Her Father Murdered My Mother. Then, We Became Friends.
Thirty years after my mom's murder, a Facebook message from a stranger would change my life in unexpected ways.
Author's Note: Last week Rachel*, my unlikely friend, died of cervical cancer. She was 37 years old.
When I first published this essay in March, I messaged it to Rachel on Facebook and she wrote me back right away:
Leah, I just finished reading your article. Through tears, I made it through it. I believe I cried because it was a release/ relief for me to read what your thoughts were about us meeting and developing a friendship through social media. We honestly are not so different. I have never been the greatest at expressing with words what I feel. You are a "special friend" to me bc we are bound by something we did not choose, but rather we were both victims.
It was typical of the kind of note I'd gotten used to receiving from her – self-deprecating, gracious, kind, perceptive.
I found out about Rachel's death the same way we'd found each other: Facebook. I logged in and there was Rachel's obituary. She'd died a year and a half after being diagnosed with cervical cancer.
I thought to myself: I fucking hate Facebook. And I cried. I cried because I thought Rachel had been getting better. I cried because she'd been so unfailingly kind to me when life had often been cruel to her. I cried because she was gone, forever, and I didn't want her to be gone. My daughter, Ruth, who is seven months old, sat in my lap and watched the tears stream down my face and she said Dadadadadada which is the only consonant she can pronounce. I cried because my mom was dead and that's what connected me to Rachel and now Rachel was dead and none of it was fair.
In her last private message to me Rachel congratulated me on Ruth's birth.
She is beautiful, Leah. Just absolutely perfectly beautiful.
I was overwhelmed with a newborn and never responded. I'm so sorry about that Rachel. What I would have written is this: You are beautiful, too. Absolutely perfectly beautiful.
The following was originally published on March 25th, 2019.
The first time I encountered Rachel* was in the pages of legal documents: police reports, grand jury testimony, sworn affidavits. I first saw her name on those type-written pages, pages I extracted from dusty, lopsided bankers boxes and photocopied one by one, feeding the Xerox machine with a plastic baggie of dimes I’d brought from home. Rachel, who in 1985 was Peter Gilbert’s 3-year-old daughter. Rachel, who was almost the same age as me. Rachel, whose father murdered my mother, Joan.
Rachel, I wondered to myself over the many years I spent writing a book about my parents’ lives and deaths, pulling those documents out of my own files to read them again and again, what happened to you?
The second time I encountered Rachel was on Facebook. In April of 2015, she sent me a message but I didn’t see it for weeks.
I don't mean to be inappropriate, but my name is Rachel and my biological father was Peter Gilbert. I have wanted to reach out to you for some time. If you are the person I am looking for and you feel like messaging me back, please do.
I clicked on her profile. She had waist-length blonde hair, rescue dogs, and lived in Nashville. Her last name wasn’t Gilbert. I responded within minutes.
Rachel, I am just seeing this now. I would love to speak to you. Please feel free to message me here or email me or call.
Two more months went by.
“What could she have to tell you that you don’t already know?” my now husband asked me. We got married later that year in Rhode Island, where I grew up and where my mom and dad had lived and died. I planned our wedding while I wrote my book, going back and forth from Brooklyn to Rhode Island on the Amtrak. I combined research trips with wedding venue visits. I collected all my train receipts in an envelope labeled “business expenses.” I was pretty proud of myself.
On my last trip, I’d visited a man named Gerald Mastracchio, Jr. in the medium security unit of Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institute. His father, Gerald Sr., was the man who decided my mother should die. Gerald Mastracchio, Sr. and Peter Gilbert were low-level mafia associates. They sold heroin and cocaine and kicked up a share of the profits to the New England crime boss, Raymond Patriarca. My mother was a customer. They called her Joanie, or Joanie the Jew. The two of them strangled her to death in a hotel room in October of 1984 with a wet towel.
When I’d met with Gerald, Jr., in the middle of planning my wedding, he sat across from me in a small, windowless room next to the prison cafeteria. He arranged his body into a posture that I suppose was meant to convey empathy. He told me he’d loved his dad but explained the old man had been ruthless in matters of business, and that if he’d thought my mother was a rat, well...that pretty much explained what happened. He told me he wanted me to find closure. What he really wanted was parole — he’d been in prison for a different murder he’d committed decades ago and a hearing was coming up. He was a killer too, like his dad.
“She’s not like him,” I told my husband. I meant that Rachel was not like Gerald Mastracchio but I also meant that she wasn’t like Peter Gilbert. I had a feeling she was more like me.
On Father’s Day, I sent Rachel another Facebook message. The one she’d sent to me had landed in spam, I reasoned. The same could have happened with mine. In her message she’d referred to Gilbert as her biological father and on her Facebook message she’d recently linked to the obituary of a different man, a man who had the same last name as her and whom she called Dad.
Rachel, I wondered if you ever would want to speak on the phone. I thought of you on Father's Day because you seem to have wound up with a great man who took on the role of dad in your life. I lost my own dad as well and so I know it can be a tough day.
She wrote back that night.
Leah, I finally have just got to read your messages. Partly because life is hectic and my job is demanding, but also partly out of fear of what they would say. I have thought a lot about you and how my biological father played a vital role in changing your life forever and it has never been far from my mind...It's nice to see you are not so different from me. I have often questioned who I am because of who I came from. It took me a long time to come to terms with what my father did.
Our messages after that were tentative but kind. Her stepfather had adopted and raised her. When she was 12, he was shot and was a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. We both planned weddings and got married. We both had grumpy little elderly chihuahua mixes who we loved beyond reason and who we lost around the same time.
Occasionally a detail would slip through that showed the unlikeliness of our correspondence – I stumbled upon articles and court records in our storage room when trying to find my basketball at age 11. One of the first documents I found had information about how my bio father was told my head would be sent to him in a box...she once wrote. It was the kind of strange detail that would be hard to explain to anyone else. But mostly we had a very regular social media relationship. We liked one another’s posts. We shared birthday wishes.
If anything our friendship has been remarkable for how unremarkable it is.
Last year, Rachel developed cervical cancer. I found out because she wrote about it on Facebook. Initially they thought it was stage 1 but quickly discovered it was more serious: The tumor took up most of her cervix and had spread to a lymph node. She would need surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. She implored her friends to get their annual check-up.
Cervical Cancer is slow growing and there should be no reason why it cannot be caught prior to becoming cancer. The biggest reason it goes undetected is because of failure to get your annual exam. Please, even if it's just going every 3 yrs, go. If you have not gone in over 3 yrs, PLEASE GO NOW. DO NOT WAIT.
I read her posts and googled “crystal healing cancer cervix.” I’d never been a big believer in crystals but I wanted to give her something that would seem significant but not too personal. Google told me smoky quartz had healing properties and I ordered a small chunk of it on a silver chain on Etsy and sent it to Rachel. She posted a photo of the necklace and said it came from a “special friend.”
I took the admonition to get a check-up seriously. I sat in my doctor’s office, who asked what had brought me in.
“A woman I know has cervical cancer,” I explained and then caught myself because I didn’t really know Rachel at all. The doctor was typing on a laptop, logging my answers. “She’s a friend, actually, the woman. The woman with cancer,” I said. I wanted her information to be accurate.
A few days later I got an email from the doctor’s office. My pap smear was normal. But I felt weird. I couldn’t explain how exactly. My gums were swollen and my hips ached. I checked the period tracker app on my phone. I was two days late. I took a pregnancy test at work to put my mind at ease. I sat with the stick on my lap in the stall, waiting for the single line that would indicate nothing had changed, that everything was the same. Almost instantly two lines formed. I took another test. Two lines.
I walked over to the doctor’s office where I took a blood test. She looked at my chart. “How funny your friend encouraged you to come in,” she said.
I kept tabs on Rachel through Facebook. Her surgery was successful. She went through chemo and that waist-length blonde hair I’d noticed the first time I visited her page fell out. I was convinced the baby would just go away – that it would disappear as mysteriously as it arrived. I was 37 and felt like science and society had been telling me for years not to get my hopes up about a baby. But it didn’t go away. We decided we’d name her Ruth, after my grandmother, my mother’s mother.
Rachel got a wig. She got well. She posted a video of herself ringing a bell at the hospital when she finished her final round of chemo.
I have a photo my mother took of herself when she was pregnant with me, her only child. She’d set up a tripod and stood naked in front of a window, recording her swollen belly. Like most of the photos she took, it’s beautiful, but there’s an edge. It’s nothing like a professional maternity shoot. She’s not wrapped in cashmere, gazing serenely at her belly. I’d always thought, when looking at the photo, that if I was ever pregnant, I wanted to be pregnant like that, like my mom. I wanted to be brave and honest. I wanted to tell the story of my pregnancy honestly.
A while back I reached out to Rachel to ask her permission to write about her. She wrote back quickly.
Leah, I want you to write whatever you'd like. I feel like you have the right to write about this journey in its entirety. If you have any questions for me, don't hesitate to reach out.
Did I have questions? There are so many things I don’t know about Rachel because we aren’t close. Our messages have remained polite, but few and far between. It’s a social media relationship, even if it’s borne out of something much more intimate. My husband had asked “What could she have to tell you that you don’t already know?” But I never needed answers. And when I think about this baby, I think about Rachel, too. A woman I don’t really know but who I admire and appreciate. A woman who was a child when I was a child. A woman who found herself in a story about the worst things adults can do. A woman whose story had become, improbably, part of my own.
Ruth, my daughter, is due in May. We’re on this journey. I have so many questions.
*Name has been changed.