A Mother’s Crime

Debra J. Miller teaches English at a private high school in Los Angeles.

On Thursday, Oct. 8, 1964, the day the police decided my mother killed my father, I woke up late, the kind of late that snaps you out of your favorite dream, the one where you’re wrapped in the arms of your favorite TV hunk--mine was Dr. Kildare--and he’s just about to . . . when bang your unconscious tells you the sun is out, the lights are on all over the house and you’re going to be late for school because nobody got you out of bed.

We were a family of five. I was 14 and the oldest. My brothers Guy and Ronnie were

11 and 9. We had recently moved into our house, not exactly my mom’s dream house but the best she could wrestle out of my father, who even though a professional, a dentist, preferred nursing his headaches to the daily task of diving fingers-first into someone’s rotten mouth. We hadn’t been in our house for more than a few months, and because it had taken everything we had and then some to build, the living room was bare except for a green coffee table with gold legs. The windows in the kids’ bedrooms remained curtainless. I didn’t care. Our new house was twice as big as our old one. I had the impression that the whole point of building it was so that for the first time, my parents’ bedroom would be at one end of the house and the kids’ rooms at the other. This did seem to take the edge off things. On the weekends, my brothers and I didn’t have to creep around silently till noon, afraid of waking our mom and dad.

But this was a school day. No one was up. Something was wrong. I threw off the covers and looked out my window. At the top of our driveway, a police car was parked where our black VW bug should have been. I ran to the family room. Everything looked the same, except for a black leather envelope on the breakfast table. I didn’t recognize it. It didn’t look like a briefcase or a purse. I couldn’t figure out if it belonged to a man or a woman. I snapped it open. I saw a woman’s wallet. It wasn’t my mother’s.

Why was there a cop car where my father’s car should have been but no cops, and a woman’s handbag but no woman?


I have always been afraid of everything. I was afraid of my parents. More than once my mother slapped me so hard and so many times across the mouth that my teeth slit my lips. Beatings with belts hard enough to leave my bottom completely black and blue and my legs covered in welts were not uncommon. I was afraid of losing my parents. They weren’t happy together and rarely seemed happy about their kids. I was afraid of everything new and anything different. We had moved too many times. In first grade alone I went to three schools in three cities in two states.

We had come to California from Oregon. We were Seventh-day Adventists. My father wanted to go to the Adventist medical school in Loma Linda. I started first grade in Oregon, in a little one-room Adventist school in Enterprise. When my parents went to California to look for living arrangements, I was sent to live with my grandparents in Portland and enrolled in a public school. Later that year we moved to Ontario. I was so paralyzed with fear by the time I was enrolled in my third school, Adventist again, that my mother had to arrange for another little first-grader, Terry Hayton, to take me by the hand into the classroom. She became my best friend. Years later, my mother would fall in love with Terry’s father, Arthwell Hayton. Their affair, the mystery of Terry’s mother’s death and the death of my father would lead to my mother being convicted of murder.

My father was always threatening to leave. I never knew why he wanted to go, blue transistor radio and jockey shorts clutched tightly in his hand, not a word to any of us as he stumbled in and out of the house. Each time, I thought he was never coming back. I didn’t understand that someone intent on moving out would need more than a radio and a change of underwear. My mother would let me sleep on his side of the bed during those terrifying nights. She would sit beside me, petting my forehead, promising, “He’s mad at me. He’ll come back. You watch, in the morning he’ll be here.”

And he was. Until the time he really did move out for a while. It wasn’t dramatic. It was quieter, sadder. We all cried. Mom cried. He cried. He came back within the month. When he came back, he and my mother continued to fight behind their closed bedroom door.

She began to take me into her confidence. “Daddy wants to die,” she would say. “That’s what the fighting’s about.”

