Situating her beloved Disney and Care Bear posters, collating the dozens of pictures she had collected of her nephew and thinking about all this in her new cell at Sainte-Anne, Karla decided to do a little “housekeeping.” Looking around, she determined that her new cell was really about the same size as the sub-basement room she used to have when she lived at home with her parents. The metal cot with its roll-up mattress and the stainless steel toilet made it a little different but there was a desk and chair and a built-in ottoman. The heavy, steel door was typical of max units. She had a window though. It was about waist-high. Although there were bars embedded in the concrete structure, the window itself opened pretty wide, and on that particular day the sun was shining brightly and there was a very pleasant early spring breeze.
At the bottom of one of her boxes, she found Dr. Hans Arndt’s business card. Running her fingers over the embossed lettering, good memories of him and his sleep therapies came rushing back. At various times between the day they first met on March 4, 1993, and the time Karla went on trial on July 2, 1993, Dr. Arndt would check her into Northwestern General Hospital in Toronto and mix up drug concoctions that knocked her out for three days at a time. It was bliss. Once he kept her in the hospital for eight weeks, prescribing copious amounts of drugs and giving her daily therapy. Dr. Arndt was the first psychiatrist Karla had ever met. He really helped her and she really liked him.
A kindly, German-born man, he would have made a far better Freud than Montgomery Cliff in John Huston’s 1962 biopic. Tall, lean and prone to tweedy jackets, his wire-rim glasses had a tendency to slip down his nose and the balding pate of his head was endearingly shiny. Dr. Arndt had been on Karla’s side. There was no one on her side now.
For a while, during her first few years of incarceration, she had written to Dr. Arndt. She told him all about what her life in prison was like, about the other women in the segregation unit where she was kept at P4W, the university courses she was taking by correspondence, the police and prosecutors who were then coming to see her regularly and her growing sense of self-assertiveness. She asked for his advice and counsel about her psyche and the medication she was being prescribed by the prison psychiatrist.
He replied with spirited, chatty, supportive letters. In one of her letters to Kathy Ford that had just been published in the paper, Karla said that she hated her psychiatrist. Dr. Arndt wrote saying that he hoped she was not referring to him. Karla laughed and immediately sent him another note. Of course it was not him. She had meant the psychiatrist the prison had assigned her, Dr. Roy Brown.
But now, here in Sainte-Anne, very far away from those halcyon days before her trial when she had been under Dr. Arndt’s care and protection, Karla felt a strange emptiness when she looked at his card. They had not corresponded for a long time. And there was nothing Dr. Arndt, or anyone else for that matter, could do for her anymore. Psychiatrists and psychologists had become agents for her detention, rather than advocates for her rehabilitation. She threw the card out.
A few days later she was given her mail. Among the cards from the usual crackpots offering to pay her if she would send them pairs of her panties, and a chatty letter from her sister talking about the kid and how wonderful married life was, Karla found a letter from someone she truly despised and from whom she had never expected to hear again.
Although the envelope had been opened by the prison, Karla resolved not to read the letter and tossed it out. As she did a photocopy of Dr. Arndt’s obituary, clipped from the April 9th, 2001, Globe and Mail newspaper, fell to the floor. In elegant script, there was a single handwritten line: “Thought you would want to know.”
The obituary said that Dr. Arndt, who was just sixty-years old, had died at his cottage after a long illness and spent his last hours surrounded by his family. It noted that he was a devoted father and grandfather. “Perhaps on some level I knew? Things like that happen to me often,” Karla wrote in a letter dated April 27, 2001.
Coincidences have always had special meaning for Karla. She had always interpreted them, from the time she was a teenager, as omens or signs with adumbrative significance. Like the tabby cat that had found its way out of the woods and through the chain-link fence at Joliette. Imagine a cat showing up, as it did, on her doorstep – not on any of the other ten houses’ doorstep but her doorstep – just as she learned that her dog, Buddy, who still lived with her parents in St. Catharines, was in declining health.
After that, more cats made their way into Joliette and the prison bent to Karla’s will, and permitted the inmates to keep the strays. It was such a good thing, coming out of her bad news.
Karla loved her dog so much that she used to send her unwashed socks to him when her family returned to St. Catharines after a visit. That way, the dog would retain the scent of his mistress and remember her when they were reunited. Thanks to the prison, now she knew she would never see him alive again and they would never be reunited and it made her very sad – and resentful.
Karla had been in the process of presenting the prison with a plan to bring dogs into Joliette as therapy for the inmates when they lowered the boom and hustled her onto that silly airplane.
Perhaps they were small things, a sick dog coincident to a found cat and an obituary notice, a reminder of one kind voice lost to her forever and the pure serendipity of its arrival right after she had found his card and thrown it out. Even more significant, to Karla’s way of thinking, was the fact that she had been toying with Dr. Arndt’s card and thinking about him just about the time he had taken his last breath.
Magnolia, a critical hit in 1999, was a movie about the dramatic effects of coincidence on the lives of six different characters. It opens with a series of vignettes recounted by an omniscient, soto-voiced narrator, played by the internationally renowned sleight-of-hand artist, Ricky Jay.
Mr. Jay repeatedly tells the audience, as one short story after another about disaster brought on by unbearable coincidence unfolds on the screen, that he is constantly “trying to think that it was all only a matter of chance.”
The last vignette in the prologue is about a failed suicide attempt by a seventeen-year-old Los Angeles teenager named Sidney Barringer that nevertheless results in his death.
Sidney was an unhappy young man. His parents, Faye and Walter Barringer, were always fighting and at the height of their domestic arguments, Faye would grab an unloaded shotgun which was kept in the closet and threaten to shoot Walter with it.
Sidney and his parents lived on the sixth floor of a nine-story apartment building. Sidney decided to commit suicide by jumping off the roof. He wrote a suicide note and put it in his pocket. Just before he went up to jump off the roof, he took the shotgun out of the closet, loaded it and put it back.
A young friend of Sidney’s told police that Sidney had said “they (his parents) wanted to kill each other, and that’s all they wanted to do was kill each other and that he (Sidney) would help them do that if that was what they wanted to do...”
On March 23, 1958, Sidney jumped. As he did, his parents’ arguing three stories below swelled to a crescendo. His mother grabbed the shotgun from the closet, pointed it at Sidney’s father and threatened to shoot him. Just as Sidney passed the sixth-floor window, the shotgun discharged, missed Walter and hit Sidney.
A safety net installed for window washers three days earlier would have broken Sidney’s fall and saved his life, except, as Ricky Jay notes, “for the hole in his stomach.” Faye Barringer was charged with killing her son, and Sidney himself was named as an accomplice in his own murder.
“It is, in the humble opinion of this narrator,” Mr. Jay continues, “not just something that happened; this cannot be just one of those things; this, please, cannot be that, and, for what I would like to say, it can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. Whoa. These strange things happen all the time.”
In Karla’s cosmology, these strange things do happen all the time. And as far as she is concerned, these things, like Dr. Arndt’s obituary appearing as it did, just after she had tossed his card, were not just chance occurrences. They had meaning, they were signs. And the significance of the timing of the receipt of Dr. Arndt’s obituary was magnified by how it had come to her attention. She decided to read the bulky, type-written, single-spaced, eight-page letter after all and retrieved it from the garbage.