Empathy for the devil

In "Facing the Wind," author and journalist Julie Salamon explores the strange case of a family man who murdered his family and went on to have a second family 11 years later.

By Amy Benfer
Published April 24, 2001 7:23PM (EDT)

It's a chilling crime.

On February 22, 1978, Bob Rowe went into the bedroom of his eldest son, Bobby, an 18-year-old boy who loved opera, baseball and his father. For 20 minutes, Rowe stood at the head of the bed, watching his son sleep. Then, swiftly and carefully, so as not to cause any undue pain, Bob Rowe crushed his son's skull with a baseball bat.

Rowe's other children, his son Christopher, 12, and his adopted daughter, Jennifer, 8, were watching television in the master bedroom. Rowe went into his daughter's empty bedroom, and sat for two hours, until his daughter came in to tell him that Bobby was sleeping too late.

He told his daughter to get into bed with her brother, Christopher. He told both children to close their eyes. He told them they were going to play a game. Then he smashed both of their heads with the baseball bat.

He spent several hours in the room with the children, sitting still. His wife, Mary, was at work. He told her to come home, that the children had a surprise for her. He told her to stand in front of the piano and to close her eyes. Then he crushed her head with the same baseball bat he had used to kill their children.

Within two years, Bob Rowe was back in the world, living a life that, if not the same as the one he had previously, was certainly not the kind that one would expect a man who had killed his family would have a chance to live.

Bob Rowe was found not guilty of his crime by reason of insanity, a defense that was bolstered by the fact that he had spent the previous year begging for intervention from his family, friends and psychiatrists when he began seeing his dead mother telling him to kill his family. (He told his wife on several occasions to stay away from him, because he was afraid he would hurt her, and at one point, he begged a neighbor to tie him to the front porch while he waited for his psychiatrist to pick him up.)

He spent two years under observation in a psychiatric hospital with low-level security (so low-level that he once walked off the grounds, flew to Vegas and returned four days later.) And nine years to the day after his release from the hospital, Bob Rowe, a consummate family man, married a young woman named Colleen; they later had a daughter.

The case of Bob Rowe is not easily understood, but journalist Julie Salamon spent over five years interviewing those who knew him and his first family. Her book, "Facing the Wind," does not dwell on the lurid details of the murder, but rather attempts to present the case from all sides -- as Bob Rowe saw it, as the legal and psychiatric community saw it. The result is a remarkably complex and understated work, especially given the fact that Rowe died in 1997 of cancer at age 68 before Salamon could interview him.

Salamon takes particular interest in the women's support group for blind and disabled children that Bob and Mary Rowe joined when their middle son, Christopher, was born with severe visual and neurological disabilities. Bob Rowe was considered the model husband by these women during the '70s. When most husbands were working late nights or staying silent, leaving their wives to cope with the stresses of having a disabled child, Bob Rowe was actively involved in the support group, acting as an advocate for his son, and openly speaking about the anger and love he felt for his family, as a way to help other parents who were fighting a similar battle.

"There were these two elements to their friendship," Salamon says of the women in the support group, many of whom are still very intimate friends with each other 20 years later. "Basically, birth and death. They were brought together by the birth of their children, and then this horrible killing. And in the end, Bob Rowe ultimately confirmed their belief that dealing with a disabled child is a battle that men can't fight, that they can't handle it."

In a wide-ranging interview, Salamon spoke about the strange case of Bob Rowe, a family man who loved his family so much that he felt he had to kill them, and the issues -- mental illness, the insanity defense, and the possibility of forgiveness, or at least redemption -- that this case brings out.

What did you find most difficult in reporting this book?

Trying to understand Mary Rowe. It was really scary and sad that she clearly had this upbeat, outgoing personality, but there had to have been dark sides. Certainly, some of that was hinted at in Bob's writing, and I tried to get at that as much as I could in the book. But not even the people who were supposed to be her best friends knew her beyond that upbeat persona. Maybe that was so much a part of her personality that that is what she became -- this completely forward-moving, non-introspective person. I think it's entirely possible.

Bob Rowe was a very physical guy. He did the martial arts stuff, he was a sailor, he was an athletic man. But no one saw him display a temper, nobody ever heard him yell at anybody, he never raised his voice, he was a quiet guy. He was a little sarcastic, at worst.

And I think that is why, when he told Mary that he was having these visions of violence, she didn't believe that he would act on them. My husband is a pretty mild guy, and if my husband told me that he was having hallucinations about killing me and the kids, I might tell him he should go to a psychiatrist, which is what Mary did, but I wouldn't be afraid.

Were you able to find sympathy for Bob Rowe?

When I went into this, I was completely convinced that this man was the devil. Anybody who could pick up a baseball bat and kill his children and his wife would have to be. But somehow, it wasn't that act that made him the devil, it was the fact that he wasn't punished in some way.

I was terrified to meet him. He was still alive when I started working on the book. When I finally started to write him letters to get in touch with him, I rented a mailbox because I didn't want him to have my address. I was really afraid.

There were certain aspects of his personality that always seemed dubious to me. He had this desire to be perfect, this desire to be the best at everything. But a lot of people have that trait and it's, at worst, annoying. It's not terrible. It's not pathological. But there is a psychological truth to his actions. He had all these pressures bearing on him, but the suspicion is: How could he be a psychopath, and then immediately not be a psychopath? For a lay person, which I am, that's really hard to understand.

And then he died before I met him. He got sick, he died, and then I met Colleen, his second wife, who tried to stop me from doing the book. She went to court to try to stop me from getting his court files reopened and when I succeeded in doing that, it took many, many conversations, many letters, many phone calls until she realized that I was going to do the book anyway. But I think even more significantly, for her, she needed some help to sort this strange history out for her own child.

