Impact of Family Tragedy on Those Left to Survive

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most murder mysteries and true-crime stories end with the suspect apprehended, guilty verdict rendered, case closed. But Julie Salamon, a journalist and author of two previous nonfiction books, has more ambitious goals in writing "Facing the Wind," based on a true tale of a support group of several mothers of blind and physically challenged children, and one family whose tragedy bound them in unsuspecting ways.

The facts are fairly straightforward: Mary and Robert Rowe were the middle-age parents of three children--the eldest, Bobby Jr., an avid Yankee fan; the youngest and adopted child, Jessica; and Christopher, the middle child who was born blind and profoundly physically handicapped. Mary Rowe joined a mothers' group at Brooklyn's Industrial Home for the Blind in 1973, where she and husband Bob became lightning rods for its members, allowing them to express their frustrations and fears with dark humor and a directness that many of them would not dare attempt otherwise.

Deeply involved with his child's life and care, Bob Rowe, a claims lawyer for an insurance company, was a special delight. Outspoken and engaging, he was a source of inspiration and a little envy for many of the group's women, whose husbands were distant or rejecting of their offspring.

Bob's decision to decline a promotion and relocation in order not to disrupt Christopher's support network only further burnished Bob's star in the minds of the women who bore the brunt of caring for their children.

The women's admiration for the Rowes was shattered one winter day in 1978 when Bob killed his beloved Mary and all three of the children with a baseball bat. The crime is related in a sparely written prologue that is chilling on its own terms. We see young Bobby with his best friend, exchanging baseball bats and listening to Yankees' broadcasts, the friend later coming upon an officer removing the bloody bat from the Rowe family home, the grim discovery by Assistant Dist. Atty. Michael Gary when he's called to the scene.

But while most true-crime writers might make this the centerpiece of their story, Salamon expands the narrative to examine the lives of the people in the Rowes' inner circle, to illuminate how the enormity of the tragedy broke an unspoken covenant among these struggling survivors.

She explores the Rowes' courtship, their respective families, and the forces that brought these two intelligent, vivacious people together.

She introduces the reader to Edith Patt, the social worker who facilitated the Brooklyn mothers' group and who helped the Rowes adopt their daughter. Then there's Geri Smith, a mother in deep denial about her son's limitations, denial that erupted into rage; Mady Gaskin, whose devotion to her son masked deep resentment about her husband's philandering; and Ellen Alboher, whose daughter Elyse was born without eyes.

And, most importantly, there is Bob's mental decline, brought on by several job changes and unemployment, crushing anxiety and murderous feelings toward his family that led to his voluntary commitment before the killings.

The stories not only engage our sympathies for those affected by the Rowes' tragedy but also provide a better understanding of the alarming levels of blindness found in the 1960s among premature infants who received too much oxygen, or whose mothers had taken certain drugs, or who were subject to an ugly twist of fate.

The first part of "Facing the Wind" ends with Bob Rowe's examination by court-appointed psychiatrists, the trial and not guilty verdict "as a result of mental disease or defect," leading to assistant district attorney Gary's conclusion that that the criminal conviction did not matter because the devastated Rowe "would be in an institution for the rest of his life--no doubt about it." But just as the narrative pulls away, almost like a camera, taking in the courtroom's sad participants, the reader is left to wonder what will happened to Bob Rowe and his circle of shattered friends and few supporters after his trial.

To answer that question, Salamon shifts gears dramatically to consider another wounded soul--Colleen, a devout young Catholic whose fervent religiosity masks an early sexual trauma. When she meets and is smitten by a fellow graduate student and her professor's old college classmate, the reader almost gasps involuntarily, because we know that studious middle-age man is the murderer Bob Rowe. But how could a man so abhorrent even pretend to normalcy? How could he presume to be deserving of love?

Salamon provides answers by meticulously reviewing Rowe's medical records, interviewing family and friends who still had contact with him, even examining his diaries and letters exchanged between the reluctant lovers. Colleen's motives are also scrutinized, with Salamon concluding that her love for Bob was much more than a father-figure fixation, but grounded in her fundamental faith. "[Colleen] had no trouble reconciling his sorrow about the death of his family with the part he had played in it," Salamon writes. "She understood it was Bob who had killed them, but she believed he wasn't responsible. He couldn't have been."

The life these two "wounded healers" carve out for themselves is detailed by Salamon in a story that is both courageous and immensely sad: Bob encouraging Colleen to attend law school; Bob's unsuccessful attempts to be readmitted to the bar; the birth of a daughter; his failing health; his unrelenting sorrow at the family he killed. Throughout, one wonders--will Bob have a relapse? Will Colleen and their daughter be his next victims? Will he ever forgive himself, or be forgiven by those whose lives he ruined that day over 15 years before?

The last part of the book resolves those questions, bringing the reader back to the support-group mothers and their now-grown children to explore what became of them. The last scenes also bring Colleen to a special mothers' group meeting for an emotional encounter with Edith, Geri, Mady, Ellen, and the rest that is brutally honest about love and the human capacity for, if not forgiveness, then reconciliation.

Salamon, a television critic for the New York Times, has written a haunting re-creation of a family's calamity that no parent wants to experience. In the process, she raises thought-provoking moral, legal and ethical questions about insanity and rehabilitation, guilt and reconciliation that are rarely addressed in most writing or filming of true-crimes stories, an oversight that could be corrected if editors, television or film executives learn from the critic's subdued approach.

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