Ex-Wife Of D.C. Sniper: 'I Was The Enemy'

Mildred Muhammad

Mildred Muhammad, the ex-wife of the D.C. sniper John Muhammad, has written a book called Scared Silent about domestic violence. Courtesy Mildred Muhammad hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Mildred Muhammad

The ex-wife of the sniper who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area during a 2002 killing spree said the random murders were part of an attempt to commit the perfect crime: to kill her and divert suspicion to a crazed gunman.

Mildred Muhammad says convicted killer John Muhammad began plotting against her after she won custody of their young son and two daughters in 2001. He had told her for years he hated her and accused her of being a bad mother. After the couple separated, he went on the run with the kids, spiriting them away to Antigua for 18 months in 1999.

But she says she never suspected she was the real target of the "Beltway Sniper" until Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents knocked on the door of her Maryland home on Oct. 23, 2002.

Scared Silent
By Mildred Muhammad
Hardcover, 304 pages
Strebor Books, October 2009
List price: $23

Read An Excerpt

"They said, 'Ms. Muhammad, didn't you know he was shooting people around you?' They said, 'The man he shot in the hand with the laptop, that's right down the street from you. The gentleman that was shot at the store in Brandywine — that's two miles away from you. You were the target,' " Muhammad says.

John Muhammad and a teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, went on a shooting spree that left 10 people dead and terrorized residents of Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia. Muhammad is scheduled to be executed Nov. 10. Malvo is serving a life sentence.

Mildred Muhammad says her ex-husband thought if she were killed by a crazed gunman, he would regain custody of their children and collect compensation owed them as crime victims. "His end-game scenario was to come in as the grieving father," she says. "He maybe would have been called father of the year."

She says she had known for years her husband wanted to kill her, but no one would listen. For much of their 12-year marriage, Muhammad says, she endured his emotional and mental abuse in silence. But after they separated, she was a marked woman.

Breaking into the house one night, Muhammad says, John woke her with a terrifying message: "You have become my enemy, and as my enemy I will kill you."

Though happy at first, Muhammad says, their marriage changed after he returned from an Army tour during the Gulf War. Well-liked by everyone, he became negative, sullen and paranoid.

She says she didn't know what caused him to become a monster, but she believes counseling before he returned to civilian life could have averted the rampage.

"I believe what would have made a difference for me is that when John came back from Saudi that he would have been debriefed, and he would have received the counseling that he needed to become a more productive person in a non-war zone," she says.

She tried to alert friends and neighbors to the abuse, but she says no one believed her because she bore no physical scars. Now, she's telling her story in a new book, Scared Silent, in hopes of helping other victims break their silence and escape abuse.

"Domestic violence is a serious issue that needs to be addressed," she says. "It was my desire to assist other victims and survivors of domestic violence because this was a domestic violence issue."

Reported by Michel Martin and written by Deborah Tedford.

Excerpt: 'Scared Silent'

'Scared Silent'
Scared Silent
By Mildred Muhammad
Hardcover, 304 pages
Strebor Books, October 2009
List price: $23

Prologue

I could not believe this was happening. The man I married, the man that fathered my children, could not be capable of such a thing. I sat in a hotel room riveted to the television set as images of John flashed across the screen. It was surreal. I walked up to the TV, put my hand on the screen — and whispered, "What happened to you?"

I was a zombie, not the real Mildred, the one who dreamed of simply being a good wife, a good mother and a good servant to God. I had just left a police station where an officer had looked me in the eyes and proclaimed, "Ms. Muhammad, we're going to name your ex-husband as the sniper."

For months I had looked over my shoulder for two people: John, my ex-husband who had promised to kill me, and "the D.C. sniper," who had terrorized the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area where I lived by randomly killing people. Now I was forced to reconcile that there was only one man — that John, the man who used to cuddle with me at night and fuss over his children during the day, was also the terrorizing gunman.

I remembered what John once told me: "You know I could take a small city and terrorize it and they would think it was a group of people. But it would only be me."

* * *

Still, this was John posturing, wasn't it? Talking was far different from actually killing. Yet when police asked me if I thought John was capable of doing something like this, I surprised myself by not hesitating for one moment to reply, "Yes."

I knew he could kill. He was a military man and had fought in a war. I also knew that he had promised to kill me because he believed I had taken his children away from him. And I knew John to be a man of his word when it came to a threat or a promise of revenge. Still, over the harrowing months during which one person after another was gunned down by the man labeled as "The D.C. Sniper," not once did I think of John. Not once. It was unfathomable. The sniper had to be a mad man. The sniper had to be inhuman. The sniper had to be like someone I had never known.

Now I was recalling every frightening comment John had ever made to me. He once said, "When a man hits a woman, it means that he has lost all respect for her. It would be easy for him to kill her after that."

But I did not foresee, not even in my wildest nightmare, that John would ever kill people who had nothing to do with me or our troubled marriage.

* * *

I stepped back from the television and realized my son was crying and my daughters were weeping into their pillows. I turned to console them, though I had no idea what to say. I held them close. They were scared. I was too. In the past several hours, we had all learned that John was the sniper suspect and that police were searching for him. Then we had to hurry to pack and police sped us away from our house and to the hotel room where we were being held under police protection.

It is amazing how exhausting trauma can be, even when it is not accompanied by physical blows. The news had pummeled us. My son had nearly passed out when he heard the news. My girls were spent from the weight of one question: How could their father commit such an irreprehensible act?

Once the children went to sleep, I tipped into the bathroom to let go of my own emotions. I had been "the good mother" for my children. I had comforted them until they closed their eyes. I had been the strong shoulder, the consoler. They only had one parent left and they deserved a good one. I turned on the water in the bathtub and faucet so they could not hear me. I sat on the cold floor of the bathroom, buried my face into a pillow and sobbed. I cried for hours, hoping that by daybreak when the children woke, I would be ready for the great unknowing that awaited us.

It was October 23, 2002. It would become a day of demarcation for me and my children. Before this date, my son and daughters were like other children, barely aware of the challenges that adults faced. But after their father was publicly named as the sniper, I watched the light in their eyes grow dimmer. They knew that the worst things were possible. That one day you could be romping in the yard with your parents and on another day you could sit in front of a television set, your heart nearly beating out of your chest, as you watched armed police officers search for your father.

When the person you love becomes the one you fear you are scared to the core of your being. Everything you thought was real has become an illusion. It is disconcerting. You feel as if you are falling into a deep hole and there is nothing to hold onto because everything you thought was there is gone. You slip deeper. And deeper.

John was going to kill me, and now I knew that he had conspired to kill other people just to create a smokescreen. Soon I would learn all the details of how he planned to kill strangers and then shoot me down and have police blame it all on "the D.C. sniper."

But he got caught. Thank God, he got caught.

When the person you love tries to kill you, the pain is unspeakable. How do you explain such an act to anyone? To yourself? What can you possibly say?

I had been a girl with simple dreams. One of my greatest prayers was to be a good wife. Now I thought of the many ways in which John had dismissed me and diminished my existence. I heard his familiar retort, "I don't mind because you don't matter."

I was thankful he had not killed me, and I grieved over those whose lives he had taken. I cried for their families, too. But the silencer on John's gun had silenced me in another way. Shame cut off my tongue. Fear paralyzed my throat. Surely people hated me, I thought. I was the reason innocent people were killed. A bullet did not take my life, but it would be years before I found my voice. Meanwhile, every gentle word I thought of I used to help my children heal. This is what a good mother does.

It took months, even years for my own healing. But now, seven years later — finally — I am no longer scared silent.

Chapter One: First Meetings, First Lies

September 1983 — Baton Rouge

Women who have been involved with abusive men often say that their partners started out being exceptionally attentive and romantic. That was certainly true of John when I first met him. It was on a steamy Labor Day in Louisiana, and I had the day off from my job as a data processor at the State Department of Labor. What I remember most about that lazy Monday morning, except that it was hot, was that I had nothing special to do and nobody to do it with. I was a naive twenty-three-year-old, living a sheltered life at home with my mother. My life revolved around church and work. I was ready to have my own life, as well as a real relationship. I wanted to meet somebody to love; I wanted to meet somebody who would care about me. That morning, my mother was bustling around the kitchen when I went inside to tell her that I was going to the corner store a couple of blocks away. As always, she reminded me, "Just be careful."

I had walked less than half a block when Valena, one of my best friends from high school, passed by in her car and offered me a ride. I certainly could have walked the two blocks, but I was thankful for the company. Valena and I were still close friends. In high school, I was a cheerleader, and she was on the pep squad. We went lots of places together — dances, parties, clubs. It was always fun being with her. Now that we were all grown up, the same thing was true: as soon as we saw each other, it was, "Hey, gurl, wassup?" Valena had another friend in the car, and we began laughing and talking the minute I climbed in. We were three girlfriends who were enjoying a day off in Baton Rouge, listening to songs on our favorite R&B radio station and generally having a good time.

On the way home, Valena said she needed to stop at another store up the street. She pulled into a parking space, and I stayed in the car while she finished her shopping. As I was sitting there, two men came out. One of them, a tall, good-looking brother, wearing sharp blue jeans and a sweatshirt, glanced in my direction. Our eyes locked. I felt vaguely embarrassed and I turned my head so he wouldn't come over. But, he did. Valena, who was right behind him, began talking to him. Whoa, I thought, she knows him!

"Who's your friend?" He used his head to gesture in my direction.

"This is Mildred," she told him.

He stuck his head in the driver's window. "Hi, Mildred," he said. "I'm John. What are you doing tonight?"

I had absolutely nothing to do, but I didn't want him to know that. My girlfriends and I often talked about how difficult it was to find a good man. Even so, I didn't want John to know that I was all that available.

That's why I tried to sound sincere when I said, "I have to check my schedule."

He asked for my number, gave me a beautiful smile, and said he would call later. After he left, Valena had some things to tell me about John. She said that, like us, he had attended Scotlandville High School where he had run track and played tennis. I was a year ahead of him and didn't recall ever meeting him. Valena dropped me off, and I went inside to think about his smile, which was probably John's best attribute. When I first met him, he had the kind of smile that everybody noticed; I wasn't the only one who said that his smile could light up a room.

John called early in the evening as he had promised, and we made a date for eight-thirty. He was at my front door exactly on time. I would quickly learn that he was on time for all of our dates. It was another plus in his favor. When he came in and met my mother, I also couldn't help noticing how respectful he was. Even more points in his favor. We drove down to a park by the river, a romantic spot filled with other couples doing what we were doing — walking, talking, laughing, sitting on the benches, and giving each other long significant looks. Right away, John told me that he had two sons, but that he wasn't married.

At one point, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "I'm looking for someone to share my life."

We were having our first serious conversation, and he asked if I was seeing someone special.

"No," I told him, "I'm just chilling until the right man comes along."

"Well, you've found him." John continued to capture me with his gaze.

"Is that right?" I asked.

"Yeah, that's right." He sounded confident of himself as we both smiled at each other. It felt good to be out with a man who was so quick to express his feelings. John seemed so special. Hey, I thought to myself, finally a "man."

When I asked him what had happened with his ex-girlfriends, he simply said, "Things didn't work out." He told me that with all the women he had known, after a while, they had done things that made him feel trapped. As soon as he got that feeling, he realized it was time to move on. According to him, he didn't have anything against marriage; he just didn't like to feel trapped. I was already intrigued by his thought processes so I asked him what made him feel that way. He told me that if a woman started nagging him or making him feel incompetent, he felt like less than a man. He wanted to be with someone who appreciated him and treated him as though he made a difference. I wanted to please him so I made a mental note never to nag him and to show him that he was appreciated and admired. When we said goodnight, he kissed me on my forehead and told me how much he liked being with me.

The next day he called to check up on me. It was sweet of him, and I told him that right away. He said that I was easy to talk to, and that he hadn't talked to anybody like he talked to me in a very long time.

"If there is anything I can do for you," he said, "let me know." Then he told me that he wanted to be there for me and that he wanted to make my life easier.

I was shocked that he was so straight with his words. I remember telling him, "You haven't known me long enough to say those things to me."

He replied, "There is something about you that lets me know that it's safe for me to talk this way. I know myself well enough to realize that if I can't do something, then I won't say it. If it comes out of my mouth, then I'm obligated to make it happen."

That sounded good to me. "Oh, then you're a man of his word, right?"

"That's right," he answered, "I'm a man of my word."

And that's how our relationship started. From my inexperienced point of view, John was wonderful. He used all the right words and said everything I wanted to hear, but I was at a disadvantage: my ideas of how a man should behave in a relationship were all romanticized and based on television, movies, and hearsay. My father left my mother when I was four, and I had no relationship with him whatsoever. I don't even remember meeting anybody from his side of the family. In the last few years, I've thought a lot about what it means for a girl to grow up as I did. I've wondered whether the absence of a father image made me more vulnerable to somebody like John.

When I was growing up, my mother was the stable center of our universe. She supported the family by cleaning houses and working in restaurants. Any memories I have of my father are buried too deep to recall. There was only one family picture in the house with my dad in it. He was holding me and standing with two of my sisters next to him. But something must have happened when the photograph was being taken because his face didn't come out; it's just like a shiny blank. Everything I know about my father comes from what other people told me. Everybody said that he was tall, handsome, dark-skinned, and the life of the party; they also told me that he was a real ladies' man. My mother liked to tell me that I was his favorite baby girl, but I don't know if that was really true. Mama could have been telling me that to make me feel good about myself.

I was one of five children; my mother had my three older sisters and then it was nine more years before I was born. I also have a brother who is two years younger. My sisters were pretty much all teenagers or out of the house by the time I was old enough to retain many memories. When I was about nine, my father died. Even though we didn't know him, my brother and I went to the funeral with my mom and sisters. My father's body was in a closed casket with a United States flag draped over it. I looked for a photograph so I could see what my father looked like, but there wasn't one. My brother and I were sitting together; the only question was which one of us was going to cry first. We were told that dad died in an accident in the Navy, but later, when I was about twenty, I was at another funeral with my mother, and I overheard some of my father's old friends talking. That's how I found out the truth. My father had died in a fire, and I guess you could say that he was also a victim of domestic violence. It seemed he and my mother were separated at the time and he was having problems with his current girlfriend who must have thought, if I can't have him, then neither will anybody else. While my father was asleep, his girlfriend padlocked the doors and windows on the outside of the small house in which they were living and set it on fire. My father's friends said that you could hear my dad screaming for miles while the house was burning. They said they came with axes to try to get him out, but they couldn't get to him because the heat from the fire was so intense. I feel terrible thinking about it even now. Just a few months ago, my sister found a photograph of my father, taken when he was nineteen. It was the first time I saw a picture of him. I began crying and couldn't stop for about three hours.

It was tough on my mother, living alone with young children to raise. She wanted better things for us, and she would have done anything to help her children. She struggled hard to pay the bills, but we managed. We were always in school; there was always home-cooked food on the table; and there was always love. My mother, who was one of fourteen children, came from a large religious Southern Baptist family. Her brother was a pastor and my uncle's church was a big part of our lives. We attended Sunday school as well as every service; my mother, brother, and I all sang in the choir. My mother always gave me two pieces of advice: "Live as near right as you can." And "Live as close to God as you can."

Some people complain about their mothers saying they never got enough love. With me and my mother, it was the opposite. If anything, she loved me too much. She never wanted me to move away from her, get married, or have children. After finishing high school, I had attended Southern University for two and a half years, studying to get a degree in Computer Science, but I couldn't afford to continue. I had to drop out, get some quick technical training, which I did in data entry, and find a job so I could help my mother with the finances of the house.

I had wanted to go into the military, but my mom talked me out of it because she didn't want me that far away and she worried that I could get hurt. She said that people used to tell her to have children, but that nobody had ever told her how to let go. As far as she was concerned, the hardest part of mothering was letting her children grow up.

Soon after I met John, he told me some things about his childhood, and it sounded like he had never had anybody at all that he could depend on. John came from New Orleans, one of six children — three boys and three girls — but his father left all of them, when John was still very young, to start a new family and never looked back. John was always bitter that his father had abandoned the family, but the greatest tragedy of his early childhood was the loss of his mother, who died from breast cancer. He told me that he was five when his mother died, but I've heard reports from other family members saying that he was as young as two. The one thing everyone agrees about is that he and his mother were extremely attached and that she was holding him when she died. I don't think he ever got over his mother's death and he carried that sadness with him wherever he went. The image of him as a little boy in the arms of his dying mother also stayed in my mind. In our marriage, it was always hard for me to stay angry at him — no matter what he did — knowing what he had gone through.

After his mother's death, he and his brothers and sisters went to live with relatives in Baton Rouge. He didn't like to talk about what happened to him while he was growing up, except to say that they were mentally and physically abused by various adults in the family. He told me that he and his siblings tried to take care of each other as best they could. When I was reading about John's trial in the paper, it was reported that one of the people who hit him regularly was an uncle who was once accused of beating another child to death. John was a proud man who didn't like to appear vulnerable or have anybody feel sorry for him so the issue of his childhood abuse was not a topic he wanted to discuss.

People often ask me how he behaved when I met him and whether he seemed controlling, moody, or insecure, and I have to answer that he seemed much calmer and more stable than most people, but I had no real understanding then of his well-developed acting skills. Even so, he had a strong presence. Everything I heard the men in my family say a man should be, I saw in John. He had a steady job, and he was a member of the National Guard. He was a strong man with a strong handshake, and he appeared to walk tall. He was also extremely romantic, loving, and gentle with me. During his trial, I read newspaper reports of testimony from a woman he was dating in the last years of our marriage; she also described him in glowing terms as being gentle, considerate, and strong. Of course, during the early years of our relationship, I thought his loving words were all for me, but he was always exceptionally good with women. If he wanted something from a woman, he knew exactly what to say and how to say it.

Those times that he let his guard down, he did appear lonely and like he needed somebody to love him. I remember him telling me that in his life, it was as though anyone who had ever cared about him wanted something from him. I was touched by his sadness, especially about the death of his mother. I was sure I could make a difference in his life. I wanted to show him how love looks and feels when it is genuine. I wanted him to know that I cared about him for who he was and not because of what he could give me. I promised myself that I wasn't going to disappoint or abandon him.

From John's history, one might have expected him to act gloomy and depressed, but back in 1983, nothing could be further from the truth. The John I fell in love with was primarily a lighthearted man who liked to have fun. He would do things like pick me up from work and start driving in an unexpected direction. I would ask, "Where are we going?" He would point to the back, and I would see the fishing poles. We would head on down under the old Mississippi River Bridge where we would throw our lines in near the support beams. After we caught the fish, we took it to my house, cleaned it, fried it, and ate it. It was pretty good. Nights we would go dancing or to the movies or just hang out. On the weekends, we would go to the park, museum, or zoo. Sometimes one or both of his sons would be with him; anybody could see how devoted he was to his boys and how much they loved him.

At first even my mother liked and appreciated John and would make him special things to eat. My mother, who really knew her way around a kitchen, could whip up all kinds of food and make it better than just about anybody else. I think she tried to make John feel at home because he was so respectful of her. If he wanted peach cobbler, she made peach cobbler; if he wanted pound cake, she made pound cake. In return he did little repairs around our house. He was always extremely skillful with his hands and could fix just about anything. We had some pipes under the house that were leaking, and he promised my mother that he would come over and fix them. He showed up right on time, crawled under the house, and started working. I crawled right after him and became his assistant. I loved that I could count on him to do whatever he promised to do. When I told him how much I appreciated that quality, he told me that he would always be that way, saying, "I never want you to lose that sparkle in your eyes when you look at me."

About two months into our relationship, I decided that I was going to go over to visit Valena, who I really hadn't seen since Labor Day. It was a warm day and I wanted to go for a walk.

"So, how's John doing?" she asked almost as soon as I walked through the door.

"He's doing well," I told her. "And our relationship is GREAT!"

Valena looked at me and breathed in and out, before she told me what she had found out. "Well, you know he's married, right?"

I remember saying things like, "What?" and "Ah man!!" and "What am I going to do now?!!!"

Valena asked me how I really felt about him, and I told her, "I love him, but he never said anything about any wife. He just told me he had two sons."

"Yes," Valena agreed, "he has two sons by two different women, and he married the last one."

I felt as though somebody had kicked me in the stomach. How could this be happening? How could this be true? I was totally confused. John and I were together all the time, and I had seen no signs of a wife; he didn't seem like he had anything to hide; he had even given me his phone number, although of course I never used it and waited for him to call me. But he never seemed to have any obligation to any other woman. He didn't seem to be worried about being seen with me. What was going on?

Before I left Valena that day, she said to me, "Well, Mildred, you've got a decision to make."

All I could think about was that decision and what I was going to say to John. I went to church regularly and all those "Thou Shalt Nots" and other messages about adultery began to flash in my brain.

When John called that night and greeted me with his usual, "Hi, Sweetheart," all I could think was, John has a wife, but I was so upset I could barely speak, let alone ask him about his lies. He asked if he could come over, but I was too hurt to see him. I told him I had to help my mother with something. He asked me if I needed anything and I said no.

"Okay, honey," he said, "I'll talk to you tomorrow." Then he paused and used those three little words that every woman in love wants to hear: "I love you."

It was the first time he had said that to me. I said, "I love you, too."

Then I hung up the phone and burst into tears. I realized what I had to do, but I didn't know if I could do it.

That night I tossed and turned and couldn't sleep. At work the following day, I was a mess. Instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing, I thought about all the things I wanted to say to John about why our relationship had to end, and I wrote them all down on a piece of paper so I wouldn't forget what I wanted to say. I put the paper in my purse and was trying to get back to work when the phone rang. It was John.

"Hi, Tinker Bell," he said. Tinker Bell was a nickname he used for me because he said I was so little and cute. I called him "Sweetie" because he was so sweet to me.

"Hey, Sweetie."

"Just checking to make sure you have a smile on your face," he said.

I started looking for the paper on which I'd written down what I wanted to say to him, but I couldn't find it fast enough, so I put the conversation off once again, all the while knowing that I was getting in deeper and deeper. He told me again that he loved me and he wanted me to remember that while I was working. Then he asked, "Do you love me?"

"Yes." I couldn't deny it.

He said, "That's all I needed to hear."

In the meantime, I was thinking, man, what am I going to do now?

When I got home, my mom looked at me funny as though she knew something was wrong, but I didn't want to tell her because I didn't want John to look bad. He called soon after I got home and told me that he wouldn't accept any excuses and that he was coming over. We went to the park because he said he had something he wanted to say to me and didn't want any distractions. I think I expected him to tell me about his wife and family, but I wanted to get out what I had to say first. Almost as soon as we sat down on a bench, I started talking and told him that I found out that he was married and that I was trying to find a way to end our relationship.

He said, "Please don't do that. You are the best thing that has happened to me in a long time and I can't go back to living without you."

I cried and told him that I was sure that what we were doing went against everything I believed. I also didn't want to be in this situation because I wouldn't want anybody to do this to me if I were married.

He was persistent. He pleaded with me, "Mildred, please don't throw me away. We can work this out." He told me that he wasn't happy in his marriage and neither was his wife. He said that they were simply going through the motions and it was only a matter of time before it would be over. He asked, "Can you please wait for me and not get involved with anyone else? I promise, I will not let you down."

"How much time?" As I asked that question, I knew the direction in which I was headed. I didn't want to lose him.

In retrospect, I can't help but notice how little anger I had toward him for lying to me.

My girlfriends and I were sort of indoctrinated to believe that men could do what they wanted and that a cheating man was not the same thing as a cheating woman. As long as the man was bringing the money home and taking care of the bills, everything else should be excused and forgiven. The woman was expected to keep quiet, cook, clean, take care of the children, and not cause any problems. So when I heard about John's marriage, I almost felt sorry for him because his wife wasn't giving him what he needed. I also felt tremendous guilt because I was helping him deceive another woman. But I didn't really blame him or get angry at him. They say that love is blind and that explains my state. I still thought of him as my knight-in-shining-armor, and the glare coming off of that armor blinded me.

It didn't take much for him to convince me that, even if I didn't want to be in a romantic relationship with him, we could still be platonic "friends." That same night, almost as soon as we came to that agreement, he had a favor to ask in the name of friendship. My mind was focused on his being married, but he had a different agenda that he was promoting.

He said, "I have something else I want you to know."

"What?" I asked. From the pained look on his face, I worried that he was going to say something really horrible. I was bracing myself. Could he be dying? What kind of confession was he going to make?

"I can't read." He looked uncomfortable as he told me. He then related an incredible story about having been in an accident and having lost his memory. According to him, he had recovered from his accident, but his memory of how to read was completely gone. His confession made me feel almost relieved because it was nowhere near as horrible as what I had anticipated. I also immediately realized that he was offering me a role in his life — one that would allow us to stay connected, even if we were no longer romantically involved.

I asked him some questions about the reading like, "Are you serious?" and "Does anyone know?"

He said he hadn't told anybody but me, explaining, "Everyone expects me to know things, and if they found out I can't read, they wouldn't understand, or they would laugh at me." He seemed sad and hurt; it was obvious that he was embarrassed.

John had graduated from high school so I asked him how he had accomplished that without being able to read. He told me that he had developed a photographic memory. If he needed to learn something, he would find some excuse to ask a friend to read it aloud to him. He said he told people that things sounded better when they were read out loud. He would memorize what he had heard and floated through school by memorizing everything.

I questioned him, "You've done all this just to survive?"

"Yes," he answered, "But it's getting old, and I need help."

He asked me if I could facilitate him learning to read. That's how our relationship changed from girlfriend/boyfriend to teacher/student. I soon discovered that he wasn't joking when he said he couldn't read, so we started with basics like "See Spot Run." I even took a phonics class at night so I would be better equipped to teach him.

We spent a lot of time meeting at the local library, as well as the library at Southern University campus. We worked hours at a time, and I would give him lots of spelling tests. It was tough going at first and required patience from both of us, but eventually we got past basic reading texts and moved on to newspapers, magazines, and books. Before long, he was really reading, and it opened his eyes to new possibilities for his life. Helping him with the reading and seeing the results was very exciting to me.

When we met, John was a sergeant in the National Guard and spent at least one weekend a month doing his service and training. He wanted to be in the regular military, but I think his literacy issues were holding him back. He worried that people would not respect him if they discovered his secret. As his reading and writing improved, he began to talk about leaving Baton Rouge. He thought that the best way for him to get ahead in life would be through the armed services. In order to get accepted, he had to take a battery of tests. He asked me to help him study for his military tests, and I did it happily. Yes, there was still a romantic undercurrent between us, but we both concentrated on his learning. If he called me at work, it was as likely to be a question about his attempts to figure out phonics and sound out a new word as anything else.

During these many months that we studied together, John continued to make a point of assuring me that he needed me in his life and nothing was going to stop him from letting me know that. We sometimes discussed his marital status, which I viewed as a serious problem. He continued to ask me to wait. I was trying to get some distance between us and would often back away emotionally; he hated it when I did that. In the meantime, he would also try to do things for me. Once when I was short of money, he offered to help me out. I asked if he was taking from his family to give to me, and he said no, he had plenty.

The give and take between us made me feel as though we were becoming good friends. John also began to confide in me in other ways. During the time we were romantically involved, he assured me that were no other women, but he also told me that there had been other women and explained how he would arrange their names and phone numbers in codes he made up so his wife wouldn't figure it out. I remember thinking, "I don't want to be part of a harem." I recognized his behavior as being sneaky, but I didn't think it was a basic weakness in his character. Instead I made excuses for him; I thought he would be different if he were in a good relationship. I assumed he was trying to fill a void because he needed love and wasn't getting it. I didn't see his behavior with women as indicative of larger issues.

Once he passed his test and was accepted into the Army, I cut off communication with him. I still felt extremely guilty that our relationship could be hurting his wife. It had been close to two years since we had met, and there he was, still married. Some people come into our lives for a lifetime; others are only there for a reason and a season. As far as I was concerned, my reason and my season were up. I suggested that he devote more time to getting things straight with his wife so that she could go with him wherever he would be stationed. He suggested that I go with him, and I said that I didn't think that would work; especially since he was still married. I told him to keep studying. I told him that I loved him; and I backed off, way off.

The day that he was leaving for basic training, I wanted so badly to phone him and say goodbye. But we had decided to let the relationship go, and I didn't want to make it worse. I spent November 5, 1985, his departure day, in my room crying. I woke up thinking about John and I went to bed thinking about John. I wondered what he was doing and how he was doing, and I wondered whether he missed me as much as I missed him.

Less than a month later, on December 1st, I received a letter from him, along with a one-way ticket to Fort Lewis, WA. The letter said that he couldn't continue in his marriage any longer and he wanted me by his side. He said he was willing to do whatever he had to do for us to be together. One of the best things about the letter was that every word was spelled correctly.

Reprinted from Scared Silent by Mildred Muhammad by arrangement with Strebor Books, Copyright 2009

Books Featured In This Story

Scared Silent

The Mildred Muhammad Story

by Mildred Muhammad

Hardcover, 261 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Scared Silent
Subtitle
The Mildred Muhammad Story
Author
Mildred Muhammad

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.