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Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
On The Page, Poet Mourns Daughter's Murder


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. I really love the poems we’re about
to hear. They’re beautifully written. But some of them really hurt.
They’re about the worst thing that can happen to a mother, the murder of
her child.

The poems are collected in the new book, “Slamming Open the Door” by my
guest, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her daughter was murdered by the
daughter’s ex-boyfriend in 2003.

This is Bonanno’s first collection of poems. She’s a high school English
teacher and a contributing editor of the American Poetry Review, where
her husband, David Bonanno, is an editor. Two of the poems in “Slamming
Open the Door” were nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by
asking you to read the opening poem in your book, which is called “Death
Barged In.”

Ms. KATHLEEN SHEEDER BONANNO (Poet): Thank you. I’ll be happy to.

Ms. BONANNO: Death Barged in, in his Russian greatcoat, slamming open
the door with an unpardonable bang, and he has been here ever since.

He changes everything, rearranges the furniture, his hand hovers by the
phone; he will answer now, he says; he will be the answer.

Tonight he sits down to dinner at the head of the table as we eat, mute;
later, he climbs into bed between us.

Even as I sit here, he stands behind me clamping two colossal hands on
my shoulders and bends down and whispers to my neck: From now on, you
write about me.

GROSS: Kathleen, when I read that poem, I just thought now I have to
finish the book. I think that poem is so good, as is the rest of the
book. We are, coincidentally, recording this interview on the sixth
anniversary of your daughter’s murder, which I had no idea when we were
setting up the date, that it was going to be the anniversary. So this
must be such a loaded day for you.

Ms. BONANNO: It is, and truthfully, I thought about mentioning that this
was the anniversary of Leidy’s death and perhaps requesting to
reschedule, but the truth is, after I thought about it, I feel very
comfortable reading this book today of all days. It feels right somehow.

GROSS: Would you tell us the story of how she was murdered?

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. Leidy was 21 years old, had just graduated from
nursing school in West Reading, Pennsylvania, and was murdered by an ex-
boyfriend who came into her apartment using a key, a copy of the key, we
believe, strangled her with her telephone cord and left her there. And
my husband and I, after phoning her for a few days and not getting an
answer, became very alarmed, called the police, went up to West Reading
and found out that she had been murdered.

GROSS: There’s an excerpt of a poem I’d like you to read called “How to
Find Out,” and the poem is about you calling her and calling her and
leaving messages and not getting any response. I want you just, like,
describe that and read an excerpt of that poem.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes, not only had Dave and I and my sister and Leidy’s
friends been calling her and calling her on the phone, but we finally
left her a message that said we’re driving up there right now, if you
don’t answer, if you don’t pick up the phone in a few minutes, and so we

We got on Route 73 and got as far as Skippack and were told…

GROSS: Now, how far away is this from where you live?

Ms. BONANNO: We live in Orland, Pennsylvania, so maybe that’s – Skippack
is maybe 30 minutes away. So we got a phone call then in the car that
Leidy had just been spotted working her nursing shift, and so clearly
she was fine, and we were so relieved, and we turned the car around and
came, you know, barreling back down the road filled with a kind of giddy
sense of happiness. And when we got home we called the hospital just to
make sure that the spotting of her on the floor was correct, and the
poem “How to Find Out” picks up at this point from there.

Ms. BONANNO: Her supervisor will say: No, no, she’s not here. She hasn’t
shown up for work in two days. This is the time for your throat to
thicken, for your fingers to get rubbery, for you to call the police and
say please, please, go to her apartment, and if it’s locked, please
knock down the door.

GROSS: And is that what you did? Did you call the police and tell them
to knock down the door?

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. They didn’t knock down the door. You know, there’s so
much protocol in this day and age about what the police are allowed to
do. They were able to pull out the air conditioner from her side window
and peek in, and they saw her body, and then they were able to enter the

GROSS: And they called you?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, we had been in – after I called them, we were in
constant phone contact, me saying have you found something? You know,
why haven’t you called us back? What’s going on? And then we were
finally told: Please just drive up here right now. Just drive up here.
And I knew then. We all knew then that something must be very, very

We weren’t asked to meet them at the hospital, for example, but to drive
to her apartment.

GROSS: And when you got there, what was the scene in front of the house?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, there were police cars and ambulances, and there were
many, many people on their front porches. You know, it’s a block with a
lot of row houses, people with their arms folded, people waiting, it
seemed to me, very, very silently until we arrived, and then I realized
they were waiting for her parents to arrive. That was part of what
people were keeping vigil for, in a way.

GROSS: So you the were the drama. You were like the next act in the
drama, you showing up.

Ms. BONANNO: Exactly.

GROSS: I feel like I’ve seen this scene so many times on television and
in movies, and I know you must have too, and then it’s like it’s your
scene. It’s like you’re the star of that scene. I mean, in addition to
it being so horrible, it must have been so odd on that level too, to be
playing out this scene that you’ve seen so many times – you’ve seen the
cliché version, you’ve seen the moving version, you’ve seen every
version imaginable.

GROSS: Yeah, and you know, it’s funny. You would think that if you’re
going to write with some profound depth about what these moments are
like that television or film would be the last reference or illusion or
kind of metaphor that you would use.

In fact, it is a lot like television. It is a lot like movies in that
you do feel like an actor with a script that’s been given to you and you
need to go through the motions, and there is some sense of observation
of everything around you, as if it’s playing across a screen. So, yeah…

GROSS: What was the script you felt you were given?

Ms. BONANNO: Mother of the murdered daughter. So in effect, I use – I
speak directly to the reader in second person in the poem “How to Find
Out” as if now that I’ve gone through this, I’m capable of teaching the
next actor in the play. You know, I suggest that she try to be
thoughtful when she sees the chief of police and not make him say the
words, that she should see how human he is and that he has children of
his own, and she shouldn’t make him say it. She should ask: Is she dead?

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno,
and she’s written an incredible book of poems about the murder of her
daughter. Her daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, the daughter’s

I’m sure you never expected that someone in your family would be
murdered. Did it change your whole calculus of how the world works to
know that murder could come to your family?

Ms. BONANNO: It did, and it’s not that I ever supposed that tragedy
wasn’t going to catch up with us somehow. I think that’s part of the
human condition, but this kind of tragedy, so horrifying, so grizzly and
so isolating, was not something that I ever expected for our family.

GROSS: So when you knew that murder could come to your home or your
daughter’s home, did it change you? Did it make you more afraid, more

Ms. BONANNO: In a way it did the opposite. When a loved one is murdered,
there’s a lot to do. There’s a lot to do in the short term when anybody
dies, anyone you love dies. There’s a funeral or a memorial service, and
for me I invested a lot of energy in making that and others to help make
that the most beautiful service we could.

With a murder also there’s this other piece. There’s the criminal
justice piece and the desire for justice, and so I invested a lot of
time and energy, even though of course I was powerless in so many ways,
but a lot of time and energy in seeing that her murderer was brought to
justice, and then for many of us who are families of murder victims, we
make a choice about what to do now with our time and our energy and this
singular grief, and we choose to put one foot in front of the other and
often choose to do good works in the name of our child or our loved one.

So that’s precisely what our journey has been for my family, for my
husband and I and my sister and her husband and my son.

GROSS: I think anytime someone we love dies, whether it’s murder or
sickness, we want to know, did they suffer at the end, and of course you
wanted to know that particularly about your daughter because she was
strangled to death. You have a poem I want you to read that asks that

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. This poem is called “Nighttime Prayer.”

Ms. BONANNO: Did she suffer? Did suffer? Hail Mary, full of grace, did
she suffer? Our Father who art in heaven, how much? How much? Hallowed
be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Was it long? Was it
long? Was it long? Was it one? Was it two? Was it three? Was it 10? Was
it this when she suffered? On Earth as it is - and how she saw, what she
saw, what she saw? What last? Did she suffer? Did she? Did she? What

GROSS: It’s a beautiful and – it’s a beautiful and painful poem, and you
know, hearing that poem about, you know, did she suffer, did she suffer,
I just can’t help but wonder: Did your mind just obsess on your
daughter’s murder for a very long time? Was there no room for anything
else in your mind for a very long time?