This is how I learned that my daddy wanted to take his own life but loved us so much that he wanted to do it in his car, so it would look like an accident and we would get the insurance. The details of how this was going to work were never made clear to me. As my mother’s confidante, I was helping her keep Daddy alive. I felt honored.

One night, a few weeks before he did die, my parents were fighting again in their bedroom, behind the closed door. I was hunched over the dining room table trying to finish some math homework. My brothers were already in bed. I couldn’t hear what this fight was about. My father didn’t shout. My mother did.

Suddenly their door opened. My mother yelled, “Debbie, grab the car keys!”

“Where?” I screamed.

“On the console. Grab them. Go to your room. Lock your door.”

The dark wood built-in console where we kept our games was right behind me. My heart pounding, I swirled my chair around, jumped up, snatched the keys, dashed to my bedroom and slammed the door.

And then nothing happened. No one came banging. The shouting stopped.

Maybe it shook him up to learn that his daughter was in on the plot to save his life. Maybe he was just too tired after the fight with Mom to fight with me for those keys. Maybe he realized now how much we loved him, and wanted to live. I felt like a hero. The matter was dropped. No one gave me a medal. In fact, no one said anything. I must have just gone to bed.

My father was an unhappy man. The youngest of three, he had followed his brother and brother-in-law into dentistry. He was so brilliant that he had been asked to join an accelerated college dental program just after the war. By the time he was 21, an age when most of us are graduating from college, he was already a practicing dentist. He loathed it from the beginning.

My mother always told me that Daddy’s dream was to be an airline pilot. One of his favorite pastimes was to load his three children into the car and drive to the airport and watch the planes. I don’t remember if he had a license to fly or not, but his brother did, even had his own little plane. My father loved to fly with his brother. But in my father’s family, you had to be some kind of doctor to be considered successful. A PhD didn’t count, either. I remember hearing that my cousin Tommy, sickened by the cadavers in medical school, told his father that he was leaving to follow his passion for math. My uncle refused to pay for his education if he wasn’t going to become a doctor. Undeterred, Tommy went on to earn a PhD and become a math professor.

I guess my father didn’t have the stomach for a family rebellion. He did plan to leave dentistry, by becoming a doctor instead. But that never happened. He bought a house and a dental practice and the rut got deeper. I never knew why he didn’t attend the medical school in Loma Linda. I do remember the prosecutor in my mother’s trial blaming her greed, her unwillingness to make the sacrifice for my father’s change of plans. I don’t think it matters. He didn’t want to be a doctor of any kind. He took out his frustration and rage on his kids and on himself.

I’d watched him stumble into the hanging lamp in the living room because he was so high on pills. On occasion I had been asked to bring him his pills. I learned later that he was addicted to barbiturates that he prescribed for himself. My father drove me to school in the same black Volkswagen he later died in. Sometimes he didn’t want to talk and drove silently, black sunglasses sagging off his nose, eyes focused on the road ahead, tears rolling down his cheeks. This broke my 14-year-old heart and scared me. Even after my mother was convicted, I always believed her stories that my father was suicidal.

How much time passed between the night my mother screamed at me to grab the keys and Oct. 8, I can’t remember. It felt seamless--it could have been the next morning our Volkswagen was gone, a police car parked in its place. I knew instantly that my daddy was dead. I had been primed for this moment. I walked to my parents’ room to confirm what I already knew.

Their bedroom door was partly open. This was not a room I felt free to enter. I peeked in. Ordinarily, I would never wake my mother. I would have been afraid to. Waking my parents could result in any number of reactions: whipping, tongue-lashing, open arms and hugs. My mom was alone, curled up in her nightgown in the middle of the bed, the sheets and blankets falling to the floor. She heard me, lifted herself up and motioned for me to come in. I approached the foot of the bed and stood there.

“Did he kill himself?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “It was an accident.” She was sad, exhausted.

She didn’t reach for me. I didn’t move toward her. I just stood there. I heard men’s voices outside, and their heavy boots crunching on the gravel of our backyard.

“What are the police doing here?” I whispered.

“They come when there’s an accident,” she said.

“Why?” I pressed.

“Our car caught on fire.” Her voice flat, sounding dead herself, she tried to explain what had happened.

We had moved to Bella Vista Drive in Alta Loma that spring. The last public street below the King Ranch, Bella Vista pushed up against the chaparral and foothills shielding Mt. Baldy. All the houses on our street had been privately built. Although ours was the newest, it certainly wasn’t the nicest. Dirt clods and gravel made up our front and back yards. Our house faded into the brownish dryness surrounding it, looking less newly built than about to be torn down.

My mother had forged my father’s signature on the loan documents. Too depressed and worn out to fight her, he let it go, resigning himself to a mortgage payment that, along with everything else, overwhelmed him. I never felt at home in that empty, unfinished house. It seemed to me that we had ruined the neighborhood. We were also a long way from anywhere. The main street to and from our house, Carnelian, which connected us to Foothill and to civilization, ran north and south for what seemed like miles.

The night before, my parents had gone out, down the hill, late, very late. They were looking for a store where they could buy milk for our cereal at breakfast. My mother was afraid of the dark and my daddy was high, so she offered to drive if he would go with her. She drove, and Daddy, wrapped in a blanket, curled up in the passenger seat and fell asleep.

Nothing was open, so they headed farther and farther away from our house. The streets leading up to our foothills had no lights. She was on Banyan Street, a particularly dark street, when suddenly she felt the Volkswagen pulling away from her, lurching onto an embankment above a lemon grove. Flames were shooting up behind her as she scrambled out of the car. She turned back once she was safe, only to see my father still bundled in the passenger seat, leaning quietly against the window.

She screamed his nickname: “Cork!” But he didn’t move.

Frantic, she ran to his side of the car, but everything was now in flames. She couldn’t get to the door. He wouldn’t wake up. The blanket caught fire. She ran down Banyan Street shrieking, “Somebody help me! My husband is burning. Please, somebody help me!”

Except for her cries for help and a flaming car, the night was quiet--no traffic, no one to respond to her pleas. But she knew someone lived on that street. In June, an old man had run the stop sign at Banyan and Carnelian and hit my mother and me as we were headed to get our hair done for my eighth-grade graduation. I was the vice president of my class and was giving a speech. Instead, I ended up with 50 stitches in my face and almost lost my right eye. My mother broke her jaw when her head slammed into the steering wheel. No one wore seat belts in those days. My mother was frantic then too. Her daughter’s face was sliced up and bleeding profusely. A woman appeared from out of the lemon groves. When she saw my face, she ran to her house to call an ambulance, but ended up driving me to the hospital. Weeks after the accident, I asked Daddy what the odds were that our family would ever have an accident on that street again. “That would be almost impossible,” he said.

My mother continued running up and down Banyan Street, remembering the woman who had helped us. She passed the car again. It was engulfed. Daddy was on fire. She tore in a new direction, thinking she must have been going the wrong way. Finally, she reached a house, but not the one she was looking for. She pounded on the front door, sobbing that her husband was burning. A woman answered. My mother fell into her arms, repeating, “The children, the children, what will I tell the children?”

The woman calmed my mother enough to find out where to send the fire department. Then my mother asked the woman to call Harold Lance, a good friend of my parents and a lawyer. This would be used against her in her trial.

When my mother finished, all I could think to say was, “Did he suffer?”

“No,” she said. “He didn’t suffer.”

I still didn’t understand why the police were in my backyard, and what that had to do with a car accident down on Banyan Street.

Everything in their bedroom was white--the walls, the chenille bedspread, the carpet. A shadow moved past one of the windows. It seemed the best thing for me to do was to tiptoe out, leave my mother alone, let her go back to sleep. We could pretend nothing had happened until she woke up again. Maybe in a few hours it would work itself out a little better. I would know what to say or do. I could feel her desire to be alone, to sleep off the past eight hours. But there was business to take care of. My brothers had to be told. Phone calls had to be made.

Neither of us moved.

Finally she said, “You need to wake up the boys and bring them to me.”

She pushed herself up to a half-sitting position but didn’t get out of bed. I now had an important job to do. I had to think about how to handle it. I didn’t want to appear too serious or too grim or falsely chipper. My job was to get my brothers to our mother. It was up to her to break the news. I would be there for support. Our lives might even be easier now, with no more fights between my parents. How we were going to live didn’t occur to my 14-year-old self. I did think that maybe my mother wouldn’t be so mad anymore, that maybe now that she could do whatever she wanted she would be happier, her children would be happier. Maybe with one parent rather than two, the family would bond better, would enjoy each other more. Before I reached my brothers’ rooms, I had created a whole new better life for all of us. I loved my daddy. It wasn’t that I was glad he was dead. If I’d had to pick, I would have picked her to die.

My brothers were already awake. Like me, they had opened their eyes with a sick feeling that something was wrong. They too were frightened by the light coming from the family room and the silence.

My brother Guy, blue-eyed, dark-haired, fair-skinned, looked like a male version of our mother. Ron, the youngest, olive-skinned and stocky, didn’t seem to look like any of us. He grew up to look like a taller, darker version of our dad, but we used to joke that we found him under a rock and took him home. Easygoing, unlike his parents and siblings, he was the family favorite. He was not, however, Guy’s favorite.

Ronnie followed Guy around like a puppy. He wanted to do everything Guy did--skateboard as well as Guy, swim as well as Guy, play tennis as well as Guy. Guy did not see the compliment or the envy in the emulations. He hated Ron. He saw a family that played favorites. Those responsible for the sins of the house--the unfairness heaped upon him since the birth of this third child, the youngest and most adorable--had to be punished. He regularly beat the crap out of Ronnie.

Ronnie lay awake, his little crew-cut head popping out of his cowboy bedspread. He might have wanted to seek solace down the hall, to crawl into bed with his big brother, but that was unsafe territory, so he waited alone for someone to help him get on with his day.

I collected one, then the other. In their cowboy flannels, scared but silent, they followed me back to our parents’ bedroom. Our mother was sitting up. She looked haggard. She didn’t motion for us to come to her or pat the bed for us to sit. The silence pounded off the walls until finally she said, “Daddy died in a car accident last night.” She paused. “He didn’t suffer.”

The three of us stood in front of her. I drew my brothers closer to me. No one spoke. No one wept loudly. Instead we cried quietly, tears rolling down our cheeks, a sniffle now and then. Our mother mumbled something like, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

My brother Ron doesn’t remember it this way. He remembers waking up, knowing it was late because the sun was too bright. Without curtains, the morning sun bore down on his face. He remembers crawling out of bed, going to my room--which was empty, the covers thrown back when ordinarily I would have made my bed right away--and then going to his brother’s room and finding it empty too. He remembers wandering into Mom’s room all by himself, seeing her curled up in the middle of the bed, and hearing Guy and me crying in the dressing room, a walk-in closet that separated our parents’ bedroom from their bathroom.

“Daddy’s dead.” He remembers that it was Guy who said this.

Guy and I were both standing there crying, he says, not hugging or comforting each other, just crying. Ron was 9. He knew what dead meant, but he didn’t know what it meant to him. He thought that something was wrong with him because we were crying and he wasn’t. So he commanded himself to cry, to be part of this sorrow his brother and sister were sharing. Slowly, tears began to form. Then it wasn’t so hard.

Guy has almost no memory of that morning--only the daylight, the lights that shouldn’t have been on and the silence. He remembers being afraid. But he can’t remember whether I came to get him. He can’t remember who told him our daddy was dead or who told Ron.

