Class Notes & Profiles

Remembering Christa Worthington '77

By Leila Levinson '76

I want to write this for Christa, the quietly enigmatic woman I knew in college, the sparkling-eyed petite girl down the hall from me in Lathrop who snagged a single room as a freshman. I want to write this about Christa who, even though she lived in Hingham was really from a town on Cape Cod called Truro. About the friend she was for three brief years more than twenty years ago. I want to write this because in the media's appropriation of her murder for its sensationalistic qualities, Christa is being lost. I want to write this because something about my meeting up with her through the news of her death has brought back our years at Vassar, years that though full of happy times, were not happy. Something at the heart of those years, at the heart of being a woman at Vassar in the 1970's, seems to be at the heart of what I have read of Christa's life and death, just as it has been at the heart of my life.

There's been too much print spent on the details of her murder which the media has exploited for entertainment value. But details of her life stand out: she had left fashion journalism after years of having risen in its ranks. She had spent several years in Paris, eventually becoming bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily before being summarily dumped for a man. She moved to London, broadened the scope of her writing, and then returned to New York. She began longing for a child, but doctors had told her she couldn't become pregnant. Then she spent time in Truro taking care of her mother who was dying from cancer. While there, she had an affair with a local married man and against all odds, became pregnant. She decided to live full-time in Truro where she was raising her cherished daughter.

When I heard a few years out of college that Christa was working in Paris for Women's Wear, I was shocked. That seemed contrary to the person I had been close with in college. Imprinted on my mind's eye is the long brown hair, so thick she often got it out of her way with a navy bandanna. The large brown eyes unadorned with makeup. The light spattering of freckles across the nose and rounded cheeks. The big gold hoop earrings the only jewelry. Usually, there was a smile, an infectious smile that could even bring one to my face. But not infrequently there was a frown, from menstrual cramps so intense she usually spent the first day of her period in the bathtub. From irritation with her family, there having been a divide between her parents and paternal grandparents about which she wouldn't say much, but the irritation was palpable. From anxiety over having left preparation for finals until the twelfth hour. She'd get amphetamines somewhere (drugs were always in easy reach) and stay up all night, fitting into ten hours what I had done over weeks. The moment the exam was over, she would crash, her door not opening for over a day. It generally worked for her, this tottering on the edge, but one time she crashed in the middle of the exam and barely made it back to the dorm to sob herself to sleep, resolving to change her ways. (Though it seems she never did. She turned in her senior essay half a day late and had a huge panic attack before finding out that the department would let it slide.)

More mysterious to me than her approach to work was her approach to men. Unlike me, she came to college having a boyfriend back home, an attractive, quiet guy though not quick witted like Christa, not hungry to experience a life beyond Hingham. Given the dearth of attractive heterosexual men at Vassar in 1973, having a boyfriend seemed distinctly desirable, but by October Christa dropped him. Yet if anyone could snag one of the five cute guys on campus, she could and did, but it was short-lived. She quickly lost interest, never even talking about him, as if there was nothing worth saying. She then seemed to be indifferent to guys, and though I tried to fix her up with friends at other schools, nothing ever clicked. There was a subtle aloofness about her, as guys were ultimately irrelevant to her life. I envied that, because I felt so wanting for a relationship, but the skewed ratio of straight women to straight men on campus made it impossible. Made me withdraw from opening up to the guys, because when I did they assumed I'd go to bed merely for the recreation of it.

I was glad for the chance to experience another environment and often went with a good friend to Yale where a hometown friend of hers was attending college. Christa wasn't interested in coming along. She seemed to have created a bubble around her that could deflect the distortions of Vassar's social life and even boost her immunity to the rampant depression.

When our friend at Yale was randomly murdered walking down his street one December evening of my junior year, my complete inability to come to terms with it emotionally led me to retreat into my work. The rest of that year, Christa was one person with whom I felt comfortable, because she was nonjudgmental and accepted me for however I was. She had a gift of being generous with her company even when all you wanted was the company without the words. (A rare thing in an environment where everyone was articulate to a fault.)

That summer I went to England — or fled might be a better word — and then in my last year my senior essay gave me plenty of reason to bury myself in work. I hardly saw Christa, and I don't remember saying goodbye to her, don't remember a last time I saw her, though a photograph of the two of us arm in arm hung over my desk for many years. The unhappiness of those years has, for the most part, kept me from staying in touch with people, but I always intended to connect with Christa again.

I spent the morning of January 10th revising a piece of how mothers of young children can grieve. Needing a break, I went to my neighbor's, also a writer, for lunch. "Did you know a Christa Worthington at Vasssar?" she innocently asked. "She was a good friend," I replied. Her face dropped, and my heart rose to my throat, the all too familiar dread surfacing. "Why?" I forced out, not wanting her to answer. She told me about Christa's murder.

That afternoon, until I picked my children from school, I searched the web for information about Christa. Wanting to know about her life, wanting to know all I'd hoped she would have told me if we had met again. There were only surface details, but I was struck by how dissimilar the trajectories of our lives were until about three years ago when she had her daughter. For some twenty years she pursued her career, relationships seeming to have been only a postscript. She lived in Paris, London, and New York, surrounded by glamour and sophistication, though people close to her say she always retained her New England common sensibility. I moved to Austin twenty-four years ago, where people saying "y'all" as if it had three syllables, thought Vassar was some kind of "finishing school" and no one was much impressed with my hard won credentials. But there is one similarity between our stories: we both suffered from poor judgment of men. We both experienced great difficulty finding a relationship capable of sustaining us.

That only came for me when I surrendered the belief that I had to do great things. In 1988 I stopped working as a lawyer and environmental activist and began writing full-time. Soon I was married, pregnant, and facing aspects of myself that had gone neglected: emotional and intelligence, self-awareness, honesty, spiritual health. Learning what it means to be in relationship and how to do it, how to become the person I would like to be has been the hardest work I've ever done. And most essential to my not regretting what I've done with my life.

It pierced my heart when I read that Christa regretted her choices from before she had her child. And I ask: what informs the choices we make? What shapes them? Why did Christa and I not sooner recognize the primary importance of relationships and love? I feel I lucked onto the person to whom I am married, lucked onto a person willing to work, to open himself to the pain and glory growing. It doesn't seem Christa had a chance to get that luck. And I wonder: does everyone need luck or do some people develop that intelligence, acquire the ability to see someone's true intentions before becoming emotionally entangled? What I do know is that my years at Vassar deepened a negative self-image where I was not other than my intellect, where I couldn't see my beauty and promise. I didn't love myself, and all my study became a distraction from the pain of that fact.

"Tell me whom you love and I will tell you who you are," the anonymous one said. How can we truly love anything about this world until we love ourselves? How can we make right choices and do great things until we love ourselves? There was a softly spoken mandate at Vassar: Vassar girls do great things. You're getting this great education now go out and do great things with it. But it was not our education that made us great or capable of doing great things.

One of my bright moments in college was hearing Issac Bashevis Singer speak. He talked about God bot being done with creation on the 7th day. That God's main purpose in creating people was so that creation would continually unfold. The story had no end. People are God's medium. We are all God at work. That lecture and Mr. Sullivan's class on the history of religion (so popular one couldn't get in until senior year) were the only times I heard God discussed. As if our spiritual selves were not inextricably underlying our capacity to understand life's mysteries. Imagine if we had learned from people who loved themselves that it is through love we transform the world, but only after we know ourselves. Know ourselves well enough so that at the end of our lives we can say: "Je ne regrete rien."

I have an image of Christa that will keep her alive in me, that I hope, one day, I will get to share with her daughter. One summer weekend she had another college friend, Rob, and me stay with her in Truro. We went sailing on a Sunfish on the protected side of the cape, but the wind was strong, and we had to use all our muscle to rein in the sail. As we were coming about, Rob slid off the deck into the water. We came about again to get him, and then I slid off and the boat tipped, and the three of us stretched our arms over the keel to right it. But we were laughing so hard, we couldn't pull. Christa's long hair was wrapped around her shoulders; the sun was highlighting amber hues in her irises, and there she was a mermaid, and Rob and I were like two porpoises, the laughing feeling so good, the sun and water and wind so right. For a moment, there we were — ourselves, in love with the world.