5 lessons I learned covering same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court

The start of this week was a whirlwind of press conferences, photo opportunities and historic court arguments for me as I covered the Supreme Court in action for the first time. I’ve been a full-time reporter since 1999, and while my career has led me to Instanbul and Tokyo and Paris and Belize, I’d never been to our nation’s Capitol, much less granted a seat for one of the most historic high court arguments of the generation. I was there Tuesday, April 28, as the justices listened to...

First signing is in the books!

Today I'm recovering from a four-day road trip to Minneapolis -- with an 11-month-old boy in tow, no less -- where I met up with David Batcher for our first-ever book signing. The response we're getting for the book is humbling. I'm incredibly appreciative and hopeful that we can get the word out about our work. The Kennedy women we highlighted are fascinating, and I think our approach is accessible to introduce them to a new generation. Here are some photos of the big night, courtesy of...

Kennedy Wives has arrived!

I remember reading author interviews when I was younger and being dubious when the scribe likened his or her latest book release to birthing a child. I am in perfect position to judge that analogy this year: In December 2013, I delivered my first son. In June 2014, my latest true crime hit bookstores. And this week, one year after the birth of my boy, my first hardcover -- The Kennedy Wives: Triumph and Tragedy in America's Most Public Family -- is making its nationwide debut. I assure...

I get bored with predictability, so after three true-crime books, I switched it up for Book No. 4: It's a non-fiction biography about the Kennedy wives. I also didn't work alone this time. David Batcher, with whom I went to high school, signed on under the guise of helping me research, but by the time the book proposal was finished, I realized I wanted more than just his behind-the-scenes help, so I enlisted him as a coauthor. It was a brilliant decision. David was one of those annoying,...

The Tyler Hadley case

He stood behind her, a hammer clenched in his hand. He was silent, and she was oblivious. The hammer’s handle was smooth in his palm. He stared at her as she typed absentmindedly on the family computer. He was still for a long time and he held the hammer at his side as he eyed his mother’s head. -- So goes the first paragraph in my third true crime book, See How Much You Love Me. It was a difficult story to tell -- one about a boy whose parents did all the right things in trying to...

Effin' Matt Power

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine died. I didn't get to know him long, but I had the privilege of knowing him pretty damn well. Matthew Power had been a colleague whom I got to know during my stint as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan (2010-2011). It was a tight-knit clan that spent hours together crammed in buses and seminar halls and on airplanes. We traveled the globe together, visiting Argentina, Brazil and Turkey. A lot has been written about Matt since he died...

Learning from Love

Yeardley Love was no shrinking violet. The truth will come out about the University of Virginia lacrosse star, the young woman whose piercing blue eyes peered out to millions from magazine covers, newspaper pages and television reports. We will all learn that though her name has become synonymous with domestic and dating violence—due in no small part to the allegation that her lacrosse-playing boyfriend beat her to death in a violent rage just weeks before they were to graduate—the...

About Amber Hunt

Amber Hunt is an award-winning journalist who works for the Cincinnati Enquirer as an investigative reporter. She previously covered crime for the Detroit Free Press and the Dakotas for The Associated Press and was a 2011 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She's written three true-crime books: Dead but Not Forgotten, All-American Murder and See How Much You Love Me, and is co-author of the upcoming The Kennedy Wives: Triumph and Tragedy in America's Most Public...

Learning from Love

Yeardley Love was no shrinking violet.

The truth will come out about the University of Virginia lacrosse star, the young woman whose piercing blue eyes peered out to millions from magazine covers, newspaper pages and television reports. We will all learn that though her name has become synonymous with domestic and dating violence—due in no small part to the allegation that her lacrosse-playing boyfriend beat her to death in a violent rage just weeks before they were to graduate—the connection is simply a mistake. Yeardley could not have been the victim of dating violence. She was too strong and too smart for that.

Or so I was told.

It was last July when I started to tackle the legwork on what would be my second true crime book for St. Martin’s Press. My first, Dead But Not Forgotten, had been a case physically closer to home, one that I had covered and whose parties felt like I’d been fair in the stories I had written about the case for the Detroit Free Press, where I worked as a crime reporter for nearly eight years.

I’d suggested the Yeardley Love case as a follow-up project, even though it was nowhere near home and I’d undoubtedly have a harder time developing sources because I was an unfamiliar face new to the East Coast terrain. But I was drawn to Love’s story. Here was a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, a beautiful woman who by all accounts had done absolutely nothing to warrant the torrent of rage police said her ex-boyfriend unleashed on her in the early-morning hours of May 3, 2010. I didn’t allow myself to decide if George Huguely V, the privileged and handsome young man accused in the death, was guilty of the first-degree murder charge he faced. A jury today did decide: He was convicted of second-degree murder and could spend up to 40 years behind bars.

Despite my initial withholding of judgment, I was certain of one thing: There had to be a lesson to learn from Yeardley’s death, and I wanted to figure out what that lesson might be.

Or so I told myself.

In truth, aided by the helpful spectacles of hindsight, that was only half of the case’s allure for me. The other half was both selfish and secret. Though I rarely talked about it, I had once been in a relationship in which I was threatened and punched and pushed and pulled, and I knew intimately just how difficult it is for women—especially those who consider themselves smart and strong and successful—to seek help. I felt a kinship with Yeardley Love. It could have been me.

We reporters have a morbid way about us: We often see the what-ifs in our lives in the form of headlines. If this plane crashes, what will the headline say? For whatever funereal reason, I take comfort in knowing that I’ve been published just enough to warrant a news story, at least in the towns I’ve called home. (My fiancé has heard that more than once. He doesn’t find it as reassuring.) After I learned about Yeardley Love’s death, I wondered what the headlines would have said if it had been me at age 22 instead of her. Would Nancy Grace have been as outraged? Would the story have become even half as sensational as it did? Would people say about me the same things they’d said about Yeardley: that I’d had everything going for me, that I was a genuinely good person on the cusp of doing great things for humanity?

Probably not, and not simply because Yeardley was far prettier in sweatpants than I am at my most dolled-up. Yeardley seemed as unlikely a victim as I’ve ever written about. I, on the other hand, am a bit outspoken. Someone somewhere would have piped up: Amber’s swell, but man, that girl could get under your skin! I probably would not have graced the cover of People magazine, as Yeardley did a few weeks after her death.

Still, writing the book All-American Murder became about more than telling one amazing woman’s tragic story. It forced me to come to terms with my own story, and to finally speak out loud about the relationship that I for so long kept hidden. I was forced to peer inward because those close to Yeardley, to George and to the University of Virginia—all of them—refused to talk at all. In off-the-record conversations, the few who were apologetic as they declined my interview requests admitted they were baffled: No one wants to associate Yeardley Love’s death with domestic violence, I was told, because domestic violence doesn’t happen to young women like her.

I called Yeardley’s family last July to explain my intentions and promise that even if they weren’t comfortable talking with me as a journalist, I’d still do my best to tell Yeardley’s story with sensitivity and respect. I never fully expect survivors to talk to me. It’s mind-boggling that so many do. But I always reach out to let them know what I’m doing in hopes that they will choose to share those precious memories that transform victims from meaningless names and ages into flesh-and-bone people. Even by July, Yeardley had become something of a cardboard cutout in the media: Beautiful lacrosse player, born into affluence, about to graduate college. Not much more than that can fit in a sound byte, and I hate that. A human life should not be reduced to a Twitter-friendly summation.

“Why this one? Why not another case?” Yeardley’s relative asked me. Admittedly, I was taken aback. By then, Yeardley had been in People and Sports Illustrated. Her case had been the focus of multiple national news programs. Journalists flooded Charlottesville’s streets for even the tiniest of update in the case. The national interest seemed obvious.

I felt my guard go down ever so slightly. I’d been in a dangerous relationship once, I acknowledged. “I think a book about Yeardley could reach a lot of young women in trouble,” I said. “I know how hard it is to ask for that kind of help when you’re strong.”

I heard the voice on the other end scoff. That’s when Yeardley was likened to a tropical flower: She was no “shrinking violet.”

My stomach knotted. My face burned.

“Neither was I,” I replied.

It wasn’t until that moment that I’d felt defensive about my past.

It’s impossible, really, to cleanly trace the origins of a relationship. You can say that you met your boyfriend at work or the beach or a bar, but there are other factors that play into whether you follow up that encounter with a phone call or email. If you’d met him a week earlier or a month later, you might have had nothing to do with him.

Usually, the origins don’t matter. But when you utter the words, “I was with a guy who abused me,” people want to know. They might not ask outright, but the puzzlement is on their faces—especially if you don’t fit the stereotype of the down-and-out, born-in-the-backwoods domestic violence victim.

And let’s lay that out there right away. No matter how many times we’re told that abusive relationships know no socioeconomic boundaries, when most people hear “he hit me,” they don’t envision a woman in a power suit with a briefcase. They don’t picture someone with a college degree who never balks at sending back an overcooked steak at a fancy restaurant. They envision someone who’s weak and poor—or worse yet, someone who’s “asking for it.” Especially if the first hit (or push or pull) wasn’t the last one.

I met Jeff, as I’ll call him, at work. I’d recently broken up with a boyfriend and wasn’t ready for a new relationship. In truth, I had the stupid post-teenage baggage many of us have at that age: still hung up on my first love, not sure whether my attempts to Fight the Man were going to pay off, worried that I’d end up a bored suburban housewife with only a drawer full of unpublished poems to show for my childhood aspirations of becoming a writer.

Jeff was everything my previous boyfriends were not, most notably driven and cocky. He was a talented photographer, and I’d studied the medium myself. While my exes had fancied themselves writers and musicians, Jeff actually made money at his artistic endeavor. He was, in a word, successful.

And I was, in a word, damaged.

My mother had died when I was twelve. She was my biggest fan, reading my short stories and poems to her friends over the phone. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she worried about how it would affect me. I’d already been a downer of a kid, writing about mortality from the time I could pick up a pencil. The years that followed Mom’s death were gut-wrenchingly difficult. My stepfather and mother had been married about eight years. I called him Dad. He wanted my sisters and me to stay with him—only my youngest sister was his biological daughter—and we wanted to stay, too. But within seven months, “Dad” had a new woman living in the house, and he had changed. He became controlling and verbally abusive. His new wife referred to us children as “the baggage.” It was an unhealthy family environment with people so detached that I called them my parental units. If I did or said something they didn’t like, they ignored me for days. As an adult, I grasp just how damaging that was. I thought I’d one day grow up enough to understand; as I’ve aged, however, I’ve realized how their mistreatment lead me down a self-destructive path.

As I researched Yeardley Love, I felt little in common with the bright-smiled girl. She was so pretty and so popular, and while her father had served in the military, as did my step-dad, her family was by all accounts loving and intact. And they were wealthy, a detail never omitted in the abundant coverage of the death. Yeardley grew up in a posh Baltimore suburb. Her homestead is hugged by lush parkland. In contrast, I’d attended twelve schools in seven states by the time I graduated high school. Where she had stability, I had uncertainty.

But there was a commonality: When Yeardley was a sophomore in high school, her father died. John Love III succumbed to cancer at Christmastime in 2003. Yeardley had been a daddy’s girl. The two began playing lacrosse together when Yeardley was just five, and she loved it so much that she sometimes played for two teams at once. When her father died, she placed a lacrosse ball in his casket, her friends told reporters.

Luckily, she had a loving home life that remained stable after the tragedy, and she outwardly handled her grief with grace and strength, according to friends quoted in the days after her death. She was already incredibly close with her older sister Alexis and mother Sharon, and the tragedy united them further. Yeardley seemed the epitome of the adage: Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. After graduating high school, she achieved the dream she had spelled out for herself in a freshman year essay about her life: She wanted to attend the University of Virginia to play lacrosse. She told a reporter in early 2010 that being invited to play at UVA was the proudest moment of her life.

I wondered if George Huguely V, a fellow lacrosse player and UVA student, seemed to her at all what Jeff initially seemed to me: outwardly self-assured and fun, the life of the party when people were looking. I wondered if George, like Jeff, changed when the party stopped, if he completely befuddled her by being outgoing and upbeat one minute, then calling her names and accusing her of cheating the next. If the news reports were true, George had attacked her, choking her, one night in front of witnesses just weeks before her death. I wondered if that was the first time, or just the first time he had an audience.

In the days that followed Yeardley’s death, the media began uncovering troublesome red flags, prompting what-ifs of Shakespearean proportions: Huguely, who, like Yeardley was born into wealth, had a string of alcohol-related legal run-ins, one of which resulted in him pleading guilty to public intoxication and resisting arrest.  Other allegations surfaced, too, ones that hadn’t been reported to police, but rather to journalists in the wake of Yeardley’s death—allegations that George once choked Yeardley in public and that he’d punched a fellow lacrosse player in the face for walking her home. The accusations prompted media to pose the question: Could she have been saved?

It wasn’t the first time I’d read such a headline. I’ve covered dozens of domestic violence-related deaths in my 13 years as a journalist. In metro Detroit, women are killed by their spouses or partners often enough that it takes special circumstances for the death to warrant much newsprint. Black victims and poor victims are guaranteed far less coverage than the white and the wealthy. Extenuating heartbreak, such as the body being discovered by the victim’s child, will usually land on the front page.

Such was the case with Paulette Litzan. It was the summer of 2004, and I was covering crime in Macomb County, Michigan, when I wrote about a murder that seemed to jolt me awake. Paulette, 39, was a bright and bubbly woman, quick with a smile and a joke. Her favorite person in the world was her then-8-year-old son. Her least favorite was his father, a man whom she had loved but never married. He was controlling and abusive, and after time, Paulette mustered the strength to leave him for the sake of their son. She didn’t want her boy to be raised in a household that condoned the actions of his father. But Harry Stanley refused to relinquish control. He terrorized Paulette by stalking and threatening her. She turned to the court system for help, and just weeks before her death, she applied for a renewal of a personal protection order. It was denied.

I interviewed Paulette’s mother days after Stanley had walked into her house and put a bullet in her brain. He left his son behind to discover Paulette’s lifeless body on the kitchen floor, and then Stanley drove 140 miles into northern Michigan before killing himself.

I’d covered death before, and I’d endured my own mother’s. But Paulette’s case affected me like few others before or since. By then, Jeff had attacked more than once. His temper would flare and dissipate without warning. He was a wildfire that would seem under control, only to find some small annoyance to serve as the bellows needed to take down the house. He wasn’t this way every day, of course. Abusive partners can’t be all jerk, all the time. There has to be some good or they’d never land a date to begin with. But there had been flashes of violence that were so shocking, they left me paralyzed.

The night I wrote Paulette’s story, I came home and sobbed uncontrollably. I could not stop crying for hours. The lede on the story still echoes in my brain every time I hear of others dying at the hands of partners they had feared:

Paulette Litzan knew how she was going to die.

It took me two more years before I left Jeff. Most of his abuse was in attempts to control and belittle me, and it was easy to write off the cruel things he said as being bad jokes or bad moods or, hell, bad sushi. But there were at least a half-dozen instances of actual physical violence, and those had become impossible to explain away. There was the night he slammed my head into a window and yanked a handful of hair from my scalp because I’d come home later than expected. There was the moment during a Swiss vacation when he grabbed me so hard that a man asked in broken English if I needed help. There was the time he tackled me in the kitchen, and the time he pushed me down the stairs, and the time he sat on my chest, pinning my arms down with his knees until I agreed to go to his parents’ house. (I’d initially demurred because when he had asked, he had also mentioned that I was a cunt.)

My family knew little of this. I was ashamed. I felt stupid. I’d always told myself that I’d bolt at the first sign of abuse in a relationship. But things aren’t always black and white, and I got sucked into a spiral. I was such a strong personality that I felt no one would believe I’d allowed someone to treat me like such trash. I was a crime reporter, for Christ’s sake. I swore like a sailor and knew dozens of cops. Sources were so helpful to me that they’d sometimes call in the middle of the night if they had learned I was about to get scooped. For all these reasons, it seemed obvious that I could have—should have—asked for help. But it was also for these exact reasons that I felt I couldn’t.

As I researched Yeardley’s case, I began asking my own friends and family members how much I’d shared with them and when. I genuinely couldn’t remember. Consider it a nod to New York Times columnist David Carr and his reporting process for The Night of the Gun, a book detailing his days as a junkie. I was closest with my oldest sister Missy, and she recalled that the abuse was revealed bit by bit. In the wake of the window-slamming incident, I told her simply that Jeff and I had “fought.” Missy said her ire was raised when I told her about a phone call he had made to me a few days later. I’d answered while in line at a grocery store, and I had to hand my cell phone to the cashier to prove to Jeff I wasn’t lying about my whereabouts.

“That’s when I knew something was really off,” Missy recalled.

I asked if I’d made the lame excuses you hear in the after-school specials—“He didn’t mean to hurt me,” “He really isn’t all bad,” “You just don’t see the good sides of him.” I asked half-sarcastically, confident that I’d never used such stereotypical lines.

“Oh, you totally said all of that stuff,” Missy said.

Once I blamed an outburst on an immunosuppressant. Jeff, who had undergone a kidney transplant in the first year of our relationship, had picked me up and tossed me across a room—at that point, his most violent outburst yet. I looked up side effects of his newly prescribed medication. One said that in rare cases, patients become aggressive on the drug. That was all I needed to latch onto as an excuse. I learned years later that Missy actually volunteered at a dialysis unit and asked a nurse whether some such medications turn people into jerks.

“They said, no, the pills don’t do that,” Missy recalled. “He was just a jerk.”

I wondered if Yeardley shared every alleged incident with her family and friends, or if it trickled out the way my story did. Did she make excuses because George perhaps had been drinking, that he usually was very kind, that he’d apologized and promised to go to counseling?

Hoping to find those answers, I’d reached out to Yeardley’s family and friends. I should have been more prepared for resistance, but after nearly half a lifetime as a journalist, it’d been my experience that if one friend isn’t willing to talk, another friend is. Yeardley’s case was different. I was viewed as opportunistic and exploitive, and, given that I make at least part of my living by sharing others’ tragic tales, I have no altruistic argument to combat that perception. I can wax poetic and sincere about how I’m drawn to crime coverage because of the lifelong impact it has on people and communities, and about how I truly don’t believe people will stop hurting each other until they can empathize with the pain that such horrific loss causes. But I also make money off it. These are both my truths.

To date, none of Yeardley’s close family or friends has spoken publicly about the young woman’s reportedly tumultuous relationship. Some had politely declined out of respect for the family and the then-impending trial; others have fiercely refused because, they say, the media have already misrepresented the case as one related to domestic violence.

The University of Virginia, too, has been careful in its characterization of Yeardley’s death. In the days that followed, then-University President John Casteen gave heartfelt speeches that left even hardened journalists in tears. Soon after, however, he quieted, and one university employee told me that all others were instructed to keep silent as well. People on staff who initially hoped some good would come from the death by way of awareness were disheartened when the anniversary came and went and discussion of Yeardley Love was still off limits.

One employee told me the university had ignored a potentially life-changing teaching opportunity. The phrases “domestic violence” and “dating violence” were shunned in favor of “bystander behavior”—a watered-down way of saying that if you see something bad happening, try to intervene.

I’m left perplexed. These people seem to back prosecutors’ decision to charge Huguely with first-degree murder, implying that they believe police’s version of events: that Huguely kicked in Yeardley’s bedroom door, grabbed her and shook her as her head repeatedly hit the wall. Even if the jury today had decided that the injuries weren’t lethal and Yeardley’s actual demise was caused another way—by, for example, her use of Adderall and alcohol, as the defense claimed—wouldn’t the alleged beating itself count as dating violence?

How can one believe Huguely attacked this young woman and yet balk at the label—unless they simply deem the label as too distasteful to attach to someone like Yeardley?

For my book, I interviewed freelance writer Matthew Power, who had been hired by Rolling Stone to reach out to Yeardley and George’s friends to craft a more detailed, in-depth piece than had been written to date. He couldn’t get anyone to talk. It seemed all of Charlottesville was in “shock that trailer park behavior would occur” within that society, he told me.

I got the same reaction. Those who recoiled seemed oblivious to the fact that they were treating abuse victims like lepers, and domestic violence like a four-letter word. This happens to the weak, the meek, the poor, the timid, they seemed to say. This doesn’t happen to us.

Here’s the truth, though: It does happen. It happens to strong women. To smart women. To successful women. To pretty women. To white women. To all women. It could happen to your mom or your sister or your friend or to Yeardley Love. It happened to me.

I’ve decided to shed my shame, because the only shame is in denial.

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