My name is Stephanie Johnson. My daughter was brutally murdered by her ex-husband, who reportedly cried and confessed at the crime scene on Dec. 30, several weeks after she was killed. Police found her body surrounded by scented candles in the house in which she was probably murdered. The case received international attention.
My job now is to share my story and those of countless others to speak up for those muted by their abusers, to remove the shame and stigma they face every day, and the reticence that keeps them silent. I am not an expert on domestic violence. I’m simply telling you my story in the hope it never becomes yours.
This time 32 years ago I was at a crawfish boil in Destrehan, Louisiana, and my friends were amusing themselves by watching a nine-months-pregnant woman peel mudbugs with two hands.
Of course, they were drinking beer, which added to their mirth. I was so appropriately sober, ravenously hungry and engorged with my first baby that I didn’t care. Like anything that goes down socially in that state, the mood was light, libations were abundant, fun was a given and the laughter was kind. Crawfish spilled out of boiling cauldrons onto communal tables covered in newspaper. New potatoes and corn were gourmet afterthoughts to my food-besotted brain. I remember strong sunshine and sweat trickling down my back. Upside down in my womb, Anne-Christine kicked.
The next morning, Sunday, I awakened at 5 a.m. to what felt like a heavy period getting ready to start. “This isn’t bad at all,” I remember thinking right before stabbing pains roiled across my abdomen with increasing urgency. They were five minutes apart, but I was a trooper. When was I supposed to feel like I needed to push? My mother called from Seoul, S. Korea and was horrified to hear I was waiting around for the urge to strike.
At 5 p.m., she had Lee hustle me off to Lakeside Hospital, where I apologized profusely to the nurse for bothering her by arriving too early. Someone whispered transverse lie. I tried vainly to recall the stages of labor I’d dutifully memorized. A nurse whisked me into a private room. “You’re stuck in transition,” she explained. As the epidural needle slid like the grace of God into my back she cautioned me the worst was far from over. Yes, it is, I thought smugly as I was wheeled pain-free if numb, down the hall to the delivery room. The nurse and doctor climbed onto the table to re-position the recalcitrant child into the birth canal. I screamed.
Anne-Christine emerged, finally, and as Dr. Tilton, the obsetrician, triumphantly raised her into the air so I could admire the fruit of my labor, Lee levitated into the air. She looked just like him. The light shone down from heaven. “Come over here,” the other nurse commanded authoritatively, knighting him with parenthood. New fathers are all alike. Wearily, I watched as my doctor stitched me back together. We both looked tired. I started shivering as he finished and the nurse who had worked through her shift just to stay strong for me, covered me with a heated blanket. “You were great,” she lied.
Like all mothers, I repeated some iteration of this story every year to Anne-Christine. It’s the mythic origin story that all mothers share first with each other, then with their kids, then with bored sons-and-daughters-in-law before passing them along to grandchildren, who won’t fully appreciate this legacy of love either until their own children make grandparents of them.
I regaled Anne-Christine annually with these circumstances surrounding her entry into the world, usually over crawfish at Ragin’ Cajun on Richmond in Houston, where she thought it was funny to kick me under the table occasionally. “At least it isn’t in my rib,” I’d joke lamely back.
Julian, her 10-year-old son, thinks that’s funny, too, but it’s his origin story that matters desperately to me now. Anne-Christine will never get to tell him how she told me her back ached during her wedding rehearsal dinner (long story), and of how I panicked watching her leave abruptly for the hospital with soon-to-be-husband Donnie. Neither one of them know what they’re doing, I remember thinking, forgetting that I didn’t either in 1986.
Doctors slowed her labor and kept her on bed rest, dopey on magnesium. Desperate to do something, I went out and bought Tempurpedic pillows to make her comfortable. Like my mother before me, I sensed something was wrong. I called Donnie. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I think this baby’s coming.” I felt silly. The nurses weren’t alarmed. Anne-Christine lay in bed next to Edward, her childhood teddy bear. “Tell the nurse to get the doctor,” the 2008 me commanded.
Julian’s entrance into the world was quick. Afterward, Anne-Christine vaguely remembered the nurses worrying about her medical status in the aftermath of Julian’s arrival, and the doctor looking up and telling them all to settle down. She thought it was funny, during the long hours we sat together in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where we virtually lived for two months, as Julian endured a brain bleed and blood transfusions.
We rehashed every detail of his arrival. The story got better over time. “Bitches,” she thought the doctors said. “Calm down.” Ah, medicine.
Today? Julian’s origin story is a little scarier than hers, but I know that the love that cocooned his little plastic isolette at Texas Women’s passed directly from my umbilical cord to her, and from her to him.
Tomorrow I’ll drive once more to Liberty, where I’ll fantasize that the decorated U.S. Marine buried next to her grave returns to life to stomp all over Shaun Hardy with the granite boots that mark his grave.
I’ll remember every moment of all of the pain it took to bring her into this world, and of the horror and pain it took to remove her from it.
As always, if you are an abused woman who is reading this blog post — and I know many of you are — think of Anne-Christine’s story and get out. She would have turned 32-years-old today, but she is forever 30, love’s labor lost over a psychopath with fists.
Her origin story lives on in her son and through you, imbuing you with the strength and courage to escape all that negated hers.
Please get out. Leave now, with love and in peace so you can celebrate your next birthday with your mother or family member or anyone else who really loves you. Anyone without fists.
Break the cycle.
Has it really been three months since I last posted?
Perhaps in your time, but not in mine. Grief stretches the long hours into endless days that swing like a pendulum between occasional work productivity, to hours of Internet obsession about Anne-Christine’s murder trial, the search for articles to post on my “therapy” Facebook page “Why Did She Stay?” annoying friends (especially lawyers) by insinuating observations and speculation about case law and legal maneuvering by Shaun’s “dream team” into every conversation, binge-watching European crime dramas on Netflix to numb my mind, pining for and worrying about Roland . . . and futilely tamping down the horror and sadness that just stop the clock.
My time is trauma time. Before and after. After is not measured in days or hours or even months.
The occasional Neurontin helps. I hope the new Palouse Mindfulness eight-week MBSR course recommended by my psychiatrist will bring temporary respite from what I believe Buddhists call “the monkey mind.” Or in my case, trauma-based reactions to horror that include swelling of my throat, forgetting where I’m driving, wondering how Anne-Christine’s eyes looked as life receded, flashbacks that creep up so unexpectedly they can’t be parsed from real-time and worst — and most recently — seeing Shaun Hardy in my mind’s eye, standing outside my window with his shaven head and soulless eyes.
Julian took a selfie at Anne-Christine’s grave yesterday. The etching on her monument is just to the right of the image while the sun actually creates a halo effect behind his head. It’s visually very stunning, but I can’t share it here for sadly obvious reasons. Meanwhile, he told me it was a great day because he got to spend time with both his grandmas during our visit to Liberty. Somehow this is backwards, in the timeline scheme of things.
He seemed as happy as a nine-year-old little boy could be under the circumstances. We took him to Dollar Store to pick out flowers for his Mama’s grave. I angled for purple, the signature color of the Domestic Violence (DV) movement. He reminded me matter-of-factly that his mother’s favorite color was red, and after some consideration plucked a red plastic spray of flowers from the white shelf and inserted purple ones into the middle of it.
At his mother’s graveside, Julian placed the flowers into a granite holder on the side of her bench-like monument. He pondered his choice for a moment, then separated the fake flowers, adding purple to the white silk flowers in the granite vase and the red ones into another one filled with her favorite seashells.
Plastic flowers like these don’t create logistical issues for my new friend, the man who mows the lawn at historic Cooke Cemetery. He’s respectfully mindful of the fresh purple flowers I sometimes lay in front of her grave alongside the cigarettes and tubes of red lipstick friends leave behind. His whirring blades vanquish weeds, grass and fire ant mounds audacious enough to encroach on my memories and the lacquered box six feet beneath. These plastic offerings will easily survive the mower and, Texas’ hot autumnal sun until our next visit.
