CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia—Heather Heyer’s ashes are interred in a safe place, says her mother Susan Bro, at an unmarked, undisclosed, “completely protected” location.
This site cannot be publicly known because of all those extremists who profess their hatred for Heyer and Bro, and who convey their continued threats of violence toward Bro and others of Heyer’s family. The location is also secret to protect those who work there, says Bro.
She visits Heyer there in peace, and other members of the family and close friends have been to the location, or will be told in time where the place is and taken there.
“It’s a symptom of hate in society that you should have to protect your child’s grave, for Pete’s sake,” says Bro. “So, I’m protecting my child now.”
As she tells me this, what sounds like the wheezing of a dying animal fills the small room we are in. Bro laughs at how horrific the computer hard drive sounds, especially as we are talking about the death of her daughter at the same time as the machine’s mortal gurgling continues. Every time I think I turn it off, the computer seems to turn itself on again and the guttural howling begins anew.
“She’s here, Heather’s here,” Bro says, smiling, of the machine in the side office of the Miller Law Group, where Heyer worked as a paralegal, aiding people facing bankruptcy. Heyer, 32, was killed after being struck by a car while protesting against white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12. Many other counterprotesters alongside her were injured.
President Trump blamed “many sides” for the Charlottesville violence, and said there “very fine people” on both of those sides. After seeing these remarks, Bro would not take his calls.
Today, Bro will speak in detail about what she sees as Trump’s encouragement of white supremacy, about her daughter’s alleged killer who she will face for the first time in court Thursday, of seeing her daughter’s body for the final time, and of cradling her ashes—which reminded her, piercingly, of cradling Heyer as a baby.
Bro will also speak of not living in fear of those who threaten her, and of her heartfelt commitment to consolidating a legacy of social justice in her daughter’s memory. Her plain-spoken warmth and fierce eloquence have impressed many.
When I ask if she holds President Trump in any way responsible for her daughter’s death, Bro says: “I’m starting to come to that conclusion because he definitely pushes forward a hateful agenda. There are family members that will possibly not have anything to do with me for saying so. Many family members are strong Trump supporters, and continue to be so despite everything they see.”
At Miller Law, Heyer’s desk is occupied by another person now. Her boss and mentor Alfred Wilson admonishes himself when he picks up the phone to ask his trusted assistant something, and says “Heather,” rather than “Amy.”
Justin Marks, one of Heather’s best friends, still sits opposite her desk. Her friend Courtney Commander, who was with Heyer protesting on Aug. 12, works at the firm. Her death made international news, and transformed Heyer into a civil-rights icon.
Here, in a modest office in a nondescript building outside Charlottesville, daily life carries on, and yet sometimes, Wilson tells me, it’s like a beat goes missing and Heather’s loss, her absence, is all too apparent and raw. On Heyer’s old desk is a pencil and pen holder, a computer with two screens, and above her leather chair on the wall two professional certificates, one recognizing Heyer’s “outstanding service, performance and dedication” awarded to her just three months before her death.
At Miller Law, Bro, 61, has an office out of which she runs the nascent Heather Heyer Foundation, set up to support the next generation of social-justice leaders. Bro runs it with three volunteers. “As long as I’m doing something proactive, I can control the feelings, the emotions, a little better,” Bro says, as the computer’s death-rattle wheezes on.
On a cold December night, there is a small puddle of flowers where Heyer was killed on Charlottesville’s Fourth Street on Aug. 12. On the brick buildings on either side of the street, graffiti is written in love and pride to her memory: “No More Hate,” “Gone But Not Forgotten,” “Love,” and “Heather” written in curled lettering, a chalk image of flowers above the real ones.
On television, when the video of James Alex Fields Jr.’s Dodge Challenger driving into the anti-Nazi and anti-white supremacist protesters—that included Heyer—was replayed over and over again, the street in Charlottesville may have looked large to viewers.
In reality, it is not much more than an alley off the city’s main shopping drag, the Downtown Mall. (A car speeding at a group of people in such a small space immediately made this reporter think of a bowling ball launched at a tightly packed group of pins.)
This stretch of Fourth Street, between Market and Water Streets where Fields drove his car, will reportedly be renamed Heather Heyer Way.
A preliminary hearing for Fields, 20, is scheduled to be held Thursday, at Charlottesville Circuit Courthouse. Fields is charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding, two charges of felonious assault and failure to stop that led to death. (Crowds are expected to gather at court; nearby streets will be closed off.)
Heyer was among a crowd of protesters who were demonstrating against the white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, neo-Nazis and various militias who had descended on Charlottesville for a Unite the Right rally, organized by Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler. (On Monday, Charlottesville denied Kessler’s application to hold an “anniversary” rally there. “The proposed demonstration or special event will present a danger to public safety,” the city wrote to Kessler.)
Nineteen people were injured by Fields’ car. He had traveled from Ohio to attend Kessler’s rally, which had been organized to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park, a few minutes’ walk away from where Heyer died and where there had been disturbances earlier that day.
A short walk from Lee’s statue is a statue of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Justice Park. Both are now covered in black tarp, invisible but still present. At night they loom like giant phantoms.
The statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, where far-right protesters had gathered holding flaming tiki torches on Friday, Aug. 11, remains uncovered, a lone security guard keeping watch nearby.
Around 30 University of Virginia students had stood around the statue’s base as the mainly white marchers, dressed in khakis and polo shirts, had shouted such slogans as “Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”
Bro won plaudits for speaking so powerfully at her daughter’s memorial service held at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater, delivering an impressive, moving, and fully rounded vision of her daughter’s life, where she also stated: “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what, you just magnified her.”
An independent report on the Charlottesville violence and police response to it, published this month, sharply criticized both the local law enforcement and local authorities.
Bro echoes the findings. “I know that for whatever reason we were woefully unprepared and woefully unprotected for what ensued,” she tells The Daily Beast. “We need to look to cities like Boston and San Francisco to see how they prepare for when these hate groups come to town.”
I ask if Bro holds the police and authorities responsible for Heyer’s death. “Well, things could have turned out differently had they responded differently. It’s not for me to figure out the whys and wherefores. But we know, according to the report, that all they put there was a school resource officer who definitely had a reason to fear for her safety. She wasn’t given protection. And then to simply leave one sawhorse to stop traffic…”
Does Bro hold Fields responsible for Heyer’s death?
“Absolutely. Nobody made him do anything. I know he claims he felt threatened. The only time people were attacking his car was when he drove into a crowd, and people were attacking his car because he was driving over top of them. He was not under any attack until he drove into the crowd. Then he was having people beat on his car because he was killing people and injuring people.
“It was a pretty stupid move. He’s old enough to know better. My husband Kim looked at what he did, and said it reminded him of a video game, except in one of those you drive through people, and bodies fly everywhere with no consequence. I don’t know the kid, I’ve never met him. The first time I will see him will be in court this week. I will be going.”
Initially when her daughter died, Bro flinched at looking at anything related to it, all videos and photographs, until she got through the initial horror.
“Then I thought, I have to know what is going on here. Part of making myself tougher and stronger and fixing my purpose and not turning away from it is partly as a response to the bullies who would love to me see cry and in pain.”
She will see Fields in court today, “because I feel this is part of what I owe my child. It behooves me to be strong. It also renews my sense of purpose about why I am doing what I am doing. I would like to say no other mother has to have her child die for social justice, but I know that’s not happening, so I will do my part.”
The part of Fourth Street where Fields struck the protesters is small. It’s an alley, not a road. Bro drove a lawyer past it recently. “I was trying to explain to her whether he could see people or not, you could absolutely see the end of the street. There is no reason to gun it except for the sole intention of killing. There was no mistaking the fact he was driving into a crowd.”
What would she ask Fields if she could?
“What the hell were you thinking? What did you think was going to be outcome of this?”
Fields has not been in touch. Bro is sure his lawyer would not want him to be.
Beyond Fields, I ask Bro if she believes white supremacy and hate killed Heyer that day?
“Oh, of course. Of course. I mean she knew that was a possibility, but no one thinks they will be killed for standing up for their beliefs. She didn’t go there to be a martyr. This is part of my frustration with people, who either make her out to be a martyr in that she went there to die, or that she was a saint and angel and godly person.”
Bro claps her hands as she says the following words, slowly and loudly for emphasis: “Heather was a normal 32-year-old girl.”
Bro still does not want to speak to President Trump.
“He responds off the cuff. He doesn’t bother to think before speaks, or very calculatedly is trying to manipulate all of us. I’m not sure which. I can grant there was a lot of violence on both sides, but to say there were good people on both sides—that’s where I draw the line.
“You can’t say there were good people coming into town with their fists taped prepared to draw blood and do harm. That’s not good people. Nazis: bad people. White supremacists: bad people. And I don’t see that you can call it any other way. If you choose to align yourself with those people, and you choose to call them ‘good,’ then you’ve told me what sort of person you are. So now I have your number and now I know how I choose to respond to you. And in his case, that means: ‘I’m not responding to you, you don’t get my time of day.’”
A number of “frantic” phone calls came from the White House when she was at her daughter’s funeral. When she caught up with the news after Heyer’s funeral, she saw the controversy swirling around the president’s remarks.
“I thought, ‘Well, screw him, I’m not dealing with this.’ I’m not talking to him. I have no need to go through this charade of pretending to be nice and happy.
“He is the president of the United States. That carries a certain weight and power with it. I choose not to poke the bear in power, but I’m definitely not happy with how he has chosen to drive forward with white supremacy and neo-Nazis. When someone misspeaks a time or two, it’s one thing, but when you continue to misspeak and continue to misspeak until there are falsehoods and false stories, and make thoughtless remarks, that to me looks like a planned, intentional hurt. So, my respect definitely dims somewhat, shall we say.”
I ask if Bro thinks Trump has aligned himself with white supremacy.
“Well, his actions speak louder than his words. Look at the way he acted towards protesters at his rallies. He has definitely encouraged violence and hatred, and has made fun of people for race or disability, and then always tries to act like ‘Oh, I didn’t say anything.’ As a teacher, I can tell you that the child in the classroom who continually tries to act out like that and says, ‘Oh, I didn’t say or do anything,’ we held them responsible for their actions. I am seeing an upswell of those who are going to continue to hold this president responsible for his actions.”
Heyer had quit speaking to a few of those family members before she died; Bro had “negotiated a truce” between her daughter and other Trump-supporting family members; others she “left alone because the relationship wasn’t strong in the first place.”
Today, if she could address Trump directly, Bro would say: “Think before you speak and speak only the truth, please.”
“He disrespects everybody, Heather’s not special in that regard,” Bro says of the president. “He disrespects Native Americans, black people, history, everything. He has no respect for anybody. Having seen him pre- and since the election, it’s not surprising. He has never changed who he was. This man is not about respect. He never was, he never will be. It’s who he is.”
The last in-person conversation mother and daughter had was at a buffet restaurant where they talked “politics, office, love life,” recalls Bro. “Mostly with Heather you got a word in sideways. After dinner, Kim went to the car to play video games: “He knew Heather would talk for a while.” Since the election, Heyer’s politics and commentary on Facebook had become more concentrated. She was a fervent opponent of any kind of bigotry, most recently challenging the proponents of a local anti-Muslim campaign.
On the day of her death, out on the Charlottesville streets, Heyer had calmly asked a female supporter of white supremacy why she was aligning herself with their politics.
Mother and daughter’s last actual conversation was by Messenger. Bro scrolls through her phone to find it, noting that so many people claim to be Heyer now.
“Hey, you were you born in ’56, and what’s your social. I’m setting up an IRA with work and I have to name a beneficiary,” Heyer messaged her mom, who passed along her information as requested.
“But stay alive,” Bro added.
Heyer replied, “lolol, I’ll try thanks.”
“I’d rather have you than the money,” her mother replied.
“Then she said ‘lol,’ and we sent the love emoticon to each other,” Bro says quietly.
“And that was the last conversation I had with my kid.”
Her voice cracks.
“That was on August 3rd. You never think that’s going to be the last time you talk to your child.”
It was good that Heyer was getting her financial affairs in order, says Bro, even if it was all in process at the time of her death. Wilson was working with Heyer on plans to safeguard her income and have her invest in property.
That Saturday morning, Bro didn’t know Heyer was at the counter-demonstration. She had heard of the unrest in town without realizing Heyer was caught up in it. She had had a stressful week at work, and was relaxing.
Hours before Heyer’s death, Bro had posted this on Facebook: “If I could give my daughter three things it would be the confidence to know her self-worth, the strength to chase her dreams, and the ability to know how truly, deeply loved she is.”
It was meant as a spontaneous message of love and pride to her child. Time has transformed it into something more tragically moving.
“You don’t expect your kid to pass away, get killed. Like that,” she says.
The first moment Bro knew that something terrible had happened was when Justin Marks called her. He told her the hospital was looking for Heyer’s next of kin. Bro kept calling the hospital, but was told they had no one of Heyer’s name there.
Bro screamed for her friend Cathy to take her to the hospital. Kim, who was elsewhere, would follow them.
A stranger answered Heyer’s phone and said he had found it on the sidewalk.
Bro called him back to try and get hold of Marissa Blair, a friend and colleague of her daughter’s who been with her at the demonstration and whose fiancé, Marcus Martin, had pushed her out of the path of the car (he suffered a broken leg as a result).
Bro arrived at the hospital to find it barricaded off in a state of lockdown. Security checked her bag for weapons. “I was trying to grit my teeth. I told them, ‘I have been told my child is here.’ Two strangers grabbed me.”
Bro takes a deep breath, pauses, and starts weeping.
“I knew at this point it was not good. They grabbed me very tightly and walked me up the ramp to a room. I knew I was about to pass out. I walked in and sat down. A detective introduced himself. I don’t remember his name, I remember his face.
“He just said something to the effect of ‘Your daughter was pronounced dead’ at such and such a time, and I remember putting my head down and wailing.”
Bro is crying.
“Then I called people. But every time I would close my eyes that night I’d remember that moment and I’d wail again. The week of the funeral I only slept 10 hours from the moment I got up on Saturday morning to the day she was buried five days later.
“I knew she was dead. I kept saying to the hospital people, ‘Thank you. I know you did your best. I’m proud of how she died.’ And that’s the only thing I could think of to get me through it. I remember shaking hands with people, and people saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I’d say again, ‘Thank you. I know you did your best. I’m proud of how she died.’ My brain was locked up, it was all I could say.”
Wilson and his wife Feda and daughter Amina came to the hospital.
“Alfred’s kids loved Heather. She even shared her Amazon Fire Stick with them.”
The day Heyer was killed the hospital had asked if Bro wanted to see her, but Bro had wanted to wait for her husband to get there. Bro didn’t get to see Heyer’s body until the day before her daughter’s funeral. “The medical examiner had her up until then.”
The computer’s deathly wheezing rises in volume in the little room.
“I was really, really dreading seeing her body, but I needed to see her one last time.”
One of the two ministers who spoke at Heyer’s funeral met Bro at the funeral home, and prayed with her.
“I felt a calm come over me. When I saw her, her face and head were kind of messed up. I knew it was her but her arm, her left arm, I recognized more specifically. We had the same arm, she had longer fingers. It was bruised, it had a lot of bruises on it. But I held her hand, and I said, ‘I’m going to make this good for you. I’m going to make this count for something.’”
Bro and Kim were with Heyer for 10 minutes; then her father and his friend went in separately; and Heyer’s brother and his wife, “so everyone had their special time with her.”
Bro says the National Institutes of Health called two days after her daughter died to ask if they could have Heyer’s brain for research.
Bro gave her consent (“it’s not like she could use it”). A NIH representative called back shortly afterward to say “never mind,” Bro says. “The medical examiner said it was not usable.” She pauses. “That tells me there was brain damage. When I saw her, her long beautiful hair was not visible. I’m guessing it had been cut off. She had a shower cap on, her forehead had a huge lump across it, her teeth didn’t quite look like in the right place to me, and she had a hospital gown on, and I saw her arm and that’s all I saw of her. I don’t remember if she was in a body bag or covered in a sheet.”
Bro’s voice quivers. “That’s my driving force. ‘Dammit, you killed my kid, but I’m going to make something good come out of this, in spite of it. You’re not going to shut her up, you’re not going to shut up the social justice she stood for. We’re going to make it bigger than ever. We’re going make big things happen.’”
She and Kim stayed with Heyer for five to 10 minutes that day.
“After it was all over, when she was cremated and we had her ashes in an urn, we sat and held the urn for long time,” Bro says, her voice cracking again.
“When we are cremated there’s not a lot left. I had a purple urn. Purple was Heather’s color, it’s why her dog was named Violet. The weight of the urn in my arms was about the same weight she was when she was born, and I just felt… I flashed back to the day they put her in my arms when she was born, and I sat and held her for a long time. And Kim held the urn for a long time. And that was the day we spent with my kid.
“They said, ‘Don’t you want take some ashes home?’ And I said no. Why would I take her big toe or her pinky finger home? If other people want to do that and bring closure, fine. I have no need for that. Heather is with me in my heart. I don’t need a piece of her body too.”
At the memorial service, she said she felt she had “one shot” to introduce Heyer to the world: to explain who she was and why she was at the counterprotest. She asked Heather’s birth father to talk about raising Heather, and her cousins to talk about her activism.
For herself, Bro wanted to tie all the elements of her daughter’s life together. She talked of her daughter’s strength, purpose, and also her as a person in all her complexity.
“To me, I was just speaking the truth. Heather and I would laugh about how, at funerals, people who were wife beaters or alcoholics are suddenly talked of as if saints. I knew she would want her life to be deconstructed honestly and real.”
After her powerful oration at Heyer’s memorial service, by chance she and Kim drove home past where Heyer was killed.
“When I saw, I grabbed my husband’s arm and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ I screamed and I almost jumped out of the car, because the pain hit me so hard. It was the first time I had ever been there, so that was really painful.”
Bro falls silent. She went on a planned visit to the site a week after her daughter died. She and Kim got lost initially, and asked for directions at a nearby farmers’ market. “I was just sick with grief at the thought of going there. Kim and I held each other and just sobbed for three and four minutes. When I looked up there was just this wall of people up at where the Mall was, and I said, ‘It’s OK, you can come now.’
“We spent a solid two hours hugging and talking to people. By the end of it I felt elevated again, as if I had wings on my feet. I was so full of love and caring from other people. I had dreaded it so badly, but it turned out to be a very helpful and healing experience.”
Bro went back to the street about a month after Heyer’s death and recommended to city officials that it should reopen.
When discussions were underway about how to mark Heyer’s memory in Charlottesville, a statue was discussed or the renaming of a park, both of which Bro rejected, seeing them as yet another red flag to the white supremacists and associated groups who had come to Charlottesville to protest the Confederate statues in the first place.
That is why, Bro says, she gave her support to the suggestion of renaming Fourth Street to Heather Heyer Way.
Bro took home some of the artificial flowers at the site, and scarves and bandanas that had been left there. She gave away some of the flowers to passersby. She has washed and wears some of the scarves. She has also has a purple blanket she made Heather, which she wraps herself up in in the evenings. “That’s my cuddle time with Heather,” she says.
All of what has happened can seem unreal to Bro.
“This time last year I was happily crocheting angels and hats. I was just cooking, and it feels like it was a different life another person lived through.”
Bro says she has lived through “several incarnations. First I got married. That first time I thought I was a happy housewife and part-time office worker and then that dream got crushed. Then I was a single mom for a while on welfare and food stamps, and then I went back to school, so I was a student and single mom, then I was a schoolteacher; then I was a bookkeeper; then I remarried after 25 years of not being married.
“This is the next incarnation. My grief is folded into my work. Without my work I would sit home and cry. I wouldn’t be able to wrap my head around anything else.”
She used to knit and crochet “voraciously,” but doesn’t feel she has the mental capacity for it now. The bookkeeper inside her head wants to marshal the foundation’s paperwork, and in the office she feels close to Heyer.
Bro says her life now is “a million light years from anything I ever expected.” She declines to tell me where she lives, beyond it being a town a half-hour north of Charlottesville. “They have such a small police force they have been trying to avoid connecting themselves to us,” she says.
Since Heyer’s death, hatemongers have not just targeted Heyer herself, but Susan, too. They tell Bro that Heyer deserved to die, that she was fat, that the blunt-force injury to the chest recorded as her cause of death was a CPR machine, not Fields’ car. Bro’s life has been threatened, too.
“It’s kind of stupid,” Bro says drily. “You threaten the mother of someone you already killed because she dares to speak up.”
Not only, says Bro, is local law enforcement unable to deal with threats to Bro and the family, Heyer also disagreed with the local authorities’ stance on social justice. Bro didn’t hold her funeral there, partly because the authorities couldn’t guarantee the family’s security, and also because Heyer’s heart was in Charlottesville, she says.
Bro’s home area’s authorities don’t want hate groups coming to the area because of Heyer, her mother says; even a planned food drive in Heyer’s name was canceled because of fear of far-right groups.
“There’s a dichotomy in my life,” says Bro. “I taught in a particular place for 15 years, then worked for that state and county. Now to act as if it doesn’t exist is weird. But I don’t look back, I look forward. You can only move ahead with the what you have in front of you.”
Heyer’s apartment was in the center of Charlottesville, near where she died and where she was conceived, says her mother.
That pregnancy was “a last-ditch attempt to save me and my first husband Mark’s marriage,” says Bro.
Nick, Heyer’s brother who is five years her senior, had been born first. Bro had been especially delighted to have a son. “I never imagined having a boy. I was so happy to have him and Heather. I felt bad I didn’t bring them into a stable relationship. In my mind that was selfish and irresponsible. There was a lot of loud, angry yelling, a lot of tears. It was not a good thing for Nick or Heather to be around.”
Nick, who is in the Army Reserves and is married with a small child, has been devastated by his sister’s death, says Bro. “She was not the first person close to him to have been murdered,” and he wishes to stay out of the public eye.
At the time of Heather’s conception, “We were sort of using birth control,” says Bro. “I probably thought, ‘We’re doing OK now,’ and it was a disaster. He [Mark] had problems at the time, though is a changed man for the better now. We were both lousy spouses. It was a bad marriage, and we split up for a final time when Heather was five months old.”
The marriage had lasted eight years, the divorce took three years.
Mother and daughter, both strong-minded, clashed over the years, but were never estranged.
“We would clash because she was trying to impose her will on me,” Bro says, smiling. She shows me a picture of Heather at 3, where she looks brimming with a quiet anger or resolve, or both.
Bro laughs. “She was going to argue with me. The storm is brewing on her face. The way to make her agree was to explain something to her to her satisfaction. Bedtimes, mealtimes: She’d argue about everything. You always needed to explain to her why something was fair and right.”
There are other pictures of her and Nick playing in the Styrofoam peanuts left behind from a box of toys sent by their Florida-dwelling grandparents. One of her favorite outfits was to wear a diaper, army helmet, and Bro’s high heels.
Heyer was a boisterous child, at least early on.
“She was born with only one ear,” says Bro. Her left ear was folded over. There was no hole in her skull. During fifth grade, Heyer had a series of painful, corrective surgeries. She had 20 percent hearing in that ear.
“Most of us forgot, including her mother,” says Bro, “because she coped so well. But that did mean she couldn’t locate by sound, which may have been a factor that led to her death. If a crowd was yelling and a car was coming she may not know where the car was. Others have told me all they could hear was the thud sound of bodies being hit. They didn’t see the car till the last possible second.”
As a young girl, Heyer didn’t have any ambitions. When her mother asked her what she would like to do, “to try and nudge her,” Heyer replied that she would like to be “a fat cat on a pillow and not have to do anything.” Her mother laughed and told her that was not an option. “That’s often the problem with bright kids. Things are so easy for us, we have difficulty settling into careers.”
College was costly, the family didn’t have any money, and Heyer had “screwed around in high school,” her mother says. “There were no scholarships coming.”
As a schoolteacher for 20 years, Bro wanted her pupils (fourth graders, aged 9 and 10) to succeed, but neither of her children liked school. They were both strong and independent, she says, and she was keen “to raise people, not ‘sheeple.’” She made it clear she could only be there for them in financial emergencies; when they left home, they had to support themselves.
Both Nick and Heather started work at 14, she says. Heather did waitressing and bar work; she had seen Bro do the same to supplement her teaching salary. Food-service work was always something to fall back on, she had told her children.
Bro was thrilled when Heyer came to work at Miller Law in 2012. Her daughter was getting close to 30 at the time, and her mother thinks she was taking stock of her life, “and figuring out she did not want to be a waitress at 70. That was a pivot point for her. I had mine closer to 40 or 50,” Bro laughs.
Heyer didn’t want to have children, though she loved and doted on other people’s. She adored Violet, her Chihuahua (who now lives with a close friend of hers).
The family marked the holidays by going to Bro’s parents’ place.
“I tried preparing a big meal a time or two. Heather said, ‘Mom, you’re killing yourself. This is no fun for any of us.’ At her suggestion, we stopped doing the big meal last Thanksgiving. So for Christmas, Easter, and what we would have done at Thanksgiving and Christmas, everyone went to Subway and got their favorite sub.
“Heather also prepared a whole crockpot of mac and cheese—it was a deluxe, calorie-laden Paula Deen recipe—and three dozen deviled eggs. I found out from her best friend after she died, she hated making them. She felt a family obligation to take it on: piles and piles food we couldn’t possibly eat. After she died the crockpot from Easter was still in the fridge. She was single. She never looked in that fridge. My husband Kim very politely bagged it up and tossed it.”
Cathy enters to say goodbye. Bro says they have been friends for 18 years, “through thick and thin. It carries back and forth as to who needs who, and now I need her. I never had a close friend like that before, I’m an odd duck. I laugh at the wrong jokes. I was much more stubborn and hard-headed in the past.”
Her daughter was affected by Bro’s uterine-cancer diagnosis in 2010. For Bro, it was a health wake-up call. Bro thinks it made her realize she “wouldn’t be around forever.”
Around the same time, a significant relationship of Heyer’s—a first love boyfriend—was drawing to its end. “Maybe life does that: Things converge and shoot you off into new directions. It’s happened that way for me,” Bro says.
Life has come at Bro “hard and fast” since her daughter’s death. But people who were near Heyer or who helped others who were injured have made themselves known to her. They are suffering, she says, a form of PTSD. “I’m dealing with the aftermath of a dead child. There are still people receiving medical treatment, people who will never be completely right again. I’m not sure all the people are out of hospital yet. They’re dealing with the trauma in a different way than me. I am dealing with one incident. They are dealing with the effects of being in a war zone.”
Kessler’s bid to hold another rally in Charlottesville next year may have been denied, but when we spoke Bro was not surprised he had sought it.
“I’m not happy about it. He feels it got him the bloodbath and the media attention he wants, so he’s going to try again.” With these sorts of rallies, Bro does not want to give the white-supremacist demonstrators the oxygen of publicity that a counter-demonstration would supply, “but if you let them have the field that day, don’t they think they’ve won?
“People have said to me, Heather shouldn’t have been there, that people were warned to stay away, that she died from her own stupidity, that this is Darwin’s Law, that she wiped herself out, ‘Thank God, I’m glad that’s over.’ My comment to them was, so when the Nazis came to town, we should all go into our houses and hide. That’s what happened in Germany originally: ‘It’s not my problem, not going to look at it, it won’t affect me.’ But it does. It affects humanity.”
People have asked Bro why she bothers with her ongoing activism.
“I said, ‘Because I’m making ripples in the pond, and as long as enough of us make ripples eventually a wave develops. This is part of me maintaining my ripple, my resolve.”
Bro is doing a lot of traveling and talking, as she puts it. Her marriage to Kim is a “fairly young,” four years old. They have been together for seven years. When Heyer died, she said to Kim before she began her foundation work that she would be the face of it, and asked whether he was ready for that. “Because this is going to change who I am a lot. I’m not going to be that half hippie chick you married.”
