A troubling piece in Sunday’s New York Times begins innocuously enough, with a portrait of a woman succumbing to dementia. At the age of 80, Alma Shaver started having trouble with simple tasks. She became anxious and scared, and stopped recognizing her children. Her husband of 60 years, Richard Shaver, would try to offer comfort by sitting next to her and rubbing a hand or knee. He started picking out her clothes and left notes around the house to help explain those vexing everyday tasks. The article’s first paragraphs movingly render the all-too-common and sadly prosaic heartbreak of chronic neurodegenerative diseases.
Suddenly, however, the story pivots.
“By the spring of this year, things had gotten worse,” says the Times piece. “Ms. Shaver had slipped beyond a murky fog that her husband could not join.” In June, Alma was sleeping in the upstairs bedroom of the couple’s home in Brick, New Jersey, when Richard “crawled onto the canopy bed—the one they had shared for years—and shot his wife,” according to the Times. “Then he lay down beside her and shot himself.”
After that jarring line, the Times tosses in a section break and cuts straight to the beginning of the couple’s love story: “He asked her to the Candyland Cotillion, a high school dance, in 1956.” We read about their seemingly wholesome courtship and marriage. We read about them “pulling weeds, riding bikes, holding hands.” We read about how “the two tended to be in the same room, often sitting side by side.” It’s reminiscent of the falling-in-love montage from The Notebook, a film which also happens to involve a wife succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.
Except in the movie, the couple dies together, of natural causes, in their sleep. No one is murdered. No one commits suicide.
The Times story does not enlighten us as to Alma’s perspective on her own cognitive decline. At no point in the article is it ever suggested that she wished for assisted suicide. Zero evidence is presented to suggest that Alma wanted her husband to take her life, let alone to shoot her in the neck. There is no discussion of New Jersey’s assisted suicide law, or its limits (the law allows doctors to prescribe lethal medication, but only to patients with less than six months to live). There’s no discussion of the push to expand “death with dignity” laws to patients with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or the surrounding ethical debate. Experts are not called upon to discuss the importance and complications of protecting the rights of those suffering from chronic neurodegenerative diseases.
Instead, the Times paints this as a romantic tragedy a la Romeo and Juliet. The remarkably tone-deaf headline of the piece: “Sweethearts Forever. Then Came Alzheimer’s, Murder and Suicide.” The sub-head describes them as “soul mates.” The photo accompanying the story: The couple dancing on their wedding day. The piece even quotes one of the couple’s longtime neighbors (as though neighbors are an accurate source of information on a family’s private, internal workings) as saying, “They were absolutely soul mates—crazy about each other.” Crazy about each other.
Amid this purported love story that ends in murder-suicide, there is no discussion of how often intimate partner violence is miscast by abusers and observers alike as an ultimate expression of romantic love (i.e. a man driven crazy with love). It isn’t mentioned that 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and that the vast majority of victims are women. Also unmentioned: Intimate partner homicides are on the rise, driven by gun violence. The only time that intimate partner violence is even mentioned is when the Times somewhat dismissively writes, “Authorities would file away the deaths as a murder-suicide, an act of domestic violence, and the news was posted on an anti-gun violence website.”
It’s worth noting the Times’ description of Alma’s cognitive decline, which immediately precedes the revelation that her husband murdered her: “Ms. Shaver had slipped beyond a murky fog that her husband could not join.” Given her ultimate end, this seems a disturbing parallel to instances of intimate partner violence where the assailant is enraged by being left behind.
Plenty of details in the Times piece are easily interpreted as evidence of controlling behavior. After Alma’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Richard “avoided discussing it and grew evasive about the future,” reports the Times. “He dismissed offers of help and suggestions that he hire a home health aide.” His daughter Karen McDonald offered to buy him a home near her, but Richard declined. “He didn’t want to talk about it, just like, ‘Mind your own business, I’m taking care of it,’” said McDonald. Another daughter, Kristy Truland, pushed for him to join an assisted living community, but he resisted, fearing that his daughters would put his wife “in a home.”
Yet none of this is explored, critiqued, or put within context by the Times. Of course, there are too many unknowns to draw certain conclusions about Alma’s death—but, given those unknowns and the statistics around intimate partner violence, the Times should know better than to uncritically turn it into a tear-jerker of a love story.
The piece concludes by revealing that Richard committed the murder-suicide a couple weeks before a granddaughter’s wedding and left behind a note for the soon-to-be bride. “It offered no insight into the end of the Shavers’ time together, only a simple wish from a man who had come to know what must be cherished,” says the Times. A man who had come to know what must be cherished. Here, the husband committing murder-suicide has been fully cemented as the romantic hero. “May you both have many years of happiness,” Richard wrote in the note. “May life be good to you.” That’s the final line of the piece, a postmortem dispatch to the next generation. Lord help us if these are the kinds of tone-deaf and blinkered stories from which we draw romantic inspiration.