News Of The Drownings
I had been to my sister's house, the Burke home, in Lenox Dale, Massachusetts for my nephew Jody's graduation from Lenox High. After the family parties were over, we all went our way, only to receive the news soon after that the State Police had arrived to arrest Jody Burke for his part in the tragic drowning of two Lee High grads, Barry Griffin and Richard Retzel, in Laurel Lake in Lee, Massachusetts.
Renee Burke, my sister, was nearly hysterical. She thought the world of her son and insisted that he was being set up by envious people. None of us doubted her very much because at that point we did not know what had happened. It did seem like it might have been an accident according to what she told us. Real discussion of the events within the family did not begin until the trial approached, and being in the eastern part of the state, I had not seen many news reports about the incident.
During the year after the drownings, another tragedy struck the Burke household. The youngest daughter was raped by a teacher who was found to have raped five of his high-school gym students at Lenox High. Now Renee was trying to get lenient treatment for her son from the same DA, Anthony Ruberto, who was responsible for prosecuting the teacher. (Ruberto is now deceased, having gone on to become a judge, and his brother James is now the Mayor of the county seat, Pittsfield.)
I continued to be only peripherally aware of the events in Berkshire County as I tried to juggle single parenthood, aging parents, and college studies in Worcester County. When my mother told me of the rape and my niece's attempted suicide, I immediately contacted Renee. I was concerned because I had been molested while living with Renee and her husband as a young teen, and I never had spoken of it. I told her I had been through that without naming him (actually this was emotional denial on my part because she had full knowledge) and tried to talk with Renee about her daughter's need for compassion and support. Renee was cold and abusive, as usual, blaming her daughter and treating the medical response as if it were over a stupid accident or something. She said they were in group therapy as if this nothing more than yet another major inconvenience her daughter was causing. It turned out that her daughter's case was the pivotal case to identifying the rapist, then finding the other victims. Renee was hostile to my remark that my niece was a real hero and deserved support. I abandoned any thought of reasoning with Renee and went back to focusing on my own household.
Christmas In Gill, Massachusetts
The Christmas after that was hosted by my brother James Matteau and his wife Lucille in Gill, Massachusetts. He was a selectman and the head of a local social-service agency there, and their small "Cape" style house was filled with people since most of my nieces and nephews were of late high-school and college age. As the evening wore on and the eggnog and punch was consumed, the nieces all clustered around Kathy, the teacher's victim, and gave her exactly the kind of emotional support she needed. All except her older sister Loree, who was majoring in social work at Providence College. Ironically, this future social worker subjected her sister to continuous insult and verbal abuse, even more than usual, and I tried several times to get her to chill. Renee then joined her and included me in the hostility, so I backed off rather than risk escalating it.
Renee's husband, Joe, was also getting a little tipsy. He had molested me from age 12 to age 15, and I had put an end to it by holding a fork as a weapon and threatening to mark him in a place Renee would notice if he did not stop. After that he and I had a kind of truce, in which I could refer to the fork if he got flirty and he would back off with a joke. So we got along well enough. Joe asked me to talk, then in a very deeply touching manner unburdened himself and asked my forgiveness for what he had done to me, telling me how much he was learning from the therapy. I forgave him. We both then tried to have a talk with Renee, but she was vicious and would have none of it.
This connects back to the Lenox 7 during the next year, because bribes were arranged around both cases, using social services personnel that Renee helped set up at the new "feminist" Women's Center, even while Renee Burke was threatened with charges of intimidating a witness by staff at the Berkshire Medical Center for being vicious to Kathy and interfering with the prosecution. They never did charge her, though.
Jody, himself, was not at that gathering that I can recall. In every encounter I had with him after that, he was concentrating on his young life and new marriage without appearing to participate in Renee's orchestration of drama around the events. He certainly did not seem to consider himself the "victim" Renee made of him, and it was painful for me to contrast her high drama about her son with the way she was treating her youngest daughter. Kathy was an extremely talented young writer with the natural eye of a designer or artist, and Renee heaped abuse on her. She even tried to stop Kathy's advanced placement into college while having moved heaven and earth to make Loree, her obedient co-abuser, into a record-breaking scholarship recipient and fully subsidized college student in spite of the family's six-figure income.
Part of what I kept hearing from Renee, echoed through sympathetic relatives, was that somehow we were being depicted as unusually privileged people, even connected with GE management and the Kennedy clan. This seemed bizarre to me because I knew my mother's Irish-American relatives only distantly and my dad and uncles were all self-educated union men, not one college grad in the lot. But their generation did not expect college of all young people, and I did know that Renee had talked with me over the years about her rise in GE to the management circles. I did know that "young Joe Kennedy" and his oil-heat company was one of the charities that Renee schmoozed with as part of her job at GE, and that she was important to top circles, including Jack Welch himself, because of her fluent French when GE had to handle foreign visitors. I later found out more about Jack Welch and his possible interest in treating the Laurel Lake drownings as another Chappaquiddick.