What's the worst thing that could happen to a mother of four? It happened to Christine McFadden the day her ex-husband killed her children. For months afterward, Christine wished she'd died with her kids. But now, with a new husband and newborn twins, she's learning to live again.When Christine McFadden, a veterinarian in Merced, California, went out for her early-morning walk on March 26, 2002, her four children were still sleeping. Melanie, 17, Stanley, 15, and Stuart, 14, were the kids from her first marriage; 5-year-old Michelle was from her second marriage, to a former sheriff's deputy named John Hogan.
Christine had divorced Hogan in 2001 but had made room for him in Michelle's life. And so while it was unusual, upon returning home that morning, to see his truck parked in the driveway, she wasn't alarmed. Having to deal with Hogan would be irritating, but Christine was used to that. Then she went inside and came upon Melanie, lying dead on the hallway floor.
While Christine was out, Hogan had shot and killed all four children with a .40-caliber handgun, then shot himself in the head.
"My whole life—it's gone," Christine told me when she appeared on the show two years after the murders. "There will be no grandchildren. I will never see my daughters walk down the aisle, never see my sons make any great plays. There really doesn't seem to be a lot of need for me in the world."
Three years later, at 49, Christine has emerged from that bleak place. Last April she married Gerald Corman, a family law judge. And on January 26, she gave birth to their twin daughters, Nicole and Claire. The decision to have more children wasn't one Christine made lightly, but it seems to have been the right one: Around the girls, she is joyous, doting, engaged—altogether a changed woman, ready to move forward.
Yet there remains an irresistible pull toward the past. The new family lives in Christine's Merced home—the house where Melanie, Stan, Stu, and Michelle lived and died—and for all the signs of new beginnings, loss is reflected everywhere. The dining room table and the refrigerator are covered with family photos, every one of which has the power to bring Christine to tears. Melanie's ballet slippers still hang on the door to her bedroom, which has sat practically untouched since 2002; the murder investigators' bright yellow "caution" tape is still attached to her bedpost.
When Christine first appeared on the show—beyond stunned, beyond hope—I told her I believed that her story would save lives. I told her that among all the people watching that day, there would be some who'd decided it was going to be their last day—but that seeing her would change their minds. Sure enough, out of the thousands of letters we got after the show, 16 were from people who'd been planning to commit suicide—and then didn't. I later invited Christine back to the show to meet three of these women, one of whom had told me, "I get up because she has the strength to."
That strength is why I flew to Merced when the twins were just four weeks old—to talk to Christine again, and to hear what carried her through.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Christine McFadden
Note: This interview appeared in the May 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: So I sit here watching you hold your babies, bringing new life into the world, giving new life to yourself.
Christine: Yes. It doesn't change anything with the other children, or lessen the feelings there. But it allows me to go forward and live a fuller, more normal life. Just going to the grocery store and seeing kids' cereal boxes is already easier.
Oprah: I've heard people say that sometimes it's the simplest things that bring back memories. For you, with four children, everywhere you turn, there must be a memory.
Christine: Yes—from driving past their schools to seeing the plants they helped me pick out for the yard. They were involved in so many things. I spent nearly 18 years raising kids, and most of my friends had children my kids' age. Over the years, what did I talk about with the neighbors? It wasn't "I did a cystotomy and took out some bladder stones yesterday." We talked about our children. After my kids died, it was as if I had nothing else to say.
Oprah: How long after the murders did you begin dating Jerry?
Christine: About eight months. I wasn't looking for a relationship. After I got divorced the second time, I wasn't going to have anything to do with men. Divorce is very painful, and I wasn't willing to put anybody through that again—not me, not another man, not my kids. But six months after they died—even though I was going around in jeans and no makeup, and not really going many places—men started coming out of the woodwork. I was floored!
Jerry had been married for 31 years; in 2000 his wife died from complications of diabetes. She'd been in a vegetative state for many years, and he was her caretaker. So when Jerry and I met, we were two emotionally shut-down people. The whole time we were dating, I was seeing a psychiatrist and a trauma therapist.
Oprah: What did you even do when you first started dating? Because when I saw you in 2004, you were definitely emotionally shut down.
Christine: I don't think we knew it at the time. I wasn't demanding of him, and he was there for me. I thought if he was around, I might sleep three hours a night. So in some ways I probably used him. But we had good conversation, a lot in common. We certainly enjoyed each other. And the only time I was guaranteed not to think about the children was when we were having sex.
Christine: So it worked to see him.
Oprah: When did you know it was turning into something where you could actually say, "Yes, I want to be with you"?
Christine: That was tough. He was spending pretty much all his time here, and I knew there could be no better man for me. At that point, I had two people left in the world: my mother and my sister, and my sister was dying of cancer. It's a scary thing to be totally alone. And I didn't question that I'd be happy with him. Even so, I panicked when he proposed—just the whole thought of getting married again. But I said yes.
We married two days after we got home from a trip to Paris. Jerry is a judge, so he got the marriage license on our first day back, and then a fellow judge married us the second day. I didn't want any press. In this town, talk spreads like wildfire. I've been a veterinarian in Merced for 25 years, and Jerry has been a judge here for the last ten, and we are both watched.
Oprah: Why are people watching you?
Christine: Just for the sake of gossip. I didn't have to tell anybody I was pregnant. People told me! Everywhere I went—"Oh, you're pregnant!" I wasn't even showing!
Oprah: How many people live in Merced?
Christine: About 75,000.
Oprah: Do you think the town has a vested interest in your story? Everyone must have been devastated.
Christine: There has been tremendous support. Wonderful support. I feel a connection here. The neighbors knew my kids.
Oprah: If you packed up and moved to another city with your family, the new neighbors might not know that you'd had other children. Is that one of the reasons you've chosen not to leave?
Christine: It's a big one. I would be completely lost somewhere else. That's why I've stayed in this house. I'm sure there are people who say, "How could she live there?" But where could you put me that I wouldn't be totally lost? All my kids' memories are here. Moving me someplace else would be like putting me in a room with white walls—a prison cell.
Oprah: I think people assume it would be too painful to live in the home where your children were murdered. Maybe they're projecting how they would feel. But Dr. Phil once said something I've never forgotten. He was talking with a woman who couldn't move forward after losing her daughter ten years before. He asked, "Are you going to let your daughter's life be remembered by the one horrible thing that happened to her on the day she died, or are you going to remember the 18 years of beautiful life she gave you?" The woman said, "I never thought of it that way." Nor had I. And it seems to me that you're in this house because the life of your children—and not just their death—is here.
Christine: This is where they were born. I can still see their smudgy handprints on the walls. The plants they planted are here. Stuart's tree is out in the front yard. Stan painted the house. The few minutes it took somebody to come in and put bullets into them is not what my children are all about.
Oprah: I get that. I do. What did you do with all their stuff?
Christine: I gave some of it to their closest friends.
Oprah: I just saw Melanie's cheerleading skirt hanging in her closet.
Christine: Melanie's room hasn't been touched. But I'm not looking to maintain a living museum.
Oprah: Are you in contact with their friends?
Christine: Yes. I've watched these kids grow up—I've known most of them since they were preschoolers—and they still drop in to see me.
Oprah: Has that helped?
Christine: Tremendously. This house was a place where kids came together, so when it's filled with kids, that feels normal. Melanie's friend just drove up from San Diego to visit the twins. I also see Stan's and Stu's friends, as well as a couple of Michelle's classmates.
Oprah: And when will you tell the twins about what happened to their siblings?
Christine: I don't have an answer. One of my fears is that when they're in preschool, someone will say something to them about it. I worry about that. So could that eventually mean leaving this house or leaving this town? Yes. I brought these girls into this world, so I'll do what I think is right for them—even if that means erasing the other children. And if I felt any resistance on the part of the community to connect with the girls, I'd also consider leaving. I want my daughters to have their own identities and not be overshadowed. That's why some of these family pictures are going to gradually be coming down. I have to do it gradually. To make a fresh space for the girls, we adjoined Stu's and Michelle's rooms, and it just erased them.
Oprah: It's interesting that you use the word erase. I understand what you're saying, because when I look at Nicole and Claire's new bedroom, there's no trace of Stu and Michelle. But obviously they can never really be erased from your memory.
Christine: No. But I stopped seeing the trauma therapist because every week, all I did was cry as I revisited the whole thing. To move on, I had to put it to the back of my mind. I'm working hard to concentrate on other parts of life. That's the only way I can keep going. That's why I needed to have these girls. I was becoming an old person. You know why some older people sit around and talk only about what happened 20 years ago? Because that's when they were still doing things. That's what I was doing—telling the same old stories about my kids. When someone mentioned that it had been five years since they died, I was like, "Five years? That's impossible!"
Oprah: You were living in the past.
Christine: Intellectually, I knew my kids were dead. But the first time I was on your show, it was still so unreal. If you'd said, "Look who we have behind door number two!" I would have believed that my kids were there. That's how bad it was.
Oprah: Did you cremate them all?
Oprah: What did you do with their ashes?
Christine: I still have them. [Long pause and tears] I just can't let them go. In the crematorium, they ask you stuff like "Who do you want to go first?" What mom can answer that? I told them to send the boys first so they could protect their sisters.
Oprah: Did you want to kill yourself after they were murdered?
Christine: I've never been suicidal. And when I married Jerry, I took on the responsibility of not committing suicide. But I wished I'd died with my kids. I wanted to be with them. We used to joke before we got on an airplane that if the plane crashed, we'd be fine because we'd all die together. There's probably some part of me that still feels that I won't be whole or happy again until I am with them.
Christine: I can't answer that fairly because of these two babies. I feel an obligation to be around for them—although if anything had gone wrong with them, that could have pushed me over the edge. But I would not do anything that would hurt them. I don't mean that I'm going to live my life for them, but bringing these girls into the world was a conscious thing. I have a responsibility to be a normal mother.
Oprah: Did you use in vitro?
Christine: I'm not discussing my sex life.
Oprah: Did Jerry know you wanted more children?
Christine: Oh, yes.
Oprah: You say that you wished you'd gone with your children. Do you think if you had been in the house that morning, you'd be dead?
Christine: It's so clear that he wanted to kill them and have me survive.
Oprah: Because if he wanted to kill you, he could have.
Oprah: Had you feared him?
Christine: No. There weren't any signs. He was invited to every major gathering—carnivals, Halloween, fairs—for Michelle's sake.
Oprah: Did he have a good relationship with your other children?
Christine: It started out very well, then went downhill. I didn't approve of his way of disciplining the children. He'd have them write "I should not wrestle in the house" 200 times. I just don't think something like that has much value. He'd make them sit in their rooms for hours until I came home.
Oprah: I heard you sought a restraining order soon after your divorce.
Christine: It was a year before the divorce, when we separated. It's not because I thought he was a danger; I just didn't want him coming over and bugging me.
Oprah: So you didn't fear him.
Christine: No. In fact, he went out of his way not to be physical around me because I'd had some problems with that during my first marriage.
Oprah: Do you think he just snapped?
Christine: That's probably a good word for it. I later learned that he'd been evicted from his apartment.
Oprah: When was the last time you saw him?
Christine: He came over for Michelle's birthday party on March 9.
Oprah: Did he seem bitter, angry, resentful?
Christine: I knew that he wanted to be back with me—so yes. I was in this nice house, with delightful kids. He looked unkempt. He was in his sweats. But the other parents didn't notice anything unusual. He helped with the piñata and played with the kids on the trampoline.
Oprah: Did you sense that he was missing this family life?
Oprah: But nothing that would lead you to believe he could commit such a heinous act.
Christine: No. Why would I think that? He had talked about disappearing, so it had crossed my mind that he might try to commit suicide. But he never said anything that would lead me to believe he would hurt the children. He didn't have a close relationship with them, but he didn't dislike them. If he'd had a close relationship with all the children, I wouldn't have left him. I cared more about my kids than I did about me—which he knew.
Oprah: When you came home that morning and saw John's truck in the driveway, what was your first thought?
Christine: He had been showing Michelle the movie E.T., and she was having nightmares. So she'd been sleeping with me. I figured that she'd awakened and called him on the phone next to my bed. Even though there were older children in the house, if John thought she wasn't being taken care of, I could see him coming over to be with her. I thought, "Oh, damn. Now I have to get him out of the house. What a pain."
Oprah: And then you opened the door and went back through the kitchen and found Melanie lying dead in the hallway.
Christine: [After tears and a long pause] Yes.
Oprah: On the 911 call, you said, "I think my ex-husband has killed my children." When you saw Melanie, did you immediately think all four were gone?
Christine: It was just very quiet in the house. I figured I was the target. I thought he was still waiting for me. There was nothing I could do against a gun, so I ran to my friend's house to call 911.
Oprah: I don't know how the realization that one after another of your children has been murdered settles with you. How does it?
Christine: I just had to pray that three of them really were asleep.
Oprah: You know Melanie wasn't. She fought.
Christine: [In tears] She was so brave. Right before she was shot, she was putting on her brown eyeliner. She used to sit cross-legged on the bathroom counter to put on her makeup so she'd be closer to the mirror. She would have heard the noise that—it could have been the bullet going through Stu's brain. And then she must have opened the bathroom door, stepped out, and seen John.
Oprah: I know that John left a letter at the scene.
Christine: I didn't read it.
