Phil and Laura both look a lot like their mom, in different ways," remarks Abby Leibman, Philip and Laura Donney's legal guardian.
Abby Leibman, fun-loving aunt to Laura and Phil Denney, top, raised them after their mother's death
Abby was trying to explain that for her, Phil and Laura evoke the presence of her twin sister, Nina Leibman, who 11 years ago was murdered by her husband, the pair's father.
But Philip, 19, and Laura, 16, can't resist the perfect set-up for one of their frequent humorous jousts.
"Yeah, I have her legs," boasts Phil, unfolding from under him a long, tanned leg, bony all the way to the barefoot end.
"Excuse me, I do," Laura responds theatrically, pointing her toes and modeling her leg above the couch, her short shorts showing off long appendages that haven't quite yet reached the proportions of her mother, who was a leggy 5-foot-7.
What is striking is that Phil and Laura are able to tenderly joke about the mother they so tragically lost. That rather than becoming a sacred and somber memory, not to be mentioned except in hushed tones, their mother remains a natural and everyday part of their lives.
The atmosphere of openness that Abby has established for her family is one of several elements that have allowed Phil and Laura to become, by all indications, not just well-adjusted and happy kids, but in many ways exceptional -- socially, academically, artistically -- despite a past that could have understandably lead them to dysfunction.
Phil was 7 and Laura 4 when their father, Ken Donney, stabbed their mother more than 20 times while the children were in bed down the hall. Phil heard his mother's screams and saw his father covered in blood, holding a knife. Laura has vague memory snapshots from that night. Their father is now in prison, serving a sentence of 16 years to life.
The family was dealt another heavy blow less than four years ago, when Marjorie, Abby's younger sister, who Phil describes as sort of the noncustodial parent, died of malignant melanoma.
And yet, despite this extraordinary load of loss and trauma, it takes only a few minutes to be pulled in by Phil and Laura's charisma and candor, and by Abby's astute forthrightness. Phil was voted class clown and prom king when he graduated from Hamilton High School in 2006. Laura, an exceptional student with an interest in drama, like her mother, draws people into her warmth.
Both kids immediately impress as articulate, genuine, fun and mature, sharing a huge store of gratitude where one might expect to find bitterness.
Abby, left, says the two people she was closest to were her sisters Nina, center, and Marjorie, right
How is that possible?
What is it that allowed this family to stay whole and renew the life in themselves when fate, or God, or a violent man, dealt them unimaginable grief? In this season of renewal and introspection, of fate and faith, what can others facing obstacles of any degree learn from this family's remarkable ability to transcend the unthinkable?
Abby, Phil and Laura don't claim to have all the answers, but they know what worked for them -- what is still working for them. From the beginning, Abby made sure their family would remain communicative with each other and with others, so that no topic is taboo. She set a precedent of drawing on all the resources available to them -- psychological help, strong friendships, communal support. And each of the three seem to have an inner strength and a positive outlook that those resources and openness have helped keep alive.
"I just always felt like I was really appreciative of everything," says Phil, draped over a comfy chair in the den of their Beverly Center home, where family photos, many with his mother and Aunt Marjorie, smile from shelves and walls. "This might sound corny, but after losing so much and having everything change and everything in my life just completely fall away, I grew this appreciation of everything else that I have.... I think when you give those feelings off, those feelings are returned to you."
With sun-bleached curls falling in long ringlets around his sharply defined face, he looks and talks every bit the California guy, easy and relaxed, looking forward to an evening out with old friends before he returns as a sophomore to UC Santa Barbara -- his mother's alma mater.
What he doesn't possess is the mumbling nonchalance of his cohorts.
"By no means am I glad that all this stuff happened to me in my past, but if I hadn't moved to L.A., I wouldn't be living in the best neighborhood, I wouldn't have the best friends in the world, I couldn't have gone to the best high school in the world," Phil says. "A lot of me misses what is gone ... but I love my life. I really do."
'I Don't Want to Die'
Phil's sentiments are words Abby thought she might never hear when she brought Phil and Laura from their brick home in Santa Cruz to her two-bedroom Wilshire District condo two days after her fraternal twin was murdered.
"I remember saying to Phil's therapist, right in the beginning, 'I just want them to have a happy, normal childhood.' And she looked at them and she said, 'It's too late for that.' And I said 'Oh my God.' It was just a breathtaking moment for me," says Abby, who is a consultant focusing on leadership and organizational development, particularly with regard to discrimination issues.
The day after her sister died, Abby took temporary custody of the kids, and later permanent guardianship. Nina Leibman had been an up-and-coming professor of communications who taught at UC Santa Cruz and at Santa Clara University; her specialty was how female characters were depicted in the early days of television. She had published a book on the drama that underlies the happy veneer of sitcom families, and was finally ready to get out of the harsh reality of her own family.
Ken graduated from UCLA Law School and worked as a prosecutor at the Federal Trade Commission. But for most of their 10-year marriage, he bounced around between jobs and writing a novel, before he ended up in an administrative position at the University of Santa Clara Law School.
The night Ken killed Nina, a court order had just gone into effect to force him to move out. The relationship had been unhealthy for a while, Abby says, with issues of dominance -- but no violence. Nina had told a court mediator, and her sisters, that Ken had never hit her.
Phil remembers his parents having normal kinds of fights, until the night of Oct. 27, 1995, nine days after his seventh birthday, when he heard terrifying sounds coming from the study, where his mother had been sleeping alone for the previous few weeks. He remembers thinking that his parents must have been joking, the screaming and banging couldn't be real. He crawled down the hall, military style, toward the study door. His father poked his head out and yelled at him to get back into bed. He crawled back and forth several times, and at one point, he helped Laura, then 4, back to bed, after she woke up crying.
He heard his mother scream -- in a voice different from anything he had heard before, he later told a detective -- "I don't want to die." He saw his father emerge covered in blood, holding a knife. Phil retreated back into his bed and eventually heard his father call 911.
Laura remembers waking up to a flashlight in her face. She remembers being able to take only one of her two favorite "Goldie" dolls and that the cops insisted on driving them to a neighbor's house, where they spent the rest of that night. She remembers getting hot cocoa and coloring books from a kind social worker, and a cop named Butch.
She doesn't remember her mother.
Abby got the call the next day at work. A friend immediately escorted her to the airport, and another friend met her in Santa Cruz. She had spent a lot of time with her niece and nephew and relished her role as the fun-loving aunt, and she was named in Nina and Ken's will as the guardian.
That day, Abby went to the Donney's home, collected the kids' stuff -- including Laura's other Goldie doll -- and took the two children to their new home.
"I don't think I accepted that they were really mine for years. I think it took a very long time," Abby says. "I kept thinking that Nina was just going to come and pick them up anytime, like they were just visiting."
Abby was then the director of the Southern California Women's Law Center, a nonprofit she helped found with state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles) and attorney Jennifer McKenna, to advocate for women on issues like discrimination, reproductive rights, poverty and domestic violence (an irony she calls "hideous"). She was politically active and well-connected throughout California, respected among Jewish and civic organizations for her forthrightness and somewhat formidable determination. She was accomplished and capable; she had her routine set, and now she had two very traumatized kids (and soon a dog, too) in her care, who needed vast amounts of love and careful attention, not to mention a school, a pediatrician, new friends and a place to live.
"I was often overwhelmed by the mundane part of decision making of families. Suddenly it's not just about managing your own life, but about managing the life of two other people," Abby says.
She remembers being proud of herself for just getting the kids dressed and out the door for Nina's funeral, until a friend asked if she had brought snacks for the kids. Snacks? At a funeral? (The friend had something for them.)
Becoming a Family
Laura and Phil -- and then a dog -- moved into Abby's two-room condo in 1995
From the beginning, Abby realized she would have to let down her wall of independence and accept all the offers of help that were coming at her and Marjorie, who had returned from Senegal, where she was serving in the Peace Corps, to move in with Abby and the kids.
On the way home from the funeral, she asked an old friend of hers and Nina's, Kirby Tepper, to step into their lives.
"She said to me, 'I'm not married, and there is no male figure for these kids. Would you like to do that?'" Tepper says.
A therapist and consultant on interpersonal skills who used to be a Broadway performer, Tepper became a father figure to Phil and Laura -- he coached Little League, taught Phil to tie a tie and shave, talks to Laura about boyfriends. As a gay man with no children, Tepper considers their relationship a "life gift."
In 1998, Abby asked her parents, Joan and Mike Leibman, to move back to Los Angeles so they could be closer to the kids and help with carpool, sleepovers and grandparent-type things. They themselves were in a difficult situation, since just weeks after Nina's death, Mike had a car accident when he blacked out while driving. He broke his neck in the accident and became physically and mentally impaired.
"Abby was the focal point, and we were like satellites around her, trying to help out and make the kids feel secure and loved," Joan Leibman says.
Those close to Abby -- her mother, Kirby, her rabbi, her friends -- marvel at what she has done.
"The real reason for the kids' health is because of Abby," says Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, where the family has been members since Phil and Laura came to Los Angeles. "Abby is one of my heroines. She is brilliant, she is deeply kind and loving, she is principled and committed. She can be edgy, which I like about her -- she pushes the envelope on everything."
Phil and Laura have an iron bond with each other, and both of them clearly love -- and like -- Abby. In conversation, they all listen to each other respectfully, without interrupting, carefully understanding what the other is saying.
"My approach to this has always been to be as honest and direct as I can be," Abby says. "I've always explained things to Phil and Laura and been as communicative as possible. There's always been a lot of talking here. They don't always talk to me -- there are other people they problem-solve with -- but they always can go to these resources for support."
She also let them be themselves.
"I just let them make their own choices a lot," Abby says. "I didn't say to them 'you can't'; I said, 'If you don't like the results you have to remember this is a choice you made.'"
The kids went to after-school activities, and friends covered while Abby continued to work full time and pursue the many volunteer positions she has held over the years, including seats on the boards of Jewish Family Service, Jewish World Watch, the Jewish Community Relations Council and several city and county commissions related to children.
"I decided that I couldn't let go of all of my life, so they had to fit into my life. I fit them in as best as I could and tried to give them what they needed," she says.
Now single and 50, she admits that having two kids complicated her dating life -- but they also brought her fulfillment.
"I had a lot of people in my life suddenly, and the level of intimacy that children bring into your life fills a huge part of your need for intimacy," she says.
And she says she never felt burdened by having Phil and Laura.
"I remember thinking that I wanted my life back, like I had lost control of my life, but I never resented their presence. It just complicated my life in ways I wasn't expecting, and I felt like I didn't know what I was doing, and I wanted to do it right -- I felt for their sake I had to do it right."
She also immediately got professional help for all of them.
Abby knew she needed more than her regular therapist could offer, so she and Marjorie went to a psychologist who specialized in shock trauma. They started the kids in therapy right away -- something she credits with keeping all of them centered and calm.
She learned to cope with insensitive comments about her not being the kids "real mother," or when others minimized her grief in losing "just a sister." She learned to help the kids through nightmares, and to be tuned in to the transitions and dates that affected them. Together, they became a family.
A Sanctuary of Support
While the family was sitting shiva for Nina, Temple Israel of Hollywood's Rabbi Rosove offered Abby -- whom he had met once before and who was not a member at his or any other synagogue -- full scholarships at the Reform congregation's day school. It was a pivotal gift, and to this day, Temple Israel remains a major focal point of friendship, spirituality and support for them.
Abby and her sisters went to a Conservative congregation while growing up in Chatsworth, but she hadn't belonged to a synagogue since then.
When Phil's new teacher asked how to welcome the new boy, one kid -- who is still Phil's best friend -- proposed that Phil should be line leader for the day.
