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In the early morning hours of November 5, 1994, a twenty-seven-year-old woman named Andrea O'Donnell was brutally murdered. Her badly decomposed body was discovered by another roommate in the apartment that she had shared with her boyfriend. A few days later police arrested Andres English-Howard, Andrea's boyfriend, and booked him on suspicion of murder in the first degree in the death of Andrea O'Donnell. The night before he was scheduled to appear in court for sentencing, Andres ripped apart his bedsheets, and, in a series of gestures that eerily mocked the way he had killed his girlfriend, stuffed a gag in his own mouth, covered his head in a shroud, and hanged himself in his prison cell.
An awful story, yes, but on the surface, nothing unusual. Andrea's story is just one of the millions of stories about women who are victims of violent abuse every year. She was just one of the thousands of women in the United States alone who, in 1995, were killed by those whom they loved and whom they ought to have be3en able to trust the most-their husbands, their lovers, their partners.
I knew Andrea. But what for me makes this story seem so different from all the other stories about women victims of violence is not that I knew her, but who I knew her to be.
Andrea O'Donnell, women's studies major at San Diego State University, student director of the campus Women's Resource Center, self-defense instructor, politically active and strong young woman, died in her own bedroom, strangled to death by her lover. Andrea did not fit what criminal justice experts still call the "victim profile"-a composite shot of the danger that separates the likely "victim" form the rest of us. By any of these measures, Andrea was not a victim. Yet I came to knew her even better after her death. Still, after more that four years of living with her death and the echoes of it, I keep hearing in other lives andde3aths and near deaths, I cannot claim to have the answer to what really happened or why it happened to her. I have stopped trying to figure out why. Instead, I have come to believe that her story has another meaning; her story has a lot to tell us about who we think we are.
To me, Andrea's story becomes a meditation on the hollowness of the word "choice." We might say that Andrea made a choice; Andrea made her life for herself. But do we really expect that Sophie, or any one, could survive having to choose between two people, having to knowingly discard one in favor of the other? Is that something we want to call a "choice"? No, I think it's one of those all too frequent occasions in life when the idea of choice seems utterly beside the point. And I think we all really know this. I think in that hollow word "choice" we hear the echo of a nagging suspicion, a hesitation that makes us shiver with the knowledge that, even under the best of circumstances, being able to choose is not enough to get us through the night. Underneath the assertion that choice is all we need, we sense that it doesn't and can't explain why, even if we can choose, we should ever be expected to make choices that are unreasonable.
By unreasonable choices I don't mean choices without reason; I mean being unable to reason in the face of choice. Being unable to reason, you are unable to believe, once and for all, that one purpose for living is much better than another. All of a sudden all the arguments you can muster for going in one direction or another start to pull and tug at you equally and turn you inside out with indecision until you feel, quite literally, as if the edges of your world have disappeared. And you want nothing more than to be freed from having to choose at all. Tell me you haven't been there. Were you afraid to admit it?
We all find different ways to hide from such feelings. One way we hide from these feelings in unreasonable situations is to create a category like "victims." We become fascinated with "the victim" curious about how she could just let something bad happen to her. I think we want to know why something bad happened to her, what went wrong with her life, so that we can create a safe distance between ourselves and the victims how made bad choices. We say, well, maybe she or he would do that, or couldn't help but do this, but I-I would like to be different, I would know how to make the right choice, the good choice.
The trouble is, stories about "bad choices" keep getting closer and closer. They hit home. So we dig deeper. We try to find another way to build a stronger wall between ourselves and the possibility that her story, the victim's story, might really be about me, about you and me. And we're cleverer still. If the victim who made bad choices seems just like you and me, we say , well, except for that one mistake of judgment, that person is really very ordinary, very much in control, just like me.
I am no exception. At first, I saw Andrea as someone who had made a disastrous bad judgment, someone who had failed to get the help she needed. I was trouble by her not turning to us in the university for help. I thought she should have known better. But the longer I spent thinking about Andrea's life and death, the more she became for me a complex symbol of the contemporary women's movement. She was a woman struggling for justice, wanting to love and be loved. "Well, who isn't?" a friend said. Finally, through that casual comment, I recognized something even more familiar about Andrea.
When I looked again, there was Andrea standing right in the middle of my own life. It was only an accident, mere chance, that what happened to her happened anywhere near me, anywhere near my life's middle. I knew that. Still, it's hard to ignore thinking about where and who you are in your world, where you are in your life's cycle, in your thinking about yourself. And all this influences what you see and how you shape what your see going on around you. So none of what I can tell you about Andrea can be told without revealing something about myself. Standing right in the middle of my own life, I saw Andrea as a very personal, conflicted symbol of my own womanhood. It's not that she was just like me; I was just like her. The twenty-seven years of her life spanned the length of the contemporary women's movement in the United States, the time of my own political growth. I couldn't help but see her through that history of combinations of where we both had been in those years. I saw her as the daughter I might have been.