Another Day in Paradise

Michael Robert Grainger, who in April 1998 pleaded guilty to reckless manslaughter in the death of his wife, was considered for parole last week and rejected. He will, however, be recommended for placement in Boulder County Treatment Center; it will be six to eight weeks before the final decision on that is made. Grainger has spent less than a year of his three-year sentence in prison ("The Oddest Couple," February 5, 1998).

Sonia Grainger's massively obese body was found stiffening with rigor mortis at the Graingers' Boulder home on the morning of February 2, 1995. There was a bloody gash on her face--according to coroner Dr. John Meyer, it was "a laceration of the eyebrow and upper eyelid that tore away the skin and tissue from the underlying bone and exposed the globe of the eyeball."

Michael Grainger told police he had no idea how the wound had occurred. No one but the two of them had been in the house, he said, and the couple's four dogs would have alerted him to any intruder. Over the next few days, he gave differing accounts of his and Sonia's interactions the night before her death and said both that they had been sleepin together on the mattress where she was found and that they had not. When a police officer pointed out the discrepancies, Grainger flew at him and had to be restrained.

Meyer's autopsy report gave the cause of Sonia's death as "complications of morbid obesity with blunt trauma of the head being a significant contributing factor." Meyer added that "the manner of death is homicide." The defense theory floated by Grainger's first set of attorneys in the early days after the killing made maximum use of the ambiguity of Meyer's report. Sonia would have died within days anyway, the lawyers said, and a healthy person would not have been killed by the blow she suffered--a piece of sophistry that might give weak and respirator-tethered hospital patients pause. Then the attorneys began suggesting that, despite the coroner's assertion that Sonia had been struck by a blunt object, Michael had hit her by accident while flailing about in his sleep. They pointed out that February 14 was the anniversary of a terrible accident he'd suffered.

In 1990, when Michael and Sonia both worked for Burlington Northern Railroad in Nebraska, Michael had been crushed between two railroad cars being moved in a switching yard. Sonia had been driving the locomotive on which he stood, although investigators concluded that the accident was not her fault. At that point the couple was not married but had been living together for several years. Michael Grainger almost died. He had been a somewhat slow thinker before the accident, but when he awoke from a six-week-long coma, he had to painstakingly relearn such everyday acts as holding a conversation and going to the store.

In what seemed yet another example of Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter's strange reluctance to prosecute ("He Aims to Plea," September 24, 1998), Grainger was arrested and charged with second-degree murder only in September 1997--more than two and a half years after Sonia's death--and only after a civil suit against Michael by Sonia's daughter, Tonia Kucera, had been settled in Tonia's favor. This was because the suit revealed new evidence, according to Deputy District Attorney Pete Maguire. But many of those close to the case have trouble figuring out just what that new evidence might be.

"I think that was a red herring," says Grainger's attorney, Peter Schild. "There were events in Boulder that put a lot of focus on the law-enforcement community. The mood changed. People were saying, 'How come you never pursued the Grainger case?'"

In the course of the civil suit, Tonia Kucera had said she believed Grainger abused Sonia. There had been a great deal of bitterness between the two families, and Grainger's defenders had accusations of their own: Tonia was the greedy daughter of a greedy mother; she'd been estranged from Sonia anyway, suing Michael after Sonia's death only in the hope of financial gain. Asked if there was any evidence that Michael had abused Sonia before her death, Schild responded: "No. They had their spats."

But a journal Sonia kept in 1990 and 1991--several years before her death--chronicled an abusive and steadily worsening relationship. It begins as Michael lies in the hospital while Sonia deals with lawyers for the railroad (which the couple successfully sued) and with his family--members of whom, Sonia indicated, looked on her with profound suspicion.

"Graing-a-poo," she wrote. "I miss you so much; I just wish you could wake up and talk to me and tell the bad guys to go away!! I want you back home with me where you belong!! I need you so much!!! You're everything to me Graing-a-poo Everything!!!"

Later: "Mike you are so restless today it's all I can do to keep up with you. (The nurse) and I gave you a bath, shave and put lotion and aftershave on you, but you were so agitated it was worn off before you knew it. I still have it on my hand and it reminds me of you and the babies [the couple's dogs]...I miss you so much, even though you're right beside me you're a million miles away...I want a baby, Mike!! I want a house. I want a life with you forever and ever!!"

The journal indicates that limits were set on the amount of time Sonia could spend in Michael's room. And as he recovered, he veered between affection for Sonia and rage at both her and the railroad. "He told me how bad it hurt and how he tried to cry, but he couldn't...It was very painful for him to remember. (He says he wants their jobs!)."