Laura introduced herself to her preschool class with characteristic drama, Abby recalls.
A little apprehensive in her new surroundings, Laura began to fiddle with the classroom computer. The kids surrounded her, wanting to know how she knew so much about computers.
"My mommy taught me but she's dead now because my daddy killed her but he's in jail," Abby remembers Laura telling the class. "The kids didn't bat an eyelash -- they were more interested in finding out how she made purple come up."
But moments like these made some parents, who after all had chosen the sheltered environment of a Jewish school, squeamish about exposing their kids to death and violence.
"Sometimes I would get angry at these parents who didn't want me to say in front of their kids that I was the aunt, because their kids would ask questions," Abby says. "And I would think, 'You know, if Phil and Laura can live through this, your kids can hear about it -- it's not going to hurt them.'"
While the overwhelming atmosphere was one of support -- teachers took extra care on Mother's Day, for instance -- the difficulties were persistent.
"When you're in school, no one has any idea how much the words 'your mother' or 'your parents' come up in daily discourse," Abby says. "A teacher would say, 'you have to ask your mom,' which for Phil and Laura would precipitate a thought process that no child should have to go through: 'What should I do. I don't have a mom. My mom is dead. How should I handle this? Should I say my mom is dead? Should I say my aunt will?'"
Even what they call each other leads to questions. Abby refers to them as her kids, but also as her niece and nephew. The kids refer to her as "my aunt," but Laura addresses her as "mama." Mostly they call her Aunt Abby (which became Tabby, which sometimes playfully morphs into Tabitha).
Laura doesn't want her past to affect how people treat her.
Active in social justice causes and an actress in her school play, Laura keeps her drama on stage, like her mother. With her bright hazel eyes, strong jaw and her long, tight brunette curls tied in a loose knot at her neck, she looks a lot like Nina.
Laura prefers to get the information about her past out of the way, telling friends to tell others, such as when she started Palms Middle School or Hamilton High School.
"I feel uncomfortable when I tell people, because they don't know how to react. They're like, 'Oh my God,' and for me it's been 11 years, and I don't want to sound cold, but at this moment I'm OK right now, and they're really dramatic about it," Laura says.
Phil is more willing to draw people in.
"If I've learned anything through all this, it's that people understand you if you let them. That's why my high school experience was really great," Phil says. "I let people in, I appreciated them and made sure that I didn't shut anyone out, and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of a whole bunch of genuine bonds of friendship."
In 10th grade, Phil read aloud to his English class an assignment about a burden he carried -- an essay about the night his father killed his mother. The compassion that friends poured his way ended up carrying him through the trauma he was experiencing again, as he said goodbye to Aunt Marjorie.
Marjorie's death in December 2003, when Phil was in 10th grade and Laura in seventh, forced the family to once again muster the resources that carried them through losing Nina, but this time, they all agree, it was different -- less shock, more grief.
Marjorie had been an integral part of the household since Phil and Laura came to Los Angeles, living with them on and off. She was diagnosed with melanoma in 1997 and underwent several clinical trials, but in 2003, she learned her treatment was not working.
Like her sister Nina, Marjorie had a flair for the artistic and for drama, something both kids inherited. Phil says Marjorie taught him about music, which still plays an important part in his life, as well as comic books and culture.
Laura says when she tells people about her parents, she is sure to include Marjorie.
"I get so upset because I know the shock factor of my father murdering my mother is what people focus on, but I want to make sure that Aunt Marjorie gets credit where credit is due," Laura says. "Aunt Marjorie was more predominant in my life than either of my parents. She is the one who helped raise me ... I want them to realize that for me losing Aunt Marjorie is equal to or even greater than the loss of my mom, because with Aunt Marjorie I know what I'm missing."
The responsibility of taking care of the kids had a lot to do with Abby's ability to pick herself up after Nina's death, and she knew she had to be there for them when Marjorie died, as well -- but it was harder, and she says she wasn't as good at accepting all the offers of help and support that came her way.
Marjorie moved in with her parents when her illness became terminal, and the whole family was with her when she died.
"I knew after the trauma of Nina's death I had to work at being a good grandma and a caregiver to my husband," says Joan Leibman, who moved back to Oregon after Marjorie died. "I think the thing that really drained me the most was the loss of Marjorie."
Today, she spends a lot of time volunteering for her synagogue's Bikur Cholim Committee, visiting the sick and the lonely, offering comfort and help. "It's very therapeutic for me," she says.
She also found comfort from Rabbi Marc Sirinsky, at Ashland's Temple Emek Shalom.
"He was my rock -- totally committed and helpful, kind and caring. He gave me the kind of support I needed," Leibman says. "I didn't need to hear about God -- and he never brought that up. He was just there to listen to and agree with how tough it was and never to preach and sermonize."
God, Community and Forgiveness
The other family members also look to Judaism for comfort and support.
Phil says he doesn't believe in God, but he believes in the higher power that arises when people come together for a common goal and for spiritual sustenance. He says Temple Israel and Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu have been havens for him.
"I never feel alone when I am at temple or at camp," he says.
Abby says she is angry at the unfairness of losing the two people in the world she was closest to, but she holds on to the idea that God is evident in the response -- the collective compassion of others.
Laura says her views of God aren't quite fully developed, but she does find herself looking up once in a while, sending a prayer or a thought heavenward.
"At services, Shalom Rav [a prayer for peace] always makes me cry. But I embrace it because I like being able to cry," Laura says. "The prayers let me release the tension."
What their healing hasn't entailed is forgiveness. They are all in agreement that they hope their father never gets out of prison.
Over the years, Ken Donney has sent his children birthday and Christmas cards regularly, and he sent Phil letters often. But Phil stopped writing a few years ago, after he wrote his father a letter asking him why he killed Nina.
"He wrote back and explained why he was sorry this thing happened to me," Phil says.
Completely unsatisfied, and convinced that the letters were a ploy by Donney to look good for the parole board, which he comes before next year, Phil stopped writing.
Laura used to type up hate letters, but she never sent them. She has never had any contact with her father.
"I don't know if it's an adolescent thing or what, but I can't help but be a little curious about him, as awful as that sounds," Laura says. "A big part of me wants him to see me, so he can see what he has missed, and how I've turned out a decent human being despite what he has done. I want him to know how little power he has over who I am and what I've become."
Laura admits that she has a sense of vulnerability, and is constantly worrying that something might happen to Abby or Phil, but she is proud of the fact that she has not let her father's betrayal define her.
"We were surrounded by our two aunts, we have Kirby, who took on the role of sort of a father to us, we have so many good friends, and so it allowed me to learn that what happened with my parents was one example of what could happen, but I do have these people who aren't going to leave, and I do have these people who will stay with me always. I am choosing to embrace that over letting what happened torment how my relationships are with other people."
In one important way, Phil's past has defined him: He wants to work with kids.
"I love kids, I love working with kids and just playing with them. I love tag and Legos, and Cap'n Crunch is still my favorite food," Phil says. "My childhood wasn't the best, so I want to make other kid's childhoods as good as possible."
From across the den, Abby listens to them, proud of the security her niece feels and the confidence her nephew exudes. And, it seems, Abby harbors just a tiny bit of amazement that so far, things are looking OK for the Leibman/Donney family.
"The loss never leaves you," Abby says. "I think it's important to know that and to know that you don' t have to hold on to your grief so tightly, because that person will always be there with you and be present with you, so it's safe to be in your life and to move ahead.
"When I think about what Nina lost by not being able to be there for Phil and Laura, I have to remember that they've done just what she would have wanted. They didn't get stuck and feel sorry for themselves and overwhelm themselves with the memory of loss," Abby says. "They've lived really normal, good lives. They've produced great things for themselves -- and they're really great people."
Fraternal twins Abby and Nina share a birthday cake