What happens when you find out the mother you never met has thrown siblings you didn’t know you had off a bridge — and there’s a book coming out about it?

THE LIGHTENING

I was making a connection in the DC airport when an email came through on my phone. Reception was poor, and I could see only the subject line:

I have some important things to discuss with you about your new book coming out, “To the Bridge.”

This is not necessarily what the author of a work of nonfiction wants to see six weeks out from publication. Had this person gotten an advance copy and was now going to tell me the book contained a major flaw that threw the whole thing off true? I reloaded the message until it came through:

Hi, my name is Christine ______. I’d like to first tell you that I am a child of Amanda Jo Stott-Smith. I was kept as a closed adoption so I wouldn’t be surprised if my name has never come up to you even with your research and studies. I was born November 2nd 1999. I’ve known about my adoption my entire life but just found out about the actions of my birth mom back in 2016 and have been following up on the articles written since I’ve heard about it. I want to talk to you because I’d love to buy your book and maybe get some insight with you. I would love to hear back from you!

I stared at the email. Contrary to what Christine wrote, I did know who she was. I knew the circumstances of her birth and adoption. I knew her father had killed himself before she was born. And I knew that several months before dropping her two youngest children from a bridge in Portland, Oregon, Amanda Stott-Smith wrote, of giving up Christine as a newborn, “I’ve never had so much joy and peace.”

I had four minutes before my flight boarded and could not properly respond to Christine’s email. I did have time to forward it to my editor, who replied, “Holy smokes.”

In the years I worked on the book, I had not once anticipated that Christine would contact me. I did not know enough about her circumstances to start that fantasy. More, I had been asked by Amanda’s grandmother, Jackie Dreiling, not to mention the sex of the baby Amanda had given up, her name or where she lived.

“I don’t want anyone putting two and two together,” Dreiling said. “This is a little girl whose father committed suicide and whose mother committed murder, I mean: she should never be identified.”

The newborn had not been relevant to the narrative, and I saw no problem omitting details about her. Amanda’s other children in any case were central to the story. Gavin, Amanda’s son from a brief relationship her freshman year in college, had been twelve when he refused to get in the car with his mother to pick up his two half-siblings. Amanda went alone to get the children. It would be only the third time all spring she had seen them, following a judge giving provisional custody of Eldon, age four, and his seven year-old sister Trinity to Amanda’s estranged husband Jason Smith. Amanda told family members she would be taking the kids to the Portland waterfront to see the fireworks. It was May 22, 2009, the start of the Memorial Day weekend. Amanda bought the children cotton candy, the last food she would feed them. Shortly after midnight she parked at a convenience store, purchased a 500ml box of Bandit Chardonnay, and sat in the front seat as her children slept in the back. At 1:19am, she dropped Trinity from the Sellwood Bridge. The girl fell ninety feet and landed in the Willamette River. Eldon hit the water within the minute. Trinity’s cries — “Help me! Help me!” — resulted in her rescue forty minutes later by two good Samaritans who motored their boat onto the river to find whoever was screaming. They also found Eldon. He had drowned. Amanda was caught later that day and, within the year, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison before the possibility of parole.

After her rescue, Trinity was forbidden by her father to see Gavin. This cruelty compounded what was already the tragedy of these children’s lives. Inflicting cruelties would turn out to be something Jason was good at. He was a serial liar who wooed Amanda, while pregnant with Christine, with the promise of a luxurious life, then fell into a yearlong drug binge, blowing through a $240,000 trust fund. He and Amanda would spend nine years abusing each other, emotionally and physically; he took especial pleasure in humiliating her in public. He also had a rich mother who, according to Jackie Dreiling, “has a real track record of buying Jason out of every problem he’s ever had.” Amanda was increasingly seen as the problem: over-drinking, rash, jealous, a bad mother. Jason had the means to move her offstage and did. By the time she drove to the bridge, Amanda had no husband, no children, no home, nothing left to fight with. Or she did; she had two things, and the wherewithal to hurt Jason one more time.

Amanda’s family could not speak with one another about what they began to call “the incident” and, with two exceptions, would not speak to me, claiming anything I wrote would “only cause more pain” to Amanda’s surviving children.

I did not think this was true. I saw the social necessity of close investigation. And here was Christine, who had real skin in the game, in her way agreeing.

I wrote Christine the morning after I received her email, to say I did know who she was and would be happy to offer what insight I could. She sent her phone number and asked that we speak the next day.

“You may go ahead and text me as well,” she added. Within hours, Christine, who went by Christy, had texted me, “You are the only person I know who can answer my questions.”

I was aware the situation was bizarre, if not a first in human history. Also, that it might be devastating for Christy to learn details of the family she never knew, and, possibly, the fate she had been spared. I’d spent nine years on a story that was near unremittingly grim, and now I was going to, what, heap it onto an eighteen year-old girl in one go?

Christy did not sound nervous the next day on the phone. We spent two minutes breaking the ice — she did not live with her adoptive parents but in her own apartment, she had recently been working at Target and had started her own business, “making dream catchers” — before she asked if I knew her father’s name. I told her his name.

“Do you know how he killed himself?” she asked.

He died in his car, though whether by carbon monoxide asphyxiation or an overdose of prescription pills was unclear.

“Do you know,” she asked, “if my mother used hard drugs when she was pregnant with me?”

Smart question, I thought, for an adoptee, though whether Christy was asking because she felt she might have been compromised in utero or to get a bead on the mental health of her birth mother and potentially, by extension, her own, I could not know. When I said I had found nothing to indicate hard drugs, nothing stronger than pot, Christy made the sound I’d heard Amanda make in court, a sigh that swooped up at the end, like a Valley girl asking a question? Then she asked another.

“Do you think,” she said, “I should look into a reunion with Amanda?”

I knew the quality and the variety of burdens Amanda had placed on each of her children and felt uneasy at the idea of Christy entering Amanda’s life, to be cherished or rejected or who knew what.

I told Christy she was an adult and could make her own decisions, but she should be aware, as she would read in the book, that her birth mother could be manipulative.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I’m used to dealing with manipulative people.”

Thinking we might address that bomblet later, I asked if Christy knew she had an older brother. She said she did know, and asked if I would put them in touch. With Gavin’s permission, I did, and that night, he and Christy spoke for the first time in their lives. Their desire for connection, despite the events that had caused their separation and reunification, made sense. Still, I found the whole thing astonishing, not least that I had become the connector of Amanda’s children.

Christy’s motivation in contacting me seemed straightforward. My wanting to speak with her was, and it wasn’t. Upon learning I would fly to Phoenix to visit Christy, my daughter recalled she had moved out of our house one week after Amanda dropped her children from the bridge. Maybe, she said, I had committed to writing a book about them because I needed some children to take care of, better than their own mother had. Maybe I was doing it again.

I was watching a two-year-old in the booth in front of me shove French fries in his mouth when Christy walked through the glass vestibule of Country Boys Restaurant. She had long slender legs bared to the hip in very short cut-offs and the slightly inward-kneed walk of a fawn. I gave her a light hug. She felt spindly in my arms, or maybe as if she were going to bolt.

After a bit, Christy said, “I want to know if you would consider helping me write my autobiography,” and then studied the menu. She wore large aviator frame glasses and had hair the color of grape Double Bubble. She did not look like Amanda, more like Amanda’s younger sister, Chantel.

I asked Christy to tell me more about what she had on the phone, that her adoptive parents sent her to various facilities starting when she was seven because she was “being bad, being rebellious.” How so?

“When I’d be mad at my mom, I’d tell her, ‘I’m going to go find my birth mom and go live with her and blah blah blah blah,” she said. “It would tear her heart out and make her really, really mad.”

Christy said she started running away from home at nine, and was sent to a Mormon school in Utah at twelve. At fifteen, she was placed with the Arizona Department of Child Safety. She would never again live with her parents, but in group-homes. She ran away from these, too, including in 2016, when she said she was, “really sick so I decided to meet with my mom to see if she could help me to get a doctor’s appointment.”

They met at a McDonald’s. Whether out of pique or because she was feeling crummy, Christy brought up the subject she knew would make her mother nuts.

“I asked if there was any way I could get in touch with my birth mother,” she said, “to see if there was anything I could do to see about getting adopted again and having a place to stay.”

Getting adopted by her birth mother?

“Possibly,” she said. “[My mom] told me like, ‘Okay, I haven’t told you; I found out when you were nine and never found the right time to tell you about what she did.’”

Christy said she was “skeptical” of what her mother was telling her. Where was the proof that this murderer was Christy’s birth mother? And how come she was only hearing about her when there was something bad to say? And was what Amanda had done, Christy wondered, the reason her mother had been worried about, perhaps even fearful for her all these years?

“She probably thought I would do things like that… she would tell me she was scared to have me in the home,” she said. “She just really had a grudge against me and that explains why to me in a way.”

I told Christy it did not make sense that her mother would be so freaked out by what Amanda had done she’d assume her child was born with some sort of demon seed…

“Oh my gosh, speaking of!” she said. “When I just turned fifteen she thought I had depression and I was staying in my room a lot, so she hired an exorcist to get rid of my demons. She spent like $300 for this guy to come to the house.”

What did he do?

“He just like told me all these things, and recited things to me, and like, ‘Anger, are you there!’” Christy said. “I just kind of went along with it — I have weird ways of entertaining myself. He’s like, ‘ANGER! Are you THERE?!’ I’m speaking in this really weird voice, like, ‘Yes…’”

And she laughed. Christy did not seem overloaded by the event that brought us together. Which was a relief, knowing what Eldon, Trinity and Gavin had been through, what the latter two were still going through. In the months to come, Trinity would be told by members of the Smith family that any bad things about her father in the book had been told to me by Gavin, which was untrue, and which told me that adults were as yet willing to transfer their own reprehensible behavior onto children.

Besides what her mother told her in 2016, Christy had no proof she was Amanda’s child.

“Right before I emailed you, I was showing my roommate Ryan a picture of my [birth] mom, because I like showing people a face of where I came from, even if it’s true or not,” she said. “I kind of broke down in tears when I read your email, because I thought I was going to get a, ‘oh, that’s interesting; who are you?’ But you were like, ‘I know exactly who you are…’ This told me that it was true. Obviously it’s true. That’s my proof.”

I said I was glad I could prove to Christy that Amanda was her birth mother, though it could not have an easy thing to learn.

“Oh, it didn’t confuse me or put me through anything mentally, hurting wise, but it felt like…” Christy thought. “I felt like it put a realization that I’ve kind of lived in a box my entire life, my beliefs and where I came from. I’ve never met anyone with the same bloodstream as me, no family whatsoever.”

Now she had Gavin, at least. Had they spoken again?

“We talked on the phone,” she said. “He actually wants to get me in touch with Trinity.”

In the book, Christy would learn Gavin and Trinity had been estranged, that Trinity’s father would not allow them to have contact.

“I heard he’s kind of a dick,” she said.

Also, that where her birth mother found herself — and I was not telling her this to excuse Amanda, who had her own serious pathologies — she had help getting there.

“That’s most toxic relationships,” Christy said. Then, quietly, “I don’t know if my birth mom would want to meet me?”

Amanda was in a bit of a limited place to do that, I said.

“I know I’d have to send in a letter, and then ask her permission,” she said. “I’m not sure if I should wait until she gets out.”

She would not be released until 2045, and that was providing she made parole.

“I honestly doubt she will,” she said. “In female prison, you will get killed for killing children.”

Amanda had sometimes been shunned, inmates shouting “baby killer!” as she walked by. Christy took this in for a few moments.

“So how did they find out?”

I explained how the crime went down. How Trinity had been asleep when Amanda dropped her but Eldon had been awake. How their mother had been caught nine hours later in a downtown Portland parking garage.

“Did they know right away?” she asked.

That Amanda was guilty? Yes. There had never been any question.

“Did she try to deny it?”

She did not.

Christy was quiet. “I don’t understand how someone could do that.”

My thought had been the same. I saw Amanda’s mug shot in the paper and asked myself, how does this happen? And had started looking into the story.

“Huh,” she said. “Were you a writer before that?”

I told her, I was.

Christy ate a piece of my quesadilla. “Did she talk to you?”

She did not.

“Wow,” she said. “Why do you think?”

I said Amanda not speaking with me was characteristic of who she was. I did not say, “narcissist.” I did not quote Jackie Dreiling telling homicide detectives Amanda was “the number one most self-centered and selfish person” she knew. I did say that Amanda had sent me messages through an intermediary, including that I was “only out to drudge up horrible memories and events and make a buck off her.”

“All right,” Christy said. “Wonderful.”

Christy, I thought, would be within her rights to be traumatized by what she was learning. Instead, the information seemed to ground her. Maybe Amanda not corresponding with any magical thinking she had done, about a mother who would not send her away, a mother with whom she might take refuge, was useful to her. If so, I was glad. My hope was to lead her through the story with a certain amount of calm.

“Calm” was not a word I would have applied to any part of the story to date. There had been what happened on the bridge and the wreckage in its wake. There had been Amanda’s vilification, with cause, by the mob, who considered her evil or crazy and either way, fuck her. There had been the sentencing judge choosing not to expand on these opinions, calling what Amanda had done, “truly incomprehensible.” And there had been the city commissioner who, unwilling to waste a crisis, dunned fellow commissioners into voting for a new high-speed rescue boat. Never mind that a boat had been the commissioner’s pet project for a decade, or that he dissembled when he said he became committed to finding money for the boat after he “listened to the 911 tapes, [and] could hear the little girl screaming, ‘Don’t, Mommy, don’t.’” That this was not what Trinity or any child had screamed did nothing to stop the city from gouging a budget already deeply in the red.

Meanwhile six years would go by, during which Trinity would not be shown the letters Gavin wrote her; would consequently think he had abandoned her, it was a mess and a heartbreak, one I’d been carrying around for nine years, which made Christy’s equanimity something of a sweet balm.

“I don’t know why,” Christy said the next day. “I want to know her reasoning for it.”

We were back at Country Boys for lunch, and I was explaining how Amanda had chosen Christy’s parents specifically, from a Christian registry, how she’d written of her joy and peace at having made the decision. Christy did not seem in the mood for platitudes. She wanted facts not feelings.

“Do you know when my mom’s birthday is?” she asked.

I told her. Also, that her mother had been a great cook, everything from scratch. That she sang and played piano beautifully; that when her mother was young, she’d been very good at math.

Christy brightened. “Me too!”

That she had been a lifeguard in high school.

“I’m a fucking fish, I love swimming,” she said.

Christy was delighted by what she and Amanda had in common, having previously had only her mug shots to draw from, a stranger with dark hair in disarray, and tension lines around her eyes and mouth.

“It’s the only reason I know what she looks like,” she said. “It’s really sad that those are the only pictures I have of her, honestly.”

I took out my phone and showed her a photo of Amanda from nine years earlier, in which she is smiling, her hair and skin as smooth as a mannequin.

That’s Amanda?” Christy said.

Yes.

“That looks different than the ones I’ve seen, she looks a lot healthier.” Christy brought her face close to the screen. “I know I have her eyebrows.”

I was explaining that the years between the photos being taken Amanda had endured a lot of emotional abuse when Christy jumped in.

“When you’re put into an unhealthy relationship for so long it drives you insane because they have a way of, even if you’re doing nothing wrong, they make you think that you are,” she said. “And you become in your head the ‘wrong’ in the relationship, even though they are the reason why. You think all of this even though they’re the reason why.”

Christy had already told me that various adults in her life were “always putting in my head that I was crazy.” Based on what she was learning, did she think her birth mother had been crazy?

After a pause, she said, “I think she’s been through a lot… I don’t know what was going through her head but she was probably in a lot of pain.”

And maybe had been for a long time. Jackie Dreiling thought Christy’s father’s suicide was more devastating to Amanda than she let on, leaving her vulnerable to Jason riding in like a white knight. I told Christy I thought Amanda had been ready to live the fairy tale Jason was promising.

“I don’t think she was ready, considering everything that happened,” she said. “She was probably ready in her own mind. But then like, future events.”

I had never thought about it this way, but Christy was correct: Amanda did not plan for the future. The last plan she carried out, before dropping her children from a bridge, had been giving Christy up for adoption.

Coming to Arizona, I assumed I would headlamp for Christy the life she had been spared, the one where she might have been her murdered by her mother. I assumed it would be a heavy load, one I would parcel out with care. Instead, or in addition, Christy was offering me insight, bringing what she knew to the narrative. Who was leading whom here? And if it had taken me years to reconcile the sympathy I initially felt for Amanda, Christy seemed to do so in a few days. She cared that her birth mother had been in pain, that she had wound up doing this terrible thing, to Christy’s siblings, no less. But she seemed to intuit, as Amanda had not, and also because she had lived it, how you need to manage bad situations yourself. Amanda as an adult had allowed herself to be manipulated, whereas Christy, as a child, had gotten herself out.

Christy rested her Chuck Taylors on the dashboard the next day and used her phone to navigate us to a sushi restaurant in Scottsdale. She had brought along roommate Raymond, with whom she ogled the menu on a patio where the outdoor misters were a little too misty.

I let the kids chill. They worked service industry jobs and sushi was a treat. Still, I was leaving the next day and wondered if Christy if had any questions for me, anything about Amanda.

“Probably what her reasoning was for giving me up, like, on the inside, if it was just because she couldn’t take care of me; if she made the decision before or after my dad passed away,” she said. “Perhaps her reasons for her future decisions, back in 2009, for killing my half-brother and attempting to kill my half-sister. But honestly, I see it as none of my business because it happened after me?”

I asked if she’d considered, had she not been given up for adoption, that Amanda might have dropped her from the bridge too.

“I considered it, but I would have been like, what, ten? No, nine,” she said. “I grew up a fish, so, I probably would have gotten out of it.”

I mentioned the fall was more than ninety feet. Then again, Trinity had been seven and survived.

“Yeah,” she said.

I mentioned that Gavin had been twelve, how he did not get in the car with Amanda that night; that it had been hard for him, living with…

“The guilt,” she said.

Yes. It was an incredibly unfair burden of Amanda to place on him.

“Of course,” she said, and showed me a dream catcher she’d made and would sell on her Etsy store.

Since I was leaving in the morning, was there anything else I could tell her?

“Mm… I don’t know,” she said.

Anything moving forward, I assumed we would continue knowing each other.

“Yeah, I think we’ll keep in touch,” she said, and something half-hearted about writing advice, and like that, I could see she was ready to disengage. Maybe I wasn’t.

I showed Christy a Facebook photo of her aunt Chantel.

“She has my dimple!” Christy said.

“That’s totally you!” Raymond said. “She has your teeth, too.”

“She’s pretty. She doesn’t have my eyes, though.”

And then she stopped looking, and wondered whether the tempura she was holding was carrot or sweet potato, and I thought how she liked knowing she had her mother’s eyebrows, her aunt’s dimple, and a brother she could communicate with if she chose to, but about the tragedy on the bridge? She would not wade any further into that, was not going to wear the mantle of the victim. In this, she had something in common with her sister Trinity, who, when taken onto the river on the high-speed rescue boat named for her and Eldon, to the spot where she had been rescued, shouted, “Where?! Where?!” As someone on the boat recalled, “She was curious and she wanted to know.”

photo courtesy of the Oregonian

Christy, too, had been curious and wanted to know, and now, it seemed, she wanted more sushi.

The kids texted as I took them back to their apartment complex. They talked about a friend they would see that night and what a California roll tastes like in California.

“Like California,” said Christy. “Broken dreams and [something] dead on the side of the road.”

I cannot recall what that “something” was. I was driving, and if Christy was tuned out in the way of eighteen year-olds, I was tuning out, too, a mom driving some rando kids in an SUV.

I’d come to see Christy to extend a narrative that had occupied me for years, and to take care of a girl that seemed to be asking for caretaking. I misread that. Christy wanted insight — she told me as much in her first email. I’d given her some, we carried it together for a few days, and then she essentially said, you know what? I’m going to leave this here. Also, and contrary to Jackie Dreiling’s contention that Christy should never be identified, Christy wanted to be seen, and having been so, could move on.

“When I read your email, I just had this mental image of an iceberg shattering, like a wall of ice that I’d been trapped in was shattered, and a bright light shining in,” Christy told me, during our first lunch. “And far off in the distance something that is just going to grow in my life. I felt like my life kind of started in a way.”

I dropped the kids in their driveway. I gave Christy a hug, and kissed her cheek, and once more. I knew we would not see each other again. This, and her laughter as I lost sight of her, told me she had walked away from the story. We both did.