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'A crazy gift of tragedy'

'Grief is the hard form of caring,' says Malcolm Astley, the father of a murdered teen.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Winter 2013 11.4.13

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Lauren Dunne Astley (© 2010 Janet Wolbarst)

Lauren Dunne Astley, 18, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend a few weeks after her high school graduation in 2011. (© 2010 Janet Wolbarst)

How do you hope when there is no hope? When you have lost your own child, how do you find the strength to make sure that other people don’t lose theirs?

On July 4, 2011, 18-year-old Lauren Dunne Astley was strangled and slashed to death by her former boyfriend, weeks after their high school graduation.

Lauren was a singer and a French horn player. With other members of First Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts, she had travelled three times to New Orleans to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. She loved fashion.

Her former boyfriend convinced her to meet him alone on her way home from her job at a clothing boutique. Lauren had tried to break up with him several times, but he never seemed to take no for an answer. Rather than accept rejection, he took her life.

The Boston area was gripped by the brutal murder, and then by the trial a year and a half later. Nathaniel Fujita was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The community was also riveted by the repeated acts of grace by her parents, who have become articulate, gentle spokespeople for preventing dating violence.

After the murder, Lauren’s father, Malcolm Astley, expressed ongoing concern for Fujita’s parents. He hugged them after jurors announced his conviction, acknowledging that they, too, had lost a child.

Within a week of Lauren’s murder, her parents, Malcolm Astley and Mary Dunne, had established the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund. Its three-part mission is to promote healthy teen relationships, the arts, and community service. In establishing the fund, Lauren’s parents were trying at once to remember Lauren for who she was and to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.

Astley calls the outpouring of support he has received “a crazy gift of tragedy.” Lauren’s memorial service drew more than 1,500 people to her Unitarian Universalist church. People spilled out of the First Parish sanctuary, into the church basement and onto the lawn. The service was broadcast into a church across the street, which absorbed the overflow crowd. A “Keep on Sparkling” benefit celebrating her life helped the memorial fund reach $190,000.

“It’s helpful,” Astley said, in attempting to cope with the loss of his only child. “It promotes and celebrates the caring that links us. Grief is the hard form of caring.”

A retired elementary school principal, Astley has devoted himself since Lauren’s death to educating people about dating violence, exploring violence against women, and questioning why boys and men have been enculturated to have such difficulty dealing with rejection and shame. “We have to dig into matters we don’t have the courage for,” he said. Failing to do that, “we will continue to go from calamity to calamity.”

Astley talks at schools and conferences about how couples can find healthy ways to end their relationships. “We need to reframe breaking up,” Astley said at a recent Summit on Breakups and Gender. “We need to think about it and teach our youth to talk about it differently.” Ending a relationship is one of the most painful of human experiences, he said. But “it is not about losing your value or self-respect so that you forget about what is important and then turn toward harming someone else.”

Astley and Dunne have been meeting with Massachusetts legislators to promote passage of a law that would mandate education about healthy relationships in the state’s public schools. Such legislation could be an expansion of an anti-bullying curriculum.

Dunne has spoken to the state legislature and the media about warning signs parents and friends should pay attention to that could signal an unhealthy relationship and the potential for violence. Looking back, she sees subtle signs of trouble in Lauren’s relationship. Fujita did not visit her often at either parent’s home. Lauren tried to break up with him unsuccessfully several times. And Lauren’s friends were not enamored of him. Dunne recommends that young women not go alone to visit an ex, especially following a difficult breakup.

Astley worries for boys. They are surrounded by a cultural preoccupation with winning. They are increasingly shame-phobic. And despite society’s increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, he said, boys are extremely concerned about being seen as effeminate or gay. According to Astley, “We especially need to attend to the increasing isolation of boys and men, and the pressures they face from our culture, our movies, our television shows, and our video games to compete and dominate and be cool and scary.”

While our culture churns out countless images of men who dominate and conquer, it is hard to find masculine role models who demonstrate gentleness and compassion. “Malcolm is an example of a role model,” said Lea Anderson. She is a member of First Parish in Wayland and, along with Astley and Dunne, she sits on the board of the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund. She said his grace in response to tragedy has been exemplary. He has never sought retribution.

Astley credits his parents with giving him that strength. They were both deeply involved in mental health care. His mother was a psychiatric social worker, and his father was a psychoanalyst. His brother went into the field of counseling as well. When Malcolm was a boy and witnessed aberrant behavior, his parents often advised him, “Look under the anger.”

The outward control and compassion he has displayed do not always mirror his true feelings. His voice catches. At times he sobs. He finds comfort in Unitarian Universalist readings and poetry. And still, his loss can feel insurmountable.

In 2012, Mary Dunne was the winning bidder at a church auction for the right to choose a sermon topic. She picked a variation on the theme of “Got Milk?” and asked for a sermon called “Got Hope?” Specifically, she wanted to know what to do when the answer to that question is “No.”

The Rev. Ken Sawyer, minister of First Parish in Wayland for thirty-eight years, and now its minister emeritus, preached that sermon in March 2012. Sawyer wrestled with the question, and his sermon described his search for the answer, asking colleagues and parents who had lost children. He preached:

The best answer I came upon was offered by our intern, Kevin Tarsa, who had heard it in a class with Dr. John Schneider. Every person I have talked to since who has been involved with awful situations like that faced by Mary and Malcolm has agreed. It is this:
There are times—thank goodness, very, very uncommon times—but times when having hope is more than a person should expect of themselves, times just to get through, step by step, breath by breath, when hope is something people around you, your family and friends, hold for you until you are ready to receive it back.

To Lauren’s parents and to the congregation, Sawyer said: “That hope we are holding for you, the hope you may not be able to have now or for a while, that hope we are holding for you, will not go away.”

Lauren had a “We can fix this” attitude, said her father. That’s why she travelled three times to New Orleans to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. And it’s that same attitude that impels Malcolm Astley to combat violence against women.

Astley maintains a hope that society can change. He rattles off grisly statistics: twenty to thirty young women die each year in Massachusetts at the hands of an intimate partner, as do three women each day in the United States. “That adds up to 100,000 murdered young women in our lifetimes in this country,” he said, “the same number as that of American soldiers who died in World War I.”

Yet he follows up those numbers quickly, saying, “We can do it.” Society has tackled many other injustices: ending slavery, granting women the right to vote, taking steps to protect children from abuse. “We can take steps now and join together to let the light into the dark of this hard challenge of boys’ and men’s violence against girls and women,” he said. He acknowledges that women are also perpetrators of violence, though the overwhelming majority of domestic violence is committed by men against women.

As Astley spoke with UU World, another high-profile murder shocked the Boston area. The son of a broadcaster for the Boston Red Sox stabbed his 27-year-old girlfriend to death. “It all is again so painful,” said Astley about the murder of Jennifer Martel. “And it will continue until we change our perspectives on these matters.” Still, he believes he can spark conversations about safe relationships and safe breakups to prevent violence and promote fairness. “Things do shift,” Astley said. “There is hope.”

“We provide seatbelts for kids in cars,” he said. “We need to provide some emotional tools to help kids get perspective on what this exciting but tough road of human relationships and love is about.”

At Lauren’s memorial service, Astley ended his tribute to her by saying: “She wanted action. She would not like just resting in peace. Dance and sing on, sweet Lauren—and so may we.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of UU World (pages 8-11). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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