It must have been 8 or 9 in the morning when we learned of our father’s death. The next thing I remember is sitting on the bed while my mother called relatives, and being thrilled by the drama of these calls. I was all cranked up, as if I’d had too many cups of coffee, which we didn’t even drink in our house.

One of the first calls my mother made was to Sandy. We had grown up with our baby-sitter, Sandy, now a medical student. She had come to live with us when I was about 8. Her mother was a drunk and beat her children; my mother offered Sandy permanent refuge at our house. I remember my mother talking to Sandy on the phone, the relief I felt that she was going to cut classes that day and drive straight from Loma Linda to our house. We would all be together. I remember Sandy arriving and going straight to my mother. But rather than feeling comforted, I felt that old estrangement, that jealousy of their closeness.

Soon Sandy was protecting my mother, telling us that Dr. Mortensen, our family doctor, was coming to give her a shot to let her sleep. My daddy filled the Mortensen family’s cavities, and Dr. Mortensen prescribed pills for my daddy, lanced my infected ears and gave my mother Valium. Each Christmas my mother bought the Mortensens a silver tray or a crystal bowl, explaining that Dr. Mortensen had helped our family more than we had helped his. This was yet another year he was going to be ahead at Christmastime.

There was a lot of activity going on at our house, but it all had to do with our mom. No one would let us near her. Her bedroom door was shut.

It is at this point that everything shifts again. My memory moves like the bellows of an accordion, images coming to me in pleats and creases, undulating, swaying, folding so tightly together that I can’t see anything, only to open again, wide but briefly, scenes appearing and disappearing again and again, moments pressing in on each other or stretching too far out. What I know is that the black leather envelope on the breakfast table belonged to Joan Lance. She must have been outside. I did not know Joan Lance. My parents sometimes socialized with her and her husband, Harold, the attorney my mother had called the night before. They went to our church. They were younger than my parents, a handsome couple, Joan tall and Nordic-looking, Harold even taller, lanky, with dark hair and blue eyes. Joan was a housewife raising their three children, who were closer to my brothers’ ages than to mine. I didn’t like the Lances, particularly Harold, whom I found humorless and stern.

Amid all the hushed tones of the people slipping in and out of my mother’s bedroom, I learned, to my horror, that Mrs. Lance was taking Ronnie and me to her house.

“Your mother needs to sleep,” someone said.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. I didn’t care if my mother needed to sleep. Let her sleep. Leave us at home and let her sleep. My brothers and I had spent many a Sunday morning fending for ourselves, chomping on cereal and watching television for hours before our parents got up. We knew how to stay quiet, stay out of that bedroom across the living room. Sending us off with someone we barely knew and didn’t like was so unfair. Our father was dead. Our mother needed a nap.

“Can’t we just stay home?” I asked no one in particular. But the plans were set. Guy was taken to the home of one of my mother’s childhood friends. Ron and I were bundled up and herded into Mrs. Lance’s green Chevy station wagon. I was powerless to negotiate on our behalf. My daddy was dead. My mother needed to sleep. My brothers and I were being shipped off to strangers’ houses. There was nothing to be done about it. The Miller children fell silent, retreated inside ourselves and did not speak a word. Angry from that moment on, we would never be the same.

The Lances lived in a U-shaped beige-shingled house in a well-kept tract. We pulled into the drive and solemnly entered through the backdoor. My brother Ron knew the Lance children, Karen, Jimmy and Julie. In my sorrow and numbness, aggravated by fear and anger, I plopped into an overstuffed chair, legs dangling over the side, to watch television. The five of us kids remained in the Lances’ family room, curled up on their multicolored braided rug or hanging over various pieces of furniture. The house seemed dark and silent in spite of the television droning on. I felt so stupid and humiliated to be stuck there, too old to participate in anything with Ron and the Lance children and too young to be told what was happening. Every time the phone rang I strained to listen, but Mrs. Lance kept her voice to a whisper if she was in the kitchen, and more often than not tried to confine her communications to her bedroom, with the door closed. The hours dragged. The gray day began to darken.

