Not so far from Kookooland: The mocking term her dad used for California aptly described author's young life in Manchester
By PAUL FEELY New Hampshire Union Leader
A Nov. 1, 1977, front-page story in the Union Leader announces the arrest of Susan Piasecny Hughes for the murder of her father nearly 14 years after he had killed her mother. Father and daughter both were committed to the state hospital for their crimes. (Courtesy)
A family photo showing a young Gloria Norris and her parents, Shirley and Jimmy, displaying their Christmas goose. (Courtesy)
Susan Piasecny and Gloria Norris in the mid-2000s. (Courtesy)
MANCHESTER - Many people have someone they considered a mentor while growing up, a person they put on a pedestal and looked up to. Gloria Norris is no different.
Now a Hollywood screenwriter and independent film producer, as a child in the Elmwood Gardens public housing units on the southern end of Elm Street, Norris idolized Susan Piasecny, the daughter of Hank Piasecny, her dad Jimmy's hunting buddy.
And as with so many people placed on a pedestal, Norris later learned things about Susan that would impact how she viewed her friend.
But that's where Norris' story differs from most.
“Not many people find out their mentor killed (her) father, after he murdered her mother,” said Norris, during a phone interview from her office in Los Angeles.
That true crime tale is the subject of Norris' new book, “Kookooland,” published last Tuesday. The storyline sounds like the plot of a twisted movie, and Norris said discussions on turning the book into a screenplay have already begun.
In the beginning
At Christmastime 1963, businessman Hank Piasecny fatally stabbed his ex-wife Doris and her male companion, architect John D. Betley. Piasecny was found not guilty by reason of insanity, committed to New Hampshire Hospital, and discharged two years later.
In 1977, Hank and Doris' daughter, Susan Piasecny Hughes — then 35 — fatally shot her father. The state medical examiner initially ruled the death a suicide by shotgun, until Susan asked that her father's body be exhumed, which led to the discovery of a second wound, this one from a .22-caliber pistol to the chest. Susan was arrested for the murder of her father and, like her father, found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to New Hampshire Hospital.
She was freed three years later, and arrested three days after her release for attempting to obtain controlled drugs by fraud.
“Kookooland” — which gets its name from the term Gloria's father Jimmy used for California — is told from the perspective of 9-year-old Gloria, who lives with her half-sister and her mother, Shirley, under Jimmy's roof. Jimmy is portrayed as a bully, a man who teaches Gloria how to fence stolen televisions, bet on racehorses, shoot rats at the dump and watch bloody slasher films without screaming.
As Gloria grows older, she begins to view life with Jimmy as less of an adventure and more an oppressive upbringing. She looks at family friend Susan as someone with the perfect life. She sees Susan as being beautiful, athletic, and brilliant, a college student on the way to medical school before her mother is brutally murdered.
In the wake of the crimes, Jimmy becomes increasingly violent, leaving Gloria to wonder if her family will implode like her idol's.
Telling the story
Norris, who attended Bakersville and Southside schools before graduating from Manchester High School Central, said she had been toying with the idea of writing about Susan for several years.
“There were a couple of things that really spurred me on to finally write the book,” said Norris. “One was my mother, Shirley, passing away three years ago. Shirley very much wanted this story to be told, and I felt if I didn't do it I would be letting her down.
“Especially in the last few years of her life she was very clear-eyed about her life with my father, Jimmy. Unlike many people who idealize their spouse after they're gone, Shirley was able to see and talk about Jimmy more honestly — once she was no longer living in fear of him ‘knocking her block off,' as he might put it.”
Norris said she encountered some pushback from people while researching the book.
“There was a fair amount of resistance to my writing about Susan and her family that came from some of her relatives and from people in the criminal justice system,” said Norris. “People shouted at me and people hung up on me. The local librarian didn't even want to give me the microfilm of the old newspaper stories about the Piasecnys.
“There's a phrase Jimmy often used — ‘keep it on a stonewall' — meaning keep it in the family, and I think that describes the Yankee temperament pretty well. New Englanders are not touchy-feely, self-examining types like the people out here in California — KookooLand — my adopted home state.”
Norris said what surprised her the most while working on the book was getting to better understand Susan, who died in 2007.
“The real Susan,” said Norris. “Not the golden girl I imagined her to be, but the real flesh-and-blood person. In many ways, over decades, she had remained on a pedestal for me. A big part of me still wanted her to be that perfect person who inspired me to make it out of the projects. The journey of working on the book was learning how to be objective and accept her for who she really was.”
Norris said writing the book was cathartic, and gave her a new understanding of her parents.
“It gave me more understanding of the world that shaped my father, Jimmy,” said Norris. “The pressure on him to be a ‘man's man' was so powerful. He grew up around boxing, gambling and hunting and later on was in the Merchant Marine. It was always clear to me that he had a sensitive side, a side that loved to cook, cherished the beauty of nature and even painted, but he had to repress a lot of his true nature.
“As for my mother, I was always empathetic about her difficult situation of living with Jimmy, but I think there was a part of me that blamed her for staying, blamed her for exposing me and my sister to such darkness and trauma. But writing the book made me really see there was no good choice she could have made. It was definitely the lesser of two evils to stick it out with him.”
Norris said she believes her mother stayed with Jimmy to protect her and her stepsister from “a worse fate.”
“She's really my hero, even more so since I wrote the book, now that I understand her better,” said Norris. “I always thought I got my strength to succeed from Jimmy, because he was a tough guy and taught me how to ‘roll with the punches.'
“But now I see my mother was really the toughest one of us all, and I owe my life to her — literally.”