Through Their Eyes: Portrait of a Stranger

Elissa: the Beginning

I'm not really sure how it all started. Natalie and I have been good friends since we were little – we took art classes together at the rec center. She was never the best in the class, but I thought her work was pretty good. You could tell she enjoyed it.

We got really close in middle school, when I met her other best friend Claudia. Claudia and I had a bunch of classes together, and we were all in orchestra. Our orchestra director used to call us "The Three Musketeers" – or sometimes Four when we were hanging out with Zoe, but we're not friends with her anymore.

Natty always was the wackiest of my friends – she'd have huge mood swings all the time. Some days she'd be totally exhausted and depressed, and at other times she'd be totally hyper and acting like a little kid. She was addicted to Skittles and Mountain Dew – I remember one time at Claudia's house when Natty had three cans of Mt. Dew and she was running around the house; she put a cooking pot on her head and stuck it in the freezer, then hid behind the drapes which fell when I tried to get her out from behind them. We still argue jokingly about who pulled down the drapes that day.

After she went off to college, we didn't see very much at her. She'd come home every now and then to visit her old boyfriend, but then they broke up (the long-distance thing was too much, not to mention the age difference) and we stopped seeing her altogether. From what I heard, she was working herself to exhaustion. She got sick six or seven times during her freshman year, and always seemed overwhelmed when I did see her.

In the meantime, I was finishing my last year of high school with Claudia, worrying about college applications and my senior art exhibit. I hardly had the time to finish my own work, let alone keep tabs on what Kerri was up to. Still, I worried about her. Claudia told me Natalie had started going to parties and drinking, and after she and Trey broke up she started seeing some sketchy guy (I forget his name).

Over the summer, she worked full-time at Marshalls, where she was really miserable. I invited her and Claudia to come to the beach with my family for a week, but in the middle of that week we found out that she'd been using diet pills, and we all got in a huge argument that made our family vacation really awkward. After that, I thought she was doing better, and she soon went back to school.

Claudia: the Beginning

Natalie and I have been best friends longer than I can remember. We met in second grade on the school bus – she was in third grade (a year older than me). We started sitting next to each other every day and hanging out on weekends. She lives right down the street from me, and I used to be home alone after school every day, so she'd get a note from her mom to get off the bus with me and we'd hang out after school all the time.

I guess she was always a bit emotional. Especially in middle school and high school, she would go through days or even weeks where she was annoyingly depressing and didn't want to talk to anyone, and she never got enough sleep. At other times, she'd be insanely hyper and chattering on and on about whatever guy she had an obsessive crush on at the time.

I never understood why she didn't get better grades. I still think she's a lot more intelligent than I am, but she's very disorganized and doesn't turn her work in on time. If she could only manager her time better, I'm sure she could have gotten straight A's like I always did. In the end she got into her first choice school though, so I guess it doesn't really matter what I think – but she could have done better.

I used to try to help her with her schoolwork, but she makes herself so crazy sometimes. Between all her activities, her art classes, and orchestra practice, she never gets any sleep or has time for anything. And when she does have time, she wastes it playing video games or watching TV, or hanging out with Josh – man I hate that guy. But she won't listen to any of us - that's just the way she is.

When she went off to school she started getting in even more trouble. She'd call and tell me about going to parties and getting drunk, which I totally don't agree with. Over the summer, Elissa and I found out she'd been using diet pills to try to lose weight, and we finally confronted her about it. She freaked out and said she was going to stop, but I was really worried.

Now that she's off at college, I don't hear from her as often. There have been times I felt as though she was keeping things from me, which she never used to do. She used to tell me everything. I think she's afraid that I won't approve of her decisions (which I don't), and doesn't want to tell me because of that. But I have told her that she can still come to me whenever she needs to talk. It's just hard with her being so far away.

Josh: the Beginning

I didn't meet Natalie until the end of her freshman year of college, by which time I was a sort of super-senior / non-student (but that's complicated – I won't go into it). I was intrigued by her partly because of her passion for art, which was evident through her actions and attitude in art club (where we initially met). But the main reason I began a relationship with her was through a desire to help.

I am the sort of person who lives to serve others. I have an uncanny knack for understanding the needs of others, and I believe I give very good advice. So when I saw young Natalie working herself to death for no apparent reason, I wanted to step in and lend a hand. I did not get that chance until the following fall, when we began our friendship.

Natalie had had a trying time over the summer, and started off the semester with unusually high expectations for herself. Consequently, she took on far greater responsibility than she could handle emotionally, and drove herself to the brink of an emotional breakdown within the first two weeks of the semester. It was during this time that I began chatting her up at art club meetings.

I always was a charismatic individual, and in this case in particular I found it easy to help Natalie trust me through the use of humor. She began confiding in me in the absence of her friends back home, and soon started relying on me in her times of crisis, which were not scarce.

It was months before I recognized the cycle she was beginning to fall into, and I mentally kicked myself for allowing this to happen. She began a downward spiral of self-destructive behaviors which really did nothing to relieve the self-inflicted stress. At the same time she began to rely on myself more and more to help her out of these ridiculous situations.

When Natty broke up with her high school boyfriend, I believe she did it because of her affections for me. Although it sounded like the relationship was long over before I had anything to do with it, she probably would have clung to that guy for years had I not opened her eyes to the possibility of an easy alternative.

I wouldn't say that I took advantage of Kerri. While she may have been in a vulnerable state at the time that I met her, I was merely trying to be a good friend and help her not to drive herself crazy. I was also attracted to her, and the time we spent together was not merely for her benefit. However, I won't say any more about that, as it is really none of your business, and beside the main point.

Mom: the Beginning

Natty seemed to have a hard time in school more than her sister and brother, although at times I thought she was probably the smartest of the three. Her problem was always that she procrastinated and was incredibly disorganized, and never got her work done. Her teachers always told her (and I agreed) that if she could just apply herself more, she could do so much. She had so much potential. I still think she has potential, despite what they tell us.

High school was a trying time for her. She was going through all the crazy emotions of being a teenager, as well as school, art classes, and her many activities. More and more as time went on, she shut out her father and myself and turned to her friends. I know this is normal, but it still hurts when your child stops telling you about her problems.

College seemed to be a good fit for her, though it took awhile for her to adjust to the different lifestyle. I found myself reminiscing about my own college years, and was almost jealous of the many new experiences she would be going through. Finally I had to let my baby girl go out into the real world, and I worried that she wasn't ready.

I think that school is the best thing that could have happened to Natalie Anne. Her grades are wonderful, she has a scholarship from the honors program, and she's doing what she's always loved to do: paint. Her photographs and sketches have been published in numerous on-campus magazines, which she proudly sends home along with photos and stories from art club. She doesn't call as often as I'd like, but she sounds happy and busy and seems to have made a lot of good friends.

It's hard to believe my little girl is nineteen already – she's already thinking about paying rent, buying her first car, and getting a job away from home. She'll call to get my opinion, but generally makes her own decisions now. At times I sense she is exhausted and stressed out from everything that is going on, but even though she doesn't come to me I know she'll be all right in the end.

Elissa: The Incident

I didn't really know what was going on for a couple of months. I was finally starting college myself, and she never called me. In November I saw her at an art show in Stanton, and I found out that she'd started smoking pot. She was trying to hide it from us, but I saw her sneak out in the middle of the night and she came back in reeking of smoke. She thought we didn't notice, which was the thing that bothered me the most.

I went to her sister because I didn't know what else to do. I figured she would know. After all, she was the one who lives in Stanton, and she was a part of the big art show downtown. Instead of confronting Natalie myself, my roommate and I talked to her sister and let them work it out. I heard that she had quit smoking and that she was doing better, so I let it be. I guess that was my mistake.

A month or so later, Claudia told me that Natalie had been caught doing drugs again. She was drinking on weekends and smoking on and off again. Her schoolwork had started to go downhill, and her bosses were working her to death at her job in the library. She always sounded exhausted and stressed out, and every time I saw her she seemed thinner. I wondered if she'd started using the diet pills again, but I still didn't say anything.

