“A moving and riveting memoir about one family’s love and tragedy…beautifully researched, and expressed” (Anne Lamott).
Early one Tuesday morning John Brooks went to his teenage daughter’s room. Casey was gone, but she had left a note: The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry. Within hours a security video showed Casey stepping off the bridge.
Brooks spent several years after Casey’s suicide trying to understand what led his seventeen-year-old daughter to take her life. He examines Casey’s journey from her abandonment at birth in Poland, to the orphanage where she lived for her first fourteen months, to her adoption and life with John and his wife, Erika, in Northern California. He reads. He talks to Casey’s friends, teachers, doctors, therapists, and other parents. He consults adoption experts, researchers, clinicians, attachment therapists, and social workers.
In The Girl Behind the Door, Brooks’s “desperate search for answers and guilt for not doing the right thing without knowing what it was reveals the utter helplessness of suicide survivors” (Kirkus Reviews). Ultimately, Brooks comes to realize that Casey probably suffered an attachment disorder from her infancy—an affliction common among children who’ve been orphaned, neglected, and abused. She might have been helped if someone had recognized this. The Girl Behind the Door is an important book for parents, mental health professionals, and teens: “Rarely have the subjects of suicide, adoption, adolescence, and parenting been explored so openly and honestly” (John Bateson, Former Executive Director, Contra Costa County Crisis Center, and author of The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge).
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About the Author
John Brooks, a former senior financial executive in the broadcast and media industry, has turned to writing, mental health activism, and volunteer work with teenagers in Marin County, California. He also maintains a blog at ParentingandAttachment.com, to share his experience and educate other adoptive families about parenting and therapy techniques unique to children with attachment issues. The Girl Behind the Door, winner of the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Parenting Award for Parenting and Family issues, is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
The Girl Behind the Door
Tuesday, January 29, was the start of another school week after a three-day weekend. It was a dark, blustery, wet morning—typical for a Bay Area winter. My alarm clock went off at six o’clock, but I was too tired to move, enjoying the warmth of a thick down comforter after a fitful night’s sleep. I opened one eye and squinted, but all I could see without my glasses was a blurry lump lying next to me. Erika was sound asleep, her dark, shoulder-length hair tousled, her face pressed into her hypoallergenic pillow. She wheezed peacefully through her stuffy nose.
I closed my eyes and rolled over. Just another thirty minutes and then I’d get up. Within minutes, I fell into a mini-dream. I was in an old mansion with a maze of hallways, trying to get out so that I could go home. The more hallways I tried, looking for the front door, the further I sank into confusion. I yelled for help but no sound came out of my mouth.
My eyes blinked open.
Squinting at the red display on the alarm clock in the half-light, I saw that it was 6:35; I was late. I sat up and put my glasses on, surveying the room. Igor, our dog, was a heap of legs in front of our bed. His skinny, whippet racer’s hindquarters rested on his sleeping pad while his head and front paws spilled over onto the floor. He opened one of his dark, bulging eyes, following my movements as I got my bearings. With his long, pointy nose, delicate flappy ears, and those big eyes, he looked like a friendly deer.
He’d slept with us that night so that our daughter, Casey, could be left alone in her room. We’d had a nasty fight over the last few days that had left everyone exhausted. She’d been grounded all weekend over her complete disrespect for us and for her continuing use of foul language. Another battle of wills between an angry teenager and her parents.
I left the bedroom, heading down the hallway that opened into our great room to my left: a living room, dining room, and kitchen all flowing into one large, airy space. Straight ahead of me, the hallway split into a T, my office to the left and Casey’s room and her bathroom to the right. An oversize Keith Haring poster, with its graffiti-inspired cartoonish shapes, hung at the junction of the T.
Instead of turning left toward the kitchen, I headed for Casey’s room and stopped at her door, or what was left of it. She’d suffered from violent tantrums and meltdowns since she was an infant, thrashing, screaming, wailing, and pummeling that door until cracks opened in the seams. I’d vowed not to replace it again until she left to start college in September, just nine months away.
I put my ear to the door and heard music, faint and tinny, as if it were coming from a toy speaker. I knocked lightly. Should I let her be late for school and suffer the consequences? No. I didn’t want to add to the tension in the house by letting her be late out of spite. First period at Redwood High School started at eight o’clock. If she got up now I could drop her off on my way to work.
“Casey? You up?”
I cracked the door open and peeked in. The darkened room seemed neater than usual. I could actually see the blue-gray carpet, stained from spilled food, coffee, and Igor’s vomit. Her clothes were piled neatly on her bamboo papasan chair in the corner and her bed was made.
On the bedside table, her clock radio had been set to the local hip-hop station. The irritating beat of gangster rap drifted from its small plastic speaker; the red display flashed 5:00. That was odd. What could she have been doing up at five in the morning?
Feeling uneasy, I turned off the radio and left for the living room. When I went to bed the night before, she’d been encamped on the burgundy leather sofa watching America’s Next Top Model on Bravo, at the same time drumming away furiously on her laptop, probably chatting with a friend online. But in the gray of the winter morning, the sofa was empty. The cable remote lay on the floor, an open can of Diet Dr Pepper on the coffee table. No coaster under it, of course.
I headed for my office. Sometimes she’d fall asleep on the futon bed. But she wasn’t there either.
My pulse quickened as I hurried back through the living room to the front door. Outside, the darkened street, still wet from rain, lit by streetlamps, was where I’d parked the Saab the day before.
It was gone.
I felt a surge of anger. How was I going to get to work? Erika needed our other car, the family SUV, to get to her job. But irritation turned to fear as the reality of Casey’s disappearance sank in. She could storm out of the house and stalk around the neighborhood smoking a cigarette and griping to her friends on her cell phone. But she’d never done anything like this; never gotten up this early, never taken my car.
I rushed back to her room. In the half-light I caught sight of a spiral pad of thick white parchment paper for sketching watercolors. It was open to a short note that Casey had written in green ink with her minuscule, precise lettering sloping slightly downward from left to right, a trademark of left-handed writers.
The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry.
My body froze as I stared at the words Golden Gate Bridge. The blood drained from my face, the air sucked from my lungs.
I hurried back to our bedroom. Erika was buried under the comforter and a pile of pillows. I touched her arm. “Honey, you need to get up.” I struggled for calm. “There’s something wrong with Casey.”
“What? What?” Erika lifted her head, alarmed and confused. She wore a T-shirt, pajama pants, and ankle socks. Her feet were always cold.
“Her room’s empty. The car’s gone.”
She kicked off the covers and groped the bedside table for her glasses. Igor was jolted off his sleeping pad, shivering nervously, fixing an anxious look on us.
“Maybe she went to a friend’s house,” she said, still trying to absorb my words.
“Honey, she left this.” My hand trembled as I held out the note.
“Oh my God. No!” Her face was frozen in terror. I picked up the bedside phone. It was 6:40, just ten minutes since I’d gotten up.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
The words tumbled out of my mouth.
“My name is John Brooks. I live at 15 Claire Way in Tiburon. My daughter Casey’s disappeared. She left a note saying that she left the car at the Golden Gate Bridge parking lot.”
“Okay. Sir, please try to calm down. What kind of car is it?”
“A red 1999 Saab 9-3.”
“And you said the Golden Gate Bridge parking lot?”
“Yes. I’m assuming the southbound lot on the Marin side.”
“Can you describe her to me? Do you know what she was wearing?”
“She’s seventeen, about five-five, five-six, thin, with brown hair cut shoulder length. I don’t know what she was wearing.”
“Sir, when did you last see her?”
I returned to that last image of her, sulking on the sofa the night before, ignoring me.
Jesus, was this about that fight we had last weekend?
“In the house at around ten thirty last night.”
“All right, sir. Please stay where you are. An officer will be there in a few minutes. We’re contacting the Golden Gate Bridge Patrol and the CHP to check on the location of the car.”
I hung up, stunned and light-headed. Erika and I were disoriented, looking at each other, racked with fear, unable to concentrate. I sat on the edge of the bed, staring at a photograph on my dresser. It was Casey’s formal eighth-grade prom portrait. She wore a white party dress with red trim that showed off her bare neck and shoulders. Her hair—then blond—was tied back, her braces were off, and her hazel eyes were highlighted with mascara and eyeliner. She had a self-conscious smile but to me she was a knockout.
