In this Q&A, Jo Scott-Coe discusses the process behind her new book Unheard Witness: The Life and Death of Kathy Leissner Whitman. Informed by first-person sources and family documents, this book foregrounds Kathy’s experience of domestic abuse, resistance, and survival before the mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. Kathy’s writing provides a rare glimpse of how one woman expressed, and sought to change, her short life with a coercive, controlling, and violent partner. Yet, official historical accounts have ignored her perspective.
Here, Scott-Coe reflects on recovering Kathy’s story, its potential to change narratives about gun violence in America, and the relationships she built with surviving members of Kathy’s family.
Kathy Leissner Whitman would have celebrated her 80th birthday on July 12, 2023. If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship abuse in any form, help is available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides free, confidential support 24/7/365. Text START to 88788, call 1-800-799-SAFE(7233), or chat online at TheHotline.org.
How did you discover Kathy Leissner Whitman’s story, and what inspired you to bring it to greater attention?
In research for my previous book, I met and interviewed Kathy’s eldest brother, Nelson Leissner, about her wedding ceremony. He and I continued to talk and develop a trust as he shared more memories and more about the letters he had protected for decades. When the 50th commemoration of the Tower shooting approached, he sent me a large sample, along with many family photographs. It was incredibly humbling and moving to study these documents. He also connected me to family members and friends who remembered his sister well. Nelson was always clear that he wanted the full humanity of his sister to be respected. I crafted a story (for Catapult) in 2016, and my concentration grew from there.
Kathy’s experience as college student struggling to maintain her bearings with an abusive partner resonated deeply with me. Her story is one of many that defies enduring stereotypes we hold about what abuse looks like, or who can find themselves in this kind of relationship. It can be anyone. When I first began presenting to college and university groups about Kathy’s letters, it was powerful to witness how audience members, sometimes at least a generation younger than I, connected with this hidden experience from six decades earlier. There is something about bearing witness to the vulnerability in Kathy’s story that can enable folks who are living their own variation of that reality—whether as survivors or as bystanders—to feel seen.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you find additional primary sources useful in your approach to interpreting and editing Kathy’s letters?
There were so many layers. The full archive of primary documents had to be sequenced and transcribed, then re-read and studied (and re-studied!) to comprehend and interweave the narrative of voices. I also spent a great deal of time with archives of the Daily Texan, the Austin American Statesman, and many other regional newspapers. For my book, MASS, I had already worked with a substantial collection of primary documents from my time in the shooting archives at the Austin History Center. I made many visits to places where Kathy lived. I also consulted with librarians and archivists as well as individuals who were themselves students at UT during the early 1960s.
What struck you most about Kathy’s voice as a writer?
As a young teenager, Kathy’s writing in her scrapbook was creative and associative, reflective and intuitive. I was also struck throughout the letters by her eagerness to connect and to be known, her openness to learning and problem-solving, her conscientiousness and attentiveness to detail. On a deeper level, I was moved by her candor, her distaste for secrecy and manipulation. Her sense of humor was always entertaining. During her marriage, Kathy’s diplomacy and savviness also comes through, the strength of her argumentation, her tenderness, her fierce desire to finish her degree and maintain a connection to her family. In the last year of her life, these qualities give way to a deep sense of weariness, resignation, self-doubt, and fragmentation. Her narrative record truly provides a snapshot of the consequences, over a four-year period, of living under conditions of coercive control, circumstantial instability, and physical and psychological fear.
Kathy experienced Charles Whitman’s coercive control and violence in private for four years before he committed the mass shooting at UT Austin in 1966. How do understandings of the public / private distinction shape narratives of this crime, and narratives about the ongoing gun violence in America?
Most Americans do not know these names: Mildred Muhammad. Nancy Lanza. Noor Salman and Sitora Yusufiy. Karen Smith. Celia “Sally” Gonzalez. There are so many others, including Kathy, including her mother-in-law, Margaret Hodges Whitman. Intimate partners, family members and caregivers, usually women, are often victims, witnesses, and survivors of violent and abusive behavior before it spills into the public sphere. Who is listening to them? Even when reports are documented, they are not always taken seriously by authorities—unless, or perhaps until, something deemed “worse” happens in public. When these witnesses of domestic violence are themselves killed, they are often judged and blamed.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), more than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually—and hotlines nationwide receive a reported 19,000 calls a day. Very few of these stories make the news, even when their results are fatal. Yet researchers on mass shootings are also documenting a pattern: nearly two thirds of the time (estimates vary from just under 60 to 70 percent), abuse or murder in private settings precedes a public attack.
Social stigma and judgment create additional barriers for survivors who can access resources, networks of support, and ways of escape not available to Kathy or her contemporaries. We have much to learn about how perpetrators use coercive control to dominate every aspect of their partners’ lives; it is a highly gendered pattern of subjugation. We lose the highly granular expertise survivors possess in their day-to-day lives with abusive partners—expertise that they often preemptively discount because they are taught by their abusers not to trust their own judgment about what they are witnessing.
So much cruelty hides in plain sight because it is normalized. Nelson has always said to me, “If Kathy’s story can reach anyone, can save one life, that is what I want.” I share his hope for Unheard Witness.
Jo Scott-Coe is a professor of English composition and literature at Riverside City College and the author of two nonfiction books, Teacher at Point Blank and MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest.