August 17, 2019

Transcendence — a true story for Yom Kippur

Phil and Laura both look a lot like their mom, in different ways,” remarks Abby Leibman, Philip and Laura Donney’s legal guardian.

Abby was trying to explain that for her, Phil and Laura evoke the presence of her twin sister, Nina Leibman, who 11 years ago was murdered by her husband, the pair’s father.

But Philip, 19, and Laura, 16, can’t resist the perfect set-up for one of their frequent humorous jousts.

“Yeah, I have her legs,” boasts Phil, unfolding from under him a long, tanned leg, bony all the way to the barefoot end.

“Excuse me, I do,” Laura responds theatrically, pointing her toes and modeling her leg above the couch, her short shorts showing off long appendages that haven’t quite yet reached the proportions of her mother, who was a leggy 5-foot-7.

What is striking is that Phil and Laura are able to tenderly joke about the mother they so tragically lost. That rather than becoming a sacred and somber memory, not to be mentioned except in hushed tones, their mother remains a natural and everyday part of their lives.

The atmosphere of openness that Abby has established for her family is one of several elements that have allowed Phil and Laura to become, by all indications, not just well-adjusted and happy kids, but in many ways exceptional — socially, academically, artistically — despite a past that could have understandably lead them to dysfunction.

Phil was 7 and Laura 4 when their father, Ken Donney, stabbed their mother more than 20 times while the children were in bed down the hall. Phil heard his mother’s screams and saw his father covered in blood, holding a knife. Laura has vague memory snapshots from that night. Their father is now in prison, serving a sentence of 16 years to life.

The family was dealt another heavy blow less than four years ago, when Marjorie, Abby’s younger sister, who Phil describes as sort of the noncustodial parent, died of malignant melanoma.

And yet, despite this extraordinary load of loss and trauma, it takes only a few minutes to be pulled in by Phil and Laura’s charisma and candor, and by Abby’s astute forthrightness. Phil was voted class clown and prom king when he graduated from Hamilton High School in 2006. Laura, an exceptional student with an interest in drama, like her mother, draws people into her warmth.

Both kids immediately impress as articulate, genuine, fun and mature, sharing a huge store of gratitude where one might expect to find bitterness.

Three Sisters
Abby, left, says the two people she was closest to were her sisters Nina, center, and Marjorie, right

How is that possible?

What is it that allowed this family to stay whole and renew the life in themselves when fate, or God, or a violent man, dealt them unimaginable grief? In this season of renewal and introspection, of fate and faith, what can others facing obstacles of any degree learn from this family’s remarkable ability to transcend the unthinkable?

Abby, Phil and Laura don’t claim to have all the answers, but they know what worked for them — what is still working for them. From the beginning, Abby made sure their family would remain communicative with each other and with others, so that no topic is taboo. She set a precedent of drawing on all the resources available to them — psychological help, strong friendships, communal support. And each of the three seem to have an inner strength and a positive outlook that those resources and openness have helped keep alive.

“I just always felt like I was really appreciative of everything,” says Phil, draped over a comfy chair in the den of their Beverly Center home, where family photos, many with his mother and Aunt Marjorie, smile from shelves and walls. “This might sound corny, but after losing so much and having everything change and everything in my life just completely fall away, I grew this appreciation of everything else that I have…. I think when you give those feelings off, those feelings are returned to you.”

With sun-bleached curls falling in long ringlets around his sharply defined face, he looks and talks every bit the California guy, easy and relaxed, looking forward to an evening out with old friends before he returns as a sophomore to UC Santa Barbara — his mother’s alma mater.

What he doesn’t possess is the mumbling nonchalance of his cohorts.

“By no means am I glad that all this stuff happened to me in my past, but if I hadn’t moved to L.A., I wouldn’t be living in the best neighborhood, I wouldn’t have the best friends in the world, I couldn’t have gone to the best high school in the world,” Phil says. “A lot of me misses what is gone … but I love my life. I really do.”

‘I Don’t Want to Die’

Phil’s sentiments are words Abby thought she might never hear when she brought Phil and Laura from their brick home in Santa Cruz to her two-bedroom Wilshire District condo two days after her fraternal twin was murdered.

“I remember saying to Phil’s therapist, right in the beginning, ‘I just want them to have a happy, normal childhood.’ And she looked at them and she said, ‘It’s too late for that.’ And I said ‘Oh my God.’ It was just a breathtaking moment for me,” says Abby, who is a consultant focusing on leadership and organizational development, particularly with regard to discrimination issues.

The day after her sister died, Abby took temporary custody of the kids, and later permanent guardianship. Nina Leibman had been an up-and-coming professor of communications who taught at UC Santa Cruz and at Santa Clara University; her specialty was how female characters were depicted in the early days of television. She had published a book on the drama that underlies the happy veneer of sitcom families, and was finally ready to get out of the harsh reality of her own family.

Ken graduated from UCLA Law School and worked as a prosecutor at the Federal Trade Commission. But for most of their 10-year marriage, he bounced around between jobs and writing a novel, before he ended up in an administrative position at the University of Santa Clara Law School.