Natty and I never really talked the way she does with Claudia. I didn't think it was my place to say anything if she was just going to deny it and get angry like she did at the beach last summer. Besides, I had my own life to worry about. I told Claudia to keep an eye on her, and said I'd always be here if she wanted to talk. What more was I supposed to do?

Of course I was upset when she got taken away. She's one of my best friends, and I didn't even know how much trouble she was in. If there was something I could have done, believe me I would have been there for her. But it's not my fault she lied to us and denied the truth. Mostly I was just surprised; I thought she was doing so much better after that incident with Josh or Jared or whatever that guy's name was…

Claudia: The Incident

I got really upset when I found out Natalie had been lying to us all. Elissa told me she'd caught her smoking weed in Stanton, and I confronted her about it over the phone. She cried and said she was trying to quit. She went on and on about that guy Josh, who she claimed was just a friend.

I could tell by the way she talked about him that she really liked this guy, but I didn't trust him. For one thing, he was four or five years older than her, whereas her old boyfriend was still in high school. I tried to warn her that he was probably just trying to get her in bed, but she wouldn't listen to me. She never listened to me…

Every time I tried to give her advice, she'd ignore it. And then when the worst happened, and she cried to me on the phone about it, I wouldn't say "I told you so"—I'd just try to help her make better decisions in the future. But as time went on she sank lower and lower into her pattern of self-destructive behavior. I couldn't see any way to help, as I was all the way in New York at Cornell and had my own life to think about. But still I worried about her.

I knew she was still drinking, and suspected she'd been smoking on and off for awhile. I even thought she might be using the diet pills again, but I never expected her to go so far. The day it happened, I didn't want to believe it. When I got that phone call… let's just say my roommate had to calm me down. My best friend… a criminal? I refuse to believe it.

Yes, I think what she did was wrong. But it wasn't her fault. I think Josh corrupted her. He took advantage of her when she was weak, and he led her down that path. I wish she had never met him, that she'd stayed with her high school boyfriend. If she could have kept her act together in high school and gotten into Cornell with me… maybe things would be different now.

I'm sorry, I can't go on. It's still too hard to talk about…

Josh: The Incident

Of course, I knew things would end up this way if I didn't do something soon. Her self-destructive behavior got worse and worse the more I tried to help. Finally I began to realize that the reason she trusted me so fully was because she was in love with me. I found this hard to believe at first, but it's not the first time a young female friend of mine has gotten the wrong impression of my intentions.

Once that friend of hers, Claudine I think her name is—once Claudine convinced her that I was a scumbag just trying to get into her pants, she totally clammed up. She stopped trusting me altogether, and made an almost irreversible rift in our friendship. She no longer wanted to spend time with me, and began turning to other people for help. Soon the whole art club knew the most intimate details of our relationship, and she was making it sound as though I had taken advantage of her in the worst way.

I was angry, but I still thought there might be a chance to repair the damage. Month after month I slowly worked my way back into her confidences through conversation and action. I came to her rescue when she almost got caught selling weed in her dorm one night (which, I might add, she never thanked me for), and I helped her kick the addiction once and for all. Or, at least, that was what I thought at the time.

As soon as she started speaking to me again, I felt as though she were falling right back into her old pattern of behavior towards me. That was the most infuriating of all. Here I was, finally getting a good position at work and starting to date this girl I'd liked for some time (who just happened to be friends with Natty as well), and she simply refused to accept that fact.

I wanted to cut her some slack, but she totally overreacted to the news about Emma and myself and instead cut me out of her life entirely. She even started dating some loser named Eddie who treated her like dirt, but she refused to see it that way. There was nothing I could do.

I wasn't completely surprised as much as disappointed when I heard the news. I really thought she had what it took to work through her problems and recognize the potential I know she has, but apparently she finally let everything else get in the way. I still think there's hope for her, but she'll never get out of that place if she refuses to see it. And knowing her the way I do, I think she'll keep herself in there for quite awhile. I wish she would let me speak to her, though I don't know how much good that would do at this point.

