01 July 2021

Ellen Maurer remembered

Brother and sisters: Johan, Renee, Ellen. Christmas 1968, the last Christmas the three of us had together.

People tell me I'm smart, intelligent, talented.... It seems like I should be fairly well off -- but as I sit here in Audy, on October the fifteenth, 1969, after ruining my chances in a foster home, I realize I haven't got anything ... and I wonder, should I give up -- or not?

-- Ellen Maurer

Yesterday was my sister Ellen's birthday. She would have been 66 years old. I'm going to indulge myself with a few reflections. It's possible this post is just for me, but if you have a moment, please get to know Ellen and her context a little better.

Last week, in describing how suitable my family was for life in a neighborhood of "nice people," I mentioned that, at the very time my parents and I were at the real estate office, Ellen was in "Audy," Chicago's juvenile jail.

She was fourteen years old.

I severely compressed a lot of history last week by saying that "my 1969 diary chronicles many of Ellen's run-ins with the law." Those run-ins actually started in in 1968, the first year I began keeping a diary.

On June 19, 1968, I wrote, "B---- [her family nickname, which she hated, so I won't use it here] appears to be seriously considering running away." 

On July 5, I may have been trying to reassure myself: "B---- has been talking, not too seriously, about running away." The very next day she actually did run away around 7:30 p.m. -- and was picked up by the police about twelve hours later. With her was "a Negro laborer," who (my father ominously but obscurely said) "could get from 60 days to 30 years."

That last detail links to an undercurrent of racism that sometimes rose to the surface when my mother lost her temper -- often because she was irritated by a neighbor or a school board decision or her "serves him right" reaction to Martin Luther King's assassination. But the worst effect of all was the alienation between her and Ellen, when she found out that Ellen had a black friend in middle school.

These hints sometimes got recorded in my diary. On June 22, I wrote "Yesterday Mom showed herself to be a sort of 'intellectual racist.' I wonder where she picks up the sort of garbage she talked about." I may not yet have put together all the clues I know now about her German school in Japan and its Hitler Youth connections in those years. A few days later, on the 26th, I wrote "Mom really seems to dislike B---- and me. She hit me when I told her she hates Negroes, and she yanked some toys from Renee that B---- had given to her, and then threw them out."

Am I revealing too many family secrets? Maybe it's compensation for all the secrets I kept at the time, all the things I knew about our family violence, but did not divulge when neighbors and teachers anxiously asked me what was going on at home. But my biggest motivation today is to put Ellen's incorrigible rebelliousness into some kind of larger picture -- because she was, at age 14, a very memorable person. I can't imagine what additional impact she might have made.

The truth is, only after she began leaving home did I fully realize how much pent-up creativity she had in her. During her hours, days, and months of incarceration and involuntary hospitalizations she wrote ceaselessly. Her response to the racism at home was, in part, to embrace black culture. Her output included many songs and poems, and two novels, all eventually left in the care of my parents, and apparently now lost. But I saw much of this output with my own eyes. If I had known that I was to be terminally evicted from our family home in "nice" northwest Evanston in June 1971, I would have smuggled them out to take with me. As it is, all I have are three letters and a few scraps of writing.

My family nickname (which I ditched as soon as I began high school) was "Fred," from middle name Fredrik.

In reverse chronological order, here's a quick digest of some of my previous posts that help me remember her:

Serves them right 

My sister Ellen, who began running away from home at age 13 (in 1968), spent much of the year 1969 behind bars. At least three separate times she was in the Audy Home (Chicago's juvenile detention facility at the time); most of the rest of her detention was in psychiatric hospitals. Of all the people in our family, she was probably the most mentally healthy, but those psychiatric confinements provided a relatively safe alternative to jail.

March shorts (an excerpt from my testimony at an Indiana Senate hearing on the death penalty, February 17, 1999)

My father attended Tyrone King’s murder trial [King was ultimately convicted of murdering my sister Ellen], and mentioned meeting his mother, who attempted to give him a Gospel tract. I feel sure that God did not create the child Tyrone King to murder my sister. What happened to twist a little boy into an adult murderer? Don’t get me wrong: Tyrone King, and not his environment, bears responsibility for pulling the trigger. However, putting him to death would have been far too convenient a way for society to avoid the difficult questions about how innocent children can be overcome by evil as they grow up. It is too easy to kill the murderer and wash our hands of these dilemmas.

Ellen's 60th

Until the last year before her death, a year in which she ran away from home repeatedly, and was in either police or mental health custody much of the time, we were constant companions and co-conspirators. Our parents were constantly drinking and fighting, so we had to make our own world.

(Read on to find out how we repaired a television together.)

Losses, part two (how three novelists helped me through my grief)

For years after my sister Ellen was murdered, I dreamed about her. The dreams were always the same: she came back from wherever she had been hiding to tell me that it had all been a big mistake. She hadn't been killed--how could I have thought that!?--she'd simply disappeared to have some time for herself, or, in another variation, she'd been away at camp. Since, in real life, she had run away from home more than ten times, and had also run away from a foster home and a hospital, it was entirely believable, until I woke up again.

A fiftieth birthday

The terrible alienation that drove Ellen from our home over and over again began when she made a new friend at Nichols. That girl was black. Somehow I had subconsciously known to keep my interracial school friendships out of my mother's field of vision, but that kind of caution would not have been my sister's way! But in any case, how could she have anticipated such a devastating response from her mother? The warmth instantly drained out of their mother-daughter relationship, my father did nothing to intervene, and Ellen and I became conspirators for sanity in our own home.

On losing a sister to murder

From her hiding place somewhere in Chicago, she phoned on my birthday. It was the last time I heard from her. What happened in the next five days is not altogether clear. She was found dying of gunshot wounds on a canal bridge in Chicago. The first we heard about it was a phone call asking my father to come to the morgue to view a body.

More letters another time...


Screenshot from Day of Rage.
The just-published New York Times video on January 6: Day of Rage

Perpetual war dept.: what are we getting for the USA's $1.3 trillion national security budget?

The Marafiki organization (on whose board I serve) has just announced the creation of the Allan Afanda Memorial Fund, to honor the late son of Marafiki partners John and Rose Muhanji, and to advance the work he cared about.

How to convene a Spiritual Companion Group, through training offered by the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative.

Love, Actively: Paul J. Contino on reading Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov in 2021.

Micah Bales at Berkeley Friends Church: So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Nancy Thomas learns to swear.


Today's clip is from this exact period of my life. Blues music was my companion in my worst times, especially after Ellen died and I wondered why I was the one who was spared. This tune, "Too Much Alcohol" by J.B. Hutto and his Hawks, is from the first blues album I ever owned. This was the track I used in my high school television production class to make my first music video before I even realized that music videos were a thing.

If you've been with me so far, you won't be surprised that my teenage fascination with this music was something I had to keep concealed from my family.

Once upon a time there was a live-performance video of this song, but it has apparently disappeared. (Here's a brief documentary glimpse of the great J.B. Hutto.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Johan!
Have just read and learned the details of your terrible family tragedy!
I will pray for your poor sister Ellen! God rest her poor soul!
Your friend Anton.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Anton. (And greetings to your family!)