WAYLAND — In Malcolm Astley’s house, it looks as if his daughter Lauren will be back any moment to pack for college. In her bedroom, which she painted sea-foam green, there are stacks of clothes on the bed, a Vera Bradley bag hanging on the closet door, fashion magazines on her desk, and a book her father bought her to take to Elon University in North Carolina: “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into In College.”
But Lauren Astley never got the chance to go to college. On July 3, 2011, about a month after she graduated from Wayland High School, she was killed by her former boyfriend, who was still enraged that she had broken up with him in the spring.
Memories of Lauren, frozen at 18, are what her dad carries with him in his new life. He and Lauren’s mother, Mary Dunne, have become regional and national activists on the issue of dating violence, but it is only since the trial ended in March 2013 that they have taken their cause public. Before that, prosecutors were concerned that their remarks could influence the case.
Astley, a retired educator, now has a schedule packed with hearings, conferences, and speeches. Dunne, his former wife, is also involved, although she still works full time and describes herself as more private. The pair have focused their efforts on awareness and education, and successfully helped push state legislation to fund school programs.
During a recent interview, Astley asks for patience if he breaks down while speaking about his only child. But he calls them “good tears,” and he recovers quickly.
He does not want to dwell on his daughter’s death. He and Dunne lived through an excruciating three-week trial filled with details that no parent should have to hear. “The muck,” he calls it.
Nathaniel Fujita, Lauren’s classmate who was headed to Trinity College in Connecticut, was convicted of first-degree murder in Middlesex Superior Court and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
From the start, Malcolm Astley captured public attention by the uncommon grace he showed toward Fujita’s family. “The whole community can be thought of as losing two kids,” he said after Nathaniel’s arrest.
After the guilty verdict, he approached Fujita’s parents in the courtroom and embraced them, all three weeping. “There’s nothing to divide us from each other except for the terrible events between Nate and my daughter,” he says.
But most of all, Astley wants, needs, to make meaning of his daughter’s brief, bright life and sudden, violent death. He knows that Lauren would want that, too. She was a young woman in perpetual motion: She sang in the school’s a capella group and the church chorus, played the French horn, participated in drama, danced, and was a cocaptain of the tennis team. She went three times with her church group to help rebuild houses after Katrina devastated New Orleans. She had a close group of friends.
What would honor his daughter and help rescue him from a tsunami of grief? After the murder, he and Dunne established the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund to promote healthy teen relationships, as well as the arts and community service, which were close to Lauren’s heart.
Astley — a retired principal and School Committee member who has a doctorate in education — has researched the issue of dating violence in almost scholarly fashion. He has interviewed experts, observed groups of abusers, attended conferences, written a paper, and looked into state and federal laws.
He’s got new colleagues, as he calls them, who work on domestic violence — people he would not normally have met, but will not now forget.
At 69, Astley has the demeanor of a man who spent his career around kids, at once gentle and deliberate. In his living room, photos of Lauren at various ages abound. If his daughter’s death opened his eyes to dating violence, he wants to open the eyes of others: students, parents, schools, legislators, law enforcement. Really, anyone who will listen.
“We all can do a much better job of working with kids on this,” he says. “It would save a lot of lives, pain, and money.”
Unseen warning signs
The day Lauren died, her father met her for lunch before she went to work at Shop344 at the Natick Collection. “We’d always made it a rule that nothing of a business nature would be said until the end of the meal,” says Astley. “It was just for fun.”
That day, Lauren had no business to discuss. She seemed happy.
But that night, she did not return from work. The next morning, her body was found in a marsh near the Sudbury line. Testimony revealed that Fujita had lured her to his parents’ home, where he beat, strangled, and slashed her to death before dumping her body.
No one saw it coming, though in retrospect there were red flags. Her friends didn’t like him. He created a scene at her graduation party. At his insistence, the couple spent more time at his house than at hers.
Lauren and Fujita had dated for three years, although she had broken up and gotten back together with him before. “She definitely tried several times to break up with him, and things would be renegotiated,” says Dunne, who lives in Weston. “I feel in retrospect it was him not letting her go.”
But on April 1, her 18th birthday, Dunne came home from work to find Lauren sobbing. “She said they were supposed to go out for lunch, and he showed up with a car full of friends, and they were all high,” Dunne says. “She took his picture off the wall and put up a poster of Audrey Hepburn and said, ‘What would Audrey do?’ And that was it. She broke up with him.”
In Lauren’s pale pink bedroom at Dunne’s condo, Hepburn still smiles from a wall.
Dunne is a preschool teacher in the Brookline public schools. She and Astley divorced when Lauren was a high school freshman, and they shared custody. She recently spoke to 350 assistant district attorneys to give them a mother’s perspective on murder.
“I think it’s incredibly important work,” she says. “When kids hit middle school, they have no sense of what a romantic relationship is and no idea of what to do when it ends.” If she could distill her message to three words, it would be: “Don’t go alone.” Don’t go alone to see an ex-boyfriend.
A month before she died, Lauren and two friends held a graduation party. Fujita showed up drunk and followed her around, begging her to talk to him. When she refused, he shoved a tent pole so hard that the tent nearly collapsed.
Court documents also revealed that in 2009, jealous of another youth, Fujita tried to punch him and screamed that he wanted to kill him.
Lauren’s parents learned these things — and others about Fujita — after she died.
Course of action
The more Astley has learned about dating violence, the more the pieces of his daughter’s death have fallen into place.
“Breakups are the single most traumatic event people face in their lives apart from the death of a loved one,” he says. He proposes training peers in schools to support classmates going through tough breakups.
Those peers also need to know when it’s time for a friend to see a school counselor. “Kids now often see it as ratting on someone, rather than getting them help,” he says. According to testimony, Fujita sank into a depression and stopped seeing friends after the breakup.
Astley is as concerned with the perpetrators as he is with the victims. When he speaks at schools, he mentions male violence not only against females but against other males, and he asks boys to join with girls to “veto violence.” He discusses the cultural pressures on males to control and compete rather than to care about others.
In a recent speech at the Rivers School in Weston, he warned students against turning pain into anger. “You were not dumped, painful as the loss may feel. The fit was simply not good for both of you, and it needs to be good for both people in an effective relationship . . . . No shame, no blame for the relationship’s ending.”
He got a standing ovation.
With Lauren’s fund, her parents have supported many projects, including the Courage to Care Healthy Relationship Summit at Lincoln-Sudbury regional High School in March, which provided 200 students leaders from 15 high schools with training about relationships and how to intervene in potential violence. They’ve given grants to schools to fund mentoring in violence prevention; performances of the play “The Yellow Dress,” about dating violence; and a dozen other programs.
But most of all, they have given themselves. The list of appearances on the fund’s website (laurendunneastleymemorialfund.org) is seven pages long.
He is often the speaker at events, but there are times when Astley just sits and listens, as he did at a recent State House forum on domestic violence sponsored by Partners HealthCare. He took copious notes, then asked a question: “Chapter 71 of the General Laws says that health care education, including safe and healthy relationships with a focus on preventing sexual and domestic violence, shall be taught in schools. What do we need to do to enable schools to obey the law?”
His question was greeted by applause.
Spreading a message
After the trial, Astley and Dunne testified before the state Legislature on the need for school programs on relationships and violence prevention. They were told there were too many school mandates but that a pilot program was possible.
Astley worked with Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, on the Healthy Relationships Grant Program, which would allocate $150,000 to fund 10 schools for three years for a dating violence curriculum in grades 5-12. Between them, he and Dunne visited all 40 senators’ offices and gave out bookmarks bearing Lauren’s face and “her legacy” of preventing dating violence.
Eldridge had 21 cosponsors to his budget amendment, which was approved late last month. “Malcolm has very quickly become a state leader on teen dating violence since the tragic murder of his daughter,” says Eldridge.
At Jane Doe Inc., the statewide coalition against sexual and domestic violence, Astley is also admired. Craig Norberg-Bohm, the Men’s Initiative coordinator, has worked closely with him. “Because of his tragedy, he has a platform and people are interested in what he has to say. Is it just about this boy and girl or something bigger and broader? Malcolm has drawn the conclusion that it’s something bigger and broader . . . . He has such energy and focus and has compassion for the [other] family involved,” he says.
Many people find that compassion unfathomable. But it’s how he was raised and how he and Dunne raised their daughter, at home and at their church, First Parish in Wayland. “Our church has an emphasis on caring and justice and looking deeply to understand the perspective of others,” he says.
And he often cites the nonviolent ethic of his hero, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “What is it that will address hatred? Not more hatred.”
Comfort in memories
To combat the grief that can wash over him — what he calls “some form of PTSD” — Astley has typed a list of Lauren memories into his laptop, and he looks at it from time to time. He pulls up the file and reads a few.
“After returning from a trip to Key West with her mom, Lauren said, ‘I hate home! I want to live in Key West and be a bum!’ ” He chuckles.
Another memory: “Lauren reaching up to be lifted out of the crib and then her turning away as she was heading to sleep, and leaving a slightly forlorn parent.”
Astley is still a forlorn parent, but his daughter, reaching to him still, has given both him and Dunne a reason to go on.