Jennifer One – Part 1
October 10, 2009 in Jennifer One
Jennifer Ecker died seven weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday, on the first Sunday in March of 1969. She waited until her grandmother left for services at the Congregational Church before loading a vintage revolver with bullets ordered from a mail-order catalogue, and while her mother showered in a bathroom barely ten feet away, shot herself in the head. There was no letter of explanation.
By Monday most of the tenth grade knew that she had killed herself, but in those days suicide did not bring an urban high school in Los Angeles or anywhere else to a standstill. There were no candlelight vigils or teary-eyed cheerleaders hugging in the quad for her, and grief counselors were nonexistent. That afternoon as I sat with her mother in the small, dark living room a school administrator arrived at the front door. She did not venture into the house but stood on the porch talking to Jennifer’s brother, offering her condolences and asking about Jennifer’s “health.” Her health? I thought. I knew there were other questions somebody should be asking, but I didn’t know what. Except for this: How was it possible that none of the adults in our world had seen this coming?
Jennifer had been my first friend at my “new” school – the third I had attended in as many years. Because of my father’s corporate job, my family moved frequently. This time, though, I was pretty sure we were staying put, because my mother had had what was known at the time as a nervous breakdown.
That year at Christmas, when I was seven years old, “Secret Santa” was the custom in the school: each student picked another child’s name out of an empty goldfish bowl to buy him (or her) a small present. The gifts were placed under the classroom tree and opened the day of the Christmas party, when the PTA mothers brought in sticky punch and cupcakes. It was obvious to all of us that one gift was a small rubber ball wrapped in tissue paper, and there was much giggling about who would get stuck with the “baby toy.” When the teacher handed it to me, I began to cry. Suddenly, a titian-haired girl with freckles was beside me, explaining how sorry she was. She agreed it was a stupid present and said she had told her mother so, but her mom worked and they lived with her grandmother. It was Nana who bought the ball, and she just didn’t understand anything. As I had two grandmothers myself who didn’t understand anything – one spoke fractured English while the other, an actress, drank carrot juice and studied metaphysics – I stopped crying at once, and from then on, Jennifer Ecker and I were best friends.
At birthday parties, sleepovers, summertime movies, and walks home after school, Jennifer was always there. We spent time at each other’s homes, played croquet in her backyard, dreamed of being models and listened to The Beatles for the very first time on her sister’s record player. We went to the opening matinee of A Hard Day’s Night with her brother, Jeff, acting as chaperone, and like most of the girls in the theater that day, Jennifer stood on her seat and shrieked throughout the entire movie. Jeff, I, and a handful of others immune to Beatlemania, kept waiting for the audience to calm down so we could hear the soundtrack, but they never did. When we got back to Jennifer’s house, Nana put her to bed because she was so exhausted. I remember eating dinner with the family that night without her, sitting with her brothers and their mother and grandmother, and how strange it was to be with them while Jennifer slept in a cluttered bedroom just beyond the dining room.
By sixth grade, another girl began walking home from school with us, and then we were a trio: Jennifer, Robin, and Kim. We were living in that short window of time between childhood and full-blown adulthood, when a future of golden promises seemed our right. There was music and endless discussions about who had gotten her period and who definitely did not need a bra. Alliances shifted and reformed. Sometimes Robin and I went somewhere without Jennifer; other times the two of them left me out. One horrendous fight involved my holding Jennifer’s purse for ransom, at which point she told the teacher and I got in trouble. Very high drama at the time, but all was forgiven a few weeks later, and by the time she died, it was a distant bell.
At first there was no mention of how she’d done it, and the general assumption was that it must have been an overdose of drugs. But a few days later, my mother came home with shocking news: an old woman living across the street from the Eckers had been telling people in the local market that “the little girl across the street shot herself.” The woman was very upset, according to the store-owner, who told the checkout girl, who told my mother. In the small community within the sprawling city we lived in, word spread fast until, soon, everyone in the neighborhood seemed to have heard it. With sickening fear, I went looking for Robin because I knew she’d have the facts and would tell me the truth.
Though we had gone our separate ways in eighth grade and had no classes together in high school, only the two of us (and Jennifer’s family) knew certain things about Jennifer. For instance, that she never ate meat – she was the only vegetarian in our class – and that she could not swallow pills, not even a single aspirin, which made it hard to believe that she’d taken an overdose of anything. Robin lived just down the street from the Eckers and was the only person who had remained in contact with Jennifer during the last year of her life. Their friendship had endured while I, in my haste to grow up, had left them both behind. Robin was also close to Jeff Ecker, and it was Jeff who told her about the gun, which had belonged to Nana’s long dead husband, and also that the family found the box of bullets sometime Sunday afternoon.
The funeral was held in a small stone chapel on the grounds of a local cemetery, a cold, functional setting. Robin and I sat together, noting the familiar faces of neighbors and old friends, the guidance counselor from our junior high and even three of our elementary school teachers. Near the end of the service, the minister asked us to stand, and with the exception of an old woman sitting behind us clutching her rosary beads, everyone walked dutifully up the aisle past the open pink coffin with the pink satin lining. The girl in the coffin looked nothing like Jennifer. Her freckles were invisible under layers of pancake makeup, the mouth was a red gash, and her eyelids were lacquered blue with what looked like paint. She resembled a shattered porcelain doll someone had tried to put back together, knowing full well the damage could be masked, but never undone.
A tentative wind was blowing as several members of the UCLA basketball team – teammates of Jennifer’s older brother, John – carried her coffin up a steep hill for the burial. The pallbearers were so tall that the pink box appeared to glide on their shoulders. Her sister, Judy, eighteen and living in her own apartment, looked so pretty and grown up in her suit and hat; Mrs. Ecker and Nana, supported by the family, sobbed throughout the ceremony.
One notable absence at the funeral spoke volumes: Jennifer’s father. All we knew was that he was a doctor and that he had disappeared from his children’s lives after an acrimonious divorce. Jennifer had no memories of him at all, and he paid no child support, which was surprisingly common at the time. Jennifer said she’d once asked her sister about him and her sister’s response was that he had done “something terrible” to their mother that she wouldn’t want to know about. It was the only information she was ever given about a man alluded to only in late-night whispers, a father who was not invited to his own daughter’s funeral.
The summer of 1969 would bring the Woodstock festival to upstate New York and the Manson family murders in the canyons above L.A., but for most of the spring, I was looking backward, trying to make sense of the past. Robin and I fell easily back into friendship, sometimes sneaking into the girls’ room for cigarettes at lunch, and shopping together after school. Walking the shaky bridge to adulthood, one of us had deliberately pivoted and fallen, deciding it wasn’t worth the trip.
In grade school, we had lost a classmate to leukemia, a rail-thin child with a constant cough that announced her precarious hold on life. That I understood. No one told us Jean Marie was going to die, but I was not shocked when she did. Jennifer had chosen death. How could death be a relief to someone who has not yet lived? What went through her mind those last few seconds, sitting there on a bed with a loaded gun in her hands, knowing her mother was just a few feet away? Or was that, in some tortuous way, the point?
My memories of Jennifer are as vibrant today as the daffodils that appear in my garden every April – the month both she and Robin were born. If she were alive somewhere, working a job she hated or traveling through Spain or drinking a latte with her sister in Phoenix, Arizona, it would not alter the poignancy of the years we shared. As the narrator of the classic coming-of-age film Stand by Me says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
I thought we were invincible: the quintessential baby boomers, born smack-dab in the middle of the bell curve, taught to believe in the supremacy of American democracy and assured that taking cover under a wooden desk would keep us safe from Soviet missiles – two of many myths we would see dispelled before the end of our teen years. Jennifer’s death was not only absurd in its senselessness; it also foreshadowed a recognition that usually comes much later in life. It was the beginning of doubt, the slow shredding of idealism. In the real world, I would soon learn, good people die all the time for no discernable reason while tyrants pile up money in Swiss accounts and live to a ripe old age. In the real world, failure is far more frequent than success. Life is not merely unfair, it is frequently blind and utterly ruthless.
Since Jennifer’s death, after her name became, for a time, the most popular name for newborn girls, I have thought always of her: the first Jennifer, the only Jennifer. I have gone for long stretches of time not wondering about the choice she made on that morning, but am always drawn back to the question. Understanding her death has become a part of my preternatural longing to solve at least some of the riddles of human behavior. Though she weighed a little more than a hundred pounds, Jennifer Ecker is my white whale.
The Centers for Disease Control were not collecting data on teen suicide back in 1969, but from 1981-1998, the first period for which numbers are available, suicide was the second most likely cause of death among white females aged 15-24.1 The previous demographic, females 0-14 – technically the group that Jennifer belonged in – shows suicide as the fifth leading cause of death over the same time period.2 The Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, known as WISQARS, which also utilizes CDC data, reports that females in California, ages 10-19, chose suicide by firearm at a crude rate of 1.06 cases per 100,000 over the same time frame. In the vast acreage of the state, this amounts to less than two deaths per month similar to Jennifer’s: in other words, not very many. Moreover, these data are from two decades after her death.
One may blame the 1960s – which, for those of us who lived through them really began with JFK’s assassination in 1963 and ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975 – for many things. From mass murders by lone gunmen to LSD, heavy metal music to cognitive dissonance, the 1960s were a cauldron of dubious ideas and trends, but teenage suicide? Did that begin with the sixties as well?
Countless theories of why she did it have played out in my mind, especially as studies have shown how pervasive adolescent depression really is, and as societal taboos about sexuality and family life have fallen away, other painful possibilities arose. There were as many family secrets in our neighborhood as there were scrawny palm trees, including incest, physical abuse, alcoholism and various incarnations of drug use. One boy our age founded his own cult. Several others OD’d, died in accidents or from cancer, and in one remarkable instance, a Westwood girl married and had a child, found out her husband was cheating on her and ended up running off with her husband’s girlfriend to a lesbian commune in Topanga Canyon. Behind closed doors, almost anything may be hiding, but nothing I heard about or thought about seemed to apply to Jennifer or to her family.
For all of her short life, Jennifer lived in a two-bedroom, Spanish style house that belonged to her grandmother. For a dozen years, six people lived in a little over 1,200 square feet of space, but small children neither notice nor care about such things. I certainly never did, and enjoyed visiting her, though by the time we reached junior high – which went from seventh through ninth grade back then – it started to matter a lot where you lived, what you wore to school and how unusual your family situation might be. Many of our classmates came from the wealthiest sections of the city, and there was little money in Jennifer’s family for the extras craved by teenage girls, which, at a minimum, included new clothes and a little privacy. Her family shared one bathroom and she shared a bedroom with her grandmother and, until she moved out, with her sister Judy as well.
Sometime in the ninth grade, she began staying home from school. We had all done this during adolescence, stayed home to avoid a test or because we couldn’t face being in school for a day or two, but Jennifer stayed home for weeks that turned into months. She simply would not get up and go to class. The same pattern emerged when we started high school in late January of 1969.
I last saw her when our paths crossed between classes and I stopped to talk to her because she had been on the absent list – a mimeographed printout delivered daily to our third period homeroom – for two of the three weeks we had been in high school. She appeared the same as ever and I asked how she was feeling. She looked me in the eye and said she was okay, hoisting a load of books in my direction as if to say, “See, I’ve got work to do.” At this point she had been “sick” for well over a year. Jeff would later tell Robin that she had one or two appointments with a psychiatrist right before she died, only because he and Judy convinced their mother her problems couldn’t be ignored any longer, but it was already too late. Months later, I wondered if she had already made up her mind that day we stood outside the bungalows making small talk as the late afternoon sun beat down on our heads. I think that she had.
Real knowledge is a dangerous thing for families ensconced in denial and evasion, but few secrets are safe in the age of the Internet. Genealogical websites proliferate because so many in this nation of immigrants know very little about one or both sides of our families. It is human nature to want to know who we are and where we came from, if only to leave a record for our own children, and so on a rainy afternoon, after hours of searching online for information about my Irish ancestors and a grandfather who died before I was born, I began to sift through information related to Jennifer’s family.
Nana is long dead. So are her mother, her never-seen father, and one of her brothers. Nana died first and the family must have sold the little house she owned back in the early 1980s. I have driven past it many times while visiting my own mother, who still lives only four blocks away, and noted the improved landscaping and the addition of two rooms and a patio. In the burgeoning insanity of Los Angeles real estate, the house that was so small, the house where Jennifer died, sold for close to a million dollars in 2006.
Her sister married within a year of Jennifer’s death and divorced a few years later. She remarried and I hope she is, for want of a better concept, happy. Brother John, the UCLA
basketball player, lives in Germany. He put the vastness of the continental states and the Atlantic Ocean between himself and the city of his birth. John married a beautiful German woman who won two gold medals in track and field and the silver medal in the women’s pentathlon at the 1972 Olympics.
Jeff Ecker, the sibling closest to Jennifer in age, did not fare well in adulthood. He never married and most likely helped to care for his mother, Evalyn, when she was terminally ill with cancer in the early 1990s. Then, in 1993, like his sister, Jeff committed suicide. When I discovered this crushing bit of reality, I stopped pressing for a while, stopped looking for any more truth. The details were too grievous. Yet, some months later, I returned to the search, thinking of Jeff ‘s own words to Robin on a March morning so long ago.
Robin had called the house that day to ask whether she was going to school on Monday and Jeff answered the phone. She could hear chaos in the background, and the unmistakable sounds of keening.
“Jennifer is dead and we don’t know why,” he told her. I knew there was still more to learn. Most of all, I wanted the back-story. Who was Jennifer’s father and how did he meet her mother, who was a young widow with a son when they married? What, in God’s name, had happened to this family? I pressed on and discovered, in California vital records, a Byzantine scenario.
(to be continued)