Skip to main content

Jody Arlington on Trauma, Tragedy and Survival

More than 20 years ago, Jody Arlington was at home when her 18-year-old brother murdered their parents and younger sister. She thought she was next, but instead her brother told her they were now free. He went to prison, and Arlington changed her name and had to learn how to live without her family. A similar family slaying has prompted her to speak out about her experiences.

43:35

Other segments from the episode on August 15, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 15, 2005: Interview with Jody Arlington; Review of Robert Darden's new album “People get ready.”

Transcript

DATE August 15, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jody Arlington discusses the murder of her family by
her brother and how she has coped with it for the past 21 years
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In late May, in rural Ohio, an 18-year-old boy named Scott Moody shot four
members of his family and two other people, then shot himself. There was only
one survivor, his sister Stacy. When my guest, Jody Arlington, read the news
story, she could barely breathe; it was so close to her own story. Twenty-one
years ago, when Arlington was 16, her 18-year-old brother killed their parents
and little sister. But unlike the Moody story, Arlington's brother spared her
life and his own.

In June, Arlington wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in which, for
the first time, she shared her story in a public way. She wrote, quote, "In
the aftermath of a parricide, a child's murder of one or more parents, most of
the attention focuses on the killer and the deceased parents. Little, if any,
attention falls to any siblings who may have been left behind. I knew that
only a handful of people, myself among them, could shed light on some of the
daunting challenges Stacy may face if she survives her physical wounds,"
unquote. By the way, Stacy Moody has survived.

Jody Arlington went on to write, quote, "Nearly almost every day in the US a
child kills his or her parent and sometimes the whole family. In most cases,
the murderer is a white male who has been severely abused, can no longer
tolerate life at home and has no trusted adult to whom he can turn," unquote.
Those conditions pretty well describe Arlington's brother, who is still in
prison.

In retrospect, she believes her brother showed plenty of warning signs. She
thinks it's worth looking into the abyss to get a greater understanding of how
to prevent such tragedy. We invited Arlington to talk about her life,
starting with what happened the day of the murders.

Ms. JODY ARLINGTON (Parents Killed By Brother 21 Years Ago): I was upstairs
in my bedroom sleeping, and Billy, you know, began killing everyone
downstairs. He brought my sister upstairs and told her to stay there, and she
didn't. She went back downstairs, and he then killed her, too. And it was
when she started screaming that I realized that something terrible was
happening.

And, you know, he had kind of joked about killing our parents in the past and
had, you know, had some issues the day before. And I just two and two
together and realized what had happened and thought that I was going to be
next. But when he came upstairs covered in blood, he did not have the weapon,
the baseball bat, with him and just started saying things like, `I'm not
crazy. Do you think I'm crazy? It was so much bloodier than I ever thought
it would be.'

And I just kind of couldn't believe that it was happening. I was in
shock--and had always kind of escaped from a lot of the problems in our family
in books and just told myself that this wasn't happening. It was just
make-believe; it wasn't real. It was in story, and I just had to be the
character in the book who figured out how to escape and call the police and
all those things. And that's what I did.

GROSS: What did you do after he came in your room and you realized he'd
killed your family?

Ms. ARLINGTON: I basically did the same thing that they tell hostages to do,
to kind of go along with the situation, or, like, when someone robs you and
they say, `Give me the wallet,' you know, I behaved in that way and just went
along with everything he said, until I could find an opportunity to call the
police, which I did. We went to a neighbor's house because he wanted to go
out, and I, at that time, was able to call the police. And they picked him up
a few hours later, and then that was it.

GROSS: Had he showered and washed the blood off before going to the
neighbor's house?

Ms. ARLINGTON: He did wipe down in the bathroom before going, before we went
over to the neighbor's.

GROSS: So you just instinctively knew to do that, to play along until there
was a safe moment?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Well, it was just so shocking and so numbing, I didn't know
what to do. But somehow in my mind I just knew that I had to go along with
everything and find an opportunity to call the police, you know. And when I
went downstairs and, you know, he was in the bathroom wiping the blood off of
him, at first I thought that it was a joke that he and my sister had pulled on
me because I could hear my father snoring in the living room. And I saw, you
know, Becky(ph) kind of lying on the ground, but there was no visible blood or
anything like that. And I was just like, `Oh, my God. This is the most
terrible practical joke ever, and I can't believe they did that.'

But then as I started listening to my father snoring, it was actually this
really terrifying gurgling sound. And at that point I realized that it
obviously wasn't a joke, and I started--you know, when they describe, you
know, losing all the blood and getting cold and numbing and all of that stuff
and, basically, all the body's reactions before you faint, I started feeling
those things.

And then I heard my sister moan and realized that she was still alive, and I
started to exclaim, `Becky's still alive!' And he--obviously I couldn't say
that because he would then kill her. And so I just--it just kind of renewed
my ability to keep it all together, so that I could get her an ambulance. I
found out afterwards that she never had a chance at all; that he'd hit her
with such force that she never had a chance, but at the time that's what kept
me together.

GROSS: Did you think that there was still a chance that your brother was
going to kill you, too?

Ms. ARLINGTON: I did, I did. And, in fact, when we were over--we went to
the neighbor's, and I went inside to--he'd wanted to go out, and so my plan
was like, `OK, well, we'll go somewhere and I will slip away to the bathroom
and call the police.' And he was supposed--was waiting in the car, and I was
going to go and get this neighbor, who was a friend of mine from school. And
I went upstairs to the neighbor and considered, as I was there--it's like, `Do
I tell her what happened, you know, or do I, you know, just keep with my
original plan of waiting till we were out in public?' And it just occurred to
me that there was just no way that she would be able to--would believe me,
would be able to keep it together or do anything to kind of keep me from
having endangered her entire family as well. So I didn't tell her, and she
said, you know, `Come up here a little while, and, you know, we'll just kind
of hang out a little bit.'

And so I went downstairs, and the phone was, you know, in the hallway between
her bedroom and the outdoors. And I thought, you know, `Do I call now?' And,
you know, I just decided no because if I called, then the police will come and
he will be here, and I will have endangered this entire other family, and
that's not going to work. So I didn't call. And when I opened--they had a
porch, and when I opened the door to the porch, rather than Billy waiting in
the car, he basically had his ear to the door behind the kitchen. And, you
know, had he heard me, you know, calling the police or whatever, you know, I
don't know if he would have come in and killed me or if he would have ran off.
I don't know. But, you know, clearly he was listening in for something. So,
anyway, he shortly thereafter went to get cigarettes, and as soon as I saw him
pull out of the house, I called the police, and they found him and arrested
him.

GROSS: One of the things that your brother said to you was, `We're free,'
meaning you're now free of your parents. Do you think he thought that you
were going to be on his side?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Absolutely he thought that, and, you know, he was wrong. We
did live in, you know, a very abusive family situation. And while there
weren't any, like, imminent, like, physical abuses pending or anything like
that, it was a really difficult home life. And I think that he thought that I
would approve and wanted my approval.

GROSS: Had you been abused by your parents?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Not so much physically as psychologically and emotionally.
They were poorly educated and religious fundamentalists and had a lot of--did
not have a lot of control over their own lives; kind of had this toxic
combination of failing finances. My parents' relationship with each other was
failing. My brother had been in trouble with the law and school so much that,
you know, his problems exacerbated kind of the whole family unit's issues.
And they really inflicted a kind of strange psychological abuse. I can't
really describe it.

GROSS: Do you think that your brother thought at any point that what he did
was to protect you, you know?

Ms. ARLINGTON: You know, he'd gone on record that that's what he thought that
he was doing and that--yeah. I mean, that's what he claims was his rationale
for it. But I think there was a great deal of anger and fear and rage. And,
I mean, he was diagnosed as a sociopath after the murders, and he kind of had
a long record where he had been increasingly violent and had arson and theft.
And, you know, he was physically abusive, too, in the household. And, you
know, in addition to my parents failings as, you know, custodians of us
children, they also were in grave denial about him and the problems he was
causing in the family. And they distrusted the police and schools and kind of
doctors and anyone who would kind of say that there was a serious problem.

GROSS: You mentioned that, you know, there were records that were found
from--What?--teachers and doctors basically spelling out some of the problems
that he had. Was that advice ignored?

Ms. ARLINGTON: You know, I think that it was partially ignored, and I think
partially that my parents had just given up and didn't--or didn't believe it.
You know, I don't really know. I know that at one point my mother had asked
me--you know, this was after he had been in a juvenile detention home or
something like that. She said, you know, `We have a choice now of having
Billy come back and be at home with us or to go to, you know, a juvenile
detention home for a year,' or something like that. And she asked me what I
thought would be best. And I told her that I thought that he should go
somewhere; that his behavior was, you know, getting worse, and they couldn't
do anything about it. And, you know, that was my contribution. But they
didn't do that. He came back home.

GROSS: My guest is Jody Arlington. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jody Arlington. Twenty-one years ago her 18-year-old
brother killed their parents and younger sister. We're talking about the
murders and what her life has been like since then.

You were the sole witness at the trial, so you had to testify against your
brother.

Ms. ARLINGTON: Yes.

GROSS: Was your impulse to protect him or to try to get him behind bars in
prison?

Ms. ARLINGTON: My impulse at the time was to do what, you know, I was told
to do. And, you know, I--my attorneys and the prosecution said, you know,
`Only answer the questions that are asked, and, you know, don't offer any
information.' And, you know, I wasn't in the trial at all until it was my
time to testify, and I think it was seven minutes or something like that. And
it wasn't until years later, when I was trying to figure out what had happened
and how I felt about it, that I got a copy of the trial transcript and
realized that there had been no detailing anywhere in the trial about the kind
of abuse that had been in our family and that I had even downplayed it a
little bit in my testimony. And so, you know, I felt very badly about that.

And so in, I guess, 2000, as part of, you know, his ongoing efforts to get
out, he sought and I provided an affidavit that attested to the fact that
there was family abuse and that that would be necessary to be presented for
him to have a fair trial and that I would support that. But I also said in
that affidavit that that doesn't mean that I think he should necessarily have
a lesser sentence or that he would be necessarily, you know, able to function
in society just because of his, you know, his record and kind of his behavior
beforehand. And, you know, I'm not a psychologist. I don't know if you can
unbecome a sociopath. But, you know, that's kind of my understanding of his
case.

GROSS: Your brother was convicted of three counts of aggravated murder for
killing your parents and your sister. He was given three consecutive life
sentences. Have you visited him in prison? Do you have contact with him
anymore? And what's it been like deciding, like, what your relationship to
him should be?

Ms. ARLINGTON: I have not visited him in prison and don't plan to. In the
early '90s, I wrote to him because our paternal grandmother really wanted to
understand what had happened and why he had done it. And she told me, you
know, `I don't want to die hating him.' And I didn't want to get into a
conversation with her about what went--was going wrong in the family and
things like that. And so I wrote to him saying that she didn't want to die
hating him and that, you know, she wants to understand why he did it and would
he please write to her. And at that time I got a letter back that was really
written more to a parole board than to me. It was kind of what's known as
your kind of typical convict's letter that's just not really personal or real.
And, you know, he continued writing quite a few letters actually, and I don't
want to have a relationship with him and have no plans to do so.

GROSS: You know, in the op-ed that you wrote, you said that you had to deal
with a lot of guilt, and you think that survivors of family murders like this
have to deal with a feeling of guilt. About what? I mean, you're not the one
who killed your parents and sister. Your brother did that. What do you have
to feel guilty about?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Well, basically anytime you're a sole survivor--I mean, it's
called survivor's guilt, and there's plenty of, you know, literature on it.
It's just you feel guilty. It's like, `Why me? Why didn't I die, or, you
know, what could I have done differently, or, you know, what could I have said
or done to prevent this or change the outcome?' And you just go through,
like, all the different things that you may have done differently. Obviously
because, you know, Billy has claimed that he was protecting me or that, you
know, he thought--I mean, because he thought that I was somehow, you know,
supportive of what he was doing, you know, it just increases that. It's like,
`What did I say and do to make him think that, and could I have said or done
something to make him not?'

And, you know, I'd go through, like, everything that happened that day, and,
like, what would have happened if I'd have realized that he was actually going
to do something. And, like, I'd kind of go through these scenarios, and it's
like, `Let's say I thought he was going to do this and I told my parents?'
The likelihood is that they wouldn't have believed me and that he, you know,
would not get in trouble--I would get in trouble for trying to cause trouble.
And, you know, maybe he would then proceed with his plan and kill me, too, or
maybe he would wait and would have acted out differently down the road. And
it's just kind of one of those things where, you know, you try to figure out
what you could have done, and the guilt is what drives you to do that.

GROSS: Who took care of you after your brother murdered your parents and your
sister?

Ms. ARLINGTON: For the first few months, it was the neighbors that I had gone
to that night who had a daughter my age that I went to school with. And, you
know, right after it happened, we weren't quite sure what to do or what I was
supposed to do or anything like that. And we were very poor. And so they
took me to the local--and they were poor, as well, I should say. And they
took me to the local legal aid office, and we met with the executive director
there, who saw in me this, you know, salvageable person--admits, you know, all
of the other things that have gone on. And he took a real interest in my life
and what was happening and making sure that I kind of got through all of the
hurdles in front of me there immediately.

There was also a wonderful woman, Connie Skillman(ph), who worked for the
National Victims Assistance Organization. And she was just really wonderful
as well in making sure that getting through the legal system and all the
things I needed to do was made as painless as possible. And I truly wished
that there were more organizations like that or more people within the justice
system that can help victims navigate the process.

GROSS: Who became your legal guardians?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Thad Guyer, who was the executive director at the legal aid
office.

GROSS: It's kind of amazing that he would take you in like that.

Ms. ARLINGTON: There were a lot of people in the community who offered to
take me in, and it was amazing. And, you know, there were a few other people
that--Connie Stillman also offered to take me in, and a couple of other people
there. And I basically chose to stay with Thad because he was really focused
on building my self-esteem and helping me do all the things that I needed to
do to succeed in life, and so that's what I did.

GROSS: Did you have any extended family, uncles, aunts, cousins?

Ms. ARLINGTON: I did. I had--you know, we had relatives, but part of the,
you know, family sickness in our--that we had was kind of isolation. And my
parents tended to denigrate all of the grandparents and cousins and everyone
on both sides of the family before, during and after, you know, kind of annual
visits. So, you know, at the time--so when they died, kind of the thought of
like--I didn't really have an image of my grandparents as these kindly old
people. They were just these people who didn't help my parents out and who
were--you know, lived far away. And, for me, I didn't want to go and be with
them. I wanted to stay in my same town and be near the things that I knew.

GROSS: Jody Arlington will back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Jody Arlington about her
life after her brother murdered their parents and little sister. Also, rock
historian Ed Ward reviews a new book about the history of gospel music.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jody Arlington.
Twenty-one years ago when she was 16, her 18-year-old brother killed their
parents and younger sister, but he spared Jody Arlington. She never discussed
the story with anyone aside from people she knew well, until last June, when
she wrote an OP-ED piece for The Washington Post after reading about a similar
set of murders. She hoped to shed some light on the warning signs that her
family missed and explain what it's like to be the survivor.

Was it frightening after the murders? I mean, did you think that other people
who you knew could turn on you or turn against you or other people that you
love and commit murder after having seen your brother do just that?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Not really. I mean, you know, when you experience something
like I did, you kind of lose all your faith and trust in humanity and can feel
that, basically, anyone is capable of doing anything in the right
circumstances, and that's kind of the way that I feel about it now. So I
wasn't, like, actually in fear that something terrible was going to happen to
me or people that I knew or that something like that would happen, but you
know, I did develop a great interest in understanding human nature and
understanding what causes people to do terrible things and what the stresses
are. And I became very interested in college in, you know, Holocaust
literature and Dostoevsky and all of those, you know, places where people have
explored, you know, man's inhumanity to man and why it happens.

GROSS: How did that help you?

Ms. ARLINGTON: It helped me enormously. It gave me a nomenclature, or a way
to kind of--to find people who had experienced--I mean, I would never in a
million years compare my experience to anyone who suffered in the Holocaust,
but losing everything and having, like, a complete family annihilation and
just kind of like all of the scholars who have studied, like, why this
happens, which was--it was a way for me to apply that to my own case as much
as it was applicable, and it helped me a lot. And also, it's, like--you know,
they talk about, you know, the vision of the void and seeing the worst and,
you know, `What do you do? Do you turn away or do you look into it?'

