The Still Point at Sanger Lake

How would you react to witnessing a murder?

A distorted double-exposure photo, shot through the windshield of a car driving down a dirt road through a forest, with ghostly trees and a red blotch overlaying the image.

Elisabeth Dare

On Mother’s Day last spring, three friends and I, all part of a playwriting group, interviewed my friend Dot to glean stories for our upcoming production. At ninety-five, Dot is still a practicing therapist, artist, group facilitator, activist, and backpacker. We gathered in her backyard in Ashland, sitting on various makeshift lawn chairs while Dot, all of four foot nine, held court atop a rickety wooden stool. 

Dot recounted her experiences bicycling across Europe in the 1950s, protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and homesteading rural property in the 1970s. Her storytelling is circuitous, sometimes spanning several decades within a sentence. I was dizzied by the remarkable span of her life. And then Dot made a cryptic reference to a harrowing event that took place in the early 1970s—something she’d shared only a handful of times before. That day, we learned that she’d been living with a traumatic secret, one of life-and-death proportions, for fifty-three years.

“I’ll tell you the leanest version I possibly can,” she said.

 

The afternoon of August 3, 1970, sizzled. Dot, then forty-two and living in Southern Oregon with her teenage daughter, felt restless. She decided to hitchhike to Sea Ranch, California, to see an old friend. At the time, hitchhiking was common and not considered a risky way to get around. Standing on the shoulder of Highway 199, she didn’t wait long before a tan Ford truck pulled over. In the cab were two men. Dot hesitated but sensed no danger. She said she was heading to the California coast. Could she get in? 

In the truck, Dot was squashed against the door. The driver turned the radio down and introduced himself as Larry. His friend in the middle was Bill. He said they were planning to stay at Sanger Lake in the Siskiyou Mountains that night. 

Larry must have driven twenty miles or so, close to the town of Cave Junction, when the topic of Sanger Lake came up again. It was getting late in the day. Did Dot want to camp too? Larry reassured her that she could sleep on the other side of the lake, and they wouldn’t bother her. It’s a beautiful place, he said, a hidden gem most people don’t know about. He’d need to drive back into town the next day for provisions; he could take her back then. Dot agreed. Once they arrived, Larry directed Dot to a spot across the lake and, as promised, the two men left her alone for the night. 

In the morning, Dot heard stirring at the other camp and watched as Larry made his way toward her. He carried a rifle. Dot froze. 

Entering her camp, he announced, “I have a story to tell you.” 

Even as a child, Dot felt allergic to weapons and violence. The black-and-white reels of World War II bombers that were shown in theaters before the movies made her cringe. The sight of guns nauseated her. She never understood slapstick in the movies—Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers. How could the audience laugh when someone intentionally hurt another person? Hit them in the face with a cream pie? It wasn’t funny. Violence was abhorrent. 

Now here was Larry, standing in front of her with a gun.

The day before, he told her, he and Bill drove up to his family’s cabin outside of Baker, Oregon (now Baker City). When they arrived, he was surprised and furious to find his cousin Robert and Robert’s wife living there. The cabin meant the world to him. It was a refuge, a place where he could hide out. Robert had treated him “like shit,” and they began to argue. 

Dot dreaded the rest of the story. She wanted to tell him to stop. She wished she could go back to the moment she’d climbed into his truck. But he didn’t stop, and she couldn’t go back. 

Larry told her how he pulled out his pistol and shot Robert. Just like that, on the back porch. Robert’s wife was there, screaming the house down, threatening to call the cops. 

Dot began shivering uncontrollably and braced herself. 

Bill had shot Robert’s wife. They had no choice—they couldn’t leave a witness.

Why is he telling me all this? Dot wondered. Now she was a witness too. When Larry finished the story, Dot cried. She wept at the loss of life, and at the profound suffering that leads a person to believe murder is their only option. She knew how violence affected people—she’d interacted with plenty of soldiers returning from Vietnam who were numb and dissociated. 

Larry kept talking while Dot nodded and listened carefully. His father had been a violent alcoholic. He left Larry’s mother alone to raise the children. There was never enough food. Dot let out a moan of sympathy. Larry had struggled in school, gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd, started drinking when he was barely a teenager, spent time in juvenile detention. Dot’s body still felt cold, but she encouraged him to continue. She’d been on the wrong side of a violent alcoholic too. She understood despair and desperation. Dot sensed that Larry had never been seen, accepted, or loved—never really cared about by anyone. He was deeply hurt. But she also knew that he’d barely slept. If she said something that upset him or made a false move, he would likely kill her. The words rang in her ears: He doesn’t leave a witness.

