Jean Harris Should Not Have Brought a Gun

Jean Harris, the upper-class woman who murdered her unfaithful lover, has died quietly in her bed of old age.

When the scandal was in the news in 1980, my younger self looked at pictures of Herman Tarnower’s sour face and thought maybe he deserved it. But decades of gun violence taking the lives of innocent and non-innocent alike, plus a little maturity changed my mind. Herman Tarnower did not deserve to be robbed of his life no matter whose heart he broke.

I wonder if Jean Harris bought a gun because she was afraid? She might have imagined using it to defend herself against some intruder or mugger. But there is another use for a gun she must have absorbed consciously or unconsciously. That is the potential for creating huge drama by wielding the power to kill.

Jean Harris would, like all of us, have seen this drama played out countless times on TV, in movies, in books. Once the gun was in her hand she didn’t have to make up lines. Maybe she’s telling the truth, that the gun went off in a struggle. Maybe she needed to remember it that way.

On the night of the shooting, she said she drove to his house and found him asleep. Then she saw a woman’s nightgown and hair curlers and grew enraged after realizing they belonged to Tarnower’s 37-year-old nurse, who he had begun taking to parties and other events in Harris’ place.

According to transcripts, Harris said she pulled her gun out to shoot herself in front on him. When he tried to stop her, she testified, the gun went off. Tarnower was shot four times.

The case generated a number of books and two television movies: “The People Vs. Jean Harris” in 1981 and “Mrs. Harris” in 2006.

Harris was convicted by a jury in 1981 of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life. She served nearly 12 years before being granted clemency in 1992 by then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo because of health problems.

At her sentencing, she denied murdering Tarnower, saying she loved him.

Lord, what would she have done if she hated him?

I was at work when I got an email with an inspirational story about a young woman who lives paralyzed from the neck down. She was a child when a boy not much older decided to point a gun at her for a joke. After that day, no more walking, no making it through a day without the care of others, no more life without pain.

The romance of the gun runs deep in our culture. Crazy Wayne LaPierre keeps saying that guns make us safe, the more guns the safer we’ll be.

It would have been so much better if Jean Harris had used her brains to figure out a smarter way to deal with her hurt feelings. If she had to scare her lover with a gun– how much better if she removed the bullets first. That gun she kept for safety took a man’s life and got her years in jail. She’s one of countless people whose domestic dispute escalated to murder with the help of a gun.

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