I never know what is going to happen when I go to sleep. Since David’s death, my dream life has become as vivid as my waking life. They are bizarre, imaginative dreams. Some redeeming; some disturbing. The last dream I had was about Max. Doctors had discovered that there was something wrong with him and that an operation would correct the problem. After the surgery, presumably, he wouldn’t continue to be violent.
This is my wish for Max: that his future would be that he was no longer violent. This is my wish for his past, as well: that he would not have been violent and that my brother would still be alive.
The dream before that one was that David’s murder was not just conducted by Max. In the dream, there was a film being made in New Orleans (land of the birth of conspiracies). David had been involved in helping with the production of the film. I was watching the still-unfinished film, and I saw that my mother’s prized antique baker’s rack had been used; too, her Dzigurski painting was being used as a prop. In real life, both of those items had been taken from our parents’ home by David upon my mother’s death; and now they both reside in my own home; they are a legacy, from my mother to my brother to me, passed down as though they were blood linking us together in death as we were in life.
Watching the film (in my dream) revealed evidence that Max had killed David, but he had done it at the bidding of powerful forces that had ordered him to do it.
Both dreams indicate to me the same meaning; they both say the same thing in different ways. They said that the murder wasn’t entirely Max’s fault. Max was the agent of death, but that hidden forces were responsible for the deed as much as were Max’s own hands that he had used to bludgeon David to death.
This idea – that there are hidden forces that propel us to do acts that our rational minds would never allow – is, of course, the basic premise of Freudian psychoanalysis, out of which the entire field of psychotherapy and much of psychology has grown. It has also become an essential part of the groundwork of our modern criminal justice system. We cannot be found guilty of a crime if we remain blissfully ignorant of the wrongfulness of our act. (Great Britain takes the concept even a step farther; no mother can be found guilty of murder for the first year of her infant’s life, though she may have killed her child.)
Aside from the pain of losing my brother’s company in this lifetime – the mourning that his loss has propelled me into — the question of Max’s culpability has been the most difficult issue that I have struggled with. Coming to know how I think and feel about this issue has been important for me personally; but it has also been important throughout the criminal investigation and proceedings in the determination of the legal consequences for Max. To what extent can Max be held responsible for his act of murder? What magnitude of damage could be attributed to genes, or early environmental experiences? To what degree is he a product of a failed upbringing? What might be the relevance of legally prescribed psychotropic and medical drugs that Max had taken from a young age? In short, how culpable should a 19 year old teenager be held for his actions, and for how long?
Various research studies have documented that there is a genetic/constitutional component to criminal behavior. Brain-imaging techniques have given us a wealth of information about these factors in criminals: Researchers have accurately predicted who is most likely to commit a crime after release from prison; anti-social behavior has been linked to low presence of an enzyme (MAOA) that results in a smaller amygdala – the emotional center of the brain; impulsive murderers have been shown to have lower functioning of the prefrontal cortex—the “guardian angel” that keeps the brakes on impulsive, disinhibited behavior and volatile emotions. (Serial murderers, on the other hand, do not show this damage, as they need a strong pre-frontal brain to be able to regulate their behavior carefully in order to escape detection for a long time.)
And, we know, too, that early environment plays a role. While we know nothing about Max’s genetic history, we do know that he spent the first five years of his life in a Russian orphanage. He was almost five when he was adopted; his sister, Tatiana, adopted at the same time, was three; both were adopted by a middle-class New Orleans couple.
It is well known that the Russian orphanages are outrageously terrible places. Many of the children who come out of these institutions are severely emotionally and cognitively damaged. A few years ago, a mother put her adopted child on an airplane to Russia, sending him back as though he were a pre-stamped return package. So – yes – I do understand this. But genes do not always rule, and sometimes the negative effects of difficult and damaging early years can be ameliorated or even undone by better later years.
When assistant District Attorney Ernie Chen asked me if I would be willing to speak to a social worker who had studied Max’s case, I agreed with interest.
The social worker was John Muggivan, and as well as being a social worker, he is a former priest. John Muggivan is also a man not unfamiliar with murder. He co-authored a book about a murder in Ireland. In New Orleans, where he currently resides, he has been called to assist in Capital 1 (death penalty) cases. His usefulness in these cases is because he has training in Mitigation. Mitigation is a relatively new profession, started in Texas, but now spread to Louisiana, the two most gung-ho death penalty states in the country. Mitigation (as opposed to Mediation which has an entirely different meaning) comes into play only in a Capital 1 offense. In the state of Louisiana, a Capital 1 offense is reserved for the killing of a police officer, or for a heinous murder involving killing the very young, or the elderly, defined as over the age of 65. My brother was 67 when he was killed. The DA’s office could have charged Max with a Capital 1 offense. With that possibility looming, Max’s parents hired John Muggivan to study Max’s psychiatric/medical/criminal records and to meet with Max in order to prepare a defense for the possible eventuality and outcome of a trial. The worse case scenario (for both myself – a death penalty opponent — as well as for Max and his family) would be that Max would be found guilty, and that he would receive the death sentence. Muggivan’s job then would have been to show the jury mitigating circumstances in order to save the life of his client.
