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The Happy Ending That Could Never Be

This is for those who knew and loved Nina Leibman--for her parents, Joan and Mike, and her sisters, Abby and Marjorie--but it is especially for her children, Philip and Laura, who need to know as they grow up without her that she loved them like the world.

Nina, 38, was killed nine days ago in her home, within earshot of her children. It was not, in all likelihood, a quick death. Nor was it a painless one. Authorities say she was stabbed 14 times--in her neck, her back, her chest.

Her husband of more than a decade, Kenneth Donney, 49, has been charged with her murder.

In September, Nina had filed for divorce from Donney, a former public interest lawyer and former federal prosecutor who worked as an administrator at Santa Clara University’s law school. She was killed in the study of their Santa Cruz home, one day before Donney was supposed to have moved out, a sister said. She had slept in the study while awaiting his move.

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According to Michael Bartram, the Santa Cruz County prosecutor handling the case, Donney called 911 for help at about 2:36 a.m. on Oct. 27. When the emergency dispatcher tried to give him instructions on how to resuscitate, Bartram said, Donney said his wife was already dead. Later, he told the prosecutor there were no intruders in the home.

“I have a feeling he waited until she was dead,” said Bartram, who has charged Donney with committing “murder with the use of a knife.” Before summoning help for his mortally wounded wife, the prosecutor said, Donney telephoned his father.

Bartram said that at the time of their mother’s death, Philip, 7, and Laura, 4, were awake in their beds down the hall. They heard things no child should ever have to hear, imagined things no child should ever have to imagine, and now face what no child should ever have to face: a dead mother and a father in jail.

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Friends and family say Nina Leibman was an extraordinary person--brilliant, witty, passionate and loyal. She was a great mom, a great sister, a great friend. She called herself a feminist, fully appreciated the emotional gymnastics inherent in balancing motherhood and career, and once said she couldn’t stand women who “practice feminism and then say they’re not feminists.”

She was also a talented teacher who had received a doctorate in film and television from UCLA, returning to school after deciding life in the retail world was unbearably superficial.

She taught at USC, UCLA, Loyola Marymount and then at UC Santa Cruz, where she was a visiting lecturer until last year. Recently, she was working as an adjunct professor of communications at the University of Santa Clara.

I met Nina last summer, when I interviewed her for a column about motherlessness in the movies. She had just published her first book, “Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television” a scholarly account of the dishonest on-screen depictions of families.

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“The assumption on the part of screenwriters seems to be that it’s just not that exciting to have a mom taking care of her kids because it’s so humdrum, so everyday,” Nina said then. We both laughed about that, and spent the rest of the conversation talking about our kids.

On the day Nina died, a small package from her arrived in the mail for her twin sister, Abby Leibman, executive director of the California Women’s Law Center in Los Angeles. It was a tiny, illustrated book called “There Is No Friend Like a Sister.”

“That’s just how she was,” Abby said. “Nina is . . . was so warm. Nina felt things really deeply. Everything she felt, she felt powerfully. She was intensely devoted to her children and she was an incredible teacher.”

Joan Leibman, a teacher herself, observed her daughter in the classroom several years ago when Nina was teaching a course at Loyola Marymount University.

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“It was a surprise to me to see my daughter in another environment,” Joan said. “I was bowled over by her poise, her interest in the students, her warmth. They just responded to her. I walked out so stunned. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I am so proud of my girl.’

“I am learning so much from this tragedy . . . that she had such wonderful relationships and that they lasted so long. . . . She shouldn’t be lying in a coffin. . . . It is beyond description, that’s how bad it is.”

Nina Leibman’s memorial service took place Wednesday in Los Angeles, a suitably sodden and dreary day.

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Nina’s death, of course, was a news story.

One local newspaper cast the tragedy as a psychological mystery: “They were an ultimate American Dream couple, blessed with success at a prestigious university as they raised two young children far from the urban fray in a placid corner of Santa Cruz. . . . From outward appearances, the future was bright as one can be.”

Abby Leibman shook her head.

“I don’t know how they can write that,” she said. “They may have lived an upper-middle-class lifestyle, but that doesn’t indicate anything about their relationship.”

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It was, Nina’s family members say, a very unhappy one, full of emotional upheavals and explosions. They believe Nina finally decided to leave to protect the children from such trauma.

Joan Leibman, for her part, thinks that Nina stayed in her marriage longer than she should have precisely because she was so entranced by the subject she had chosen to make a career of--movies, romances, happy endings.

“She fantasized a perfect marriage,” Joan said. “She couldn’t admit that she was married to a terrible person, and she wanted the world to think that everything was wonderful.”

Nina’s family will try now to be for her children what their mother once was.

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“I don’t know if we can,” Abby said. “She was everything. That’s what my nephew said to me the other day: ‘She did everything for me.’ ”

Nina Leibman had a short life, but she leaves a legacy to be envied--a loving family, devoted friends, and Philip and Laura. No one does better than that.

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Robin Abcarian’s column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053. Send e-mail to HBZK23A@prodigy.com.

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