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In September, I got a call from my father—I'm in California; he's in New Jersey.
"Guess what? I'll give you a million bucks if you can tell me what happened."
"I have no idea," I shot back.
"Come on, take a guess," he insisted.
"Look, you've got to give me something more to go on than 'Guess what?' "
"OK. Your Uncle Paul just shot your Aunt Helen in the head and killed her."
In a statement Paul Weinstein made to the New Rochelle police, Helen Weinstein awoke on the morning of September 23 irritated because she didn't feel well and wanted to visit the doctor. My 71-year-old aunt was suffering from terminal cirrhosis, intestinal problems, and the beginnings of dementia. Her biggest issue—one that plagued her for years—was her fear of being put away.
So when Paul told Helen the "negative" aspects of visiting the doctor, she started arguing. "Just kill me, then!" she yelled. He told her not to talk that way, but, as he said to officials, her squabbling "set him off," so he grabbed a pillow and began to suffocate her. Though she lay motionless and did not put up a fight, he "did not have the guts" to follow through. He apologized for not suffocating her, and then went to a lockbox in their bedroom closet to grab his 9mm Walther P-38 handgun. After cleaning and loading the weapon, he stuck it under a kitchen towel "so his wife would not be alarmed."
Paul then walked behind the bed and pointed the gun at the back left side of Helen's head. After one failed attempt, the gun fired. He saw blood and said, "Sorry, baby," to his wife of 51 years. Next, he proceeded to the bathroom intending to kill himself, climbing first into the bathtub "so he would not make a mess in the apartment." Just before aiming the gun at his own forehead, the 77-year-old pharmacist called the police to say that he had shot his wife and was about to shoot himself. Unsuccessful in his first attempt, he tried again—but the gun did not discharge. After several more tries, he accidentally shot a round into the tub, but by then, the police had shown up. Following a brief standoff, he was arrested.
While escorting Weinstein to the elevator, the arresting officer asked him why he did it. According to court papers, my uncle replied "in a very calm, almost remorseful manner: 'Son, I promised my wife a long time ago I would never put her in a home, or in a hospital, or one of those lunatic asylums. . . . She was starting to lose it. I keep my promises.' "
The next day, when the incident hit the news, the media treated Weinstein largely with sympathy. "He was a nice man. He wouldn't hurt a fly on the wall," a neighbor said. Jacob Appell, a bioethicist and medical historian who blogs on The Huffington Post, described Weinstein as "brave" and expressed solidarity with him. Even the police commissioner, Patrick Carroll, joined the chorus, saying, "It's very sad."
To me, the whole thing was like a show at the theater of the absurd. What kind of family did I get stuck with? I asked myself. The only saving grace was my lack of emotional connection with these people.
"The Weinsteins," as my father calls them, were basically strangers. Except for a few brief encounters at family events, they were just this mysterious couple "on your mother's crazy side of the family" who lived in their own world. (Their only daughter, Julie, just two years younger than I, was also hidden out of view.) Not that the rest of us were some paradigm of familial perfection, but "Aunt" Helen and "Uncle" Paul were like characters from a Lifetime TV drama—unskilled at coping with life, themselves, or one another.
"Quite honestly, when we got the call that he killed her, it was not a surprise," my father says. "It's more like, 'That's them.' Just because they were so nutty. They had nothing to do with anybody. What kind of existence is that?"
No wonder he delivered the news so obtusely.
The youngest of four sisters, Helène Baum was born in London just before World War II (throughout her life, she would keep that spelling of her first name, but the rest of the family always called her "Helen").
When she was two years old, the Germans dropped a bomb at a nearby playground, but no one was hurt. In her version, the place was obliterated except for two milk bottles sitting on a stoop. Not true, says her oldest sister, Evelyn, but the family did log many hours sitting in air-raid shelters. After the attacks, Evelyn says, Helen would run out to collect shrapnel.
In 1949, when she was 11 years old, the family moved to Washington Heights. Back then, at least according to the second sister, Rene, Helen was a "very, very happy person," apparently focusing more attention on boys than her studies. She never finished high school, and took a job as a medical transcriptionist at Jewish Memorial Hospital.