And also, they talk a lot about bearing witness and it's, like, `Do you talk
about what happened to you, or do you just keep quiet about it?' And, you
know, I've always felt that I should bear witness about what happened in my
own family as part of the reason that I was compelled to write the article and
why I'm talking to you now is it somehow gives some meaning to what happened
by hopefully allowing it to, you know, elucidate the issue of parricide and
why it happens and what people have to deal with when it happens.

GROSS: What was the media coverage of your case like? You know, stories like
this, where one person in a family murders the rest of the family, can become
a really big media story.

Ms. ARLINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And, you know, it's obviously very dramatic. What was the media
coverage like, and what was the effect on you?

Ms. ARLINGTON: I was one of those very fortunate people who was completely
shielded from the media. I was not listening to the radio or watching TV or
reading newspapers, you know, during the time that it immediately--you know,
immediately following the murders. And, you know, I don't know if it was
because of my age or just that it was before the 24/7 news cycle, there wasn't
that same type of mania to try to, you know, get access to me or this. And I
always feel incredibly sorry for those people who are kind of caught, you
know, in this situation where they're, like, at their most weakest and
vulnerable moment and they're being hounded by the media or their grief is
being displayed for all to see, and I just feel like that's revictimizing a
victim. So I, fortunately, did not have to deal with that.

I think one of the reasons that there was so little interest in our case,
additionally to that, is that there were, like, three or four other cases in
Oregon that year of parricide. And, you know, in fact, you know, studies have
shown--and I've obviously read about this--is that there are like 300 cases of
parricide every year and, you know, only one or two of them will have that
right component of salaciousness to, like, really get a lot of attention.

GROSS: Did part of you wish you could, like, leave town and start fresh with
a brand-new name, in another place where no one would have known about this?
You were 16 when it happened.

Ms. ARLINGTON: Well, you know, you feel completely alienated and like an
alien. You know, you just don't even feel part of the human race after
something like this happens, and there's so much shame and fear associated
with anyone who endures something like this. And so, you know, it was
terribly painful when, you know, someone would see your name and say, `Oh,
you're that Jody Gilley(ph) girl,' and just have so many questions about `Why
did it happen?' and, you know, `Why is it that you're able to walk around?'
and, you know, just kind of all sorts of uncomfortable moments.

And, you know, we had two different junior high schools that fed into one high
school, and I did change my last name at that time so that at least 50
percent, you know, of the student body would not immediately know who I was or
associate me with what had happened to me.

What I found--you know, and I did, you know, move away after high school and
came to Washington and have lived in Spain for a couple years and New York for
a couple of years. But what I discovered, and what I think is probably true
for most people who endure these kind of things, is that with every year that
goes by that you, you know, kind of are judged on your actions and your
behavior and your accomplishments, what happened to you becomes this less
intense thing or a smaller piece of you. And, you know, that's what I found.
You know, I had to do a lot of, you know, arduous work, you know, dealing with
what happened and why it happened and figuring it out and addressing, you
know, my own behavioral problems and all of that and eventually, you know,
became what I am now, which is, I think, a fairly normal functioning adult.

GROSS: My guest is Jody Arlington. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jody Arlington. Twenty-one years ago, her 18-year-old
brother killed their parents and younger sister. We're talking about the
murders and what her life has been like since then.

After your brother killed your parents and sister with a baseball bat and he
came in to talk to you, one of the things he said to you was that he felt like
the killer in the movie "Friday the 13th," only it was messier than he thought
it would be.

Ms. ARLINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I found that really interesting that he would be thinking--you
know, comparing his own experience with what he'd seen in a horror movie.

Ms. ARLINGTON: Well, one of the ways that my mother had us spend our family
time was she had a great interest and enjoyment in kind of the bloody cinema,
the "Friday the 13th" movies and that sort of, you know--any of those thrasher
or thrill movies, which I could never stand; I hated them. But yeah, I think
it does speak to--I mean--and this is--I think it speaks to young people not
really knowing the difference between reality and the imaginary when they're
growing up. I think in a lot of these cases where you'll have, like, really
young kids do really terrible things, I think they just don't even have, like,
the judgment capacity developed yet in their brain to know what the
consequences of their actions are. I mean, I don't think that Billy didn't
know what he was doing--he was 18--but I think that he had not thought through
the consequences of what he was doing.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you something that I feel really uncomfortable asking
and probably not nearly as uncomfortable as you'll feel answering it, if you
choose to. But you know how your brother said to you, `Now we're free,' after
he killed your parents?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was there ever a part of you that felt, in some, like, really horrible
way, free of them? I mean, because they had psychologically abused you and
they had physically abused him and it was a really difficult family life.

Ms. ARLINGTON: The reality was that I was free of them, but that was never
really a sense of comfort in any way. It was always a source of pain that,
you know, I did not get to grow up and see if maybe things might have changed
had they lived. I had not had the opportunity to kind of--you know, 'cause
things are just--everything is like so important and kind of skewed when
you're a teen-ager, and what if, you know, the economy would have turned
around or--you know, there are like a whole host of things that could have
happened and maybe things would have changed, and that's what I think about
sometimes. I never feel--I get little comfort from that thought, let me put
it that way.

GROSS: We're supposed to not speak ill of the dead. We're certainly not
supposed to speak ill of our parents or our family. Is it hard to speak
honestly about your family? Your brother murdered your parents and sister.
Your parents physically abused your brother; you say they psychologically
abused you. And, you know, a larger good is often served by telling the
truth, but it's a hard thing to do.

Ms. ARLINGTON: Yes. And, you know, when I was growing up and kind of closer
to the abuse, I know I felt, you know, I could talk about it and even remember
it more and had a lot of resentments and anger and things like that that I
worked through and kind of coming to--I mean, when you try to understand what
causes other people to behave the way they do, a compassion kind of forms for
it, or at least an understanding. And so you are less--I'm less inclined
to--you know, I don't want to be speak poorly of my family; I feel very sad
for them. And I don't want to speak poorly about Billy, but at the same, you
know, I fear him. So it's--I wish that I could speak more specifically and
detailed about, you know, the kind of abuse that happened in the family and
describe that in a more detailed way, but I feel like it--for me now, that
doesn't serve as great a good as actually talking about the things that we can
do about it to prevent similar things happening.

GROSS: Do you think your understanding of what happened in your family when
you were 16, when those events actually happened, is different than your
understanding now as a 37-year-old?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Absolutely. It evolved continuously as I grew up and kind of
went through the different stages of development that one does. My high
school understanding compared to my, you know, college understanding when I
first started kind of dealing with what happened to us, to kind of my
understanding now that I'm the same age as my mother was when she died. It's
just--it's completely, you know, evolved and I imagine that it will continue
to evolve.

GROSS; And, look, what's one example of the differences between how you
understood it at the age of 16 when it happened and how you understand it now?

Ms. ARLINGTON: When I was 16, I couldn't understand why, you know, our
parents would do things to hurt us or why they needed to control us and not
allow us kind of our own personhoods, that we were, you know, essentially just
their belongings and needed to do exactly what they said when they said it,
and if we didn't there would be terrible consequences. And, you know, when I
got older and kind of understood the economic strains, the kind of--that they
were behaving the same way that they were, you know, treated when they were
growing up, when I, you know, understood kind of that my mother just was so
fearful of the family falling apart that she, you know, did everything she did
to try to preserve it, which was, you know, twisted and wrong. But I mean, I
understood what was impacting them to make them behave that way. And it's
kind of like in any other situation where a situation escalates and escalates
and escalates, if no one kind of steps in and fixes it and there was just no
one, no entity, no idea, nothing that kind of intervened to kind of stop the
escalation of the family, which ultimately self-destructed.

GROSS: Well, would you like to start a family of your own? And how has, you
know, the horror and tragedy of your own family experience affected how you
see yourself, you know, as a wife or as a mother?

Ms. ARLINGTON: Right. Well, it's interesting that you mentioned that
because, you know, my brother's violent act was not the only thing in our
family tree that had gone on. My mother's mother had, like, shot and killed
my grandfather in an act of passion when my mother was an infant. And my
father's father, you know, served in World War II and helped liberate Paris
and kind of came back an alcoholic and was very abusive and, you know, ended
up getting murdered. And actually, the grandmother who had killed my mom's
dad was actually murdered in a robbery in San Francisco. So it was really
kind of, like, this multi--and then, of course, there were other, you know,
black sheep, as well.

And, you know, there's kind of this--you know, I used to joke darkly that, you
know, violent death runs in my family. And, you know, I did kind of decide
early on that, you know, `Do I really want to take a chance on my genes and,
you know, do this?' And so my feelings have always kind of been that there
are so many kids that need, you know, loving parents, and that if I ever feel
that I want to become a parent--which currently I'm not leaning towards
that--that, you know, I would adopt, and that way it takes that whole
component completely out of the picture. Because I was concerned that even if
there wasn't a genetic defect, as it were, that I would be so worried about,
you know, that I might cause some sort of problem. But fortunately, I found a
wonderful man who feels the same way I do about adoption, and we'll see what
happens.

GROSS: You'll excuse me for saying, `Wow.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What a family history. I mean, that's so scary. I mean, do you ever
think, like, `What genes are in me? I mean, like, what'--you know...

Ms. ARLINGTON: You know, I am a big believer in nurture over nature.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. ARLINGTON: And that in--you know, and again, that even the most well-bred
and genetically pure person can do really terrible things in the right
circumstances, and people who come from backgrounds such as my own can do very
great things and be very normal with the right input and nurturing and, you
know, guidance. So, you know, when I was younger and worried about these
things much more, you know, I was terrified of my genes. And now, you know,
I'm not just because I know how I live my life and how I behave and interact
with people and, you know, that's not really an issue for me at this point.

GROSS: When you hear people kind of celebrate family as being, like, the most
profound and most important and most wonderful thing in life and as being
implicitly good and implicitly loving and important and all of that, what do
you think about? I mean, I know what happened in your family is exceptional,
but it's hardly the only family not only where murder is committed, but it's
hardly the only family in which people have...

Ms. ARLINGTON: Right. Terry...

GROSS: Yeah?

Ms. ARLINGTON: ...every day, you know, I do not feel sorry for myself for
what happened because we had an abusive and terrible family, but through this
terrible act, I was, you know, freed from that. And I think about all of the
kids and women in relationships that are being abused and starved or, you
know, beaten, and I am just constantly reminded that I was one of the lucky
ones. So that is part of it.

Additionally, you know, I have amazing found family. And, you know, as I was
growing up and seeing how my friends dealt with, you know, the issues in their
own families, you know, and sometimes I felt lucky that I didn't have to deal
with some of the same issues and other times I just felt incredibly sad that I
didn't have, you know, that person who, you know, by birth and blood was going
to always be there for me. But then I have this found family that absolutely
is there for me, and I think that that's what a lot of people do when they
have really bad family situations.

GROSS: Jody Arlington, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ARLINGTON: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jody Arlington is a former vice president of the public relations firm
Fleishman-Hillard and former chief of staff for President Clinton's national
campaign against youth violence. She's now a communications consultant in the
arts.

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews a new book on the history of gospel
music.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New history of gospel music, "People Get Redy!"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Gospel music is the big missing link in most discussions of American postwar
popular music. It's the least reissued, least listened to late-20th century
form these days, and our rock critic Ed Ward says that's a shame. Despite its
influence on soul music and today's R&B, not to mention its inherent drama and
power and its message of hope to oppressed people, relatively little has been
written about it. Ed read a new history of gospel called "People Get Redy!"
by Robert Darden and he has this review.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I'm too close to my journey's end. I'm too
close to turn back into a world of sin. And I wouldn't take nothing for my
journey right now. Lord, you know I'm just gonna make it to heaven somehow.
I'm too close...

