Thursday, December 2, 2004

Seaman case defies textbook example of life in the suburbs

Laura Berman

By Laura Berman / The Detroit News

Nancy Seaman took an ax and gave her husband 15 whacks.

Now she's standing trial in an Oakland County Circuit courtroom, using a battered-woman defense, as her lawyer argues that she had to defend herself after years of abuse.

The Farmington Hills elementary school teacher -- a woman who killed her husband and then showed up the next day at Longacre Elementary to teach her fourth-grade class -- defies all expectations.

This is not how elementary school teachers, or suburban moms, or nice women - in the broadest possible definition of that concept - are supposed to behave.

They rarely kill and when they do, they don't do it in Farmington Hills, a city known for its strip malls and schools.

Yet here she is, a character in a David Lynch movie, playing out the suburban dream gone awry. The husband of 31 years, who during the collapse of their marriage stuck Post-it notes on furniture, household appliances, even toilet paper, proclaiming MINE, MINE, MINE. The elder son who, on Tuesday, used the witness stand to testify that his father never abused his mother, challenging the defense's version of her life head-on.

Like any classic literature of murder, her story is compelling.

Its details juxtapose the most mundane facts of everyday life - the $20 axe charged with a credit card at Home Depot, the bleach and gloves at Meijer - with the ineffable and mysterious.

If Seaman's assault on her husband was not planned, and that's one of the questions for the jury, clearly the aftermath affords us a look into a thinking mind at work. The teacher returned to Home Depot, lifted a hatchet from a shelf, and using the previous receipt from the hatchet-turned-weapon, tried to return it - actions all caught on videotape.

Urban violence is a given: it coexists with poverty, lack of education and deprivation of opportunity. It occurs in places where "poor impulse control" - to use the criminal justice system term - is a way of life.

But presumably, if you have enough education to teach fourth graders, enough patience and fortitude to stay married 31 years, you know how and when to leave your husband without resorting to a hatchet and a makeshift body bag in the Explorer.

You know about the thing called divorce.

So you need to understand how a respected schoolteacher could do any of these things: kill her husband in a flurry of blows, concoct a plot to conceal what she did, coolly confront the police.

We know who killed Robert Seaman.

Nancy Seaman did.

What we don't really know is who she is, and how thin was the veneer that maintained her image in a tidy burb where the sidewalks get plowed, the schools are renowned, and the lawns are a chemically enhanced green.

Suburban life in cities like Farmington Hills is at least partially about escaping violence: In the suburbs, bad, and especially bloody, things aren't supposed to happen.

But every once in a while, a woman like Nancy Seaman shows up to remind us how desperate real housewives can be.

Laura Berman's column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Metro. Reach her at (248) 647-7221 or