An Anniversary I’d Rather Forego

I’ve been struggling with this column for days. I even went into semi-seclusion for a week without realizing why—until yesterday—when an old friend offered his condolences.

My sister Lisa died two years ago today. The call came that morning, while I was working on The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese. Trying to meet another deadline. It was BJ, my former brother-in-law. I knew the minute I heard his voice it wasn’t good. I hadn’t talked to him in probably six months, if not longer.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” I said. “But you must not be. What’s wrong?”

“Well, I’m okay, but your sister isn’t,” BJ said.

At least, that’s how I remember it. BJ called me first, he said, after their oldest daughter called him with the news. “I knew you’d want to know.”

This past week it seems like it’s been that long, some 730 days ago. At other times, it really does feel like she was standing right there next to me—and then I blinked, and she was gone.

I’m still trying to figure out what to write, even as I carry out the task. Do I talk about my 2011 trip to Tennessee to help her start her life over, after she did a stint in jail? Or how, just a few months later, she jumped bail, sticking me with the tab? Or how, in return for helping Lisa, another sister accused me of killing her? (Funny, I don’t remember being her dealer.) Maybe that’s a starting point, but I’m not quite ready to write that story. Not yet.

What I think I’d like to say is this: until the drugs took over, Lisa was never without a smile, a funny joke, or a way about her that suggested that life was far too short to be taken seriously, so why not enjoy it while you can. She and I were polar opposites: I was quiet and serious; she was loud and rowdy. I liked pencils and books and wearing dresses. Lisa liked to run and climb and scuff the knees of her jeans. We fought like cats and dogs when we were children, but we were also best friends.

“Your graduation picture was on the bathroom mirror the day she died,” BJ later told me at the funeral home. He said it was the only family picture Lisa still had.

When Lisa eloped to marry BJ at age 15, I think she did so because he really saw her. She had become invisible to us; I had already flown the nest and was expecting child number two. Mom was working full-time, so she needed a babysitter for our three younger siblings. Dad was absent. Again.

Lisa liked the excitement marriage to a long-haul trucker driver promised, and she often went on the road with BJ. She also liked the way he pampered her, taking her to car races and concerts, buying her clothes and cars and not one, not two, but four different diamond wedding ring sets over the course of their life together.

Then came the day when Lisa, BJ, and our entire family traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to meet their first daughter, He Young. Lisa had never been happier than when that beautiful little Korean baby doll was placed in her arms. When their second little girl, Kang Hee, joined their family, it seemed like Lisa’s life could not be any better, richer, or fuller.

Who can say what causes one person to become an addict, while another one turns up his or her nose at the stuff? What forces have shaped our genes, long before birth, predisposing us to addition? And why is it easier for one person to later kick the habit—cigarettes, liquor, narcotic painkillers—while another person dies an early death from them?

I wish I knew. But I don’t, and I know I’m not alone. From loved ones to medical and psychological experts, there is a large army of people who want the same answers.

Here’s what I do know: Lisa loved our “uncle” Bruce, and at family dinners, those two could laugh loud and long, inspiring a sense of wistfulness in everyone around them. None of us had quite the same relationship. She was an excellent cook, far better than me, and she regularly whipped up a big breakfast of biscuits and gravy, fried eggs and potatoes, and bacon on the weekends. And our three younger siblings delighted going anywhere with her, for she was so ornery and so much fun that she was less like an older sister and more like a favorite aunt.

Lisa was also generous, opening her home to a stray friend in need more than once, letting them live with her and BJ for many months or more. She also loved watching football with our father, especially after the move to Tennessee made their home a perfect pit stop, whenever Dad passed through on his way back to West Virginia.

There was the Lisa from her West Virginia years, and the Lisa she became after moving to Tennessee. Her daughters mostly only knew the second one. I hope they eventually get to know the other one, the girl with the easy smile who loved to laugh and crack jokes and make delicious country meals that many people will only eat if they go to Bob Evans.

Scratch that. That many people today never eat, unless they cook at home, in their own kitchen.

Because that Lisa was the real one. She was my sister.

* * * *

My latest book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, was released November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

The Return of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang and Other Big Surprises!

News Flash!!!

I have lots of exciting news to share, but first I really need to apologize to my readers, for keeping you waiting all this time. I have a good reason, several really, why I couldn’t get myself back to blogging, but to be honest, they’re just wimpy excuses. Because when you can, and do, crank out a book in just under three months following major surgery, as I did with Nancy Styler’s book, Guilt by Matrimony, what are a few bumps in the road, in comparison?

Those bumps include being unhappy with my agent’s representation, and, in particular, the portrayal of this latest (my fifth) book on the new TV show “Crime Watch Daily.” That led to a bout with the winter doldrums, which came in October—when it was still warm and sunny, and nary a dark cloud in sight. It was pretty depressing.

A friend was fooling around and came up with this spoof of a book cover for my Vintage Berry Wine columns. I love it!

Until I sucked it up and did what I do best: I began networking. I reached out to everyone I thought could help me and began interviewing them. People at the major TV networks, author friends, people in the publicity world, and so on. I also Googled the problem, and feel so much more empowered now. Especially since there’s a book here somewhere, probably fiction, maybe self-help, for other unwitting authors—even bestselling ones like me—down the road. Time will tell.

Around this same time, I also became ill. In part from being stressed and depressed, but also from the fragrance and chemical sensitivity I fight every day. Then, as if an earache wasn’t enough, my dentist had to place a crown on my lower left molar. My mouth was open for four hours for that visit alone. By the end of the week, I had more pain. Not less. Over the course of the next two weeks, I developed a nonstop headache and pain radiated from my left ear all the way to my throat, which only ended after two more visits to the dentist, a root canal, and a prescription for meds to help relax my lower jaw. I couldn’t talk much, so many phone calls went unanswered. Eating was also a problem, so I sipped soup.