Larry, now seated across from her, continued to divulge more about his childhood: abuse, violence, neglect, and lack of connection. Everything he said made him appear wounded and less of a threat. He wasn’t angry—he was limp, like a discarded rag. Dot told him she knew what it was like to feel ignored and unappreciated. She understood his pain.

Dot had always identified with underdogs. As a Jew growing up in the South, she was excluded by her Christian classmates. She was acutely self-conscious—too fat, too short, too ugly, too Jewish. And the way people behaved in the segregated South convinced her that grown-ups were irrational and immoral. Her own parents wouldn’t let their Black maid into the bathroom and forced Dot’s Black friends to use a back entrance to their house so the neighbors wouldn’t see them. She vowed at a young age to never be like the adults she grew up around. She survived childhood by the strength of her convictions, no matter what humiliation and exclusion she endured. 

Dot understood that Larry’s behavior was a direct result of his experiences as a child and that he needed connection and compassion, not judgment and rejection. Over the past several decades, our grasp of emotional trauma has evolved to include complex PTSD, historical and intergenerational trauma, and the impact of repeated traumatic experiences. Most therapists and social service agencies now practice trauma-informed care. We accept that trauma is a response to events or situations that are emotionally overwhelming or distressing, that it usually has long-lasting adverse effects, and that it often leads to highly antisocial behavior, including violence. Larry’s behavior, while abhorrent, was a predictable consequence of a life filled with suffering and alienation.

Larry said they should walk back around the lake to his camp. He wanted Dot’s help packing up their stuff and carrying it into the woods, where he and Bill would hide out for a while. That’s why he’d come over to talk to her in the first place. Dot got up, gave him a long hug, and told him how sorry she was for all he’d suffered. 

Dot had studied and practiced nonviolent civil disobedience with the War Resisters League in San Francisco between 1966 and 1969. She’d been arrested four times and spent a total of six weeks in jail, including five days in solitary confinement. She’d lain down in the doorways of the conscription center in Berkeley with other activists, looking each young man in the eye as they approached the building, draft cards sticking out of their pockets, and saying, “Please don’t. You’ll have to step on my body to pass. Stop and think about what you’re doing when you go through those doors and sign up. You might take somebody’s life. Turn around.” Her goal was to prevent young men from witnessing and participating in murder. Most of them stepped on her to get through the doors. A few paused and eventually turned around. 

Dot understood that when people feel mistreated and unrecognized, violence is often the only form of agency available to them. For Larry to have the impulse to murder, he must feel deeply disconnected. Now Dot worried about how the act of killing had affected him. As she walked around the lake, Larry following behind her with his rifle, Dot felt like a hollow reed, drained of life. She silently said goodbye to her kids, Brigid and David, to her ex-husband, to her family, to everyone and everything in her life. 

Larry spoke up. “You’re scared, aren’t you?” 

“Well, of course I’m scared,” she admitted. “I mean, you’re walking behind me with a gun.”

Two of the central principles of Gandhian nonviolence are honesty and transparency. In a hostile situation, faced with an aggressor or captor, it’s easy to imagine lying, omitting facts, saying anything to slip away. However, practitioners of nonviolence insist that dishonesty usually backfires. When emotions are running high, people tend toward paranoia and impulsivity. Even in her numb and terrified state, Dot instinctively remained transparent. Larry reiterated that he planned to take her back out later as promised. He just wanted her help first. Dot knew that her best option was to trust him and remain trustworthy. 

When they got around to the other side of the lake, Bill lit into Larry, asking, “Why’d you bring her?” 

Bill and Larry argued, the tension escalating quickly. Dot tried to make herself invisible. 

Larry aimed his rifle at Bill. “One more word from you and I’ll shoot,” he said.

Bill kept talking.

Larry shot him. 

Dot watched Bill slump over in his camp chair. After the sudden, sharp gunshot, she felt a moment of disbelief, then watched as blood oozed from above Bill’s right ear and he keeled out of his chair, unresisting, onto the duff below. Then silence.

Dot heard herself say, “Oh no.”

Larry turned his rifle on Dot. He said, “Do I have to destroy you too?” 

Dot describes her body as simultaneously frozen and burning from shock. “No,” she managed to say. “You have to trust me.” 

An essential part of Dot’s nonviolence training was the practice of “hassle lines,” in which participants are arranged in two lines with pairs facing one another. One line takes on the role of the aggressors, while the other represents the activists. When the aggressors become confrontational, demanding, and violent, the activists are instructed to behave in the exact opposite manner. If the aggressor yells, the activist whispers. Fast words are met with slow, deliberate ones, aggressive body language with passivity. The activists appear as nonthreatening as possible, which helps dissipate the aggressor’s anger and de-escalate the situation. Dot believes that if Larry had sensed her outrage or terror at Bill’s murder—if she had screamed or shown horror or disgust—he would have shot her.

The philosophy of Gandhian nonviolence has deep spiritual and humanistic underpinnings. As scholar and activist Vandana Shiva explains, “Nonviolence is not merely a strategy for resistance but a way of life, demanding total commitment to the dignity of all beings. … Individuals confront oppression without mirroring the violence of the oppressor, thereby breaking the cycle of violence and leading to true liberation.” In the face of Dot’s empathy, Larry lowered his gun. 

“I couldn’t hurt you … you’re undefended … you’re too gentle.” 

After a moment, Dot walked over to him and hugged him again. She told him about how sad she felt and comforted him—he had just lost his companion, after all.

 

As Dot revealed her story to me and my friends, I was astonished by her response to Bill’s murder. I thought of author Dacher Keltner, whose extensive research reveals that the number one cause of awe is not the splendor of nature or exquisite art, but moral beauty—the heroic actions of everyday people who “teach us what we are capable of, the aesthetics, the imagination.… They’re about selflessness in some deep sense.” I was riveted by Dot’s ability to stay calm and centered in the company of a trigger-happy killer. I wondered: How would I have responded in Dot’s position? And what can I learn from her? 

Humans crave stories because they enable us to prepare for real-life challenges without facing actual risks. Fear has been essential for human survival, and in the context of stories, it triggers an instinctual response and engages us on a deep emotional level. Terrifying stories are both thrilling and instructive, helping us to navigate and make sense of the world. I wanted to learn everything I could from Dot’s encounter with Larry.

 

In the minutes after Bill’s murder, Dot sat down, sick to her stomach, while Larry cut branches to cover the body. Dot felt like she was melting, a draining of blood through her arms and legs—a sensation she’d felt before. She found herself apologizing to Larry for not being able to help, knowing that to survive, she had to remain completely abject and compliant. She recalls feeling no fear, only the physical symptoms of shock: trembling, nausea, weakness, numbness. She was only aware of the part of her that could relate to Larry on a human level. He was so angry, he told her. He didn’t know what to do. All his life, nobody had seen him.

The normal physiological response to acute fear is heightened nervous system activity, known colloquially as “fight, flight, or freeze.” These responses prepare us to confront, flee, and/or hide from a threat. Blood flow is diverted from nonessential functions like digestion. Symptoms include a racing heart and thumping blood pressure, dilation of the pupils, tensed muscles, and intense focus brought on by a surge of cortisol and adrenaline. These changes prepare us to respond quickly and effectively to a threat. While Dot felt many of these symptoms—hot and cold, dizzy, numb, the sense of falling and being “out of her body”—her practice of and belief in nonviolence enabled her to transcend her instinctual fear responses and offer Larry gentleness and peace. 

Dot spent the entire day with Larry and his gun, knowing and expecting he might kill her at any moment, and nevertheless treating him with kindness. She tried to convince him that his only chance for redemption was to turn himself in. “Do your time, face up to what you’ve done, and then go on to live the life you deserve,” she told him. He asked her to run away with him. As always, she was honest—she was sorry, but she couldn’t leave her children. She offered to be a witness at his trial and reassured him that she was his ally. He was kind and gentle despite everything, she told him. And like all people, he was worthy of love. If only he would face the consequences, he could go on to live a fulfilling life. As proof of her support, she gave him a scrap of paper with her name and address written on it. Larry made her vow not to tell anyone anything.

Therapists increasingly discuss the importance of nervous system regulation and people’s ability to “coregulate” one another. An agitated person can return to a more balanced emotional state just by being in the presence of someone with a regulated nervous system. Did Dot’s equanimity calm Larry enough to put an end to his killing spree? Or did she exhibit a “fawn” response? In 2003, psychotherapist Pete Walker added “fawn” as a fourth survival strategy to the trifecta of fight, flight, or freeze. Walker describes fawning as responding to a threat “by becoming more appealing to the threat.” The fawner pleases and appeases the dangerous person, thus disarming them. While fawning is considered a maladaptive practice in relationships—a learned response to repeated abuse—the ability to fawn may help us survive dangerous situations. 

Indeed, Dot had grown up in a double bind. Her older brother, Kip, acted as both her defender and oppressor. Kip was four years older than Dot. In private, he teased and belittled her. He held her down and tickled her until she wet her pants; he bruised her arms and tormented her any way he could, treating her like an “insect to be inspected and tortured.” Dot refused to tell on him, knowing he’d be whipped if she did. Kip was her tormenter and her most reliable companion. She’d never betray him.

Later, her first husband, the father of her two children, turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. Dot spent over a decade extricating herself from him. Toward the end of their marriage, he chased her around the kitchen table with a knife, threatening to kill her, until she managed to lock herself in her son’s bedroom. 

Dot had learned to maneuver around and appease violent men all her life. That trauma may have prepared her to survive a whole day with Larry. 

When evening came, Larry drove Dot back to the highway. They brushed their teeth together at the side of a creek and hugged for a long time. As she walked away, she braced for the shattering sound of his rifle. 

“Even then,” she recounts, “I thought he might kill me.”

The next morning, she was calmer and started to hitchhike home. She was picked up by an off-duty California Border Protection Station inspector, who told her a sheriff had driven over the state line that morning with a murderer in his custody. They were heading up to a mountain lake to recover the body. Dot gave silent thanks that Larry had decided to turn himself in. 

 

True to her word, Dot kept the story quiet, telling only a few people over the years in strict confidence. When I asked why she never went to the authorities or shared the story more widely, she bristled. 

“Well, he promised to take me back out, and in exchange, I promised not to tell,” she said. “Plus, I was terrified of retribution. He had my name and address!” 

“Even though he turned himself in?” I pressed.

“The experience was so horrifying. My body reexperienced the trauma when I told the story. As the years went on, I became disengaged from my bond with Larry, and I was left holding only the numbness, horror, and shock of it. I hermetically sealed the experience, and the few times I told it let off just enough pressure that I didn’t explode.”

Now, emboldened by my fascination, Dot wanted to tell her story to everyone she knew. She also wanted to find out what had happened to Larry. 

We discovered that Larry stood trial and served fifteen years in prison. After his release, he married his childhood sweetheart, Judy, and became an active member in her church. I got in touch with Judy, and she told me more about his life—his battle with alcoholism and losing his six-year-old daughter to severe burns he couldn’t afford to treat. Larry and Judy enjoyed seven years together until he died from cancer in 1992. Thirty-one years after his death, Judy still speaks of him with deep affection. Larry served his time and went on to discover love and belonging.

Learning this, Dot expressed regret that she had never reconnected with him. She remembers their day together with a strange combination of wonder and dread. He spared her life, and she, in turn, showed him that he deserved redemption. A lifelong advocate for unilateral disarmament, Dot uses that day as a touchstone for her unshakable belief in nonviolence. In an age when many argue that the only way to overcome a shooter is with a gun, her experience provides a staunch counterpoint. 

Later, Dot told the story of her experience at Sanger Lake to a surgeon who was about to perform a cataract procedure on her eyes, then called me from the recovery room.

“I felt no charge!” she exclaimed. “I think I’ve told it enough that it’s just a story. It doesn’t live in my body anymore.”

I took Dot back to Sanger Lake for the first time in June 2023. We admired three varieties of blooming trillium, retraced her steps around the lake, and buried some of my mom’s ashes and her son David’s bone fragments at the site of Bill’s murder. The slope was steeper than she remembered, but she’s still nimble enough to skirt a patch of snow on the lake’s northern edge. Before leaving, she read aloud a passage from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

Where past and future are gathered. 
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. 
Except for the point, the still point.  

Tags

Oregon Humanities Magazine, Violence, Psychology, Fear

Comments

20 comments have been posted.

What a riveting story with profound lessons, especially that of treating each human being as deserving of dignity. I read, gape-mouthed and found my own heart racing as the story unfolded. Certainly Dot had incredible courage in staying calm and connected with Larry. I am deeply moved and inspired by her commitment to non-violence, even in the direst of situations. Beautifully written. By asking questions of how she herself would respond in Dot's situation, I as reader ask the same question of myself. Kudos and thank you!

Mary Lou VAN SCHAIK | May 2024 | Wakefield, QC, Canada

Maude and Dot deliver a story of courageous grace in the midst of a nightmare that has impactful teaching. The shadow of death was all around her and yet she made it through with essence wisdom garnered from her life training, bumps and all. After telling the story she had the strength to be curious about what had become of this man..and now we can see that her words to him were prophetic and he followed them to some measure of redemption. Amazing.

Zoe Alowan Kauth | May 2024 | Ashland, Oregon

When I moved to Ashland many years ago, I saw a picture of Dot on the newspaper's cover. She was chained to a logging truck to prevent more logging. I thought then, "She is so brave to do this!" After reading this, I realized that Dot had learned long ago to face fear in the face and still be loving and kind. She is an incredible role model and friend.

Karen Morse Amarotico | May 2024 | ashland, or

I’m so grateful to learn more about Dot and the landscape and Maude, a great author. What touched me most was the addition of ‘fawning’’ to the 3 F responses to fear. Reading this I realizing for the first time I’ve survived my historic traumas by fawning on occasion. As well as fighting, fleeing and freezing. Dot knew instinctively, as all abused women do, which F will get you out of this one.

Sue Ann Harkey | May 2024 | Little Applegate watershed

I am stunned by the beauty and terror you've captured here. The duet between Dot's extraordinary history, and specifically this moment within it, and your extraordinary writing skills create a wisdom teaching out of a poignant and horrific moment. I personally have never heard a teaching about nonviolence that was so profound and visceral and close to my own life and heart. Thank you!

Kim | April 2024 | California

What an incredible story! I would love to read a book about this intense moment and learn more about Dot’s path leading up to this event.

Mitra | April 2024 |

It’s incredible how much is woven into this story. Sanger lake is the central theme, but almost a century of culture, counter culture, geography, social movements and practices of therapy are woven into a tapestry. Maud effectively paints images of time and place w the brush of articulate adjectives. Thank you very much for documenting publicly some of the life and times of one Dot Fisher Smith, Right livelihood, indeed. 🫶

Matt musselwhite | April 2024 |

What a fascinating story! Dot sounds like an amazing lady and your excellent writing brings this story to life. Wow!

Jeni Beck | April 2024 | Medford, Oregon

Great writing. Devastating but amazing story!

Marion Hadden | April 2024 | Jacksonville, OR

Such a harrowing and fascinating story! So well written. Kudos Maude!!

Cynthia Lakin | April 2024 |

A gripping piece, not only because of the extraordinary story it tells, but because of the way it draws out Dot’s remarkable character in such terrifying circumstances. Full-length book, please! .

Henry Macrory | April 2024 | Oxfoord

An inspiring true story of compassion and trustworthiness in the midst of violence and terror.

Nick Andrews | April 2024 | Corvallis, OR

This story is both timeless and pertinent to how we currently grapple with themes such as trauma, healing, compassion, and fear. Thank you Dot for sharing and modeling for readers that each person metabolizes and honors the gift of life on their own timeline. And thank you Maud for your courage in exploring the murky fear of loss, violence, self-protection, and the interplay of science and story to engage us in big questions and unforeseen answers.

Jennifer Nidalmia | April 2024 |

Wow, so intense and moving. I’m in awe of how Dot handled this and survived. And at a time when violence is so often met with violence, blame, and dehumanization, this example of empathy, understanding, and connection is so needed. Yes to a book version, please!

Lucinda Moeglein | April 2024 | Ashland, Oregon

A beautifully told story of compassion and empathy. What an inspiration for us all. Definitely excited for the book….and the film!

Becky Brown | April 2024 | Charleston, SC

Dot is well-known in her community as a woman-of-substance and integrity. It was rather amazing that her non-violent training was embedded enough to overcome the instinctual "fight or light" array of stress hormones. Tragic story, beautifully told.

Maura Alice | April 2024 | Portland, OR

A fascinating tale of destructive intergenerational behaviour, and of how non-violent responses can disarm aggressors; beautifully and respectfully re-told - I’m looking forward to the book.

Nicole Boothman | April 2024 | Oxford, United Kingdom

It is an incredible true tale of bravery in the face of death and uncertainty. I felt as if I was at Sanger Lake, alongside Dot, heart racing yet calm in the face of real danger as she practiced conflict resolution and radical empathy.

Rebecca Levison | April 2024 | San Francisco, CA

Incredible story and very well written. Looking forward to the book!

Grace Aliya | April 2024 |

Wow. A stunning story of survival against all odds using honesty, empathy and connection when it would seem impossible. Dot’s ability to find the wounded man underneath the monster speaks to her humanity. She has much to teach us.

Fran Nadel | April 2024 |

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