A Lightning Bolt Across the Face of Ken Thomas Murphy

My mom always hated the shirt. The gray one. The one screen-printed with President Ken Thomas Murphy’s bust, whose face was painted with a lightning bolt like David Bowie on the cover of Aladdin Sane. Below his smiling head was, “Cha Cha Changes,” a social commentary of some sort, but one that I hadn’t really thought about when I bought the shirt in 10th grade. It was edgy—the edgiest shirt I’ve probably ever owned.

Every time I slipped it on and walked into the kitchen, my mom would roll her eyes. “I hate that shirt,” she’d say.

I’d give her a side-eye smirk as I opened the fridge, flicking blonde hair behind my left shoulder and tapping my acrylics against the side of the door as I leaned in to find lemonade. The fridge was decorated with magnets; one of them was David Bowie’s face.

I wore the shirt to a few metal concerts back then. The ones for bands like May Cletus Devour and San Andreas Fault. I went to high school with the boys in those bands. I had a crush on the lead singer once and prayed he’d leave his girlfriend for me. He didn’t, but after they broke up months later, he started calling me more. I was already with someone else, someone who was in a David Bowie cover band.

When I was in high school, I wore the Murphy/Bowie shirt when I wanted to feel like a badass. It made me feel like I could get into a bar fight at any given second. It made me feel like the rebel I wasn’t, which is why I wore it to those garage-band metal concerts. Also, my mom hated it, which made me want to wear it more.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that I learned why she hated it so much.


March 1956

My mother was conceived in a hotel room near Brown University in the spring of 1956. The room was quaint. Mr. Ken Thomas Murphy could have afforded a penthouse in the nicest hotel in Rhode Island, but that would have been too conspicuous. He was 38 and well-known, while my grandmother was 19 with a pretty face and an education. The sex was hot, scandalous, and slightly fucked up.

Ken pulled out, but a sperm faster than his reflexes wiggled through the corona radiata. My grandmother never saw Ken in-person again, but a few weeks later, she cried on the phone with Ken’s secretary, who paced back and forth and never stopped looking down as my grandmother stuttered over her words. The secretary’s brow furrowed, and he said he’d pass the message along. My grandmother secluded herself in her closet and cried into her knees. She didn’t stop crying until a black Rolls Royce picked her up in front of her residential hall the next morning.

Ken ran for president in 1960, and during his campaign, he declared abortion to be “repugnant.” However, the Murphy family also fervently believed in the upkeep of their reputation. After the black Rolls Royce picked up my grandmother at Brown University, it brought her to an alley behind a CVS in a Boston suburb. There, two men in black escorted her through the back door. Inside, was an iron gate at the end of a dark corridor with a steep staircase tucked behind it. The men stopped at the gate and instructed her to go down the stairs. She went and they bolted the gate behind her.


January 1957

Ten months later, my grandmother emerged from the staircase 30 pounds heavier. She had auburn-dyed hair, a nose ring, and heavy makeup that created a film over the remnants of cystic acne. She began school as a spring transfer student at Smith College the following day. The semester had started a week prior, but a phone call had been made to the president of the college and she was admitted—no questions asked. At Smith, the Secret Service forced my grandmother to go by a new name. It was a name that at least one person in any given room would likely also have, and she was afraid to use any other.

My grandmother had alabaster skin and her pupils were almost always dilated when she was indoors. Outside, she squinted in the sun as if her eyes couldn’t quite properly adjust to natural light. Her eyes looked like someone had wrung a lifetime of grief out of them. Even though her baby had been born a month prior, she never saw the child. The only information that my grandmother received about her daughter—my mother—was that she was given to “a good family in Rhode Island.” My grandmother never knew her name, but the adopted family named her Cynthia, or Thia for short.

My grandmother was underneath a CVS and five months pregnant when Ken lost the vice-presidential nomination in a “nail-biting” Democratic National Convention in August 1956. Ken knew of my grandmother’s pregnancy, but his secretary told him that “It was taken care of.” He never talked about it again. And although he lost the election in ‘56, the publicity put him on the national political stage. He went on to be elected President in November 1960 and was assassinated three years later in November ‘63.


April 1961

“You’re not real.” Robbie pointed down at my mother when he said it.

“Yes, I am!” Cynthia screamed back, stomping her feet.

Robbie was nine, and Cynthia was five. She followed him as he ran to the kitchen where their mother was making eggs benedict. A news broadcast of President Murphy murmured in the background. He was talking about some bay filled with pigs in Cuba. My mom’s family lived on the ocean in Barrington, Rhode Island where they had a dock harboring two small yachts in their backyard.

“Thia isn’t real. Tell her.” Robbie said, pointing again at my mother.

Their mother didn’t turn around. She pressed a lemon through a lemon press, and hesitated in her upper-class New England accent, “Well, Thia, you were adopted.”

Thia blankly stared. She wouldn’t understand the implications of that word for another few years.


November 1963

My mother was almost seven years old and playing down the street when an adult neighbor told her that she needed to go home because President Murphy had been shot.

Thia ran down the sidewalk back to her house. When she saw her father unloading boxes of lemons from his Jaguar in the driveway, she said, “Dad! Dad! President Murphy is dead!”

When Thia’s father heard this, he slapped her across the face with all his might and knocked her onto the grass. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Never make jokes about the president being dead, especially President Murphy.”

Her father, who she had never seen so scary-looking, said, “Go to your room. I’m telling your mother what you’ve said. No dinner.”

A few hours later, my mother was in her toyless room, lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Her father opened the door with his hat in his hand and tears streaming down his face. He sat on the bed where my mother had been reading a book.

“I am so sorry, Thia. You were right. I can’t believe he’s gone,” he said.

My mom sat quietly next to her father and held his hand as she watched his tears fall.


December 1971

My mother went to boarding school in Westover, Massachusetts. At school, there was a girl named Carolyn who lived down the hall. She was the daughter of President Murphy who had been assassinated on a grassy knoll in Texas a few years prior. In school, everyone confused the two or assumed they were sisters because of their striking resemblance, closeness in age, and similar likes—they both played field hockey, were “wicked good” skiers, and loved David Bowie’s music to the point that they camped outside a record store together during a blizzard just to be the first people to listen to Hunky Dory in their dorm.


September 1957

There is no proof to show that my mom is President Ken Murphy’s first daughter, besides her eyes, which look like someone photoshopped them off President Murphy’s face and pasted them onto hers. She never had a birth certificate because she was born in secrecy and kept there for nine months to ensure that there was no chance her adoption could be linked to President Murphy, whose wife was seven months pregnant with their daughter, Carolyn. The day my mom was adopted into a family, it was her soon-to-be brother Robbie’s fifth birthday. But before Robbie had woken up, his dad had gotten a phone call from a friend. On the phone, a muffled voice said that there was a baby who needed a home. The friend was soon-to-be President Ken Murphy’s secretary.

“Well, is the baby healthy? Is it in good shape? Is it a WASP?” My mom’s soon-to-be father George asked on the phone.

George was born in 1921, so he was not the most politically correct of people. He had a wife, Margaret, who was an undiagnosed sociopath from an old-money, Episcopalian family. George had been a goofy boy from a working-class family of Christian Scientists. He was deaf in one ear because his Christian Scientist mother thought she could pray away an ear infection when he was nine years. Instead, she prayed away his ability to hear. They stopped being Christian Scientists after that, and, as a non-denominational Christian boy who could poke fun at himself for being half-deaf, he was charming enough to marry Margaret.

So, instead of getting a cake and presents on his birthday, Robbie got a baby sister. The baby was “wearing a dreadful dress,” according to both Margaret and George. They picked her up at a gas station parking lot from two suited men in a black Rolls Royce. They then stopped at the Barrington Talbots to get her a plaid dress to come home in. George and Margaret cared more about the baby’s propriety than ensuring she had a comfortable life full of love.


January 1968

When my mom was 12 years old, George and Margaret got divorced, so George took her and her brother Robbie to Colorado for a ski trip. My mom grew up skiing every day there was snow on the mountains and had dreams of being on the U.S. Ski Team. George wasn’t much of a skier but liked to hang out in the lodge bars and talk to snow bunnies while his kids skied. While skiing, my mom broke three vertebrae, and George didn’t find out for two days because he had met a woman named Vera in the lodge and said they had “really hit it off.” Apparently, they had hit it off so hard that George didn’t wonder about where his kids were for two days, which is how long my mom spent in the ski patrol hut.

George got married to Vera a few months later and they stayed together until he died of a liver disease in December 2006. My mother still has back problems to this day.

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June 1968

Vera came from a wealthy family in Vermont. She had a daughter named Ginny who had body image and addiction issues, which started out as anorexia and then morphed into bulimia and then marathon running and then cocaine. She was in and out of rehab programs often, but she was my mom’s step-sister and best friend. When my mom and Ginny were 14, Ginny only ate grapes, which she always purged because George said self-induced vomiting is good to do after eating “when you feel fat.” George would bend over a toilet and make himself throw up whenever he drank four bottles of wine or ate too many oysters. I suspect he did this because he cared a lot about his image.

