Help Me Rhonda

Alabama 1957: a 49-year-old Montgomery waitress, Rhonda Belle Martin, was convicted of murdering most of her family. Her mother, all five of her young daughters, and two of her five (!) husbands—all given small doses of arsenic or rat poison over long periods of time, so that they slowly became sicker and sicker until they died. Her fifth husband she did not succeed in killing, but did leave him as a paraplegic by the time she was imprisoned. (He also happened to be her stepson.) She never confessed to why she did it; it wasn’t for insurance money, and all she ever let on was that she liked to receive the sympathy cards. After she was killed by electric chair, a note was found in her Bible that asked that her body be “donated to science, so nobody ever has to go through what I went through.”

The Big Thing I’ve been working on for about a year has been this chamber opera called These Walls about Rhonda. With librettist Matthias Hope Naroff, we developed a story in five parts (corresponding to the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) that charts Rhonda’s feelings about what she did over the course of a few night hours in prison. She revisits the past—happier times, things that made her angry, people that wronged her—and tries to make sense of her present station in life. To the rest of the world, where the press attention has died down, she is “lost to the world, forgotten.” She spends her days obsessively cleaning her meager cell and trying to attract the attention of guards in the distance with salacious songs, wishing she could return to her life as a waitress, serving people (especially men), making them happy.

I’ve written in this space before about my obsession with the American nuclear family. In many ways, Rhonda’s existence was at the polar opposite of what was at the time a growing consensus around what the American family should look like: she had five husbands, marriages that ended either through divorce or murder, and her fifth husband was the son of her fourth husband (whom she killed). She killed her mother. And then there are her five girls she killed. We focused most of Rhonda’s attention in the opera on that last fact: she spends a lot of time reminiscing about her girls, often finding them innocent in a world that she perceived to be constantly trying to bring her down.

The note in her Bible, not reported in most of the historic accounts we found, is a curious footnote to her story. It simultaneously exhibits staggering self-awareness, and also a rather self-centered approach to understanding her actions. It acts as a sort of displacement of blame, from her own agency to some unknown defect of the body. Most of the personality we created for Rhonda stems from this letter. “Have I been forgiven” she asks, “or must I ask again and again?”

It’s finally happening on May 15; more details are here. I’m conducting, it’s 60 minutes long, it’s a charming Monday evening at the theatre. Ok see you there.

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