My favorite memories of being a parent involve the days when nothing happens. When we’re just laying around doing nothing but basking in each other’s joy and love.
– Patterson Hood
I don’t believe sorry is strong enough. None of this was necessary.
– Ricky Javon Gray
In the early afternoon of January 1, 2006, firefighters were called to a two-story home in a quiet neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. A friend of the family that lived there – a couple and their two small children – had arrived early for a planned New Year’s Day party and, finding the house filling with smoke, frantically called 911. Christmas trees and lights still decorated surrounding houses, and neighbors, enjoying the holiday, were moving slowly or sleeping in when the trucks arrived, sirens blaring. First responders hurried inside and discovered a fire burning in the smoke-filled basement. They also found four bodies – two adults and two children – unmoving and prone on the floor. Immediately they started shifting the still forms towards the clean air outdoors in hopes of reviving them, but in the process made a horrific discovery: all four had been bound, gagged, and were already lifeless. A tragic holiday house fire became a brutal arson/murder.
All day, across the city, people were jarred by the terrible news. The victims had been well known residents, universally liked by all who knew them. Bryan Harvey, 49, was a musician of some renown – the former singer-guitarist for the postpunk Americana duo House of Freaks (whose other member, drummer Johnny Hott, had made the 911 call that afternoon). In recent years Bryan’s musical career had taken a back seat to raising a family. His wife, Kathryn, 39, owned and operated World of Mirth – a popular toy and novelty shop that she maintained like an immersive, campy art installation. Their daughters, Stella and Ruby, were 9 and 4. They had met their deaths, it was soon discovered, due to an oversight emblematic of both the couple’s trusting nature and their neighborhood’s peaceful reputation: Bryan had inadvertently left the door ajar that morning after fetching his newspaper, giving whoever murdered him and his family access to their home.
The facts of the crime that emerged were callous and horrible. The family had been held hostage in the basement – muzzled, restrained, and unable to comfort one another – while their home was ransacked. The killings occurred sometime afterwards and were abrupt and savage, clumsily committed with the Harveys’ own kitchen knife and claw hammer. So pitiful and appalling was the state of the bodies that hardened cops and firemen reportedly cried at the scene. The motive for the massacre remained elusive: the Harveys had been robbed, but of very little – a laptop, some cash, Bryan’s wedding ring. To wipe out an entire family for such paltry plunder seemed either deranged or unimaginably cruel.
In the days that followed police gathered evidence, local media expressed shock and disbelief, and spontaneous shrines of cards, candles, and other mementos accumulated outside the house and Kathryn’s shop. At a packed memorial at the local Byrd movie theater, musician friends numb with grief played a tearful version of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” It was a dreadful end to the holiday season and a chilling start to the New Year. And the violence wasn’t over: within days of the tragedy another family was found slain in a different part of town – further evidence of a binge of assault and murder so brutal and unfocused it would haunt the city for years to come.
When he reached the gates of heaven
He didn’t understand
He knew that friends were coming over
Or was it all a dream?
Was it all a crazy dream?
“Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” is the opening track of Drive-By Truckers’ acclaimed seventh album, "Brighter Than Creation’s Dark" (2008). A low-key, up-tempo ballad, it seems almost out of place on a set of often high-volume, at times incendiary, songs about the struggles of everyday people in the waning, post-9/11 days of the American Dream. Written by band co-leader Patterson Hood, “Daughters” sets the confused, wistful thoughts of a man who’s either just died or awakened from a dream to spare guitar, banjo, and brushed drum accompaniment, augmented by mournful pedal steel and delicate piano. Hood told me the song’s placement was predetermined: “I put great care into the pacing and sequencing of our albums [and] from the moment of its inception, it was always the first song for Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.” As a prelude to what follows, it resembles a prayer offered before a storm.
He saw them playing there before him
What were they doing there?
It felt like home, it must be all right
Or was it all a dream?
Was it all a crazy dream?
Inspired by the Harvey murders, “Daughters” never explicitly mentions them. Instead, its death-or-a-dream narrative device distracts us from the unclear source of the singer’s confusion and shifts our focus to the comforting image of an early morning family idyll. We don’t fully understand what’s happened, but are reassured by its vision of a playful sprawl of kids and parents in bedclothes and PJs.
Hallmark cards and feel good films, of course, trade in similar imagery and it’s a credit to the band’s artistry that neither this kinship nor the song’s use of the hoary voice-from-heaven motif (one of country music’s corniest clichés) sentimentalizes “Daughters” or muddles its melancholy tone. Partly it’s the music: the E Minor chord that completes each verse’s three-chord sequence is ominous, seeming to warn us that any reassurance the song offers will come at a price. But “Daughters” also throws down a gauntlet, I think, with its tender central image, asking us to make a choice between sincerity and snark, between loving sentiment and reflexive cynicism, before we move on.
Memories replay before him
All the tiny moments of his life
Laying round in bed on Saturday morning
Two daughters and a wife
Two daughters and a beautiful wife
Such unequivocal humanism is admirable. It also helps explain the song’s placement as the lead track on an album that chronicles the struggles of everyday people – not without satire, sarcasm, or biting humor, but always with compassion and a sense of their inherent worth. Embracing the honest sentiment of “Daughters” allows us to savor its bittersweet evocation of a man who realizes that paradise was his all along – not in any kingdom in the sky, but in those “tiny moments” of comfort and togetherness shared with his loved ones, before he left (or was forced to leave) this sweet old world.
Meanwhile on earth his friends came over
Shocked and horrified
Dolls and flowers by the storefront
And everybody cried
Everybody cried and cried
This is as close as the song gets to the terror and anguish it mostly obscures. When Hood and bassist Shonna Tucker sing “shocked and horrified” it jolts and nearly transports us where we, the singer, and Hood least want to go: to where a father watches helplessly as his wife and children die, and all the weeping in the world won’t bring them back or wipe from our minds how they were killed. Faced with such facts and the barely tolerable emotions they provoke, even the gentlest soul might feel the urge to strike out – at someone or something – with previously unimagined viciousness. In the days after the Harvey murders, many who knew them (and shared their liberal humanist values) admitted to an old school desire for blood revenge. Some surprised themselves by embracing the death penalty.
Is there vengeance up in heaven?
Or are those things left behind?
Maybe every day is Saturday morning
Two daughters and a wife
Two daughters and a beautiful wife
Two daughters and a beautiful wife
Hood still opposes an eye for an eye. He also says he’s “not at all religious.” But he is a father whose first child happened to be born shortly before the Harveys (whom he knew) were killed. “Bryan and Kathryn usually came to Drive-By Truckers shows and at least once brought the girls to an all ages show we played one afternoon. When I saw their pictures [on the news] my heart nearly stopped.” The crime so disturbed him that he sought peace and resolution in both his craft (songwriting) and the iconography of his cultural heritage (Christianity): “I just couldn’t make any sense or find any kind of closure to the horror of it all … the image of them frolicking leisurely in heaven was about as comforting an image as I could find.”
By September of 2006, two ex-cons – Ray Joseph Dandridge and Ricky Javon Gray, both 28 – had been convicted of the murders of the Harvey family. Poor, uneducated, and recently released from prison, the two had hooked up in late 2005 and decided to pursue a vaguely defined criminal path to easy street. On the morning of January 1, 2006, they had been cruising neighborhoods in a van, looking for a house to rob, when they spotted the door Bryan Harvey had left ajar. Their accounts of what transpired next answered questions about the crime, but did little to satisfy anyone’s need to know, at a human level, why the slayings occurred. The simple truth was that Dandridge and Gray might have picked any house that morning. They didn’t know the Harveys and had no vendetta against them – they were simply obstacles in the way of what they wanted.
There can be grim satisfaction in learning the motive behind a terrible crime. Traumatized by a senseless act it’s only human to seek sense in it. Crimes of passion, conspiracy, or insanity provide bleak comfort to survivors because they imply someone died for a cause, as part of a plot, or at the hands of a maniac. There was no such comfort for those grieving the Harveys: everything about their killers seemed haphazard, almost arbitrary. By the time they were apprehended they had murdered nine people (including Gray’s wife) by gun, knife, beating, strangling, or suffocation and nearly killed a tenth (who survived the assault but lost use of an arm) – all during simple burglaries. Neither was insane by any common or clinical standard, just profoundly coldhearted. Dandridge was sentenced to life in prison; Gray was sentenced to death.
“There’s folks out there so dead to the world they’d slit your throat for a quarter,” a street person once said to me when I was a social worker in Chicago. How and why that loss of humanity occurs, what crushes the spirit and warps the souls of once full human beings, is a vast question that’s beyond the scope of this essay (as are critical but complex issues of economics and race).
One more image: Gray showed little emotion during his trial until his mother testified during its penalty phase. Frail and in tears, she described a childhood of neglect and abuse for her son (much mocked by some observers and media) while holding a photo of him as a boy dressed in a sailor suit. Gray wept during her testimony. That moment (and photo) haunted me. It still does. Because we all start as the equivalent of that boy in a sailor suit – innocent, unspoiled, brimming with potential, needing only love, nurturing, and opportunity to grow into something worthwhile. When that process is corrupted, when those basic needs aren’t met and something monstrous is produced instead, it’s a tragedy almost always compounded by further tragedies.
I was very concerned about putting the song out, as I really didn’t want it to hurt anyone or cause anyone who knew and loved the Harveys to be hurt by it. I would never want to be callous about such a thing. I played the song for my Richmond friends in private, and almost every one told me they found the song to be comforting and beautiful. Even the one exception told me that, while he would personally skip the song because it was just too much – he had a child who was friends with the Harveys’ oldest child – he thought it should go on the album.
– Patterson Hood
I think you have to be hopeful about life when you have a child. I think you owe it to them.
– Bryan Harvey
I first heard “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” in 2008, just months after moving away from Richmond, where I lived from 1999 to 2007. Relocating there after some life upheavals, I attended grad school at Virginia Commonwealth University (Kathryn Harvey’s alma mater), and worked as a painter, writer, and teacher before getting married and moving to Chicago. I didn’t know the Harveys personally but had artist, writer, and musician friends who did. I knew Bryan’s music from his old bands, and was a frequent shopper at World of Mirth – where I once shyly asked Kathryn (who was lithe and lovely – “beautiful” in fact) if I could paint a mural (she turned me down). My future wife and I visited the shop on our first date, taking pictures of each other in front of the fun house mirrors outside the entrance. For these and other reasons, their deaths hit me hard. So did the song.
I have no children. I lost my first wife – the life partner with whom I’d planned a family – to cancer less than a year after we bought our first house. I moved to Richmond in early bereavement, because my brother and his wife lived there, with no plans beyond starting my life over. My sister-in-law was pregnant and gave birth to their first child just weeks after my wife took her last breath. I have joyful memories of us spread out on a bed, tickling, playing with, and adoring my baby niece – this awesome proof that life’s cycle goes on even when our hearts seem broken beyond repair. All my life I assumed that someday I’d experience, with a life partner and our children, the moment of familial peace “Daughters” describes so tenderly. That this wasn’t to be, and that cherished memories of my niece (or lazy mornings in bed with my new wife – our beloved dogs licking our faces) must suffice, was a bitter if instructive pill.
Since childhood I’ve had rescue fantasies. Once a superhero enthusiast, I used to fervently wish, even pray, that I’d be given special powers to right wrongs and save people in desperate situations. To this day, when my mind wanders, I sometimes find myself outsmarting fate to prevent tragedies. I don’t think this has much to do with ego: rather, I suspect, there are some incidents (usually intimate in scale, because larger ones are harder to relate to) so terrible it’s simply difficult to live knowing that they happened. So, like Patterson Hood, I imagine a happier ending to assuage my grief and restore my faith in life and my fellows. His is a glimpsed afterlife reunion; mine, an alternate reality of just-in-time intervention.
In daydreams, I’ve warned Robert Kennedy to steer clear of the Ambassador Hotel and urged Martin Luther King to avoid motel balconies in Memphis. I’ve hidden in pantries, closets, and crawl spaces in order to ambush and disarm assailants at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. And I’ve fought for the Harveys’ lives – with fists, weapons, or simple foreknowledge, imagining myself back at World of Mirth, not asking Kathryn about murals, but trying mightily to convince her I have psychic powers and that she and her family must spend New Year’s Day anywhere but at home.
In more realistic, fully conscious moments I focus on underlying “core” issues – throwing myself into politics or advocating education as a proactive means to prevent the creation of human monsters and the tragedies they leave in their wake. Sometimes this seems hopeless and I succumb to despair. Maybe then the best any of us can do is hold our loved ones close – literally or figuratively – on whatever oasis allows us to bask safely in each other’s joy and love.
For the Harveys. And for the kid in the sailor suit, everywhere.
Special thanks to Patterson Hood.