'Til Murder Do Us Part: A Familial Tale of Death, Dementia, and Drama
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.
Looking back at old photos of a rail-thin Helen, with her dark eyes, fleshy lips, and a cigarette permanently dangling from her mouth, you can see why my mother describes her as a "sexpot." Paul, on the other hand, who was six years her senior, bore all the trappings of a 1950s vintage dweeb: Vitalis hair parted on the side, thick glasses pushed against a pudgy, round face, and an ever-present tie.
Born in Yorkville in 1932, Paul, too, was affected by the war. When he was 11, his father got drafted, and, since his mother had to work 12-hour days, she sent him to live with his grandmother in New Jersey. It didn't work out, so in less than a year, he was back home. When the war ended, his father moved the family to a place in Stamford, Connecticut, but continued working in the city. Paul graduated from high school in 1950, and though he longed to join the army, he was rejected several times: "When they accept people with flat feet and seeing-eye dogs, I'm in," he used to tell his daughter, Julie. It's not a surprise that he developed a fascination with military history and war, amassing hundreds of books as well as a collection of knives and, yes, a couple of firearms. He graduated from Columbia University School of Pharmacy in 1954.
Paul and Helen met in the summer of 1957 at Dichter Pharmacy in Inwood, where he was working. They started dating in September and married the following April in a hall on the Grand Concourse. When Julie, my cousin, was born three years later, Helen, who had already stopped talking to her parents, informed them by mailing them a birth announcement.
Soon afterward, Helen cut off my mother and Rene. (Their photos are conspicuously absent from the wedding album.) No one in the family can say why she did it, but, as Helen used to tell Julie whenever she came home crying after a disagreement with one of her friends, "I told you so—you can't trust anyone. It's not worth having friends. They'll hurt you in the end." The same, apparently, went for family members.
When I came along in December 1959, my aunt and uncle were already out of the picture.
It wasn't until 1974, when I was 14 years old, that the two of them first laid eyes on me—at a rare appearance at my grandfather's (Helen's father's) funeral. Another decade would pass before the next encounter—at a 60th birthday party my mother threw for her oldest sister, Evelyn. But even during the 10 years that followed, when they were "speaking" to my immediate family, months would pass without us hearing from them.
The final brushoff came after Rene made a plan to host Helen's 50th birthday party. While the whole family waited, it soon became apparent that the Weinsteins weren't going to show.
According to my dad, "Helen once made a statement that they can't have a relationship with the family, because we demand too much of their time. She never really said anything and just changed her telephone number." Like a passing thunderstorm, the Weinsteins were gone.
For my mother, Helen's death brought no tears: "I was shell-shocked that he could have done that to her, but I did not cry when I heard about it," she says. "The way she died bothered me more than the fact that she did die. Looking back, I would admit that one of the reasons I did not carry on—crying, as one might expect in a case like this—was because of all the hurt Helen and Paul caused their daughter."
Of the four sisters, Helen was the youngest and closest in age to my mother. But that mattered little in a relationship tainted early on by jealousy and petty grievances. ("Each time I brought a boy home, she disappeared in her bedroom and came out with short shorts on," my mother says.) Soon afterward, when my mother got married at 23, Helen disappeared for the next 14 years. The last time my mother saw her sister was nearly 25 years ago.
Rene, who had even less contact with Helen than my mother did, seemed to take the news harder: "Even though she didn't want to talk to anybody, I was very, very upset," she told me. "I don't know what to say—there's no words for it. And yesterday was her birthday. You know what I did? I lit a candle for her. I had a bad day yesterday."
The only sister who maintained contact with the Weinsteins after they got married was the oldest, Evelyn, who is now 85. She was also the most distraught over the news. "When your parents came to tell me, my mouth went open, and I nearly choked because I was so shocked. I push myself to go out so I shouldn't think of things. Because outside, I won't cry, especially if I don't have my sunglasses with me," she says with a modified Cockney accent.
For several years, Evelyn lived in the same Washington Heights housing complex as the Weinsteins. And though she served as a kind of surrogate mother for Julie, her relationship with the couple had about as much depth as a piece of Saran Wrap.
Overly cautious and fearful, the oldest of the clan lives by her own golden rule: avoid confrontation at all cost. So when I asked her about various incidents involving Julie and the Weinsteins, her stock answers were: "I really don't know" and "I couldn't ask questions. She [Helen] didn't like you to ask questions."
About her brother-in-law, Paul, to whom she talked at least once a week, year after year, Evelyn was equally imperceptive: "I came to the conclusion, I didn't know him as well as I should have," she says. (Julie doesn't hold her aunt responsible: "Evelyn did help and provided the only normalcy I had. Could she have done more? Perhaps. But she's not a strong person, and my mother was. I think Evelyn was afraid my mother would shut her out completely and felt a need to be there for me.")
