By Hanna Rosin
October 19, 2014
KELLI STAPLETON, whose teenage daughter was autistic and prone to violent rages, had come to fear for her life. So she made a decision that perhaps only she could justify.
Just before Labor Day 2013, Issy was coming home. Her mother, Kelli, had ordered a big chocolate cake—Issy’s favorite. Kelli and Issy’s two siblings had collected all the TEAM ISSY posters friends and family had made during the seven months Issy had been away at Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment and Research in Portage, Michigan, and mounted them on a couple of giant boards. Kelli told people she was “really excited” to have Issy home again and that she had discovered during her daughter’s time away that while it was hard to live with Issy, she just couldn’t live without her either. “I want her back in bed,” Kelli would say. “I want all three of my babies back home.” But during the three-hour drive to pick up Issy, Kelli texted her friend Vickie Slater: “I’m scared.”
“Can I do anything to help?” Vickie asked.
“Trade kids with me,” Kelli joked.
As they said good-bye at the center, some of the staff cried. Great Lakes specializes in treating autistic children who show severe aggression toward other people or themselves. Issy, then 14, had been one of its first students and was, for a while, the only girl. (Both autism and aggression skew male.) The center, which treats about a dozen kids at a time, uses positive reinforcement to get aggressive behaviors under control. Issy would receive tokens, at first, for every two minutes she kept her hands quiet; every half-hour, she could trade them at the “Issy store” for things she liked. The program worked; Issy had performed, Kelli told me, like a “rock star.” But after seven months, the insurance company wanted to stop funding the treatment. Issy’s bad behaviors had spiked a little, which the insurance company interpreted to mean the program was no longer working; the center said it was a natural response to teaching Issy to interact again with her family, which it does toward the end of each child’s stay. At first, Kelli was prepared to fight, but then she changed her mind and decided Issy should come home in time for the school year. She felt the center had started paying less attention to Issy once a second girl came in and that she would be better off at her local school, where she could work on the presidents and the state capitals and real math and stay, academically, at grade level. Issy wanted to come home, too. For days, she had been saying, “Issy comes home on August 30. Issy will go to Frankfort-Elberta schools. Issy will sleep in Issy’s bed. No more Great Lakes.”
“It was just so good to have her in the car again,” Kelli said. “And we see the sign on the gate that says WELCOME HOME ISSY and she’s so damned happy.” Recalling that tableau, almost exactly a year later, made Kelli sob so much she had to stop before finishing the story. When I spoke to her, Kelli was in jail in Benzie County, Michigan, eight miles from the blue house where the rest of the Stapletons still live. Before jail, she liked to look womanly, with long bleached-blonde hair and curves. But she’s lost 30 pounds and now looks both younger and older, with her graying hair in a little-girl headband and her pale-blue eyes always filling with tears. She had been scheduled to go on trial that week on attempted-murder charges for trying to kill Issy and herself. At the last minute, she changed course and pleaded guilty to felony child abuse.
Part of her was relieved not to be defending herself in court, because she believed she was guilty and deserved to go to prison for a “long, long time,” she said. And another part of her—the part that used to write a cutting, confessional blog she called the Status Woe, and speak at conferences to reach other parents, and yell at social workers who didn’t believe her—wanted people to understand the hardships of raising a violent autistic child, what it was like, as she wrote, to get your “ass kicked (literally) every day” in your own house.
Before we got started, she’d asked me for a piece of paper to make a calendar. Under “Friday” she wrote “Home” and then “Christmas,” because having Issy home again was like a second Christmas. On the block before Labor Day, she wrote “Kelli is the mommy” and drew a smiley face, because that Labor Day weekend was likely the last time on any calendar that Kelli would ever really be playing the role of mommy to anyone. All the days after she left blank. Before continuing her story, she stared at the paper, neatly numbered and divided in squares, as if the black boxes might help explain the cascade of disasters that happened after she, her husband, Matt, and Issy got out of the car that Friday afternoon and walked toward the door, starting with: “And then she reaches behind me and she hits me.”
By Issy standards, it was barely a hit. Like a subset of autistic children, Issy can fly into violent, unstoppable rages. Usually, it’s because they want something but can’t have it (going to an amusement park on a Tuesday evening), or because they are frustrated, or sometimes just to get attention. Typically, it’s directed against their mother, because she’s smaller, usually the one saying no, and also there more often. Issy has hit Kelli so hard that she’s knocked her unconscious; twice she has sent her mother to the hospital. This hit barely made Kelli stumble—a “glancing blow,” she said. Matt later called it just a “hair pulling.” But Kelli couldn’t let it go.