It was late in the afternoon when Mrs. Lance pulled me aside.

“Noreen is coming to get you,” she said.

“Noreen?” I replied. “Why is she picking me up? Is she taking me home? Is my mom all right?”

“She wants to see you, take you for a ride.”

Noreen was the physical education teacher at Chaffey High, the local school. She had been Sandy’s coach when Sandy played on Chaffey High’s tennis team, and they still played together on the weekends. I liked Noreen. She owned a brand-new metallic-blue Pontiac Bonneville with a white leather interior. She let me drive it sometimes on the back roads leading up to our house. I crawled around those empty streets like an old lady, scared to death of going too fast. She was upbeat, loved to laugh and liked my brothers and me. I was happy she was coming to get me. This news gave me hope that someone might tell me if my mom was awake and ready for her children to be returned to her. I watched from the Lances’ family room window for that big blue Bonneville to slide up to the curb. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I saw it cruising down the street.

I waved to Noreen from the window. She waved back. I ran to let her in the backdoor. She wiped her feet on the mat and laughed at nothing as she stepped into the house. I was eager to get out of there, practically blocking her from coming in any farther, sort of pushing her back and welcoming her at the same time. Mrs. Lance seemed to blanch at my eagerness to leave her house. I didn’t care. Noreen meant freedom to me. I wanted Mrs. Lance to know that it was her fault that I’d been so sullen all day. She didn’t get me, didn’t know me, so screw her, I was splitting, hopefully returning only to pick up my brother and go home. I felt empty and detached. I don’t recall thinking about what Ron and Guy might be feeling, what was going through their little heads and hearts. To this day I can’t think of those years without guilt, without tears. Over and over I left them stranded, clinging to each other one minute, beating the crap out of each other the next. They would beg me over and over to stay with them, but I always left.

I climbed into the passenger side of the big blue boat. Noreen slipped into drive, stepped on the gas and pulled away from the curb.

“Wanna go to the hills and drive?” she asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

It was dusk. Getting to drive distracted me. It took all my attention to stay on the road, to keep from over-steering or slamming on the gas or the brakes. I don’t know how long we meandered around those foothill streets, empty of all human life but lush with groves of lemons and oranges. Before I knew it, Noreen was in the driver’s seat again. We were heading down the hill back to the Lances’, not up the hill to my mother, to my house. It was almost dark now.

“Are we going to pick up the boys and go home?” I asked.

“No,” Noreen replied. “There isn’t anyone at your house, Debbie.”

“Where’s mother?” I was beginning to panic. “What’s happened to mother?” My voice was strained. I was choking back tears.

“The police have taken your mother, Debbie. They’ve taken her with them. They had some questions.”

“About what?”

I’m into full terror now. All the whispers, the phone calls, the to and fro from her bedroom. Everyone knew. Everyone knew something terrible was about to happen.

“They have questions about the accident,” Noreen continued. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”

“Will she be home later then, later tonight?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Everything was echoing all around me. The same thing would happen in the courtroom when I heard the guilty verdict.

“Not tonight, I don’t think,” Noreen said. “By tomorrow she’ll be home. They’ll straighten everything out and she’ll be home.”

“No she won’t.” I turned cold and matter-of-fact. “My mother’s not coming home, is she, Noreen?” Silence answered my question. The world pulled back like a mighty wave. I could hear its roar, feel it knock me off balance.

Oh my God, I thought to myself. Oh my God, what will happen to us now?

And now, on that same night, I am back in my house. Sandy is there. Noreen is there. The Lances have driven Ron and me up to pack some clothes. The house is dark except for the lights in our bedrooms. Instead of packing my clothes, I fling myself on top of my twin bed and begin to weep uncontrollably into my pillow. Someone comes into the room to tell me it’s time to go and finds me weeping. I can hear whoever it is leave the room.

I can hear more people coming back into the room. Someone sits on the bed beside me. I pull my arms from under my pillow and spread-eagle across the bed, my fingers fastened like talons to the mattress. No coaxing can make me move. I am sobbing. Someone begins to pull at me. I tighten my grip. I know I will never be back. If I let them pry me loose they have won, and I have lost. I scream, “Go away! Go away! This is my house. You can’t make me leave my house.”

There are more of them. I cling to the sides of my bed, my life depending on it. I continue screaming. Sobbing and screaming. They win. I lose. I am pried, against my will, from that little bed. I am carried limp and sobbing to a car. The car slowly backs down the driveway. It is very dark now, very dark. I am crying. I am alone. I never go home again.


In 1991 I wrote a letter to Joan Didion that began, “It helped to make you famous but it’s my life.”

I was referring to her essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which she wrote about my mother’s murder trial, and which has now been in print for 40 years.

My mother, Lucille Miller, was convicted of the murder of my father, Gordon Miller, on March 5, 1965. She served seven years of a life sentence in the California Institution for Women in Corona. Pregnant when she entered prison, she gave birth to my sister, Kimi Kai Miller, in June 1965.

The Lances eventually became our legal guardians. They meant for us to be together. We were never grateful.

Kimi died of lung cancer at age 25, leaving two children, one paralyzed from the waist down from spina bifida. My brother Guy lives in Claremont and practices dentistry. My brother Ron, a writer, lives in Laguna Beach and teaches high school in San Juan Capistrano. I will be 20 years sober in June, after a long struggle with a cocaine addiction and a rather miserable life. I now live in Venice and teach English at a private high school in Los Angeles.

Ron, Guy and I all married, but never had children. We were hopelessly entangled with our mother until the day she died, Nov. 4, 1986.

I finally met Joan Didion in 1996 at a reading of her latest book, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” I asked her to sign my copy. She wrote: “For Debra Miller--who knows better than anyone I know the ambiguity of the written word.”

That night, at an event at the Directors Guild, Didion walked me to the front of the auditorium to sit beside her. When she was introduced with a passage from her essay on my family, the part about the flames consuming my father in our black Volkswagen, she grabbed my hand. I will never forget it.



‘What Will I Tell the Children?’ The case was sensational--a fiery death, a love affair, drug addiction, divorce plans, a $125,000 insurance policy, a pregnancy behind bars--and it played out over five months in near-daily headlines:

Movie Called Blueprint for Dentist’s Death

Doors Shattered at Miller Trial; Shrieking Women Crash Through Glass in Stampede for 65 Courtroom Seats

Mrs. Miller Told of Love for Attorney, Witness Says; Affection Indicated Just Before Dentist’s Death, Woman Testifies

Motel Romance Loveless on His Part, Hayton Says

Mrs. Miller Called ‘User of People’; Branded ‘Manipulator’ as Final Arguments Open in Murder Trial

Mrs. Miller’s Scarf Second Bit of Evidence to Vanish

To Be Reared by Others; Miller Children Will Be Tragedy’s Victims

Life Sentence Will Be Given to Mrs. Miller; State Won’t Request Execution

Joan Didion would write about the case in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” reprinted in her classic 1968 collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” As much about the deep shadows cast by the California sun as about the murder of Gordon Miller by his wife, Lucille, the essay was originally titled “How Can I Tell Them There’s Nothing Left,” after something Lucille Miller said the night her husband burned to death.

“What will I tell the children, when there’s nothing left, nothing left in the casket?” she asked. “How can I tell them there’s nothing left?”

But there was too much left--years of fear, rage and fragmented memories, as Debra J. Miller recounts.



In Didion’s Words

From “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it, but by the time they left the first orange tree had been planted and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air, people who brought with them Midwestern ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took in curious ways. This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. The case of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to that new life style.