After a few back and forth brief emails, Muggivan and I began a series of lengthy dialogues, both phone conversations as well as emails. These dialogues with Muggivan were extremely helpful to me. I was reeling from the loss of my brother. I was overwhelmed with not understanding how this fate had come to be my brother’s final destiny on this earth. I was confused, wounded, and uncomprehending. Muggivan was sympathetic, smart, and had a keen eye and ear for nuances. He also had some original theories about the meaning of growing up gay in the South.
David was gay. I knew he was gay for as long as I have memory. Being gay was no picnic in the south. I remember one time David and three of his friends were driving around the city. David was not yet 17 at this time. The car was stopped by the police; the car was searched, and gay adult porn was found in the truck of the car. All four were arrested. David had supportive parents to call; the rest didn’t. David got out of jail that night; without parental intervention, the other teenagers were sent off to Mandeville to a psychiatric facility for an indefinite period of time (an early 1960’s Southern-way of forcibly imprisoning them without the need for criminal prosecution).
Within the course of my conversations with Muggivan, it became clear to me that Max had been a troubled kid, and had grown into an even more troubled teenager who had spent a lot of time – in fact, most of his teenage years — in facilities, state homes, and rehab centers. But I also had the impression that he was not a “thrown-away” kid. His parents were clearly devoted to him and his sister, and had gone to great lengths to try to get both of them what they felt were appropriate therapies.
It was soon established between Muggivan and me that Max’s parents and I had a mutual interest in meeting each other.
The leading question I had – the information that I would be looking for in my proposed meeting with Max’s parents, Louise and Don – was: who is Max? Why had Max become who he had become? And what had happened in this family that might have been related to Max becoming a person capable of unprovoked murder. Friends have asked me about this interest of mine; some consider my desire to understand Max to be an almost morbid interest. My only defense to the inquiry is that essential to whom I am, fundamental to my identity is my need to understand human motivation, human urges and impulses, and the thoughts and feelings that accompany these. It has been my life’s work as a professional mental health practitioner. And, even with this devastating emotional experience I have lived through on a personal level, the sudden and dreadful loss of my brother, I cannot turn away from this aspect of who I am.
My other motivation for wanting to meet Max’s parents was that I thought there could be a healing. As I had come to think about it — a meeting of grief (mine) and guilt (theirs) — that would soothe each of us. I had come to feel compassion for this family, and the plight that has befallen them because of Max’s actions. My sympathy was most especially extended out toward Louise, as she and I shared the common bond of motherhood. I understood from listening to Muggivan speak about Max’s history, as well as talking to those who were involved in the criminal case against him, that Louise and Don had tried – tried mightily – to show up for their two adopted children: to care for them, to help them in their specific challenges of growing up in this new land with a new language wherein they found themselves plopped down.
In Jefferson Parish, an outlying parish from New Orleans proper, and where David resided when he was killed (in his own home, in his own bed), the desire of the family of the victim – in this case, the victim’s closest surviving relative was myself – carries great weight in terms of determining the sentence for a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an agreement between perpetrator, victim or family of victim, DA’s office and judge. Its advantage is that it avoids a trial, which is, at best, an unpredictable affair that is both emotionally draining for all as well as costly to the state. Ernie Chen indicated that the DA’s office would take into serious consideration whatever my recommendation would be for Max’s penalty. If I wanted to avoid a trial, then a plea bargain would be offered. Ernie told me that the DA’s office would want to see a minimum sentence of 30 years, but if I felt strongly about shortening that time, or lengthening that time, my opinion would count. Ernie explained that if Max were sentenced to 30 years, he would come up for parole in 26 years. At that time, I will be 92.
For Louise, 26 years would be far better than the possible outcome of a guilty verdict through a trial that held the possibility of a sentence of life without parole, and thus, no chance of Louise ever seeing her son again except through bars.
In discussing the parameters of a possible meeting with Max’s parents, I specifically asked Muggivan whether or not Don and Louise were angry with either me or David. He said no – no one was angry – there was no place for anger. I felt relieved – because I envisioned that Louise and Don could have blamed David for Max’s plight: they could have come to feel, as many perpetrators and their loved ones do, that the crime committed was not of the making of the perpetrator, but was provoked by the victim, and thus, there comes to be a lack of accountability for the crime. Muggivan assured me that this position was not how Max’s parents felt.
Muggivan explained to me that previously, when he had been hired as a Mitigator, he always met the family of the victim across the aisle of a courtroom. He, and the victim’s family, remained on opposite sides of a legal process. It was in the best interest of both sides, as he put it, to “demonize” the opposing side. He explained that he has often had the urge to reach out to the family on the other side of the aisle, but that the technicalities and inevitabilities of the process have prohibited him from doing that. His interest in putting me together with Max’s parents was in order to prevent this mutual demonization. I felt it to be a worthy cause, and I very much wanted to participate in it.
