The Plot Thickens
Author of gruesome tales shoots father.
On the night of August 21, according to police, Lisa Reardon appeared at the door of her parents' house in Dexter Township carrying a 20-gauge shotgun. She opened fire on her father, George Hicks, from a distance of seventeen feet. Her first shot missed, and he turned and ran. She pursued him into the house, continuing to fire. Pellets grazed his legs and buttocks, causing minor injuries.
The forty-seven-year-old writer, known for her gritty accounts of gruesome family tragedies, then fled from the scene in her Subaru. She was arrested a short time later in Livingston County. Police say they found two six-inch knives and a duffel bag packed with clothes in her car.
Prosecutors charged Reardon with attempted murder. When her court-appointed lawyers requested a lower bail, prosecutors replied that if her aim had been a little better, Reardon would be facing trial for first-degree murder--because, they wrote, she'd been "plotting the murder of her father for quite some time."
If so, it was a scenario that might have been lifted from one of Reardon's own books. Many of her stories deal with dark family secrets told with unflinching frankness. On her website, Reardon calls her first novel, Billy Dead, a "realistic portrayal of family life, murder, abuse, incest, and self-mutilation." When it came out in 2000, a New Yorker review compared Reardon favorably to Faulkner: "...like him, she can summon up the menace of the past, rustling in the dark." In a blurb on the book's back cover, writer Alice Munro praised it as "a brave, heartwrenching debut" and confessed, "I couldn't look away."
Reardon's novels are like highway accidents that way--if you gawk, you might be drawn into a nightmare. Not for the squeamish, Billy Dead opens with the news that the adult narrator's older brother has been brutally murdered; he suspects their younger sister of the crime. Within the first two chapters, unsparing flashbacks describe scenes of incest and horrid retribution. Reardon's website summarizes the plot
of 2002's Blameless this way: "Lack of accountability leads to a dead child, adultery, alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, and insomnia." The theme of her 2004 novel The Mercy Killers is suicide. She advertises it as "Death, drugs, war, child abuse, and plenty of laughs." All three books feature violence against children.
Following news of her arrest, friends wrote letters of support to public defender Lloyd Powell, whose office was appointed to represent her. (Though her books were well reviewed, at the time of her arrest she was earning less than $30,000 a year and had just $2,000 in the bank, according to court records). The most revealing letter was from Julie Hamberg, Reardon's close friend since they were sixth graders in Milan. "Lisa is a big writer, interested in overarching, vital life questions," wrote Hamberg, until recently the artistic director of the Southern Repertory Premiere Professional Theater in New Orleans. "Her nuanced writing is indicative of one who has turned a troubled upbringing into art that always allows us to truly comprehend the pain of others."
Born Lisa Ann Hicks in January 1962, Reardon graduated in 1980 from Milan High School. She worked odd jobs--making auto springs and caramel apples; clerking at a record store and a motel; cashiering at a drug store, farmers' market, and truck stop--and took classes at the U-M. In 1988 she won the university's prestigious Hopwood Award for drama. She graduated the following year with a bachelor's in English and theater.
Moving on to the Yale School of Drama, she earned a master's in playwriting. Her plays, initially published under the pen name Lisa Wing, included the inaugural production at the Purple Rose Theatre, Blush at Nothing. Other plays were performed in Los Angeles, Florida, and off-Broadway in New York City, where she was living in the early 1990s under her newly adopted legal name, Lisa Reardon.
Unlike her consistently dark novels, Reardon's plays experiment with genres and subjects. She describes Blush at Nothing as a "silly romantic farce with mistaken identities, hidden treasures, a pig farm, and a ghost." The Sweet Trade is about lesbian pirates; Cost of Living concerns factory workers and labor unrest. Gloria is about a cartoon female warrior vampire who "goes on an unauthorized killing spree in her creator's hometown." Her friend Julie Hamberg directed Reardon's one-act play Wendy and Danny--in which "two criminals take a hostage who turns the tables"--at New York's Circle Repertory Theatre.
Some of the plays were commissioned for the Manhattan Theatre Club by her mentor, Milan Stitt. Reardon's playwriting teacher at both the U-M and Yale, Stitt became a lifelong friend. They traveled together, and she taught creative writing at a school Stitt founded in New York, the Gotham Writers' Workshop. Reardon, who is divorced, was teaching online courses for Gotham at the time of the shooting.
In the mid-1990s, Reardon switched from writing plays to writing novels. She moved from New York to St. Paul, Minnesota, then to Chicago, and eventually to Whitmore Lake and Ann Arbor. But she's published nothing since The Mercy Killers came out in 2004; her website says she has been working on a fourth novel.
Reardon promoted her books with readings at Ann Arbor bookstores, but she was not a prominent part of the local literary scene. "You wouldn't see her at the conventions, or at the book festivals," recalls Jamie Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore. He remembers Reardon as "a very nice person" and "kind of hip and edgy, as writers are." While her books are "dark and edgy," he adds, "a lot of people who write very dark books don't shoot their fathers."