Kim said to her: “I’m game.”
He travels with her, although has a bad back, so sometimes Cathy goes with her, or Alfred’s wife, Feda. She worries that she hasn’t seen some of her grandchildren since the summer. Part of that is due to security worries; they could not attend Heyer’s funeral because Bro felt their safety could not be guaranteed. It seems awful that Heyer’s family cannot even conduct the basics of grieving without being threatened.
The hate mail has been “stupid, pointless, and mostly anonymous from idiot cowards,” she says. The authors threaten her life, and make racist remarks like, as Bro recites: “They should have killed more n**gers.” “I wish they’d killed more n**gers.” “I’m glad your daughter’s gone.” “You know she didn’t actually die.” “She just laid down of a heart attack, because she was a fat slob.”
“It’s a little insane,” Bro says of this hatred, “a little like stepping into reality TV. Kim and I had lessons from the FBI: how to watch one’s back, be more aware of surroundings, like don’t sit with your back to the door of a restaurant. But I don’t live in paranoia and fear. I can’t function that way. It’s the new reality. It is what it is.
“I don't allow myself to feel sorry for myself. I’m not the only mother who’s lost a kid. I’m not the only person approaching the holidays who has lost a loved one. I just have to toughen up a bit and get through it. That’s how I survive. I take care of it before it takes care of me. That's why some people think I don’t care. I care very deeply, but it’s like diving into a cold pool and sucking it up, toughing it out. I have to get on with my life, and my life right now is sharing Heather’s life.”
It saddens her most that it is affecting her grandchildren; one became anxious after his mother became anxious (the situation is now resolved); one young niece who was close to Heyer thinks of her as just daddy’s friend, and Bro hopes when she is older she will know how brave her aunt was and be proud of her.
After she died, Bro looked through her daughter’s Facebook posts: They were all to do with friends and social justice.
She hadn’t understood how much Heyer had stood up for other people, and at such a young age, until after she was killed, when Bro found out her daughter had stood up as a kid herself for other kids bullied on the school bus, like the woman (and her brother) who set up a GoFundMe page for Heyer’s funeral.
A white teacher who had adopted an Asian child was abused at school; Heyer took those bullies on, too.
“I didn’t know she did all that stuff. She didn’t talk about it,” says Bro.
Heyer’s social-justice posts became more emphatic after the last election, her mother says.
Bro herself “didn’t understand” white privilege or the politics of Black Lives Matter until her own activism evolved, although she recalls going out with Heyer and a black man she once dated and going to a restaurant and “getting the worst service and evil looks from other people. We were followed in stores. That may have been an awakening for Heather as well. We never talked about the moment she became ‘woke,’ but a few weeks before she was killed she said to me, ‘Mom, I think you’re woke now.’ I said, ‘I think I always have been, but maybe now I am doing better at it.’”
Heyer, her mother says, “lived larger than life and died larger than life. She was always funny, always intense. Her love was intense, her anger could be intense. The irony is that day she went out to be with her friends.”
Bro is telling me about the glass table top of a Mexican restaurant, a favorite venue of hers and Heather’s, which she only just felt able to return to. As she went to sit down, the glass top suddenly started rotating.
As she says these words, the computer turns itself on again, and the death rattle begins anew.
Bro says quietly, “Heather, leave the computer alone please. I’ll unplug it if you keep on.”
She turns to me, and laughs. “If the monitor comes on and typing starts appearing, then you can really freak out.”
That day at the Mexican restaurant, Bro put her hand on the table and said, “Heather, stop it.” and the rotating glass stopped.
The other day in the office, Bro was talking to one of her daughter’s friends about a past relationship with a guy she had only marginally approved of, and the paper plate being held by the other person suddenly upended itself, sending the pastry on it flying off. “Well Heather didn’t like that, did she?” Bro said.
Bro tries to stay focused on work when at the office, and laughs that her kitchen table at home is her second office space, its surface unseen since her daughter’s death so covered as it is with correspondence.
She feels Heyer’s presence mostly when she’s driving; the two would sing along to the radio in the car. Heyer loved hip-hop, and both liked Pink, Adele, Amy Winehouse: “Strong women singers,” Bro says.
The Saturday before our meeting Bro had been doing some Christmas shopping in Charlottesville when she was suddenly aware that she walking around with tears streaming down her face. She did not feel self-conscious; she is learning to live with the vagaries of when grief strikes.
Bro can also be positively surprised. The day before we meet, she went to a McDonald’s drive-thru (for a yogurt parfait, she says; she and her husband are trying to stick to a diet).
In front of her was a man with a Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate. “I thought, ‘Do I hate him? Do I want to hate him?' I tried the thought on. No I didn’t. I thought, 'That’s probably his family history. I don’t know how he feels about Heather. But me hating him is not going to do any good.’ He looked a lot like my husband. I saw him see me in his rearview mirror, and recognize me.
“I got to the drive-thru window, and the cashier said that my meal had been paid for by him. I pulled around when I was picking up the food, hollered thank you, and he waved. I think, even if a lot of people believe in the Confederate cause, they didn’t want people dying that day.”
Heyer herself was a private person, an activist happy to serve rather than lead. Bro feels that “at some point this becomes my movement too. This is my tribute to my daughter, and it’s not exactly how she would have done things. My gut feeling is that she would understand why we are doing what we are doing with her memory. I would take it all back in a second to have her back. And yet, I also know this has made an impact on the world and I can’t take that away from the world.”
Her voice cracks.
“I would love to have my child back. But I can’t take away what this has meant to other people. If this is what it takes to snap the world’s attention around to say, ‘This has to stop. We have to draw a line,’ then that is good. I have said before that I don’t know why it had to take a white girl’s death to get everybody’s attention, but that is what happened. Sadly, I think my daughter’s death is a pivotal point in history—and I do not mean to be inflated about that at all. It’s just seeing the impact and ongoing impact from this. It's a moment not likely to be forgotten.”
When I ask about the controversial statues themselves, Bro is careful first to say she does not live in Charlottesville herself.
“For those of us who want to remove the statues, we are not trying to hide or bury history, but let’s acknowledge why the statues are where they are. They were put up during Jim Crow times for the purpose of telling a newly confident and more affluent black community: ‘We do not respect you, we still think of you as slaves who have managed to get a little ahead in life.’ Nothing happened during the Civil War in Charlottesville. Take them down, put them somewhere else, they don’t belong here.”
“I’m diabetic, I have to eat,” Bro announces abruptly.
In a car en route to a nearby Burger King, she talks about growing up in Roanoke, an only child. Her mother did clerical work, her father was a draftsman. She was much less a tomboy than her own daughter, and grew up wanting to be a teacher, missionary or cowboy: “Not a cowgirl. They were boring.”
A young feminist, she demanded in first grade to be allowed to wear pants under her dress on snowy days. At her second marriage, to Kim, she recalls laughing gently, she asked that he promised to love and obey her, too.
At the drive-thru she orders a burger, onion rings, and a diet soda, and on the way back to the office she talks about worrying that her hippie-ish demeanor made her stand out at social events like a Miller Law Group summer cookout. Heather had told her she loved her mom just as she was.
“One thing I felt when Heather was killed was that I had no regrets about our relationship. She knew she was loved. I knew I was loved. We had no animosity between us hanging over. I don't want to let her go, but could let her go. She knew that things were good between us.” Bro only regrets the lack of pictures of them together.
Back in her small office at Miller Law, she shows me some framed tweets from Bernie Sanders (Heyer was a huge supporter, and did not vote in the election after the Democrats chose Hillary Clinton over him; Bro was angry with her for this).
There is a wrapped-up and folded banner from the Amsterdam Women’s March, a handmade pillow, an honorary certificate from the governor of Virginia and the state flag, a painting of Heyer by an artist from Pittsburgh in her favorite purples. On Bro’s desk are official letterheads of the foundation, hearts colored purple, inscribed HH.
As the afternoon light leaks to darkness, Bro tells me that activism will now be the focus of the rest of her life. She always had opinions, she says, it was just nobody cared to hear them. The foundation will primarily focus on energizing and engaging young people, and training the next generation of social justice leaders.
She relishes connecting with other civil-rights groups and learning how to be a social justice advocate. “I can’t see myself doing anything else. By that first Sunday I told my husband I could never go back to my other job. I don’t have the mind for it. My mind is wrapped in this now.”
Bro’s health is not good; she says her “immune system is collapsing in on itself,” she finds it hard to turn her mind off when it’s time to go to sleep, her sleeping is erratic as is her diet. She has been following a “clean eating” plan, and then may have junk food, like today.
She talks of the people in airports or shops who approach her. Bro tries to have time for everyone, but she is always aware of those who shrink back, too tentative to say anything. What a strange new world it is, she says, where she may have to get an agent to handle her speaking requests. “An agent,” she says, laughing gently.
But beyond it all: the talks and award ceremonies, the hugs and thanks and solicitousness of strangers, the new and strange stardom, the life of committees and progressive alliances and celebrities and red carpets and interviews and public speaking, is the inescapable and all-encompassing loss of her daughter.
As we finish the interview, Bro asks where I am staying. I tell her the name of my hotel.
“Downtown. Do be careful,” Susan Bro says, and she is very serious.
Coming next: Heather Heyer’s mentor and friends remember her.