After Vera and George got married, Ginny and my mom spent their summers in Citra Beach, Florida. My mom’s stepmom, Vera, threw a lot of garden parties and all of her linens and towels were monogrammed. She loved Kentucky Fried Chicken, so she would buy buckets of chicken and place the pieces on her monogrammed linens in wicker baskets to make it look like she battered and fried the wings herself. She also hid peanut butter in her closet to eat when George wasn’t around. George liked thin women, which is why he thought it was a good idea when he heard that the neighbor was spiking his heavy-set daughter’s orange juice with speed every morning.

During one garden party, Vera was drinking wine—a lot of wine—while Ginny and my mom sat by the pool in their swimsuits. Vera was very drunk by the end of the night, and George and their friends brought up “how dreadful” it was for there to be a new Catholic church being built in town. Vera rolled her eyes at this, and said, “Well, Thia is of Catholic blood.” She continued, “It really is a good thing she got out of that Murphy family. They’re bad news. It’s no wonder they all keep dying. It’s a shame she looks so much like them and like her father especially.” Vera slipped on some wine that had fallen out of her wine glass after saying that, and George grabbed her arm to catch her fall and then dragged her inside. My mom didn’t say another word for the rest of the night and lied in bed awake until morning, listening to David Bowie. She closed her eyes during her favorite parts of his songs and wished she could be free like him.


August 1975

When my mom was 18, Vera got very drunk again at one of her garden parties. “I’m so sorry you are that scoundrel Ken Murphy’s daughter. I know George is good friends with the family, but they really are awful.”

My mom stayed quiet, but the pieces had mostly come together by now.

She started college in New Hampshire the following week. My mom’s mother Margaret only let her bring one small suitcase, which was half-filled with David Bowie records. She called Margaret once every two months to check in, but once my mom realized that her dad wouldn’t take away her trust fund if she dropped out of college, she dropped out and moved to Aruba.

My mom only asked Margaret once about her biological parents. Margaret said that they went to Yale and were musicians. She said that one played string bass and the other played trumpet. She also said that said they died in a car accident shortly after she was born.

Margaret said all of this while she was cutting lemons to make lemon squares for her book club. Without turning around, she said, “Be careful what you look into.” She pressed the knife down more firmly with each word.



My mom still listens to those same David Bowie records. She hates lemons. She hates the government. And she hates conspiracy theories. She doesn’t even vote in elections and still wonders whether she’s real sometimes.

Whenever I see a photo of President Ken Thomas Murphy, I see my mom’s eyes, and I see corruption. Murphy is often remembered to have been “progressive,” but he was really quite conservative—so conservative that he and his secretary hid his infant daughter and a girl he had knocked up just to keep the President’s reputation intact.

My mom doesn’t trust people, especially those with wealth or power. And I can’t blame her. She was alienated for being adopted, and she lived her entire life seeing glamorous photos in the media of her successful, biological family going about their lives without her.

As a political figure, Ken Thomas Murphy was very different from David Bowie’s rock-star persona Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy was an omnisexual alien rock star who transformed pop music. Bowie was progressive—even more progressive than many of his fans could handle. His Ziggy Stardust persona was the embodiment of rock and roll as a fearless indigo child who could transform his image to forward whatever message he needed to send. This sort of figure was not President Murphy.

And maybe that’s why my mom hated the shirt so much, which is only something I realize after having heard my mom’s stories and piecing them together with research I’ve done. The shirt paints Murphy as some wild progressive that he wasn’t. Because if Murphy had been a little more progressive, my mom may not have ever been born, or the family would have embraced her as Murphy’s first child, 11 months older than her future hall mate, Carolyn.

I can’t bring myself to throw the shirt away. It has too much nostalgia stitched into it, despite the faux pas of its graphics. The shirt is currently sitting in a box in a storage unit in central Nevada. I wonder now how many other girls also bought the same shirt and what made them buy it. I wonder how many of the shirts are in landfills or scattered across the world in thrift stores. I wonder if anyone who wore it was trying to paint a face of edginess like I had been. I wore that shirt to heavy metal rock concerts when I hung out with punk boys in 10th grade—the same phony shirt whose message romanticizes government corruption. My mom is the daughter of a complicated history, which makes me the granddaughter of a complicated history. On my mom’s side, my family tree technically stops, but there are actually books upon books written about her biological family’s genealogy. But whenever I flip through the pages of those books, I just see the names and faces of people I recognize, but whom I don’t care to know. Ultimately, they are the strangers who abandoned both my mom and me.

 Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019