When agonizing over the mistakes I made as a mother I can usually forgive my incompetence in the care and feeding of my firstborn and for not initiating discussions about sex until my daughters were already having it. But the guilt that spawns nightmares and insomnia at three am is about what I did to them during the Summer of Sam, 36 years ago.
On a killing spree in New York City, the Son of Sam left a rambling handwritten note in which he called himself a monster and boasted, “I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game—tasty meat. The women of Queens are the prettiest of all.”
I had pretty daughters and we lived in Queens, a mile from a recent Son of Sam attack. He was said to prefer long-haired women which included both of mine. His taste in hair color was debatable. Some said brunette, others blonde. I had one of each. Son of Sam struck at night. My daughters worked at night in restaurants along Northern Boulevard, their shifts ending at midnight. He gunned down couples as they sat in parked cars on dark lanes and picked off lone women on their way home from work. On any given night one of my daughters fit his pattern.
New York was a hot and troubled place that summer of 1977. A citywide power blackout in July had disintegrated into the burning and looting of Harlem. Buildings exploding in black smoke on TV intensified my fear of death—sudden death of a child from Son of Sam’s .44 caliber special, or my own slow death from the breast cancer I’d been diagnosed with the summer before.
Although Son of Sam wasn’t known to break into houses to pursue his prey, I put my nervous energy to work protecting our porous home. Front and back door locks that had been easy to open with a driver’s license, I replaced with the best available deadbolt technology. Cellar windows an agile person could climb through, I outfitted with interior latches. And I posted warning signs falsely claiming the house was alarmed.
Not until the Son of Sam was caught and my girls were grown did it occur to me, by turning their safe haven into an impenetrable fortress, I had set them up for disaster. Why didn’t I leave at least one newly armored door unlocked before going up to bed? Keys had never been part of my daughters’ routine, and it was practically a given that on the night Son of Sam followed one of them home she would have forgotten, or couldn’t find, hers. Nor would she have been able to frustrate her pursuer by slipping through a loose cellar window. By the time my husband or I—upstairs reading, watching TV, or already asleep—responded to the bell or the shrieks, it would have been too late.
I wasn’t asking for forgiveness when I apologized to my daughters. “I don’t know what possessed me the summer Son of Sam was loose in Queens.” Giggling interrupted the mea culpa. “What’s so funny?”
“That one doesn’t even make our top ten list, Mom. Try to get over it.”
Reassured, I didn’t give it much thought until last year when Summer of Sam’s 35th anniversary made the news. Suddenly with clear insight I knew exactly what possessed me that summer. Cancer was stalking my house and I’d built a barricade against it.
I’m over it now.