Memories are funny things. Inherently fallible, malleable, and extremely subject to influence, but even knowing this, we are convinced of their truth. Even those moments that seem to define us, to shape who we eventually become, are potentially corrupted. There are a great deal of things that I simply do not remember: not a single birthday party, Christmas, or happy schoolyard memory exists clearly in my mind. Instead, I have memories of photographs of these moments. My dad was an avid family photographer and I recall going through the credenza in the downstairs hallway and seeing pictures of the costume party we had for my birthday (Mom was a clown, Dad was a werewolf) or the Christmas when I was literally buried in gifts (imagine, 9 year old me grinning widely, a floating head emerging from an insane number of colored packages). But I don’t remember any of those events from the view of the camera behind my own eyes. They were happy times, and I’m grateful we had them. I wish I could remember those things instead of the awful times. The bad and the ugly.
Early this morning while my daughter was asleep, I found myself tripping down that manhole of memory. My mind was on my child, the absolute picture of beauty and all that is good in the world, and what would I do, how could I live, if anything were to happen to her? Bad things have been known to happen to children, regardless of how much love or care or protection their parents try to give them. There are very, very few vivid memories of my childhood that survived into my adulthood, and one of them is witnessing this dreadful truth first hand. Knowing how imperfect memories can be, I did something today that I’ve never done before: I took to Google to dig up some facts that might corroborate the film in my head. I searched, “1994 Antioch California Souza Murders” and there it was: “SOUZA V. THE CITY OF ANTIOCH, Plaintiff’s husband, Joel Souza, shot and killed their children on July 11, 1993…”
I had the year wrong. I had tried to calculate it based on my recollection: I always thought that I was seven years old the morning that I came downstairs to see swarms of policemen buzzing around my cul de sac. But in July of 1993, I was only 6. I was 6 years old when, on a lazy summer morning, I walked into a day that would fuck me up good, for many years to come. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that this is not to say that I am a victim of what occurred that day. I am so blessedly and completely removed from the horror of those deaths — it was not my children, my niece and nephew, my brother, my son, or any other family member that died. But they were my friends, and their deaths touched me.)
This is what I’ve retained: I came downstairs and saw from the front windows a flurry of activity quite unlike the average Sunday morning at Hunter Peak Court in Antioch, California. My mom and dad were reading the Sunday paper on the living room couch, and they didn’t seem to know about what was happening outside. I ran up to the window and spied my friend’s mom, Jennifer, standing on the sidewalk in front of our house. Two doors down, my friends Cheri and Nick lived with their mom and dad in the biggest house on the street. They had a great backyard — huge swing set. Even as a little kid, I didn’t have a lot of friends and Cheri was special to me. I was worried about seeing her mom, so clearly distraught, standing on the sidewalk outside my house with policemen and other neighbors milling about.
I asked my parents if I could run outside for the newspaper — you know, the one they were already reading. Once on my front porch, I strained to get a better look. Through the open door of their home, I could see police officers inside Cheri’s house. I went back inside and told my mom and dad that something was wrong.
After that, my memory gets hazy. Reading this lawsuit from the California Court of Appeal (trigger warning: reading that will severely depress you), I learn that the stand-off between Joel Souza, Cheri and Nick’s dad, and the police had been going on for many hours by the time I woke up that morning. I think I remember my mom going outside to speak with Jennifer. I think I remember a lot of the moms from my street gathering around her, trying to comfort her. I know that, at some point, my parents decided I had seen enough and barricaded me in their bedroom at the back of the house. They unplugged the television so I couldn’t watch the news coverage of what was unfolding just a few hundred yards from our home. They called my friend Ashley’s mom and asked her to come pick me up and keep me at their house for a while, but when she got to our street, it was closed off — the police weren’t letting anyone in. I think I was still in my parents bedroom when the shots rang out. I remember thinking it sounded like three firecrackers popping, one after another. I didn’t see the EMTs bring my friends out on stretchers, but I saw it later on the news. My dad said that, “they were still working on them” when they brought them out of the house. The FACTS section of the lawsuit does not corroborate this: it says that the SWAT team entered the bedroom where Joel had barricaded himself and his children to find all three of them shot dead.
It doesn’t matter, really. They still died.
Eventually, my parents were able to get me out of our neighborhood. That’s how I eventually managed to see news coverage of the event on TV: my parents had unplugged the set to prevent me from watching, but at my friend’s house, she had a set in her bedroom. I watched it there. I can still see in my mind’s eye the television screen that held the moving pictures of the worst day in my young life. But of course, memory is highly subject to influence. Who knows what I actually saw and what I imagined to have seen based on the adult conversations going on over my head, planting pictures in my mind that would eventually coalesce into memories. Either way, I knew then with childish certainty that it was a terrible thing that happened, and that it would shape me in ways that I still don’t entirely understand.
5 thoughts on “A terrible thing happened.”
Today I too did something I’ve never done in my whole life. I googled the Souza murders, 93, I was 5 living in Oakley, I went to school with her, I was friends with her. It had a huge and lasting impact on my life and on my childhood and even to this day I’m turning 30 this year and only through counseling have I started to put pieces together about my childhood after she was murdered. I stumbled across your blog post as I was googling the few things I could recall from my 5 year old’s memory of the events. That’s how i got here. I felt compelled to write this as we left California shortly after and never looked back so I’ve never met another person who has memories about this trauma.
I’m so glad that you found your way to this story. I hope it helps you put some context to your memories and your trauma. I carried Cheri and Nick’s story with me for most of my childhood, and it changed me. Just like I’m sure it changed you. I’m glad we were able to connect. God bless Google!
I was one of their babysitters and I lived in the neighborhood on Massive Peak Way. I remember coming home from summer camp and the house was surrounded by emergency vehicles and my parents had to tell me what happened. I was so devestated and this story to this day still breaks my heart. I will never forget those sweet kids and I pray will see them again in heaven one day.