria all the way home.

That evening I told my husband about the incident, and commented how Judith, a petite child, had gained considerable weight. I also wondered why she had no eyelashes. According to media coverage after her death, her agent said she had plucked them out--along with her cat's whiskers--as a sign of stress.

I recounted to my husband another episode described by Maria: one about Jozsef hiding a telegram so she would not learn of a close relative's death in Hungary. When Maria learned the bad news by phone, she confronted Jozsef--and he denied knowing anything about it. A few hours later he retrieved the crumpled telegram from the trash and showed it to her.

"He was afraid I would take Judith to Hungary," she said.

Maria and Judith never got to Hungary. Two months later they were dead.

After the murders, after several sleepless nights and countless hours mentally replaying my conversations with Maria, I dialed the number of a local crisis helpline.

"There's nothing you could have done," said a volunteer on the other end of the phone. "Don't feel responsible. Just feel the sadness."

Sadness? I was in torment.

I thought about 1985 when Judith and my Andrea, then ages 7 and 8, were cast as sisters in a Movie of the Week called "Do You Remember Love?" They played granddaughters to the characters portrayed by Joanne Woodward and Richard Kiley.

There, on location in a residential section of the San Fernando Valley, Maria and I and the girls shared a trailer and would close the accordion-style folding door between the dressing rooms after lunch so the girls could rest.

Maria and Judith took turns reading from a storybook, their voices sweet and soft and animated. Before long Judith called out to Andrea and started a round of knock-knock jokes, which led to some riddles, giggles and note-passing under the door. "I like you, Andrea," one note read. Judith had drawn a bird, some flowers and a few hearts.

Andrea responded in kind. Caught up in the slumber-party atmosphere, I passed a note to Maria telling her I respected and admired her. "I think you're a good mother," I wrote. Later, out on the sidewalk, Maria offered a simple but moving "Thank you."

Once during the month of filming, Jozsef Barsi came by to deliver an item his wife had forgotten. He was a big, burly man who insisted that his daughter greet him, then spoke a few words to his wife. When Jozsef was out of earshot, Maria said, "When he was young he looked like Mario Lanza."

She didn't mention him to me again for three years.

"There's nothing you could have done that she didn't already know," the voice on the phone said. "It follows a pattern. These women have no self-esteem and they go back (to the man) over and over again."

These women. Maria didn't seem like one of "these women." She seemed strong and capable, never complaining or asking for sympathy. She hinted at her situation, but I was one of many who failed to recognize it.

"There's nothing you could have done," the voice repeated. Perhaps not. The only person who could have helped Maria was Maria herself. She alone knew her situation and how to alter it. "Not all abusive men kill," the volunteer said.

On Aug. 9, Andrea and I stood amid a small group of mourners on a hillside in Hollywood. Six uniformed pall bearers from Forest Lawn carried the caskets, first a large white one then a small white one, to the grave site.

After the funeral I learned that Maria had sought help from various agencies, but it was unclear whether she, or they, failed to pursue the matter.

The tragedy opened me to a new awareness, and that led to a quest for answers. After talking with both local and national helplines, I feel more confident about recognizing distress signals and interpreting the vocabulary of a woman in trouble. She needs to know the problem is not "her fault." I'll assure her that she knows her situation better than anyone else, and that I trust her decisions. I'll offer my support in helping her act on those decisions.

Though it would be arrogant to think I might have saved someone's life, it's not arrogant to plan for the future. Thanks to the helplines, I now have something specific to say and something specific to offer. Instead of tormenting myself with what I didn't do, I concentrate on what I can do.

If there is a next time, I might make a difference.

Meanwhile, I hold thoughts of Maria and Judith in my heart and console myself with the memory of a lighthearted afternoon when we all behaved like untroubled children and, despite the wall, found a way to slip our messages through.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°