Getting to know Colleen, and getting to know Bob Rowe through her was a fascinating experience, because when you get to know somebody, even in a secondhand way, it's hard to out and out condemn him.

Do you think Bob Rowe would have "got off" so to speak, if he hadn't spent the six to eight months prior to the crime describing his ailments to psychiatrists and his family, and pleading for intervention? Do you think that his earlier psychiatric treatment influenced the court's decision to treat this as a psychiatric, rather than a criminal matter?

You know, I do. When I read the decision of Hyman Barche, who was the criminal court judge, I found it unbelievably moving. He essentially said that this was a failure of the system to see that this was coming.

In today's climate, I think he would have had a much more difficult time with the insanity defense. Twenty years ago, it was a very different world. It was before Hinckley, it was before a lot of different issues.

Bob Rowe seemed to be the kind of man who defined himself as a father, as the head of a household. How much of his psychology do you believe was tied to the fact that he so idealized the idea of the family unit, and himself as a family man? Do you think that his love of family led to his extreme intolerance for the imperfection of his family life?

I think so. It's all part of the package. There are people like this. You always read about great people -- presidents, inventors. These people have a very definite idea of themselves, from the time they are very young, as being someone special. Bob Rowe was definitely one of those people. Being a good family man was his ideal. He was very ambitious in his work, but only up to a point. He didn't want to become the president of Allstate Insurance; he was pretty content to become a successful middle manager who made a nice living and had a nice house. His dreams for himself were not outlandish, but they were very strong. He was the kind of guy who had maybe watched a few too many episodes of "Father Knows Best," and he thought that was the perfection and that was the life that he wanted to lead.

Do you see similarities between this case, and other instances of family homicides?

I was talking to Michael Gary, who is now a criminal court judge, who had been the D.A. for the Bob Rowe case. One of the things he said was that over and over and over again, these kinds of family killings are much more common with men than with women. It's very narcissistic in a way. There is this idea that, "I'm the man. I'm the provider of the family, and if I can't provide for you, instead of killing myself, I'm going to kill the family."

In your book, the question of Bob Rowe takes on an almost Biblical weight as a story of sin and redemption. Do you believe that Bob Rowe "deserved" to have a second life?

There is a Biblical scope to it. That is what I was grappling with in the chapter on Job. The difficulty with Bob Rowe is that, in some sense, he was a victim, but the problem is, he was also the perpetrator. He himself was never able to see both sides of that coin. That's what irritated a lot of people about him and I think people reading the book will sometimes want to shake him and to say, "It's easier to forgive you if you admit that you did something wrong, instead of taking no responsibility."

But of course, if he takes responsibility, then the insanity defense makes no sense. So there is this tautology. Did he "deserve" a second life? I have to look at it this way: In his second life, he was of great value to Colleen, someone who I like very, very much. Certainly, when I started on this, I thought she must be a nut. And then I found out that wasn't the case. She was a very complicated woman with a very complicated past. And he was very good to her.

Do I think that he should have been able to live the life he lived before? I don't think you can do that. I think that is the other mistake that he made. He thought that he deserved to have his license back to practice law. But sometimes you do something and whether you are responsible or not, [your actions have consequences.] I think that maybe when you kill your family -- even if you're not responsible for it because of mental illness -- I'm not sure that you are entitled to have everything back again.

Now, if Colleen were on the phone with us, she would say, "But why? If you're not responsible for killing your family because of mental illness, why shouldn't you be able to resume your life?"

Sometimes there is fairness in some sort of pure, philosophic sense. But then there is the fairness in real life. Society as a whole may be able to forgive, but they are not willing to forgive beyond a certain point.

Who did you feel the closest to over the course of your research?

I became very close to Colleen. We have an e-mail correspondence even now. She came into this project as my enemy, wanting me to vanish. There was definitely a seduction period where I had to lure her in. I hate to use that terminology, because it sounds like I was trying to trick her. I wasn't. I sent her all my books, wrote her letters, told her exactly what I was doing.

I'm fascinated by her, I admire her, I am mystified by her. I have never met anybody like that -- somebody who could marry someone with Bob Rowe's background, with her eyes wide open, is just baffling to me. And yet, I really like her. She's very smart and very kind and very perceptive.

It's been very difficult for her ever since the book has actually come out. The reviews have been kind of overwhelming for her. All these TV programs became interested, and since they can't have Bob, they wanted her. And she, quite rightly, has refused to do that. There is no benefit to her to have her face on television.

Presumably, the Christian theology that she shared with Bob Rowe was a very helpful philosophical template to get their minds around this kind of event.

That's right. Certainly, when she met Bob Rowe as a young woman of 21, Colleen was filled with the lives of the saints. You read those texts, and it's pretty heady stuff. To have in real life all those issues must have been unbelievably powerful to her as a young woman who was caught up in all of this literature and this way of thinking. It's like having this medieval character walk into your life, except it's the 20th century.

The most frightening thing about this book is that it really makes Rowe's homicidal impulses seem almost ordinary, a banality of evil sort of thing.

People always say things like, "Within all of us is the darkness, within all of us is the ability to kill, within all of us is the devil, if you believe in such a thing." But I'm not sure that's true, honestly. I can't imagine the circumstances under which I would be capable of that. I suppose I could kill someone to defend my children. It happens frequently enough that a murderous rage appears in unexpected places.

But what struck me over and over again as I was doing the reporting was the frightening and miraculous role of fate and serendipity. The frightening part being that people you think of as being "decent" and "upright" can do the most horrendous things. And yet, the same ordinary, decent people can be heroic. To me, what these women did was heroic, what Bob Rowe himself did for years was heroic, and there is such a fine line between heroism and the most horrible behavior.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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