A mother in the aftermath

A Barnard College parent in Philly grapples with the death of Tessa Majors

4 minute read
What do you do when it feels like you’re balancing an upside-down world? Kathy Ruttenberg’s ‘Topsy Turvy’ was part of an installation between New York's Barnard College and Columbia University titled 'Dreams Awake.' (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)
What do you do when it feels like you’re balancing an upside-down world? Kathy Ruttenberg’s ‘Topsy Turvy’ was part of an installation between New York's Barnard College and Columbia University titled 'Dreams Awake.' (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)

Maybe you’ve heard. A Barnard College student named Tessa Majors, who dyed her hair green and sang in a band called Patient 0, was killed on December 11. Stabbed in Morningside Park, just blocks from campus. Police believe it was a robbery gone terribly, tragically wrong. A robbery allegedly committed by teens ages 13 and 14.

A parent’s nightmare

This is a parent’s sweat-drenched, gut-gripping nightmare. Especially if your daughter is also a first-year student at Barnard. Especially if, on a rainy Sunday at the end of Family Weekend in October, that daughter led you on a shortcut to her favorite cafe in Harlem, down the twisting stone steps into the woodsy tangle of Morningside Park, the exact spot where, about two months later, someone stabbed Majors until feathers flew out of her coat.

You don’t need to have a college-aged daughter to find this news unmooring and grievously sad: what world do we inhabit in which children barely into their teens are capable of stabbing another human being? You don’t need to be a parent to hunt desperately for something to make this senseless act coherent. A narrative. An epiphany. A why.

Our daughter’s text came that Wednesday night, several hours after Majors staggered up those stone steps and collapsed in a crosswalk, where a school security officer found her. “I’m here and safe, but…” our daughter’s message began.

Six hours later, after staying up all night with friends whose frantic texting to classmates—“Are you okay? Where are you?”—had yielded to shock and tears, she sent us a link to a New York Times article that included the first, spare details of the attack.

A reflection of ourselves

Over the next days, my stomach roiled and my tears spilled each time I thought of someone else who would be altered forever by this death: Majors’s family, of course, but also her roommate and professors. Her high-school teachers. Neighbors and bandmates and childhood friends. Everyone whose lives she brushed in a too-brief 18 years.

I also watched in grief and fascination as this incident quickly became a kind of Rorschach for those who heard and responded to it, a scaffold for each person’s story of the world.

A Fox News article proclaimed the murder was a result of “socialist leftist” efforts to reverse the anti-crime policies of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. A union official from the New York Police Department suggested Majors was in the park to buy marijuana (he apologized after outrage from her family) and that the problem was lax enforcement of drug possession laws.

My mother wanted to arm her granddaughter with Mace. My aunt urged her not to go anywhere alone. A New York colleague, jaded by her own experience of being robbed at gunpoint while at Temple University in the early 1980s, texted that such crimes “are just the world we live in.”

Others saw in the incident a parable of inequity, a growing wealth divide exemplified by students on an elite college campus and have-nots from a gentrifying neighborhood. Or a tale of systemic brokenness, a failure of schools, clinics, and social services to recognize and help severely troubled kids.

The children’s story

My daughter came home for the weekend. I felt blessed. I pictured the empty bed in Majors’s childhood room. I felt sick. And I began to wonder about the alleged perpetrators’ stories. What had happened to those children—remember, at 13 and 14, those boys are children—between babyhood and now?

I know enough about childhood trauma and brain development to imagine that somewhere in the flashpoint of that robbery—perhaps when, as a 13-year-old suspect told police, Majors bit one of her attacker’s fingers—their still-in-formation brains flooded with cortisol and the primal fight-or-flight reflex might have taken over. It’s possible that another teenage boy identified as a suspect in the killing—a 14-year-old found, questioned, and released Thursday after a two-week hunt by the NYPD—barely remembers what occurred. We may never learn the complete story.

For all kids

For now, I am doing what feels most urgent and, I hope, most healing: I text my daughter often, hug her when I can, ask about fear and sorrow and survivor’s guilt, encourage her to eat and sleep and exercise.

Also, I am telling her what I believe: that while the world holds much more good than evil, there is a certain amount of horror from which money and Mace will not protect us. That we each must find our own line between caution and courage. That we must still, always, work together toward justice, protection, and peace.

One thing I know: my kid’s life is bound up with the life of a young teenage boy who spent part of his winter break in a police interrogation room. Not only because her classmate allegedly became his victim. But because my child—and yours—won’t truly be safe until we make possible for all kids what we desperately wish for our own.

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