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  • Caitlin Rother

Works in progress, moving on and letting go




As Nanowrimo is nearing an end, I’m pleased to report that I have added at least 20,500 words to my working manuscript for the Rebecca Zahau death case this month. That doesn’t include all the words I’ve rewritten or edited out, so it actually may be 25,000 words or even more.

I start with my book proposal as a skeleton, because it includes a couple of sample chapters as well as chapter summaries for the entire book. Much of what I do is to flesh out the summaries into scenes and narrative, adding in new information I’ve gathered in my research, which in this case is constantly evolving.


But something happened this week that I need to stop and write about today, in addition to all the “stuff” this book is bringing up about life with my husband, because he, too, was found hanging. My editor asked me to include some of the parallels and contrasts in the book, so I guess you can say this blog today is part of my writing process.


These feelings are lingering around the edges of my brain, and they need to come out before I can proceed with Rebecca’s story, which, by the way, has a new title: SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER: The Mysterious Death of Rebecca Zahau.


As some of you may know, I was married to an alcoholic with borderline personality disorder, who committed suicide in 1999. I wrote about my roller-coaster marriage in my mini memoir, SECRETS, LIES, AND SHOELACES, which I published last year.


One of the points of the story is that recovery from a relationship like ours is long and, like the disease of addiction itself, has bumps and triggers. I had one of those this week when I finally forced myself to go through one of the last remaining boxes of my late husband’s things.

It’s taken me years to slowly give or throw his stuff away, because I feel negligent if I don’t go through it first, and that process alone is so exhausting and emotional that I have to wait until I can face it. It’s been 20 years since he died, and after cleaning out and reorganizing the garage six months ago, I came across this box.


At first glance, it seemed to contain mostly financial papers, copies of credit card bills and such. I went through a bunch of these papers right after he died, because I knew he had a lot of pre-existing debt before we were married, and I wanted to make sure collectors weren’t going to come after me. But I recall saving this box because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t some kind of life insurance or retirement benefits that could be lurking in his papers, which could disappear if I simply tossed them into the trash. Complicating matters further is that I’m very allergic to dust, and even when a box is kept closed for that long, just turning pages makes my eyes and nose go crazy.


Nevertheless, I decided it was time. I was ready. Yet again, I was surprised at the emotion and the discovery. Still. The reminders of how much he loved me, how his life revolved around trying to make amends to me, to recover for me, to be with me again after I had to call police and put him in jail for picking up a bat and threatening me with it. I’d told him to get his act together and not to contact me for at least three months.


After he went into the Pathfinders treatment and sober living program in San Diego, he bought an appointment book, which I found in this box. As I went through it, I noticed there was little written in it but meetings with psychiatrists and therapists, and milestones in his protracted journey to get back together with me.


One of the things I’ve blocked out in my own recovery was the actual date of our wedding anniversary. Our “honeymoon” was a total misnomer, because he went into a fugue state and became a monster while we were in New York City, and I cried, horrified at the person I’d married. But there it was in the book. October 25.


As I flipped backward in time, and saw the few other entries with my name, I remembered once again just how much he really loved me and wanted to make things right:


“Wrote Caitlin.” April 26.


“Talked to Caitlin for first time.” June 20.


“Made Amends to Caitlin, 9th step.” June 27.


“Saw Caitlin for 1st time.” July 25.


I remember the day he called me to make amends was a Saturday, and I had a party to go to that night. We had set a date and time for that conversation, but it wasn’t great timing. It took a good 90 minutes, and it left me quite confused and emotional afterward. I’d needed to hear his apologies, but the whole exchange still hung over me like a pall for the rest of the day and throughout the party. Luckily, it was my best friend’s party. His ex-wife was an alcoholic too. And I learned recently that she eventually drank herself to death.


It’s not surprising, I guess, that Rich didn’t mark the day when he violated one of the conditions of our separation, which was that he stay away from one particular Starbucks I frequented in Hillcrest. I still remember seeing him in the parking lot that day, as adrenaline and anger flashed through my entire body, lighting me up with fire and a feeling of betrayal and fury that he had stepped all over my boundaries. I wrote him an angry letter after that, and I believe he apologized, but I still remember the incident, like a wound deep in my gut. I’m not sure if his April 26 letter, marked in this book, came before or after that.


It was more surprising that he didn’t mark the trip we took together to London later that year, a platonic trial during which I tried to see if I could forgive him one last time. Maybe by then he didn’t feel he needed to mark dates in the book because I had opened that door again. Let him try to prove to me that he had changed, that he could be the man I hoped he could, and try to get his life back out of the toilet when he’d put it. Lost his job at the county, his reputation, any feelings of self-worth, and his career aspirations of opening his own investment firm.


Seeing those pages with my name on them made me sad all over again. And not so angry anymore. It hit me once more that he’d been trying to stop drinking for me, not really for himself. We tried living together one more time, but it was too late. I regularly cried at dinner. He was addicted to playing video games on his computer, and he was still depressed. I just couldn’t conjure up any love for him anymore.


After he started drinking again and I told him it was over, it was only four days before he killed himself.


And this box, full of files of unpaid bills, collections notices, and letters showing that he’d attempted to pay off some of them, was just part of the flotsam and jetsam that he left behind. I saw that he did have a life insurance policy with JC Penney, but it seemed to have lapsed, because he had neglected to keep up with the monthly payments.


I also found a file full of photos of a bunch of Chinese people and other pension fund executives, which I believe were taken on a trip to Hong Kong. He brought me back a whole bunch of gifts from that trip—earrings, silk pajamas, all kinds of cool stuff. He was good at that. But he wasn’t in any of the photos. I think he kept them because it helped him remember who he used to be, a respected investment maverick who should have had a promising future ahead of him.


There was a bright spot in that box. I don’t remember if I’d looked at this before, but I found a letter to one of his consulting clients who had just let him go. Rich told the client that what he was doing was unethical and wrong, and that Rich was going to report him to the authorities. I also found a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission, outlining all the unethical and illegal acts that this man had committed. I can’t tell if he ever filed the thing, but there it was and it made me feel proud of him.


I looked up the name of the company and the venture the man was trying to get off the ground (I found paperwork for the distribution of shares, and if I recall there was going to be a public offering). While I found no trace of the company online, I did find an obituary of the man, showing that he died in 2012, so I’m guessing that the whole thing never took off. I can’t ask Rich’s close friend and AA sponsor, because I looked him up and he, too, died in 2014, after recovering from a serious stroke. He was a nice man. I wish I’d stayed in closer touch.


The letter and SEC complaint were written only a month before Rich killed himself, and I’m happy to see that he was trying to do the right thing. That was the part of him I can hold on to. And throw the rest of the dusty papers away. At least most of them. Maybe someday.


I worry that if I toss them all, the triggers needed to conjure up the few good memories will away go too.


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