Stories by category: An Assault in Venice

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

It was Thursday, February 11th, four days after the attack, and Jeanette was having her first surgery. Her sister Karen had basically begged the hospital administrators to let Jeanette stay, and they had miraculously agreed despite knowing that all the expensive procedures would very likely go unpaid.

Not only would she be allowed to stay at UCLA, but apparently she was about to win the surgical lottery. None of us knew anything about Dr. Keith Blackwell; we simply prayed for a capable surgeon who would help us. At the time, we were oblivious to the fact that Dr. Blackwell was “among the most experienced and busiest surgeons in the southwestern United States… Visiting scholars from universities in Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany and the Philippines [had] traveled to UCLA to learn his surgical techniques.” (In fact, it is only now as I write this that I have discovered his impressive accolades.)

I spent most of the day in the surgical waiting room with Karen and David. It would take Dr. Blackwell and his team more than six hours to repair the damage to Jeanette’s face. The bones in her right cheek and eye socket had been crushed, with pieces seemingly everywhere. Her nose was caved in and blocked. There was a fracture that extended from her right cheek, through her right eye socket, across the bridge of the nose and through the left eye socket. And the two halves of her skull were twisted making her bite out of alignment. Once they’d put all the broken bones back in their proper place, her jaw would have to be wired shut in order to stabilize them.


(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

Jeanette’s surgery was a success but her forehead had become infected so the doctors inserted a drain. The new device, in addition to the stitches, the wired jaw and the swelling, made her appear like a wounded alien. Jeanette had not yet gotten out of bed since she’d arrived—which meant she hadn’t seen herself. But that was about to change. Her nurses were eager to get her on her feet the following day, and her doctors were expecting to release her the day after that.

I had wanted Jeanette to stay with me in my spare bedroom during her recovery but I knew how unrealistic that was. Not only was I unable to spend a night at home myself but my spare room was just steps from the scene of the crime and her sister Karen would never allow it. Instead, Jeanette would begin her healing at her friend Mary’s home in the valley.

As the days wore on, I was eager to find some sense of normalcy but I knew that was still too big a word. Instead, I’d reach for equilibrium and settle for moments of stillness. They were fleeting at best.

I went to the gym to work out and discovered the anger I’d been holding below the surface. I pushed weights and pulled at pieces of equipment with increasing aggression. Would I have been powerful enough to ward off that attack? I daydreamed scenarios of walking in on that man, pulling him off of Jeanette and beating him to oblivion. With one, I used the frying pan. With another, it was a baseball bat. I ran through in my mind what I knew about self-defense tactics, and I imagined kicking my foot into the side of his knee and hearing his cartilage tear. He fell to the floor, screaming. I held a knife to his throat as Jeanette called the cops, and we waited for the handcuffs to ratchet around his wrists.

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

We were both afraid to close our eyes. In darkness, I was visited by nightmares while Jeanette felt desperately alone. The night after the surgery, she lay awake listening to the hospital noises. Finally, she decided it was time for her to get up. She didn’t want to make trouble for the nurses so she hoisted herself out of bed, clung to the rail and shuffled across the floor. Then she stopped, halted by the image of someone looking back at her from the mirror, someone with a bruised and beaten face. She searched her own eyes but couldn’t find herself in her reflection.

After four nights of sleeping on a rolled out blanket in the Eartha Kitt room at Rob and Amy’s, I was eager to go home. Jeanette’s brother David came with me and stayed in my guest room to serve as protector. Despite the comfort of my bed, I still lay awake and wondered how I’d manage on my own. Fear is a powerful and insidious force.

Jeanette was released from the hospital and moved into protective custody at Mary’s house. With her jaw wired shut, she started eating through a syringe until we perfected the art of making shakes and mashing food. Karen stayed with her but she would soon have to return to work, so another friend spearheaded the effort to provide around-the-clock care for Jeanette. An elaborate schedule of rotating friends was laid out—when one would leave, another would arrive.

My neighbor Amy decided she’d feel better if we got a dog, and she found one pictured on a notice at the café down the street. She called the number and arranged a meeting. I was out on patrol with Cagney when Michael showed up with his dog Gus. Michael had just moved from the east coast to study yoga at a teaching center on the beach. When he ran out of money, he moved into an ashram nearby but the group home didn’t allow dogs. Amy thought the arrangement would be perfect—she and Rob could take Gus on a temporary basis. She was excited about the prospect, more excited than the event seemed to merit. That’s when she revealed that Michael was an extraordinarily handsome young man. “I can totally see you with him,” she said.

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

Jeanette’s assault coincided with a time in my life when I was searching. Perhaps everyone goes through a period of time when things aren’t working out the way you’d hoped, and so you search for deeper meaning. This was my what’s-it-all-about phase. My writing career hadn’t materialized in the way I imagined it would. My life partner hadn’t yet arrived. I didn’t have as much money as I expected to have at that point in my life. And so I kept asking why and looking for new sources of insight.

Southern California was offering a smorgasbord of answers, from the wacky to the holistic, and I was willing to try a little bit of everything. I read books, went to workshops and consulted psychics. I had my chart read, my palms read and my cards read. I meditated, got therapy and delved into my past lives. I became a vegetarian, ate macrobiotically and took herbs. I cleared my chakras, I studied Reiki, I wore magnets, I consulted a pendulum, I carried a medicine bag, I bought gemstones, I recited affirmations, I visited monasteries, I journaled, I journeyed, I fasted and I cleansed.

I’m not sure if what I found through it all was clarity or confusion. All I knew was that I kept returning to one resource over and over again. The book A Course in Miracles rooted me in a way nothing else had before, and my mentor Marianne Williamson was the clearest voice I’d ever found on matters both physical and metaphysical. She was the one who taught me how to pray. She also, in so many ways, taught me how to think. And so it was an enormous blessing that on the morning after I’d spent my first night alone, hers was the voice of comfort that reached out to me. It was still early when she phoned.

“Tess, it’s Marianne,” she said. “I just heard what happened.”

“Oh, Marianne.” It may have been my first moment of relief. “I don’t know what to do with this.” I struggled for words as I recounted the story to her, as well as my fear and sense of loss. “I’m trying to figure out how to frame this event in my mind and it’s not coming, I don’t know how to do it.”

I expected her to say something deeply profound, something that would radically change my perspective. This was, after all, what made Marianne famous the world over: she provided nuggets of wisdom that dispelled all questions. Especially mine. So her response surprised me.

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

In the ten days since Jeanette’s assault, my life had become something I hadn’t expected, something completely unfamiliar. During the days, I walked the streets of Venice looking for clues—houses, people, dogs. I spoke at length with all the mail carriers. I traversed the alleys and peered over fences. And when nothing panned out, I widened my circle. The place in which I had chosen to make my home had become a place that was filled with suspects and witnesses and criminals or potential criminals. I was aware, in every waking hour, just how on-the-edge my neighborhood really was. I read the crime reports. I knew where the black clouds hovered. And still, I found nothing.

I talked to Cagney every day, and most evenings I saw her. She had to deliver the news that the first police technician who’d dusted for prints had found none. I was heartbroken and lobbied for her to try again. She’d have to pull some strings in order for that to happen, so she wanted me to make sure we could find some viable prints. I consulted with John, and together we mapped out the areas in which he strongly believed there was real evidence that would lead us to a suspect.

When the second police technician arrived, I directed him to walls, countertop areas, the stovetop and other surfaces. First, he’d paint a layer of gray dust over wide sections, and then he’d zero in on something and carefully lift dust particles in the form of fingerprints onto squares of clear plastic. I watched him for the better part of an hour pull at least 15 useable samples. When I wasn’t watching him, I was scanning the room trying to imagine what had happened. All the blood was still there, untouched. The toaster oven was open and a paring knife was lying nearby. One of the last things Jeanette said she remembered was making dinner. I asked the man about the possibility of getting prints from the knife, but he said it had already been dusted. I asked him how they determined the difference between all of our prints and anyone else’s, and he said that if the prints didn’t match any that were in their system, it didn’t much matter whose they were.

As it happened, the prints didn’t match any that were in their system. It seemed like we were getting nowhere with the investigation, and when I wasn’t frustrated, I felt hopeless. This detective stuff was crap. In fact, it was tedious crap. Much as I loved and appreciated Cagney, I wondered if we’d have more resources or if the case would have been a higher priority if Jeanette had been murdered.

