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‘We Needed Her Strength’

Tarleton Counsels Sisters Whose Parents Died in Murder-Suicide

  • After speaking at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013, Carmen Tarleton hugs sisters Mariah and Cassondra Gray. The sisters' parents died in a murder suicide earlier this month at their home in Fairlee.<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    After speaking at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013, Carmen Tarleton hugs sisters Mariah and Cassondra Gray. The sisters' parents died in a murder suicide earlier this month at their home in Fairlee.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Carmen Tarleton speaks to students and guests at Rivendell Academy in Orford N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Carmen Tarleton speaks to students and guests at Rivendell Academy in Orford N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rivendell Academy students, from left, Jennifer DeBois, Taiyo Galli, and Taylor Acheson listen to Carmen Tarleton speak at their school in Orford, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Rivendell Academy students, from left, Jennifer DeBois, Taiyo Galli, and Taylor Acheson listen to Carmen Tarleton speak at their school in Orford, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • After speaking at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013, Carmen Tarleton hugs sisters Mariah and Cassondra Gray. The sisters' parents died in a murder suicide earlier this month at their home in Fairlee.<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Carmen Tarleton speaks to students and guests at Rivendell Academy in Orford N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Rivendell Academy students, from left, Jennifer DeBois, Taiyo Galli, and Taylor Acheson listen to Carmen Tarleton speak at their school in Orford, N.H., on Aug. 28, 2013. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Orford — The admirers lined up to greet Carmen Tarleton, many of them Rivendell Academy students who had just heard her speak inside the school gymnasium.

A few touched Tarleton’s scarred arms and shook her hands, thanking her for sharing her story. But one embrace lasted much longer, nearly a full minute. It was between three women who shared the pain of domestic violence.

“When this happened to Mom, we reached out to Carmen,” said Cassondra Gray, 19, who lost both her parents two weeks ago in a murder-suicide that occurred inside their Fairlee home. “We needed her strength.”

Cassondra Gray and her sister, 18-year-old Mariah Gray, have turned to Tarleton for support since their stepfather shot and killed their mother on Aug. 13, and then turned the gun on himself. Their mother, Rhonda Gray, knew Tarleton and respected her. She was among many who followed Tarleton’s story about overcoming a brutal attack in 2007 by Tarleton’s then-estranged husband, who beat Tarleton and doused her with industrial lye in her Thetford home.

During Rhonda Gray’s funeral last week, Tarleton offered the sisters her help.

“The support is definitely really helpful,” Mariah Gray said. “You think about things when you’re alone.”

These past two weeks, the Gray sisters have tried to absorb the lessons from Tarleton’s experience, of overcoming the physical and emotional scarring of domestic violence and also of forgiveness.

On Wednesday, they were among more than 200 students, teachers and members of the public who packed the Rivendell Academy gymnasium to hear Tarleton speak about moving on from tragedy.

Tarleton’s physical recovery has been reported extensively. She has undergone more than 60 surgeries to repair the scarring that covered 80 percent of her body. In February, she received a full face transplant in Boston and continues to recover. But on Wednesday, Tarleton’s message was of her emotional journey.

She had been invited by Rivendell principal Keri Gelenian to talk as part of the school’s summer reading program, the theme of which was “survival.” Juniors and seniors were given the option to read Tarleton’s book, Overcome: Burned, Blinded, and Blessed, and requested that Tarleton speak at the school, Gelenian said.

The books on the summer list were far from light beach reading, dealing with sensitive subjects such as the Holocaust and child abuse. But the lessons that can be drawn from stories of survival, particularly Tarleton’s willingness to forgive her attacker, were important for students to hear, he said.

“It’s such a simple and complicated idea to grasp,” Gelenian said. “That forgiveness is something you do for yourself. For teenagers on up, that idea is a powerful thing to try to understand. That was the aspect of the book that shook me.”

It was not a lesson that Tarleton immediately grasped. She told the audience that it took many years before she realized why it was important for her to move on from her near-death experience six years ago.

“I always heard what everybody else heard, that forgiveness is something you do for yourself,” Tarleton, 45, told the audience. “But honestly I never understood that until my day came, where I had an opportunity to really understand that after I was attacked.”

Her understanding was not immediate. The opportunity came during the summer of 2010 when she walked into a bookstore and purchased an audiobook called Embracing Change by Louise Hay. The title seemed appropriate for Tarleton’s life, and it was while listening to the book that Tarleton heard the message that forgiveness “is something you do for yourself.” She was finally willing to accept that message, and in so doing, it freed her to move forward.

She would sit alone and talk aloud, having conversations about her life and relationship with her attacker, Herbert Rodgers, whom she later divorced and who is now incarcerated at a facility in Beattyville, Ky., serving a minimum 30 years in prison. She would talk about positive things, she said. And if something negative came up, Tarleton told herself that if Rodgers had a chance to repeat his crime, she believed he wouldn’t do it.

Forgiving her attacker has been a long process, she said, but an empowering one.

“It has given me so much freedom and so much confidence that when I talk about what happened, when somebody asks me questions, it’s not a negative experience for me,” she said.

Tarleton was not there to sugar coat her experience. Indeed, her story is proof that bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them. Many of the teenagers in the audience would go through difficult times without understanding why, she said. But those experiences could still be useful.

“There’s always going to be terrible things that happen. There’s always going to be things that we don’t understand,” she said. “But I’ve learned that’s what life is about. Those bad things happen sometimes to push us to the next level, to make us the best people we can be.”

Students and teachers in the audience asked questions of Tarleton that ranged from the philosophical to mundane. They wondered about how she spent her days (blogging, doing interviews and playing music, she said), whether she had a favorite hobby (playing music), how she found strength to get up each day (she focused on her two daughters) and whether her ex-husband had asked for forgiveness (he had not).

Tarleton has appeared at dozens of speaking events and continues to talk about her story in the media. She has been featured on the syndicated television show, The Doctors. Just recently, Tarleton said she was interviewed by Al Jazeera America as well as The New York Times. The younger audience of middle and high school students at Rivendell was something of a change for Tarleton, but a welcome one, she said in an interview afterwards. She hoped to offer useful perspective as the teens struggle through their own problems.

The Gray sisters said Tarleton has been a model for them. They have endured the pain from false rumors flying around town, they said, even as they make sense of a tragedy still fresh in everyone’s minds. Several people walked up to the sisters after Tarleton’s talk and offered support.

Both women live with their grandparents in Hardwick, Vt., but are looking for an apartment together. They have considered speaking and writing about what happened as a way to draw attention to domestic violence.

Cassondra Gray said she is trying to forgive her father. But it will take time.

“Even though he is my dad, I feel so much anger because he killed my mom,” she said.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.

Related

Letter: The Power of Caring

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To the Editor: Deepest thanks to Rivendell Principal Keri Gelenian for inviting Carmen Tarleton to address students, staff and community about survival and forgiveness (“We Needed Her Strength,” Aug. 29). Thanks to the Valley News for publishing an article about this event. Above all, thank you to Carmen Tarleton, Cassondra Gray and Mariah Gray for finding one another, providing mutual …