I slipped on a pink tube top, a pair of capri pants, strappy sandals, and a silver bracelet. My brother, age 12, and sister, 14, were sleeping in their bedrooms, and I was supposed to be watching them for the evening while my parents were out of town. But an ex-boyfriend was having a party, and I wanted to see him before returning to college for my senior year.
And I wanted a drink.
It was 20 minutes from my home in Zionsville to his in Meridian-Kessler. At the party, I drank a few beers, had a few laughs with other friends who were home from school, and was hanging out by the pool when the ex sought me out. He told me that he had made a mistake in letting me go. I should have felt a boost of confidence, but, already a few drinks in, I found myself confused about why he had ended the relationship in the first place. I spent the evening pretending I didn’t care to know the answer. It was easy enough to prove the point: I simply returned again and again to the keg in the backyard.
By about 2:30 a.m., I had put down at least nine beers. I could barely walk, much less see straight. Somehow I drove myself home, and when I tiptoed into the house at 3 a.m., I felt like I had gotten away with everything—concealing my confusion from the guy, skipping out on the babysitting, getting home safe.
I asked where Mom was. My dad told me she went home to live with Jesus, and I never asked again.
It was almost lunchtime when my dad called me downstairs and confronted me. My brother and sister had not been asleep after all.
My head was pounding, and Dad’s voice quivered with fear and anger. “Did you ever think about the fact that a drunk driver killed your mother?” he asked.
I stared at the patio, unable to make my eyes meet his.
“Not really,” I said.
That much, at least, was true. My mother had been gone for nearly two decades. My stepmother was the only mother I had ever known, and I called her Mom, as I do today. And I had not thought about it all very much. Growing up, my thoughts never pushed much beyond the vacancy inside me, a kind of constant absence that over the years I found more and more ways to try to fill. I started with resentment, a free-floating anger toward the woman who had taken her from me. Even in church, where I sometimes sought solace, I felt that God had cheated me. I searched for and eventually rejected fulfillment in nearly every place I could think of—at concerts and parties, in relationships and bars. And when the hole, still not satiated, grew larger, I drank to fill it up, poisoning my life with the very thing that had taken my mother’s.
Finally, as I approached the age my mother had been when she died, I decided to stop trying to fill the hole and start trying to heal it. I needed to begin by quitting drinking, which had only grown more problematic in the years since college. I also wanted to satisfy my nagging urge to find the woman who had killed my mother on a sunny Tuesday morning on a highway outside of Terre Haute. What I would say, or what it might do for me—well, I didn’t really know the answer to that, either.
I have only dim memories of my mother—flickers of long-ago feelings and images. Making cinnamon toast. Napping in the back seat of the car on a trip to Disney World. And the time I nearly drowned during swim class at the Vincennes YMCA: Sitting on the edge of the pool with my classmates, I began kicking my feet, watching the water splash higher and higher until, quite suddenly, I lost my balance and slipped beneath the surface. I waved my arms wildly overhead and tried to scream, but my nose and mouth filled with water. My swim instructor didn’t notice; it was my mom who rushed over and fished me out.
My mother, Laura Lee Snyder, was born January 14, 1955, to Joseph and Kathryn Snyder in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where her father was stationed in the U.S. Army. A couple of years later, the family moved to Vincennes. My grandmother looked after their modest three-bedroom house and five children: Mom; her two brothers, Joe and George; and two sisters, Linda and Mary Ann—my mother’s twin and best friend. My mom, her sisters tell me, loved to roller skate, ride her bike, and do cross-stitch projects. She was popular at Rivet, her Catholic high school, and dated the quarterback from Vincennes Lincoln, the public high school in town. She was a member of the Future Homemakers of America, Daughters of the American Revolution, and Hoosier Girls State, and she volunteered each year at the school blood drive. Relatives tell me she was smart, strong-willed, outgoing, and meticulous.