Before picking up Issy from the center, Kelli had imagined, “probably foolishly,” that they would go many weeks without violence. For most of Issy’s stay, Kelli had been receiving daily graphs from the center that showed a steep decline in Issy’s worrisome behavior, and the graphs made Kelli dream. She pictured a life very different from the one she had been living before, where she spent her afternoons and weekends avoiding making eye contact with Issy, or telling her other daughter, Ainsley, that she couldn’t go to a friend’s house because Issy was so attached to her and would go crazy if she left. She pictured being able to walk with Matt to the café in town to get coffee and not have to worry at all because her three teenage children could take care of themselves.
Later, Matt, who has since divorced Kelli, would say that the hit at the front door was entirely expected. He said the center had warned them that Issy would test them as she adjusted to being home again, and they would likely see some of the old behaviors again for a little while. But for Kelli, that first hit was not a test, and not expected, but a clue that the fantasy she’d built of her brighter, livable future as Issy’s mom was an illusion.
At the local high school, where Matt was the principal, Issy would have been an outlier, though she came with a special, dedicated aide and a father who was always in the building. But that Thursday, the day before Issy came home, the school superintendent told Kelli that they couldn’t take her daughter after all. Some parents at the school were worried about having Issy in classes with their kids—“Nobody wanted her,” Kelli said—and Great Lakes’ intense-behavior plan seemed more than the school could handle, especially in addition to the curriculum Kelli had laid out (band and art with Issy’s peers, math and history alone with an aide). As principal, Matt had recused himself and participated in the negotiation only as a parent. One administrator suggested that since Kelli seemed so prepared, why not just homeschool her?
“I am devastated,” Kelli posted at the time on the Status Woe, above a GIF of a couple going in for a desperate hug. “I have ruined everything.” During the course of our jail interviews, Kelli told me the story of this fateful school meeting twice, as a major event that “greased the wheels of this train wreck.” The second time, she added a detail. After the meeting, Matt got on the phone to try to figure out other options. Kelli, meanwhile, started rummaging through drawers. The room they were in used to be a cafeteria, and Kelli was looking for a knife so “I could just plunge it into my heart,” she said. “I was so in pain because of this disappointment, and I really felt if I should go to Jesus and just ask him, grab him by the lapels and say, ‘This little girl needs help, and I can’t do it. You must!’ ”
In recounting the story, Kelli slid from the mundane to the apocalyptic seamlessly. She is unusually honest, and often sarcastic and funny, so it always came as a surprise to me when she slipped into visions of Jesus and Heaven. Matt’s family, who never got along with Kelli, see this as skillful acting. But it didn’t seem like that to me. What I found most unusual and possibly scary was the way she was able to so fully inhabit, a year later, the mind-set she’d had the week of the crime. If it was drama, it was still very real to her.
That Sunday, it was raining, and Kelli drove Issy, Ainsley, and an aide the mile to Matt’s school to use the indoor track, where “just out of nowhere Issy pulls my hair and starts hitting me pretty hard around my head and face.” Kelli was on the ground, and a few people around her managed to pull Issy away. Kelli was “crushed” by the episode, she said, and then started speaking in the present tense, as if she were back on the floor of the track. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I feel like God should have picked someone else to be her mom.”
Before she got up from the ground, Kelli said, she caught a glimpse of Ainsley, who is 18 months younger and much smaller than Issy and who has occasionally had to hide under her bed or lock herself in a car to avoid the rage of her older sister. “I see Ainsley, and I think, ‘I can’t stay here. She won’t be safe.’ And I don’t know what to do. I know there is a tragedy coming, but I don’t know what it looks like.”
In 2000, when Issy was 18 months old and had just been diagnosed, Kelli came across a book called Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family’s Triumph Over Autism. The book tells the story of Anne-Marie, a “beautiful, doelike” child who, much like Issy, started out life a happy, bubbly infant and then before age 2 turned inward. This is a commonly observed pattern, known as “regressive autism,” though it’s not clear how much it reflects a developmental right turn and how much it reflects the emotional experience of parents, who often find themselves longing for that original bright child they knew only briefly. As the book describes, Anne-Marie is ultimately rescued from the “torments of autism” and reborn into a “normal life” through an intense therapy called applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is the same positive-reinforcement system employed at Great Lakes. “There was proof that children recovered,” Kelli said she thought at the time. “If I work really, really hard and I do it really, really well, then I can cure her. I must do this!” She tracked down a child psychiatrist in Michigan and essentially dedicated all of her waking hours to the Issy-improvement project.
At the time, the only proof the program worked was a study by the man who developed it, which showed that among 19 preschoolers who received the intensive therapy, nine made astonishing gains. (Since then, three independent research groups have verified that the therapy does in fact reliably abate autism symptoms in a small subset of children, although it’s impossible to tell which child will respond from the outset, as a recent New York Times Magazine story explored.) But one study showing nine seemingly cured children was enough for Kelli. For three years, she became Issy’s full-time teacher, enrolling her other two kids in day care and sending them, on evenings and weekends, to the houses of relatives. From the minute Issy woke up until she went to bed, Kelli subjected her minor routines to rigid control: Kelli would say, “Touch your nose,” and when Issy did it she gave her a little prize. If Issy wanted something, she had to look Kelli in the eye to get it. Sometimes Kelli had to make the same request ten or 20 times in a day, because an autistic child finds it hard to tune in or follow instructions or make eye contact, much less do it all day. By the end, she’d be pleading, desperate, “Dear God. Touch your nose! Your whole future depends on this!”
The result, Kelli said, was that “a relationship that should be all about love became all about learning.” ABA can be disorienting for parents because it’s entirely mechanistic, not psychological or emotional. According to its principles, autistic children need not understand why eye contact breeds trust or warmth, for example, so long as they learn to mimic what other people would read as trust and warmth, until it becomes an ingrained behavior. For this reason, it can feel robotic, “unnatural,” Kelli said. Worse, all day the parent is telling the child to do what the child doesn’t want to do, which makes the parent the antagonist. “What if I accidentally gave her a hug after she was screaming? Have I just reinforced the screaming? The most natural thing in the world I had to be careful about. I spent all this time teaching her instead of just having her sit in my lap and rocking her and enjoying her. What kind of child does that create? What kind of mother does that make?”
And yet she clung to the hope that the therapy might work, that something would “click” and, one day, they would “find the Isabelle that was in there”—a happier, chattier child who didn’t hit and who looked into her mother’s eyes. If the symptoms of autism do dramatically recede thanks to ABA, that will usually happen by the time a child turns 5. After three years of hard and relentless work, Issy was more communicative and open to learning but did not become indistinguishable from her typically developing peers. Still, the night before Issy’s 5th birthday, Kelli stayed up late at her dining-room table, convinced she had one day left and that she could still wake up to a miracle.
Kelli had begun her ABA teaching in the days of dial-up internet. These days, a Google search will turn up hundreds of what could be called autism miracle stories. These stories often describe “beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were passing winter frost,” writes Andrew Solomon in his book Far From the Tree, and “dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm.” I have a son with Asperger’s and have struggled with the lessons of these stories myself: Is it my job to “fix” him, or to fix the world so it can accept him as he is? The miracle stories inspire intervention, and thrive in an era that lionizes the parent hero and the parent martyr, who are presumed to possess, more than a doctor or a teacher or an expert, the deepest knowledge about what is best for a child. Forty years ago, an impossible child would be sent to an institution and nobody would object. We don’t believe in those institutions anymore, which is probably good, since most of them would just have sedated a kid like Issy. Instead, we believe difficult kids should be integrated into the mainstream. But what that means in practice is that it’s up to their parents to save them.
It is socially acceptable for parents to complain about, feel oppressed by, and even resent their children. But a parent who presents herself as a genuine victim of her own child is approaching a taboo. A mother is not supposed to cower before her child. That power dynamic seems to defy the rules of nature.
And yet it’s not extremely rare. Aggression is not a symptom of autism, but the fact that the two show up together makes some sense. Autistic kids generally have trouble communicating what they want or need or finding the right way to connect with other people. More severely autistic children have more trouble communicating, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they are more violent; a roundup of existing research shows that among autistic youth, 8 to 32 percent exhibit “disruptive, irritable, or aggressive behavior.” Certain conditions can make the aggression more severe: a lower IQ, high impulsivity, hyperactivity. And if a child is prone to aggression, he or she might become hard to control around puberty. The kids are bigger and, when they’re enraged, seem to have a superhuman, adrenaline-fueled strength.