Christine: I think he said what he had to say when he killed my children. I'm not going to listen to one more word from that person. Not one more thought of his will enter my brain.
Oprah: Did the doctors put you on medication immediately after the murders?
Christine: No. I wouldn't let them that day.
Oprah: Because you wanted to feel?
Christine: I don't know what drugs would have done to me. In the end, I only wanted them so I could sleep.
Oprah: Are you still on drugs now?
Christine: None at all.
Oprah: Even when you were, the drugs didn't diminish the pain.
Christine: No—they only kept me feeling flat, with no highs or lows. What kept me going was the anger that my kids would die and not be remembered, not have their chance to make their mark on the world. I didn't want their lives to mean nothing.
Oprah: So you established a foundation in their names.
Christine: Yes—the MSSM Friendship Scholarship Foundation (www.mssmfoundation.org).
Oprah: Didn't you refinance your house to contribute to the foundation?
Christine: Yes! I'm laughing because I'm down to the last $10,000 I can borrow.
Oprah: It's clear that you've turned a corner. How would you describe your life now?
Christine: I'm happily married. I'm thrilled to have these two babies, to live again. I'd like to work part-time again in my veterinary clinic. I still love the animals.
Oprah: This issue of the magazine is about faith. Did faith play any role in your being where you are today?
Christine: I've had a lot of battles there. In the simplest terms, I'm still so very angry.
Oprah: With God?
Christine: With God. I miss what I felt was my relationship with God. My husband talks about the idea of a personal God being there just for you—that's what I used to think I had. Is that bad theology? Don't most people think God is there for them? But 9/11, for instance—do you think that the people who lived were the only people who believed in God? What about the people who died? Why did they have to die?
Oprah: So you still have more questions than answers. Will you ever find peace?
Christine: I don't know. I'm still searching. I have friends of many different faiths, and so many of them have tried to give me encouragement. I appreciate all the prayers and thoughts. I welcome them. I'm more accepting now of all different faiths. But it's as if God still speaks to others but doesn't to me. That may not be the correct thinking, but I've seen my children with their brains blown out. And they all had Bibles. Stan's was in the bed stand. Melanie's was on a little table. Stuart's was at the end of his bed the morning he was murdered.
Oprah: Do you have hope?
Christine: Yes. Yes, I do.
Oprah: After the tragedy, did you have faith that you'd one day be able to have more children?
Christine: Initially, I wanted to have more kids because I wanted my other kids back. Crazy thinking.
Oprah: But you've gotten past that? You're not expecting these twins to be replacements for the other four?
Christine: I'm trying real hard. I'm trying to be conscious of all those things.
Oprah: And yet how do you that? It must be hard not to think of your other four children every time you change a diaper.
Christine: I don't. But reading them stories—people gave us books at the baby shower—Goodnight Moon, Love You Forever...
Oprah: Love You Forever is my favorite children's book.
Christine: I put it away. That one I can't read. You know: "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living..."
Oprah: "...my baby you'll be."
Christine: "My baby you'll be." I'm not even going to try with that one.
Oprah: Did you think you would find the courage to love again?
Christine: I wasn't looking for it. It just happened. It took a lot of time.
Oprah: I marvel at the kind of man your husband must be to handle all of this. How would you describe him?
Christine: He's wonderful. Affectionate. Quiet. Thoughtful. And gentle.
Oprah: Thank you for your generosity in sharing your story again. The reason I keep coming back is that I so admire your strength.
Christine: I attribute that strength to the children I lost. Melanie, Stanley, Stuart, and Michelle were the best things that ever happened to me. Even in their short lives, they exceeded any hopes I could have had for them. Yes, I know I have to go forward now. By marrying and bringing these two girls into the world, that's what I'm choosing to do.
Oprah: Do you feel like you've awakened from hell?
Christine: No, it's been more gradual than that. And even now I still feel like hell is only a step away. But I choose not to step into it.
To honor her four children, Christine McFadden created the MSSM (named for Melanie, Stanley, Stuart, and Michelle) Friendship Scholarship Foundation, which has already awarded 19 undergraduate scholarships of $4,000 each per year (renewable for three years). The chief criteria: Applicants must possess the characteristics of friendship—such as the loyalty, service, and compassion Christine's children exhibited. A friend of the applicant must write a recommendation letter. "I wanted the scholarship to encompass all of my children's lives," McFadden says. "That's why it's based on character and integrity. Any child can apply—an applicant doesn't have to be class president or have top grades." Recipients, though, must maintain a 2.5 grade point average.
For more information or to make a donation, visit mssmfoundation.org or call (209) 722-MSSM.