Suzan Barnes was the daughter of a newspaper executive and a well-heeled country club divorcee with two teenage kids. Jim Carson, my father, was the hippie son of an oil executive with a wife and a young daughter. The night they met at a party in 1978, they pushed away from their families, moved in together and became inseparable until their arrest for multiple murders five years later.
My father immediately became a different person with Suzan. He had a new name, a new personality and new life. Abandoning the name James Clifford Carson for the name Michael Bear Carson, he was no longer the attentive and caring stay-at-home father that I remembered. My father had braided my hair and read me books. Michael Bear would barely look at me.
After a decade, my mother, Lynne, filed for divorce and sought to put some distance between herself and my father by moving from Phoenix to the Tucson area. I then lived with my mom on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, where she taught in a literacy program. My babysitter taught me to make tortillas in an outdoor kitchen, while nuns at the preschool taught me the alphabet and my mom taught me the names of the cacti. My life from Monday through Friday was happy.
On the other hand, weekends at my stepmother’s home were like a horror film. The inside of Suzan’s Scottsdale townhouse, where my father had moved to be with her, resembled a haunted forest. Instead of lighting or furniture, the entire home was filled with dozens and dozens of tall potted trees. At night, I’d lie awake in a sleeping bag on the floor as I looked at the dark shadows on the wall and thought of my last meal days before. In addition to not feeding me, Suzan was verbally and physically abusive.
I felt trapped in the home of my new wicked stepmother. I counted the minutes until the weekend was over so I could return to my mom’s house. Once I even dialed for the operator and asked for my mommy. I tried to open the front door but couldn’t reach the deadbolt. I tried to find food by climbing the kitchen drawers like a ladder to get on the counter. Mostly, I tried to wake up my father and Suzan, who were both passed out cold after dropping acid all night and lying naked on the only piece of furniture in the entire house: a king-size water bed in their bedroom.
After my last visit with father, I decided to tell my mom about Suzan’s house. I told her about the trees, the nakedness and the empty fridge. I told her Suzan scratched my back hard — very hard ― with her jagged fingernails when I asked my father to rub my back before bed. I told her that Suzan had called me “a demon” and said that I needed to die. My mother then lifted my shirt and gasped. She saw five bloody scratches down my back. She promised me I would never see Suzan ever again.
Using the money from the sale of Suzan’s Scottsdale townhouse, Michael and Suzan went to Israel, India, France and the U.K. My mother waited until the pair were gone, and then we left too, trying to get lost in the urban sprawl of Southern California ― near my mother’s uncle, the only person who truly believed her when she said, “My ex and his new wife might kill us.” He was a former cop who believed frightened women.
My mom cut off family and friends who dismissed her fears or kept in contact with my father. We rented rooms and moved often. My mom worked odd jobs. We struggled to pay for food and medication, and sometimes, because we found ourselves with nowhere to live, we ended up sleeping on the floors and couches of friends. All the while, my mom battled severe depression but carried on to protect me, her only child.
After returning to the United States nearly a year later, Suzan had an LSD-induced vision in a motel room. An apparition of a prophet supposedly revealed to her a comprehensive list of witches around the world that God wanted her and my father to kill. The list included President Ronald Reagan and Gov. Jerry Brown, among others. My father wrote the list down as Suzan described it to him, along with a detailed plan to kill Reagan.
A hiker found the plan in a forest area where my father and Suzan were camping and turned it in to the police. My mother and I first learned of the threats when the Secret Service showed up at our door in 1982.
A year later, my father and Suzan were caught killing an innocent stranger on the side of a freeway in Napa County, California. After their arrest, the San Francisco Chronicle published a jailhouse letter my father had written, offering to confess to “the ones in California” he and Suzan had killed if they were granted a news conference. The media dubbed the two the “San Francisco Witch Killers.”
My father and his wife were officially serial killers. They confessed to three murders in California and were soon suspects in nine other deaths in the U.S. and Europe.
During their trial, people who claimed to be friends with my father and Suzan claimed to be warlocks and testified as expert witnesses. They argued that my father and Suzan had acted in self-defense against deadly “psychic attacks.” My father, a Jew, and Suzan, a Christian, also blamed the prophet Mohammed for their crimes. The circus of a trial came to an end with Suzan interrupting the closing statements by yelling, “What is my crime? To be beautiful? To be an artist?” My father shouted, “Death to the Queen! Long live the IRA!”
Headlines with the phrase “The San Fran Witch Trial” appeared in newspapers across the country. My father and Suzan were found guilty of three counts of murder and were each given three life sentences.
I remember reading that my father and his wife beat a young woman with a frying pan and burned the body of a young man. I remember trying to sound out words that I didn’t know like “bludgeoned” and “decapitated.” Soon after, my lifelong struggle with nightmares began.
My mom, fearing that I would learn about the trial from the media, decided to tell me what had happened. She met me at school one afternoon and on the walk home told me, “Daddy hurt people, and now he needs to go to jail so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else.” I asked her if the people he hurt were dead and if the dead people had mommies. She nodded after each question and then we walked home without saying another word. We just held hands and sobbed.
Several months later, I found a stack of newspaper clippings in my mother’s bedroom dresser drawer and became familiar with how truly horrific the murders were. I remember reading that my father and his wife beat a young woman with a frying pan and burned the body of a young man. I remember trying to sound out words that I didn’t know like “bludgeoned” and “decapitated.” Soon after, my lifelong struggle with nightmares began.
I also became frightened for my own safety. If my father could kill people, then, I reasoned, anyone could be a killer. I began to barricade my bedroom door with furniture when I got home from school or before I went to bed at night. I also began to sleep with scissors and knives under my pillow. I was so traumatized that at one point I tried to drown myself in the bathtub and hoarded pills from our medicine cabinet with the intent of ending my life. Before I had even turned 10 years old, I was a suicidal kid with a homicidal father.
I began to wonder if I would snap and start killing people, too. I wondered if I had monster genes. I also struggled with external stigma. The worst was from relatives who saw me as a hindrance to erasing my father. My grandmother introduced me to her friends as her great-niece. Two family members told me to keep the murders a secret or “no one would ever marry me.” One relative even told me, “Look what you brought to our lives, you selfish little bitch.” I was nine.
As a teen, after I had cut off toxic relatives, I experienced the same behavior from several boyfriends. One told his parents that my father had died in a car accident. I was forced to play along. Another very serious boyfriend said he wanted to propose but decided he needed to break up with me instead because he didn’t want his children to have a serial killer as a grandfather.
With time, I began to learn to weed out any individual who would take away my dignity. I fully understood why most children of serial murderers change their names and go into hiding, but I decided that hiding wasn’t something I would do anymore. I would not go away to comfort others.
One of Charles Manson’s sons killed himself, and so have many other children of infamous murderers. I chose to live. I demanded treatment for my mental health in the same stigma-free manner that I would seek treatment of a chronic physical illness. I am not ashamed to have asthma ― why should I be ashamed to have depression and complex PTSD? I deserved help.
I also decided to help others. I worked with high-needs kids for nearly two decades in public schools as a teacher and counselor. Using my expertise and experience, I then became an advocate for the 1 in 40 kids who have a parent incarcerated in America.
Since I went public as the “daughter of a serial killer” in 2007, I have also had the opportunity to become a resource for other families of violent offenders and victims. In 2015, I joined the families of my father’s victims when he and Suzan unexpectedly received parole consideration. Together, we fought the parole with a petition, letter campaign, media blitz and our presence at the hearing, and my father and Suzan are both still in prison. We plan to do the same thing at my father’s next hearing in 2020. Suzan is up for parole again in 2030 ― she’ll be 90.
This hasn’t been an easy life, but through helping others, I have found peace. Looking back, I realize that I originally sought to help others to fill in an invisible balance sheet with good deeds in hopes of making up for the terror and trauma my father and Suzan caused. But I now know that I cannot atone for the sins of my father and I can’t bring back those beautiful innocent victims. I can only live my life the best way I know how while trying to inject as much kindness into the world as possible.
Jenn Carson is an advocate for children of prisoners, families of violent offenders and victims of violent crime. She has an undergraduate degree from Baylor University, a master’s degree in counseling from George Washington University and 15 years of experience as a public educator. On the Hallmark Channel, the Oxygen Network, and the Investigation Discovery Channel and in Marie Claire magazine, she has shared her journey from daughter of a serial killer to advocate.