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St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 19, 1996
Author: By Kristina Sauerwein
THE MOTHER hated the cross of red roses the father brought to their daughter’s funeral. “Throw it in the garbage,” she told a friend. The father hated the paid obituary the mother put in the newspaper. It excluded his name. They’re still fighting two years after their custody case made national news when the mother went to jail for hiding their twin sons for several months. She alleged the father had abused them emotionally, though social workers found no evidence.
Inside St. Thomas Holy Spirit Lutheran Church – lying in a mint green casket, surrounded by bouquets of roses, snapdragons and tulips – was the 15-year-old girl. R.I.P. Aurora Catherine Sass Jan. 7, 1981, to April 29, 1996. On April 22, Aurora tried to inject whiskey into her veins. Two days later, she overdosed on wine and sedatives. Marilyn McGuire took her daughter to the psychiatric unit at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur.
A nurse found Aurora hanging from a black leather belt shortly after midnight on April 29. “I feel like I’m dying,” McGuire, 44, said the day after the funeral. “My baby is gone, and I saw her going. “But I couldn’t stop her.”
Neither could William Sass, 46. “I felt so sad and helpless,” the father said, crying. Aurora’s parents say their daughter was on suicide watch, and they wonder how she got the belt and the time to hang herself.
The hospital says it is investigating Aurora’s suicide; it declined to comment further. Their daughter’s depression started in 1992, her parents say, the same year the custody fight began. Aurora’s mother had custody of her; her father, the twins. Her mother insisted on rearing the twins; the father said no. They took it to court.
During this time, Aurora stopped smiling. The twins visited their mother Christmas 1993. On the way back to Minnesota, they ran from their father’s car at a rest stop along Interstate 70 near Marshall, Mo. They ran to a tavern asking for directions back to St. Louis. McGuire found the twins and eventually put them in hiding. She told her story on national news programs; Sass refused to.
Authorities arrested McGuire in February. She was in the Randolph County, Ill., Jail for 102 days before she got the twins in a settlement. Aurora began cutting her arms and legs with a paring knife. “Never deep enough to seriously hurt herself,” said McGuire, a nurse, “but deep enough to draw blood and leave marks.”
Aurora’s father helped cause his daughter’s depression, McGuire said, by making mean remarks about Aurora. Aurora’s mother helped cause her daughter’s depression by thrusting the custody fight into the media, Sass said. She also ignored Aurora, he said, forcing her to grow up too soon.
“I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.” Author Sylvia Plath, describing a young woman’s depression in “The Bell Jar.” Aurora read Sylvia Plath because she understood the writer who, on Feb. 11, 1963, at age 30, stuck her head in an oven and died.
Aurora tried to describe the dark pit inside her. She tried to explain to family and friends how the abyss suffocated her strength and spirit, pummeling her with thoughts of being ugly and worthless. And how she kept sinking and sinking.
Usually, she’d sink in her room inside the three-story, gray house on Arsenal Street. Aurora would slam her door shut, an unspoken warning to her mother, stepfather, twin brothers and two step-siblings: Stay out or else.
She’d blast thrashing, guitar-bashing rock.
“It’s so quiet now,” McGuire said, looking around Aurora’s room, where a frog calendar is still pinned to April. Next to the three dead roses in a vase on her desk is a half-used bottle of banana shampoo, a stamped letter waiting to be mailed and a church newsletter announcing that Aurora will help serve communion May 26.
She dressed mostly in black, baggy clothes with big boots. “You could always tell when Aurora was feeling low by how much black she wore,” McGuire said.
Her parents named her Aurora after the Roman Goddess of Dawn.
Which is apt because there’s more to Aurora than her darkness. She was a vegetarian who talked about living solo in New York City where she could eat water chestnuts any time she liked. She doted on her ferret, named Lexie, and a Cairn terrier, called Schatze, whose ears still perk when her brother says Aurora’s name.
Aurora was a freshman at Lutheran High South, in South County. She could speak German, write poetry, assemble a hutch for her bedroom and analyze the U.S. Constitution at 2 a.m. Aurora wanted to attend St. Louis University and become a lawyer.