Think, God damn it!
I hurried back to Casey’s room to look for her phone. Her friends should have known where she was. But it was only 6:45, too early. They’d be pissed at me for waking them up and freaking them out at this hour if this turned out to be nothing. I scanned her room.
Her phone was gone, along with her wallet and pocketbook; not the expensive Marc Jacobs handbag we’d bought together in Greenwich Village the year before for her seventeenth birthday, but the cheaper, everyday knock-around one. I rushed back to the kitchen where Erika, now dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, paced aimlessly.
“Honey, I’m dialing Casey’s cell.” Erika looked at me, lost.
The standard greeting voice answered, “Please leave your message for . . .” and then Casey’s voice, “Quasey.” That was the nickname bestowed on her by her friends. It was short for Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, in reference to Casey’s slouchy posture, but all the kids slouched.
“Casey, it’s Dad. Do you have your phone? Where are you? We have your note. Please call me. Everyone’s looking for you.” I paused for a moment. “Honey, we love you.” Another pause. Lacking more words, I pressed END.
At 6:50 the doorbell rang. I opened it to an officer from the Tiburon Police Department. His white-and-blue cruiser was parked on the street behind him. He was young, maybe late twenties, average height, with a strong build and blond hair shaved close, military style. Igor sidled up and sniffed his uniform.
“Mr. Brooks? I’m Officer Gilbreath.” He looked familiar.
In the living room, Erika and I gave him a quick rundown of the last twenty minutes. The young officer’s expression grew somber. He asked to see Casey’s room and I led him in, hoping he wouldn’t notice the battered door. He looked around for a minute but found nothing helpful. His radio crackled with a garbled voice, but he ignored it.
“Officer, what’s going on with the car down by the bridge?” I asked, my mind still racing. “We have to go down there.”
“The CHP’s been dispatched to look for it. They’ll contact us when they find something. But sir, you really need to stay put.”
“I’m sorry, Officer. We can’t stay here. We have to go to the bridge.”
He thought for a moment. “Okay. Is there a neighbor or friend nearby I can contact?”
I gestured toward the house next door. “Our neighbors Jerry and Laura. They should be home.”
I needed to use the bathroom before we left. As I splashed water on my face, I studied the person in the mirror staring back at me. He looked like he’d busted out of a mental institution—hair like some kind of fright wig, eyes bloodshot, eyelids puffy, every flaw magnified.
Returning to the living room, I gave Gilbreath my cell phone number as Erika and I hustled out the door. We stumbled into our SUV for the eight-mile trip down the 101 freeway to the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was 7:10, rush hour. As we drove, I glanced at other drivers around us in their BMWs, Mercedeses, and Jaguars. Just another Tuesday-morning commute into San Francisco. Their impassive faces suggested nothing was wrong.
For a moment, I felt a wild sense of relief. Casey was probably at a friend’s house. She’d show up later, apologizing for taking the car without permission. Or maybe she did go to the bridge in a dramatic impulse but changed her mind and was already on her way home.
We emerged from the Waldo Tunnel—a hole bored through the Marin Headlands—to the Golden Gate Bridge in front of us, shrouded in fog, with the bay and the city in the background like a Department of Tourism poster. Normally, this would have been the highlight of my commute to work in San Francisco’s financial district, but that morning the fog-shrouded bridge looked cold and menacing.
We pulled into the parking lot at the north end of the bridge at 7:20 and there it was—my red Saab. A black California Highway Patrol cruiser was parked behind it, its engine idling. We stared in disbelief at the Saab and the CHP cruiser as I killed the ignition. She had come to the bridge.
We both got out. A CHP officer got out of the cruiser to meet us. “Mr. and Mrs. Brooks? I’m Officer Shipman.”
My mind was in overdrive. “Officer, has anyone seen Casey?”
“I got here about twenty minutes ago,” Shipman said. “The engine was warm to the touch, so it probably hasn’t been here that long.”
Erika’s voice was high, strained. “What are you doing to find her?”
Shipman remained calm and businesslike. “Mrs. Brooks, we’ve sent out an APB for a juvenile risk. The U.S. Park Police, Coast Guard, Bridge Patrol, and CHP have all been dispatched to look for your daughter.”
The doors to the Saab were locked, so I used my key fob to open them. Casey’s new iPhone—a Christmas present from my mother—and a lighter were on the front passenger seat. A pack of Camel Lights was stowed in the center console cubbyhole. I hated the fact that she smoked.
Her pocketbook was on the floor in front of the passenger seat. I emptied its contents onto the seat—her wallet, makeup, lipstick, Kleenex, Orbit gum, wads of blank notebook paper, matches, loose change—but still no clues. Likewise, nothing in the trunk.
I grabbed her phone and clicked Contacts. I knew a few of Casey’s friends, but never said much more than a polite “hello” or “goodbye” as they hurried off through the living room to her bedroom. We were under strict orders to never talk to her friends.
I saw her friend Max’s name under Recent Calls. I remembered Max. He was a tall, skinny kid with wild, curly hair. They’d been friends since kindergarten. My thumb punched furiously at his name on the glass screen and finally connected, but the call went to voice mail.
Then I saw her friend Julian’s name. He was a nice kid, slightly built, cute. They were best friends and hung around a lot. Casey would often head over to his house when she needed to dowse the fire from the pain of one of her meltdowns.
“Yo, Quasey. ’Sup homes?” He sounded wide-awake and ready for school.
“Julian, it’s Casey’s dad, John. Listen, Casey disappeared this morning. She took the car to the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m here now. Do you know where she might be?”
The phone was silent for a moment. When he spoke, the playfulness in his voice had vanished. “Wow. No, I’m sorry. I have no idea. What’s going on?”
“Thanks, Julian. I gotta go.”
Shit! Shit! Shit!
My BlackBerry rang. “Mr. Brooks, it’s Officer Gilbreath. We need you to come back to the house . . . now.”
Without even asking why he wanted us to come home, I replied, “Okay, we’ll be there in about ten minutes.” I couldn’t detect anything in his voice that indicated whether he had good or bad news. I tried to be upbeat. He didn’t say anything. Maybe it wasn’t what I feared.
We drove home in tense silence. Erika clung tightly to her pocketbook in her lap, her knuckles white. As we pulled up to the house, we saw a second white-and-blue Tiburon Police cruiser parked on the street.
We walked through the door to find more people inside. In addition to Officer Gilbreath, there was a more senior officer, Sergeant Hayes. They stood stiffly in the living room, their eyes locked on us. Our neighbors Jerry and Laura stood next to them in a semicircle. They stared at us, pained looks on their faces. Something ominous.
Officer Gilbreath motioned with his hand for us to sit down. Erika took a seat on the sofa next to Laura while I sat next to Jerry. I felt light-headed, disconnected from the people around me, as if I were watching a movie.
The pale yellow of the living room walls captured what little daylight filtered through the clouds. The fireplace in the corner was framed by a mantelpiece that Erika had painted in a bird’s-eye maple pattern. Behind the two police officers was the media cabinet filled with books, family photographs, and a wide-screen TV.
Gilbreath had a slight tremor in his hands as he looked down and read from his notepad. He’d spoken with the Golden Gate Bridge Patrol. Homeland Security surveillance videos recorded a dark-colored Saab pulling into the Dillingham parking lot at 6:15. A female exited the car dressed in jogging attire. She took the pedestrian walkway that led under the Golden Gate Bridge to the bay side, which was the more popular destination for joggers, walkers, and tourists to soak in the dramatic view of San Francisco Bay and the city.
I stared unblinking at Gilbreath, with no awareness of anyone else in the room, as he stuck to his notes. I labored to breathe as my heart rate accelerated. My car keys slipped from my hand.
“The female was seen smoking a cigarette while walking. She put it out near the Vista Point parking lot. Then she jogged onto the bridge and stopped in the middle.” Gilbreath stopped to clear his throat, his eyes darting up to meet mine before snapping back to his notepad. “She climbed over the four-foot railing to the narrow maintenance platform, stood on the platform for ten to fifteen seconds, and stepped off.”
It was 6:40 when Casey jumped, just about the time I called 911. She left the keys to the Saab behind on the railing.