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

Being active had initially helped me get through the days. Knowing that I would be speaking with Cagney gave me incentive; I looked forward to the moment I could tell her what I had done, and we could collaborate on what I could do next. Those conversations gave me a sense of purpose, as well as the comforting feeling that I had a real partner who was in this with me. But as the weeks went by and we were seemingly no closer to arresting anyone, that sense of purpose waned.

Fortunately I had Jeanette: I could visibly see her healing. Her face returned to its normal size and shape. Her sense of humor returned, fully intact. And although her jaw was still wired shut, her incredible circle of friends found increasingly creative ways to prepare her meals. Much as she seemed to look to me for answers—I was in regular contact with the detective, I had found a plastic surgeon, even I had been the one to initially come to her aid—I looked to her to help me navigate my way back toward wholeness. She kept saying, then and for years after, that I was the keeper of her memory—I contained the gaps in the story that had so profoundly altered the course of her life. But at the same time, she seemed to be the gauge by which I would measure my own healing process. If Jeanette could be okay through this, then certainly so could I. And the truth is, her courage, her humor and her utter lack of anger or bitterness helped light my way.

I was trying to find comfort in spirituality. I collected sentences and repeated them like mantras. The greatest power we have is the power to change our mind. I found prayers and clung to them like life rafts. Dear God, I don’t know why this is happening but I know You do, so thank you. And I copied passages from books and kept them close at hand to read again and again. When a tragic event happens, we cannot change the course of that event. We will feel sadness, we will feel pain, but it is what we do beyond that moment that defines our Mastery. We must look for a deeper meaning. We must see with different eyes and use our intelligence to find a way to bring love and happiness back into the world.

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

Jeanette was ahead of her time; she was sporting a fantastic lightning bolt scar on her forehead years before anyone had ever heard of Harry Potter. Unfortunately, right after acquiring hers, it became infected and in order to help it drain, she had a toothpick jutting out from between her eyes. With pus and blood dripping down her face, she met with a bankruptcy attorney who took one look at her, gathered all of her paperwork and told her that he wasn’t going to charge her because he didn’t want this to be her experience of Los Angeles.

Although the image of her—jaw wired, crushed cheek and nose, facial lacerations—may have been daunting, it certainly wouldn’t be her worst look. That was still to come.

On our second visit to Dr. Keller’s office, Jeanette’s car broke down. I hoped it wasn’t a sign that moving forward was going to be challenging; maybe it simply meant she had an old car in need of attention. Regardless, Dr. Keller and Dr. Lacombe outlined a plan for the year ahead: rebuilding her nose, inserting a cheek implant to replace the missing tissue, and performing collagen and laser treatments to minimize the scarring.

The following evening, on Friday March 5th, we all gathered at Mary’s apartment for a farewell party for Jeanette’s friend Jeff who’d been her caretaker for the last week. Those sorts of parties happened on a regular basis. As one friend arrived to be with Jeanette, another left. The comings and goings were always marked by celebration. The next morning, Jeanette’s brother Richard was arriving from Florida. Jeanette had been waiting for Richard to come; he was the prince who could comfort her like no one else. She had wanted to go back to her home, the scene of the crime, and pack all of her things up, and she felt like she would have the strength to return with Richard by her side.

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

The ever-illustrious Rodney was not at home when Cagney went calling. She did say, however, that the house matched the description that my friend John had given us.

He lives nearby in a Hispanic area at a busy intersection. The house style is not typical of the area. It’s two-story, dilapidated with a porch and a low chain link fence. There’s lattice under the porch. Light-colored. Pointy roof. Multiple families live there. It has a country, old-time feeling. It’s an Archie Bunker kind of house. Or Mr. Roper from Three’s Company. But very rundown. To the left of the house is some space, maybe an empty lot that’s used as a common area. If you stand on the porch and look to the right, you can see the orange ball of the Union 76 gas station on the corner.

Cagney would keep an eye on the place, but our more pressing need was to find the woman—”the strawberry”—he’d confessed to, and then get her to ID him. Both of these things were going to be difficult, Cagney warned me.

The following evening I met my friend Jay for dinner. Jay and I had worked together a few years before, and since then he went on to bigger and better pursuits. He’d helped get Pete Wilson re-elected for governor of California, for instance. Jay wasn’t just one of the smartest men I knew, he was also one of the most well connected. I tried not to let his politics interfere with our friendship.

