|Susan G. Pittmann in Red Boots|
Brooks was not a stranger to me, our family knew him for years. He used to drink too much but he quit; he was angry and lonely. Frequently, he was lonely more than angry and I felt sorry for him. Once he shot our pet chicken, Chicken Little, because she was trespassing on his property. I was not afraid of him, though; I just thought that he had a temper as we used to say in Michigan. As a child, I reflected, I had a temper, too. Once I ran to his house when Black Beauty, our Labrador retriever, was locked in the backseat of our car. She must have gotten in when we opened the doors to go into the house. I remember I had a feeling that she entered while I was taking my time getting out of the car. It was that feeling that led me to discover where she was...I desperately tried to call Mom and Dad who were at work but there was no way to contact either of them. Brooks said the only way to open the door was by breaking a window, I tried but I couldn't. He said that the dog looked dead anyway. His lack of action was disheartening. Black Beauty, a gorgeous reject from a seeing eye dog school, died from the intense heat and lack of air. I saw her rolled up in a comfortable circle on the floor just waiting for her next car ride. (I know that sounds like a sad country song.)
Brooks occasionally threatened to shoot Cin-Cin, my French alpine 4H show goat, especially when she slipped out of the corral to contentedly enjoy the fresh green leaves off of his young apple trees. He threatened to shoot often but usually, he controlled himself by calling the police or reporting us for some imagined (or real) minor infraction. Ironically, he was reporting Mom and Christine for animal abuse. He shot at Mom's dogs, Arrow and Ms. Pitt, for trespassing. Ms. Pitt -yes, she was a pittbull-had a thyroid condition that slowed her down; she was heavy and not much of a wanderer so Mom kept her inside of the house most of the time. Brooks was shooting at Arrow and reporting Mom to any authority he could think of while passing more and more time at the Orchard Grove restaurant and bar. Shocked neighbors encouraged his rage at the lesbian women over at the Pittmann place. I imagine them questioning, "What happened to Sue, anyway? Wasn't she married to Richard all those years?" They would try to reason, "I always knew there was something weird about her; she rode a big motorcycle, you know. I heard she went all the way to Alaska on her bike; she's such a showoff." The grapevine reports that Brooks shared his plans to kill Mom and Christine down at the Grove where he would receive ongoing sympathy and support for his distressing viewing situation. He was going to kill them; he told the neighbors. He was going to kill them; he told Mom and Christine.
Brooks was not always a man of his word; he had a record of temper, not commitment. In the kitchen where he would sit and drink coffee, he had a gun-a hunting rifle-behind him. He had a couple of rifles in the corner and a shotgun as well. I imagine him sitting there at the table, rage pouring over his skin while he thought,"It's not natural ...those women together like that; it's just not right." Decisively, he got up and went to the property line; he crossed it and confronted Christine who was working on the fence posts.
Mom told me that Christine had a camera and was trying to take his picture while he was on their property; maybe she did snap a picture. Who knows? (Update: Pictures were found of Brooks in Mom's camera.) Brooks and Christine exchanged words and he went back to his house, pointed a rifle from the kitchen doorway and at a distance, shot Christine. Mom was calling 911 when Christine was shot. I heard the recording, "He shot my worker!" she said. The police operator tried to get details; address, descriptions-anything to keep Mom on the phone. I heard a sound like a phone falling to the ground and that was all. Mom ran out to help Christine who was face down in the grass. Brooks walked to our circle drive with his shotgun. With the strength of metal and gun powder, he faced my mom. She looked directly at him, courageously stood in front of him, while he lifted the gun and shot into her. She was so close to him that the bullets made a dollar-sized hole in her body; the blood poured out quickly and she was gone.
Sometime during the event, probably after Brooks killed Mom, he walked up to Christine and shot her directly in the back. Then he got into his car, backed up, and sat there waiting for the police to come. When they approached him, he didn't try to escape, he just said, "It had to be done." It had to be done. When you shoot wounded animals; a horse with a broken leg, a dog hit by a car, or a litter of puppies infested with maggots; you might say, it has to be done. When you kill two women who loved each other; and you are James Elwood Brooks or the community that supported him, you say; it had to be done.
Mom was 55 years old and Christine was 36, I think. I know it was May 5, 1992, Cinco de Mayo in southern California, when I heard the news. My sister, Linda, called me at work- the US Department of Defense, Naval Consolidated Brig, Miramar, and said, "Mom is dead." I replied, "Mom is dead? How do you know? Tell me, are you sure?" Someone called her, a cousin, I think, and said your mom's been shot. I couldn't believe it. I wouldn't believe it. I was going to see her soon. I had my airline ticket and her new baby granddaughter, Amber, too; we were going to be there. She's not dead, I thought. But she was...her body was gone and I was too shaken to feel her in any other way.
Sue Pittmann was powerful. Her presence cleared the space of doubt around me and made me sure I could do anything. I am so proud to be her daughter. When the sun set on her life; it set in my heart and I knew I had to be strong on my own; I had to go on without a powerful mother lighting the way for me. I think I'm fine. Today's Mom's birthday; how glad I am that she was born. Happy Birthday Mom and thank you for my life.
Postscript October 2013: My blog post about my mother and her partner's death in a hate crime in Romulus, Michigan is at Oasis Writing Link.
The documentary about Sue and Chris and the LGBT movement, that is nearing completion can be found at the Pittmann Puckett Documentary website and Facebook page.
The Affirmations organization of which my mother Susan Pittmann and Christine Puckett were founding members (at the time called the Downriver Michigan Community Center) is located in the preceding hyperlink. Affirmations has grown to the largest organization for the LGBT community in Michigan and one of the ten largest LGBT organizations in the United States.
Affirmations has honored my mother and Christine by naming an art gallery after them, the Pittmann-Puckett Art Gallery.
The theme song to the documentary by Susan Hendrick that highlights the LGBTQ struggle of self-acceptance, called "Fight 2 B Whole" can be located here at the link.
The self-help book, My Mom was Murdered: A Survival Story, written by my sister Pamala Messinger, a certified counselor, is available for purchase through AuthorHouse at the link. This book reveals the author's traumatic story and connects it to experientially developed techniques for those who have lost a loved one through violent crime.
Two fictional narratives written by Marianne K. Martin, Love in the Balance and The Indelible Heart have plots and characters loosely based on this hate crime in Michigan and Mom and Christine. They can be purchased through ByWater Books. I was honored to write the foreword to the sequel "The Indelible Heart".
An interview of Marianne K. Martin by Carolyn Elias on Charles Henry Editing Blog reveals more about the author:
"Expressing and exploring who I was as an individual, as a whole person, had to be done secretly and during those times when I wasn’t teaching, coaching, or losing my mind. It is the need to express beliefs and thoughts and feelings that had been suppressed for so long" (quoted in the interview at the link).
Marianne was asked, "Were the hate crimes which were described in Love in the Balance based on an actual crime? She answered,
"The hate crimes described in Love in the Balance are based on the hate crime murders of Susan Pittmann and Christine Puckett, committed in Huron Township in Michigan. I was honored to have their daughter, Cynthia Pittmann, write the poignant Foreword for the sequel, The Indelible Heart. I am deeply touched that Marianne understands and can give voice to the real life struggle of women who love women. She honors my mother Susan Pittman and her life partner Christine Puckett by keeping their story alive.
A captivating audio interview with Marianne K. Martin, "All Things Gay," aired on Portsmouth Community Radio, New Hampshire, August 29, 2011:
"In this interview, Marianne discusses how the real-life daughter of the lesbian couple her characters are based on responded to her book, touches on how life was like as a high school lesbian on a softball team in the 60s, her life as a closeted gym teacher for 25 years, and her experience winning a court case for equal pay for women coaches in 1973" (excerpt from Webpage).
Audio Interview with Marianne K. Martin:
In this audio interview, Marianne describes our meeting through a link on Facebook to my blog, "Dear Mom" October 31, 2009. I wrote to Mom informing her about events that had occurred since her passing. It was my 100th blog post. I feel that Mom's legacy lives in me.
Then as now, I want to make sure that I continued to honor the connection between her life, myself and Oasis Writing Link™ blog.
|Susan Pittmann (left) and Christine Puckett at Wayne State University graduation. Mom graduated with a BA in Social Work. She was nearing completion of her MA when she was murdered ( May 5,1992).|
Sending love to you, Mom. Peace and joy to you and Christine.xxo
COMMENTS from the original blog.
1. Mark November 14, 2008 at 6:52 AM Sorry about the mistakes, which I noticed now when I reread this.
2. Yogini November 15, 2008 at 1:01 AM It seems like you have gone through a lot, Mark. I send you blessings of peace and surround you in a halo of contentment that is infused with the balancing tonic of justice to provide you with the strength to transform your difficult situation.
3. Passion4Blue November 20, 2008 at 8:29 PM Cynthia, thanks for sharing this story with us. I know we are family, but I don't think I've ever heard the full details of what happened like you outlined on this blog. I'd heard the bits and pieces but never the full story. I had no idea that this nut-job (Brooks) was a neighbor for so many years, even while you lived here in Michigan. I'm glad that you created this website to honor your mother, I think this is totally fantastic! What better way to honor her memory than with the words of life that radiate from her own daughter's heart and soul. Sadly there will always be pockets of hate and intolerance in the minds of some people. Ignorance will always exist to some degree. I've always felt that judging is not our job. When I hear of any senseless death especially of a great person, I'm always reminded of Elton John's lyric for when John Lennon was slain..."It's funny how an insect, can damage, so much grain". Love ya!
4. Cynthia November 21, 2008 at 8:44 AM Thanks Eddie, for your input on the mom story. When you tell a story so much after it initially happens, you get tired of telling it. I'm glad I gave it a rest and now I can talk about it with the perspective of 16 years. Most people think that you have to be crazy or evil, essentially, to commit a violent crime but I learned in my years teaching at the brig (military prison)that crimes (especially first offenses) are committed by those under some kind of mind altering influence- drugs, rage, hate...That's why we have to be responsible about what we encourage-intentionally or unintentionally. People have the capacity to experience life at a more altruistic level; it is also true that violence can be cultivated in a climate of fear and intolerance. I hope that my contributions to the atmosphere of acceptance are strong enough to make a difference.
5. Yogini November 22, 2008 at 9:28 PM Mark, I have some Cherokee advice given by Awiakta's parents for your work situation: "If you meet a copperhead-snake or person-give'em a wide berth. If you have to go in close,take a hoe." As a fellow gardener, I am confident that this suggestion should do the trick.
6. A Woman Of No Importance February 7, 2009 at 5:27 PM Cynthia - it is amazing, but I see such serendipity here on your site - The pic you show of the suffragette happens to be one I have used to illustrate my writing today, and the quote from John Martin when I just wrote about him at his passing... I am sorry for the loss of your mother and her beloved partner - I can only sing, once more from John, "I don't want to know about evil, I only want to know about love...", and I think you had that 'in spades' from your mom and her beautiful life and loves... Bless them both x
7. High Desert Diva February 8, 2009 at 12:31 PM god what a horrific story. I'm so sorry for your tremendous loss.... what a horrible, horrible man
8. French Fancy February 9, 2009 at 4:43 AM This is such a difficult thing to read, Cynthia and words wouldn't do justice to how I feel after reading it. I feel so angry on your behalf - well, your mother's really - so very angry. I can't go on because I don't want to sound trite.
9. Mama Shujaa February 11, 2009 at 1:21 PM Thank you for sharing this story; your beautiful blog is a wonderful tribute to your late mother. Blessings, Mama Shujaa
10. Cynthia February 11, 2009 at 2:17 PM Thank you all, Charmaine HHD, French Fancy, Woman of Every Importance and Mama Shujaa. Your warm comments remind me just how lovely the world can be.
Let's keep the conversation going in the comment section on this page, too.