She had baby-soft skin, brown eyes and thick, brown hair that even a humid St. Louis summer couldn’t ruin. “Everyone agreed she had the prettiest face,” a classmate wrote in a sympathy card to Aurora’s mother. When Aurora smiled, people said she was even prettier.
She usually went to therapy twice a week. She took Zoloft, an antidepressant, and Lithium, a mood stabilizer. Aurora lashed out often, her family and friends say. Once she screamed at her father to go to hell. She wrote a note to a former baby sitter that read, “Thanks for being so rotten.” She berated a hospital cafeteria worker for serving her pizza with meat.
“Aurora could shoot bullets with her mouth,” her mother said on a recent rainy afternoon. Marilyn McGuire sorted through photos of her daughter. There’s baby Aurora. There’s Aurora belly dancing. There’s Aurora and her stuffed bear, Teddy.
In May 1994, Aurora tried to kill herself by driving her mother’s Pontiac Sunbird. Ten months later, she cut her wrists with a knife. “She really didn’t like spring,” said her brother Brendan, 13. The two used to walk in nearby Tower Grove Park and try to figure out what it was about spring. “She couldn’t deal.” Brendan’s twin nodded. “I’m not surprised she tried to kill herself,” Dietrich said. “I am surprised she succeeded. I’m still setting the table for six people.”
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:32
The word tenderhearted hit Sass especially hard. “Because that’s what Aurora was,” said her father, a pastor who lives with his wife and their infant son. Sass wanted it read during his daughter’s funeral. It wasn’t. “It would have been better for the boys if he hadn’t come,” McGuire said. “But it’s a public ceremony.” Both say the bickering is an insult to Aurora’s memory. “I’m tired of the squabbling,” he said. “My daughter is gone, and we’re still squabbling.” Neither parent ever thought it would end this way.
They met at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg in 1972. A year later, they married and moved to Kansas City. They attended the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago from 1975 to 1979. That year, they moved to Hinckley, Minn., and became pastors in neighboring towns. They had Aurora in 1981 and the twins on Oct. 24, 1982. Three years later, they moved to Chester, Ill. “We had a happy, good time at first,” McGuire remembers. “Then we started fighting” about their personalities, careers and children.
They divorced in 1986. Both remarried within two years. Sass stayed in Chester with the twins. McGuire and Aurora moved to St. Louis. McGuire said the arrangement was temporary. She was supposed to get the twins after she made more money. Sass said this isn’t true. Trouble started when he wanted to move to Minnesota. The parents say the custody dispute happened because they love their children. They also reflect on the effects on the twins and Aurora and ask, “Who wouldn’t crack?” “I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet you there But I don’t care . . . .” “Lithium,” by Nirvana
Aurora wanted the lyrics of this song buried with her, friends say. She had an obsession with Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana. He shot himself in the head and died April 8, 1994. “In the song, Kurt Cobain wants to end it all. It has a cleansing tone to it,” said Paul Faur, 16. He was Aurora’s boyfriend earlier this year, and they often stayed up late talking on the phone about life and death. Aurora told Paul that death was a place “of complete peace, a peace that would last forever, where you’d never have to worry about responsibilities to yourself or others, where there’d be this lightness. “Death would be the ultimate calm.” Paul pauses. He cannot stop thinking about “beautiful, talented, smart, loyal” Aurora, buried forever. “I’m having a hard time,” he said. “I miss her desperately.” He met Aurora at church. The date he remembers most was at the Tivoli, in University City. They saw “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Nicolas Cage’s character angered Aurora. He wanted to drink himself to death. Elisabeth Shue played a prostitute who listened and gave him nurturing, patience and affection. Aurora told Paul: “If I had someone care about me like that, I wouldn’t want to kill myself.”
(6) Photo – Aurora’s suicide note:
waiting for the shadow to fall
Clutching at the little I have left
my road has not been easy
more than my share
One day you will think of me
and you will forgive me
Because I was alone
and you were not there to save me
But now my time is up
I’ve made my farewells
But be happy for me
I will finally find peace
Aurora Catherine Sass ’96
Record Number: 9605190300