This story began with an assignment to write an anecdotal history of home ec in the rural town of Fallbrook, California, to see how the education of girls had evolved in the last half-century. I took either sewing or cooking every year in junior high and high school, and my mother was a Mormon home ec teacher in whose summer classes I’d made chocolate ice cream by rolling two nested tin cans across the floor, listening to the outer layer of salt and ice slosh together, slosh together, slosh together, until the sugar, cream, and chocolate finally coalesced.
But telling the story you set out to tell in journalism is like trying to build a highway across ground that contains an Indian burial ground and the bones of a woolly mammoth. One of the first Fallbrook High graduates I interviewed, an alumnus from 1957, told me how her cooking teacher, Mrs. Husher, killed her little girl by putting poison in her chocolate pudding. That’s how she spelled it aloud for me: Husher, as if the name itself had been a clue no one saw until it was too late. The story I was writing changed in that moment; work on the highway stopped.
I had two little children myself as I dialed the numbers of women and men who had lived in Fallbrook in the 1950’s and knew the Huscher family. I hoped, as I always hope, that some mitigating factor or hidden motivation would emerge, that the true story, if every detail were known, would shine light into darkness. The pages of interviews piled up as each person named yet another person who might know something, who might remember, who might know why a woman who taught home ec for 20 years would poison her own child, and what had happened to the mother after that (how could she go on living?) and what had happened to her husband, the man who found his child dead on a beautiful spring morning. Almost every trail ended in darkness or “No trespassing” signs held up by people who said, “Why don’t you write a story about all the good things that happened in this town?”
If I could tell this story differently, I would. I would give Gladys and Judy Huscher ice-cold tins of cocoa, sugar, and cream to roll on a sunlit floor so that in less than an hour the girl and the mother would eat it together and say, “Wasn’t that fun?” and the girl would grow up and make ice cream with her daughter and her daughter’s daughter. What happened instead is shocking, painful, disturbing, and true. The light I hoped to find eluded me again and again, and then, at last, I found one person who could hold up a candle that stayed lit.
The good people of Fallbrook in 1957 looked for explanations, as we all do, as I did, for an inexplicable and horrific act. The answer they found and believed and acted on set one person free and blighted the life of someone who had already been deeply harmed. The impassioned defense of that person is the blazing gleam of light in this story, the flame I would like you to see.