Lillian Schott spent her early years in Bobtown, Pennsylvania, a company town founded by Shannopin Coal to house its miners, her father Oliver among them. Though many of the coal fields of the region had been shuttered during the Great Depression, Oliver had been fortunate to keep his job while other dispossessed miners had resorted to living in abandoned coke ovens during the harsh Pennsylvania winters.
While Oliver and his wife Viola were able to weather the tough economic times, their family's beginnings were less auspicious: Their first child arrived stillborn when Viola was merely sixteen years old, married less than a year. Later, a son and daughter--twins--died a few months apart from pneumonia when they were just over a year old. Despite these tragedies, the family carried on, and Lillian's photo albums depict an idyllic childhood spent roaming the forests and playing with cousins amid the backdrop of rolling farmland and covered bridges.
No one would have described Lillian as a particularly warm person, not even as a child, but as the fifth of nine children she learned quickly that sweetness and docility wouldn't serve her. She had to speak up to get what she wanted, a trait that was not in fashion for young girls at the time, but a trait that would, in fact, serve its purpose. As close as she was to her sisters, by sixteen, she had had enough of being merely one of the Schott girls, and was desperate for an identity of her own. When her brother brought home his friend Red, a thin, handsome stranger who was rough around the edges but polite, she fixed her sights on winning him over. She did.
Red and Lillian were married December 31, 1949, on the eve of a decade that would later be defined by its air of hopeful innocence, a golden age that would become the focus of the culture's collective nostalgia. There was reason to be hopeful. World War II was over, the economy was booming, and young people had reason to believe that they could build a life for themselves better than anything their parents could have dreamed. So Red and Lillian dreamed.
Lillian, brusque as she could be, was still just barely 17 years old, with a young woman's tender heart. It's possible to imagine her spending idle moments scribbling Lillian Laubscher over and over in her school notebooks as she dreamed about china patterns and setting up a home. How romantic, she might have thought, to share her first kiss of the new decade with her new husband, as they welcomed in a time that had never known them to be anything other than what they had become--a pair, united, man and wife.
New Year's Eve already carries the heaviest of burdens--all of the year's failures and regrets are placed on its doorstep and abandoned, if only briefly. It seems almost cruel to burden it further with the hope of what could be. But there they were, standing before their Protestant minister, ready to embrace whatever awaited.
By 1951 they were living in Sanford, North Carolina, where the first of their sons was born, followed by another a mere 17 months later, which is as clear an indication as any that they had been getting along quite well for a time. They lived in a little white house on Rose Street, flanked by dirt roads and a large yard for the boys, a picture perfect version of married life in 1950s small-town America. Upon closer inspection, however, it was clear the facade was already crumbling.
In September 1952, just a month after Red and Lillian's second son David was born, Lillian's brother Oliver was involved in a fatal truck accident. A head-on collision with another tractor trailer sent him over an embankment, pinning him in the wreckage and crushing his skull. He was 24 years old. Just months before, he had moved in with his sister and brother-in-law to save some money, to help with the boys. Suddenly, the glue that held the young couple together was gone.
Lillian was still a teenager, raising two young sons largely on her own while Red went about his life on the road. She was isolated from her family and alone in her grief. Whether Red grieved along with her she couldn't know. But as time passed, she found something in her husband, that hint of something dark just beneath the surface that at first had intrigued her, that was burgeoning into something much more menacing.