In their desperation, parents of such kids can drift into dark fantasies. In Far From the Tree, Solomon quotes a father named Harry Slatkin who says that mostly he tries to keep his autistic son, David, away from the pond near their house, but some days he wishes David would walk into it. Lisa Sain, a friend of Kelli’s and a widow, has a son named Preston who often attacks her. Once she drove him to the train tracks, because he loves trains, and tried to will herself to drive the car in front of a train. But she never did, she told me, “because I am a Christian and I believe if I killed myself and my son, I would go to Hell.”
Every once in a while, on her blog, Kelli would mention her life before Issy in the third person, as if she were talking about someone she’d just met and admired: “Kelli Stapleton graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1995, and went on to work as a scientist/molecular biologist in both academia and industry.” It was at Kalamazoo that she met Matt. When they got married in 1996, they planned to have six children because they’d both grown up in big families, but when Issy was diagnosed, they stopped at three. In other ways, though, their dream of small-town, family-centered life stayed intact. Kelli raised the children. Matt became the principal athletic director and football coach of the Frankfort high school, in a town where the high-school football scores are printed on the front page of the local paper. They were the “king and queen” of Frankfort, their friend Lisa Stieve told me. When Matt walked into a party or in a parade, it was like the mayor had entered.
Kelli fell easily into the Mrs. Coach role. She went on all the field trips, was always fund-raising, and was known for being ostentatiously maternal. “People love her or they hate her,” Matt would say. Other parents might hide an unmanageable kid, but Kelli tried to bring Issy to every football game and parade, and when Issy was in elementary school, Kelli got the school to assign fifth- and sixth-graders to help her with lunch or take her out for recess. After a while, the helper became a position of honor. “She became one of the most popular kids in Frankfort,” Kelli recalled. “If you went to a Friday-night football game, kids would be running up to give her hugs.”
As Issy was moving toward middle school, though, she started to act out. When she was 11, she attacked her mother from the backseat of the car. Kelli had to pull over and call Matt, and while they were waiting, Issy knocked her unconscious and she wound up in the emergency room. For the next three years, life at the Stapleton house was often about avoiding an “ass-whupping,” Kelli and Matt would say. These were no small temper tantrums. “Her pupils become dilated, her skin gets clammy, and Elvis has left the building. Think of the scariest movie you know of, like a demon possession, this intense rage embodied in this sweet little girl.” Kelli always had her phone in her pocket, but then one day she didn’t. Issy, then 13, knocked her out in the kitchen, and Ainsley found her and called Matt. Kelli woke up in the hospital feeling nauseous; after that, she started to show symptoms of concussion, forgetting words and thoughts, getting migraines.
Kelli typically downplayed these incidents to friends. If she showed up with a black eye and you asked her about it, she’d say, “That’s all right. We’re okay. We got it under control,” or maybe joke, “I zigged. She zagged. She got me,” Vickie Slater recalled.
Online, though, she shed her small-town politeness and reached out to a different support system. “Many people have told me to shut the F*** up. Not to talk about aggression and autism,” she wrote on her blog. “So here I am sitting on the wrong side of popular. Again. But I’m happy you’re here too. We have each other. We aren’t alone. Your bff!”
Mothers of severely aggressive children congregate online but tend to keep their groups private because what they write would alarm an outsider. But the writer in Kelli thrived on the shocking confessional. On September 3, 2012, she started the Status Woe, which acquired more than 4,000 followers. Her first post is about suffering through a “sh!t storm” on a camping trip, crouched over a hole in the ground, with no flusher, “just me and the flies. The happy flies.” In November, she put up a post about life with Issy called “Domestic Abuse and Why I Stay With My Abuser”:
I’ve been bruised from head to toe, knocked unconscious, suffered injuries that were visible and others that weren’t. I’ve had to make decisions about going out in public because of how my face looked, and what to wear to best cover my bruises and contusions. I’ve had a bank close my account because my signature never matched my signature card … but it doesn’t if your fingers are broken, strained, and sprained.
And If I am killed, I hope I don’t get revived by some well-meaning EMT or ER doctor. I would hate to have to die like that TWICE!
Kelli’s friend who worked at a nursing school once read the post to a group of her students. When the students thought it was a story about an abusive spouse, they were full of outrage and advice. But when the friend explained that the writer was talking about her autistic daughter, the room went silent.
