Tonight: Diann Kissell, Daughter of Executed Killer, on Trauma and Healing

Growing up in northwest Denver, Diann Kissell carried a terrible secret inside for more than half of her first thirteen years. Her father, an insurance salesman and the patriarch of a proud Latino family, had singled her out among his ten children for furtive and persistent sexual abuse. His demands became increasingly incessant and unbearable, until one day in 1963, when one of Diann's sisters intervened and threatened to call the police.

That night Kissell's father tried to cover his crime by obliterating his entire family. He beat his pregnant wife to death with a poker. He stabbed his eleven-month-old baby daughter, strangled a four-year-old son, bludgeoned a six-year-old son. Then, apparently consumed with remorse, he stopped and called the police.

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Kissell's self-published memoir, A Turquoise Life: One Woman's Triumphant Journey, written with the aid of psychotherapist Kathy Bird, doesn't mention her father's last name; some of her siblings weren't pleased that she was writing about the family's tragic past at all. But to anyone who's lived in Colorado a few decades, the story is instantly recognizable as a case that made grim headlines and led to the state's final use of the gas chamber that now stands in Canon City's prison museum. Kissell's father, Luis Monge, went into that chamber in 1967 -- the last person in the country to be executed before a U.S. Supreme Court decision suspended all death sentences, a hiatus that didn't end until Gary Gilmore faced a firing squad in Utah a decade later.

Kissell's book isn't primarily a true-crime story. It's the tale of someone who went from being a confused and guilt-ridden abuse victim to an out-of-control teen and angry young woman involved in destructive relationships before finding ways to confront her past and heal. "My father is part of the story, but the main focus is to let people know you can survive anything and still have a good life," Kissell says. "I'm getting letters every day from people saying it's helped them."

Kissell's own journey included a wildly dysfunctional marriage (she's now happily married to someone else), an appearance on "Oprah," and gradually coming to terms with her long-suppressed rage over what her father did to her, her mother and her siblings. It was while speaking out on trauma that she came to know Bird, and a partnership was forged that would lead to the book.

Before Monge's execution, his surviving children visited him several times in prison -- a turn of events that struck some observers as bizarre. But Kissell says that was part of her upbringing in a strongly Catholic family. It was Monge, not his kids, who kept pressing for his own execution, even requesting to be hanged at high noon on the steps of Denver's City and County Building.

"For him, it was the chicken's way out," Kissell says now. "He never had to deal with the anger of his children. He died with the love of his children intact."

She admits to having mixed feelings about the death penalty to this day. "I never wanted my father to die, but I never wanted him to be around my children," she says. "It's made my life easier that he isn't around."

Her book has a powerful message for social workers, police and others about the long-term consequences for abuse victims, she adds: "You think if you take them out of the house, everything's okay. But if you've been given a message that you're worthless your whole life, you're going to keep on self-destructing until you get some real help...I have an incredibly wonderful life these days."

Kissell and Bird will discuss A Turquoise Life at a launch party at 6 p.m. this evening at Heartfire Books of Evergreen, in the Bergen Village Shopping Center, 1254 Bergen Parkway. Call 303-670-4549 for more information.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast