Chris Burns Lived a False Life. How Do We Remember the False Life We Lived with Him?

When Chris went on the run, I had no context for how to process the memories I had of our life together–what, if anything, had been real? Were there parts of precious metals among the alluvial deposits that were worth mining? How do you know what to hold on to and what to question? I looked at a screen and scrolled and scrolled and scrolled through years of photos, and I felt like an outsider looking at someone else’s family history. I was just a stranger staring at a photo album full of joy and love and laughter with my kids’ faces front and center–but I couldn’t feel any of it anymore. I owned none of it anymore.

How can any of the last eighteen years make sense when the full reality comes into focus. I had only known one camera angle–and now I was being shown multiple perspectives with new strangers in the picture, in my pictures. Even though they weren’t visible, they were ghosts, hiding behind these beaming faces. They were in our lives, even if I didn’t know they were…they were in our pictures because they were his victims and his double life.

Looking at every Christmas portrait was a shocking new reality that our family pictures were the visible piece of the iceberg providing a cover for the deep mountain of lies floating underneath us.

Every time I have to go back through pictures, I have a compulsion towards nausea. America’s Most Wanted needed twenty photos. It took me a few weeks to be able to open up my laptop and scroll. Should I send in pictures of him smiling? Were there pictures of him smiling? I never realized how many pictures were just the four of us–me and the kids. How did I not see that before? How did I miss that this person was missing in so many of our photos? 

I want to delete every image of this false life because the happy ones made me long for what I thought I had, and the sad ones confirm that I never really had it. 

Before he went missing, I had just finished organizing all of our printed photos into baskets. I had twenty different baskets: dating pictures, wedding pictures, Chris’ childhood pictures, my middle school pictures, honeymoon pictures, pictures from our first year of marriage, an Eckerd’s packet of Philip’s birth pictures, family portrait sessions through the years, and pictures of “us.” I was planning on framing those for our bedroom as we were getting closer to twenty years of marriage. When we moved so quickly after he left, all of the baskets ended up in a friend’s basement. I don’t know how to ever set eyes on my organization again. I try to imagine walking down the basement stairs turning the corner to come face-to-face with those baskets, and my breathing intensifies, the space above my eyebrows begins to ache, and my chest closes in so tight that I have trouble breathing. I never want to see it or have to do anything with it. I want to ignore it for life. Some days I am able to tell myself that there will come a time when I will have the will to face the images of my invisible mental torment, but not today, and not this month.

When I look through our snapshots of life, I find things I can’t unknow. We celebrated my birthday at a dinner in Disney in 2018. Chris had each of the kids go around the table and tell me what they most loved about me–and he finished the ceremony with some of the most beloved words he had ever spoken over me in front of our children. I was wrapped up in the warmth of my children’s love and the softness of my husband’s intentionality. 

A few months after he left, I stayed up all night by myself studying a one foot tall pile of SEC documents that were dropped on my doorstep that day, adding up indictments and getting an explaination of those shadows in our photos–the real snapshot of that Disney dinner. The night of the birthday dinner he signed a contract taking $350,000 from one of his victims. I still can’t piece together when he signed those documents and did the wire transfer; it’s almost as if he had a body double. We walked the park all day living in that magical world, and yet here were copies of contracts and signatures and bank records that confirmed that these two events occured on the exact same date.

Before I read the SEC documents, only two or three weeks after he went on the run, I was able to go through some of his credit card statements–PDF images that also helped me see a bigger picture than the one lense I had been meticulously encouraged to look through. At the end of that same Disney trip, a woman in Vegas received an ellaborate bouquet of flowers, a woman whose name had come into our lives a little over a year earlier–a time when I sat in a lawyer’s office numb, filing divorce documents I would later be convinced to drop the day before his financial statements and credit card records were due to the courts.

The day those financial records were to be handed over to my lawyer, the courts and me, a little over a year before a magical family vacation, I eventually received a grand explanation to try to reconcile our marriage: his involvement with a woman in Vegas was only ever emotional–that he turned to her because I told him I needed two weeks of space from the chaos–his absences, and excuses and….because something just felt wrong to me for awhile. He turned to her because I abandoned him, because I was breaking up our family….because of how I was dealing with my emotions. I ended up believing him for three years. That same day those financial records were due, I believed him and dropped the discovery process; it was an emotional blip on the scrolling photos of our family life together.

The week after he vanished, I was terribly concerned for his safety and worried he was having a mental breakdown, so I kept searching for answers. I emailed him everyday begging him to come back–we would help him get through this–no response. Digging into my investigation, needing answers, the credit card statements I had let go of three years earlier painted a picture I had considered, but the image always felt too painful to actually believe–that he had been involved with her months before I asked for those two weeks of space. When Arabella was a little over a year old, he had been lying about his business trips to different cities trading them in for trips to Vegas. Before I asked for those two weeks apart, I spent months attempting to open a closed soul–asking about depression, fear, anxiety…asking him if he was involved with someone else.

 “How could you think that of me?” 

“Why would you think so poorly of me?” 

“I need to feel like you respect me, I just don’t understand why you don’t trust me” 

“Of course not, I don’t know how you could even consider that.” 

“Why do you always think something is wrong–everything is great, and you’re the one not enjoying it.”

“But something feels really off,” I said. “I can’t feel this way inside anymore. Maybe we can do counseling?”

“Of course! Yes! Let’s do that–just let me know, but make sure it works with my schedule,” he said.

It never worked with his schedule. I went alone. I don’t have any pictures of that, but my body remembers the feeling of those moments: unending loneliness.

And so I return to analyzing my memories; these completely opposing images of a lived history inside my head. One story is a happy family that loved each other and were planning on being together until death do us part. The other story is one person in the family who hid while the other four thought they were living in that first reel….the reality is that the four of us were really living a life that we didn’t have a say in, we didn’t see, and we didn’t ask for. My left hemisphere might actually dissociate from my right hemisphere to keep me sane because the first scenario felt so real, but the second was the honest truth. The cognitive dissonance I fight through can only be a speck of the cognitive dissonance he had to live in to be able to freely occupy mulitple different realities at the same time.

So what do I tell my kids about their Kodak memories? They are looking to me to help create some “knowing,” some “this makes sense,” some “I can process this within the parameters you are giving me.” But I don’t know the parameters because I don’t know this other man, with this other life, with these other intentions, with this other view of reality, with this stranger. 

How do I re-file the memories of a stranger into our history? How long was he a stranger? How long were parts of him a stranger? Is there anything I should hold on to in order to move forward? Because I just want to leave it all behind–throw the baby out with the bathwater. Delete the photos previous to September 24, 2020. The real process of re-negotiating a lived history is like dissecting the nerves from the muscle…they are so intricately entwined, and it feels like it would take a lifetime to numb the axon pain every time that I realize a piece of my memory needs to be disentangled to heal and create new, stronger muscle memories that aren’t attached to the trauma and the pain of someone else’s hidden identity.

His double life took away my kid’s foundation for understanding the meaning of their childhood. Their evergreen memories are being choked out by kudzu vines cultivated by a Dad who was willing to let the invasive creeper grow in the shadows–suffocating their childhood innocence. He robbed other people of their hopes and dreams for their own children in order to consider himself a good father as he tucked our three in at night…how much of my childrens’ memories are based on other people’s stolen dreams–the pictures they hoped to create with their families?

Our memories belong to the fog, the mud, the confusing places of the soul now.

11 thoughts on “Chris Burns Lived a False Life. How Do We Remember the False Life We Lived with Him?”

    1. Thank you for letting me know I wasn’t alone–right in the beginning when I felt like I was crazy. You told me I wasn’t. I needed to hear that from so many, and it’s starting to get through to me 🙂

  1. Wow ! Just Wow ! Not only do I literally feel what you are writing , I’m so impressed by your courage and your authenticity . Thank you for sharing , you are an incredible writer, can’t wait for more of your story 🙂

    1. Thank you! In some ways, this feels like who I’ve always been; it just felt like the authenticity was maybe a little too revealing for my marriage–I feel like I can breathe finally sharing how I went through the last number of years of my life. Thanks for listening and encouraging!

    1. Thank you! I’m fighting for it. There is definitely another voice that is very scared and nags me that I’m not good enough. But, that voice is getting smaller–I have confidence cards taped to my bathroom mirror–those help 🙂

  2. Thank you for being brave… Praying for you as you untangle the past and make peace with the present and the days to come.

    1. Yes! Please pray for us–you know we have a journey ahead–and a lot of it seems to be predicated on figuring out what our past was. It is awesome to look at how far we have come in only a year–I would have never expected to be where we are now at this time last year.

  3. You are a strong and brave lady! I know you wish you didn’t have to be living this and finding your voice, but you HAVE a voice an you HAVE found it. Plus your writing is captivating:)

    1. Thank you for such encouraging words! I lost a lot of confidence throughout the years–so everytime someone encourages me, it is unexpected. I will look back to your comment on days when I’m wavering 🙂

  4. I resonate with so much of what you wrote. The imagery of dissecting the nerve from the muscle… wow, yes, this. Thank you for putting words to your experience and sharing them. It’s so difficult to explain the process of healing to others; it’s especially validating to know that you’re not alone. I see you. <3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *