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The Killer Who Spared My Mother

Diana Whitney | Longreads | August 2018 | 13 minutes (3,338 words)

 
My mother never warned me about anything before I left home. She never came into my room, sat down on my bed, ventured a comment about condoms or consent. No little talks about protection of the body or the soul, the ways a woman might use her voice. Was it her responsibility to start that conversation? Did I dismiss her attempts? I was naive and covetous and hungry to be desired. She couldn’t have changed my nature.

I was 29 before I learned she’d nearly been murdered in college. She didn’t tell me. My father did, over a pot of earl grey in my Vermont farmhouse kitchen. They’d driven up north for a visit before I moved out west with my new rower boyfriend. Tim sat beside me, tall and glorious in his sweats post-workout, while my mom chatted on about the cool weather, the sudden frost.

Dad a-hemmed professorially. “We’re flying down to Philadelphia next month. Your mother’s been asked to be a witness in a murder trial.”

“What?” I didn’t understand.

Mom looked down into her lap, her red hair loose, cheeks flushed. In her late 50s she was still a statuesque beauty, a half-Irish mix of Julianne Moore and Janis Joplin, radiant except when worry furrowed her face.

“Someone your mother dated at Penn is on trial for murdering a woman back in 1977,” Dad continued in his formal baritone. “The prosecuting attorney wants her to testify.”

“Who is this guy?” I asked.

“Ira Einhorn,” Mom said, softly. “He was crazy.”

“Ira was a kind of cult figure on campus,” Dad explained. “A charismatic Sixties radical. Your mother went out with him and he… well, he hit her over the head and left her unconscious.”

“I thought he was going to kill me,” Mom corrected.

I glanced from one parent to the other in the sunlit kitchen. A log shifted in the wood stove. The neighbor’s milking herd lumbered into the back pasture.

My quiet boyfriend, Tim, summoned the courage to speak when I couldn’t. “What happened?”

Dad sketched out the story for us then, Mom nodding in assent, adding a detail here and there. Stunned, I could barely follow their voices, unable to grasp the existence of this man, his connection to my mother, and the trial she was about to attend. I don’t remember wishing her luck or hugging them goodbye, though I hope I did both. I don’t remember following up on the conversation. Like smoke I let the name Ira Einhorn dissolve and recede from my consciousness.

Less than a week later, after a spirited round of morning sex, I sat on the toilet trying to squeeze out a few dribbles of burning pee, my bladder tight and heavy with urge, not a textbook UTI but the initial signs of a chronic pain syndrome that would possess my body like a specter. It was September 2002. Only later did I realize how the dates lined up, how my illness had begun with the awareness of him.

It took 13 years for comprehension to arise. After my father was long dead and my mother muted by Alzheimer’s, when I was married with two children and enduring a new round of pelvic pain and depression, I learned about inherited family trauma, how submerged anguish can be passed down through the generations. The firstborn daughter often carries “what remains unresolved in the mother,” wrote therapist Mark Wolynn in his book It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Although I’d lived with cyclical depression since junior high, I’d assumed it was a private matter, born from brain chemistry and circumstance, disconnected from any family history. But the theory of a female inheritance intuitively felt true. I became obsessed with my mother’s violent assault, the ways that fear had shaped her, caused her lifelong anxiety and panic. I didn’t want to appropriate her story, but I hoped that by telling it I might heal myself.

***

So I started to research the past, arrange the odd pieces into a coherent narrative. Isolated during a pain flare-up. I couldn’t teach yoga or have sex with my husband, and I tried to pretend for the sake of my young daughters that I wasn’t picturing death as a form of reprieve. Tramadol and medical marijuana dulled the ceaseless burning as I lay in bed with a castor oil pack and my laptop, frantic to be well again. That winter of 2015, I read journalist Steven Levy’s true-crime account of the 1977 murder, The Unicorn’s Secret: Murder in the Age of Aquarius, and poured over online media coverage of the trial. I spoke for hours with my parents’ closest friends, my mom’s college roommate Patti and Patti’s husband Bob, whom my mother had called for help the night she was attacked. Patti and Bob had brought her home from University Health Services, terrified and in shock, her thick red hair matted with blood.

