Book Review: Unheard Witness
The untold story of Charles Whitman’s wife is one of domestic violence red flags
Reviewed by Katherine McNevins, Fri., Nov. 17, 2023
Did you know the 1966 UT Tower sniper was married? This reviewer, as well as several people asked during the process of reading a new book about her, knew almost nothing about Kathy Leissner Whitman. Throughout a tumultuous partnership, Charles Whitman gradually extinguished her light and then took her life before climbing up the Tower steps, and her story, like those of so many women during the time, was virtually erased from memory. A new book, Unheard Witness by Jo Scott-Coe, aims to bring her story to light.
Scott-Coe, an English professor at Riverside City College, has authored books and essays on public-private violence, including a prior work on Whitman (2018's MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest, exploring the relationship between the UT sniper and his mentor, a priest who turned out to be an abuser). This background makes Scott-Coe uniquely positioned to approach the story of Whitman's long-suffering wife with expert care and thorough research.
Meticulously footnoted but engaging, the book is academic without ever being a bore. It begins in 1961 as Hurricane Carla ravages the Gulf Coast, including Leissner's hometown of Needville, outside Houston. Young Kathy is headed off to UT-Austin amid the chaos wrought by the storm, and as we get to know her and her family through personal correspondence, diary entries, photographs, and other documents, an image of a capable, intelligent, loving, optimistic, and strong young woman emerges. Scott-Coe does an excellent job setting the scene, offering important historical details such as how women were outnumbered two to one by men on campus, and what people were protesting at the time (racial segregation, for one).
Covering the period from 1961 to 1966, during which Leissner met and quickly married Charles Whitman, Unheard Witness tells the story of "Kathy and Charlie" against a backdrop of major historical events: Civil Rights milestones, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Goldwater-Johnson presidential race. Thanks to the inclusion of numerous photographs and documents, like canceled checks and excerpts from letters (mostly provided by Kathy's brother, Nelson), readers can immerse themselves in the period and picture the author carefully poring over countless aged papers to construct the narrative. So thorough is the research that Scott-Coe notes things like a letter that must have been written, based on other correspondence, that is missing from the archive.
Unsurprisingly, Whitman is a walking red flag, micromanaging Kathy's appearance down to her fingernails and often gaslighting her as he repeatedly disappoints her and introduces turbulence to their lives. A master of coercive control, he frequently apologizes for hurting Kathy, makes empty promises, and threatens suicide to emotionally blackmail her. Some of his diary entries and correspondence are mentioned in order to support the narrative, but it seems the author took a sparing approach with these to keep the focus on Kathy, which is appreciated.
Those looking for lurid details about the Tower shooting will not find them here. This is Kathy's story, which pretty much ends the morning of that separate but intertwined tragedy. And Scott-Coe wonders: Were Kathy the only victim that day, would we ever have heard her story at all? The author raises important questions and points out what research has found about intimate partner violence, framing Kathy's story as a cautionary tale, but one that is all too common. Without Whitman, she might be 80 years old today, enjoying retirement from a successful career as a teacher. With him, a promising life was cut short, and his terrorism overshadowed her memory, but this carefully crafted tribute ensures it will not be erased.
Unheard Witness: The Life and Death of Kathy Leissner Whitman by Jo Scott-Coe, UT Press, 376 pp., $27.95