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 4 - Previous Page)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