During dinner, I recounted the details of my month, including my on-going fear of being alone in my home, as well as the sickening realization that Rodney was still out there and in such close proximity. “We’re pretty sure we know who he is,” I told Jay, “we just don’t have evidence to link him to the crime yet. And that’s just disgusting.”

Jay listened attentively and then pushed his water glass to the side of the table as if clearing a space. “I’m only going to say this once,” he said.

Then he met my eyes intently. “I know people if you want to use them.”

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

I wouldn’t, of course, take Jay up on his offer… But if I did, would I want the thug to be killed in a counter attack or would I want him to be maimed beyond recognition? I decided he shouldn’t be killed. In a perfect world, they’d string him up, get a confession out of him on tape as he told them exactly what he’d done to Jeanette and then they’d do the same thing to him. After he went to the hospital, he’d go straight to prison. Then, when he got out of prison, because of course he would, he’d get another visit.

Those are the sorts of things that filled my head.

In one scenario, I confronted him myself. Not that I expected him to have much compassion but I wanted to make it clear to him that actions have consequences.

I thought about Marathon Man, that horribly violent movie where Dustin Hoffman’s teeth get pulled out with pliers. I thought about old mob movies where they cut off people’s fingers with bolt cutters. I decided I wanted this man to be physically altered—something that would compromise him, something that would remind him of the wrong he’d done. Maybe they would cut off his whole hand. And then leave him, taking the hand with them.

I’d be sitting in a room staring off into space, daydreaming scenes of violence, and finally come back to myself, stunned. Whole days were going by while I was fixated on revenge.

I called Cagney incessantly. I wanted her to let me off the hook. If she could arrest him then I wouldn’t have to imagine myself as executioner.

Jeanette’s brother Richard had arrived, and they made a date to come back to the house and pack up her things. During the month since the attack, everything had been left as it was. Cagney had cleared it as a crime scene, and there was no way I could allow Jeanette to see it like that. Oddly enough, I didn’t want to hire some service to come through and swab up all the remains of the event; it seemed like some kind of healing ritual to do that myself. But I certainly couldn’t do it alone so I asked my neighbor Rob if he would help. We gathered buckets, towels, sponges, bleach and other cleaning compounds and entered. The room was a temple of some sort: a place where lives had been indelibly altered.

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

The wires clamping Jeanette’s jaw shut were finally removed but it took weeks for her to get her teeth apart to any distance approximating normal. The art of chewing came slowly, and her upper lip remained numb. I watched her unconsciously touch her face, trace the new grooves and divots, and pinch areas that still had no sensation. If she was distraught about how she looked with half her face caved in, she certainly didn’t let on to me—and I would have thought I’d be one of the few she’d tell.

In May, two months after the assault, she was scheduled for her first big reconstructive surgery in Santa Barbara. Gretchen, the woman who worked in Dr. Keller’s office had arranged for us to stay with a friend of hers. Jeanette and I shared a room in a beautiful sprawling ranch home with Saltillo tiles that stretched out toward vibrant, pink bougainvillea at the base of the surrounding mountains. Fresh flowers were expertly arranged in vases in nearly every room. The place was brimming with light and color. It was a true oasis.

The waiting room in Dr. Keller’s office was more like a spa with comfortable chairs and cucumber water and bowls of fresh fruit. But still, it was hour after endless hour of flipping through mindless magazines and scrapbook-like binders detailing every cosmetic option available: otoplasty, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, rhytidectomy and liposuction among them.

Dr. Keller and Dr. Lacombe cut through Jeanette’s gum line, lifted the skin from her face and inserted a silicone implant to build up her right cheek adding cadaver tissue on top of it to replace the flesh. I suddenly appreciated all those people who’d given their bodies to science because one of them was restoring Jeanette’s smile.

When she finally emerged from the long surgery, her entire head was wrapped in gauze and ace bandages that left holes for her to see and breathe. We spent a couple days letting the lazy Santa Barbara breeze mix with the painkillers before she felt well enough to make the drive back. She insisted on stopping for Mexican food on the promenade in Santa Monica. All bandaged up like a human tennis ball, she sat in the outdoor patio watching the people walk by, many of whom stared. We talked and ate and laughed as if we hadn’t just been through the worst trauma of our lives. There we were, coming out the other side.