On March 27, 1990, she wrote: "Mike is very violent today, he kicked a nurse, hit me several times, kicked me. He thinks everyone is foreigners and he doesn't want anyone to touch him...he swears everyone is trying to kill him. He told the speech therapist the year was 1960 and he was 18...He's MAD at everyone...

"Mike's been sleeping for hours now. I wonder why? Please let him wake up and be in a good mood!!! Please let him love me!! Well he woke up. He told me he would eat but he won't. He's very violent!! It took six people to hold him down to give him a hypo. He was still mad afterwards. He said his mother was the only one who would help him. That I had turned on him and I was just like the other whores and bitches!!! Then he hit me somemore."

Sonia comforted herself with chocolate and All My Children in the waiting room.

At the end of March, the couple came to Boulder, and Michael began treatment at Mapleton Rehabilitation Center. In April, they married. The journal makes clear how profoundly traumatized both Sonia and Michael were by the accident. Michael could not eat or sleep, Sonia wrote, and since he was unable to perform such routine tasks as shopping or driving, he was entirely dependent on her. But he was terrified when they were in the car and raged at her constantly: "I wish I could help him or take his place or something!! He makes me feel so guilty all the time!! He says he doesn't blame me but you can sure the Hell tell he wishes it had happened to me instead of him!! I guess I do too, because then I'd be dead!!"

April 28: "He said, 'I don't need your help. I don't need anybody's help. Get the fuck out of here.' So I did. I called him later and we made up. He said he shouldn't treat me that way, but he gets frustrated!!...Why can't he please just talk to me? I understand more than anyone."

Sonia, too, was entirely unnerved. When lightning struck a power pole in front of Furr's Cafeteria where she frequently ate, she wondered if "the lightning thought I was there." Later a plane crashed in their neighborhood and she had the same paranoid thought--that death and disaster occurring anywhere in her vicinity was somehow intended for her. She came to understand that both she and Michael were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And she prided herself on having kept her husband alive because "I just refused to let him go!!"

The couple settled into a routine. Michael got up early, walked the dogs, groomed them, sometimes washed the car. Sonia slept in. They did laundry together. She drove him to his many appointments; sometimes he walked. He exercised to regain control of his body. She did the homework his therapists had assigned him. They ate at Furr's Cafeteria or Coco's or the L.A. Diner. She liked fruit waffles, particularly peach. Many of their bitterest quarrels, however, concerned eating: Michael could not or would not eat, although he needed food to regain his strength. He often pressed food on Sonia, though, giving her pancakes from his plate, once gathering rolls from other tables and handing them to her. He was unnerved by the noise and crowds at Furr's; she liked to eat there because the waitresses gave her tokens she could redeem for toy dinosaurs (she knew which waitresses would give her extra tokens, harassed those who wouldn't).

Furr's was, in fact, the setting for one of the most distressing scenes in the journal: "I walked in first and these heathen boys laughed at me and my fat so Mike went to ask them what was so funny?? Well as soon as he said anything their Bitch Mother started shrieking at Mike, well I went back and tried to calm her down by telling her Mike had had an injury, well she was too busy running her mouth to listen to anything so she just kept getting louder and louder and soon she wanted the manager...She continued to...say to everyone in a five county area what awful people we were and how we were mad and just taking it out on them and how we needed therapy..." Sonia reported that the manager sided with this woman, despite the fact that she and Michael ate at Furr's almost daily. They decided to leave. As they did, "the stupid woman said, 'They just want to leave because they want to fight some more outside.'"

As the year wore on, Michael continued to rage about everything. "I tried for hours to unplug the toilet to no avail," Sonia wrote on October 12, 1990. "So I had the shits in the night, so what does Mike do, gets up first thing and flushes the stool. Of course it goes all over everywhere! Of course this is all my fault! He hits me and tries to push me out into the shit water everywhere!!"

Sonia and Michael talked to therapists, both individually and together. Michael promised to try to be less abusive. Sonia didn't believe him. She felt that outsiders rarely saw the angry Michael she saw at home.

The journal does record moments of tenderness. On her birthday, January 1, 1991, Michael bought Sonia balloons and Hershey kisses. He was "especially eloquent" in telling their group how grateful he was to Sonia for having taken care of him after the accident: "Everyone told Mike how moved they were." On February 14, Michael announced to the group that it was the first anniversary of the accident. "It took a lot of nerve for him to get people's attention and speak," Sonia observed. "So he's so brave, my hero!!!"

The euphoria continued. "Even though this past year has been the worst year ever we made it through it together and we're still standin', and our future's so bright we have to wear shades!!!" she wrote a day or two later. "The best is yet to come!!...It's over!!! We made it!!!!"

But the demons hadn't left. Over and over Sonia wrote, "Mike was mad..." and "Why does he hate me?" He began calling her "motherfucker," and his fury could be sparked by almost anything: He didn't like a photo ID he had taken; he had dental floss stuck between his teeth; he thought she had honked for him in the parking lot while he was in a store; they were in the car together and she was having trouble changing lanes.

One winter day, Sonia was slipping on some ice and called to Michael for help. "I was so scared I was shaking and crying," she said. "And then of course Mike got mad...I'm not supposed to be scared, ever, I'm not allowed to show emotions. I'm not allowed to get angry...So I spent the rest of the night alone and scared."

Later Sonia wrote, "I always tough it out because I love him so much and after all I had a chance to see what life without him would be like and I hated what I saw!!!"

Sonia was clearly--and for the most part, by necessity--the decision-maker in the Grainger household. She handled the couple's money, structured their days. Observers said that as Michael began to recover, he chafed at her control of the household finances and her continual spending. It remains unclear whether Sonia was physically afraid of her husband or not; on one occasion, at least, she responded to him in kind, hurling her keys at his head and drawing blood. The journal shows that his outbursts remained a steady backdrop to their lives, and the physical threat appeared to escalate. Sonia described Michael dropping an ice cream cone immediately after buying it and then throwing it at the girl behind the counter, Michael becoming enraged after breaking a glass and kicking it against the wall. At one point, "He made me stay up all night. It made me hurt. Smokey [one of the dogs] guarded me!!"

The woman revealed in this journal is not particularly likable. Sonia's words often indicate a generalized anger and paranoia. Despite the amount she spent, she was also mean about money, haggling with store employees and managers and recording her victories (Christmas lights acquired at a discount; a cake returned because it didn't meet specifications) with a kind of grim glee. She wanted the couple's lawyers to demand $15 million in reparations in the lawsuit against Burlington Northern, a mere million or two being unacceptable. The journal contains a couple of casually racist comments. And though Sonia tried hard to understand and help her husband, she sometimes showed an astonishing lack of empathy toward those outside the marriage.

But there was a more appealing side to Sonia, too. She occasionally rattled off song lyrics, "Just another day in paradise" being a favorite. She carried on playfully sarcastic conversations with herself. She shot off an occasional flash of humor: "I called the parapsychology institute and he wants $60 an hour for Karma cleaning. So I guess I'll just have to run around with a dirty Karma." She also penned a rapturous two-paragraph description of the rising moon: "It's gorgeous because it's orange and huge and full on the horizon with a few small black clouds crossing it!!!"

But the words written four years before her death show the couple's deadly emotional spiral intensifying. Sonia noted that she was experiencing increasing breathlessness, an inability to fit into normal spaces, difficulty walking. She spent more, ate more and sank more and more deeply into torpor, helplessness and self-loathing. "Mike keeps saying I make him sick. I guess I do. I'm so fat, I hate myself, but Mike practically sits on me and forces food on me!!!...I make myself sick why shouldn't I make Mike sick."

One entry seems to exemplify the entire dynamic: "So he tells me I can't come to bed and calls me names and stuff. I try to talk to him, it doesn't do any good!! He hits me and tells me never to touch him again!!! So I leave and stay up all night. Then a 3 caret diamonique in a 14 K gold filigree setting [on TV] calls to me!!...I just keep eating Ding Dongs and cherries and Kit Kats. I'll eat anything. (I feel awful emptiness!!)"

Despite the endless meetings with professional caregivers, the couple was profoundly isolated. Sonia's loneliness escalated. "I'm sick of all these people having lives and I don't have anything," she wrote in August 1991. "No one cares about us!! They say they do, because that's what they're paid for...We have to stop trying to make them our family, or friends, because they're neither...They're paid to humor us!!"

A week later, she added: "It's sad to realize they all have lives and friends and we have nothing." And two days after that, wistfully: "I wish they were our friends."

Increasingly, and perhaps prophetically, Sonia became less and less able to sleep. After Michael had gone to bed, she routinely stayed up till dawn watching television--Nick at Nite, American Gladiators. When she did fall asleep, nightmares waylaid her.

"I'm afraid of something," she wrote. "I wish I knew what."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman