GUN-CRAZED AND DANGEROUS, MY AUNT DEBRA HAUNTED MY FAMILY FOR 20 YEARS
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.