September 20, 2007
Transcendence—a true story for Yom Kippur
Phil and Laura Donney's father murdered their mother nearly 12 years ago. They've not only survived, they've thrived. How did they do it?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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."