Five-minute Memoir: Author Pam Jenoff recalls her uncle's murder confession
Saturday 16 March 2013
Some 13 years ago this April, the phone rang during dinnertime at my parents' house. My father's eyes widened as his younger brother babbled incoherently on the other end of the line. "He was apologising," my father said, puzzled. "He said that he loves us all."
The next night I came home after a karate class to find my uncle splayed across the television screen, having confessed to a journalist about a heinous crime he committed six years earlier. He was not even a suspect. My uncle, who shares our last name, bludgeoned a well-known rabbi's wife to death, allegedly at the rabbi's request.
My uncle was not a stranger or distant relative. The only sibling of either of my parents, he was a daily fixture in our lives, and had relocated to a house just blocks from ours to be near the older brother he idolised. He looked after us as children, and loved to buy my brother and I treats and toys before he had a family of his own.
Though a ne'er-do-well type who had drifted from job to job and toyed with drugs and alcoholism (once passing out in the mashed potatoes at a holiday dinner), there was not the slightest hint of violence in his past. I might have no more suspected him than myself.
Yet he had not only committed this heinous crime, but had walked among us for the six years after, with blood on his hands. I thought of the previous spring, when he had driven to New York with my dad to drive me home from law school – how could I not have known?
Surely there had been a mistake. I considered whether we should use the house to post his bail. This did not prove to be an option, but as the undeniable reality of what he had done began to sink in, my emotions shifted to shock and anger and sadness for the senseless pain he had caused others – and for his sudden disappearance, which felt much like a death.
The implications of having a relative embroiled in such a scandal with the same last name in the same small town were vast. The coverage continued for years: there were two trials, resulting in a conviction for the rabbi, and sentencing for my uncle. For myself (then a lawyer), my surgeon brother, and my dad – a mow-your-lawn-and-pay-your-taxes kind of a guy, who worked for everything he ever had – the questions in our professional worlds came daily.
I considered the options. I could change my name. Yet denying things would only make matters worse, somehow complicit in my uncle's lies. So I answered the inevitable question with a neutral "Yes" and an expectant look that seemed to forestall further questions. "Jenoff…?" a colleague might say vaguely, pretending she did not know. "That sounds so familiar."
An opposing attorney once confronted me about it during a hearing in court. Someone on Facebook awkwardly suggested I become friends with the victim's daughter.
The problem has not gone away. Now a mother myself, I think often of the victim's family, and the loss to her children and the grandchildren she did not know. The story pops up in the news every so often, including a story just weeks after my father's death, adding insult to injury.
It has been a subject of great pain for my family, especially for my now-gone dad, who surely went to his grave last year questioning if there was something he might have done differently to avoid the tragedy.
Unbelievably, my uncle's sentence ends in less than two years, and then he will likely be free – a much larger problem with which I have not even begun to grapple.
This has been a collision of one of the most joyous aspects of my life – becoming a novelist – with one of the most painful. Like most writers, I love to be recognised.
But I write under the same name I share with my uncle, and every time I say my name and the listener's eyes light up with recognition, I cringe and brace myself, uncertain whether the association is with my work or the crime that follows me.
I did not change my name, even when I got married. It is not just a newspaper headline or book jacket, but a tribute to all the good people, like my dad, who have shared it. And I hope that long after the dust has settled from the scandal, I will do a bit to restore the name, and that is how it will be remembered.
Which is why I will keep meeting the eyes of those who ask, steeling myself, and hoping it is for all the right reasons.
'The Ambassador's Daughter' by Pam Jenoff is published by Mira (£7.99)
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