Mom: The Incident

I was completely shocked when they called and told me my baby had been locked up. I refuse to believe the outrageous accusations against her, and I only hope Natty will find some way to convince them of the truth, because I know she would never do something like that! Not my baby girl, not my little Natalie Anne… I'm sorry, I can't go on – please just leave us alone!


Well, I really screwed things up this time. The lawyers say I did something awful, but I can't remember… I just don't want to talk about it right now. Last semester was HELL, okay? Why is it any of your damn business anyways, I'd like to know…? I want to talk to Claudia, why won't you let me talk to her?

Finally, some privacy. This place is completely depressing. I feel like I'm in a zoo; people keep coming in to talk to me, to try to figure out why I did it. I'll tell them why – I just couldn't take it anymore! They don't know, they don't understand what it's like to have so many people thinking you're something that you're not. I just had to escape from the schedules, the appointments, the assignments, the responsibilities! I was going nuts in there, and they had no idea.

I wonder what my parents said. They haven't come to see me yet; maybe I'm going to be disowned from the family like my cousin Mark who drinks too much… I'm sure it was a shock to my mom – she had no idea what was going on in my life since I came to this place. The smoking, the drinking, the boys – she was completely oblivious to it all. And I liked it that way.

The only times I called home were when something good happened, something to make them proud. When I got my first real job, I called Mom to tell her all about it. When my sketches got selected to be in a magazine, I sent a copy home to her and bragged to all my relatives. She didn't know what was really going on, because I didn't want her to know. Well, now she knows all right. She knows more than she ever wanted to hear.

I feel terrible about that… but it's not like I called up and said "hey Mom, guess what I just did? I got arrested for selling weed today, and then I went and slept with—" No, I don't want to think about that I DON'T WANT TO THINK ABOUT IT! I DON'T WANT TO—oh no, here they come to shoot me up with drugs again… damn…

Elissa: The News

I can't believe it. I'm still just completely in shock. The funeral was today, and I could hardly think straight. On my way there I lost my car keys, locked myself out of the car and went the wrong way. Claudia met me there and we sat together, along with both of our parents. Natalie's mom was crying.

They made it sound like it was an accident, but I know what really happened. They killed her. They killed her, and no one will ever do anything about it. I just can't believe my best friend is never coming back. I can't believe it; I won't believe it. This can't be real…

Claudia: The News

Elissa and I sat together at the funeral. I was totally in shock and couldn't stop crying. My parents drove me there, but we couldn't think of anything to talk about in the car. I still don't know what really happened, but when I saw her lying there, wearing that dress that we picked out together, I just lost it. I couldn't even hear what lies they were saying about her, how sad it was that she was taken from us so young, how this tragic "accident" was hard to understand… it's all a load of BS.

This never should have happened. I should have been there to help her. I should have stopped them taking her away. I should have gone to visit her in there, to keep her from getting to freaked out! It's all my fault, and now she's gone… Gone! This can't really be happening…

Josh: The News

I got the call while I was on duty, and had to ask my boss to take my lunch break two and a half hours early because of "personal business." It seems things had taken a turn for the worst after all, and I wasn't there to fix it this time. I wasn't there to explain the truth, to help my friend. I failed her, and now she's dead. I'm beginning to doubt my abilities; after all, I've never failed this badly in the past. Now I've got a death on my conscience. This is going to take some thinking…

They failed to invite me to the funeral. Claudia probably had something to do with that. I would hate her for turning Natty against me, but it's not in my nature to hate someone I've never met, so I'll just have to let that one go. But I should at least send flowers, or something. My girlfriend's probably going to be upset, too. Excuse me for a moment, I have to call my boss and see if I can get the rest of the day off…

Mom: The News


Natalie Anne Williams died of a morphine overdose while in residence at St. Augustine's Hospital for Disturbed Individuals. The ceremony took place at Temple Beth El on Saturday, May 13th, just weeks after she would have graduated with honors from the University of Tennessee. She will be deeply missed by family and friends. A tree will be planted in her memory at the Arboretum on campus, one of her favorite places to paint. Her last painting, a portrait of her three best friends, will be on display in the university Art Department display case next month.