There is a ceramic pot full of my mother’s cigarette butts on the front steps of my childhood home, hot-glued back together by my father after one of our cats saw a chipmunk, and went for it. The four other cats watched it shatter on the concrete, noses against window panes, against the stormdoor, tails flicking predatorially.
For me, home is the smell of cats, their urine, their fur in thick layers over couches, coats, over fucking everything, their scratches through the screens in our front windows. The last of these things resulted in threatening letters from the Homeowner’s Association, of which we’d already received three for the white paint on our fence, peeling in strips from the top. We accrued fines for not fixing these inconsistencies, deviations from the sameness they used to market our particular New Jersey subdivision to potential buyers. The home itself, the mass-producedness of it, with its muted beige vinyl siding, is like all the others on our street. Though I grew up within its walls, I’m not sure I could pick it out of a lineup.
My brother Erik is seventeen and currently preoccupied with researching our ancestry on the internet. This is only the most recent of his obsessions. Erik has always seemed to be more interested in the harvesting of information than he has been in interacting with other people. When he was nine he started watching horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. He could tell you every film Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney Jr ever starred in, could describe each film in detail, as he’d seen them each at least five times.
It has been easier for me to feel close to my brother through some of his obsessions. There remains a large overlap in our love for musical theater, his obsession before genealogy, so when I’m home visiting we often talk about shows, or watch recordings or film adaptations of them, or he plays for me the piano he taught himself by ear, and I do my best to sing along.
This unending world is actually quite small, at least on my mother’s side. When Erik first opened an account on Ancestry.com, I made half-hearted attempts to demonstrate interest, but figured until he moved on to his next obsession, the closeness we’d found through theater was lost.
I was not interested like Erik, who started a list, stating that we descend from eight families on the Mayflower; that we are distant cousins of John Adams, Bing Crosby, and Obama; that Charlemagne is among the more distinguished of our ancestors. Erik keeps our family updated on his discoveries through a shared group chat and we respond with the appropriate no ways and so cools and clapping hand emojis, filing the pieces of information away with other useless trivia. The information he’s harvested has not always been good news: a year or two ago, he sent a message that we share a ninth great grandfather with former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. She is our tenth cousin.
My brother emails cousins and the cousins of cousins, collecting photographs, Civil War letters, stories. A favorite story of his is that of our great-great-grandfather, John Lawson, who, at 66, had a heart attack and died in bed with his secretary. She sued his widow for part of his estate, saying she needed the money for their illegitimate child. He messages us this story and we all laugh, somehow charmed by the lasciviousness of our family’s past, by that fact that we have always been misfits, by how this is all a part of public record.
Almost a year ago, my brother told me about our cousin Charlie, who currently holds the record in South Dakota for the longest serving inmate sentenced to death. Unexpectedly, this detail became another small overlap in our interests.
Charles Russell Rhines was born July 11th, 1956, the fourth of four children, in McLaughlin, South Dakota. When he was small, Charlie struggled with ADHD, like all the men on my mother’s side, including Erik, the budding genealogist. But Charlie’s mother refused to let him see a child psychologist, for fear he’d be saddled with a stigma. He ended up dropping out of school at seventeen to enlist.
He is my grandma’s cousin—their fathers were brothers—making him my first cousin twice removed, distant enough that I didn’t know of his existence until about five months ago. Today, he is 61 years one years old, lives in Sioux Falls, in the Jameson Annex of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. He is one of three men in the state on death row, and, having been there for 25 years, is the longest serving inmate sentenced to death in South Dakota history.
Perhaps it was my mother, also the fourth of four children and suffering from mental illness, who made me feel so othered from the neighboring families in our community. The quiet stillness of our mass-produced house was interrupted only by the thundering of paws up the stairs, down the halls, the halls that were strewn with untied shoes, empty backpacks, pizza boxes and takeout containers hinting at how long it had been since any of us had eaten a home-cooked meal, at how long it had been since any of us had cleaned.
While medicated, my mother’s mood stopped swinging, remained somewhat stable, albeit toward the depressive end of things. Dishes stacked up in the sink, my mother in bed, my father at work, my siblings and I desensitized to the disarray of it all. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why we were not allowed friends over. I hadn’t yet known to be embarrassed of us, hadn’t yet known that we were different.
Her family line, her mother’s really, did this to her, to me, to all of us. Our genes, they keep our attention misdirected, misguided, they make us angry, red and manic, all at once vibrating with anxiety and confined to our spot in bed, unable to do the necessary daily tasks our hearts are pounding for us to do.
It is hard for me to think of the moments in which I came of age in that house. This is not to say I cannot recall them; I very clearly remember being twelve, sitting across from my father at our dining room table while he explained to my sister and me the details revolving around why my mother was hospitalized, again, the details of her diagnoses.
My mother often spent her days in bed, a lump under her covers, blinds drawn, shutting out the sameness that made us feel so othered, so opposite the idyllic families our subdivision aimed to attract. I was useful to my mother in the way that I knew how to make tea and eggs the way she liked them, but not in the way that I was unable to sit in the silence she required, even if the situation seemed to warrant it.
I dedicated much of my teenage time focusing on extricating myself from some particular place: the family, the town, New Jersey in general. At that time, I had not yet discovered my ability to lose myself in the gathering of information, the way my brother had by the time he was nine, studying old films. Instead, I felt a constant out-of-placedness as a young adult, which is sad only in the way it is supposed to be.
Where my mother gave me her genes, my father gave me his stories. My interest in the macabre, in true crime and murder specifically, is something that, while I have only recently recognized within myself, makes a great deal of sense.
When I was small, my dad would tell me all his favorite tales from work until I could look up at him and believe he was some kind of hero and not just the guy who picked up other people’s messes. He was an deputy district attorney in the next county over. He looked over crime scenes and tried picking up all the pieces until they puzzle-fit together.
When I was six, he must have taught me the word autopsy, because I came into my first grade class that year saying it over and over. I said it was when dead bodies answered the police’s questions about what happened, helped them to catch the bad guys.
“They use a special kind of saw to cut right around the skull,” my father drew a line across my forehead with his fingers, “and then they pull that part off like a hat.” He spread his hand out over the top of my head, mimed pulling. “And it makes this sound,” he put one index finger in his mouth, puffing up his cheeks, and pulled it out fast so that the pop reverberated across the living room where we sat.
The light in that room was always dim, casting a yellowish haze over everything. The air looked noxious, our faces jaundiced, cartoonish. Our cat, Maggie, slept between us on the couch, curled up in a tight grey ball, breathing softly.
“Because of the suction?” I asked. He beamed with pride.
“Isn’t it all so gross to look at?” and as I spoke, I drew a capital Y over my dress, from clavicle to bellybutton, demonstrating the incision cut before the ribs get pried open like a gate to the softest, most important parts of you.
“You get used to most of it after a while,” he said, shrugging. “Except the smell.” He worked his face up into a knot. “You never get used to that.”
At night, I’d sleep in a t-shirt he gave me. It was heathered grey and read, Dauphin County Homicide Squad: Our Day Begins When Yours Ends in serifed, navy text, hanging all the way down to my knees.
After his stint in the army, Charlie Rhines was arrested for burglary, serving seven months in the same penitentiary he’d later call home. Less than a year after his release, now 22, he was arrested again, this time for armed robbery, and while this crime occurred in his home state of South Dakota, he was jailed for seven years in in Washington, due to what one article refers to as “his inability to coexist peacefully with his fellow prisoners” in Sioux Falls.
On February 20th, 1992, Charlie got fired from the Dig ‘Em Doughnuts on West Main Street in Rapid City, where he’d worked for the last year following his release from jail in Washington. Two weeks later, on the 8th of March, he returned to the donut shop to burglarize it, but was interrupted by Donnivan Schaeffer, who worked there part time. Charlie stabbed Donnivan twice, then tied him up, and took him to the storeroom. There, Donnivan was stabbed for the final time, at the base of his neck, and died instantly.
Charlie wasn’t even a suspect until several months after the murder, and attended Donnivan’s funeral with his former coworker, one of the employees who discovered Donnivan’s body.
Donnivan was 22, engaged, newly graduated from technical school. His parents still attend the hearings following each of Charlie’s appeals. They refer to Charlie only as “the perpetrator,” the man who murdered their son, all for $3,400.
There are only two Rapid City papers, and I’ve spent hours pouring over the online Argus Leader and Rapid City Journal articles, over the transcripts of his days in appeals court. My fascination with true crime and killers is just that: a fascination. But Charles, with the mythology surrounding him in South Dakota, and now in my brother’s research, he is more of a haunting, an idea constantly looming, that I feel immense pressure to exorcise.
Charles Russell Rhines is a terrifying individual. He writes letters to the Sioux Falls paper, saying his family and schools failed him, that he was never molded quite right. In one 2013 letter, he wrote, “It’s not like it was a major crime. I pointed out to the police at the time that a dozen murders had occurred in Rapid City over the previous year,” for which no death penalty was sought. But Charles is also a sociopath who killed someone who had his entire life ahead of him, a life that now must go unlived. That is a major crime.
Steve Allender, the police chief who initially suspected, and eventually arrested, Charlie, has had only one work-related nightmare in his 27 years on the force. The night Charlie was arrested, Allender got into a car with him, knowing he was armed, in order to question him at a Texaco gas station. When he dreams of this night, he says he feels a sharp pain in his leg. “I look over,” he says, “and Rhines has a knife buried in my thigh and he’s face-to-face with me just laughing in this diabolical laugh.”
My little brother has emailed with Charles’s older sister, our cousin Jennifer, who had this to say, “Since my youngest brother was 17 - or younger - something was not right. 45 years later, I stand by that. I don't think he's bipolar but he is certainly is not equipped to deal with this world. I would be more inclined to think sociopath… and that's scary. I'm glad he is where he is.”
I was intrigued by her inclusion of the term bipolar, as my brother had not used it in his email to her, and according to her, she doesn’t believe her brother to suffer from the disorder. My mother does, however, as does her mother, as does my sister. In fact, I’m the only female in our direct line who seems to have escaped the diagnosis.
In high school, my greatest fear was my genes, more specifically my mother’s. I was convinced some psychological affliction was twisting malevolently within me, waiting to make itself known. While I was not incorrect, my persistent depression and generalized anxiety have both proven themselves to be a handful in recent years, it seems I’ve escaped the eternity of highs and lows I’d long feared being locked into.
Charles Russell Rhines has the face of killer, had it even before his 25 years in the Sioux Falls penitentiary, down to his Jeffrey Dahmer glasses. His mugshot is chilling. The first time I saw it, I was sitting around my dining room table. We never eat there, so my brother uses it to organize and sort through documents. He told us of Charlie’s existence and we sat there, gathered in a circle googling his name and reading the articles. The photo has a light blue backdrop, presumably the cinderblock wall of the Penitentiary where he will remain for the rest of his life. His eyes are dead behind the large plastic frames, his face sagging and worn despite having not seen the world in 20 years.
We are all fond of stories. My brother, my father, and I, but also my mother and sister. On one of my recent trips home, the five of us once again around the dining room table, sorting through research, laughing, petting the cats. Erik was telling a story about our great-great-grandfather, also named Charles Rhines, who died in 1936 after falling in a snowstorm and, unable to get up, froze to death. This story had not been absorbed into our family’s mythology, not even my grandma could say how her grandfather died. No, the story was reduced to a tiny news clipping, tucked away in a box, forgotten until my brother came across it, unpacking its contents.
I think, maybe, it can be scary to know too much about your family, to know just what is in your blood, your DNA. It is easier for me to think of Charles’s life like a story, distant and wholly separate from me, a story I must continue to retell.