In my yoga practice, I’ve been told, time and time again, that unexpressed emotions are stored in our bodies. My emotion is concentrated in my hips and jaw, which, I’ve also learned, are directly connected.
This makes sense. Most nights I clench my jaw so tightly it wakes me from
sleep. I open my eyes in a dark, still house with an aching jaw and sore teeth and I
know something is going on, swirling beneath the surface. During yoga, when I sit
cross-legged and stack my ankle over my knee in double-pigeon pose to stretch my
outer hips, I feel more than taut muscles stretching. I feel resistance, and I feel
fear. In my hips and in my jaw, I sense a past I struggle to make sense of.
On the evening of November 3, 1992, Gail Shollar, my aunt, was raped and
murdered. She was loading bags into her minivan after grocery shopping with her
youngest daughter, Andrea, near their home in Piscataway, New Jersey. At that
point, Scott Johnson, a man she never before saw, forced her into the van at knife
Andrea was found early the next morning on the lawn of a nearby daycare center,
cold and crying, but alive. Gail, who must have pleaded with her captor to release
her young daughter, did not have a fate as fortunate.
I know exactly what I was doing while my aunt was being killed. I’ve never been
able to shake that. It was Election Day, the day Clinton was elected for his first
term. My sixth grade teacher had handed out U.S. maps and asked my class to
color in the states as the electoral votes were decided: red for George Bush, blue
for Bill Clinton, and yellow for Ross Perot. I remember staying up until almost
midnight, sprawled on the floor in front of the TV, coloring nonchalantly. When I
put my crayons away and fell asleep that evening, I had no idea that my aunt had
been raped and then stabbed to death. I didn’t know that my Uncle Bob would wake
up in the middle of the night to find his wife and daughter gone, that he would panic,
call my mother, and that chaos would officially erupt.
We waited. For four endless days and four endless nights, we, a family united in
fear, fidgeted, waiting to find out what happened to Gail. We waited for her to be
found. My mother needed to be there, she explained, couldn’t be anywhere but at
her sister’s house, in the middle of the madness. My mother further explained that
she needed my brother, Prescott, and me to be there with her.
Those were the hardest four days of my life.
When we arrived, the van wasn’t in the driveway, like I knew it wouldn’t be. And
though the house looked the same, it wasn’t. I knew this as soon as I stepped
inside. The couches, of course, were in the same place and long white curtains
framed the windows as usual and the caged parakeet was chirping. The school
photos of my smiling cousins still hung on the walls. The house still looked like a
home. But I felt it in the air, and I felt it in my body, it wouldn’t be the home I knew,
not ever again.
I stationed myself at the kitchen table, away from where everyone else sat,
stood, paced, and cried. I was incapable of feeling anything besides emptiness.
I approached my cousin Sherri, then eleven years old, Gail’s oldest child, and
tapped her on the shoulder. “May I borrow your crayons and some construction
paper,” I asked. I knew it was an unreasonable request to ask of someone whose
mother had been kidnapped. It seemed like nothing was appropriate to say, nothing
at all. That’s why I didn’t look at her when I asked. But Sherri didn’t hesitate. She
went straight to her bedroom. Maybe she was relieved by being able to handle a
simple task, a task less draining than surviving a missing mother.
I returned to my seat at the kitchen table and propped my chin in my hands.
Sherri returned with a handful of construction paper and a box of crayons. I hoped
she would stay in the kitchen with me, but she didn’t. I slid a piece of paper from
the pile, pink, because pink was Gail’s favorite color. I chose a green crayon because
green was my favorite color. Carefully, I drew two stick figures, both with long
squiggly lines indicating curly hair. My aunt and I shared, among other features, long
brown curls. In the drawing, we held hands. We were safe. I put smiles on our
faces and flowers at our feet. Then, in big sloppy script, I wrote “Hurry Home, Aunt
Gail, I Love You.”
“I embrace all of life’s sorrows boldly, with my whole self,” my yoga teacher said,
weaving between myself and the other practitioners in the studio. Heat blasted from
the vents, sweat dripped from my hairline to my mat as I flowed through a vinyasa, a
set series of postures that lead into one another, linking movement to breath. I
moved with grace and determination, wanting, aching for what my teacher said to
resonate in my mind and body.
If we ate, or slept, or did anything ordinary while we waited, I don’t remember.
I only remember the worry, the fear, and the pain.