The blog was an inspiration to plenty of moms who felt desperate and trapped—Kelli’s friend Lisa Sain started another blog she called InSAIN Asylum. But looking back, Matt sees the blog year as the period when Kelli started to get lost in her own irrational anxiety—“consumed” by fear and “obsessed with her own safety,” he says. Once it became clear to Kelli that Issy was not going to be one of the success stories, he says, a wound opened up in Kelli that never healed
Matt’s relatives saw the blog as proof that Kelli loved attention, and Kelli’s posts often read like a disturbing kind of performance art. She pulls the audience into an alarming place and then insists that’s not where they are. In a post called “Going to the Deadbanger’s Ball,” she wrote, “I have yet to meet anyone who is as excited about dying as I am. Let me just say that I am NOT suicidal. That is something completely different and I do not want to freak anyone out.” She was always brutally honest, but it was hard to tell how self-aware. A couple of months after that, Kelli posted a video that’s like a scene from an amateur horror movie, the camera getting knocked around as Kelli first sobs and then screams and screams as Issy moves over her. Under it, she wrote, “she is OURS AND WE LOVE HER!!!”
On Sunday night, after the track incident, or maybe on Labor Day—Kelli doesn’t remember exactly—she came up with a plan. As she conceived of it, this plan would ensure that Ainsley would not get hit on her wedding day and McKewan, her son, could have a girlfriend over. It would allow Matt to be at work worry-free and to start saving money. And then, she told me, recounting her vision with fresh emotion and conviction, “we will be done with autism completely”:
She is going to be 100 percent happy. She is going to be 100 percent Isabel and I cannot wait to see that child …
I am going to run with her in a grassy field and we are going to wrestle and play and visit with our animals who are in heaven. And I am going to ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, and I cannot wait. I am excited and I am relieved. Nobody is going to be hurt anymore and all of our struggles are over. We are going to paradise and we will be there in just a short time and I am so happy and I cannot wait.
On Monday night, Kelli caught up on the laundry. At bedtime, she told McKewan she was really proud of the man he was becoming and that he should always listen to his father. For Ainsley, she ran to the car to get a rubber bracelet that said REMEMBER TO LOVE. She measured all the kids on the growth chart, something they hadn’t done in a while. They said prayers, and Matt said, as he often does, “I’m lucky to be your dad,” and she answered, joking, because it was so obviously egotistical, “You’re lucky to have me as a mom.” On her Facebook page that night she wrote, “My babies are all in bed. New adventures tomorrow.”
She woke up Tuesday to a bright blue sky. She took the kids to school and texted the workers who were scheduled to help take care of Issy at the house that they had the morning off. She got Issy dressed and then packed up the old ’70s van they had in the garage, which had a mattress in the back. She packed a pillowcase from each of her kids’ beds, Matt’s shirt, and all the makings for s’mores, including two hibachi grills she’d bought a few days earlier. Speaking of that day, she slipped again into the present tense. “I am so excited because we are going to be in Heaven before noon,” she said. “For the first time in my life I am going to be able to have a real conversation with her, and see her. Get to know her, without the perseverations and the aggression.” In her “real voice, not this robot voice.” A conversation, she imagined, that would go something like this:
You know how much we loved you, right? You know how hard we tried for you?
You know that everything we did, we did because we loved you?
Were you happy? Even though you had perseverations and aggressions, were you happy?
Did you love us?
She drove the van down a path where she’d once been hiking with a friend and parked it in a secluded woody spot. Outside the van, she lit the grills and made a s’more. Issy asked for a second one, and she said, “You betcha!” Kelli gave Issy four Risperdal, double Issy’s nighttime dose of a drug to treat aggressive behavior that makes her sleepy. When she was full, and tired, Kelli arranged the blankets, the extra pillowcases, and Matt’s shirt on the mattress. She put the grills, with coals still smoldering, in the space between the front and middle seats, and she shut the van doors, so the space would fill with carbon monoxide. Issy liked to list things, so they talked about what they might pack on a trip to Florida: towels, bathing suits, sunglasses. They talked about all their pets. Then they lay down nose to nose and Kelli said, “I love you, Issy,” and Issy said, “I love you, Mommy,” which, Kelli explained, “is a trained response but I think she means it.” They fell asleep.
The first thing Sarah Ross, Issy’s aunt and Matt’s sister, did when I met with her at a café in Traverse City was hand me a disk labeled ISSY PICS. On it are pictures of Issy wearing silly antlers at a Christmas party with her cousins, Issy splashing in a pool, Issy blowing out candles on her birthday with friends, and Issy eating pizza and sledding—in short, a visual catalogue of a life enjoyed.
Issy’s story is, among other things, a battle for media optics. In certain ways, it always had been, given that during Issy’s difficult years, Kelli had started her blog and began to do local TV interviews, hoping to bring awareness to parents who lived with severely aggressive children. Attractive and charismatic, Kelli would straightforwardly explain to the television audience that her daughter was going to kill her. More recently, Dr. Phil interviewed her in jail and aired a two-part special about her case. He included a picture or two of Issy with her family or tap-dancing with her mom, but it was a video of Kelli sobbing and screaming he returned to over and over.
Ross said she did not presume to know what it was like to live with Issy day in, day out, but, for her, “the bad years were an episode in what I would call a good life.” Whatever else she was, Ross said, Issy was a girl with desires and plans and even teenage crushes: She liked marching bands and Taylor Swift and Hannah Montana. She liked to hold cats and have her nails done and talk about jeans. Before she went to the Great Lakes Center, Issy wrote a list of 12 things she wanted to do when she came back, including “Wolfe’s boat” and “Manistee County Fair.” “This is missing in every media story, every article!” Ross said in exasperation. “It’s all about Kelli’s safety. But someone needs to say that Issy’s life is worth something!”
The Stapleton family is a tight, extended Irish Catholic clan, and Kelli never fit in—on Christmas Day, Matt would take the kids to his mother’s house and Kelli would stay home or visit a friend. Their criticisms of her over the years were not unusual: Her house was always a mess, she never did quite the right thing with her children, she spent her time blogging and starting a vanity press in an effort to get famous instead of making money to help Matt. And she said outrageous things like she could raise money for Issy herself but she was probably “too old for porn.”
After the crime, those failings began to look more sinister. “How frank do you want me to be?” said Ross. “I don’t think she was a mom like I am a mom or you are a mom.” She loved her kids, “but only as an extension of herself.” She had no time for the dreary routine of motherhood, and she thrived on drama. Being the autism mom was alluring to Kelli so long as heroics were possible, but once it became clear that Issy would never be “fixed,” Ross said, Kelli slipped into the equally alluring role of victim. In Ross’s view, Kelli never intended to die that day; she wanted to land exactly where she is now, at the center of an exquisitely heartrending, daytime-talk-show-worthy drama.
On the morning of the crime, Kelli had texted Lisa Stieve to say she and Issy were going for a walk in the woods near the path where Kelli and Lisa used to go running. Lisa’s ex-husband is a police officer, and after Kelli and Issy were missing for several hours, Lisa told him about the text.
When police found Issy at 7 p.m., she was not in the back of the van on a bed, nose to nose with her mom, but strapped into the front seat. Her skin was roasting hot, her throat “raw as a hamburger,” according to the police report, her mouth was foaming, and she was unconscious and unresponsive. Kelli was asleep on the mattress in her underwear. Her skin was cooler to the touch and her carbon-monoxide-poisoning level much lower than Issy’s, suggesting she had been in and out of the van a few times. (Kelli says she got out once to grab a bag of charcoal. She doesn’t know why her levels were lower but thinks it might be because she sleeps with her face buried in the pillows.) Kelli is “smart enough, strong enough, and determined enough,” Matt’s mother, Eileen Stapleton, later said. “If she had wanted to kill herself, she would be dead. She loves herself too much.”
Kelli was already talking in the ambulance and refused treatment, saying she was supposed to be in Heaven. She told the same story to the nurses and the child-protective-services workers that she tells today, only with a few crucial shifts in detail the Stapletons did not fail to notice. Sometimes she says they were going to Heaven together, and sometimes she says she was “escorting” Issy to Heaven or “I was supposed to deliver her safely there and maybe God would send me back and maybe not.”
For four days, Issy remained unconscious, and a neurologist told Matt that the brain scan did not look promising. The doctor thought Issy’s only chance was to remove the ventilator and see if that would jump-start her brain, but he also said it might leave her a vegetable or unable to breathe at all. Matt asked for an hour, and found himself, he recalled, “in the same position as Kelli had been in,” holding the fate of his daughter’s life in his hands. He gave the doctor the okay. They removed the ventilator, and then Issy started to breathe, slowly. He felt like he was watching a “miracle unfold.”
Soon after she woke up, with the Stapleton family all around her, Issy, out of the blue, said, “Grandpa Stapleton.” The room went silent. Matt’s mother and father had been divorced for 25 years, and Issy had never seen them together. Issy had hardly spent any time with him, and he had recently died. Matt’s mother asked Issy if she’d seen him, and she said yes, they’d been coloring together. Sarah had always worried about her father, worried that he was “not in Heaven,” because of some things he said and did. To this day, Kelli believes that she and Issy did go to Heaven and that God sent them back for a reason. For the family, however, the mention of Grandpa Stapleton was proof that Issy belonged to them.
A year later, Issy has regained her short-term memory and doesn’t walk so unsteadily anymore. She goes to a special-ed program in a school about an hour away, and her room at home reflects the beautiful chaos of a teenage autistic girl’s passions. The walls are entirely covered with posters of Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber and shelves that include Dora and Sesame Street videos that she still watches at 15. She has plenty of aggressive incidents—the week before I came, she’d thrown everything out of the refrigerator—but she is for the most part better controlled. Matt has full custody of her and the other two kids but still works his usual long hours as the principal and coach; aide workers watch Issy at home after school.
On a Saturday morning, I met Matt and Issy at the Grand Traverse mall to go shopping. Issy headed straight for Hollister, where she likes to shop, stroking the T-shirts and examining the new fall sweatshirts. The first time her parents took her here, Issy could not really grasp that most of the clothes were meant for girls half her size; she would take a pair of jeans into the dressing room and wail when they didn’t fit. But now Issy has her routine down. After about 15 minutes, she pulled a T-shirt that said L.A. off its hanger. “Pay,” she said firmly. The shirt, a summer-sale item, cost $9.32, which was a steal for Matt. She asked the store clerk her usual list of questions: “Name?” “What high school do you go to?” “What instrument do you play?” and we left. She didn’t seem happy or unhappy but just steady, like a marble that hadn’t been knocked out of its groove.
When we left the store, Issy started limping, and after a few steps, she started moaning. Matt asked what was wrong, but she didn’t answer and started to moan louder. When we got to Target, Issy asked if she could ride in a cart, which was highly unusual; she’s much too big for carts. But he lifted her in anyway. “Ice cream,” she said, and Matt understood she was looking for the cotton-candy flavor she likes best. I have to admit I started to worry. Matt had told me that once at this Target, she had rammed a bunch of carts into people when she wanted to leave and Ainsley was a little late getting back to their meeting spot. Cotton-candy ice cream was so specific—what if they didn’t have it? They didn’t. I braced myself but took my cues from Matt. He diverted her by offering to buy barrettes, which she accepted. Matt would call it lucky. And when he sensed she was truly about to lose it, they left.
When the police tried to interview Issy about what happened, they got nowhere, because she didn’t remember what happened. Once Issy saw her mother on a news report and started to perseverate: “Where’s Mom? Where’s Mom?” Matt, on the fly, made up a story. He said that Mom was at a place very much like Great Lakes, knowing that Issy did not want to go back to a place like that. Issy agreed; she did not want to visit.
After months of not talking to Kelli, Matt picked up the phone when she called from jail on Christmas Eve. He thought the kids, Ainsley especially, would want to talk to her. And he thought it was the one thing he could do for Kelli, “provide her access to people she cares about” and “give her a sense of who she is, a mother to these kids.”
But there are a few things Kelli has done over the past year that get under Matt’s skin. She’s talked about how relieved she is to be incarcerated: “The jail of Benzie County has been a much kinder warden than the jail of autism,” she said, to which Matt replies, “What about us? We’re still here.” She once sent him a poem to give to Ainsley called “I Did It All for You” and asked him to explain to Ainsley that she was trying to protect her. “Why would I want Ainsley to feel guilty that it’s her fault that her mom’s in jail?” Matt says. “That’s way too much for a 12-year-old to handle.” Matt is also stuck on the question of when Kelli bought those hibachi grills. Kelli insists it was on Sunday, after the incident at the school track. But a receipt shows she bought them on Thursday, a day before Issy got home from Great Lakes. If that’s true, he says, then “Issy never had a chance.”
For a year before the hearing on September 3, when she pleaded guilty, Kelli had been preparing to defend herself at trial. Her attorney, Heidi Hodek, was preparing an insanity defense. But then came that interview with Dr. Phil.
Kelli had always wanted to go on his show; she’d written in, in 2012, saying she wanted to tell her story. This time, the show was interested, and, Hodek said, in return for the interview, Kelli wanted to get help for Issy. At some point, a lawyer at Hodek’s firm requested the show pay $150,000 in copyright and licensing fees for Stapleton-family images—roughly the amount Kelli owed the firm. The show refused, offering $10,000 that would go directly to Matt. On Friday, August 15, as the crew was setting up and Dr. Phil was already on his way, Hodek met with Kelli and decided to forgo the interview. Hodek had looked over the questions the producers were planning to ask, she says, and realized that they would very neatly set up the case for premeditated murder and ruin her insanity defense.
Hodek assumed that was the end of it and drove back to her office in Traverse City, 45 minutes away. But at the jail, after they’d left, the sheriff asked Kelli again whether she wanted to speak to Dr. Phil, suggesting the decision was ultimately hers to make, at which point Kelli changed her mind and said yes. On tape, Kelli said that she agreed to the interview because “I want to get help for my daughters.” Dr. Phil had offered to bring Issy to the PNP Center in Dallas, an evaluation and treatment center founded by Dr. Frank Lawlis, an autism expert and mentor to Dr. Phil who appears frequently on his show. There, he said, Issy would undergo a full workup and evaluation—“psychological, psychiatric, biochemical brain, heavy metals, hormones”—to “get some answers” and “try and get this young girl some peace in her life.”
“That was music to my ears,” Kelli said, and she agreed to the interview. Hodek did not find out until it was over. She was furious and tried to quit the case. “All the prosecution would have to do was play the jail recording of the interview and we would lose,” Hodek said. She’d always had some concerns about going to trial but the Dr. Phil interview decided it. Two days later, Kelli pleaded guilty.
A few weeks later, in place of a trial, in a Benzie County courtroom much too small for the crowd, Kelli Stapleton was subjected to an unusually long and rich sentencing hearing. On one side of the spectators’ section sat the Stapletons and on the other Kelli’s friends and family. Lisa Stieve said Kelli was a wonderful mother who never yelled or lost her patience and baked cookies for her children after school. Matt’s mother said that she caught Kelli’s eye in court once and “I had this feeling just rush over me like I was looking at something evil.”
Matt arrived each day in his usual mayoral mode. He hugged his mother and shook hands with Kelli’s brother. He had contemplated staying silent, but on the second day he decided to read a statement. I’d been talking to him for weeks by then and always heard him give Kelli the benefit of the doubt. But on the stand he was unequivocal. “I will never be okay with what happened on September 3, 2013. Never. It’s just that simple. It is never okay to murder a child, no matter what the circumstances.” But the next day he asked the lawyer to read another statement, because he worried he’d sounded too harsh. “Kelli did get hit and hit hard. It did happen,” he said. “I wanted to get across that the kids and I love Kelli and we know she would not have done something like this if she were thinking straight or thinking clearly.” Over the last 13 months, he’d been badgered by both his own family and Kelli’s friends to choose a side. But as the father of Kelli’s children, he remained torn.
By the third day of testimony, between the friends and enemies and psychiatric experts, a more or less coherent picture of Kelli began to emerge. She’d been assaulted as a child by her brother and left unprotected by her own mother. She may have had a personality disorder of some kind that led her to seek attention in unreasonable ways. Perhaps she lacked what one psychiatrist called “ego glue,” the capacity to hold herself together when things got rough. Her concussions left her more vulnerable. After being hit so much, she suffered from PTSD, so that when her hair was pulled at the front door that day, she was primed to mistake a firecracker for a grenade.
Kelli sat through the proceedings in her orange jumpsuit and chains. Her face was drained of all color; even her lips looked like raw putty. She wore her hair in a girlish French braid and, when the court adjourned, shuffled pitifully out a side door. She seemed to have lost the will to defend herself; maybe she had absorbed the worst versions of herself as described in the courtroom. Before delivering the sentence, Judge James Batzer said that civilization depended on parents’ not killing their children, which is true, if obvious. The sentence that followed was for ten to 22 years in prison. Batzer had earlier warned that many people would not be satisfied with the sentence, and he was right.
Kelli herself was not among the dissatisfied. In a short statement, she had asked the judge to sentence her to 15 years, one for every year of Issy’s life up until now. She promised the judge she would do no more interviews, no more writing, and she would never mention Issy’s name again. “I am not worthy to speak her name,” she said. “She is not the monster. I am.”
*This article appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.