Resting Places / Chapter Eleven: The gift of making a difference
COURTESY OF YOKO KATO Sherry Morton and Cedric Seabrooks in 1992, months before they were murdered in Northampton on Jan. 11, 1993. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON - A week after the killings, women dressed in aprons and carrying pots and pans gathered at 7:30 a.m. on the Coolidge Bridge to decry family violence. It was the first demonstration of the Women’s Action Coalition-Western Massachusetts. The second came four days later, when a dozen members gathered downtown, with Yoko Kato present, to hold signs and distribute leaflets.
“There was a feeling that something was missing in the Valley, a group to take direct action,’’ member Wyeth McAdam told a reporter. “This came out of women feeling there was a void for their voices. I don’t think people realize how serious the problem is.’’
The year Sherry Morton and Cedric Seabrooks died, a woman was being killed by a partner or spouse every 14 days in Massachusetts. The deaths at Meadowbrook moved leaders of women’s groups to call for new protections through the courts and police. New tools to counter violence were being shaped. The year before, a law gave judges power to hold suspects to reduce repeat violence against women. That followed enactment of a law that let police make immediate arrests for violations of restraining orders.
The year before Sherry died, five women in the area were killed in incidents of domestic violence. Kathleen Ahearn, 41, of Greenfield, was beaten to death April 27, 1992, allegedly by her boyfriend. Frances Presby, 41, of Greenfield, died June 9 after her throat was slashed, allegedly by her boyfriend. Sara Acevado, 24, of Springfield, was stabbed to death July 30, allegedly by her common-law husband. Her three children witnessed her death; her 3-year-old daughter was fatally stabbed. Judith Hart Fournier, 33, was stabbed to death Sept. 15 alongside a road in Brattleboro, Vt.; her former lover, Robert Sawyer, admitted his role in her killing and was sentenced to prison. Michelle Terhune, 27, of Holyoke, was stabbed to death Dec. 16, allegedly by her former boyfriend and father of three of her children.
Restraining orders needed more bite, advocates for women in the Valley said. And people had to stop thinking the women killed were somehow to blame for their own deaths.
On a speaking engagement in Boston, one of her first, Yoko stood at a podium in a big auditorium to help nurses understand the importance of countering domestic violence. When a photograph of Sherry and Cedric lit a screen the audience exhaled audibly. Yoko cried her way through her account of her daughter’s volatile relationship with Sean Seabrooks, the signs of abuse and violence, the enormity of the loss.
She kept stopping to gather herself and heard nurses crying.
In the months ahead, as she traveled to tell her story, Yoko felt a different kind of healing begin. She told Cat Chapin one day in therapy that she would be encouraging doctors to look for signs of abuse. She told Cat she’d judge it as success if she could convince just one doctor to act.
“This is a good anger,” Cat told her. “This is a strong, healing anger. When you’re fighting for yourself and Jeannie and battered women.” Many days, as Yoko’s desire to speak out accelerated, Cat was an appointments secretary as much as a therapist. Yoko would run possible speaking engagements by her, trying them on.
One day, she mentioned she’d been invited to speak to troubled teenage boys, many from Springfield, enrolled in a program in Northampton. Yoko wanted to gain insight into someone like Sean. She told Cat she wanted to see their faces.
“Every time you feel you make a difference in the world, it’s like a gift to Sherry and Cedric,” Cat told her. A few days later Yoko went to see the teens in a former factory complex by the Mill River in Northampton. They were respectful as Yoko described the murders. If she wanted to see into the hearts of violent men, she’d come to the wrong place.
After telling the story of Sherry and Cedric dozens of times in the next few years, she devised a way to dramatize their absence. Just before dark one day at the University of Massachusetts, she set up two chairs outside the Student Union building. One of the chairs was full size, the other sized for a toddler. Yoko had covered both with white fabric. Before this night’s rally got under way, she placed a red rose on each seat.
After explaining to a crowd of 400 what had happened to her daughter and grandson, Yoko told people to call police when they hear women and children screaming. If you know someone in an abusive relationship, give them love and understanding, she said.
The following year, a similar rally drew 200 people to the lawn outside the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, where they listened to speeches before marching to Smith College holding lit white candles and chanting, “Out of the dorms and into the streets, we won’t be raped, we won’t be beat.’’ The rally took place across the street from Yoko’s shop. She told people that because Sherry and Cedric no longer had voices, it was up to her to speak out against domestic violence. Sean Seabrooks had been well-liked, she said. Don’t underestimate a person’s potential for violence.
That first May, Northampton’s mayor declared the long Memorial Day holiday “A weekend in memory of Sherry Morton and her son Cedric and against domestic violence.” The murders were five months old.
That same month, Yoko and her family gathered with two dozen friends and supporters at Sherry and Cedric’s new gravesite at Spring Grove Cemetery, where a crew had just installed a black granite headstone bearing two of Cedric’s first words, “love you,” and a photo. Vases with purple irises stood sentry. A minister praised Yoko for her public comments about domestic violence and emerging activism.
Jeannie Banas, Yoko’s daughter, read aloud letters from Sherry’s grandmother and aunt in Japan and recalled how Sherry had called her at work hundreds of miles away near the end of her long labor with Cedric. Jeannie got on the line in time to hear Cedric’s first cries.
May was a busy month for Yoko and Jeannie, because they, with friends, were about to launch a scholarship for single mothers in Hampshire County. A spaghetti supper and raffle raised $7,000.
On the night of the supper, Jeannie had a dream in which Cedric hugged her. “I could literally feel his hands around my neck. And I jumped out of bed. I had just laid down and was going to sleep and there he was, it was like he was inside my eyelids. I could see his hands and then I felt it. And then I jumped out of bed.”
CLIENT NAME: Yoko Kato
DURATION: 1 hr.
CLIENT PROGRESS & ISSUES: Yoko is feeling under some stress due to upcoming fundraiser for memorial scholarship ... but pleased, too, at a recent incident: two little girls Yoko has often observed near her dtr’s/gson’s grave approached a neighbor for a cut flower — which she reports they then carefully put on the grave. The sense that Sherry & Cedric are remembered is very consoling to Yoko.
CLIENT NAME: Yoko Kato
DURATION: 1 hr.
CLIENT PROGRESS & ISSUES: Y is putting a great deal of energy into the spaghetti dinner for the Sherry Morton Scholarship Fund. While rallying of community support and the creation of meaning from tragedy has been of great value to her, Y is now acknowledging a fear that, once the event is passed, her grief and pain will catch up to her & overwhelm her. Listened, validated, reminded Y of sources of ongoing support, as well as the necessity to avoid the trap of being “the perfect survivor.”
One night in June, the officers of the Memorial Scholarship Fund of Sherry Morton and Her Son Cedric gathered by the windows in Yoko’s second-floor shop to read applications. Four women had applied for two $500 scholarships.
A Northampton woman in her early 20s, the mother of a baby girl, wrote in her essay that she wanted to earn a degree in education but struggled to pay for books and food. Like Sherry, this woman said she had known a man who hit her. “Fleeing an abusive relationship has been the most important turning point in my life. Faced with being financially disowned by my family due to an unwed pregnancy, being battered by my abusive partner and then being raped of my self-respect and my ambition. I refused to let that happen!’’
An 18-year-old from Ware sketched her circumstances in round letters on pages torn from a notebook. “Becoming a teen parent was never something I planned, but now that I am one I have to make the best future for myself and my son as I can,’’ she wrote. She too had fled abuse. A woman in her mid-20s from Haydenville wrote that the scholarship would help pay $34-a-day child care costs for her son while she attends classes, adding, “This money will help us by helping with debts, bills, supplies for school, tuition, transportation and in general, help us survive so we can reach our future.’’
The last application was from a woman who’d just moved from Boston to Amherst with her daughters, ages 2½ and 8. “Because of my children, I decided to leave Boston and go to an area where I could involve my children positively and achieve my goals on a smaller scale, an area which seems to be community-oriented and more importantly less DANGEROUS.’’
She’d typed her thoughts in three tight paragraphs, helped along by coaching at the Northampton Skills Center, where she’d gotten a high school equivalency degree, at age 25. She planned to train as a nurse and had titled her essay, “My Achievements and Why I Want to Go to College.” She wrote that she wanted to show her girls you can revive a dream on hold.
Yoko would be able to congratulate the two winners, but she wanted to meet them all.
On the first Sunday in July, the two scholarship recipients went to a banquet room at the Hotel Northampton. When she came forward with her 15-month-old son to accept her scholarship, Deborah Mae Dutton, 18, asked the group, “How can you say thank you for somebody dying — and getting money for it?’’ She would seek a degree in early childhood education but acknowledged it would be hard to study full time and care for her son.
The second winner, a student at the University of Massachusetts, declined to be identified by the committee, fearing retribution from an abusive former partner. In a letter that Jeannie read aloud, the woman said, “Unfortunately, my life is still plagued by the threat of being discovered by my abuser.’’
TOMORROW: Going to trial.