June 2015: In Canyon Lake with Julian and can’t return immediately to Houston after Shaun P. Hardy almost succeeds in killing Anne-Christine. Tropical storm Bill is expected to make landfall between Houston and San Antonio. In the meantime, ACJ takes the photos of the contusions and bruising on her neck, using the computer I’m typing on now.
June 2017: Waiting for another storm, Cindy, to make landfall during exactly the same week. Surfing the Internet and seeing those June 2015 images all over archived news accounts. Thanking her posthumously for documenting the abuse for the media to share. Checking Galveston County Inmate Status to make sure the murderer’s still behind bars. Remembering that instead of bruises, the coroner noted puncture marks on her neck in December 2016. Wishing like hell she was still alive and living in the Clear Lake area, so i could call her 100 times and plead with her to evacuate.
On May 12, I was asked to speak at the annual breakfast meeting of Bay Area Turning Point, which provides recovery services for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and facilitates violence-prevention strategies for societal change in partnership with the community.
Or, as I like to call it, the shelter-Anne-Christine-reached-out-to in the days and weeks before her murder.
I don’t wake up at 5 a.m. for anyone, except a women’s shelter seeking a speaker about the impact of “DV” on families. They wanted to hear what it’s like to be the family member of someone on the other side of an abuser’s fists. Over breakfast.
Here are my comments. I had to write them down. I can’t speak extemporaneously without crying. read more…
We’re headed out in an hour to see Anne-Christine’s newly installed monument and have a picnic at Cook cemetery.
I feel a strange sense of peace and closure about this most dreaded aspect of death — putting someone in the ground.
Liberty is approximately an hour’s drive away, northeast of the Bayou City. My son Brett’s wife Nigia is preparing an Azeri-themed lunch for us. We’ve brought a blanket for the Johnsons and Deakles to sit on.
Anne-Christine’s former father-in-law Dorrance, who lives in Liberty, cycled over yesterday and sent us photos of the new monument. They poured concrete for the base Thursday and our fingers were crossed it would be ready today, so we could all coalesce in love and perhaps restore some dignity to her aborted life.
I cried yesterday when he texted photos of the bench that now sits atop two tombstones. It’s minimalist and elegant. I really think she’d like the font we picked for her tombstone. Kind of artsy and gothic, the way she used to write her name. None of her famous squiggles though.
We would never have found Anne-Christine without Tim Miller and Texas EquuSearch.
I spent over a week at EquuSearch in December 2016, during the terrible period that my daughter lay rotting at 617 Chesterfield Lane in League City, killed by self-confessed murderer Shaun P. Hardy.
The minute EquuSearch became involved in her disappearance, the League City police suddenly sprang to life.
Excuse the graphic description, but this is the reality in which Texas EquuSearch unflinchingly operates every day. The best way to describe Tim is that it’s a little bit like watching Jesus walk the earth. I derived a tremendous amount of strength through his unassuming confidence as searchers trudged wearily in and out of his former company office in Dickinson.
Elegy for a forever 30-year-old, on the occasion of her 31st birthday, March 2, 2016.
I’m very touched by your presence tonight, and emotional because my daughter is dead, there is nothing I can do to bring her back, and this is her birthday. She would have been 31. Normally, I would just open my mouth and regale you with whatever words and happy memories spilled out of my mouth. I can’t, not now. Drowning in sorrow and choking on grief are no longer cliches to me. Please bear with me as I read, for the first time in my life, a prepared speech.
Most of you know that Anne-Christine worked here shortly before her murder. She loved working at Boondoggles here in El Lago, and she especially loved being by the water.
JAN. 11, 2017: On Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, Anne-Christine failed to show up for a Christmas dinner with her father. I didn’t learn of this until Monday, Dec. 12, as my crazy black lab Samantha yanked me through the gates of her favorite dog park and my cellphone glowed in response to a call from police.
The friendly officer was trying to turn a missing person’s report into an active investigation. I remember asking him, incredulously, if he hadn’t already seen my daughter’s domestic-violence report from more than a year earlier?
I sank onto an uncomfortable, steel green bench while Samantha cheerfully plunged into the pool to frolic with other dogs-who-live-to-swim maniacally.
Mothers know. read more…
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