Boston — Street Address A: A big tan house in North Kingstown, Rhode Island; the corner lot of a woody cul de sac near a bike path populated by joggers in Lululemon. Quiet and country charming, a well-landscaped American achievement. This is the house where Katherine Russell grew up, with her parents and two sisters.
Street Address Z: An apartment in a rowhouse in Cambridge, Mass., the most run-down structure on an otherwise cheerful block. A building with cracked window panes on the second floor and a sagging brown exterior, and the feeling of fatigue emanating from it like an odor.
This is the house where Russell lived when the Boston Marathon bombs went off. Where she went from being “normal” to — if not abnormal, than certainly very different from what people who knew her expected her to be. Where few neighbors recall seeing her outside the home, where she seemed to become a ghost.
There are gaps, in this road map of Katherine Russell’s life. Points F through L, maybe, or D through K. What went through Katherine’s mind when she made such a choice? Did Tamerlan force her into it? Was she yearning for a life very different than the suburban comfort in which she had been raised?
The narrative of her life is compelling in part because of the way it hews so neatly to our narratives of fear, our cautionary tales: Here is a woman who went astray. Here is a woman who did not listen to her family.
It is also compelling for the way it upends American conceptions of selfhood, womanhood, progress. For the way it draws boundaries around “typical” American behavior. The hijab and other items of traditional Muslim apparel are freighted garments in this country, often stigmatized as items of repression and regression.
Katherine the victim? The dupe? The accomplice?
It is unclear at what point Russell converted to Islam — such a conversion does not require formal classes or education, but rather a simple declaration of faith. Still, one of the few public places that nearby residents remember her was at Al-Hoda Market, a small halal grocer about four blocks from the apartment.
On Thursday last week, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body was released from the office of the Massachusetts medical examiner. Katherine Russell’s attorney released a statement, saying that it was Russell’s wish for the remains to be returned to the Tsarnaev family.
Perhaps this was her way of announcing her separation from her husband. Perhaps she would have claimed the remains, but her parents encouraged her not to and she listened.