In 2009, S. Kay Murphy published her memoir Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford. Like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Murphy's memoir explores the chilling effect of murder in a small, rural town. Unlike Capote, Murphy is not simply a city-slicker fascinated by a brutal crime, she is the great-granddaughter of the accused.
Murphy does a terrific job of pulling you into her world, letting you feel what it's like to discover your great-grandmother might have been a serial killer; with every new discovery, which either brought jubilant triumph or devastating heartbreak, you soon realize that you're on this ride with Murphy, driving cross country to Missouri, contacting descendants of the dead, touring courtrooms and visiting graveyards.
Murphy’s writing in Tainted Legacy is simple and elegant, getting right to the heart of the matter.
“It is an odd thing to have a family member who is a murderer, even more odd that the family member was a simple farm woman—a grandmother. When I reveal to people that my great-grandmother would have been considered, in today’s terms, a serial killer, they look at me just a little differently.”
-S. Kay Murphy, Tainted Legacy
The true victory of Tainted Legacy is Murphy's tireless research and her unflinching search for the truth, even if it brings her answers that she doesn't really want to know.
What Murphy eventually figured out was that the process of discovery was just as important, if not more so, than the discoveries themselves. Ironically enough, I learned a similar lesson not long after I graduated from Alta Loma High School with the class of 1996.
I was a bad high school student, which isn’t to say I was outspoken or rebellious. You’d never catch me smoking in the boys room and I can count on one hand—using less than four digits—the number of times I ever ditched class. No, I was a bad high school student with regards to academics.
I almost never studied for tests and, when I did, I never knew how. I didn’t know how to write papers and, when I did write them, I always waited until the last possible moment. I still don’t understand geometry or chemistry and I have an embarrassingly limited knowledge of U.S. and world history.
Question: What’s the Pythagorean theorem?
Answer: You got me!
Question: What’s the most abundant element in the Earth's crust?
Answer: Hell if I know!
Question: What was the conflict that led to the Korean war?
Answer: Umm…I need to use the bathroom!
Yet, I graduated high school without a single hiccup. It was as if there was somebody standing behind me for four years pushing me through, despite the fact that I wasn’t really learning anything. While I wasn’t what you would call ambitious, I did have a very tangible sense of wanting to do something substantive with my life. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Because I had long before given up on my dreams of becoming Batman or a wrestler in the WWF, I didn’t know where I should be focusing my energy.
Most of my friends had gone away to college, because they had done all the things that I didn’t do in high school. Since I didn’t have a job—part time or otherwise—and I hadn’t taken the SATs, the only choice that seemed to make sense was to enroll in Chaffey, the local community college. As part of my enrollment, I had to take a math and English placement exam. I did terrible with the math, but, somehow, I’d done well enough in English to qualify for English 1A (a class most schools call English 101). What I know now—but didn’t know at the time—is English 1A is a class that most community college students have to work towards by completing one or two remedial English courses. The fact that I had gotten right in should’ve given me a clue that, perhaps, I had an innate aptitude for English.
As it turned out, most English 1A classes were full in the fall of 1996, so I wasn’t able to get into one initially. But, as luck would have it, Chaffey had opened up a brand new satellite campus in Fontana and there was a late-start English 1A class being offered. The only other classes I’d managed to get into were Survey of American Film and Fashion Merchandising, so I jumped at the chance to enroll in English 1A.
The professor for the course was S. Kay Murphy. She was—and is—a high school English teacher. She decided to teach an English course at Chaffey during the evenings as a way of supplementing her income and, as a former Chaffey student herself, she saw it as an opportunity to bring her academic life full circle. And her first day on the job just so happened to coincide with my first semester in college.
The first thing Murphy had us do was a quick in-class writing assignment where we described three magazines that represented who we were. While I wasn’t rebellious, I was—and am—a slave for coloring outside the lines, so instead of writing some straight forward prose, I decided to write a fictional narrative that involved me going to a drug store and browsing through the magazine section. I remember having the distinct feeling that I was doing something wrong and I worried my new English professor wouldn’t appreciate it.
The following class session, Murphy was passing back our magazine assignments. In the middle of calling out names, she paused and quietly considered the next paper in her stack.
I raised my hand.
She looked over my assignment for another moment or two.
“This is good,” she said, before handing it back to me.
Her approval sang like a choir that I never knew existed. I wanted to hear more, so I got right to work on the first paper she assigned, which was an autobiographical essay—which is to say, a short memoir. I decided to write about losing my job as an ice cream scooper at Thrifty’s, after being interrogated for four hours for stealing. I didn’t know if it was any good, but I did know writing it felt good. Murphy thought enough of it to read it out loud to the class.
I was absolutely elated. And at the bottom of my paper, she wrote: “You’re a good writer. You should consider majoring in journalism.” Murphy's encouragement had unwittingly jarred something loose, exposing me for the first time to what I knew had to be my destiny. From that day forward my whole life revolved around writing.
A few years passed and I often found myself thinking about that English professor who changed my life. I wanted to tell her that I took her advice and pursued writing. I wanted to tell her that I had been published and won awards and it was all because of her. It made me sad that she would never know.
Then one day, through the miracle of the Internet, I was looking for writing contests and came across the Inland Empire California Writer’s Club. The treasurer of the club was S. Kay Murphy. I wasn’t positive if it was my former English professor, but I wrote her an email anyway. I explained who I was and how—assuming she was who I thought she was—she had changed my life. Not only did she remember me nearly seven years later, but she was dumbfounded by how her little comment on the back of my paper had managed to put my life in focus.
Now that we were in touch, the first thing I wanted to know about was her writing. She sent me an essay she’d written for the L.A. Times about not watching an Eminem concert at the Blockbuster Pavilion. I, in turn, sent her some of my own writing.
But, for all the talking we did about writing, what she didn't tell me—because she is famously guarded about her work, as I would eventually learn—was she was working on the manuscript that would eventually become Tainted Legacy. As much as I enjoyed the memoir itself, my favorite part of Tainted Legacy appears in the “Acknowledgments.”
“To Mrs. Walton, my fourth grade teacher—and to all those teachers who are willing to encourage the gifts they see in their students: Please know that your contribution to our lives is enormous, and we never forget you, even if we never come back to thank you.”
-S. Kay Murphy, Tainted Legacy
I couldn’t have said it better myself.