23 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Anastasia WitbolsFeugen

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a clever, spirited girl. In school she joined the National Junior Honor Society, Latin club, and academic competitions of all sorts. A couple of months before her untimely death, she started classes at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. The world had been her oyster.

A different version of the truth is less palatable.

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a temperamental depressive for at least a year. In her diary and in e-mails to close friends, she romanticized death, expressed emotional volatility somewhat greater than typical teenage impulsivity, and fixated on a fickle boyfriend. For weeks before her seemingly inevitable death, she spiraled into a textbook example of suicidal behaviors, isolating herself, dropping out of college, and talking openly (and often) about killing herself. She didn't stand a chance in this indifferent world.

The dead have it easy — their reputations are projections of might-have-been, forever idealized, unburdened by their foibles or survivors' beliefs that anything but the best had been in store for the beloved deceased. The culture fetishizes potential. While those who die young remain for all time in grace, the living must forge our legacies through successes and failures — the actual.

Which is fine. Whitewashing who Anastasia WitbolsFeugen was wouldn't be terrible, just an anodyne comfort, except that another life hangs in the balance between her pristine reputation — Anastasia, the young light extinguished too soon — and the ugly alternative — Anastasia, the doomed soul. Mine is no longer young but had (and still has) potential at least equal to hers. By not allowing her to be seen from less-flattering angles, her eulogizers obscure the truth that contradicts the righteousness of my imprisonment.

Anastasia was my friend. We hung out in coffeehouses, discussing our naive ideals and cackling at life's absurdities. We went to movies together. We lent each other books that we each considered essential reading. We commiserated about shittiness and shared the happiness that kept us going. When she died, it was like no grief I'd yet known. I struggled to cope, to keep myself together in the aftermath. Even in that confused state, I clearly saw that the Anastasia portrayed by the funeral sentiments was a caricature, largely unrecognizable to many of us at the service. Frankly, she was no one special. The Anastasia we knew was complex, flawed, and passionate to a fault — a person we all thought eminently worth being friends with.

After two decades lived in the shadow of her death, having matured and made discoveries against which ordinary relationships are immune, I'm now less sure of my friendship with her. Personal documents seized during the authorities' homicide investigation showed me yet another facet of Anastasia. She lied about people behind their backs. She engineered squabbles between friends, probably for drama's sake. She had terrible self-esteem and vied for attention at every opportunity. Her flaws go on and on. She was, after all, only human.

Teenage relations, those gossipy, mercurial, emotionally heightened filters that distort one's world like the wildest Instagram effect — they don't even begin to explain why the night we parted ways struck me as both perfectly typical and utterly unexpected. Knowing what I now do is similarly befuddling. Was her death planned? If so, by whom — her or Justin, or by both, mutually? Either she wanted him, her flaky, intermittent love, to put her out of her misery, or she intended to do the deed herself with him looking on. Or, just as they decided one day to pack and move to New Orleans by the weekend, the two of them might've intended, with no plan whatsoever, to wing it, take a gun to a cemetery, one after the other welcoming oblivion.

So much for the pretty notion that there are no secrets between friends.

Ten years back, I wrote in this post about Anastasia's death, "the ever-widening wake of her death laps onward, continuing to rock and capsize in spite of the distance. Meanwhile, her memory on our horizon gradually melds with the glare of the sun." Pretty words for the gruesome results of teenage self-centeredness. I can't muster this kind of poetry for it anymore. Anastasia WitbolsFeugen died, but I'm the one who's rotting.


  1. I saw your billboard today and did some research. This travesty reminds me of Damien Echols. I will continue to share your story (and Anastasia's). Prayers are with you Byron

    1. Dear Unknown, thank you. Please send a message of support to Gov. Greitens.


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