I flew down to New Orleans on the weekend of Jazz Fest for the meeting. Muggivan picked me up from where I was staying – my cousin Dvosha’s house. The Hoppens’ house is not far from Dvosha’s. When I first walked into their house, I saw that there was a slight edge of artsy-ness to it. It had some unusual design features, and I attributed this to Louise’s history of being in the theatrical arts in NYC for a time earlier in her life. Louise greeted me at the door, and we shook hands. She is a pleasant looking woman, with a nice and engaging face. Her husband Don was not present. He had taken Tatiana out of the house so that she would not be privy to hearing any part of our conversation.
We all sat in the living room. It was night, and dark. But the room itself was darkish – and I had the feeling that it was dark during the day as well. Muggivan started the conversation by pointing out that as far as he knew what we were doing had never been done before. People who should have been sworn enemies — the aggrieved and the aggrieved upon – were meeting to see if there could be some common ground, some healing, It was inspiring to hear him say this. He believed strongly that the dialogue we were about to embark upon could be meaningful to all of us, and he felt privileged, if not also with some trepidation, to finally be a part of this process that he had been instrumental in setting up.
Louise began the conversation by expressing her sorrow at my loss. Truthfully, her words felt a bit perfunctory. Of course she had to say that. But I appreciated that she said it, even if she did not feel it. Even at that early moment of our meeting, I felt from her a kind of hollowness, perhaps a state of emotional shock, and that the damage to her and her future life was going to be ultimately more profound than my own loss – even though it was my brother who was dead, and her son who was still solidly alive.
I started our conversation by telling Louise that I, too, had an adopted child – and that I had developed a theory about adopted children. As
I explained to her, I think that all adopted children – no matter how healthy and responsive their adopted family has been – nevertheless still live with a life-long wound around the issue of separation. I explained that I had seen it in my daughter when she was young, and that while she had largely outgrown her fear of being away from me, I still felt that it could continue to resurface, under stressful circumstances, as a painful and difficult issue for her.
We talked about the early history of her children. She said that when they came, Tatiana was actually in far worse shape than Max. She was referring to serious and never-ending tantrums that had left her exhausted. As Louise and I began to talk, she pointed to the computer sitting against one of the walls, and commented that Tatiana was being home-schooled and that her computer in the corner was where she did her on-line courses. To me, the darkness of the room, and the space in which Tatiana worked, was not irrelevant. It felt as though if I had spent any significant time in that room during the day that I would begin to feel an oppressive air around me.
When the conversation turned to Max, Louise reported (upon Muggivan’s prodding) that Max used to jump on her lap – endlessly – forever it seemed to her. It more than exhausted her; it gave her bruises. (OK – here we have the first piece of information that this is a self-sacrificing woman – who does not want to put limits on her son – even when it is to her detriment and physical discomfort. I know it is easy to next-day-quarterback – but I feel I NEED to be looking at what went wrong here – so terribly wrong here -not just from the first five years in an orphanage, but from all the later years as well.)
Louise described that Max is artistically talented, plays the trumpet, and likes to write poetry and short novels. She described him as charming, polite and respectful. Indeed, this description accorded with not only David’s previous descriptions to me of Max, but also with how David’s neighbors, who had seen and spoken to Max during the time of his living with David, had described him.
I have seen Max’s FB page with postings before the murder, and indeed, as Louise indicated, his drawings are imaginative and skillful. His FB also revealed (assuming that this posting reflects his own words) that he is capable of being thoughtful, and envisioned himself as a caring person:
Love is appreciating. Appreciation is one step beyond acceptance. Its when your focus is on what you like about another. We look at them and feel this sweeping appreciation for who they are, their joy, their insights, their humor, their companionship, etc. when someone says they are “in love” with another, they mean their appreciation is so enormous for the person that it consumes their every thought.or who they are, their joy, their insights, their humor, their companionship, etc. when someone says they are “in love” with another, they mean their appreciation is so enormous for the person that it consumes their every thought.
Louise described herself as an over-protective mom. She explained that Max bonded with her closely in their early years. He hung onto her fiercely. Her understanding is that this closeness changed post-Katrina, when Max was 12. The family was evacuated to Texas. After an eight-month hiatus from New Orleans, they returned home, and Louise became aware that Max was sexually abusing Tatiana. Apparently the deed was being done in a shared bathroom. Louise witnessed the molestation once. Louise and Don responded by giving Max a bedroom with its own bathroom. By separating the bedrooms and not sharing a bathroom, they hoped to make Max’s access to Tatiana more difficult. Yet, in spite of this new physical impediment to Tatiana, Max would then climb out his window, and climb back into the house through Tatiana’s window.
I felt, at this point in the conversation with Louise, that her conceptualization regarding Katrina’s changing Max’s young and fragilely-established life seemed to be a convenient pigeon-hole within which to attach a reason — a rational reason — for Max’s plight. I had known from conversations with Muggivan that long before Katrina, Max had been involved in many misdeeds: he had set fires both in the house and on the lawn; he was a repeat-offender thief, stealing from neighbors (money), near-by stores (candy) and students’ bags ($2000 worth of belongings on one occasion); he was in the habit of accessing porn from the computer at an early age; he had stolen a gun and waved it threateningly in front of fellow Boy Scouts; he had engaged in masturbating in public places as well as performing an act of indecent exposure to a church Prefect.
This deeper, darker side of Max was the Max that Louise and Don did not know what to do with. But it was a side of Max that had been controlling the lives of the Hoppens family for many years. As Louise became more open about the full picture of who Max is, her description of him took on a darker tone. Besides being charming and likeable, as she had previously indicated, she explained that he is also deceitful, cunning and seemingly without remorse for wrongdoings. She described that he functions in a way that suggests that he does not believe that normal social barriers pertain to him.
But, of his various troubling misdeeds, Max’s molestation of Tatiana was the one that changed the course of his life, and changed the relationship he had enjoyed with his parents. After the final rape, Tatiana was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Louise and Don were told by Tatiana’s psychiatrist that if the child was to stand any chance of recovery from the trauma of sexual molestation, Max needed to be prohibited from having any contact with her. From then on, from the age of 12, Max was moved around, juggled from a plethora of public and private institutions: first he was sent to a psychiatric hospital; then an assortment of boys’ group homes; then a homeless shelter; then juvenile detention. His last stint was at a pricey rehab center in Utah.
Louise described that at some point during these various placements, Max developed the predilection for running away. He would leave for days. Don and Louise would frequently not know where he was. When he would come back from his escape journeys, he would just say he needed to be free. Louise mentioned to me several times that he had almost a compulsion (my word) about not taking instruction, not being limited – needing to be independent and free. She described that he would often stay in a tent; having been in Boy Scouts for many years, he knew his way around living outdoors. Frequently, he was able to convince friends to bring him food.
Louise and I talked only peripherally about Max’s molestations of his sister. The various treatment facilities and residential homes did not help. In fact, they seemed to be making Max more, not less, of a delinquent. Knowing that he could no longer stay within their household because of his abuse of Tatiana, Louise and Don decided to take an apartment for Max. Because he was 16, and still a minor, he was not allowed to live alone. Every night Don left his wife, left his daughter, and left his home in order to sleep at the apartment where Max was now living. In spite of this, Max still continued to “run” – sneaking out of a window in the middle of the night. When Don was at work, the apartment became a haven for Max’s friends, and they engaged in various disorderly behaviors including rock throwing from the windows. Eventually the apartment became messy and roach infested, neighbors were complaining – and the Hoppens gave up the apartment.
After the idea for a separate apartment for Max was abandoned, Max had nowhere to live. David and Max met around this time, and Max asked if he could live in David’s house. The house was large: two attached homes with six bedrooms in which Max had his own.
One might wonder why David would agree to house a virtual stranger so much younger than himself. To answer this question, I must return to the fact that David was gay. David “admitted” to me shortly before his death that he had been molested by Perry, his camp counselor when he was 10. I remember Perry well. We all liked him enormously. He came to our house several times after that summer was over. But, in spite of my family’s positive impression of Perry, I can’t say I was surprised when David finally, decades later, imparted this information to me.
When David was 20, he met the love of his life, Lenny. They shared a house together for more than 20 years. Lenny became a part of our family. Lenny and David took frequent cruises and trips with my grandmother. When my parents bought their cemetery plots, they bought four: I had just gotten married (In what turns out to have been an ill-fated marriage), and my sister Lee had been married for several years. My parents felt that Lee and I would be buried next to our husbands. The plots were, then, for the two of them, and for David and Lenny. Lenny was with my family through the death of both of my parents. But most especially, he stayed with my mother through her protracted illness, and her death, caressing her, touching her, soothing her, caring for her as though she were his own mother. He was a dear, sweet man.
During the time of their togetherness, Lenny and David informally “adopted” Lenny’s nephews. For several years, these two boys lived with David and Lenny. When the boys came to them, they were malnourished; their teeth were rotting; they had had very little formal education. David and Lenny fed them well; David paid for dental and orthodontic work; and David paid for them to go to high quality private schools. These boys became a part of my extended family, as Lenny himself had become, and I, as did David and Lenny, grew to intensively love these boys. After three years, their mother asked for them back. It was a heartbreak for us all.
After meeting Max, David talked to me about Lenny. He reflected on their time together, before Lenny had died. He said he missed Lenny. Although he didn’t refer specifically to the time that he and Lenny were raising the boys, I felt that this had been the happiest time of David’s life. I felt that his role in raising the boys fulfilled a giving instinct that David had, and that he had never lost, didn’t lose even as he welcomed his eventual murderer into his home. So, returning back to the question: Why did David bring a virtual stranger so much younger than himself into his home? I think he hoped to re-create those days with Lenny, before Lenny’s death, when they were raising the boys together. He wanted to give to someone in need of being given to.
David talked to me about Max living in his home. He described Max (as others have) as being respectful, but that he had immature qualities (I think the word David used was “inconsiderate”) in terms of caring about the house. David’s main complaint was that Max was in the habit of going out of the house at 3 am and leaving the front door wide open – not just unlocked, but open. David had repeatedly asked Max to be more careful about that pattern. In spite of David’s pleas, Max repeated this behavior several more times. David got angry, and didn’t want Max staying in his house anymore. He placed Max’s clothes at the entrance to the house. When Max came home and saw his clothes in a pile, he called his parents to come pick him up.
With no place for Max to live, he reverted back to living the life of a thief, liar and troublemaker. And, with Tatiana’s need for protection now paramount to Don and Louise, Max was shipped off to his final rehab stint in Utah.
Max got back in touch with David after almost a year in rehab. He called David from the New Orleans airport, said he was back in town, and needed a place to stay. David picked him up from the airport, and agreed to let him stay in his house once again. Max’s welcome in David’s house was short-lived. After two weeks, David discovered that Max was stealing from him. He noticed a computer and television missing. David confronted Max with the theft, and asked for his keys back.
A week later, David’s worker, Gary Olligas, overheard a phone conversation David was having with Max wherein Max promised to bring the stolen items back. He had brought them to a pawnshop, and promised to retrieve and return them. The arrangement was made for Max to come to the house at the end of the workday with the stolen goods in hand. Gary left David’s house as Max was approaching; Max was empty-ended. The day was August 5, 2011. It was the last day of David’s life.
During the accounting by Louise of Max’s history, there were times when things became difficult between us. The first time was when I said something about David’s and Max’s “relationship.” She said, “They did not have a relationship. What they had could not be called a ‘relationship.’ ” This statement was odd to me — since it was so obvious they had a relationship of some sort. I said, “Of course they had a relationship; they lived in the same house on two separate occasions; they ate meals together; they visited friends together; they shopped together; Max didn’t call you when he returned to New Orleans, he called David. I would consider that a relationship.” Louise repeated that they did not have a relationship.
I came to understand about Louise from our dialogue about David and Max’s “relationship” that in the face of facts that Louise does not want to know, she simply obliterates the facts. My understanding of this attribute in her became more and more apparent as the evening went on.
Louise told me that shortly after David’s death, the local police called to say they were looking for Max in New Orleans. She told them that he was not in New Orleans, that it was not possible for him to be in New Orleans because he was in Utah. The police reiterated that Max WAS in New Orleans – and that they needed to find him – that he was wanted in relation to a murder investigation. She said: “Max is not in New Orleans. I know that because I have just paid his rent in Utah. He is in Utah.” She was arguing with the police – telling them they were wrong – HAD to be wrong because she “HAD PAID THE RENT IN UTAH.” So – again – I saw in Louise the sense of the unreality of facts: if facts don’t merge with her notion of the rightness and order of her universe, then facts are relegated to a back seat.
Louise spoke at length about her struggles in raising these two intensely challenging children. She explained that Tatiana, though 17 now, was functioning academically and cognitively at the level of 3rd grade. She said that Tatiana is awkward socially, and has great language and speech challenges. She explained that she knows that Tatiana will never have an independent life, and that she will have to live with her parents as long as they as alive. When Louise spoke about Max, she referred not to the ways in which he had aggressed upon others, but rather the times that he himself had been aggressed upon. She talked about the time that he had first taken his bike out alone, and that he had come back much later than she and Don had expected. Max never explained his long absence until months later, and then indicated that he had been forced to engage in oral sex to a man who had stopped him on the bike. Similarly, she spoke about when Max was in a state group home in Baton Rouge. She said that he reported that he had been raped 60 times. Again, she said that he had never indicated to her at that time that there was a problem, and that she became aware of it only after he had already left the home. She explained that when he finally did tell her, she said to him that he should have told her while it was happening, and that she would have responded had she known. But as she said it, I felt that her reaction to Max seemed thin; it lacked horror. It even lacked guilt.
In spite of Louise’s understanding that Max was a victim as much, or perhaps even more than he was a victimizer, Max himself clearly identified himself as victimizer. Three days after he murdered David, before he was found by the police, he posted on his FB the following comment:
im a very caring person hate seeing people get hurt but when it comes down to thing thing need to be dealt with then ey im in.
To me, within the context of knowing that Max had already murdered my brother but not yet been apprehended at the time of this posting, the statement looks like an admission – a confession of sorts that he is capable of dealing with whomever he considers to be in need of being “dealt with.” To me, these are the words of a man who fashions himself to be a victimizer, not a victim. A victimizer with justification (as so many victimizers are); a victimizer without remorse (as is own mother has described him).
Louise’s litany of difficulties that both children had put her through would have stimulated empathy in anyone. But, as she recounted the broad strokes of their lives, she ended that part of the discussion by exclaiming that she thought that she had done “a pretty good job as a mother.” To me, this was a stunning perception of herself. It was inconceivable to me that a woman who had raised a young man who had committed a murder could conclude about herself that she had been a good mother. She may have been a devoted mother; she may have cared deeply for her son. But, clearly, she was not a “good-enough” mother. Perhaps there was no “good-enough” that would have been good enough for this specific child. But I don’t think, under the same circumstances, that I would have arrived at the same conclusion about myself.
I told Louise that shortly before David’s death, he had told me that he wanted to leave some of his money to charity. I had laughed heartily when David told me this, and told him that his only charity was my daughter, Mol. I actually didn’t take this information very seriously. It was inconceivable to me that David would not leave all his money to Mol. They had a special relationship. Mol adored David (since his death, she has tattooed “Beloved” on her shoulder as a tribute to her love for him). Whenever we were with him, the two of them jested and horsed around in their mutual affection for one another. David should have preceded Seinfeld. He was a jokester, and a natural comedian, and this side of him came out most splendidly when he was with children. But after his death, as I was looking through all his belongings, I came across his notebook, in which he had all the information about renovating the other side of his house. And tucked in those pages was a list of six Jewish charities. I began to realize that David had been serious. He had actually taken the time to investigate various Jewish charities.
Shortly after Max’s arrest, the lead detective on the case, Rhonda Goff, called to go over certain aspects of the charges against Max. In looking over David’s papers, I had discovered that there were credit card charges made for purchases after David’s death. Detective Goff was able to acquire video footage of Max buying a computer and other assorted items with David’s card, as well as attempting to cash a check of David’s from an account that had been closed for over a year. IN the conversation, Rhonda also asked me whether or not I thought that David was the kind of person who might have made Max a beneficiary in his will. At that point, I, and my nieces, had been intensively looking for a will – ultimately to no avail. I laughed at Rhonda’s question because we had put so much effort into looking for a will that apparently didn’t exist. Rhonda asked the question because Max had confessed to a jailhouse snitch that he had, in fact, killed David, and that he had done it because David had told him that he had left him money in his will. According to the snitch, Max also made a chilling confession: he revealed that he had tried poisoning David before the actual murder, and assumed that health authorities would not be suspicious about the death because they would assume he died because he was elderly. In fact, after David’s death, I allowed Gary to move into David’s house. I told him to feel free to eat all the food that was there. Big mistake. There was food in the freezer that David had mixed up for himself. Apparently David had not gotten around to eating the food. But Gary did, and got the worse case of food poisoning EVER. He felt like he was dying. Seems as though the poison hit the wrong target.
When I found the list of charities in David’s notebook, and realized that David had been serious about his desire to leave money to charities, the realization came to me suddenly and poignantly: David had considered Max to be his personal charity. That night, as we sat in Louise’s living room, I explained this idea to Louise — that David had great compassion for Max, and had shown generosity toward him. I told her that when David’s friends would tell him that Max was trouble, David would defend him and say that he himself had done crazy things when he was young. I know that David had the feeling that he could help Max, as well as the desire to do this, and I wanted Louise to understand this. But she couldn’t. All she could see was that David had contributed toward the plight that her son presently found himself in. It was an entirely unsympathetic view of David. In fact, it began to feel to me as though Louise was actually accusing David of being responsible for his own murder, and that Max was an innocent bystander of evil David’s manipulations.
Muggivan, in seeing that Louise and I were beginning to have negative feelings toward one another, decided, at this point, to take control of the conversation. He started talking about a place on St. Charles Av. – in one of the old stately mansions in uptown New Orleans. He explained that in this place, they have young girls and boys – and older men come there to have sex. He explained that if these men are willing to have sex with a girl, then their reward is that they get sex with a boy. Muggivan told this story as though it had relevance to our situation. I was baffled. Such a place, and such activities had no relevance to either me or David. But in talking about this place, Muggivan skewed the feeling in the room to being anti-David as though it were a mathematical equation: a) these places exist in New Orleans where older men buy younger men; b) David was an older gay man who had shown a liking for Max, a younger man; thus, the conclusion: c) David COULD have done this kind of thing – gone to a place on St. Charles Ave, had sex with a young girl in order to buy his way into having sex with a younger man. Muggivan pronounced this equation as a possibility, even though of course, David never did this kind of thing. David was a through and through homosexual. He was not bi; he was gay. For the entirety of his life, he had never had sex with any female, not for any reason and not for any circumstance. He didn’t “grow” into being gay. He was gay the moment he discovered his sexuality, albeit through camp counselor Perry’s coercion. But Muggivan’s inappropriate linking of such a place with David made any further sympathetic conversation between Louise and myself no longer possible.
