A Fact-Seeker Treads Softly With Survivors
A reporter gets accustomed to having doors closed in her face.
Admittedly, sometimes people just don’t want to be bothered with questions from a stranger. Other times, they resent your paper’s editorial position or they may have been misquoted in the past.
Worst of all, there are times when someone you want to interview accuses you of trying to profit from misery.
Let’s face it, when television and newspaper reporters swarm a family tragedy, it looks that way. But I have a secret: Reporters are often torn between professional zeal and personal sympathy.
That was the case a few weeks ago when I was among a reporting team that was assigned to find out more about a gruesome police report: a Laguna Niguel housewife had killed her two small daughters and then tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide.
The first thing the team learned was that the 39-year-old woman, Kristine Cushing, was beloved by her neighbors and many friends.
Until the night of the tragedy, Cushing had been known as a “super mom.” She had volunteered as a classroom assistant, Brownie troop leader and Sunday school teacher.
Learning more about Cushing and what might have prompted her awful act was very difficult. Her best friends in her neighborhood did not want to talk to reporters. Some said they objected to the invasion of privacy; they didn’t want to betray their friend in her anguish.
Others wanted to protect their own children. “I just can’t talk right now,” one mother said, shrugging toward her little girl who was standing at her side. I understood. How could that little girl grasp the horrible truth that the 4- and 8-year-old sisters who had been her playmates had been shot to death by their own mother?
I understood the reluctance of Cushing’s friends and relatives, and tried to respect their wishes.
At Cushing’s arraignment in Municipal Court, it was not difficult to identify her family. They were huddled together, grief on their faces. They shot me a withering look when I approached. When the eldest man, Cushing’s father, walked toward me, his expression softened. He seemed ready to talk, but I will never know. He was pulled away by a young woman, Cushing’s sister.
On the surface, the mother’s killing of her children seems unforgivable and inexplicable.
I longed to tell these people that by talking with me they might help Cushing, softening the harsh publicity and better memorializing her children. Certainly, they would have much to say about her childhood and youth, her dreams and ambitions that would increase sympathy and understanding of her. More important, they might be able to shed light on what had gone wrong.
There were many hints elsewhere that offered some explanation. Court records confirmed that Cushing had been in the midst of an angry divorce from her husband of 17 years, that she had been under medical attention for a debilitating heart ailment and that she had been suffering from depression.
Later, when Cushing pleaded not guilty to the murder of her children, her lawyers said they were investigating whether her use of the anti-depressant drug Prozac had played a role in the killings.
Also, as days went by, acquaintances began to mention the strain that Cushing felt as a military wife. It seemed that she shouldered a large share of family responsibility because her husband, Marine Lt. Col. John Cushing, was frequently away on flight duty. He had been stationed in the Persian Gulf through August.
In trying to obtain more than sketchy information about the deceased girls, we also confronted a brick wall.
I decided to seek the pity of Nikki Erickson, director of a church preschool program that the girls attended. I told her about the cold shoulders I was receiving, and she was warm and understanding. She even told me about a memorial service that was being held at the church for the children. She said I could come.
When I attended the service at St. Timothy Roman Catholic Church, I tried to be unobtrusive.
In one way, I felt I had a right to be there, because I live in Laguna Niguel and am a member of that congregation.
I tried to behave like a parishioner and curbed my zeal to ask sensitive questions of people as they gathered in the church all-purpose room. I listened to the priest, joined in the singing, held hands during the Lord’s Prayer and hoped no one would notice me. I joined the line of people who walked slowly past the flower-bedecked altar and the picture of the beautiful children who were being remembered--the first picture I had seen of them.
Only a couple of times was I interrupted at the church: once when someone asked why I was writing in a notebook, and at the conclusion of the service when a Cushing relative or close friend tried to stop me from asking the priest to spell his name. The angry family member told me that this was not the proper place to ask questions.
I immediately realized that he was in no mood to listen to anything I had to say. I wanted to explain that I agreed with him, but that I also needed to spell the priest’s name right.
Outside the church, I met Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Avant, who had not been able to shake the sadness he had felt since he went to the Cushing house the night the girls had been shot.
“I am just trying to pay my respects,” Avant said. As best I could, I hoped that I was doing the same.