On August 28th, 1987 I know exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was nine. It was Friday and one of the last days of summer before the first day of 4th grade. That morning I was just another American kid riding my pink, banana-seat bike with streamers on the handle bars and listening to Madonna on cassette tape. By the end of that day, I learned what evil was.
There’s a local news story here in the Northwest Region that has made the national news. It’s not a pleasant one. In fact, it’s one of the most horrible things you can imagine. A man named Josh Powell allegedly killed his two sons in an effort to cover up the alleged murder of their mother. The story has brought back memories from my childhood that are hard to think about.
When I was nine I lived in an average, middle-class, Midwestern suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. I played softball in the Summers, got poison ivy every year from traipsing through the woods and my best friends lived within walking distance of my front porch. There were oodles of kids in my neighborhood, among them were two brothers. Their names were Jeremy and Eric. Jeremy was 12 and had sandy blonde hair. All the neighborhood girls had a crush on him. Eric was only eight and a year behind me in school. They weren’t my best friends, mostly because they were boys, but on August 28th, 1987 I spent the day with both of them building a go-cart out of scrapped wood. That evening, after the go-cart had been sufficiently tried and failed, Jeremy and Eric’s mother, like so many mothers, stood at the top of the street in a white blouse and called them home for dinner.
On that warm summer night, me, my best friend and some other girls from the neighborhood were playing truth or dare on the front porch. One of the dares involved running into the middle of the street and pulling your shirt above your head. I can’t remember if it was my dare or not, but someone did it. Shortly after, a cavalcade of firetrucks and police cars descended on our street and we thought for sure we were going to jail for indecent exposure. To our shock they passed us by. Instead, they stopped up the street right in front of Jeremy and Eric’s house. The previously dark and relatively quiet night was now ablaze in flashing lights and loud, scary sounds.
We didn’t see or smell fire and they weren’t getting out their hoses. The longer the police officers and fire fighters stayed, the more curious we became. I was a brave little girl and I volunteered to go up the street and eves drop on the adult neighbors gathered on the sidewalks to find out what was happening.
As I stood across the street looking at the house where the boys lived, I glanced down to the police car in front of me. In the backseat, closest to where I was standing sat their mother. She was wearing the same white blouse from earlier only now it was stained with something dark. Her hands were cuffed behind her back and she leaned sideways, her head on the window looking down. I couldn’t see her eyes, only the side of her face. She was so motionless and seemingly catatonic that I remember thinking she might be dead.
She wasn’t dead, but her sons were. After she called them to dinner she took them to McDonald’s and then to a motel less than a mile from our street. She stabbed them to death with a fishing knife. She had just lost a custody battle with her ex-husband and decided that having them dead was better than having them live with him. I didn’t know her name then, but now I will never forget it, it was Nila Wacaser.
My best friend and I, we went to those boys’ funeral. We planted trees at our school and tied ribbons around them in memory. I honestly don’t know how my nine-year-old brain made sense of that whole thing. Perhaps it is a part of the fabric of my life that has inspired me to want to understand the human condition?
I can only say that as an adult and through my desire to understand why people behave the way they do, I understand mental illness in a whole new way. I know now that people don’t have to be coughing or in the hospital to be considered sick and that just because someone smiles at you from over the fence doesn’t mean they are okay. I know now that mental illness can make people do destructive, incomprehensible, non-sensical things that will make you shake your head in judgement and horror.
Please do not mistake me as carrying water for these people. Calling Josh and Nila “mentally ill” feels like an insult to those who are living with mental illness. What these two people, PARENTS
allegedly did to their OWN children and the premeditation involved in these acts goes so far beyond that technical definition of mental illness and yet, it feels like the best words I have to describe it.
Believing that you own your children because you helped give birth to them is mentally ill. Believing that taking another life is better than having your own pride wounded or going to jail, then you are most definitely sick in the head. If you are operating out of a place where your concern for saving face ranks higher than the life of an innocent child, your OWN child at that, then certainly, at the VERY LEAST you are MENTALLY ILL.
The only way I can attempt to make sense of Josh and Nila now is through the prism of my adult view of humanity. I believe that when people buy into their own self-importance, their ego, their pride, their sense of property, ownership and identity as being something other than, and separate from, whatever they call God, (but more importantly of COMPASSION and LOVE); then people can become severely, painfully, often times destructively mentally ill.
Josh and Nila are extreme examples of that kind of illness.
I’m not sure that I truly understand anymore now than I did then what could drive someone to do something like this; not entirely anyway. All I’m saying is that Josh and Nila didn’t know ONE thing about what it means to live and be alive in this world and perhaps its better (for many reasons) that neither of them are anymore.
My heart went out to Jeremy, Eric and their family when I was nine, and my heart goes out to Charlie, Braden and their family now. May all you boys have found the love that you deserved on Earth. Peace be with you now and always.