Interviews of Hope
Interview With Marc Klaas, Polly Klaas’ Dad
President and Founder, KlaasKids Foundation, Inc. and Beyond Missing
Interviewed by Susan Whitmore
S: Please tell us a little about you and Polly.
M: My name is Marc Klaas, and I am the father of Polly Klaas. Polly was 12 years old when, on the evening of October 1, 1993, a bearded stranger wielding a knife broke into her room while she was having a slumber party with two of her girlfriends. He threatened the girls’ lives and told them that if they made a noise he would slit their throats. And then he kidnapped my daughter.
We spent 65 days searching for Polly before learning that a recidivist violent offender, only recently paroled, had kidnapped and murdered her within two hours of her abduction. He told his cell mates before getting out of prison that he would avoid AIDS by getting “a young one.” That was his form of “safe sex.” He's currently on Death Row in San Quentin.
S: This was a high profile case, so please talk to me about the initial feelings you had once they found Polly and you knew she wasn't coming home.
I had spent those 65 days before learning Polly’s fate as an extremely frightened individual—so very frightened for the safety of my daughter. Despite that, I did everything I could to convince myself and anyone else who would listen to me that we had a good chance of bringing Polly home alive. There were many people who were listening and who helped us day and night during that time. I think I succeeded in convincing myself and many others that we would find her and she would come home.
At about 5:00 pm on December 5, 1993 the Petaluma Police Department, acting as the jurisdictional agency, called me in to talk with a Police Captain and Mark Marshon, an FBI special agent. They called my ex-wife, Polly’s mother, and me into an office at the station. They had tears in their eyes and they told us Polly had been recovered and she wasn't alive. They had tried to convince me of that several times during the days leading up to this day, but I refused to listen until they proved it to me. At that moment with my ex-wife broken down in tears, I was rather emotionless. The news really didn't do much to or connect with me. I thought, ‘Well, this is the end of the game then - we’ll just sort of absorb it.’ Then I asked if I could bring in my wife, bring in my family, bring in the many volunteers at the Polly Center across the street and let them all know before they heard the news on the radio or the television because everybody was so invested and involved in the case. Of course they let us do that. We told everybody and then we went home with my mother, father, brothers and sisters and brother-in-law.
About three hours later, the enormity of it just struck me all at once. Fortunately, there were a lot of men around because I went from being this passive docile guy in one moment to this raving lunatic the next moment. I was grabbing things and breaking things and screaming at the top of my lungs. They basically had to tie me down and just hold me down for several minutes until I was able to compose myself at some level.
We spent that night at our home in Sausalito and it was just the saddest. God it was so sad. That was the last time I stayed there. We left and went to my sister-in-law's home. We stayed there for six months. We just couldn't go back home. My brother-in-law finally pulled me aside and told me that I needed to go home. I said ‘What are you talking about?’ and he said, ‘Well, you don't live hereyou have a home and you to have claim your home.’ I hadn't thought of it. We’d been there for six months and returning to our home just never entered my mind.
S: What were the things that others did that made this time more bearable?
Well, Susan, like you said it was a very high profile case, and, although we weren't really paying much attention to it at the time, enormous amounts of money were raised. We started an organization in her name initially to find her and then afterwards to be protective of other children. Thousands of poems, gifts, songs and various mementos and offers of remembrance were sent to us. All of those things meant a lot, especially from strangers. Several of our very close friends remained very close and were very protective of me and my family; with others this was not so. Some I really never saw again. Some I did see had a hard time even acknowledging my situation and my daughter's death, and I had no time for those people. Even a couple of members of my own family pulled away from my wife and me. But for the most part, people were very generous with us. They realized that I was going through this ordeal publicly and, I guess, I thought I was showing people what it's like to be the guy who has just had his kid taken.
One of the reasons we were so public was that a considerable degree of trust had been built up with the media over the course of those 65 days. The media was really very, very helpful in trying to find her and bring her back, and many of those people had become our friends. They, the press, had always treated us with dignity and respect and we tried to reciprocate. Then we decided that maybe people could learn something from observing us; maybe we could hold our heads high and try to be better than what was customary in that moment. I mean, it was a horrible moment, it was a horrible moment.
S: Did you have periods where you broke down publicly?
I never really broke down in public, although I did a couple of times at 35,000 feet in airplanes. Crazy business isn't it really? There really isn't anywhere you can go, but I never really shed a lot of tears in public. Privately it was a very different thing altogether. I mean, my goodness, we just cried so much my wife and I. I mean, it was just so horrible, so terrible.
I actually couldn't be alone for at least a year. I rarely did anything alone. I would travel, but I always had somebody with me; there was a fellow who traveled with me for some period of time. The worst time is always the nights when the lights go off and there's nothing else to occupy yourself and you know sleep isn’t coming. And when sleep does come you know that it's just going to start all over again.
There's nothing worse than that kind of sadnessthe long term sadness that you feelthe anger that you feel over the unfairness of it all; the fundamental inequities that exist in life. Good lord, I don't know how one does it. I mean, for Polly it was this guy, this son-of-a-bitch. He came out of hell and just consumed my family and went right back into the bowels of hell. For your Erika it was another monster, cancer. I wasn't going to let the monster get me too. I was going to beat the son-of-a-bitch back with everything I had.
I have to tell you that when we found out what had happened to her, the fear that I had felt all of that time, just the unbelievable fear that I had lived with for 65 days, within 24 hours had turned into unmitigated anger―just unbelievable! I howled at the moon. For years I howled, but I tried to do it in a way that . . . I don't know, I had to do it publicly, everything was so public.
President Clinton used to say ‘feel my pain’ and I just wanted people to feel my pain; understand my pain; empathize with it. I wanted them to understand something that we had never understood before. Some of us will experience our child’s death; mine was murdered, yours died of cancer.
But it becomes about something else. It becomes about the monster, whatever the monster is, and my child’s death suddenly became about the monster―the act, the experience―and she was changed into and relegated to a statistic. Instead of Polly’s murder, people are talking about her upbringing. Your child’s death changes into and is relegated to a statistic and becomes about cancer research. Well, it's not about that, it's about THEM as individuals, as beings, as our children. It's really all about Polly and Erika, and THAT’S what people need to understand, that it's all about the victims. It's about our kids. It should always be about our kids―about them.
S: What were the differences in the way your ex-wife and you dealt with the loss, the pain, the grief?
I believe that there are three fundamental ways one can approach this. One can succumb to the demon and lose oneself in depression or drugs or alcohol and ultimately self destruct, and that happens a lot. One can turn away in denial and ‘get on with their life’ and try to pretend it didn't happen. Or one can find some form of fighting back. My ex-wife chose to handle it very differently than I. I’ve fought back, and through fighting and grieving and coming to terms with the understanding that there is only so much one can do―only so much time working through the sensitive things one has to deal with―I think I'm okay. I’m as okay as I can be all of these years later. My wife, Violet, chose the path that I chose and we grieved and went through it together.
I don't know if it’s unique to us, but we’ve worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day for years trying to accomplish something and trying to keep our minds focused on that accomplishment so that we wouldn't delve into those dark places too much. However, those places are always there; I mean you don't escape it, but if you don't focus on it and you don't look frequently into the abyss it becomes a little easier to extricate yourself. I'm not sure if what I'm saying makes any sense to you, but I was so far down―we are all so far down―but there's always a deeper place you can go and you can always fall a little farther. Our way of coping with grief was to deal with it on whatever level we could, work really hard and try and create a legacy―Polly's legacy―and to try and make sure, as I alluded to earlier, that she didn’t end up a statistic and just a little piece of a pie chart.
S: What was your life like before Polly’s death, and what impact has her death had on your life now?
Before Polly was murdered, I was getting to a place where I thought I had a perfect life. I had this unbelievable kid; I had this wonderful woman in my life; I had this fabulous job. After some tough years, my wife on this side and my daughter on this side were becoming really close―they were finding areas of agreement and finding things in common and doing a lot of things together. I even commented to Violet that this is about as perfect as it gets. Well, you don't say that, you can't go there, because when you say that, I mean man, I don't know, it's (he knocks on wood) when things go wrong. We were making money, we were having fun―I mean it was very cool. Then this horrible thing happened, and man, everything flipped. I mean it all happened in a second. The last day I even went to work at my gig (I had a car rental franchise) the last day that I did that was the day Polly was kidnapped. I just never went back after that. I gave it up. I gave it to my sister.
But enormous changes occurred in my life. I mean, for the first time I understood the meaning of life; for the first time my life had real meaning. I had a mission; I really did. I had a mission in life, and I think a noble mission. It was something I could get my hands around. I knew it was something I had to do whether I had success at it or whether it meant that I would live in a cardboard box at the side of a railroad track. I even told Violet it might come to that, and she said, ‘Let's go do this together.’
I had the strength of this wonderful woman beside me, and things fell into place. I won't say lucky because there isn't anything lucky in this, but I was fortunate because people listened. We ran a very frugal ship. We didn't need a lot of money; we were able to move forward with purpose and with meaning and with the ability to hopefully make some kind of a difference at some level for somebody. And that was the goal. I said earlier that my greatest teacher was a 12-year-old kid and that she displayed the kind of grace under fire and courage that I can hopefully use in my life as I move forward and try to display some of those same qualities. If Polly were able to do what she had to do under the kind of pressures―I mean truly, really she faced the boogey man―well, she got that ability somewhere, you know? Go out and find it and see what you can do with it. That’s what I did. I moved forward with purpose. I had visions. Seriously. Understanding things that I had never understood before, having clarity that I had never had before, being able to move forward with very specific and clear agendas and truly get things done and accomplish things unlike anything I had ever done before. All this without fear, with strength, with confidence and just kind of extraordinary.
BUT . . .
I would trade it all back for being the crappy little materialistic happy pig I was before in a heartbeat.
S: What role did Polly play in your new role in life?
I have a little angel sitting on my shoulder, and when I have doubts and don't have clarity, I talk to Polly. I talk to her this day and the next day and she shows me the way. Truly it's profound. I mean this child will be with me forever. I can't hold her and kiss her, but she'll be with me forever.
S: Have you had any experiences with Polly since she died?
You know, I've had a dream, I've had a few dreams, not a lot, but I've had a few visions. You ask me about that, gosh you are getting into the realm of spirituality and you are getting into the white light and all of those kinds of things. Yes, I've had dreams. I had a dream where I was in a motel room. I was there with some person, and I don't know if it was a man or a woman, but it doesn't matter because Polly walked in and she sat down and on the floor with me (Marc begins to cry) and we just talked. She said, ‘I'm all right. Good-bye daddy.’ I've had a few visions, not a lot. Violet does more than I do. My mother does more than I do, too, but she's still there, you know?
It's funny you know but some years ago, five years ago, a guy calls me up and says he wants to volunteer for our foundation, and I said, ‘Cool, what do you do?’ and he said, ‘Well, I'm a portrait artist.’ I asked him what he wanted to do, and he asked me what I wanted him to do. I said, ‘Paint me a portrait of my kid’ and he asked me to send him some pictures of Polly. I did send him some pictures, and three months later the most extraordinary oil painting shows up at my doorstep of my daughter in an ethereal state―two years older than she was the day she died. It's easily my most prized possession. If everything were falling apart around me, it's the one thing I would grab, that I couldn't do without, the one thing I couldn’t lose.
S: How has your mother, Polly’s grandmother, dealt with Polly’s death?
My mother is just one of the wisest women that I've ever known. I mean I find myself stuck many times where I've got to do something that's going to come under public scrutiny and I need a path, and she's my path. I call my mother up and ask her, ‘How do I do this? What do I do?’ She always gives me sage, wonderful advice, and she's a very spiritual lady. Polly's death hurt her profoundly, profoundly. I think Polly was the favorite person of everybody in our family. But then six months after Polly died, my mom’s mother died and three months after that, my brother died, so my mom and I found ourselves in the same spot―parents of dead children. We were in the spot nobody should have to be. I mean they are supposed to bury us, so I am extremely close to my mother. I actually hired her. She works for me. She answers my phones. If you run a kid's foundation, you want someone who answers the phones to say, "Hello, dear. How are you today?’ So I am extremely close to my mother. I've been blessed by the women in my life, much more so than the men. They are incredible, the females in my life―just amazing people.
S: If you were in a room with 100 parents who had all just lost their children, what would you tell them?
I'd talk about the fact that everybody does these things differently. That's absolutely true, we all have to find our own way, but I think one commonality that I found is that the desperation doesn't go on forever. For instance, I was a desperate man. I was a desperate man from the minute the phone call came in that Polly was missing for probably the next eight years, and I was desperate in every aspect of my life. I was desperate to hold my child. I was desperate to talk to her. I was desperate to beat the brains out of the fellow who kidnapped her. I was desperate not to be alive myself. I was desperate to turn back the hands of time.
The desperation is there, and it's something that one has to deal with. As a result of being desperate you can't enjoy anything because there's too much frenzy―everything is crazy, everything is so crazy. And if you do enjoy something, you feel guilty enjoying something so you get desperate about enjoying something. I mean it's this vicious, horrible circle.
Then what happened after seven or eight years was that we realized that we could begin to enjoy things, that we weren't nearly as desperate anymore, that there were beautiful things in life, that we wouldn't have to see people enjoying themselves and say, ‘What's wrong with them, don't they get it? What are they laughing at?’
Okay listen, we were talking about desperation. It doesn't go on forever, that's the thing. At a certain point you realize that you can enjoy the things that life has to offer, and life has beautiful things to offer. Life has music. Life has flowers. Life has art. Life has theater. When you realize that those things are there and you really can enjoy them again, then you know that the desperation is fading on some level. It doesn't mean the hurt is fading. It doesn't mean that it goes away, but it means you don't have to be desperate. In my mind, that is the message you can impart to other people, and that is the hope you can give them for a future without [long, thoughtful pause] desperation.
S: Any last parting words?
Well, when your kid is kidnapped or dies, you become filled with certain levels of anger, certain levels of hate, certain levels of desperation. Over the course of time you find ways to purge those feelings and get back on track and realize that people can share joy and that you can enjoy beauty once again, and that's a fabulous thing because beauty is really what the meaning of life is; that's what it's all about. I mean that's what we miss. We miss the beauty of their smile. We miss the beauty of their touch. Although we can't have that, we can find that in different things, and that's something wonderful.