They found the minivan first, parked near a patch of woods a few miles from
where Gail had been shopping. There was a bloody palm print on the inside of one
of the windows, and from this, or from a piece of hair, or from something I can’t
remember, police knew who did it. They just didn’t know yet what he had done.
They found the knife next, the following day. It was a kitchen knife, covered in
my aunt’s blood, found in the backyard of the killer’s girlfriend.
At the house, the house my aunt would never see again, the doorbell, like the
phone, sounded constantly. Family members, friends, neighbors, news crews, police,
strangers, they called and stopped by continuously, wanting to know what it was
that we felt. Cameramen from NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS zoomed in on the front door of
my childhood, trying hard to expose the faces behind the horror.
Another day passed. My Uncle Bob agreed to a TV interview. Bright lights and
microphones and cameras were all in place. Bob was on the couch, surrounded by
his three children. “We want her back,” he said, his big brown eyes swollen with
sadness. “Please, who ever you are that has her, let her go safely,” he pleaded,
gasping between sobs. “Let her come back to her family. We need her.” He wiped
his tears with his fist.
I did need her. My mother left us at Gail’s house all the time. I knew with Aunt
Gail everything would be stable, safe. I knew nothing crazy would happen and now
that she was missing, craziness was here.
Four days of waiting, four days of rain. In the sturdy house of my childhood, I
sat, listening to the rain pound on the roof. Enough was enough. An army of
rescuers, nearly one hundred men and women from the community, formed on the
fourth day. They promised to find my aunt. From the house that had become a
prison, I saw them on the news, saying they were determined to find her, to get to
the bottom of this waiting game. They were going to find her body, they said. Not
her, her body. I think that’s when I began to understand that my aunt would never
see the construction paper card I made her.
To look around the studio and survey the practice of others is considered
improper yogic behavior. It’s an ego thing, comparing yourself to someone else,
striving to hold a headstand for as long as the person on the mat next to you or
taking pride in your ability to outstretch another. Yoga isn’t about flexibility. Yoga is
about steady, controlled breath. Yoga is learning to understand the nuances of your
body, finding inner awareness, and acknowledging the sensations that emerge
through the physical postures and breathwork.
During hips stretches, I need to keep my eyes closed, clamped shut in fact, to
avoid being elsewhere. My urge is to scan the room, to watch my fellow yogis
effortlessly stretch their lithe hips. I don’t mean to, but I envy them, not for their
loose hips but for what they must not be storing there.
My cousins, my brother and I were in the basement when the detective came.
We hadn’t thought anything of the doorbell. Sherri sat in a rocking chair, her face
worn from what was nearing a week of crying. Bobby, Gail’s middle child, and
Prescott, climbed on the pool table and smashed pool balls together. I sat on the
floor, my knees pressed into my chest.
It was my mother’s piercing scream that we heard. All motion stopped as I
slowly lifted my head and turned toward the staircase I did not want to climb.
Gail’s dead body, naked and mutilated, had been found, submerged in a drainage
ditch, covered by a pile of fallen, soggy autumn leaves.
Often, before beginning my practice, I bow in dedication to a person, a cause, or
a feeling. I vow to breathe through the upcoming physical challenges, to look inward
and send my breath to the areas of my body that ask for it. Sometimes I think of
my aunt and I dedicate my work on the mat to her struggle, her pain, and her love.
Sometimes, I can’t help but imagine her as she died: her face an expression of
terror, pleading not to be killed. Breathing deeply and with control, I remember her
voice and I hear it cry as she is led deep into the woods. I envision my aunt to the
backdrop of a cold dark autumn night, her final night, and I feel the silence that must
have followed the slaying. I see her killer walking away from a bloody body that
means nothing to him but everything to me, a body that is no longer her. With a
knife in his hand and a smirk on his face, he leaves. He leaves permanent damage.
Sometimes, while I move, I wonder what she thought as she was penetrated, as he
came toward her with that kitchen knife to slash her throat, as she was stabbed
again and again. And again. I wonder if she put up a fight or if she surrendered. I
wonder if she thought of her family, and selfishly, if she thought of me, if she had
any idea what she meant to me.
And I breathe.
Corinne Loveland writes nonfiction because she believes in the power of the everyday. Regardless of what happens to us—be it shocking or simple—life as it occurs is artistically worthwhile. As a writer and as a photographer, Corinne aims to capture the
nuances of life and portray them as art. Originally from the New Jersey Shore, Corinne now lives in Santa Cruz, California – a less crowded Jersey Shore with easy access to San Francisco, her favorite city.