It was Christmas of 1990 in my grandmother’s house. My Aunt Debra reached behind her and pulled a bullet from a box on a nearby bookshelf. She held it between her thumb and forefinger, looked at my mother, and said, “Janna, this has your name on it.”
Foreground: Debra enlisted in the US Army in 1969 as a second lieutenant. In late 1971, after she had been promoted to captain, she received a letter stating she would not be retained for active duty. Photo courtesy of the National Personnel Records Center. Background: This suicide note was found near Debra’s body, along with a Bible opened to Psalm 23. Note courtesy of Janna Sorg.
It was Christmas of 1990 in my grandmother’s house. The thick, heavy curtains in the living room were drawn. My mother and I sat on the edge of a bed. In an armchair across from us sat Aunt Debra, my mother’s sister, who also lived there. In another sat my grandmother, who was in the middle stages of dementia. Around the room were several end tables and chairs. Sitting on each was a gun.
We had not planned to exchange Christmas gifts, yet Debra was handing me a .38-caliber handgun with a box of bullets, a holster, $100, and a note.
“Read it later,” she said.
At some point in the afternoon, the conversation deteriorated. Debra reached behind her and pulled a bullet from a box on a nearby bookshelf. She held it between her thumb and forefinger, looked at my mother, and said, “Janna, this has your name on it.”
My mother and I hurried down the driveway to our car, parked outside the ten-foot fence strung with razor wire that surrounded the property. As my mother turned the ignition, I glanced back and watched Debra run down the hill toward us. She was wearing a black ski mask, a camo jacket, blue jeans, and black boots. Her dark figure contrasted with the white snow, except for moments when she disappeared behind the pine trees. I stood with one foot in the car and the other in the snow. As Debra approached, I could see the vapor exhale from the mouth hole of her ski mask.
“I’ll give you this one, too,” she said, handing me a semiautomatic 9-mm with a box of bullets. She showed me how to load and unload the clip.
“Don’t blow us all to hell, Debra,” my mother yelled from the car.
“Merry Christmas,” Debra told me.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied. “Thanks for everything.”
unt Debra was notorious in the rural hamlet of Indiana where I grew up. For most of her adult life, she had threatened and attempted to kill people. My grandmother, by throwing a pan of hot grease at her head, and later by drugging her with medicine stolen from the psych wards and nursing homes where Debra worked. My mother, who Debra saw as competition for affection. My father, who, she claimed, would be felled by a hail of bullets unloaded into the side of his car. Her supervisors, who were reluctant to fire her for fear she would return to the workplace and shoot them. Her coworkers, who she had accused of “working at cross purposes” and plotting against her. The stranger on the street who looked at her the “wrong way.” The kids playing across the road she fired two shots at one day because they annoyed her. “She unnerved and frightened me, and I feared for the patients,” one of her bosses told my mother. “Her stare was pure evil.”
Yet for most of her adult life, Debra never killed anyone.
My grandmother was 40 years old when she had Debra—her first child after trying to get pregnant for 22 years. My mother was born just over a year later. She had always felt that her older sister wasn’t quite right. “When I said my prayers at night, I asked God to take some of my happiness and give it to her,” she told me. As a child, Debra hallucinated. She would sit in a chair and enter a trance. “You could get in her face and scream,” said my mother. “She’d never come out of it.”
In 1969, Debra enlisted in the US Army at the height of the Vietnam War. There she won marksmanship awards and was trained in the fundamentals of counterinsurgency, psychological operations, unconventional warfare, survival, escape, and evasion.
Four years later, having risen to the rank of captain, Debra received a letter from the Army saying she would no longer be retained on active duty. She was tossed out along with a friend—another woman. She moved back home.
After my grandfather died, the house where my grandmother and Debra lived was slowly converted into a fortress. Debra installed steel bars on the windows and doors and hoarded gasoline in the garage a few feet from a pile of coal in the driveway. She bought as many guns as my grandmother’s Social Security checks could afford: 9-mms, .45s, .38s, Glocks, shotguns, AKs, and around 40,000 rounds of ammunition—bullets that would penetrate armored trucks, bullets that would burn underwater, bullets that would explode on contact with a body.
My mother called social services, the police, and the FBI to alert them of Debra’s growing arsenal. The local sheriff threatened that his department would stop responding to 911 calls to the house. His officers had young children. “It just wasn’t worth it for one old lady.”
My grandmother, however, did not object to Debra’s stockpiling. On one occasion, EMTs arrived at the house after my grandmother had fallen ill. “I was aghast at all the military stuff in the house,” one told me later. “She was ready for an invasion.” I think it would’ve required an air strike to forcibly remove Debra and my grandmother from that place.
By this point, our family was running out of options. To keep tabs on my grandmother, my mother allowed Debra to visit us at home. On days when she would come over, when the dog began to bark and my father spotted her yellow Ford Fiesta creeping down our long driveway, he would say, “Debra’s here.”
At that moment, we would stop whatever we were doing—put down the book, the dish, the crossword puzzle—and brace ourselves.
Things came to a head during one of Debra’s visits in the summer of 1979. My mother and Debra had a particularly heated argument on the phone about my grandmother, who, when we had called, sounded weak and drugged.
Debra had hung up the phone. She was on her way. We knew that she carried at least two guns on her at all times, even while hanging her laundry or getting the mail.
My mother ushered me to an upstairs bedroom, to a balcony that overlooked the living room. She removed a .38 pistol from a drawer and handed it to me, positioning me behind a piece of furniture with a clear view of the living room over the railing. I was 14 years old. “If Debra pulls a gun, shoot,” she said.
Debra arrived. I watched the argument through the balcony railing. It was hot and stuffy upstairs. I grasped the gun with both hands, holding it near my chin. I had never held a gun before. I wasn’t worried about what might happen if I hit Debra; I was worried about what would happen if I missed.
After ten or 15 minutes, the argument died down, and Debra left. My mother came upstairs and took the gun from me, returning it to the drawer. I went outside to play basketball.
Not long after this incident, I began having nightmares. In one recurring dream, I was the hero. Debra would drive up to the house and shoot my father. The rest of us—my mother, brother, sister, and I—would cower in the living room, crying, begging her not to kill us. I would step forward, extend my hand, and say, “Debra, give me the gun.”
In the other dream, I was the coward. It was always wintertime. Debra would kill everyone in my family except me. I would escape by running out of the house into the woods. I felt her drawing a bead on the back of my head but kept running past the bare trees, climbing over the barbed-wire fence, and racing across the bean field to a neighbor’s house. I would pound on their door until someone answered and then say, “Help us.”
In 1990, Debra gave me a note along with a pair of handguns, a holster, and $100. The note was six pages long. “People are really hurting, and in a nut rut,” she wrote. Note courtesy of Lisa Sorg. Click to enlarge.
n 1983, I left my hometown and moved 100 miles away, to Bloomington, Indiana, for college. I rarely saw Debra after that. I sold the guns she had given me for Christmas. I read—and, in an effort to better understand her, occasionally reread—the note she had given me. It was six pages long.
A short excerpt:
No. 1: Even if you go to the pot to piss, take the gun with you. Someone may surprise you and piss you off. Kill him with your gun as you are pissing. You cannot kill him by shitting down his neck.
No. 2: Carry your gun wherever you go only if it’s for two minutes to take out the trash. Do not end up in a bag for Waste Management to pick up.
No. 3: Don’t ever draw the gun in an attempt to save others. If they cared about their lives they would have a gun.
No. 4: According to the law of averages, you should outlive me. There will be a lot left for you especially since gun prices are going higher and higher. Make sure you are alive to collect.
In 1996, my grandmother died peacefully in her sleep in a nursing home. Debra didn’t attend the funeral. She never called or gave a reason, but stopped by the nursing home later to collect my grandmother’s belongings.
Debra joined the KKK and began attending a spiritualist camp in nearby Chesterfield, where, by her own account, she became involved in satanic rituals. Debra’s fragile mental state began to disintegrate. When she tried to leave the camp for good, Debra contacted my mother and said the devil was pulling her back in to take her soul to hell. During this time, she lost jobs at several nursing homes after patients under her care became mysteriously ill and died.
Debra at her high school prom. Photo courtesy of Janna Sorg.
n early October 1999, my mother called me at home in Bloomington. Debra had come by the house and given her the keys and titles to her two cars, the deed to her home, and a bag of change. “I’m going to Virginia for a couple of weeks,” she said. For the next three hours, they sat at the dining room table drinking wine, talking about forgiveness and God.
“Do you forgive me for what I’ve done to you?” Debra asked.
“I forgave you a long time ago,” my mother replied.
“I wanted the power,” Debra confessed. “The power to hurt and for revenge. I’ve never loved anything in my life.”
“I love you, Debra,” my mother said.
Two weeks later, my mother called Debra to see if she had returned from Virginia. She didn’t pick up the phone. On the morning of October 23, my parents went to her house. The steel front door was locked; my father had to rip a small bedroom window from its hinge. A hot wave of stench plowed him over.
They drove home and called 911. The sheriff closed off the road and brought in the bomb squad in case Debra had booby-trapped her body.
A young sheriff’s deputy peered through the window.
“We have a visual,” he said.
The officer swung a metal bar and broke the glass. After it was determined she was not booby-trapped, deputies entered the house and unlocked the door.
On the evening of October 15, 1999, or thereabouts, Debra apparently had gone home, turned the heat on high, and stripped down to her T-shirt and underwear. She wrote a three-page note asking Jesus to save her soul. She opened the Bible to Psalm 23, which she had circled in ink. She took tranquilizers and washed them down with a Natty Ice. Then she grasped a 9-mm, pointed it at her chest, and fired.
When I arrived at Debra’s house the afternoon of October 23, the medical examiner had already bagged her body. I found his blue, bloodstained gloves in a pile of brown leaves outside her bedroom window. The police had removed a sawed-off shotgun from the house. The 9-mm was the only other weapon on the property.
“Do you want it?” the sheriff asked my mother.
“I don’t want anything to do with it,” she replied. Later, in the living room, she said to anyone who was listening, “Well, at least she didn’t take anyone else with her.”
I heard my brother gag as he hauled a television from her bedroom to his car.
My dad walked through the house, singing, “Ding-dong! The witch is dead.”
I grabbed a pen and paper and took notes on the surroundings: Even though the electricity was still on, the only light that worked was the small bulb inside the empty refrigerator. Several hundred bullets in boxes were strewn around the house. In the cabinet was some cat food and a half-empty bottle of vodka. In the sink, a spoon and an empty container of Metamucil. There was a box of chicken feathers. Rum, honey, cut lemons, and pieces of coral were laid out on a table. A note to the Santeria gods. Angela Lansbury paraphernalia. Dresses with the tags still attached. A box of hair dye, medium-brown. A bloodstained pillowcase imprinted with images of Barbie and Ken.
Outside, it was getting dark and windy and the clouds had begun to spit cold rain. We gathered together the money we had found in various nooks and shelves. It came to $13.
We gently closed the door behind us.
Then we drove to town and bought a pizza.
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