In addition to writing, Reardon has often worked with troubled youth, including teaching writing workshops at the Cook County (Illinois) juvenile detention center. In December 2006, she was hired at Boysville, a medium-security treatment facility for youth in Clinton, now run by Holy Cross Children's Services. Boysville houses both delinquents who have been ordered there by the courts and abused children who've been placed there by social services. According to Boysville spokesman Gary Tester, Reardon worked exclusively with the former group--the perps--first as a
daytime treatment specialist and later on the night shift checking beds. She reportedly started a writing group there as well.
At the time of the shooting, Reardon was living in southeast Ann Arbor with her boyfriend, Michael Harrington. Hamberg writes that Reardon is "dedicated to her mother, three sisters, brothers, and nieces," often babysitting her sister Ramona's two girls. But despite the idyllic picture, Reardon's life had long been shadowed.
In February 2006, according to a report in her court file, she checked into St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in a suicidal panic. She was released three weeks later to the care of psychiatrist Robert Zimmerman, who continued to treat her with weekly sessions. "She has been working with me diligently," Zimmerman wrote the court. "She herself has been traumatized severely during childhood and early adolescence."
This March, Milan Stitt died, and Reardon went to New York to help his sister with his effects. She gave impassioned eulogies at two separate memorials, one in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University, Stitt's last teaching post, and another in June at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Her mentor's death seems to have plunged Reardon into a dark fury. The prosecutor's motion against a bond reduction quotes a message to "Julie" (presumably Hamberg): "Ramona and I have had some big ugly arguments because she and John insist on taking the girls to his house to visit. I'm opposed to this since the average pedophile has anywhere from 80 to 120 victims in a lifetime....So I walk a fine line between trying to protect them and having Ramona boot me out of their lives instead of Dad....It's gotten to the point where I sometimes write down little plans on how to erase him from the picture in order to prevent the possibility of him hurting them. A hunting accident, brake failure on his truck, an injection of bleach or antifreeze. It doesn't even seem like it would be murder...more like cutting a cancer before it spreads any further. There isn't a reason in the world why that man should be alive, especially when someone like Milan dies."
On Reardon's website there are two pictures of a cat named Godfrey. Described as "her boon companion for 17 years," Godfrey died just hours before Reardon attacked her father. Stitt's death enraged her--but apparently it was Godfrey's that caused her emotions to boil over.
Shortly after the shooting, according to prosecution filings, Reardon called her sister April and said: "I just cannot believe I missed. I will never get another chance." She also is alleged to have said that she "did not think it through good enough because she should have buried [Godfrey] before she tried."
After Reardon was arrested, she was initially denied bail. Then it was set at half a million dollars. Her public defender, Christopher Renna, filed a motion to reduce it, introducing into the court record the letter from Hamberg--and a statement from Zimmerman, her psychiatrist, that promised "there would be no further repetition" of the attack. In rebuttal, the prosecution presented Reardon's letter to "Julie," the journal entry, and the phone call to her sister. The prosecution's brief also pointed out that Zimmerman had written that he could not "determine the psychic contribution to this tragic event" and did not give a specific diagnosis or treatment plan. The prosecution argued that some family members still feared Reardon, and, with numerous friends out of state, she was a risk to flee before trial.
District 14A judge Richard Conlin denied the motion to reduce bond and granted her defense's motion for a psychiatric examination. On November 17, she was found competent to stand trial, and a preliminary exam was set for November 24.
Hamberg issued a firm "no comment" when reached by phone in New Orleans. Asked about Reardon's work at Gotham Writers' Workshop, a woman named Linda who answered the phone there said she would have to check with the director and then returned to announce: "I'm supposed to say we have no comment." Harrington, who described himself as Reardon's partner, insisted he couldn't comment because "it's not time for that yet" but promised "I've got a lot more" to say.
But while no one is speaking for her directly now, Lisa Reardon's version of her motivation is an open book: grist for her novels, hinted at strongly in Hamberg's letter of support, referred to by her psychiatrist--and spelled out more specifically in Reardon's letter to Hamberg that was introduced into public record not by the defense, but by the prosecution.
The accused in the shooting is also an accuser.
Reardon's mother won't discuss her daughter's allegations. Reached by phone at their home in Dexter Township, George Hicks initially says "no comment" as well. But when asked whether he is aware that his daughter's accusations against him are part of the court record, introduced in their clearest form by the prosecution, he volunteers: "That's because I told them--the prosecutors--that it never happened. I've told everyone that." Asked to explain, he adds: "She didn't bring it up until she was twenty-eight years old. Maybe somebody did something to her, but it wasn't me."
Hicks continues: "She's accused me of that for nineteen years. She's been sick. She's a very sick child. She's always accused me, but I'd just ask her, 'Where did it happen? When did it happen?' and she wouldn't say anything. I've had to live with that."
As to Reardon's psychiatric evaluation, her father comments: "I don't know how you can evaluate someone like that. Let's just hope they find out what's wrong with her."
[Originally published in December, 2009.]