ED WARD reporting:

I know rock fans give lip service to gospel music, but I don't know many
who've actually heard much of it. Since it's hard to figure out where to
start with gospel music, I was quite happy to see an ad for a book called
"People Get Redy!" a new history of black gospel music written by Robert
Darden and published by Continuum. It looked scholarly, and Darden was
identified as a professor at Baylor University and gospel editor of Billboard,
so I got a copy. It's a remarkable book, all right. Darden's really done his
homework. And of the book's 425 pages, the last hundred are taken up by 78
pages of footnoted references and the index. He's made some significant
discoveries and made some really brilliant connections. But the question
remains: Is this a place to start learning about gospel?

Professor Darden said it best in the book's first half, where he charts the
growth of African-American Christian sacred music from its very beginnings.
Do we really need to know about African liturgical dance in order to
understand The Sensational Nightingales? Well, yes, in a way, we do. These
dances evolved into what were called ring shouts, which were practiced during
and after slavery and were condemned by church leaders in the 1920s and '30s
as being backwards and unseemly. Yet the physical reactions in the
congregations that the newer music these preachers preferred were arguably the
same thing expressed differently.

Darden obsesses about the nature of African music, the African tribes who were
enslaved and their practices because he wants to establish that there were
survivals even after the generations who remembered Africa firsthand had died
off. And he does, as far as I'm concerned. He then investigates the
spiritual, just what it was and what it sounded like, although he concedes
there's no exact way to tell. He brilliantly establishes connections between
spirituals in the slave underground, particularly the Underground Railroad and
Harriet Tubman, who was known to many as Moses. And from there, he considers
the relationship between the minstrel show and the groups of jubilee singers
who emerged after the Civil War, giving Americans and Europeans their first
hearing of authentic--or semiauthentic, anyway--African-American music.

All of this takes us up to the start of the 20th century, and so far so good.
When the commercial gospel scene appears, the industry of selling hymn books
and writing music, especially for the African-American churches, Darden charts
it well, and his synopsis of the emergence of the first really important
gospel figure, Thomas A. Dorsey, is excellent. Dorsey's important because he
basically invented gospel music as we know it today; aggressively promoting
his compositions and creating a body of work that includes songs many people
think are folk songs they're so familiar.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: I'm tired and weary, but I'm not forlorn. Till the Lord
comes to call, we await, O Lord. Where the morning is bright and the lamb is
alive and the night is as ...(unintelligible) as the day. Oh, there will be
peace in the valley for me, for me. There will be peace in the valley for me,
O Lord, I pray. No more sorrow, no more...

WARD: By providing a repertoire on which the next generation of gospel
performers could build, Dorsey opened the gates to a flood of groups and
soloists who added a showbiz element to the church's music. One of his early
proteges was Mahalia Jackson, who influenced James Cleveland, who played piano
for The Caravans, most of whom became successful solo performers and was
friends with Reverend C.L. Franklin, who's daughter Aretha--well, you know
about her.

But it's just at this period when names people today would recognize start to
appear that Darden falters. As soon as the 1950s begin, the narrative begins
to lose focus. At this point, I began to hanker for another book. "The
Gospel Sound" by Anthony Heilbut seems to raise Professor Darden's hackles,
although he quotes numerous interviews Heilbut has done. But Heilbut is still
in print as far as I know, and it could be that his take on gospel is a more
lively one for people coming to the music from rock 'n' roll. Heilbut goes
into the personalities and some of the sociology of gospel, noting, for
instance, that the black church is a refuge for non-conformists, including
sexual ones. I found it very odd that Darden discussed two major postwar
gospel figures--both gay, one flamboyantly so--without mentioning this aspect.
Weirdly, he also barely mentions the great hit song by The Impressions after
which "People Get Redy!" is named.

Sometime during what he calls the golden age of gospel, Darden runs out of
steam and the book turns into a dull recitation of names. Fortunately, as I
said, Heilbut's still in print, so if you're interested in postwar gospel, I'd
start there and then pick up Darden for the background.

Of course, there's still one problem. The vast majority of the music of
gospel's golden age remains out of print. How about some smart record company
doing for gospel what Rhino did for doo-wop 12 years ago with its magnificent
"Doo-Wop Box"? I think they'd be surprised at the reaction.

GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed "People Get Redy!" by Robert Darden.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) All we do have to do is love Jesus. Thank
you, Jesus. All we do...
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue