How would readers react to my story on the tragic life of two Brookline sisters?
I began wondering as soon as my editors hit the “publish” button a week ago Sunday on my 4,500-word story, “Two sisters, one house and a mystery.”
How would readers react to my attempt to understand the lives of two reclusive women from Brookline, one of whom co-existed with the other’s dead body for about a year inside their rundown childhood mansion?
Would this macabre scene trigger cruel judgments of Lynda and Sheryl Waldman? Or of me for further exposing their troubled lives? I had spent weeks researching this piece, and knew I was too close to predict a typical reader’s response.
But when the first of dozens of e-mails began pouring in from across the country, I was struck by the deep sympathies extended to these hermetic sisters and their struggles, with some -- but not all -- criticizing local officials or neighbors for not doing enough to intervene. Though law enforcement has an open case pending autopsy results, no one wrote suggesting they believed Lynda had a role in her younger sister’s death, or even faulted her for not reporting it earlier.
Some relatives from afar who had lost touch with the sisters also e-mailed me, asking if I had a way to reach Lynda to convey their support. A few even offered to fill in some blanks on their life story.
Even though the sisters’ insular ways were extreme, and death of the younger sister, Sheryl, remains a bleak mystery, many readers saw them as victims of life’s bad luck that affects – or can affect – us all.
“One way or another, it seems, we all hang on by just a thread,” wrote Boston lawyer Harold Stahler, who attended the Brookline public schools around the same time as Sheryl, but never knew her well.
A 63-year-old woman who lives alone in an apartment in Texas expressed hope that Lynda, 74, receives help that is “not forced but done with respect.”
“It’s very sad, but I have phobia issues and I am alone,” wrote Deborah Stai. “I can relate a bit to how they feel, especially the older sister.”
I later contacted Stai by phone to get approval to publish part of her e-mail. When I asked if she’d like neighbors or others to check on her now and then, she paused, then became emotional.
“It’s not unwelcome, but you live this way for so long,” she said, quietly weeping. “You don’t want people asking. You’re afraid to let them into your world.”
Leo Vanderpot, who grew up in Revere, and now lives by himself in a Westchester County, N.Y. apartment, said it can be tempting in old age to shut out the rest of the world, especially when one feels weakened by age and is constantly called by marketers trying to scam the elderly.
“I’m 84, and I have a glimpse of what the benefits of reclusiveness might be, but a (healthy?) part of me does not want to go there,” he e-mailed.
Many readers said, however, that Lynda and Sheryl Waldman’s circumstances clearly represent an extreme case. Some said their life story reminded them of two dark films, “Grey Gardens” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” about the eccentric lives of pairs of reclusive women.
Some readers said the story went far to explain some major reasons why the sisters ended up living isolated lives, but they suspect other major factors – such as mental health issues or traumatic childhood experiences -- could be missing.
Nancy Alimansky, who lives in Newton and once knew the older sister growing up in Brookline, said she can sympathize with the difficulties these sisters must have experienced losing their mother at a relatively young age, and enduring bitter legal family battles over money.
They also had an unusual upbringing, growing up inside a 4,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom stately home with another related family and their children, the Carvers. (Two business partners, Jacob Waldman and Joseph Carver married two sisters, Martha and Lillian Rosnosky, and each couple had three children. The six children grew up in a joint household on Clinton Road in Brookline, where even the checking accounts were shared.)
Still, Alimansky said other factors beyond her unusual childhood must explain why Lynda led such an extreme insular life with her sister.
“I can’t imagine what caused her life to take such a tragic turn,” wrote Alimansky, who attended the same Brookline schools with Lynda and knew her as smart and outspoken.
Some relatives offered a partial explanation of Lynda’s and Sheryl’s extreme distrust, saying they never recovered from their mother’s death and blamed their father, a charismatic man with a vibrant social life outside the family, for their parents’ strained relationship and the family’s later financial woes.
“They eventually turn toward each other as history shows,” e-mailed Stephen Waldman, 66, a cousin who works as a financial analyst in California. He later referred to them as living “homeless in a mansion.”
He said he and other relatives, many of whom only learned about this tragedy through the media, are pained beyond belief by what happened to Lynda and Sheryl, the younger one possibly not reaching her 68th birthday before she died; her body was left, likely for about a year, under a kitchen table.
At one point when discussing his e-mail with the Globe, this cousin broke down in tears when thinking of their lives.
Some cousins emphasized their early fond memories of the Waldman family from Brookline, adding that the patriarch -- their “Uncle Jack” -- had to be understood in perspective. They said he was one of 13 children of Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents who ran a modest farm near Concord, N.H. He was later admired for starting a large label-making company in Massachusetts that once employed many relatives, including ones who fell on hard times.
“My dad died in 1966 when I was 13 and he was 50,” wrote Barry Halpern, a cousin who lives in Colorado. “Jack was terrific to my mother and to me at that time and for years after. So my memories of Jack are very positive though I know he had lots of flaws.”
Halpern said a silver lining to this tragedy is that the extended Waldman family’s Facebook page has become especially active recently, with more relatives trying to share their fond memories while also understanding how devastation struck one part of their family tree.
None of the relatives said they understood why Sheryl chose in her 40s to take on the new surname, Wheaton (a name that they said has no particular significance in their family) and drop the Waldman surname. They can only imagine that it has to do with her ambivalent feeling toward her father, who Sheryl largely helped care for when she was in her mid-30s, and he was dying alone with severely depleted assets.
Some members of the extended Waldman and Carver families are trying to find some way to remember Sheryl – and support Lynda – as they sometimes arrange large family reunions with dozens of relatives from around the country.
“I visited the Carver/Waldman house when it was a happy vibrant home,” wrote Ron Carver, a great nephew of Joseph Carver who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Though I live hundreds of miles away and had lost contact decades ago, I was greatly disturbed and saddened to read the story of a family, my family dissolving in rancor and worse.”
While referring to his cousins’ death and asking, “Why did no one know?” he goes on to refer to lessons learned and the need for everyone to “make greater efforts to stay in touch.”
“Even affluent communities and socially liberal states must maintain effective social safety nets,” Carver wrote. “None of us should assume we and our families are immune to tragedy.”
Janet DeCosta, a cousin who lives in Washington DC., said she and other relatives were so upset to learn how Sheryl and Lynda have lived over the past decades, and wonders about all the missed opportunities for family members -- as well as police officers, social workers and neighbors who detected problems last summer - to make a difference.
In an e-mail, she asked why it took decades “for the circumstances leading up to this tragedy to see the light of day.”
Though the overwhelming number of e-mails offered kinds words about the fairness and tone of the piece, one reader took issue with the article, saying it was “unwarranted intrusiveness” into the lives of people who want to be left alone and “tabloid” writing. Another reader complained about my referring to the sisters as “elderly” – and said it was a “discriminatory word” too often used in connection with stories about women.
A number of readers pointed an accusatory finger at Brookline police and town officials, as well as staffers at the state’s elder services agency, for failing to uncover Sheryl’s dead body earlier, despite repeated visits last summer.
Some readers said this case reminded them of the many shut-ins and frail elderly people who live in their neighborhood and asked: Is enough being done to watch over them?
One reader asked me to check into the plight of two elderly women in Newton, saying the pair is living dangerously alone.
“I think that if something is not brought to someone’s attention they will be found dead,” this reader wrote.
But Carole Winkler, a freelance writer who lives in Boston’s Back Bay, said government officials are in a tough situation when it comes to vulnerable populations, especially as they can often reject help, even if most people think their conditions are unsafe.
She said the tragic tale of the Waldman sisters raises a number of important civil liberty issues around aging, including how aggressively authorities should intervene in the lives of frail individuals. She wonders if Sheryl could speak from the grave, what she would have wanted to say.
If the clock could be turned back, what would be the best intervention for the sisters?
“Would they have been happier if someone had forced their way in?” she wrote.
Some readers said the story reminded them of other major themes of family life – the sometimes corrosive effect of wealth, the lingering effects of lawsuits, and the limited choices of women, even ones who had privileged and educated upbringings, in the 1950s when these sisters grew up.
“This goes all back to how all of these social dynamics and events of the time affected young women who lived a fairy tale existence and all of a sudden it was yanked away,” wrote the cousin, Stephen Waldman. “Tragic. And in many ways, not surprising at all.”