To Investigative Journalists Everywhere

It’s been a long year. Like, a really really long year. The kind of year I wouldn’t wish on anyone ever, actually — a year that has really tested and tried my ability to stay calm and keep things together. It’s been the kind of year where I’ve stopped thinking “At least this must be as bad as it can get,” and instead started to wonder, every time some new blow lands, what’s coming next and how much more surreal it could possibly get. There remain things about this year which I won’t speak of publicly, but I’ll talk about a few things — things that became public regardless my family’s wishes about if or how such things might become public.

When my little sister disappeared, that was pretty bad. It’s hard enough to just have a loved one missing. But it got harder when we learned her disappearance was classified as being under suspicious circumstances. Then it got harder when my mother, my niece, and I were all asked for DNA samples — not, as my mother put it at the time, because they think that she’s dead, but because the police said it was “routine at this point in such an investigation,” and that obviously, the reason to have DNA samples would be to identify a body.

When my mother died suddenly in Peru, her body found in a hotel, that was covered by the news media in Peru. They’re not really governed by the kind of rules journalists in the US are, I figured, as I read news articles which misspelled her name, and which featured photos — hopefully stock photos — such as a black bodybag thrown haphazardly into the back of a pickup truck. I scrutinized those photos, wondering if that was really her, and concluding it wasn’t, because my mother was not tall and could lay down flat in the bed of a typical Toyota pickup, and that body was too tall. My God, I remember thinking, I have to put out something that people can read that informs them of her death, before things like this spread around the Internet.

The experience of having a lifelong family friend call me from Peru to tell me she found my mother dead? Answering the phone call from the US Embassy a few hours later? Traveling internationally to retrieve my mother’s autopsied body from the third world morgue in which it awaited me? These are all experiences that would challenge anyone’s ability to describe them, let alone endure them. Fortunately for me, I faced those things with the support of not only my family, but the extended community in which I was raised, and mostly, after the immediate flurry of Latin American press had died down.

With my mother dead, many things fell to me — many hard things, most of which remain private: concerns about the wellbeing of immediate family members, my mother’s estate, and all of this on top of being a self-employed small business owner. How to handle these things is not something you can google. There is no “Dummies’ Guide To Handling International Death And Probate With A Missing Beneficiary And Other Major Issues.” I made lists of the things I could identify that needed handling, and set about making phone calls, writing letters, informing lifelong family friends and the entire extended family of where things stood. Of course, it also fell to me to become the main point of contact regarding the investigation into my little sister’s disappearance.

One moment of surreality occurred while I was at the supermarket with my husband, and my cell phone rang. It was the detective leading the investigation, and he was calling to bring me up to speed on where things were. Walking through the aisles and picking up dish detergent and paper towels, I can remember saying, “So after the state crime lab finishes building the DNA profile, what are the next steps?” and “Is the expectation that remains will be found?” I realized a stranger was staring at me. Don’t worry about it, I thought to myself; she probably figures you’re talking about an episode of some crime drama show. “I understand,” I told the detective. “We still can’t really discuss this whole thing widely, so we don’t compromise the investigation.”

These are sentences I don’t think anybody ever imagines they will have cause to utter. Then there are terms you don’t expect to learn in your early forties (unless you’re an estate lawyer, in which case you learned them earlier, in law school, I presume). By the time you have a day in which you discuss DNA evidence and know what “per stirpes” means and that GAL stands for “guardian ad litem” and what that means, and by the time you’ve explained stuff like that to your husband and son, the surrealism has ratcheted up even further.

Then comes a moment when someone asks you how you’re doing. What do you say? To a casual acquaintance you smile and say “I’m good, how are you?” and hope the acquaintance isn’t really asking in earnest. To a close friend you say… what? “I’m doing as well as I think I could be, considering,” was one thing. “I’m in one piece,” has been another. “It’s been hard, and it’s not over yet,” still another. And everyone wants to help but there isn’t really anything anyone can do. I tried to think of things someone could do, and again and again I’d come up short. Again, no guidebook, no checklists, no known etiquette.

There’s nothing that tells you how to think about putting family stuff in boxes because your sister would want it. I thought about those women found in Cleveland after being held captive for ten years. I imagined my sister being found after some such horrible ideal, and what she would want or need. I asked myself over and over, what if she is never found? What if we never know what happened to her? Rationally you know that people endure that, but how will you? How will I? What should I say to someone who was there when my sister and I were babies, toddlers, little girls, teenagers — how do I explain that right now, all we can do is wait for the next steps in the investigation, and face people wondering why I’m not doing something more? How do I not feel let the pain and anger about it all derail me but good?

When complete or relative strangers become involved, in the most well-meaning of ways, then whether they’re really helpful or not, you just express your appreciation. The list of things to be handled is so long you develop new worlds of skill at simply letting go of things that don’t get handled, or are handled poorly, or which someone else handles in their own way. You just put one foot in front of the other, go back to your list, and pick an item from it to see if you can handle it. If you can, you do. If you can’t, you move on to another item. You try to not drop any more balls than can’t be helped. You try to remember to eat healthy and you try to sleep. At least, that’s what I did — except I’d wake up in the middle of the night, often after some strange and perturbing dream, with memories swirling in my head or else plagued by doubt as to whether I’ve done everything right, done everything I could, battered by to-do lists and hopes and fears. It’s June now, and I haven’t slept through the night since November. Every new hair growing in on my head is grey.

My cousin and I are action item people. Something happens, or there’s a question, and she and I are the type to formulate lists of action items and start going through them. So naturally, I’ve talked with her a lot about all of this. The other day, I told her that probably the only thing keeping me from having a nervous breakdown is that I have no idea what the action items are that let that happen. I wouldn’t know where to start. I asked her to run through a checklist for me as to whether or not that was an indicator I was already having a nervous breakdown. We went through the lists and concluded that, sadly, no, I’m still stuck soldiering on. But neither of us said “At least it can’t get worse from here.” We’ve learned it really can. So now, instead, we start wondering at what point Godzilla will rise up from the pond across the road and start smashing his way through the countryside. It doesn’t seem any less plausible than most of what we’ve already faced.

In early May, my grandmother took a sudden and major downturn at the nursing home where she’d resided for many years. This was hard in so many ways. Because of her advanced senility, she no longer really recognized anyone, and had been unable to process that her daughter had died. The time we spent with her was bittersweet — always wonderful just to have those flashes of the amazing woman she had always been, though they’d last a minute or so at best. Her hands were strong the day I last saw her, in late April on my sister’s birthday. We talked about knitting, and spinning, and I handed her my spindle and some silk. I made her a little piece of silk yarn and she wound it through the arms of her walker, stroking it, and saying that it was soft. What was it? she asked several times, and silk, I told her. “I used to knit lots of things,” she said, wistfully. “Like sweaters.” I thought about the hats and sweaters and mittens and so many things she had knit for us all over the years. “I used to knit sweaters for my granddaughters,” she said. “I am your granddaughter,” I told her. “Who is?” she asked, surprised. “You are? Whose granddaughter? Mine? Mine are little. What day of the week is this?” And so it went on, as we sat in the sunshine and shade on the patio of her nursing home. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know her son, my uncle, who had taken me there, who would go see her many times a week.

The diagnosis came in: she had many kinds of cancer, and aggressive treatment did not have a favourable outlook considering her age and mental condition, and it would be painful. They recommended end of life care. My uncle and I agreed. It wasn’t long; she died the Friday before Memorial Day. Now my uncle and I shared the common experience of apparently being the last one left of the family in which we were children.

Unless, of course, my sister were to be found. It has been a long year of hope and despair and fear, on that front. Ever communicative, the detective in charge of the investigation would keep me up to date. There was no reason to believe she was alive, necessarily, except perhaps that she hadn’t been found dead yet, and so I’d think again about women held hostage in basements, women sold into slavery overseas, all kinds of horrible things that could have befallen my sister and what I could do to help her when she’d escape. Because whatever else, my sister was always smart and resilient and able to find a way to survive. She had fantastic survival instincts. If someone were to survive some horror of captivity or something, surely it would be her. Or maybe she’d suffered a memory loss. Maybe she was somewhere not knowing who she was — somewhere thinking, like our grandmother about her knitting, how she had always loved growing plants, wondering what day of the week this was.

How twisted is it, I thought, that a comforting notion is that maybe my sister is being held hostage in a basement? How does one even speak such thoughts aloud without the world thinking you’re crazy? How is this something reassuring I can say to loved ones wondering what we’ve heard about Molly? Is it? Isn’t it? Does it really make me feel better? Should I be saying “My sister is” or “My sister was?” I realized over the past year that I’d gradually, and not really consciously, shifted to saying things about her in ways that avoided that question, like “My sister was always crazy about plants,” instead of “my sister loved plants.”

The word from the detective was that they were close to being able to take next steps in the investigation — more involved search, more involved questioning, different warrants and charges and stuff. He told me a lot of the background, in general terms — which was enough — and with us all understanding, hey, this can’t get spread around everywhere because there’s an ongoing investigation. “What do I tell people when they ask?” I wondered, and the best we could do was “The investigation is ongoing, right now they’re working on a DNA profile at the state crime lab, then there’ll be more things they can proceed with, and that’ll be sometime sooner rather than later.” But the more I heard the more certain I was that I should probably start practicing saying “Molly was my sister” instead of “I am Molly’s sister.”

On Thursday, June 5, I set my cell phone down on the counter and went to do something, then came back to see “MISSED CALL + VOICE MAIL: ALAN HARNETT.” My husband was starting the grill to cook dinner and my son was playing a video game. I listened to the voice mail: there had been developments in Molly’s case, and could I call him back? So I did. I did, and standing on my back deck remembering standing there with Molly when she’d come for Thanksgiving one time, I listened to a story unfold. They had finally gotten to where they had warrants both for a full search of the suspect’s house, and for his arrest for Molly’s homicide. The plan was to bring him in and question him while searching the home.

“Holy shit,” I blurted, then apologized. “It’s okay,” he said, “I’ve heard it before.” He went on to say that they had gone to the suspect’s home that morning to serve those warrants, and unlike times when they’d visited him in the past, he didn’t immediately open the door and speak with them. In fact, he yelled from inside for the police to leave, threatening them. “Holy shit,” I said again. “That’s an understandable response,” the detective told me. He went on to explain that then, after 20 minutes, two teams of two officers forced entry via the front door, and found the suspect barricaded behind a locked bedroom door in the back of the house. He shouted that he was armed and intended to shoot. After some minutes, he emerged carrying a long gun (which is to say a rifle or shotgun — not a handgun, basically) and ran to another room in the house. For 35 minutes the officers followed him as he did this, shouting threats; and then he ran for the back door, at which point one officer hit him with a “less-lethal” rubber baton, which did not stop him. At this point, the suspect raised the long gun to a shooting position towards the officers, who shot and killed him.

“Holy shit,” I said again. “Holy shit.” There was more, lots more. I was shocked.

“Please,” I said, “please tell the officers that my thoughts are with them in what I’m sure is a tremendously difficult time for them. I don’t really know what to say, and I’m not sure what to think, except that I hope they all go home to their families and that my thoughts are with them.”

Nobody wanted things to go this way. And then I realized… “So,” I said, “I… I imagine this will be on the news.”

“Yeah,” the detective told me. “Pretty much any Bay Area news outlet. Shooting at Fair Oaks and Maude. Yeah.”

I thought about how many times I’d been through that intersection when I lived blocks away. I’d looked right at that house. One year there was a pair of shoes hanging from its laces over a traffic light pole next to the homeless shelter next door, and we’d talked with our preschool son almost every time about how those shoes could have ended up there. I thought about my son’s kindergarten and elementary schools, right near there. I tried to picture all this happening, and knew I’d look at the news. But first, I hung up, and explained everything to my husband and son.

The news stories were mercifully brief. Nobody was named. But I knew that was just a matter of time.

I called family. I had a drink, and then I had another one. I sat on my patio and listened to birds singing. It was an absolutely beautiful evening. The lilies were starting to bud and even bloom, some of them.

Suddenly I got three voice mails on the work voice mail. They were all from reporters. I swore. This, then, must be the pond across the road burbling like Godzilla’s about to surface. Then I had a couple of new emails — also from reporters. “I’m not doing shit about this tonight,” I said. “I don’t have any idea if I want to talk to these people or not.” What would they say if I didn’t? Nothing I didn’t know. I went to bed.

I woke in the night, not from dreaming, but just with a sense of malaise. I was wide awake and it all was right there at the surface. Finally I slept again, and woke in the morning, and with my coffee, began to look at my email (more reporters) and the news (with videos even, and I guess I should have realized they wouldn’t know how to pronounce Franquemont). Friday. This was Friday, I told myself. That’s what day of the week it is.

By afternoon, one news organization stood out as having not been rude, manipulative, and horrible. I called them back. They had some questions, but the only ones I really could speak to were the simple facts: when did my sister move to Sunnyvale? When was she last seen? Were the police in contact with you about the investigation? 2000, March of last year, and yes, yes they were. In fact all I really have to say is that our whole family’s hearts go out to the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety and others involved in the investigation and difficult events of yesterday. I sent the news network three family photos and told them how to pronounce our name. That night, this story ran.

Kudos to KGO TV for contacting me in a courteous and respectful manner, speaking civilly and without being pushy, for taking time to check names and facts, and for a pretty non-editorialized piece of reporting.

To the rest of you… not so much. Like especially not so much to whoever it was who contacted my previous business partner, with whom I hadn’t spoken in a year, and asked her to contact me and tell me “they think they’re about to find your sister’s body.” Seriously? Talk about manipulative and false. Same to “We just want to tell your sister’s story!” on my voice mail. No you don’t. You have no actual interest in my sister’s story; you want to put grief and heartbreak and stress out there on prurient display. You want someone to break and make exciting TV. Also no points to “We are contacting everyone named Franquemont who we can find any information for,” and “We’re calling every Franquemont in the phone book,” when you just called an unlisted cell phone number.

I think, though, that the Facebook message I woke up to this morning takes the cake. Being of greater conscience than the news media, I have elided the name and contact information.

azenith

Let’s just step through this, shall we?

Let’s start with “I believe you are Molly Franquemont’s relative.” Hey, if you went to the trouble of tracking me down on Facebook, you could also go to the trouble of reading things I’ve posted publicly and figuring out whether or not I’m Molly Franquemont’s relative. Who else did you ask? How widely did you spam this message? Do scores of Franquemonts now have in their Facebook messages this stellar example of media sensitivity and thorough research?

“I’m sorry for all you’ve been through.” Unconvincing; after all, you only THINK I’m Molly’s relative, right?

“As you may have heard – police shot and killed the man Molly was living with and they believe he had something to do with her disappearance.” Yes. Yes, I may have heard that. You know why I may have heard that? Because the police actually did their job — exactly as I came to expect of them when I lived in Sunnyvale, and exactly as they have continued to do, with diligence, respect, and sensitivity even in life and death matters such as this. And one of the things that is their job is sensibly, reasonably, and respectfully keeping family informed. Along with knowing who the family is.

“Wanted to reach out to Molly’s family to find out more about her.. “ Ah, no. That’s what you want me to think you want to do, but it isn’t. You’re not interested in Molly, unless perhaps you discover there are salacious details of her life that you can serve up without concern, at least until the next thing you can imagine might be shocking enough to grab viewers comes along. What are you expecting me to believe you want to know about Molly? Her favourite colour? Was she a cat person or a dog person? You didn’t even google very hard, because I’ve blogged about Molly before and she’s had an interesting life.

“how do you feel knowing the person who may know something is dead?” Ah, here comes the truth. Here comes what you really want, right? You want to pour salt in a wound, or pick scabs to see if things’ll still bleed. I imagine you sent the same Facebook message to the suspect’s family, except saying things like “How do you feel knowing the police shot your apparent relative when he had a BB gun?” Do you have templates that you can draw from to stir up a frenzy on web forums where people rage about the police? What other angles are you working on this?

“Would like to help.” Okay. How? What are you suggesting you can do that is help? When you contacted the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety, what help did you offer them?

And more to the point: what help are you offering, RIGHT NOW, to someone whose sister only just disappeared? How do YOU feel about your job and how you do it? Did you ask yourself what impact your messages could have on the recipient, or whether you might be breaking this news to someone who didn’t know it yet, who might be fragile about a loved one’s disappearance? What if Molly were your sister, your mother, or your daughter? How would YOU feel, and what would YOU say?

And the real crux of the matter might be this: do you feel that your questions and approach would give me a sense of confidence that you would treat my sister’s story in a way I’d want to see plastered around the public eye? What would inspire me to trust that you would present my sister, or myself, or our entire family, in a light anyone could find remotely comfortable?

When I started this, I didn’t mean to single you out, and I still don’t, really; it’s just that your messages are such a perfect example of the type of media contact my family has mostly received in the past several days. You might, however, be the only one to come back like this from a non-response:

azenith2

” I saw you saw my note and wanted to reach out again to see if your family members want closure in this case and are holding out hope your loved one is alive..”

I really only have two things to say here. First, are you fucking kidding me? And second, ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Now, I realize that technically, that’s only one thing, but I felt it was salient enough to say twice.

(Okay, I got that rhetorical construct from an episode of Red Dwarf, and wouldn’t want it to go uncredited, as that would really be poor form.)

Also, I lied: I have more to say, now that that’s out of the way. It’s this: do you honestly imagine that if law enforcement and judicial authorities feel there is sufficient evidence to issue a warrant for homicide, it isn’t based on some pretty substantial probable cause? Do you really think something like this goes down and the authorities have not been in contact with the next of kin? Because if you do, wow — that sounds like a story that’s really worth digging for. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t bleed. It won’t potentially break down on camera and allow you to capitalize on the pain and suffering of real human beings. It’s probably not as straightforward to manipulate as some people with whom you interact must be.

I feel for a lot of people. You don’t know them, or have any interest in them. I feel bittersweet relief my mother didn’t live to be plagued by the news media these past few days. I feel for family members who I won’t mention because being hounded won’t help them with their grief and doubt. I feel for the family of the dead suspect. I feel for the officers involved and their families, and for all the authorities who worked hard on this investigation, and who are continuing their search for answers about what happened to my sister, and whose jobs are now that much harder. And you know what? I even feel for you, because I’d hate to have a job that either made me so jaded to basic humanity that I could send such messages and not think twice, or required me to do it no matter how it made me feel.

Most of all I feel for my sister. You didn’t ask, but she always did love plants and green growing things and she had the most amazing green thumb. She was an artist and a person of tremendous sensitivity. Did you know English was actually her third language? That she graduated from middle school in Japan, speaking and reading enough Japanese to do that and withstanding the pressures a gaijin girl faces there? She was smart and funny and she loved so very, very deeply; she worked hard, and she tried hard, and even when she did not succeed she never just quit. She took a lot of hard knocks in her life and she always got back up and kept going. Except apparently this time. And she deserves to be remembered not as a victim, but as a living woman who was a daughter, sister, friend and more. I don’t want to tell you how she ended up down on her luck. I don’t want to tell the world about the demons she faced. I want to tell you that she loved life, and that I miss her, and will always miss her, and that more closure from knowing more won’t change that. I want to tell you about her life and why she changed mine and made me a better, stronger person.

So Molly, this song goes out to you, because I remember you would always sing along with it. Wherever you are, girl, don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing’s gonna be allright.

54 thoughts on “To Investigative Journalists Everywhere

  1. Abby, it was such a pure pleasure meeting you in Asheville. You showed such grace and dignity. I told my son about your Strongbad decal and your badass Trans Am. He high fived me for “knowing” such cool people. That you could teach and guide and remain so focused over the course of that weekend just underscores what an awesome woman you are. I’m making yarn on my spindle you provided every day. It’s as you say, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Saying I’m sorry for what you and your family are going through doesn’t even begin to address your surreal situation and the constant pain that must be your daily companion, but I can’t think of anything better to say. I’m sorry Abby. I’m sorry for your pain, your loss and all of the horrible bullshit you are being hit with on top of the shitty hand you’ve been dealt. It’s damn hard to be the rock all of the time, but you are doing and being that rock anyway (because, really, what else is there to do? and who would do it?). I admired you as an author and artist and now? Well, now I just admire you, YOU, period. I send you karma and hopes for peace.
    -Heather Connolly

  2. Dearest Abby, I’m so terribly sorry to hear of your loss and what a trial this year must have been. This medium feels so impersonal and so not like a real hug like I want to give you. My deepest condolences to you and your family through this unbelievably difficult time.

    Please take care of yourself, Louise

  3. I feel so emotional after reading this message, my heart and blessings go out to you. I do not know the outcome to your story but I hope you are strong and will overcome what life is throwing at you. In 2009 I lost my son in circumstances that meant the national press and TV here in the UK reported it and the social media caused me great distress with the macabre humour that it sporned. Time though is a great healer and the pain and loss I felt has eased somewhat, so I hope the same for you and your family. May your beliefs sustain you. X

  4. Dear Abby,

    I stumbled upon this from the Interweave Link for SOAR replacement & teaching pages.

    I am so very sorry for your losses. I’m a twin. If something happened to my twin sister I would just lose my damn mind. So many losses and uncertainty stacked one on the other, like fragile glass boxes, I stand amazed at your strength.

    I hope you have answers soon, as that “standing in the hallway place between knowing and unknowing” is impossible.

    Many hugs
    Penny

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