Little girls are sweet almost by definition, but Ellen was especially—almost heartbreakingly—sweet. When Ellen was 23, living in New York City after college in the late 1970s, she jotted down a man's name in her date book.Her sweetness was a trait you sensed was permanent, an odd purity within what would become a rocky family. He was a photographer with a fine-arts degree from UCLA; he had studied film under Roman Polanski; he'd recently taught art at a summer camp.After that, my father, whom I had unrequitedly worshipped, moved across the country to New York with his beautiful, aloof new wife. Pained over my father's betrayal, I wrote a furious letter to my father's new wife—and as a result, he disowned me.
My parents divorced, Ellen's parents divorced, and my father married Ellen's mother. I stayed in California with my mother and my sister, Liz.All these things were true, and he most likely told them to her when he approached her with the offer of capturing her loveliness with his camera. She had no idea that this man, who went by the name John Berger, with his rock-star good looks and near-genius IQ, had brutally raped an 8-year-old girl nine years earlier.He was "pressuring her to have lunch with him," as a close friend of hers remembers it. He'd nearly killed that child after striking her with a steel pipe—yet had served only 34 months for the crime before being set free.More than a decade later (after my father had died and Ellen's mother had remarried), my mother called me in New York one day and said, "Ellen is living near you now. She broke up with her college boyfriend, and she has her own apartment. " I snapped back, "No." I wanted to punish Ellen's mother. A few weeks after that call from my mother, Ellen met Rodney Alcala and went on her fatal date."Nightclub Heiress Goes Missing," blared the New York tabloids through the muggy months during which the Son of Sam killings also took place.But, above and beyond the similarities, I would have seen Ellen's kindness: When her friend Nina didn't get asked to her senior prom, Ellen went as Nina's "date." And when Ellen's other close friend Anita had a baby, Ellen planned to drop everything and move in with Anita for a few weeks to play baby nurse.