Ms. BONANNO: That’s a very good way to put it. There was no room for a
long time for anything other than my vision of what her final moments
were like, and I wanted so badly to know that it wasn’t terrifically
horrible for her, that her pain was somehow manageable, that her last
vision was not the face of the murderer. And I’m not alone in this

The Parents of Murdered Children organization, which is a national
organization, has a conference each year, and one of the best-attended
and best-loved workshops is led by a coroner, and the workshop is
entitled something like “Did Your Loved One Suffer?” And he sits down
with parents, one to one, and will tell you exactly what a strangulation
death is like, will tell you how many minutes before the victim loses
unconsciousness, what the, you know, what the whites of the eyes looked
like, what he or she felt, etcetera, from a very scientific point of

I found tremendous comfort in that workshop, not because the truth was
easy to hear but because I was hearing the truth.

GROSS: Have you changed the way you imagine her death, or have you
stopped thinking about it?

Ms. BONANNO: It’s not that I’ve stopped thinking about it, but now, now
there’s so much more room for memory of who she was when she was little,
what we did together, the fun times that we had, the hard times that we
had. Suddenly, or not so suddenly, six years later, actually, after her
death, now there’s room for all that, and I’m grateful that there’s
emotional space for all that now.

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her new collection of poems
about the murder of her daughter is called “Slamming Open the Door.”
We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno.
She’s written a new book of poems called “Slamming Open the Door,” and
the poems all revolve around the murder of her daughter. Her daughter
was murdered right after she was about to – right before she was about
to begin her first nursing job as a registered nurse, and the daughter
was murdered by the daughter’s ex-boyfriend.

How did you decide what kind of funeral to have for her? She was
strangled to death. How did you decide what kind of funeral to have:
burial, open casket, cremation?

Ms. BONANNO: We’re Unitarian Universalists, and one of things I’ve
always loved about our faith tradition is that we have memorial
services, sometimes big, beautiful memorial services. We almost always
cremate, and in Leidy’s case, that was necessary because of the
condition of her body but not an unusual thing in our church, anyway.

So we had her ashes in a beautiful, brown, walnut box. They were at the
front of the sanctuary. There were tens and tens of sunflowers and
daisies and beautiful drapes that – you know, beautiful drapes on the
altars that one of the church members had put there. And we had quite an
incredible service. I think we did her proud, beginning with music from
Coldplay, including…

GROSS: Is that her favorite band?

Ms. BONANNO: It was one of her favorites, yes, and we started off, with,
you know, one of our church members, Sara(ph), acting like DJ, playing
the Coldplay. You know, we had music by my brother-in-law, who sang and
played guitar. We had a flower communion, where we gave our flowers to
people in the congregation. We had a candle-lighting ceremony.

It was big, and it was fabulous, and it was beautiful.

GROSS: Did you want to speak at the memorial, or did you not want to
have the burden of having to express what you were feeling?

Ms. BONANNO: I did not want to speak, and I didn’t speak, but my sister
read a poem, “Poem About Light,” at the memorial service.

GROSS: That’s a poem of yours that ends your book, and I don’t even want
you to read it now because I want to end with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: So we’re going to save that poem for later. There’s another poem
I want you to read, and this is a poem called “What Not to Say,” and do
you want to introduce the poem for us?

Ms. BONANNO: Sure. I think a lot of people who write about grief and
loss have something to say about the wrong things that people did, or
people do, or people say. I only have one short poem about it because
mostly people said the right things over and over again, but I do have

Ms. BONANNO: (Reading) “What Not to Say.” Don’t say that you choked on a
chicken bone once, and then make the sound, kuh, kuh, and say you bet
that’s how she felt.

Don’t ask in horror why we cremated her.

And when I stand in the receiving line like Jackie Kennedy, without the
pillbox hat, if Jackie were fat and had taken enough Klonopin to still
an ox, and you whisper, I think of you every day, don’t finish with
because I’ve been going to Weight Watchers on Tuesday and wonder if you
want to go too.

GROSS: Priceless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: You know, I’ll tell you. I have these memories that came
back to me when I was reading that poem that you just read, of when I
was in elementary school and my upstairs neighbor’s husband died and one
of my teacher’s husband died, and I was afraid to visit either of them
because I felt like I’m not going to know what I’m going to say. I’m
going say the wrong thing, it’s going to be really horrible, or I’m
going to say nothing, and I’m afraid to go. And I asked my parents, what
do you say? What should I do? What do you say? And they said: Just say
you’re sorry.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes, and that’s enough. You know, I mean, I think the only
real mistake, barring something like what I just said, the only real
mistake you can make is not saying anything at all. To say something and
struggle saying it, that to me is someone blessing me. That to me is a
loving act.

To be too facile, you know, in the saying, that’s not comforting, you
know? To see someone struggle as they find the words or to have someone
write you a note and struggle with the words to say, that means
everything to me.

Unidentified Man: Support for NPR comes from…

GROSS: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno will be back in the second half of the
show. Her new collection of poems about the murder of her daughter,
Leidy, is called “Slamming Open the Door.” Here’s the Coldplay song that
was played at Leidy’s memorial service. I’m Terry Gross, and this is

(Soundbite of song, “Yellow”)

COLDPLAY (Rock Band): (Singing) Look at the stars. Look how they shine
for you. Everything you do, yeah, they were all yellow.

I came along, I wrote a song for you, and all the things you do, and it
was called "Yellow."

So, then, I took my turn. Oh, what a thing to've done, and it was all

Your skin, oh, yeah, your skin and bones, turn it into something
beautiful, and you know, you know I love you so. You know I love you so.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Kathleen Sheeder
Bonanno. Her new collection of poems, "Slamming Open the Door," is about
the murder of her daughter, Leidy, six years ago. The poems are about
the crime, the investigation, the trial and the grief. Bonanno is a high
school English teacher and a contributing editor of The American Poetry
Review, where her husband David Bonanno is an editor. "Slamming Open the
Door" is her first collection of poems.

GROSS: You actually put out a reward for information leading to the
murderer. Why did you decide to do that?

Ms. BONANNO: We knew right away who had killed my daughter, and by we, I
mean my family, my husband and I. I had talked to her on the phone the
night before she died and we knew that it was her ex-boyfriend.

GROSS: How'd you know?

Ms. BONANNO: She had told me that they had broken up and that he was
unhappy about it. She told me that he stole her credit card identity. He
had used her credit card identity to buy some motorcycle parts, that she
found this out, confronted him on it and he was very unhappy about that.
She thought that he had gotten her social security number from a
computer at the hospital. They both worked for the same hospital. He was
a phlebotomist there.

GROSS: That's somebody who draws blood...


GROSS: ...tests.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. And so he was angry with her for finding this out. And
she had already attempted to report to his superior at work that she
believed he had stolen her social security number from work. And so
between all of those clues - and I sensed a concern in her and even
asked her not to sleep in her apartment that night, which she did
anyway. She promised me she wouldn’t and then she did anyway. So I knew
when she was found dead who had done it.

And the question was, could the police collect enough evidence in a
timely manner to arrest this man so that a conviction would stick, and
that's what often takes so long in the criminal justice system. It's not
that people don’t know who committed the crime in the case of a murder,
it’s that there has to be significant evidence and the police have to be
very careful about how they collect it.

GROSS: So you put out what, a ?10,000 reward?


GROSS: Did it lead to anything?

Ms. BONANNO: It didn't. No one actually received the award - reward
because there wasn’t any moment where a specific piece of information,
put forth by a specific individual, led to the cracking of the case.
There were however, some very courageous witnesses at the trial. One
woman in particular, who lived in the apartment above Leidy, testified
that she had heard Joseph Eddy yelling at Leidy and saying that -
saying, I mean the quote was, "I'll be back, bitch" the afternoon before
her death. And that woman was not comfortable testifying. She lived, you
know, she was from a, I think, a tough part of the city and it took
special courage for her to sit on that stand and testify, not knowing
what the ramifications might be for her.

GROSS: You have a poem called "Reward" that I'd like you to read.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. "Reward." The reporters, with their caravans and
collapsible equipment rush in and out, and in between adopt and earnest
air and point the microphone in your direction. Oh yes, you have
something to say. There is a reward of $10,000 for information leading
to the arrest of our daughter's killer. And if they want to photograph
you, clutching her nursing school portrait, or hugging your son, or
standing by the makeshift alter gazing soberly into the camera, so what?
So you let them.

GROSS: So you did it. You played the part.

Ms. BONANNO: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GROSS: Now, you explain that it's hard to find the actual evidence to
indict the person who you know is the killer.

Ms. BONANNO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did the police finally found that they thought was hard
evidence that they could use to arrest the murderer?

Ms. BONANNO: They found the tiniest evidence of Joseph Eddy's DNA under
my daughter's fingernail and it was clear that she had scratched him. In
fact, he had a scratch on his face that was visible to his colleagues at
work afterwards. And that tiny, tiny bit of DNA evidence is what turned
the tide. There were many other circumstantial clues that would, I
think, compel a reasonable jury to convict him, but that DNA did it. And
I'll tell you, one of the poems that isn't in the book - and one I'm
still writing - is a love poem to DNA, a love song to DNA evidence,
because that kind of unequivocal signpost toward the truth is a
beautiful, beautiful thing for me and people like me.

GROSS: You have a poem called "Hearsay" in which you describe things
that your daughter told you before she was murdered about how her
boyfriend had stolen her credit identity and bought stuff with it...

Ms. BONANNO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and she had reported him and he threatened her and all that.
Could you say that in court? The poem's called "Hearsay," but were you
able to take the witness stand and describe that phone call?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, I didn’t say all of that in court because it is
hearsay, but I did say some of it and that - and I said it while being
questioned by the defense attorney, not my attorney. So clearly, the
judge made a decision that, to a limited extent, some of that hearsay
was allowable, perhaps because I was the last person who spoke to her.

GROSS: How did that come out by - with the defense attorney. It seems to
me he wouldn’t want to hear what you had to say.

Ms. BONANNO: Well the defense attorney was a woman, which I found
interesting because so much of this is about - for me, obviously was
about mother and daughter, and here I was looking into the eyes of a
woman who was defending someone who she clearly knew had committed this
murder. I found that - I just found that difficult. And I guess part of
having your world turned topsy-turvy by murder is that who you used to
think of as the heroes and who you used to think of as the enemies
aren’t necessarily so anymore.

I'm a liberal. You know, I'm a Democrat, I'm a Unitarian, Universalist
so I thought - I always thought of police, for example, as a necessary
part of society but certainly not the good guys, certainly often in the
wrong or often angry. I thought of defense attorneys as the heroes, you
know, sticking up for the little guy who wouldn't get a fair trial
without them. Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: ...I found out through Leidy's death, and through the
trial, that my hero became the homicide detective. And the defense
attorney, I wondered how she slept at night knowing - because
particularly she's a private defense attorney, and so she’s choosing to
represent this person for money, when I felt in my heart that she
certainly knew he had done it.

GROSS: What was it like for you to be at that trial and see you
daughter's murderer? Was it the first time you'd seen him?

Ms. BONANNO: It wasn’t the first time. I had met him and we had seen him
at hearings previous to the trial itself. And courtrooms are interesting
places. They make very little effort to separate the families of the
victims from the families of the offenders. So in a hearing, it isn't
unusual for you to be sitting down - for you, for example, as the mother
of the murdered daughter, to be sitting down a few seats away from the
mother of the murderer, or the sister of the murderer or family members.
So I had seen him, seen his family, and even walked very close to him at
one point during the hearing because he was seated so very close to
where the public was seated. I could’ve reached out and touched him at
some point.

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her new collection of poems
about the murder of her daughter is called "Slamming Open the Door."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno
and she has a new collection of poems called "Slamming Open the Door"
and the poems are all about the murder and its aftereffect - the murder
of her daughter by her daughter's ex-boyfriend.

Tell us how the murderer was sentenced and what his conviction meant to

Ms. BONANNO: After being found guilty of first degree murder, we
essentially knew that his punishment would be life in prison without
parole. That is the standard for the state of Pennsylvania. So he was
convicted and then, maybe a week or two later, we went in for the
sentencing. He had to listen to us, as murderers do. When they are found
guilty, they're required to listen to victim's statements, victim impact
statements. So my sister spoke, my brother-in-law spoke, Leidy's best
friend spoke - looked at him directly and said what it was that the he
had done to our family and how painful it was to endure the loss of her.

During that time he didn’t look at us. And afterwards, he was invited by
the judge to speak to us and he refused to do so. I think out of shame
or out of some persistent fairy tale representation that he was not
guilty and so he didn't want to put anything on record that would
jeopardize some future appeal or something like that.

GROSS: But he pled not guilty.

Ms. BONANNO: Yeah. He pled not guilty.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. BONANNO: That's correct. Yeah. And maintains today his innocence.

GROSS: You didn't speak at the victim...

Ms. BONANNO: I did.

GROSS: Was the - yeah.

Ms. BONANNO: And the same poem that we referred to earlier, “The Poem
About Light,” I wrote for Joseph Eddy, I wrote to Joseph Eddy and I read
to him as my victim's impact statement instead of some - instead of
writing something else.

