Gil Harrington: An Unflinching Gaze

September 09, 2013

As part of the University of Virginia community where Morgan Harrington lost her life in 2009, we took note long ago that her mother, Gil Harrington, is an exceptional woman. Her unflinching willingness to deal openly with the tragedy of her daughter's murder has sometimes disarmed observers. After meeting her, though, it becomes clear that her clarity is accompanied by a worldview both deep and farseeing. In a recent wide ranging talk at her home, she spoke about how she cultivates this authenticity in the face of the worst that can befall a parent.

Gil_HarringtonA little more than two months after her daughter's disappearance on October 17, 2009, Gil launched a blog that became a lifeline as she and her family struggled to cope during the terrible aftermath of Morgan's abduction and the discovery of her body. Gil's posts dealt openly and courageously with unimaginable loss and heartbreak.

What is compelling about loss is that we know that everyone will sometime be challenged by its touch. Folks are looking for a roadmap, not answers per se, but the suggestions of a route to take, to traverse that rough terrain when their turn inevitably comes up. When disaster like Morgan’s murder occurs, your life is shattered. You become addled and disoriented. Logic and experience no longer point to a direction you can follow. —Gil's blog, July 21, 2010

A small, delicately built woman, Gil sits with one leg under her and an upright grace. Her home is full of light, color, and art—some from around the world and some from her children's hands. She has a ready smile, an unwavering gaze, and a warm demeanor. Throughout our conversation, a lovely wooden box that holds her daughter's ashes rests nearby on the living room table. "You'll find out very quickly," Gil says soon after we meet, "I'm not your average bear." Later on, in proof of the point, she goes on to say what would be an astonishing remark even if it came from someone else: "If you can accept as a given that Morgan died—after you get over that piece—pretty much everything that has happened has been good." After our conversation, though it is less surprising, Gil seems extraordinarily accepting of life's profound contradictions. After the tragedy, the Harringtons have worked tirelessly to seek justice for Morgan and also to improve the sense of community at the University and beyond. Gil has been to Africa to complete a mission she and Morgan planned together, to bring medical supplies to people in Zambia. She has dedicated a wing of a school there to Morgan's memory. What are the perspectives, then, that make it possible to meet impossible challenges, to greet even the worst of them with some measure of grace? First, if you take Gil's life as an example, you must look on them directly.

Be open to the world—have a very wide aperture.

To begin with, Harrington's upbringing was unusual. Her father was of French-Canadian descent (thus her name, "Gilberte") and worked in government relations for an oil company, living mostly in the Middle East. Gil was born in Beirut and raised largely in Saudi Arabia. She attended schools in Saudi Arabia until she was seventeen and education for Westerners ran out. She was then sent to St. Anne's School, a boarding school in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she completed her education. "It was very hard for me," she says. "That group of kids had grown up together since first grade and were really close-knit. I arrived with long Arab dresses and henna on my hands. Maybe now it would go over a little better, but it didn't go over big at that point." Gil's early education was eclectic—based in a different culture and devoid of television—and accompanied by voracious reading. We asked how this global upbringing had contributed to her unusual perspective on life. Rather than a singular worldview, she answers, hers is "more of a smorgasbord, so you can choose … This fits and this doesn't fit."


Samples of Morgan's Artwork

Have strong and deep relationships with the people you love.

Gil and Dan Harrington, together for thirty years, have withstood the tendency of tragedy to break couples apart. “He is a wonderful person," Gil says of her husband. "I don't know how you could get through something like we've been through if you were not partnered well, because any fissures that were there would just be wide open … [Together] we're better than either one of us could be by ourselves." They met inauspiciously enough, she says with a laugh, in the dirty linen room of the University of Virginia hospital, where she was a nurse and he a medical school resident. "I was probably taking in laundry or something," she explains. "We met and started dating. It took him a mere five years to decide that I was the woman of his dreams, or to stop running—got kind of tired after a while." When they first married, she thought she would go with him anywhere, until she saw where he grew up, in a coal town in West Virginia. "The sun shines one hour a day in this holler!" she told him. "Maybe Calcutta, but not this!'" Both of their children were born in Charlottesville. When Morgan was one and her brother, Alex, was three, the family moved to Roanoke, where Dan helped develop the Psychiatric Medicine Residency program at Virginia Tech's School of Medicine. But even the long and serious study of psychiatry could not prepare the Harringtons for the emotional ambush that lay ahead.

Be fiercely protective of your children—including their expressions of themselves.

Who would ever have thought it would be mine to see every image of Morgan’s life—from her first faint shadows on fetal ultrasound to the gaping orbital hollows in her skull? An abomination to witness this ending. And yet there is growing peace. We realize Morgan has been dead for some time. Perhaps even since the day of the concert, October 17, 2009. Morgan Dana Harrington has been at peace, beyond pain and suffering, knowing that brings us some peace also. —Gil's blog, January 31, 2010

The Harrington's home was a TV-free zone when the kids were young. Instead, like their mother, they read voraciously. Morgan also created a lot of art. One of Gil's favorite stories about her has to do with a picture she made, hoping to enter it into a third-grade art contest. The subject was supposed to be an image that completed the sentence, "Wouldn't it be great if …" Morgan worked hard on her drawing, took it in to school, and was told that she had the wrong answer. Her teacher had meant something like "if there was world peace," or "an end to hunger." What Morgan had drawn very painstakingly and vividly was "Wouldn't it be great if your dog had eight puppies and you could keep all of them?" The framed artwork shows puppies crawling all over the people in the scene, scaling a lampshade, and peeing in a corner. The long-haired blonde girl in the middle of it all with her arms around her dog looks blissful, indeed. "Well, I like it a lot," Gil told her daughter, "and you worked hard on it. You go back today and [say] you'd like to submit it." Morgan followed her mother's advice—and the drawing won First Place. The takeaway lesson, Gil says, "is not to fight against authority, but [to know] that sometimes your instincts are correct." "The kids are not in the box. They follow their own light a lot. People ask, 'Was Morgan a girly-girl?' Well, she has those tall, I-don't-know-how-you-could-ever-walk-in-them heels, but she also has ripped sneakers. In my generation you wore gold jewelry and never silver with it. She would wear rubber bands, gold jewelry, and silver jewelry, and a bead, and then make it all work." Gil was moved to incorporate some of that daring fashion sense when it seemed, though her very being was torn apart by her daughter's loss, that nothing on the outside was very different. She and her son decided to have tattoos put on the inside of their wrists. She shows the dots in their 2-4-1 pattern. They stand for the last words she and her daughter said to each other, the family’s motto: "I love you 2 much, 4 ever, 1 more time." "I really like having it," Gil says. "I never thought I'd ever have a tattoo. It's another funny place Morgan has taken us. It's comforting." Before her life was stripped away, Morgan was following her own path, choosing to stay close to home for school (attending Virginia Tech, about an hour southwest of Roanoke) while traveling the world during breaks to do the sort of service work she had embraced since she was very young. Then came the Metallica concert in Charlottesville, and Morgan's disappearance for three agonizing months, until a farmer found her unrecognizable remains on January 26, 2010.


Be prepared to go to any length to serve the community you are part of.

Another extraordinary aspect of Gil's background is that she is an oncology nurse. Although she worked part-time when the kids were young, she soon stopped in order to take care of them and her aging parents. "It is a privilege," she says of the care of dying people. "It is a privilege to work with people at times when circumstances force them to put down their face and have real interaction. There is no time to just chat about the weather … I like that real intimacy." "Isn't it funny that death is like the last frontier?" Gil jokes. "You can have erectile dysfunction and Tampax on TV, but, lordy, let's not talk about death!" Both of her parents died at home, with Gil attending to their needs. "I have just a little mental snapshot of the normalcy of it, that death is part of life," Gil says. When Gil's mother died at their home, Morgan lay down beside her grandmother's body. She had “climbed on that bed a hundred times. Because [her grandmother] was dead, that did not turn her into the boogeyman." And then, tragically, Gil attended the death of her sister at the age of fifty-one. Married to a Swiss man, Jackie was living in Switzerland when she was diagnosed with gastric cancer. The way the Swiss provide medical care is "really more matter-of-fact," Gil says. Her sister's doctor "would come when she was at home on his bicycle with morphine in his backpack." He would sit and talk to her for forty-five minutes about how the girls were doing in school and other practical matters, like whether the lady he sent over to help with the washing was working out. Maybe, before he left, he would ask Jackie to show him the surgical incision. "Whereas our guys would have led with 'Where's the incision?' He was more concerned about if the woman was helping with the wash, which was the patient's main concern."

Death is a stark landscape—like a desert—and like a desert, has its own beauty. Stripping the extraneous nonessentials away from something often exposes an innate and poignant beauty. Death reveals the incandescent spirit housed in a body. I do realize though that the dying process isn't easy, or even often very pretty. Much like birth, death provokes intrinsic, genuine, and fundamental emotion. I want those feelings—every shred of them. —Gil's blog, March 8, 2010

If grief comes—as it will—open the door to it and its partner, rage. But don't let them stay in your home for long.

I know we will be OK. That in no way diminishes the pain this murderer has inflicted on us, but rather is a testament of the closeness and love that we share. I see only three options and only one of them that I can embrace: 1. Crash and burn—I won't let him kill us too. 2. Paralysis—I won't let him damage us, nor compound the loss of Morgan's potential with the loss of our potential. 3. Soldier on—we will continue to move forward, haltingly, even stumbling, even crawling—forward. We will take what has been dealt us and be open-minded and creative and fashion new lives. This is undoubtedly the hardest task, but the only way I see some chance of salvation/reconciliation/peace. I know it to be true, and STILL I feel the rage. Why? I have many parallel emotions. The anger is extinguished by the knowing—it is; the irrevocable primal knowing—the feel of the dry husks of your ribs. I cannot rage against such steadfast reality. To do so is wasted effort, foolish like raging against a mountain or a rock. It is what it is and will not change. Morgan is dead. —Gil's blog, March 12, 2010

For all her and her children’s individuality, Gil has a powerful sense of community that perhaps ultimately informs the spirituality that has helped her gaze so directly on this tragedy. She believes in evil—the man who killed Morgan is, in her eyes, unquestionably evil. And she wonders if that evil is allowed to operate because this country is so individually based, so self-concerned. "Why should we be, in 2010, talking about 'Please don't hurt the girls'? We should be talking 'respect' and 'cherish'—not 'Don't beat on them, don't prey on them.'" In this country, she points out, women think the conversation is all about equality, while women in other countries know that they are prey. "But," she points out, in the United States, "there's this dirty little secret of the acceptable loss of life and predation that happens." She feels that the culture has been shifting at the University of Virginia, where, she says, the new president has made a genuine effort to reach out to the family and to change the security measures at the arena (where the Metallica concert occurred) as well as the culture at the school. Ultimately, Gil says, "It's not a matter of security; it's more a matter of community." The question of individual rights trumping community came up recently at Virginia Tech. A religious group was allowed to protest there, declaring that Tech was cursed by God as evidenced by the shootings in 2008 and Morgan's death in 2009. Freedom of speech protected the group's right to picket. At the same time, Dan Harrington and a group of supporters were allowed to sing during the protest. Dan Harrington heard so many people saying, "Bless Morgan," and "Hooray for the Hokies," that the other group was drowned out. Gil went on a trip to Africa this past summer, which she and Morgan had planned together. They were going to tend to the medical needs of a group of women and children in Zambia and dedicate a new school. Gil went without her daughter, washing women's blistered feet, listening to the stories of the loss of multiple children, dedicating the school to Morgan Dana Harrington.

Be fearless in what you see and say.

We are making it and finding a way forward despite many challenges. Like I really have been mired down with what your death involved—why such a terribly brutal ending for my sweet girl? But it was an ending not THE END—your being will still have meaning and impact through good works we do in your name. The suffering I manage by recalling the quote, "The soul leaves the body quickly and with joy—like a child leaps from the schoolyard gate." —Gil's blog, March 31, 2010

Asked about her spirituality, Gil describes how growing up among many different religions affected her deeply. "I would also see, even as a young girl, hypocrisy inherent in some religious structures. I cannot accept that there is just one way. So [religion] became more about goodness and ethics and how people were acting than the labels that they had. And you can tell when you're in the presence of someone who is good and loving and if they're love-based. You can tell." She goes on to explain: "I think that there is a God and that goodness is trying to unfold if we can just get out of the way of it. But in your fear and doubt and weakness, you step in." But, if you see clearly and speak fearlessly, you will have contributed to the good in the world: "You may not have the right words, but if you deliver real words, even if they are faltering, then they are seen as real. Authenticity has a ring to it—it's like crystal—and people are drawn to it."

The path to acceptance of all temporal things is a lifelong labor. But its rewards are beyond measure. Leap and fly high my little one, dragon dancer, we are OK alone here. —Gil's blog, March 31, 2010.

By Virginia Moran First published in Iris Magazine (Spring 2011)

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