I had had enough of Louise’s blaming the victim, and I had had enough of feeling ganged up on first by Louise and then by Muggivan, and I became angry. I explained to them both that I had come there with compassion in my heart — for Louise and Don and Tatiana – and yes – even for Max. And that I did not feel that this compassion was being reciprocated. Louise readily and bluntly confirmed my impression. She said that she could feel no compassion toward David. I had told her many stories about David’s generosity – how so many people had come forward since his death to tell me of his acts of kindnesses, his loving nature and deep friendships, his humor and positive sense of life, his gentleness and sweetness. Yet, my attempts to humanize David to her seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Muggivan’s interest in not demonizing the other side seemed to be a one-way street.
In realizing that I was not going to get any sympathy as the sister of a murdered brother, I asked Louise what she wanted, how did she envision that this situation could turn out for her as best as possible. Her answer was: “I know Max has to do some time.” The unreality of her response stunned me. She said it as though her wish was that Max would have to do no time, but the reality was an expectation that he would have to do “some” time. It seemed clear to me that her sense of “some time” did not parallel my sense of “some time.”
I felt that no further good could come out of this meeting and I asked Muggivan to take me home. As we walked out of the Hoppens’ home, I asked Muggivan what kind of time Louise had in mind. Muggivan answered that murderers often get seven years.
Muggivan and I have not spoken since that moment.
Circling back to my dreams: Who’s to blame? David, for inviting a psychopath into his life? Max, for the action of his hands that held the objects with which he bludgeoned David to death? Louise and Don, for not being better parents to an admittedly difficult child? Even myself, for not giving a more strident warning to David; the warning was given, but perhaps not sufficiently stridently? (After David told me that Max had molested his sister, I suggested that Max might have a potential for violence that could be broader than molestation of his sister.)
I suppose we are all accountable. But in the grand scheme of the scales of justice, perhaps unfairly and irrationally, I hold Louise most accountable. Here is why: in my own practice, if my patients do not get better, I hold myself as their analyst accountable. It is my job to get them better. They are paying me to get them better. If they are in my office, they have surrendered to the notion that getting better is not something that they can do on their own. If my patients are not getting better, it is my responsibility to examine what is going on in the treatment, and to determine why it is not working. In other words, as a psychoanalyst, I take everything personally. Deliberately. In order for the treatment to work best, the universe of conflicts that the patient harbors are brought into the analytic relationship. When all issues circle back to the patient/analyst relationship, then the dialogue begins. And within that dialogue, reflection is activated, understanding ensues, and acceptance is garnered.
I see it being the same with being a mother. It’s all personal. Even when it’s not personal, it has to be conceptualized as personal. The child who keeps getting into trouble with friends, in school, with the law — is making a non-verbal, often unconscious communication to the parent. The message is being given loudly but indirectly to the parent. If the parent doesn’t pay heed, and heal her own fractured relationship with the child, then the child remains on a road that impels him toward continued destructivity. The best healing is through the relationship.
And, in thinking about how I conduct myself as an analyst, I came to my understanding of what might have gone wrong in the Hoppens’ household. Louise never took Max’s misdeeds personally. Every intervention she took involved a therapy/intervention outside of herself. First it was medications; then it was changing schools; then it was residential facilities. Her statement, “I think I was a pretty good mother” reminds me of a patient who has a severely schizophrenic daughter. My friend is a nutritionist. For two years in the course of her analysis, we had many long conversations about her daughter’s plight. Each month she explained to me her newest, latest theory about her daughter’s nutritional issues that she believed were causing her daughter’s schizophrenia. In all of these numerous conversations, she never wondered or questioned a possible relationship between her daughter’s psyche and her own mothering skills. It was as if psychoanalysis had never been invented, and that the concept of mental health being related to one’s upbringing was never discovered. And that’s how it seemed with Louise.
(Parenthetically, my patient finally did get interested in any possible psycho/emotional contributions of her daughter’s upbringing, and through the investigation, through the interest in the question, it became clear that there were powerful “mother” issues that had, and were continuing to contribute to her daughter’s condition.)
I have said that it was my impression that Max and Tatiana were not throw-away kids. Yet, upon learning of Max’s troubled history, and how Louise and Don responded to his various disruptive, and at times illegal antics, I think now, conversely, that in the most important ways, he WAS a throw-away kid. Residential homes are not places where quality treatment is available. I have had patients who have worked at these facilities. I even have a patient who worked at one of the facilities in New Orleans that Max lived in. These are places that kids go to when they have no place else to go. They survive the ordeal at best. More frequently they learn additional anti-social survival skills that make them more troubled, more difficult for society, even more psychopathic.
In contemplating my meeting with Louise, I had yet another thought. It had been clear to me about Max that he took no responsibility for his misdeeds. After the rape of his sister, he justified his acts of violence by saying that plenty of guys rape or molest their sisters and the sisters don’t really mind. My realization was that just as Max had (and still has) no sense of the wrongness of his acts, perhaps neither does Louise. I saw no signs that she has outrage, no indications of anger, no blame at all toward Max for his killing of another human being – not even for the tumult that he has thrown his own family into. Blame to David? In abundance. Despair, yes. Massive despair, hopelessness, despondency, anguish. But accountability? I haven’t seen it.
David’s assistant, Gary, has said repeatedly that Max took two lives that day he killed David: Max took David’s life as well as his own, as he will be spending the next several decades in prison. Gary’s understanding was nowhere more evident than at the end of my meeting with Louise. I grieve terribly for David. His loss to me is profound, actually more painful to me than the loss of each of my parents. I am now last-man-standing of the family that I grew up in – with both parents and both siblings now dead. This is a great sadness for me. An incomparable sadness that threatens to wash over me at any given random moment. But when all my work in New Orleans will be done, when I have finished doing all the work that I committed to doing relevant to David’s life and his death — organizing his finances, rebuilding his business, dealing with the judicial aspects of his murder – I still have my own life to go back to. And my life is filled not with death but with life – with the bourgeoning growth of Mol who has now finished her second year of college, with my patients who embrace the life-transformative experience that psychoanalysis offers them, with my little dog Lilly who licks and jumps at the sight of me with absolute fervor, and with my good set of friends who listen to me and keep me company. It is not like this for Louise. Her future will continue to be infrequent visits to her son. Her life may well consist of continuing to have to listen to his stories of his repeated rapes (now jailhouse rapes, replacing the institutional rapes he had previously suffered from); or worse, she may have to listen to the misery of his being in isolation (to “protect” him from the rapes). Louise’s future is of enduring the shame of being mother to a child who has committed a heinous crime. Louise, too, is in mourning for a loss, but unlike mine, it will be a mourning with no end.
My last encounter with Louise was at the first plea bargain hearing in February 2013. Judge Kovatch, myself, the Hoppens, and the D.A.’s office had agreed to a plea of 30 years. I had flown down for the hearing. It was the first time that I saw Max. As he sat in the chair in his orange jail-house jumpsuit, he seemed rather nonchalant about the events circling around him. He was chatting amiably with his neighbor, who in the same orange jumpsuit, obviously was awaiting his appointment with the Judge.
When David was alive, Max and I had spoken on the phone. David liked to do that. He liked to share his life with me. I was happy to know that there was someone in his life who he liked and was spending time with. In the courthouse, I only half-expected that Max would give some acknowledgement to me, some sign of his awareness of me as a person who has been impacted by his actions. I looked and looked, wanting him to meet my eyes, wanting to receive some notice of some relationship between us.
After David’s death, for the first time since my daughter’s birth, I decided to teach a class at my psychoanalytic institute. We were studying madness in literature, and reading non-fiction – true case studies of pathology, violence and murder. One of the students mentioned that she was against the death penalty but that she wasn’t sure that she would still feel that way if someone in her own family were murdered. (The class did not know about my brother’s murder.) I thought about her statement. I found myself saying, spontaneously, without having thought about this before, that when a loved one is murdered, there develops a special, oddly distinctive relationship between the murderer and the surviving relative. The murderer remains the last link to the dead, and one might not feel so quick to want to extinguish that life that serves as this link between the two. In sitting in that courtroom, waiting for the judge to pronounce Max’s sentence, this is what I was waiting for from Max: a sign of the link, a sign that he understood that he and I would remain bound together for the rest of our lives. Perhaps in communication. Perhaps only within our respective psyches. Perhaps only within my own psyche, as I may remain only as an afterthought, a footnote to Max. David is dead, but Max is alive. And Max was the last attachment David had in his life. Max will never not be important to me.
But, alas, the judge, in the middle of the hearing, changed her mind about the plea. Ernie Chen had been speaking for about 15 minutes. He had gone through the history of Max, covered the capture of Max, and was then describing the crime scene. He was referring specifically to blood spatter on the walls and ceiling. It was horribly chilling and infinitely disturbing for me to hear. It must have had a similar effect on Judge Kovatch. She closed down the hearing, saying she was not “happy” with the plea we had all participated in fashioning. She asked that all parties reconsider the penalty, and come back with a new plan. We were all devastated by this last minute change of heart, but Louise perhaps more than anyone.
As the hearing ended, I made a point of going up to Louise and saying a cordial hello. The compassion I had originally felt for her when we first met returned to me. She looked seriously diminished as a woman, as a human being. There was no light in her eyes; there was only deep sadness and profound pain. She appeared to be living a very tortured life. And I believe that that sense of torture about the fate of her life will end only when her own life ends.
A new plea bargain was arrived at a second hearing. Max has been sentenced to 40 years of hard labor at Angola, the state penitentiary in Louisiana.
Through the cooperative efforts of the Jefferson Parish D.A.’s office, Judge Kovatch, Max and his family, and myself, the plea bargain has enabled Max to live out his natural life. Yet, the life that is reflected in a long prison sentence may, in the end, feel to him closer to death than to life.