GROSS: I bet he was mystified that you were standing there reading a

Ms. BONANNO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In all honestly, it’s a great poem. I love it. You're going to
read it at the end of this interview, but I'm sure he thought it was
kind of odd.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: You don't think he appreciated the metaphor and the

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you know, as you said, you're a liberal, you're a Unitarian,
a Universalist, I'm sure you don't believe in capital punishment and
that you're not deep into, like, retribution so what surprised you about
how you felt when your daughter's murderer was convicted to life in
prison without parole?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, before he was convicted, I have to tell you, I became
suddenly deep into retribution...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: ...and revenge. I mean no, there was no ambivalence in my
mind that - I didn't believe in the death penalty as a state option, but
I believed in the death of the man who murdered my daughter. And had we
lived in a slightly different time or place, or had I been a person who
had the resources or was made of the stuff to kill another human being,
I would have sought him out and killed him my self.

GROSS: Is that a part of you you didn't know existed?

Ms. BONANNO: Absolutely. Had no idea that that existed.

GROSS: And what did it feel like to be introduced to this part of you
that you didn’t know existed, that went against what you thought you

Ms. BONANNO: It wasn’t as horrifying as you would suppose. It wasn’t as
if I looked in the mirror and said to myself, what have you become? It
actually felt as if I were more in touch with some primal sense of self
that had to do with love for a child and love for a family and what the
tribe should do if the life - a life in the family is taken.

Luckily for us, he was found guilty and he was sentenced to life in
prison without parole because - although, we would not have hunted him
down, were he walking around a free man today, I don't think I would be
free of that kind of rage and desire for some kind of retribution. So
his being incarcerated is a blessing. And not having the death penalty
on the table as an option was a blessing for us too, because we didn't
have to struggle over the morality of that particular issue.

GROSS: You mentioned that, you know, in one of your poems that your
minister purposed forgiveness and you say, because after all he must.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then you describe like the hate that you’re actually feeling…

Ms. BONANNO: Yeah.

GROSS: …as your minister proposes forgiveness. Do you - do you feel like
forgiveness will ever be something that you’re going to even consider?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, I think it’s something I should consider.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: And, I know we all know the advice about not letting - that
forgiveness has to do with liberating yourself, not just some kind of
redemption for the offender, for the person who hurts you. When I wrote
the poem about my minister proposing forgiveness because after all he
must, I meant that - in an earnest way, actually - my minister is a
person who I think of as having - as a holy person having a true calling
to ministry. So when he proposed that word, it wasn’t coming from some
place of biblical ordination that forgive – we are commanded to forgive.
It really was coming from some deep-rooted place of love and humanity.
That didn’t stop me from…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: …laughing and saying forget it, Kent. But, I did appreciate
where that came from for him. And that was just one of many moments that
the church provided for us that helped us to move forward, that really
helped us to face the next day.

GROSS: You mentioned before that in the courtroom during the trial of
your daughter’s murderer, you and your family ended up setting very
close to the murderer’s family, which sounds kind of awkward. You have a
poem about how after the trial you had an encounter with your daughter’s
murderer’s mother. And I’d like you to read that.

Ms. BONANNO: I’d be happy to read this poem called, “Church Of Justice.”
And I should tell you that in it I use the name Johnny Early as a pseudo
name for my daughter’s murderer.

Guilty, say the jurors. We gasp and sigh and hug and weep, just like on
TV. We walk down the aisle and a woman waits in the hallway for me, she
says my name. I have studied her, Johnny Early’s mother and despise her
and the son she carried, and the bible she carries. She says, I am so
sorry. Suddenly she is tiny, she has a tooth missing from the bottom
row. She holds out her arms and what can I do? What, but hug her back.
My truest other sister, she says, I am so sorry.

GROSS: I’m not sure I know what…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …what to say about that. But did you feel any, like, empathy for
her at all?

Ms. BONANNO: In that moment, I certainly did. I mean we certainly were
two mothers holding each other. Each of whom had lost - lost someone
very important to us.

GROSS: I really love this book of poems. And, as I was telling before we
started the interview, because the poems are the narrative of your
daughter’s murder and your response to it, I felt like I had read a
memoir or a novel just by reading this very short collection of concise
poems. And I know you’re a poet, but at the same time I know this is
your first book.

Ms. BONANNO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, I guess I’d be interested in hearing how and when you decided
to write these poems about the subjects you were already completely
obsessed with.

Ms. BONANNO: I wanted to write a different book. I wanted to finish a
collection of poems I had started. I’ve always written poems and wanted
to get on with the business, after Leidy’s death, of continuing to
write. But I found that the story of her death stood in the way of every
other thing when it came to writing, that no other poems could be
written until I wrote about this. So, reluctantly in a way, I tackled
climbing the mountain that stood in the way of the mountain, which is
writing everyday for a writer.

And once I started, I had a few poems – I wrote poem about Leidy
immediately after her death, and I had a few other poems from the
collection that were published in the Women’s Review of Books. But, one
summer I sat down and said okay, now I’m going to do this and I realized
early on that I wanted to make it a ride for the reader in the sense
that it was a ride for us. I wanted to kind of drag, you know, get the
reader by the collar and kind of pull her along with us. And I really
wanted this sense of: now you’re onboard and now, just like me, you
can’t turn around and step off until the book is over. That’s what I was
hoping for anyway.

GROSS: And I think it works. You know, you said that you found that you
couldn’t write any poems other than poems about your daughter’s murder.
And it reminds me of the first poem in the book when death kind of grabs
you by the collar and says, from now on, you write about me.

Ms. BONANNO: Exactly.

GROSS: What are you writing about now?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, I have a couple…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: …I have a couple of things. I have a collection of about 27
poems. So, it isn’t a book yet. It’s kind of chapbook, but I think it
should be a book, and the working title is “Frankie Spinelli’s(ph) First
Kiss.” And those poems really are, all of them, in some way a love song
to the universe. They’re hopeful. They’re about love, romantic love and
other kinds of love and discovery and rebirth. So, I’m working on that
collection. And I have some other ideas. I have a few poems about
suburbia. I’ve an idea about a suburbia collection. And now, I’m really
committed to the idea of a book of poetry as narrative or, you know, a
kind of real thematic unity, not just, kind of, well, these are the best
poems I could write so that’s why they’re all in this, you know, this
book. So, we’ll see what happens.

GROSS: Having the poems tell a story.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes, yes.

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her new collection of poems
about the murder of her daughter is called, “Slamming Open the Door.”
We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. She’s written a new
collection of poems about the murder of her daughter, Leidy, called,
“Slamming Open the Door.”

Well, I want you to close with the poem called, “Poem About Light.” And
again, this is the poem that you wrote for your daughter’s memorial
service and your sister read it. And it’s also a poem that you read at
the sentencing of your daughter’s…

Ms. BONANNO: Correct.

GROSS: …murderer. And I think it closes your book and I think it’s the
way to close the interview.

Ms. BONANNO: Thank you, Terry. Poem About Light: You can try to strangle
light, use your hands and think you found the throat of it, but you
haven’t. You could use a rope or a garrote or a telephone cord, but the
light amorphous, implacable, will make a full of you in the end. You
could make it your mission to shut it out forever, to crouch in the
dark, the blinds pulled tight. Still in the morning, a gleaming little
ray will betray you, poking its optimistic finger through a corner of
the blind. And then more light - clever, nervy, impossible, spilling out
from the crevices, warming the shade. This is the stubborn sun choosing
to rise like it did yesterday, like it will tomorrow. You have nothing
to do with it. The sun makes its own history, light has its way.

GROSS: You wrote that pretty early on in your loss for the memorial
service. Did you really feel that then, that there was something eternal
and worthy of optimism?

Ms. BONANNO: I did. I even felt that then. Even in the furrows of some
dark, dark hole that I was standing in, I did believe this. I did feel
this too. I felt it all the way through. You know, it’s always been the
underside that turns into the overside of the experience the - there’s a
Japanese proverb that the reverse side has a reverse side. And I think
of that as the heads and tails of a coin. You look at the heads but
you’re conscious that there’s a tails underneath which is – which has
its heads on its reverse side. And grief and mourning and loss of a
daughter is like that. It’s dark but it’s light.

GROSS: Kathleen, thank you so much for talking with us. It’s really
been, you know, a pleasure to talk with you and thank you for your book.

Ms. BONANNO: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno is the author the new collection of
poems, “Slamming Open the Door,” about her daughter Leidy’s murder.
Bonanno is a high school English teacher and a contributing editor of
The American Poetry Review. You can download podcasts of our show on our
Web site,

I’m Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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