Ira Einhorn, self-named “The Unicorn,” had captivated my mother as he had hundreds of Penn undergraduates. He was a big, bear-like man, a hippie guru with a full beard and dark mane, staring out of his photos with hypnotic blue eyes. Einhorn had led Philadelphia’s avant-garde and at age 25 founded the Free University, which offered such courses as “Third World Liberation” and “Tantric Sex.”

Throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, Einhorn became a counterculture icon, holding court at the first Earth Day, hobnobbing with activist superstars Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Allen Ginsberg, as well as rocker Peter Gabriel. A powerful speaker, the Unicorn magnetized audiences on both coasts with his message of peace, love, and intellectual enlightenment. But a dark vein of violence and narcissism ran beneath his surface; Einhorn personified the Sixties phenomenon of male gurus who used their power to dominate women.

“Open your mind, baby,” the Unicorn told his many girlfriends (“between 1,300 and 1,800 lovers,” he bragged to journalist Ronnie Polaneczky in 2010), and they’d drop acid, have sex, and talk about the Revolution. A sophomore English major, my mother burned with political fervor. An English professor had fixed her up with the Unicorn after she’d mentioned she was interested in intellectual men. “I know someone you might like to meet,” he told her, then slipped her number to Ira. She was 19; Einhorn was 25. “Men found her irresistible,” said her friend Bob, who’d known the Unicorn in Philly. I thought I detected a note of reverence in Bob’s voice, as if he were recalling a legendary film star.

I was 29 before I learned my mother had nearly been murdered in college. She didn’t tell me. My father did, over a pot of earl grey in my Vermont farmhouse kitchen.

No photos existed of my mother at Penn, so I studied a rare snapshot from 1972, after she’d graduated college and gotten married, the sultry years before she birthed four babies. Sand-covered, she lounges on a beach in Tanzania wearing a suede bikini stitched with metal grommets. Her tangled hair falls to her belly as my dad lazes beside her, lean and bronzed in his Euro-style Speedo and long sideburns. They’re together, but something raw and solitary smolders in her gaze. She’s a Seventies incarnation of Aphrodite, washed ashore in Dar es Salaam.

Ira Einhorn had a penchant for dating redheads: “the attribute … has the same effect on me as marijuana — delicious ecstasy,” he once said to a friend, according to The Unicorn’s Secret. At Penn, he and my mother dove into an intense love affair, during which he became increasingly “domineering and manipulative.” These were her words, used in court, excerpted in the newspaper coverage I read about the trial. Einhorn urged her to break ties with her “bourgeois” family in Connecticut; he believed her parents and siblings were “sentimental shackles” holding her back from true liberation. As she sensed his madness and tried to pull away, he grew more obsessed with her, pouring out his psychosis in his journals, reprinted in Levy’s book:

“The violence that flowed through my being tonight … still awaits further dark confirmation of its existence which could result in the murder of that which I seem to love so deeply. There is a good chance that I will attempt to kill Judy tomorrow — the rational awareness of this fact brings stark terror into my heart but it must be faced if I wish to go on.” — November, 1965.

Their relationship continued despite Einhorn’s vicious fantasies, until my mother ended it for good in March 1966. It was Penn spring break, and the campus was quiet. Mom was staying in my father’s apartment on Locust Street while he was somewhere down South, training with the crew team. My parents were just friends then, not yet romantic. But women didn’t break up with Einhorn and walk away unscathed.

“Violence creeps over my body as I reach toward the destruction of Judy, a hopeless victim in this infernal entanglement which seems to be draining the life’s blood out of both of us,” he wrote. “We hang in perilous balance, threatened to destroy or be destroyed in an instant of reckless action. We must come together or die.”


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That “reckless action” came two nights later, when Einhorn stopped by Locust Street wanting to talk about reviving their relationship. My mother offered to make coffee, but there was no milk so she went out to the corner store. While she was gone, he hid behind the door. She returned to what appeared to be an empty room, then Einhorn jumped her from behind and smashed her over the head with a Coke bottle — shards breaking, her body falling, his heavy arm battering her with jagged glass until blood streamed everywhere and his hands choked her neck. “Stop, stop,” she begged. He was strangling her. She couldn’t breathe. She thought she was dying.

Then he was gone.

No one will ever know why he stopped, why he let her live.

My mother and her friends decided not to tell the authorities about the assault. In 1966 the police were considered “pigs” who teargassed peaceful Vietnam protesters and often accused women of provoking their attackers. The campus security officers who drove her to the hospital and the medical resident who stitched up her head-wounds never questioned the cause of her injuries.

No one imagined that 11 years later, Einhorn would bludgeon his ex-girlfriend Holly Maddux to death after she, too, ended their relationship. He stuffed her body in a steamer trunk and hid it in a locked closet in his Philly apartment, where it remained for 18 months until a downstairs neighbor discovered a foul-smelling, dark-colored liquid leaking through the ceiling. After his initial arrest, Einhorn jumped bail, fled to Europe, and went on the lam for 17 years. He lived incognito with his new Swedish wife in a farmhouse in the south of France, a secluded property where he grew pears, figs, and pomegranates, cultivating “a touch of Eden” as he told Russ Baker in Esquire in 1999, while American detectives worked on his case. A notorious fugitive, he was featured on America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries. He was finally extradited from France in 2001.

After attacking my mother and leaving her alone in the apartment, Einhorn had walked home and penned a poem in his journal:

Suddenly it happens

Bottle in hand I strike

Away at the head …

In such violence there may be freedom.

I cringed at these lines. The Unicorn was a terrible writer — melodramatic, grandiose, clichéd. He often boasted of his literary talents, but in an ironic twist, his journals — more than 10,000 pages, which the police seized from his apartment — proved crucial to the prosecution’s case. Assistant district attorney Joel Rosen read the bottle poem, entitled “An Act of Violence,” to the jury during opening arguments in 2002. On the page, Einhorn turned female bodies into objects, my mother reduced to “the head” he struck.

Einhorn’s extensive writings fixated on the women he desired and despised, his theories of misogynist violence inspired by the Marquis de Sade. “To kill what you love when you can’t have it seems so natural that strangling Rita last night seemed so right,” Einhorn wrote in 1962, referring to a previous girlfriend he’d assaulted at Bennington College, also after she had broken up with him. Like most sociopaths, the Unicorn kept his dark side hidden for years, until the police found Holly Maddux’s mummified remains in his closet. Even then, many of his acolytes refused to believe he was a murderer. Arlen Specter, who was later a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, served as his defense lawyer, and Barbara Bronfman, the Seagram’s heiress from Montreal, put up the cash for his bail. Einhorn claimed that he’d been framed by the CIA for his research into paranormal activity. He still maintains his innocence to this day, blogging from prison about the travesty of justice.

***

“Why didn’t you tell me about Ira before?” I asked my mother as her memory started to fail. “Why didn’t you tell any of us?” I was thinking about generational patterns of female silence; about my trouble saying no to men; about my date rape at Dartmouth, that infamous enclave of Ivy League privilege where lacrosse players bared their perfect white grins in Animal House basements; about the male sexual entitlement that’s alive and well, disputed but not gone in the era of #MeToo. I was nearly 19 when my frat-boy crush used my body for his pleasure, the same age as my mother when she met Ira Einhorn. In a phone interview with therapist Mark Wolynn, he called this repetition an “ancestral alarm clock” and urged me to break the cycle before my daughters grew up.

“What was I supposed to do?” Mom’s voice shook. “Sit the family down in the living room and talk about it?” Shame darkened her green eyes.

“No, but you could have told me before I left for college. It’s a women’s issue …” I trailed off. I heard myself, blaming her for my pain as I had in adolescence. Now she was old and alone and needed my compassion. And maybe nothing she could have said would have made me speak louder. We’d both been socialized to defer to men, growing up as oldest daughters in families ruled by powerful patriarchs. Only years later, as my own girls neared adolescence and my urge to protect them grew fiercer, did I understand that my mother had kept her secret to herself out of fear. She needed to believe that Einhorn was an anomaly, that her past had nothing to do with her children.

“Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist. About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in her watershed essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” Reading it, I thought of the Unicorn’s trunk and Holly Maddux’s tragic silencing. Solnit examined how power is expressed in our culture, both in polite discourse and in acts of intimidation and violence, how that power “silences and erases and annihilates women.”

But my mother was not annihilated. She survived. Then decades later, at age 57, she stood up in court and told her story. In front of jurors and lawyers, dozens of journalists and onlookers, she reenacted the assault blow by blow, relived the terrifying scene as 62-year-old Ira Einhorn, his white goatee now trim, sat emotionless in the dock.

“I felt and believed I was dying,” my mother told the courtroom in Philadelphia, the first and only time she spoke publicly about the assault.

“She was better than a great actress because there was no artifice, no distance between her and the event,” said her friend Bob, who’d watched the trial. My mother’s vivid testimony was “devastating” for the defense, Einhorn’s lawyers told the papers the next day. “The Unicorn Killer” was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in a Pennsylvania prison.

Did she feel relief? I never knew. Only once after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis did I mention his name. Panic rose in her eyes, startled birds taking flight.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered. She’d just turned 70, her lovely mind already ravaged by dementia, sentences trailing into fragments. “Afraid he’ll get out … come find me … kill me …”

“No, Mom,” I said. “That would never happen.” I pulled her close, her shoulder blades frail beneath her wool cardigan. “He’ll never get out. He’s going to die in there. You’re safe now.”

***

When my mother came back from the murder trial, she wasn’t celebrated in our nuclear family. Although my father had been by her side, he never mentioned her experience as either the battered victim or the star witness. No one spoke about it at Christmas in the Berkshires or at our summer cabin in the Maine woods. Her story remained taboo, suppressed even after it had reached its dramatic public conclusion. Maybe the five of us couldn’t acknowledge the horror, how close she had come to being that body in the trunk.

At the time I didn’t question this nonresponse, absorbed as I was in my own bodily crisis. Now I see it as a coping mechanism, in keeping with our family’s aptitude for denial and the larger culture’s chronic silencing of trauma, particularly the female variety. We were afraid to give the story air, as if it might feed on our attention like a hungry demon and morph into a monster, swallowing us all.

“Parents and grandparents often believe that we immunize our children by remaining silent about the past, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Mark Wolynn told me. I’d asked him whether my chronic bladder pain could be connected to my mother’s assault. I was fascinated by the new science of epigenetics, how chromosomal evidence showed children of Holocaust survivors and other trauma victims were more susceptible to stress, more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

I didn’t make the connection that the site of my healing had been the site of my mother’s trauma…Consumed in my own suffering, I never asked Mom about the Einhorn trial or her college memories.

My illness came on suddenly in 2002, right before I drove to California with Tim, right after my parents told me about Einhorn. Urine tests revealed no bacterial cause, and I experienced no relief with multiple courses of antibiotics. As my mother prepared for the murder trial, I rode shotgun cross-country with a pee jug at my feet, nervous system on high alert, symptoms ranging from dull pressure to searing vaginal pain, a pelvic constellation that waxed and waned but never, ever disappeared.

It took me nearly a year of crippling depression and visits to various urologists, psychiatrists, naturopaths, and acupuncturists before I was finally diagnosed with interstitial cystitis (IC), at a specialist clinic located in — of all cities — Philadelphia. At the time, I didn’t make the connection that the site of my healing had been the site of my mother’s trauma. She came with me to the initial three days of treatment at the brick hospital on a tree-lined block bordering the Penn campus, only a short walk to Locust Street. Consumed in my own suffering, I never asked Mom about the Einhorn trial or her college memories. I let her comfort me selflessly through each medical appointment, let her to carry hope when I had none.

IC is a misunderstood syndrome that often brings patients to the brink of despair. Over the years I’ve tried to ease my symptoms with a host of treatments, from antihistamines to cannabis butter, vaginal Valium to pelvic floor massage. Desperate, I’ve even paid several psychics to divine the origin of my mysterious pain. The only one who made any sense was a spirit channeler I saw last summer, a tiny smiling woman who went deep into a trance, crinkled her face, and spoke with closed eyes.

“You must drop your mother’s story,” she intoned. “It is making you sick. You must drop it like a load of rocks through a chute.”

* * *

Diana Whitney writes across the genres in Southern Vermont. Her first book, Wanting It, became an indie bestseller and won the Rubery Book Award in poetry. She’s the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Glamour, the Washington Post, the Kenyon Review, and many more. A yoga teacher by trade, she’s finally finished a memoir called Unicorn, about breaking generational patterns of female silence.

Editor: Sari Botton