Popular media often finds itself preoccupied with grotesque extremes. Maybe that’s why crime dramas are always in demand.
By constantly pointing to criminals of every awful stripe, they keep us clued to the screen, unable to look away. But perhaps we should.
See, when we remain fixated on the outlandish, we miss out on the full story, the entirety of everything that actually happened. Just consider: When’s the last time you’ve heard anything about a killer’s family?
For Jenn Carson, that question isn’t just rhetorical. Her father, Jim Carson, was a serial killer.
According to WBUR, Jenn’s father wasn’t always a menacing presence. Though a bit disheveled, as was the pattern in the 1970s, he truly cared for his daughter.
“He’d brush my hair and feed me breakfast every morning,” she said. But things deteriorated when Carson divorced Jenn’s mother and married a woman named Suzan Barnes.
“My father immediately became a different person with Suzan,” Jenn wrote in the Huffington Post. “[He] would barely look at me.”
Only later would Jenn learn that Barnes had experienced a drug-fueled altered state in which she became convinced that she was an instrument of God’s judgment. She and Carson would later confess to three murders and be linked with nine others, and a jury sent them to jail for life.
You can imagine the stress this put on young Jenn. In addition to struggling academically, she suffered from extreme bouts of depression.
“I was so traumatized that at one point I tried to drown myself in the bathtub and hoarded pills from our medicine cabinet with the intent of ending my life,” she wrote. “Before I had even turned 10 years old, I was a suicidal kid with a homicidal father.”
When she entered third grade, Jenn began wearing her hair in front of her face, a shield between her and the world. But her teacher, Sylvia Case, decided to break through to the girl beneath.
“I just remember her saying ‘Jenny, I heard you were such a great reader. Why don’t you help me hold the book?” Jenn said.
Time after time, Case took the extra step, said another kind word, gave a gift that reminded Jenn of her humanity. She helped her get into the Girl Scouts, praised her cursive penmanship and bought her barrettes to keep her stubborn hair pulled back.
Like most students, Jenn soon lost track of Case after leaving her class. But no doubt because of Case’s encouragement, Jenn went on to go to college, get a master’s degree in counseling and now works in suicide prevention.
When she wanted to contact her to thank her, she couldn’t locate her old teacher. But WBUR found Case living merely 50 miles from her former student and helped the pair reunite.
“I felt very emotional seeing her and hearing her story and connecting with her after all of these years,” Case said. “I think I’m proud of her like a daughter or granddaughter.”
Jenn felt just as glad for her old teacher. Indeed, she credited Case with helping grow a toughness in her that remained all the way to adulthood.
“When I found out that my father was a monster who killed a bunch of people, and my brain started saying, ‘You’re worthless, you’re a bad girl,’ I kept going back to Mrs. Case,” she explained. “She said I was a good girl, and she built a resilience in me that I believe saved my life.”
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