Not that anyone else (including even my father) could really have predicted what Paul Weinstein would do. To those who "knew" him, he was a stand-up guy who did his best to care for his wife—even as his own health deteriorated. With no friends or family to speak of, the closest person to Paul other than his wife was his boss of 10 years, Ray Rama, who owns R & R Pharmacy in Mamaroneck.
Though Rama never socialized with the Weinsteins, he knew them as well as anyone—or, at least, he thought he did. "He was a very regimented-type fellow. He did things by the book consistently," Rama says. "Liked to get up early in the morning, have his breakfast at a certain time. He was a good pharmacist," he insists. "Never would I assume anything like that from the man."
Just like the neighbors, who viewed the Weinsteins from afar, Rama saw a loving couple devoted to each other.
"It really knocked me out of my socks when a fellow from WABC comes in and asks me, 'Paul Weinstein work for ya?' I say yeah. 'You heard?' 'I heard what? Nothing. I didn't hear anything.' He told me Paul shot and killed his wife about an hour and a half ago. I was speechless."
Paul and Helen's 48-year-old daughter, Julie, hadn't spoken to her parents in 17 years.
On February 24, 1993, following her mother and father's lead, she wrote a letter severing the relationship: "You've never cared to tell me exactly why you both shut your own parents out, but it seems we've carried on the one-family tradition that we have," Julie wrote.
And though she had a specific reason—Helen had told Julie her kids would end up being the next Jeffrey Dahmers because of her poor parenting skills—the three-page handwritten missive was actually the culmination of a childhood fraught with emotional and physical abuse.
First, there were the fights Julie witnessed as a toddler, so violent that the police were called to the house. There were also frequent visits by the telephone repairman to replace the wires ripped out of the wall in the heat of the couple's wrangling. "A couple of times, my father wrapped the wire around her neck," Julie says. "It was always so dramatic."
Helen also had a violent streak, Julie says. One time, she went after her husband with a frying pan, but, while blocking her, he hit her so hard above the eye that she required stitches. But all of this was nothing compared to her mother's oft-repeated story about a Jehovah's Witness who had knocked on the door.
When Julie was a baby, her mother allegedly attacked a woman for preaching and forcing her way into the apartment. She cut her throat with a bread knife, a wound that required 27 stitches. (Helen was supposedly taken to Bellevue for an evaluation.) Afterward, the woman came back, trying to "save" her. "My mother proudly told the story," Julie says, "as if to show you how tough she is, how she won't take any crap from anyone. My father used to call her a 'spitfire.' " Evelyn and my mother had heard the tale, but couldn't corroborate it.
Unlike other kids, who may have grown afraid after witnessing such events, Julie toughed it out, assuming an "Oh, they're at it again" attitude. "I became a precocious little bastard," she says. And at age six, after yet another rumble, Julie advised her parents to get divorced so she could live with her dad: "Aunt Evelyn just covered my mouth, saying, 'She doesn't know what she's talking about.' "
The two stayed married, and, as the fighting somehow diminished, Julie says Helen turned more of her "attention" to her daughter. This wasn't difficult, especially since Julie went straight from the crib to a chair-bed in her parents' bedroom. (She dismisses the idea that her parents simply couldn't afford to move to an apartment with two bedrooms.) And other than the lack of bedtime stories or "lovey-dovey crap," she can remember nothing unseemly occurring during those years. It doesn't take a psych degree, however, to realize that Helen had issues with control. As for Paul, it was the classic case of the henpecked husband, too busy working (and reading Barbara Cartland romance novels) and apparently too much in denial to critique his wife's child-rearing. He didn't see anything wrong with the way she acted, Julie says.
"I have mixed emotions about my father. . . . When I was a little girl, he was definitely the good daddy. There was definitely a lot of 'good cop/bad cop' going on in my house. When I was a teenager, I still cared for him more. But as I got older, and thought about things, I did transfer a little blame to my father. He should have seen certain things and not buried himself in sand." For a time, Paul did try to play mediator between Julie and her mother over fights brought on by what she terms Helen's "OCD cleaning and laundry issues."
The apartment didn't even have a hamper. Helen would practically rip the clothes off Julie's back to make sure they went immediately into the washing machine. "This posed problems as I got older and wanted to go out in the evening," Julie says. "In her mind, I wasn't going out to have fun with friends, I was going out to punish her. We got into lots of fights as a teenager, because I knew she had to wash my clothes."
Helen once called her daughter a "filthy human being" for wearing jeans two days in a row. "It was very important for her that I be clean, especially in certain places," she says.
Paul had his quirks as well. My father says he once told him he used to go to bed wearing gloves with his hands slathered in Vaseline. Julie didn't remember that, but she did agree that her father's hands were "soft, exceptionally clean, and unusually manicured for a man's hands. He used to buff them every day," she says.
But Evelyn, who logged more time in that apartment than any other "outsider," can offer up little about any of this. Like a cigarette company executive being questioned by a Senate panel, all she can say is, "I don't remember."
Evelyn does admit that she thought Helen drank too much. ("I said to Helen, 'I know what you're doing in that house. You drink,' I says. 'Don't drink so much.' ") There was also a strongbox full of pills that Paul kept at the ready for his perpetually stressed-out wife. "She needed something to sleep so he'd give her something, then, in the morning, she'd be kinda dopey, so she'd need something to wake up. There seemed to be a pill for everything," Julie says.
The drugs did little to diminish her tyrannical personality: "She was always the warden—whatever she said went." It was no small miracle that Julie managed to persuade her mother to let her sleep on the fold-out couch in the living room. The same went for bathing herself. She was already nine years old.
That was also the year of the "Doll Incident." One day, when Julie came home from school, Helen was "on one of her rampages," cleaning the apartment. Julie's toys were simply taking up too much space, including her doll collection, brought back from Germany by her father's mother. Among them were two- and three-foot-high beauties sporting porcelain faces and silken hair that could be combed. Julie agreed that she'd outgrown them and wanted to pass her treasures on to some other child. But Helen had other plans. Fearing that someone would find them in the trash, she dismembered their heads and cut their hair down to stubble.
"I'll never forget that picture. It used to give me nightmares," Julie says.
Julie will also never forget obtaining her first training bra at age 11 or 12. Of course, her hypochondriac mother couldn't simply go out and buy one—she had to consult her doctor. "So I'm sitting there, and she hands him the training bra, and she goes, 'Is this gonna be OK?' Here's the six-foot-tall guy, with a cigarillo in his mouth, feeling the cups of this training bra—making sure it's not gonna damage me in any way."
As Julie entered her teens, the weirdness continued. At 13, she "talked back," prompting Helen to pull down her pants and deliver a bare-ass public spanking at a shopping mall in New Rochelle. The following year, the same thing happened in front of her friends at a sleepover party: "I think she got what she wanted. I never invited people back to the house again because I couldn't deal with any more embarrassment."
And that same year, Helen went after Julie with a three-inch-thick rolling pin: "I said to myself, I'm not gonna get hit by a fuckin' rolling pin, so I drop-kicked her. And she starts screaming for my father because she's laying on the floor. My father comes in and says to me, 'What the fuck did you do?' and I said, 'I kicked her.' He said, 'Why?' and I said, ' 'Cause she was gonna hit me with a rolling pin.' He said, 'Well, I can't blame you there.' So she was mad at both of us. At least my father had common sense."
Paul never could stand up to his wife—or, as my father puts it: "He wanted to be thought of as a man, but he was only a roly-poly, soft-as-a-lily pretender."
Once the family moved away from the city and Julie started college, Paul dropped the U.N. approach and started siding with his wife on everything. Late one evening, at around nine or ten, Julie wanted to go out, challenging her mother's laundry schedule. "I married Ma, not you—so if I have to choose, it will be her, not you," Paul told his daughter. "Now, as an adult, I don't feel a parent should ever have to choose between a spouse and a child," Julie says. Their relationship was never the same after that.
The problems continued nonstop with her mother, with the briefest of breaks when Julie became pregnant with her first child. "[It's] the only time I recall my mother being happy." Over the next seven years, Julie's relationship with her parents ebbed and flowed. She never talked to them again after writing that letter 17 years ago.
The night of September 23, as Julie left the gym, she listened to a message from her husband telling her to come home. "It's important," was all he said. After a second message, she thought something had happened to her kids or her ailing dog. Ten minutes later, as she pulled up to her house, she noticed two police cars in the driveway. She stepped into the kitchen, where the officers told her that her mother had passed away. "I took it well because I was detached. I really didn't feel anything because we had such a bad relationship. I know it sounds terrible. I could tell by the way everyone was looking at me that they were waiting for the other shoe to drop."
The police told her that her father had been arrested for murder, which, she admits, was "startling": "I assumed he had just given her some pills and done the Kevorkian thing."
After they left, Julie searched the Internet for news and learned about the gun. "Holy shit," she remembers thinking.
At least, however, she would be saved the burden of identifying her mother's corpse. The superintendent of her parents' housing complex in New Rochelle had taken care of it.
Julie attended her father's arraignment the next day. When she walked into the room, the first thing he said was that she'd put on weight.
"I sat there crying, staring at his hands. I couldn't look at his face since he didn't look like the person I used to know," Julie says. She could not speak, and let her father do most of the talking. "He told me he loved my mother, and it wasn't about the sex because that ended after she had a hysterectomy: 'They took out the baby factory and left the playpen,' he said, with the detective standing in the room."
Family dysfunction aside, it's my uncle's desperate method for ending his wife's suffering that many find the most baffling. The question plaguing my family is why Paul, a semi-retired pharmacist, didn't stir up a cocktail laced with sedatives and join his wife in bed for a final peaceful slumber.
Jacob Appell, the bioethicist, says Weinstein's decision to use a gun is not all that unusual: "We already have strong evidence that elderly Caucasian men who commit suicide choose to do so with firearms at a much higher rate than others, even when these individuals are physicians with easy access to pills. Though the issue has not been formally studied, I strongly surmise that the same applies to mercy killing. Yes, some critics claim that using a gun reflects underlying anger; however, doing so might as easily reflect compassion and a concern that death occur quickly without suffering."
Just a few days before my uncle ended my aunt's life, James Fish, a 90-year-old California physician, shot and killed his 88-year-old wife, Phyllis, who was suffering from dementia and terminal pancreatic cancer.
It has yet to be determined whether Weinstein—currently at Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, awaiting an evidence hearing set for February 24—was mentally lucid at the time of the incident. (He pleaded not guilty to felony murder and gun possession charges.) What about getting outside help? According to his boss, Rama, Weinstein did hire a nurse to come in, but Helen didn't like that. And a hospice? Weinstein claims he wasn't aware of it. Julie dismisses that statement, given her father's medical background.
"She didn't want anybody in the house with her," Rama says. "She was kind of picky about it. The biggest problem was the fact that she was deathly afraid of going back into that hospital. That was the biggest problem."
Or was it a failure to diagnose and successfully treat Helen's mental disorders? Plagued by depression, mood swings, violent outbursts, and obsessive-compulsive behavior, Helen no doubt contributed to her husband's downfall. So, too, did the couple's social isolation. Lacking a support network of close friends and family, Paul may well have believed he was out of options.
Says Rama: "It's a sad state of affairs when you're a senior citizen in this day and age and the only outlet that you see in front of you is to put a bullet in your wife's head and your head and end it. That's a terrible scenario. Let me tell you, I still didn't get over it. I'm still upset about it, because I think they were very good people as far as I could see. And they loved each other."
Julie decided to clean out her parents' apartment before visiting her father again. As she expected, she found no photographs of herself, but eventually discovered a box with some old letters, including the one she'd written ending their relationship. There was also a photograph from her first wedding—but she and her ex had been cut out of the picture.
Other telling discoveries included receipts showing that the Weinsteins had spent more than $2,500 on booze the previous year and a box of recently purchased condoms in the night-table drawer. "I don't know why you would need condoms at this age and with the baby factory gone," Julie says. "We were like, What else could you use these for? It was disturbing."
And the funeral? There was none. "My father did not care about a funeral, and, frankly, who the hell was going to come?" Julie says. "It was unnecessary, a waste of money, and just a way to prolong my agony." As Evelyn tells it, "Helen and Paul didn't want to be bothered with going to a cemetery." Though she told Julie she'd abide by her decision, she secretly wanted some type of requiem.
All of this didn't sit well with my mother, who also thought a service—no matter how small—was the right thing to do. Even worse: The Weinsteins opted for cremation—a big issue for my family, since cremation is taboo in the Jewish religion. Not that it mattered. Neither of them was ever observant, and they certainly had no desire to leave a legacy, much less any trace of their earthly existence. (Paul instructed Julie to cremate him as well and spread his and Helen's ashes together at a site in the Poconos.) "It's weird," Evelyn says. "It's like you've never been on Earth."
And so, with zero acknowledgment of her life of 71 years, there was no ceremony, flowers, or even one word spoken on her behalf—despite being survived by a daughter, two grandchildren, three older sisters, and countless nieces and nephews, most of whom did not even know she existed.
When Helen's remains arrived at Julie's workplace several days later, my cousin was unruffled. If anything, the delivery supplied a dose of comic relief.
"My mother's ashes arrived in a large can similar to a 28-ounce container of crushed tomatoes," Julie says. "I have a warped sense of humor. I introduced her to a few people, and she rode shotgun in the car with me that day. We had a nice talk—the first time I got to have my say. I just don't have any grief in my heart for her. It's just not there. On the other hand, I feel sympathetic to my father's situation, though it's more like being sensitive to a friend's situation than feeling deeply that this is my father."
A Santa Barbara, California–based freelancer, Arnie Cooper is working on a memoir about his childhood growing up in New York
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.