In her high-school diary, which spans from 1968 to 1972, she wrote daily entries about her friends (“Milly and I went to Evansville. She got a blue ’72 Camaro. It’s really tough.”), her school (“That nun makes me sick!”), current events (“Bobby Kennedy got shot.”), movies (The Birds, Love Story), and her brother Joe’s basketball games (“Central got beat by North Posey. I’m still crying”). But mostly, it was about boys—which ones she liked, which ones she despised, which ones asked her out, and which ones broke her heart. Inside the front cover she had drawn nine hearts bearing her name, plus the names of the different boys she had crushes on or had dated from eighth grade through her senior year of high school “I don’t know why I wrote about all these dumb boys,” she wrote inside the back cover.
She graduated from Rivet in 1973, and then spent two years at Vincennes University before enrolling at Purdue to pursue a nursing degree. She met my dad, Dexter McCormick, who was also from Vincennes but had attended a different high school, in 1976 at The Hutch, a drive-in restaurant in town. He had just graduated from Southern Methodist University. The two became engaged shortly after Mom’s college graduation and married on October 8,1978.
She began her nursing career at the Knox County Health Department and later transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes. But after I was born on July 3, 1980, she dropped nursing and became a stay-at-home mom. The change suited her. “She was absolutely the June Cleaver of our day,” Mary Ann says. “Her house was perfect, her checkbook was perfect, her car was perfect. She never had laundry stacked to the ceiling. The dishwasher was always run.”
Mom turned her love of cross-stitch into a home business she ran with a friend. The Status Thimble stocked thread, patterns, and other crafting supplies and offered cross-stitch lessons. On the weekends, our little family would stay at our cabin near Patoka Lake, often with my parents’ friends, including Jim and Betty Bobe and their three children. Betty owned Special Effects, a clothing store in Vincennes, and was president of the Downtown Merchants Association. Though she was 11 years older than my mother, the two were close friends.
When I was 3 years old, my mother gave birth to a second child, a baby girl who lived for less than an hour. The death devastated my parents, but when my mother loaned her maternity clothes to her younger sister Linda, who was expecting a baby a few months later, she said she would want the clothes back because she hoped to get pregnant again—soon. On September 27,1983, a few weeks after the death, she and Betty set out for a shopping trip to Chicago. Betty hoped to take my mother’s mind off her loss.
At 6:25 a.m., as they traveled through Terre Haute. Betty pulled her Oldsmobile sedan up to the intersection of Third and Ohio streets. Barreling west down Ohio, which runs one-way eastbound, was a Ford Maverick driven by Insun Nally, a 26-year-old woman who later told police she had been drinking and using LSD and marijuana. She slammed into the passenger side of Betty’s car, virtually disintegrating it. My mother died upon impact, suffering a fractured skull and multiple internal injuries. Betty slipped away about 18 hours later.
Insun Nally was born in South Korea and came to the United States in the 1970s after marrying an American soldier. They later divorced, and on March 7, 1978, she married Charles Nally, of Nineveh. About a month later, she gave birth to their first daughter, and a second was born about two years later. But having a family did not put Nally on a straight-and-narrow path in life. In Johnson County, according to newspaper accounts, Nally was convicted on two charges of battery on a police officer and public intoxication. In 1982, after driving her car into a tree, she was treated at Jackson County Memorial Hospital in Seymour, where doctors diagnosed her as schizophrenic. Shortly following the incident, she and Charles Nally divorced. Although she sometimes visited her daughters, Nally became somewhat transient. Weeks before the accident that killed my mother, Nally was hospitalized again—this time at Johnson County Memorial Hospital—and was diagnosed as paranoid.
The Vigo County prosecutor filed two reckless homicide charges against Nally. In its coverage of the trial. The Indianapolis Star reported that, according to Charles Nally, Wishard Memorial and Community hospitals in Indianapolis had declined to admit his ex-wife for mental-health treatment a week before the accident because she didn’t have health insurance. In January 1984, a Vigo Superior Court judge ordered her into the custody of Evansville State Mental Hospital until she was deemed mentally fit for trial. Though psychiatrists suggested she had multiple mental illnesses, correctional officers at the jail described her as competent, and after a few weeks of treatment the Department of Mental Health said she was ready for the trial. Nally pleaded guilty but mentally ill.
On July 5,1984—two days after my fourth birthday—Nally was sentenced to 12 years in prison, despite the prosecutor’s plea to enforce the maximum 16-year sentence. My father could not bring himself to attend the trial. The judge also instructed the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to never again issue Nally a driver’s license.
My mother’s death sent a shock wave through the Vincennes community. More than 1,000 people turned out for her funeral service at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, and the Vincennes Sun-Commercial newspaper published an editorial about the accident. “The advantage of knowing those about you in a smaller community can become a sad disadvantage,” it read. “The two deaths in Terre Haute were real and personal.”
After the funeral, Dad and I tried to adjust to living in our house in Edwardsport without my mother. One day, while riding in the car with him, I asked where Mom was. “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” he said. When I asked again the next day, my dad told me she went home to live with Jesus, and I never asked again. Dad was 31, and assuming the role of both parents wasn’t easy. He fed me unusual foods for a toddler, such as seafood salad, and at bath time, he would All the tub with a few inches of water, toss in a bar of soap, and come back to retrieve me a half-hour later. After he had trouble combing the tangles out of my long, curly hair, he took me to a salon and had it all cut off.
He managed as best he could, but as the weather turned colder, the grief became too much. “The hardest of all was the winter, which led right into the holidays,” he told me recently. “I couldn’t sleep at night.” The cold, rainy skies of late winter were still holding by March, and Dad reached a breaking point. “I just dropped work, walked away, grabbed you, and we drove to Florida,” he says. “I didn’t know when I was coming back.” We stayed with Mary Ann, my mother’s twin, and her husband, Jim, at their Jacksonville home. Ten days later, we drove back to Indiana. By then, spring had arrived. “The flowers were out, and the days were warm,” Dad says. “By the time we got home, it was never as bad again.”
Dad and I moved into another house in Vincennes, and he began dating a woman named Patty, who had known my mother through social circles. When Dad and Patty got engaged, she and her daughters, Teresa and Tammie, moved in with us. When they wed in May 1985, I was nearly 5 years old, and I tried to act happy to gain a mother and a pair of sisters. But really, I was jealous; for nearly two years, I had had my dad to myself. Now I had to share him with people who seemed to be presented as replacements for the mother I had lost.
Even when it was my turn to stay sober and be a designated driver, I got drunk.
Eventually our family grew to include Morgan, my half-sister, and Greg, my half-brother. I loved being part of a big family; people noticed us wherever we went in our big gray Suburban. We attended school together; rode our horse, Reno, together; and in 1990, we packed up the Suburban and moved to Zionsville. Dad had started a new insurance business in Indianapolis. I had new friends and a new school.
What I no longer had was frequent contact with my mother’s family in Vincennes. Seeing one another had been easy when we lived in the same town. After the move, we were separated by a long drive, and our visits were reduced mostly to holidays and family reunions. Somewhere in the shuffle, my absent mom became even less a part of my life. Visits to her gravesite became far more rare. My dad stopped acknowledging her birthday. And eventually, I stopped asking about her.
The first time I got drunk was in the fall of my junior year of high school, on a charter bus traveling home from a big football game in Southern Indiana. The team had won, and one of the football players’ parents handed me a beer to celebrate. It tasted awful, but I promptly asked for another, then another. As I lay down to bed that evening, the room spinning I was relieved to finally be a part of that exclusive club—the one I had heard other kids brag about when they recounted the antics that had occurred while they were drunk at the football game, in their friend’s basement, or around the campfire.
From then on, if I was at a party where alcohol was present, I didn’t pass it up. I drank after the football team won the state championship that year, on New Year’s Eve, and for much of the following summer. I purchased my first illegal beer at a concert at Deer Creek. I stood in line at the beer tent—by myself, because I thought my friends might make me look as young as I actually was—and ordered a Miller Lite. No questions asked, the concessionaire gave me my beer, and my friends were impressed that I could procure a drink on my own.
By college, I had to drink to gain confidence. My first weekend at Denison University in Ohio, 1 drank six shots of rum in a dorm room with my newly acquired friends and then made my way to a fraternity party, where I downed several beers. Later that night. I vomited blood in the shower of my bathroom.
I could drink more than all of my girlfriends and nearly as much as the guys. Even when it was my turn to stay sober and be a designated driver, I got drunk. And the older I got, the more I built my identity around alcohol: I was the one who left the party last, who drank the most, who always said “yes” when someone wanted to go drinking while everyone else was studying. One Sunday, I ran into a couple of friends and explained that I didn’t make it to their place the previous night because I had gone to a different party. They laughed and told me that I had, in fact, come over, and accurately described the outfit I had been wearing. I had experienced my first blackout.
Once college was behind me, I thought drinking would be, too. But I found that I increasingly didn’t just want a drink; I needed one, or 10. Sober, I would constantly compare myself to others and wonder whether they were judging me. Drunk, I didn’t care. Once, at a concert, a stranger offered me a pill, and I took it without asking what it was. I woke up hours later, lying on my back in the dirt. On a night spent dancing at the Vogue, I got separated from a friend who was my ride home and, drunk, accepted a ride from two men I had just met at the bar.
Still, I didn’t fit my mind’s definition of an alcoholic. I didn’t drink in the morning, didn’t cash my paychecks at the liquor store, and had never lost a job because I was too drunk to go to work. When a friend intervened to suggest that I should check out a 12-Step meeting, just to see for myself whether I had a problem. I went, and stayed sober for four months. It took me about that long to rationalize that I didn’t have a problem after all and didn’t belong at those meetings.
I started drinking again in March 2004, determined to prove that I could moderate it but soon. I was right back where I had left off. On the day of a Halloween party in 2005, I barely ate anything, knowing that the alcohol would hit me faster on an empty stomach. That night, as I walked into a costume party dressed as a cowgirl, I began to sweat. Entering social situations without already being drunk terrified me. When I got there, I filled a Solo cup three-quarters full with vodka, added some cranberry juice, and drank it down. Then another, and another. By the end of the evening. I was vomiting. But that didn’t stop me from hooking up with a new guy.
The next morning, when my boyfriend asked why I hadn’t come home until 4 a.m., I confessed that I had been with someone else. He stormed out of my apartment, and I begged him to stay and talk it over, but he just slammed the door. That’s when my alcoholism—not just the drinking, but the fact that it had terrible consequences—finally became real. I was about to lose the person I loved because I couldn’t stop the drinking, and the dangerous behavior, and the lying to cover it up. Alcohol had defeated me.
That night, I attended a 12-Step meeting. The first time I had tried these meetings, I couldn’t see myself in the people there. Drinking had never caused me to be injured, hospitalized, or arrested. I wasn’t even a daily drinker. In fact, some friends thought I was taking my recovery too far, and overreacting to a binge-drinking habit.
But for me, being an alcoholic simply means that when I wanted to stop drinking, I couldn’t. Each time I drink, I don’t want to stop. In fact, I can’t.
Committed to doing the work it takes to stay sober, I began attending meetings nearly every day and working with a sponsor. My drinking problem was a disease—one that would try to trick me into drinking again if I didn’t treat it with a spiritual solution. The idea of turning my will over to God seemed hokey to me at first. But as I listened to other sober alcoholics talk about what had kept them from drinking again, I realized that the program worked. Some steps—like admitting alcohol had control over my life and accepting a spiritual solution to fix it —were easier than others. When it came time to come clean about some of the wrongdoings of my past, and put pen to paper to spell out my part in it all, I worried that my sponsor, with whom I would later share the list, would be appalled by my actions. But when I told her about some of my most embarrassing mistakes, I was relieved to hear her say, “I did that, too.”
Later, I learned that ridding my life of resentment and making amends with others I had harmed was another key to staying sober. And though I had never harmed her with anything more than my own angry and bitter thoughts, my mind instantly turned to one person: Insun Nally.
I knew virtually nothing about this woman, but suddenly, finding and confronting her seemed like a chance to liberate me from my bitterness, once and for all.
I started by punching Nally’s name into a Federal Bureau of Prisons Web site: it showed that she had been released from prison on December 13, 1989. My heart sank as I did the math: For the deaths of my mother and Betty, she had served less than 5½ years of her 12-year sentence.
Then I typed her name into a Google search, and discovered that I wasn’t the only young woman looking for Insun Nally.
Her oldest daughter had written a letter to Oprah Winfrey, seeking help in finding her mother. The letter was posted on a message board for television talk-show fans. “Dear Oprah,” it began, “I have not seen my mother since I was five years old. She went back to South Korea, from there she wrote us letters.” In the letter, dated January 2002, she wrote that she wanted to be reunited with her mother, whose letters to her and her sister had been accidentally thrown away during a move. She listed detailed information about her family—birthdates, her parents’ wedding date, and her address and telephone number. The posting was a few years old by the time I discovered it, but her pleading tone made me want to reach out to her.
I dialed the phone and asked for Nally’s daughter by her first name, but the woman who answered told me I had the wrong number. I had no idea what I would have said anyway. That I had lost my mother too? That I shared her pain and confusion?
Armed with the details her daughter had left on the talk-show message board, I easily found a home address for Nally. The Internet listing didn’t include a phone number, but there on the computer screen was a street name, in a Midwestern town within driving distance.
Still, now that I had found her, I didn’t have enough resentment left to carry me all the way to her doorstep. My heart had softened; my recovery had eased the bitterness. I took my last drink on October 29, 2005—a choice that means I will never make the mistakes Nally did. Sobriety broke the cycle, somehow. And it seemed to help to know that 25 years ago, when Nally crashed her life into mine, I wasn’t the only little girl left behind, wondering where my mommy was.
When my desire to confront Nally faded, I turned to people in my life who truly could help me know my mother. When I asked my father if I could ask him some questions, he said, “I have something for you.”
In a sealed cardboard box marked “Do Not Destroy,” my stepmother Patty had kept my mother’s purse—the one she had with her the day of the accident. As I held the brown leather shoulder bag in my hands at my family’s kitchen table, my fingers trembled a little when I read the tag the police department had affixed to it. Purse & contents, it said. Laura L. McCormick. 9-27-83. Fatality.
Opening my mother’s purse felt like stepping through a portal to a life I could have had. Not a better life, necessarily, but a different one.
I opened the clasp and inventoried the purse’s contents: a pair of glasses, a roll of stamps, a tube of Elizabeth Arden lipstick, a couple of Slo Poke candies, and a wallet containing $6, her ID and credit cards, a small package of sewing needles, and photos of my dad, my cousins, and me. Save for a shattered hand mirror, everything was intact. And, true to form, all of my mother’s belongings were neatly organized.
Inside a compartment was a small booklet for the 1983-84 Knox County Extension Homemakers Club. On the inside, she had scrawled her name and address. She had attended a meeting on September 26—the evening before her death—and in December, she was scheduled to host the meeting at Patty’s house. Opening my mother’s purse felt like stepping through a portal to a life I could have had. Not a better life, necessarily, but a different one.
In many ways, my mother’s life at age 28 was far more adult than mine. I have never been married and have no children. I don’t know how to sew, and my clothes are usually a little wrinkled from sitting in the laundry basket, unfolded, for days at a time. Despite the dissimilarities, I’ve spent my life hearing from my mother’s family and friends that I’m a lot like her. “When I see you it gives me comfort in knowing that a little piece of Laura is still here,” Aunt Mary Ann told me recently. She also said she was sending me something.
Inside the padded FedEx envelope that arrived the following day, I found a small, tattered white book with my mother’s name written on the front in bubble lettering. “This isn’t much of a diary, but I tried to tell about some of the more exciting things in my neat, cool, tough life,” she wrote on the inside cover. “I’ll probably read this in about 10 years and realize what a dumb little kid I was. I hope that can keep on writing in this so I can have a good laugh when I get old.”