How the story of Kathy Leissner Whitman shows link between mass shootings and domestic violence

More than 50 years later, the new book “Unheard Witness” gives voice to one of the UT tower shooter’s first victims, his wife, through her personal letters during their marriage.

By Kristen CabreraDecember 12, 2023 1:03 pm, ,

The link between domestic violence and mass shootings is becoming more and more apparent. A study published in 2021 linked more than two-thirds of mass shootings from 2014 to 2019 with domestic violence.

In fact, one of the first-ever mass shootings in the U.S. began with domestic violence. In 1966, Kathy Leissner Whitman was killed by her husband, Charles Whitman, who would hours later climb to the top of the University of Texas at Austin tower and shoot and kill 15 people and wound many more.

Author Jo Scott-Coe, in her new book “Unheard Witness: The Life And Death of Kathy Leissner Whitman,” pieces together the life of Kathy through interviews and letters – giving her a voice half a century after her death. 

Scott-Coe spoke with Texas Standard on what compelled her to write the book and the many missed red flags. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Author Jo Scott-Coe. Courtesy of University of Texas Press

Texas Standard: This book wouldn’t have been possible, obviously, without access to Kathy’s letters. How did you come across them?

Jo Scott-Coe: During my research for my previous book, “Mass,” I had the pleasure of meeting her eldest surviving brother, Nelson Leissner, and he had preserved these letters from, you know, accidental destruction and etc., and had them and wasn’t sure what to do with them. And I wasn’t looking for the letters at the time. We were talking about some other subjects. And as we got more connected and talked more and as the 50th anniversary of the shooting approached, he sort of told me about the letters and then he began to share them with me.

Well, now, you alluded to this: You’ve been digging into the history of that shooting before in other books. What made Kathy’s story one that you continue to go back to?

Well, the presence of the unheard witness – you know, Kathy – as the victim for four years of a person who became visible to us as a perpetrator from the tower in 1966 on that horrible day where he took the lives of strangers, was really important to me.

I mean, as a researcher, for about 20 years, I had been looking at this disconnect between what happens in private or what happens off of the public radar – out of the media, let’s say – and out of view. And then when something creeps into public view or blasts, as it were, into public view, we seem surprised.

But I was always kind of really interested in that connection that this does not come from nowhere. And so what about that? And so who is there? Who is sharing the household, the bank account, the bedroom, the car with this person?

And so thinking about that was always kind of there anyway. And with my previous book, I was looking at the marriage. It was an interfaith marriage between Protestant and Catholic. And so that was kind of what got me to meet Kathy’s family and then I kind of went from there.

You know, it’s interesting that you should say all that, because I know that much has been said about the shooter’s own family and growing up – that experience – not so much about Kathy, who was killed in the hours before the tower mass shooting. Could you try to describe who Kathy really was before she was known for her murder?

Yes, she was a vibrant, socially intelligent, conscientious young woman. She was raised in a small farm town by by prosperous working parents, both college educated.

She went to the University of Texas as a pharmacy student first, eventually changed her major. And, you know, I think the idea that we don’t think about or remember that – you know, she graduated from the University of Texas. She was an honor student there in education, for those who are going to be future teachers. She became a teacher and she had something that I observe in the archive even before she was married.

You know, as a young teenager, she had a documentary impulse. She liked to preserve all kinds of eclectic things that were signals to her about her friends and her family and, you know, funny memories and precious memories and all of that. And it’s not unusual. But she was a teacher in a way, for herself, as well as drawn to that profession eventually.

You mentioned signals. Were there warning signs that Kathy documented? Reading through them today, perhaps there weren’t even names for some of these things back in ’66, right?

That right. I mean, the terminology that we have now, of course, is not protecting us from the lingering reality of domestic violence as a social, public health issue.

But in Kathy’s time, very, very early even, there were signs that there was very grave trouble. In the book I include in full a letter that shows that Kathy was demonstrating help-seeking behaviors and contacting her family.

And she did confide in her mother. Her mother writes a letter that is really a remarkable document talking about a pattern of domination in the marriage. Not, you know, “you shouldn’t fight” or not, you know, this or that. Not cherry picking, but really clear that there was a fundamental change in the way that her daughter was experiencing life and the world compared to before her marriage. And then that continues, of course, throughout the archive.

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT News.

The U.S. flag is lowered at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the UT Tower shooting on Aug. 1, 2016.

Do you have evidence that she was the victim of domestic physical violence before the shooting?

Yes, there is physical abuse. In one case, there’s a description of him hitting her in a car. There also is evidence and discussion between the two of them of sexual force. I’m using that instead of a more legal term.

So there’s just a constant pattern of what we would call now, because of the research, “coercive control,” which is just this campaign on every single level – from the most obvious, the physical or the sexual to emotional, psychological, the isolation factor. There’s a lot of geographical churn in her story, just the whole focus on total subjugation and subordination of the partner. That is clear.

And more important, I would say, is that we can see documented her resistance to this – you know, without theory, without a master’s degree in sociology, without 12 therapists, you can see in very plain spoken language her efforts and also her work with her mother to resist to the extent that she could as she was seeing these things. And then, of course, we know she runs out of time.

But the warning signals weren’t evident beyond the family, it sounds like.

Well, you know, that’s an interesting thing. There are accounts, like if you look at the original newspaper records and so forth, that some people in the last year – they were separated for two years almost of their fourish years married – and in the last year that they were married, Kathy was mentioning divorce.

There are things inside the original forensic interviews that are after that show that some friends were aware of physical violence. We also know that he confided that to a therapist, you know, in his one visit in 1966.

So in terms of warning signs, some of those things are subtle. And we have to be educated as bystanders about what they look like. But also one of the things that survivors and victims often do is start to test how they tell. And one of the people that I interviewed for the book and quote in the introduction, who was one of the last people to be in their home before the shooting, her name at the time was Elaine Fuess, talks about how she she was beginning to hear Kathy say things like, you know, “he scares me” and kind of not knowing how to take that on board and to say “let’s let’s talk about that now. Let’s stop.”

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What can we learn from Kathy’s life today?

I think that one of the things we have to think about is that there is no perfect victim. We have a lot of stereotypes about who’s likely to be a victim or who shouldn’t be a victim. And Kathy’s story calls into question a lot of that.

We have to be more educated about the expertise that survivors offer us and really sit with that and understand what that means. We also have to get beyond the simplistic idea that, well, “why didn’t you just leave?” You know what survivors and victims know, what we can see in the research, is that the most dangerous time for someone who is experiencing this is when they’re most serious about going and that it can take up to seven times – seven attempts – before someone is able to get away.

So part of us as writers, as as media people and as friends, neighbors, coworkers, family members… We have to be more educated about that. And we have to really sit with Kathy’s story and say “okay, I need to learn from what I can see in real time about what a victim is telling me,” even 50 years later.

Correction: This story has been updated to fix the spelling of Charles Whitman’s name.

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