With all of that, you might think it’s been two terrible months. But guess what? It wasn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact!

Because that’s how I choose to view it. I could look at all the negatives, but if I did, where would that get me? Instead, I choose to focus on the positive—because that’s what works! That’s why I’m where I am today, instead of someplace worse.

For instance, while feeling too glum to write much of anything, I reached out to a dear family friend who lost a loved one in death. Turns out that my visit to her home renewed a friendship that had long since withered—but which was as healing to me as it was to her. If not more so, because by giving, I received exactly what I needed, at just the right moment. And that friendship has the potential to bring even more beauty and healing to both our lives and to those around us, as time goes on.

A smile, and a child’s love, makes the coldest day warmer.

I also looked for light and peace in the small places, finding it in the face of Haiden, a little preschooler I have fallen in love with. She is such a joy to be around: polite and well-behaved and smarter “than your average bear.” Haiden is, quite simply, adorable. She is just what I needed to take my mind off the stressors in my work life.

I caught up with some other long-time friends from the law enforcement world, and came away with the certain knowledge that sometimes issues are not as clearly defined as we might believe. Also, there are two sides to every story, but unless we know the backstory, understanding the current topic at hand will be difficult. So, from that visit came another potentially huge project for 2016. It’s timely and perfect for today’s police-phobic and Black Lives Matter society. I think it will garner a lot of attention when I roll it out next year.

Last weekend, while studying topics like blogging and time management and leadership, Diane Tarantini and I came up with a brilliant brainstorm. It may be the biggest idea either one of us has ever had. (In case you’re a new reader and you don’t know Diane, she’s a wonderful writer and blogger whose very presence inspires everyone she meets. We’ve been collaborating for some time now, honing each other’s writing and marketing skills.)

Leslie Pietrzyk, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Diane Tarantini, my partner in crime, and me

The idea for this new and top-secret project—which is so hard for me to keep under wraps, my fingers long to tap out the letters right now—was born during our Saturday session. By 3 p.m. Sunday, we called it a wrap. The beauty of this secret? It. Was. So. Much. Fun! There was nonstop laughter (and coffee, since Diane is the java queen!) as we created this amazing new media. We hope you love it as much as we do, when we roll it out right after Christmas.

Now, I’ve saved the best for last: I finally searched through all of my old yellowed clippings and my gazillion computer files. I was surprised to realize that I began working on a compilation of my Vintage Berry Wine newspaper columns in 1995. That was four years after I left the Preston County Journal, and should tell you how long ago my children began begging me to compile their childhood stories into a book. Now, those stories will be available in book form before 2015 ends.

I hope you’ll share this news with your loved ones—and keep coming back for more of the insights I learn and share with you here. I promise next time I won’t leave you hanging for so long.

* * * *

My latest book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, was released November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Pen in Hand, I Begin 2015 By Looking Back at 2014

I do so because I believe Pearl Buck’s words: “To understand today, you have to search yesterday.”

Searching yesterday, as in all of 2014, I found that I’d forgotten about some celebrity deaths, undoubtedly because I’ve been more concerned about the ones here at home. Still, they lived, they entertained and inspired us, and in 2014 Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall, Shirley Temple, and many others all died. Some of them, like Hoffman and Williams, died far too young.

I’m starting 2015 by looking through all these scraps of paper, sorting and filing what I need and tossing the rest.

Personally, I was touched more by Maya Angelou and Robin Williams’s deaths than the rest, because their own work touched my life profoundly. In their collective body of work, they speak to the human condition—a topic Angelou always talked about, and something Williams taught me with his many roles.

As we start 2015, the world is a hot mess. Here in the U.S. black male deaths by the men in blue have led to riots over race, privilege, police, deadly force and justice. Or, some say, the lack thereof. Then there was the University of Virginia gang rape that was—and then wasn’t. Or was it? From kindergarten to college (43 in Mexico, 276 in Nigeria, and 132 in Pakistan) at least 451 students were kidnapped and/or murdered. U.S. and U.K. journalists were beheaded. And three Malaysian airliners have crashed: one simply vanished; another was blown from the sky by a drone, and the most recent one appears to have been downed by a bad storm.

Those were some of the more sobering headlines that found their way onto the 27/7 news cycle, and which caused not a few people to give up reading or watching the news completely. Then there was less important news, which quickly turned quite serious. For instance, there was the parody about a plot to murder North Korea’s leader. That seems to have led to a cyber-attack on Sony (the debate continues as to who was responsible), one of the largest movie studios out there, which resulted in dozens of embarrassed celebrities. Not to mention studio execs, after the hackers shared email correspondence and other private information with a voyeur public.

Along the way, free speech was taken hostage—until President Obama reminded his people that the United States does not cower before cowards, resulting in said speech being released, to the tune of almost $20 million in earnings for Sony after just one week.

Another disturbing 2014 news story involves the rise of the dangerous group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), not to be confused with that other Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and wisdom who surely must have been much more benevolent than this modern ISIS. On top of that danger, there was the equally deadly Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 7,000 people in West Africa, and made even me worry about boarding my next flight.

The Ray Rice elevator incident, and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance the NFL took in response—all of which has served as the best campaign against domestic violence in decades—made for a fascinating 2014 news story. By punching out his then-fiancée (now wife) the former Baltimore Ravens running back has provided a new level of awareness to the behind-closed-doors war zone that many women and children have remained captive to for far too long. If Twitter is anything to judge by, (#WhyIStayed) the clumsy Rice-NFL mambo has helped other men learn that women aren’t punching bags. Or footballs, to be kicked around. But there is a price to pay for doing so—which can include losing your job as a breadwinner.

Then, most recently, a bit of good news: U.S.-Cuba relations saw a thaw, which means it’s only a matter of time before the island and its archipelagos become yet another pit stop for cruising tourists. Oh yes, the thaw also means that authentic Cuban fare should be much more accessible to people like me, who find their rich blend of exotic spices a culinary delight to the palate.

One of the best feel-good stories of 2014, perhaps by now forgotten in view of the overwhelmingly bad news, is the one about Pakistan teenager Malala Yousafzai, who in 2014 was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” At 17, she is the youngest person to ever receive the distinguished prize. This and Malal’s own bravery at age 15—when she single-handedly stood up to the Taliban—reminds us that while courage often comes in the face of a child, it can flee by the time we become adults. (Then again, all those nurses and doctors caring for Ebola patients give us faith that even adults can be courageous when they are called to do so.)

Here in West Virginia we were happy to see a corrupt coal baron indicted in 2014 for his part in the Massey Energy deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine four years ago. Yes, Don Blankenship will have his day in court, for putting insanely rich profits before the safety of his employees. I’m just happy that the winds of change seem to be blowing in our direction over here in Appalachia, hopefully bringing down the Dark Lord of Coal Country with them.

I’d like to think this constitutes a happy change here in Almost Heaven, since the ongoing fallout for company execs at Freedom Industries includes similar federal charges. That firm, you might recall, contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents one year ago January 9 when MCHM, a toxic chemical, leaked into the Elk River, leaving many people without a way to even take a bath—much less a drink.

And even closer to home, here in Morgantown, W.Va., the Skylar Neese murder case came away as one of the top five biggest news stories in 2014, according to WDTV. It was a real downer, and I should know, because I covered the story on my blog while simultaneously writing two books about the case and its related legal proceedings. (But make no mistake, although some of the details from my blog were used in the book, less than one percent made it into Pretty Little Killers.) If you aren’t familiar with the tragedy, it will air January 3 on ABC’s 20/20—just two days away. The adorable Ryan Smith asks some great questions during his interview with my coauthor and me.

The first book about the case, an ebook titled The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese, contributed to my becoming a New York Times best-selling author–which was definitely the most unexpected good news I personally got in 2014. Having this title added to my résumé was not something I aspired to–because I never sought recognition for my work. My work involves shining the light on other people, so journalism used to mean working behind the scenes. Not being the story. But I do believe that when you work hard, and you do good work, recognition comes whether you seek it or not.

Being a reporter, or a journalist, aren’t always one and the same—especially nowadays. Reporters report; journalists dig and dig, unearthing facts some people would rather keep buried. That being said, I have wonderful colleagues who refuse to be called “journalists” because they believe the title has become synonymous with reporters who feel entitled.

I don’t as a rule make New Year’s resolutions. I resolve every day when I get up to try and make that day better than the last. Some days I succeed. Other days I fail. In an epic way—but I never give up trying.

So for today, be it January 1 or not, I have concluded the following while looking back at the last year: I will post more about my work to social media, and I will blog once a week. I might blog here or at Huffington Post, depending on what news stories are making the rounds that week.

I would like to take in a professional journalism conference this year, to help me hone my writing, editing and cognitive skills. I also need to be kinder to myself, as I continue trying to find a good work-home-personal life balance.

I resolve to go through scraps, one at a time, and toss or file, and I’ll do the same with clothes I’ve outgrown or those which are heaped up in a mending pile, and with the books I’m never going to read. I’m also going to worry less, and to remember more, including this key point: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

Oh yes, and I will finish my sequel, To Shatter the Silence–sooner rather than later. Come downed aircraft, pestilence and disease, or other tragic world events that are sure to happen this year. All the while hoping that only good things light up our lives in 2015.

* * *

I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella BooksNellie Bly BooksAmazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Two Years Later: What I Hope Teens Learn From Skylar

I’ve been away since last Wednesday, and I’m kicking myself for not writing this sooner. Just because I didn’t, though, does not mean that today’s date–the two-year anniversary of Skylar Neese’s disappearance–has not loomed large on my mind. How could it not, given that the book about her murder comes out in two days?

Like most of you, I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet Skylar. Many of us weren’t, and yet, through everything that’s been written about her, we wish we had. She was one of those teenagers who makes an indelible mark on you, I’ve learned. All her friends say so. And, if nothing else, Skylar’s effervescent smile and her zest for life (as seen in her photos) captivated us all. Made us long to know her, even though that could never be, not long after midnight on July 6, 2012.

I’d like to say I’ve gleaned some amazingly profound bits of wisdom from working on this book, but I haven’t. What I’ve come to realize is this: Skylar had true friends who warned her about hanging out with one of her killers. So did Skylar’s other killer. Both girls had true friends who cared enough about them to speak up. It’s tragic that neither girl listened to that counsel. If they had, there wouldn’t be a book. And that would be just fine by me.

When it comes to heeding advice from well meaning friends, adolescents aren’t much different from adults. It can be very difficult to take counsel, even when it’s accompanied by the best of intentions. We like to think we’re smart enough to know best, that our decisions are well reasoned and based on good judgement–but when even mature adults don’t listen to friends or family who try to warn them about some impending danger, how much harder it must be for unsuspecting teens.

Even if such sage advice comes from parents, as it did from Skylar’s–who warned her against sneaking out her window to hang out with friends late at night–it can be difficult for an independence-seeking teen to listen. Especially if that teen, like Skylar, is very bright, and thinks she knows best.

It’s a teenage trait, this pattern of thinking, and if it carries over into adult life, the price we pay becomes much higher. I had a friend like that. Because he didn’t heed the warning his parents gave him, in a split second his life was forever altered. Which is why the last time I talked to him was in 1979. He ignored the parents who loved him dearly and because he craved living on the edge, it cost him his life.

It really has been an honor to tell Skylar’s story. I hope Mary and Dave, Skylar’s parents, know this. Because, in the telling, we have the chance to help other teens, who may just learn from Skylar’s mistake. Who, by reading about her, long to become all she can’t be.

Hopefully these teens will understand that the people who love you the most won’t encourage you to break the law, or violate your personal or family values, or to simply have fun for the sake of having fun, regardless of the consequences. True friends won’t ever make you feel bad for following the rules, or staying safe. They will, instead, applaud you for it.

That’s what I’m thinking about today, two years after Skylar snuck out her bedroom window for the last time.

* * *

I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is being used in colleges and some high schools; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), is due out July 8, 2014.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella BooksNellie Bly BooksAmazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

 

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Surviving, Not Just Graduation, But Life

Thirty-four years ago this year I marched down a grassy ball field in Masontown, West Virginia, pinkie finger intertwined with that of Mike Sheets, my fellow classmate. We marched to “Pomp and Circumstance,” the same tune thousands of other graduates will march to this month and even next, as American commencements continue into June.

May is a month marked by graduation speeches: from pre-K to high school to college, guest speakers have tried to choose the perfect words for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. They’ve probably sought words that are dignified yet celebratory, serious yet not so weighty as to feel like an anchor. Much of what they say will be lost on the graduates, whose heads will be full of plans for the future, whose minds will be on changing the world or whose thoughts will be anticipating that other equally important tradition: the graduation party. (Or, of more immediate concern, how to keep their mortarboard from sliding off, or the tassel from hanging down into their eyes.)

“You expect me to believe that Mike???”
Photo credit: As appeared in the
1980 edition of the Panther Press.

I don’t know what I would say if I were giving a graduation speech, but I can tell you what I was thinking and doing thirty-four years ago. I was not, despite what my yearbook claims, expressing disbelief in what Mike was saying. I was not wondering when a West Preston High administrator would call my name for some academic award or even what party I would be going to after commencement ended, since I knew I would be celebrating with my family.

I was thinking about whether I could safely make it across the field without tripping in my four-inch high heels. I was also terrified that someone, anyone, in the audience, or one my classmates, would discover I was hiding a baby bump under my gown. I realized, too, how odd it was to be graduating a year early, while many of my childhood friends were still trapped, destined to spend another year in high school.

I was also angry that my fiancé wasn’t there to witness my accomplishment: his claim about working overtime should have been a red flag flapping right in front of my face, a brief glimpse into the next ten years of my life. I know I felt no small measure of trepidation, since my wedding day was one week away. Finally, I was thinking about how grown up I was, and how I could handle anything, as evidenced by the small bit of grease staining my cuticle—a testament to the flat tire I changed all by myself before commencement began.

Much of my thoughts were wrong, though. This is why, and here’s what I’ve learned since then: Don’t waste more than a few minutes of your time on anyone who won’t do the same for you in return. Better yet, when it comes to relationships designed with permanency in mind, such as those in marriage or business, if that person doesn’t first give to you, at least fifty-percent of the time, ditch them before you spend half your life being the giver, while silently resenting how much your partner is taking. If someone you love repeatedly disappoints you now, while you’re dressing for tonight’s graduation, they’re going to continue doing that very selfish behavior as long as you let them.

I’ve also learned this: money does not buy happiness. It buys things and stuff, which might make you wonder why people want to spend time with you, if they really love you—or if they only love what you can do for them. Also, buying things and stuff might give you temporary pleasure, but it won’t reach your heart or touch your soul. So give back, and give more than you take. It’s not thinking ’what do I get?’ but ‘what can I give?’ that will make you content. You see, the Golden Rule really is true: there is more happiness in giving than receiving.

I’ve learned that everyone—every single one of us—has a dirty little secret we’d rather keep hidden, so you are not alone. Chances are, if your secret is no worse than being pregnant at sixteen or getting pie-eyed on your father’s homemade wine, it isn’t going to cause anyone to hate you, or even think of less of you. Keeping secrets somehow makes us believe we’re the only one who could be guilty of such “brazen” behavior, but guess what? Once you open up and tell the world, you’ll find out how to deal with your own problem, whatever it is—because most of us have not only already been there—we’ve got a solution, too.

Finally, I learned that things are rarely as they seem. For instance, the title “Pomp and Circumstance” came from a speech in Othello. So yes, we have Shakespeare to thank for this great song. No, seriously, we can thank another British composer, instead. Edward Elgar composed “March No. 1” in 1901 as part of six commissioned pieces, and chose to use the Bard’s words for the title of this beautiful piece.

An aside: Elgar didn’t pen the words for his tune; Arthur C. Benson did, in what has became known as “Land of Hope and Glory,” the song that Wikipedia says most Brits would choose as their national anthem, if they could.  The song that has become such an important part of American graduation exercises got its start here in 1905, when Yale University awarded Elgar an honorary doctorate in music.

Now, back to matters at hand: Ironically, Othello was convinced his wife, Desdemona, had cheated on him. Nothing could dissuade him of this false idea, which ultimately led to his downfall. The point is, though, he was tricked by something that seemed to be true, when it was nothing of the kind.

Whether through self-deception—believing you’re an adult at eighteen, and you know not just all the answers but all the questions, too—or another person’s deceit, it’s good not to take yourself too seriously. If you do, life is going to come along and hit you upside the noggin with a frying pan, hard enough to make you wish you were a child again. So be humble and know your limitations. Be willing to accept other people’s advice, when the person is trustworthy and has your best interests at heart.

Quite often, those people share your genes. I call them your parents. Or people who have taken care of you as if they were your parents, in case you’re an orphan of sorts, like so many of today’s youth. Listen to them, because they’ve spent a lifetime learning from their mistakes just so you don’t have to waste yours repeating them.

I also learned, pretty quickly, that a grassy ball field isn’t the best place for spikes. At least, not of the four-inch variety designed to make a woman’s legs look long and lean. First off, you’re going to look wobbly. Worse, you’re going to twist an ankle and perhaps take your pinkie-linking classmate with you. Besides, no one’s going to see your legs under that robe anyway. So stick to some low wedges or better yet, a sensible pair of flats.

Ultimately, I think that’s what my message to today’s graduates is: Yes, do go out there and grab life with both hands, make a dent in the world, even, but do it with a measure of sense about you. That way, you’ll still be around to enjoy life thirty-four years later.

* * *

If she was still alive, Skylar Neese would be graduating from University High School tonight.  I’m sure I’ll be joining many Morgantown residents in saluting the woman she would have become, had she not been killed long before she had a chance to reach her potential as a giver, not a taker. My congratulations go out to all of her friends, and every graduate who has successfully made it this far in life.

 * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

A Very Long Year Winds Down With 31 Days of March Madness


In less than a year, I wrote two books. In the midst of that, my sister died, my husband contracted a bone infection, and another loved one had a meltdown of sorts.

Then, after meeting an extremely stressful deadline, I found I couldn’t write. It’s been a month now and my fingers have finally found their way back to the keyboard for more than a random email, tweet, Instagram photo, or Facebook post.

What this April 14 photo doesn’t show: the all-day vomiting and being admitted to the hospital again two hours later.

Part of the problem is having my husband in the hospital since February. Not continually, but in and out since then, beginning with a 10-hour visit to the emergency department. We’ve been to the hospital so many times since then I’m thinking of reserving a room there. (In fact, I’ve got a length of soft blue fabric that matches his eyes, from which I could fashion a lovely window dressing in no time.)

The last year has roared by at warp speed, while simultaneously seeming like it would never end. I felt like Princess Buttercup meets Scheherazade, where events conspired to tangle me up in one mess after another, all while writing two books in what turned out to be about six months. Looking back that feels like an exaggeration, but in reality much of the research to write Skylar’s book took three or four months. Only then could the writing process begin. (To be fair, I have a coauthor, but today’s blog is about how the last year affected me.)

Along the way, one emergency after another kept cropping up, among them a family member’s brush with the law, which led me to seek psychiatric care—for them, not me. (Although truth be told, by now I could probably benefit from such care myself.)

If I wasn’t talking to shrinks or orthopedic doctors or police detectives or undertakers in my professional time, I was doing so on my personal dime. It’s amazing how so many events in my real life ran parallel to those in the book I was writing. There were police investigations, mental illness and drug use to worry about, both on and off the clock. They say art imitates life, but in this case my life mimicked art.

That art was true-crime, and The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese was released as an ebook in February. It was designed to allow people to follow Shelia Eddy’s murder trial. Then Eddy pleaded guilty, leaving no trial—and little time to unearth anything else for the print book, Pretty Little Killers, which will be out in July. (Amazingly, quite we unearthed quite a bit, in the form of at least 100 more pages that makes this book finally feel finished.)

Then somehow, sandwiched between my day job and my home life, I had to board a plane and fly 3,000 miles to Los Angeles to appear on the Dr. Phil show. That episode contains enough memories to create at least a short story. One of them involves my 3 a.m. airport run where, after flashing my high beams at a driver who was blocking the passing lane, I found myself being chased up I-79. Though the interstate was fairly deserted, every time I passed another vehicle, the enraged driver kept creeping closer to my bumper. I watched my speedometer climb higher and higher, until the gauge read 90 m.p.h. I tried to call 911.

Only nothing happened when I used my car’s hands-free device. Instead, an automated female voice kept repeating: “Phone is not in range.” Eyes glued to the road, my free hand fumbled around inside my purse, feeling for a phone that wasn’t there. In the haste to make my flight, I forgot it.

The egomaniac was still tailing me when I reached Washington, Pennsylvania, so I took the first exit. When I returned to the highway he was gone. I managed to make it to the airport and through security but as I hurried to my gate I heard myself being paged over the intercom. I was the last passenger to board, but I made my flight.

After landing in Los Angeles and being driven to my hotel, I ate a quick dinner and fell asleep. In the morning, I rode to Paramount Studios with Mary and Dave Neese. As I sat in the audience at the show, I realized everyone on stage looked fuzzy, including Dr. Phil. That’s because the crew had me remove my glasses for the camera. In hindsight, I should have left them on because it felt really weird not being able to see. Still, I was a bit dazzled when Dr. Phil held up a copy of our book.

Yes, that really is Dr. Phil holding our book!

Forty-eight hours later my fifteen minutes of fame was behind me and I was back home, writing again. Somewhere between rewriting chapter thirty and nailing down a new ending there were other media appearances and time needed to care for publicity matters, all of the extras you never think about when you sit down to pen a book.

It was a daunting task, to say the least, but not an impossible one. Essentially, I had to take the rumors we knew, add the facts revealed at the sentencing hearings for Shelia Eddy and Rachel Shoaf, and see if everything when added together equaled a motive for murder.

At the last minute, the deadline looming, I created a makeshift workspace outside of my husband’s hospital room where he was being treated for osteomyelitis. There, for one solid week, I wrote and rewrote and conducted at least four more interviews—one inside my new, temporary office, the rest away from the hospital—leaving various friends to babysit my husband while I drove to see the people who promised to reveal new details about Skylar’s murder.

After publication, seeing our “baby” find its way to publication and then land at number 12 on the New York Times best-seller list was just the icing on the cake. In the end, like Scherazade, I overcame the turmoil and rescued myself—but not without a little help from my friends, who dropped off food and coffee and provided emotional support and editorial encouragement and never stopped asking: “What can I do to help?”

Throughout this entire time the most important lesson I have learned, in the words of one of the dearest of them, is that writing a book isn’t unlike rearing a child: it takes a village.

* * *
Editor’s note: Berry and Geoff Fuller teamed up in 2013 to write the authorized version of this story. BenBella Books released The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese February 18. You can also find it on iTunes and Barnes and Noble. Amazon readers have given it 4.6 stars.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of silence, watch Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, live. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Rachel Shoaf Sentenced to 30 Years for Killing Skylar Neese


While I’m traveling to and from the hospital taking care of a family member, my coauthor Geoff Fuller wrote this guest blog about Rachel Shoaf’s sentencing yesterday. Rachel, still 17, was sentenced as an adult to 30 years in prison. At the press conference held by Prosecutor Ashdown yesterday, I asked when she will be eligible for parole. Ashdown said 10 years, regardless of how long Rachel’s sentence was. In January, Rachel’s co-conspirator, Shelia Eddy, was sentenced to life with mercy, and will be eligible for parole in 15 years. ~Daleen

* * *

Rachel Shoaf is sorry. Or so she said in court yesterday.

According to her attorney, John Angotti, she accepted “full and complete responsibility” for her part in killing Skylar Neese.

But Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown didn’t think that was true. If Rachel had actually accepted responsibility, Ashdown said, “she would not be asking for a lighter sentence.”

And she might have a point.

Rachel’s sentencing hearing on second degree murder began just after ten yesterday in the Monongalia County Courthouse in downtown Morgantown. The hearing was presided over by Judge Russell Clawges, as was Rachel’s May 1, 2013, plea hearing, and the several hearings for her co-conspirator, Shelia Eddy.

The courtroom gallery was packed nearly as full as it had been for Shelia Eddy’s plea and sentencing just over a month ago—at least in the center section, where supporters of Skylar and her family sat.

But the left side of the gallery, which held the supporters of Rachel Shoaf, was not nearly so full. Of course, her parents, Rusty and Patricia, were there, looking exhausted. As were other adults, presumably a mix of friends and relatives. But when Rachel’s UHS pals heard of her admission to guilt, most wanted nothing more to do with her. Many felt angry and betrayed because they had been defending the talented singer and actress for months. It appeared that only a few students showed up for the sentencing.

* * *

Rachel’s sentencing hearing differed notably from Shelia’s in one key way: the primary “vibe” was exhaustion rather than tension. At Eddy’s hearing, people seemed tense, as if something unexpected would happen any second. The bailiffs acted edgy, each one continuously scanning the gallery. Before Rachel’s hearing, the bailiffs seemed more relaxed. There was some banter. Even smiles.

Maybe it’s because Shelia received death threats before her hearing. That’s what I heard in the days before the hearing: “threats,” as in more than one. And on January 24, it looked as if the bailiffs believed someone in the crowd might attack Shelia any second.

But Rachel apparently had not been threatened.

The difference could be that Shelia has come to be viewed widely as the mastermind, the instigator. She has been called a psychopath, a sociopath, a “frenemy” of Skylar’s who wanted her out of the way—permanently—and somehow talked Rachel into joining her murderous scheme.

Rachel, on the other hand, has come to be widely considered a weak individual, a follower who couldn’t resist Shelia’s manipulative will. People often point to escalating troubles in Rachel’s life the fall of 2012 as proof of her instability. Some people even considered her confession evidence of her wanting to set things right. Take responsibility. Accept her well deserved fate.

Psychopaths are okay to threaten; weak individuals, not so much.

* * *

But, of course, nothing’s that simple.

When it came time for Rachel to speak in court yesterday, she turned to face the Neeses. She began with the words they—and many, many other people—most wanted to hear: “I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice low and broken.

She went on: “I don’t know if there’s a proper way to make this apology, because there are not even words to describe the guilt and remorse I feel each day for what I’ve done. The person that did that was not the real me. I became scared and caught up in something I did not want to do.”

Rachel emphasized her remorse and listed all the people she’d let down, from her family to her friends to her community and ended by saying she had let down her “Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

In her apology, Rachel covered all the bases. She reported feeling guilt and remorse, and acknowledged all the people she had let down. She touched all the right bases. Which you would do if you were being sincere, right?

Well, yes, but you also might do it if you were creating a character for, say, a short story—or a play.

* * *

I have a psychologist friend who spends much of his professional life counseling people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has a long-standing reputation and has been called to testify in cases where people are suspected of falsely claiming to have PTSD in order to secure cash and subsidy benefits.

When I heard about this aspect of his work, I asked, “How can you possibly identify someone who falsely claims to have PTSD?”

“Easy,” he said. “PTSD manifests with particular, very specific symptoms. Any time a person claims to have every single one (italics added) of the common symptoms, you should automatically be suspicious.”

* * *

I’m not saying Rachel was lying when she apologized in open court. I’m saying that I am still suspicious, because her apology touched all the right bases—and that’s the problem. Of course, she also might have received help in crafting that apology, so it’s hard to tell.

One thing sticks out most for me, though. Look back at the first words of her apology. She starts by saying how much guilt and remorse she has for what she did, but then immediately distances herself from the act: I did a terrible thing, but it wasn’t me who did it. I didn’t want to do it anyway.

Sounds awfully close to denying responsibility.

* * *
Maybe that explains why Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown questioned Rachel’s motives for the confession—and by extension, it is presumed, for the apology—when Ashdown spoke in court today.

The prosecutor said that on November 30, after months of stonewalling, Rachel “changed her lie a little bit. She added something.” Ashdown contended Rachel had come to understand how she could come away from this with the best deal.

“She who squeals gets the deal,” as it’s often phrased. Ashdown believed Rachel’s confession was calculated and purposeful.

Maybe her apology was, too.

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

When Silence Interferes With Healing


Silence can be golden—unless its presence is so loud, so abrasive, that it drowns out everything else in the room.

One week later, Shelia Eddy’s guilty plea is still on our minds. Some people say they have cried for hours, others for days. Still others wake up from nightmares about the case, the crime, and last week’s disturbing hearing.

The memory is a hard one to let go of, and I doubt it matters whether you were an observer in the courtroom, a member of the media watching on closed-circuit television, or you followed online, through the live streaming feed.

Teenager Shelia Eddy is led from the courtroom following her January 24 guilty plea to first degree murder. (Photo credit: Ron Rittenhouse of the Dominion Post.)

The trial of the decade didn’t happen. Instead we watched Shelia plead guilty on January 24 to the first-degree murder of Skylar Neese. Those were almost the only words she spoke.

Shelia’s own silence drowned out the words of her defense attorney. When asked if she wanted to speak to the court before her sentencing, Shelia chose to remain silent.

I can’t imagine being Shelia’s parents. Or Rachel Shoaf’s parents. I especially cannot conceive of being Skylar’s parents. We just wish them peace and an end to their suffering, for all of the parents in this case have suffered. Continue to suffer, even now.

It’s clear from last week’s hearing that I’m not the only one thinking of these teenage girls’ parents. No doubt most people in our community were thinking about them. Some people have blamed them—the Shoafs and the Eddys—while others have felt pity for them.

Although defense attorney Mike Benninger’s words were overshadowed by his client’s silence, they bear repeating. Not just for the hope they express for the futures of these three families, but because of his reminder about why criminal cases like these should be surrounded by silence.

Benninger said he spoke in behalf of his client, when he said “the silence which has surrounded these proceedings and our work in them should not be construed by the Neese family or any member of our community as a sign or expression of disrespect or as a sign of lack of remorse by Shelia Eddy and any of her family.”

Of course, he’s right. Even while the newshound in me clamors for the facts, I know that high-profile cases like this one can easily be derailed if an appropriate level of silence isn’t maintained throughout. That in order for justice to be served, sometimes silence is necessary.

Benninger elaborated on this, explaining that the “silence which has surrounded these proceedings was caused and insisted upon by me so that the work we needed to do on the defense was to preserve the integrity of the defense to protect the rights of Shelia Eddy, the rights of Rachel Shoaf, and most importantly, the rights of Skylar Neese and her family, so they could be protected without interference . . .”

Shelia’s attorney said the silence from the defense shouldn’t be interpreted as a “sign of any lack of concern, worry, or caring by Shelia Eddy and any member of her family resulting from Skylar’s death.”

Still speaking on the teenager’s behalf, Benninger said, “I can state without hesitation or reservation that all concerned must know and understand that Shelia Eddy, my client, and her family recognize that the Neese family is in a constant state of despair, loneliness, and sadness.”

Then came the only apology the court heard. “For that, Shelia Eddy and her family are and will be eternally sorry. These proceedings are now coming to a close. With this conclusion, we hope that all families, the Neese family most importantly, the Eddy family, and the Shoaf family, all tragically affected by the actions of Shelia and Rachel, resulting in Skylar’s death, can move forward in a more peaceful and hopeful way.”

Benninger’s sentiments on behalf of Shelia and her family were certainly important. No doubt the Eddy family needed the Neeses to know they are sorry for what’s happened, for the loss of their daughter.

But what a shame those words didn’t come from Shelia Eddy’s own lips. Instead, she chose to continue her deafening silence.

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Shelia Eddy Sentenced to Life With Mercy


I can’t say how many expressions passed across Shelia Eddy’s face from the time she walked into Judge Russell Clawges’ courtroom until she took her seat and began sobbing, but I can tell you she’s one of the most difficult people to read I’ve ever seen during the 25 years I’ve been covering criminal trials.

What does one say when a girl of 18 pleads guilty to first-degree, premeditated murder? Yes, it means the victim’s family doesn’t have to suffer the agony of a long and drawn-out trial. I’m not sure it gives us much else to cheer about, though.

Shelia Eddy and her defense attorney, Michael Benninger, appeared in court Friday when Eddy pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

What about the fact that, in this country, a juvenile cannot receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole? If that juvenile has taken another human life, then shouldn’t the law dictate her life be spent behind bars—without any hope of freedom?

Today Eddy did what it’s been rumored she would do for some time: she pled guilty to intentionally killing Skylar Neese. Eddy didn’t so much tell the court—Eddy didn’t speak at all about what she and co-conspirator Rachel Shoaf did—she simply pled guilty to all of the charges Clawges read from his bench. Eddy said she understood what the charges meant. She said no one had pressured her to plead guilty. She said her legal representation was good.

She “said” all that in the form of “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir,” when the Judge asked her.

The most troubling part of today’s plea hearing, for me and many in attendance, was in what Eddy didn’t say: She didn’t say “I’m sorry.”

That left most of us wondering why. You plead guilty to first-degree murder, to planning to kill your best friend, but when you’re given a chance to prove your remorse—if you have any—you remain silent.

This is the Eddy we’ve come to know, the girl we’ve heard so much about from people closest to the case. As we’ve worked on this book for the last seven months, we’ve heard one person and then another say that Eddy has not once indicated she killed Skylar. Instead, she has maintained her innocence throughout—until today.

Which is, or was, fine, given that the U.S. justice system treats all defendants as innocent until proven guilty. But here’s the thing: As a reporter, when you dig into cases like this one, you come to learn more than you anticipated. You’re in possession not just of bits and pieces of information, but of specific details that lead you to your own impression about a defendant’s innocence or guilt.

Such turned out to be the case two weeks ago, when I read Eddy’s criminal case file. (It’s a matter of public record, so you can do the same.) At that time, I knew why the prosecution seemed to think they had an airtight case—they did. All their ducks in a row, so to speak. Upon leaving the Monongalia County Circuit Clerk’s office, I wasn’t sure how her defense attorney could defend her.

In the end, he couldn’t. Attorney Michael Benninger told the court as much today. “I have found negligible if any basis . . . to develop a defense,” Benninger said. After digging through West Virginia and even United States case law, Benninger said he found nothing that would allow him to mount a reasonable defense for his client.

He tried to do so, after looking through “every piece of paper, video and audio,” he received about the case, after extensive meetings with or talking to his client or her family about 30 times. In the end, though, he realized “there was little more that I or anyone else could do for this young lady.”

There didn’t seem much to say after that. Clawges accepted Eddy’s plea. And in a case that has sometimes seemed to drag on and on and on, today’s hearing continued at warp speed. After the court heard from Skylar’s father, Dave Neese, and her aunt, Carol Michaud, Eddy was sentenced. (She waived her right to a pre-sentencing investigation.)

Dave Neese holds hands with his wife Mary Neese during the proceedings. Mrs. Neese’s sister, Carol Michaud sits by Mr. Neese. FBI victim’s advocate, Tessa Cooper, sits by Mary. (Photo credit: Ron Rittenhouse of the Dominion Post.)

If the hearing wasn’t serious enough before, the family’s statements certainly brought home the gravity of what Eddy’s actions led to: “My life and my wife’s life has been drastically altered. We are no longer a family.” Those were the words Dave Neese spoke, heartbreaking ones for many in the courtroom to hear.

Carol’s words were equally sad, and serve as a solemn reminder that the loss of a child equals the loss of the next generation, as well. Carol said “she’s taken hopes and dreams from my sister” because Mary Neese was cheated out of seeing Skylar go to prom, graduate high school, or get married. With Skylar’s murder, Mary also lost any chance of becoming a grandmother, Carol said.

Many people in the courtroom openly wept at Carol’s words.

No doubt Clawges was touched by what amounted to a victim’s impact statement, but in the end, his hands were tied. The prosecution asked for life with mercy for Eddy. Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, which says sentencing juveniles to life without mercy is unconstitutional, Clawges issued his sentence.

When he told the courtroom that meant Eddy would be eligible for parole in 15 years, Clawges stressed that the law allows for nothing less. In short, everyone’s hands are tied.

He was equally quick to inform Eddy that while she will be eligible for parole then—that does not mean she will find herself on the road to freedom that soon. That is a decision for the parole board.

As we’ve worked on this book, one of the constant questions was whether a lesbian element was involved. Or if that could possibly be the motive for murder. Many teens of both sexes today experiment with same-sex relationships. But if Shelia and Eddy did, it hardly seems a reason for them to kill Skylar.

Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown didn’t discuss this, but she alluded to there being more involved. The murder occurred, she said, after Eddy and Shoaf began to distance themselves from Skylar. They feared their friendship would dissolve and, if that happened, they were “worried that Skylar would divulge their secrets. The kind of secrets girls have and (Ashdown paused here) other things.”

Ashdown also confirmed a rumor we’ve heard for awhile now, that sometimes in June, Eddy and Shoaf finalized their plan to kill Skylar. They put that plan into action on July 6, by concealing kitchen knives beneath their clothing, taking along a shovel to help bury their intended victim, and clean clothes to change into afterward.

They lured Skylar into Eddy’s vehicle, drove to the Blacksville, W.Va., area, and crossed the state line into Pennsylvania. They went to an area familiar to all three girls, where they then counted down, and then “both stabbed Skylar multiple times,” Ashdown said.

“Skylar fought back and tried to run but she was overcome by her attackers,” she added.

Skylar Neese

Because of the nature of “this horrific and vile crime,” the prosecution said it had one other request: “We are asking you here, today, to sentence this defendant to adult prison, for her very adult crime.” Ashdown said Eddy should not be returned to a juvenile facility, especially since she’s now 18.

Judge Clawges agreed with the request, and said that as soon as a bed becomes available—be it tomorrow or a month from tomorrow—Eddy is to be placed in an adult prison.

Because Skylar was lured from her home, Eddy was charged with kidnapping, which is a federal crime. The same thing is true for crossing state lines, since Skylar was taken from West Virginia but killed in Pennsylvania. In return for Eddy’s plea today, Pennsylvania and federal court systems both agreed to dismiss any pending charges they have against her.

There are so many, many more details that I could go into here—but time and space limit me. The best I can do is offer a thorough and extensive examination of all of today’s court proceedings and more in our upcoming book. This includes the motive for Skylar’s murder, and whether a lesbian relationship was at the heart of it.

BenBella Books, our publisher, has selected the title. The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese will be available as an ebook in late February. In addition to the above, we hope it also provides a look at problems within today’s families, the average teen’s use of social media, and why a savage crime like this happened at all.

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”