Originally created 09/30/03

Author writes of loss of sister



ATHENS, Ga. - In life, Susan Hurley Harrison was known as a loving mother and sister, a business owner and a member of the Baltimore area's wealthy elite.

In death, she is remembered as the victim of one of Baltimore's most riveting crime stories, a warped tale of a wealthy marriage tainted by allegations of domestic violence, substance abuse and, eventually, murder.

This is not why Ms. Harrison's younger sister, Athens resident Molly Moran, wanted to pen Finding Susan, a memoir of Ms. Harrison's life, two-year disappearance and death.

Instead, Ms. Moran, an associate professor of writing with the University of Georgia's Division of Academic Enhancement, said she wanted to bring meaning to her sister's life - and bring about her own personal healing by expressing her grief.

"We had experienced this overwhelming loss, and I was just - I guess as a writer, I thought 'How can I describe this?' And as I began writing (about Susan's death), it emerged as a story," Ms. Moran said.

Ms. Harrison's life - and death - indeed seems the stuff of fiction.

A bright, attractive woman, Ms. Harrison left a 20-year marriage in the late 1980s to marry Jim J. Harrison Jr., an acquaintance of her first husband who worked as an executive with the McCormick & Co. Spice Corp.

Though part of Baltimore's wealthy elite, the Harrisons led a torrid married life, complete with allegations of domestic violence, emotional problems and alcoholism.

In August 1994, Ms. Harrison disappeared after a visit with Mr. Harrison, whom she had separated from in late 1993. Hikers found her skeleton in a Frederick County, Md., forest the day after Thanksgiving 1996. Authorities ruled her death a homicide because of a severe blow to her head.

In the nearly eight years since her body was discovered, no one has been charged in her death.

Ms. Moran said she was "filled with rage" over her sister's killing and channeled her anger and grief into her writing.

After her sister's remains were found, Ms. Moran used writing as a form of self-therapy - and a way to discover who her beloved older sister truly was.

"I was in this cottage she was renting in Ruxton, and that was probably the moment that I realized how bad it was," Ms. Moran said. "She never really kept a diary, but she had all these notes. ... All of that evidence I gathered, and that's how I put it all together (in the book)."

Ms. Moran said it is likely no one ever will be held accountable for Ms. Harrison's death. The state medical examiner in Maryland noted that she likely died from a severe blow to the head, but with the case being nearly 10 years old, there is little hope that concrete evidence or a confession will surface. Ms. Moran said Baltimore authorities consider the death a cold case.

She said she hopes her book will bring light to her sister's life and the plight of domestic abuse victims. Her experience in writing Finding Susan has carried over into the classroom, where Ms. Moran said she encourages students to use writing as a means of therapy and communication.

Overall, Ms. Moran said she hopes Finding Susan will make the story of Ms. Harrison's 52 years of life notable for more than simply the sensation of her death.

"I want to somehow make her life matter," Ms. Moran said. "And I want to be very honest about what her life was about."