Binna’s Story: From Hell to Hope

Binna’s Story: From Hell to Hope

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Overnight, she lost her entire family—by her father’s hand. He tried to kill her, too. This is Binna Kim‘s journey from Hell to Hope.

 …we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;

perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4)


—from Binna Kim’s Facebook page



Binna Kim remembers waking up in a pool of blood. She was on the floor of her bedroom, it was dark— perhaps the middle of the night—and her head was throbbing. The high school sophomore didn’t panic, though. She was on her period and thought she just must have bled through her pajamas. She tried to stand up and turn on the light, but couldn’t. She called out to her mom and dad for what seemed like hours.

“Eomma! Apba!”

“Why aren’t they hearing me?“ she thought. She crawled to her cell phone. She called the home phone and her mom and dad’s cell phones repeatedly, but no one picked up.

Binna then crawled to her parents’ bedroom, where she saw her dad’s legs hanging from the end of the bed. He must have fallen asleep face down, she thought. She grabbed her dad’s legs and shook them. “Apba, Apba!” When that didn’t wake him, she crawled to their radio alarm clock and blasted music into the room. Still nothing.

Her head feeling like it was about to split open, she had an idea: She would crawl to the bathroom tub. It was low and sturdy enough to support her. She would use it to stand up, then she could figure out the next step.

She reached the bathroom and passed out.

***

On April 6, 2006, Binna’s father, Sang In Kim, wrote a suicide letter to his church pastor, explaining he was killing himself because he owed people tens of thousands of dollars he could not repay. The 55-year-old asked the pastor to take care of his family. But that night, he changed his mind; he would take his entire family with him.

As far as police can tell, Kim, armed with a .25-caliber semiautomatic, first shot his wife as she lay in bed at their Los Angeles apartment. Young Ok Kim, 50, may have woken up, or perhaps the first shot didn’t kill her because he shot her twice. He shot his children—8-year-old Matthew, and Binna, then 16—also as they slept. He then shot himself, collapsing on top of his wife’s body.

It was a case that horrified Angelenos and sent chilling ripples across the Korean American community. What added to the tragedy was the fact that within a span of five weeks that spring, there would be five confirmed murder-suicides in Southern California—all involving Korean immigrant fathers as the perpetrators. Two other incidents were suspected to be murder-suicides, though the investigations were not conclusive. Los Angeles Times magazine published a widely discussed set of articles that attempted to sort out why these Korean fathers had acted, as one of those articles said, incomprehensibly.

In all, the seven incidents claimed the lives of 14 Korean Americans.

Binna could have made 15.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” says the now-20-year-old, her brown doe eyes and curled eyelashes growing damp. “I mean, I got shot in the head. Like, no one can survive that.”

She survived, doctors would later tell her, because the bullet, as it entered the right side of her head, hit the thick bone that juts out right behind the ear—the temporal bone—and somehow the impact shattered the bullet into little fragments. The fragments remain in her head and brain.



The night Binna woke up in a pool of blood was 30 hours after her father had shot her. She was discovered the next morning by Mi Sun and Hyok Dong Kim, the parents of her best friend Deborah. They became concerned when Binna’s mom failed to show up to teach Korean school at their church on Saturday. They grew even more worried when the entire family didn’t attend Palm Sunday service, a day Binna’s devout Christian mother would never miss.

They got a locksmith friend to open the family’s front door. To this day, they have difficulty talking about the horror they found inside—three dead bodies, and then Binna. Were they relieved to find that at least she was still alive? Binna shrugs her shoulders and says nothing.

***

The truth is, Binna often wishes she had died that day. The unspeakable sense of loss, pain and sadness she has endured in the nearly five years since the shooting have often felt insurmountable. Overnight, she lost her entire family—by her father’s hand. He tried to kill her, too. How do you possibly wrap your head around that? How do you go on living? How did she?

“People ask me that all the time,” says Binna, sitting in a tea house in Santa Monica, her long brown hair tied in a ponytail with bangs swept to the side. “And I honestly don’t know what to tell them. There were so many days where I would be in my bedroom and not go out, or I would just burst out into tears for no reason. Sometimes I just couldn’t stop crying.”

That kind of suffering is what relatives, friends and medical professionals were hoping to spare a critically injured Binna in the immediate period following the shooting.

For the first three months afterwards, in fact, Binna believed robbers had come into her home and killed her family. No one could bear to tell her the harsher truth. Despite the vagueness and hesitation in their stories, a still-dazed and medicated Binna—who would remain hospitalized for several months—wasn’t able to figure out what really happened. “I couldn’t even imagine that,” she says. “I mean, who can imagine that, you know?”



She was already getting a stream of constant bad news from her doctors at the Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center. She’d completely lost her hearing in her right ear. The right half of her face and the left side of her body were paralyzed. And one doctor told her that she would never walk again.

But within weeks, she started gaining sensation and strength back in her left leg, arm and hand. Once they saw her young body start to heal itself, her physical therapists at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center pushed her hard: You gotta get up again, you gotta lift your arm, you gotta walk, they told her whenever she tried to give up.

Just as she was making strides in her physical rehabilitation, police detectives stopped by to interview her for the first time. They would be the ones to tell her about her father’s shocking crime. As she listened, Binna couldn’t believe what they were saying. She remembers repeating, “Are you serious? Are you guys serious?”

The next thing she felt, she says, was embarrassment. “I was ashamed. I was mad,” recalls Binna. Mad that she had believed a lie for three months. Embarrassed that her friends, her relatives, the Korean newspapers, local TV stations, the police—everyone except her—knew her father had killed his family. She had already wept daily for the loss of her loved ones, but now the tears poured out like an angry, unstoppable river.

***

Although she has no memory of the actual shooting, everything about it haunts her. A protective older sister even post-mortem, she worries that her younger brother Matthew may have been awake when their dad shot him because he was found under his bed. Did the sound of gun shots wake him? Did he crawl under his bed to try to hide? How terrified must he have felt if he saw his dad enter his room with a gun, point it at his face and then pull the trigger?

Matthew was not your typical boy. He didn’t like rough play and had a lot of female friends, recalls Binna. “Instead of drawing guns, he would draw hearts and flowers,” she says. “He was very sensitive, very shy.”

Binna thinks he had their mom’s personality and called him a “mama’s boy.” Big sister tried to toughen him up, but it didn’t work, she says. “I would yell at him. I was really mean to him, and I regret that a lot,” she continues, the tears returning.

She also worries she took her mother for granted and wishes she had told her how much she appreciated her. Such regrets linger, and may never completely leave her, says Binna, who has been seeing a therapist ever since the shooting.

“But it’s gotten much better,” she says. “I just try to think that I was so young then. I didn’t know any better.”

After Binna was released from the rehabilitation center three months following the trauma, she went to live with best friend Deborah’s family, who took her in under a court-approved agreement. Binna’s closest blood relatives lived in Korea and, for Binna, moving there was out of the question. (Binna’s paternal grandmother in Korea, along with an aunt on her dad’s side, was still alive at the time of the shooting. They learned about the murder-suicide through a Korean TV broadcast.)

A second cousin in Los Angeles also offered to take care of Binna, but the teen didn’t feel close to her and instead asked Deborah’s parents if she could be their third daughter. Although barely scraping together a living as apartment managers, Binna says, Mi Sun and Hyok Dong Kim never hesitated in saying yes.

The outward display of love and affection by her “current family,” as she calls her parents and two sisters, was “pleasantly different” from the dynamics of her biological family, who didn’t give hugs or tell each other “I love you,” says Binna. (Her current family did not want to be interviewed for this article.)

She credits this network of new family and close friends, mostly from her church and high school, for helping her get through those initial months and years since the shooting.

“They were just with me,” explains Binna. “They spent time with me, and I needed that. I needed someone to talk to, and it didn’t have to be about my feelings or my current situation. Just being there for me … and knowing that I’m loved and someone cares about me—just that.”



An entire community, in fact, showed incredible compassion. Even strangers who had read about her in a Los Angeles Times magazine cover story reached out. A designer sent her a box full of her favorite-brand clothing after learning she loved fashion and that her biological family’s home was burglarized after the shooting. An anonymous benefactor gave her $10,000 and urged her to go on a Rodeo Drive shopping spree; she still carries around a Balenciaga bag that she purchased with part of that money.

When the high school sophomore returned to school, schoolmates and teachers at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies embraced her. No one made fun of her when she limped to class with a cane. No one stared at the right side of her face, which is still partially paralyzed and hangs lower than the left side. In such a supportive and familiar environment, she felt she could at least try to move on.

But that sense of security and hope crumbled when she left for college in 2008. At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, virtually everyone was a stranger. Still, she hoped college could offer new lifelong friends. She was stunned then when it seemed a new group of students would pick on her every week, calling her names or laughing out loud when they saw her limping to class.

“One guy imitated the way I walk right in front of me, and he would laugh with his friends,” describes Binna. “Yeah, just douchebags.”

Feeling self-conscious and lacking confidence, she just walked away. “I didn’t have enough courage to say something to him,” she says.

Desperate for kinship and understanding, she confided her story to her dorm roommate. But instead of showing her the kindness she craved, her roommate, she says, looked at her incredulously and stopped speaking to her for the rest of the school year.

Feelings of shame and anger came flooding back. “I was sad 24/7,” she recalls, letting the tears flow freely. “Just depressed, negative thoughts all the time.”

Her grades hit rock bottom, as did her self-esteem. She often starved herself so she wouldn’t have to leave her room to get food and risk facing her fellow students. “I just didn’t want anyone looking at me and saying, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong with her face.’

“My first year was the most difficult time I’ve ever been through in my life,” Binna continues. Even worse than the months after the shooting? “Yes,” she replies without hesitation.

Through her darkest days, Binna’s friends urged her to hang on, promising it would get easier. She remembers one day in particular frantically calling her former eighth-grade English teacher to come pick her up at her dorm. When she arrived, Binna sat in her car and cried for hours.

Annie Costanzo—whom Binna only had for one semester in junior high and had hardly even known before the shooting—had become a pillar of strength since first visiting her in the hospital. Not only would she drive to Loyola during rush hour if Binna called her, she also would help Binna take care of disability paperwork so that the college student could receive more time on tests or explain why she might be late to class since she walks slowly from the limp.

“She’s like the white mom I never had,” says Binna, cracking a smile. “You know, [after the shooting], a lot of people went to the newspapers and said, ‘I’m going to help [Binna],’ like my dad’s friends or just random people, and that never happened. [Mrs. Costanzo] was one of the very few that said she would help me and really did. She’s always been there for me.”

Binna remembers Costanzo giving her advice once that really stuck. “She was telling me, sometimes you have to tell people your story so that they understand where you’re coming from and why sometimes you might feel down one day and happy the next. She would always help me talk through my feelings.”



By her sophomore year, Binna could feel her legs getting stronger and faster with all the walking between classes. She joined the Korean student group on campus and made new friends. And she decided to take Costanzo’s advice to open up to these new friends about her “secret.” Her grades began improving. She found a job and an internship related to her communications major.

There have certainly been setbacks, times when she’s plunged back into a deep depression, but now in her third year of college, Binna says she feels more confident and secure. Referencing that one student who once imitated how she walked, she says that today she wouldn’t just let it go. “If that happened now, it would be a totally different story,” she says, her voice strong and passionate. “Oh my God, I would go up to his face and ask him what his problem was.” What changed? “I don’t know,” says Binna. “Just time and being wiser.”

***

It’s from this vantage point that she’s also been able to come to terms with her father’s horrific act that night five years ago. One senses she’s spent considerable time trying to investigate and understand his personal backstory so that she could, at least, attempt to make peace with “the accident,” as she calls it.

As Binna tells it, Sang In Kim was a man constantly disappointed by life. His own father died when he was just 2 years old. He and his three siblings were raised by a chain-smoking, emotionless mother who punished her children severely whenever they did anything wrong. One of his brothers died young of an illness he caught during the Vietnam War. The other killed himself.

By age 38, Sang In Kim seemed headed down the path of eternal bachelorhood when his sister convinced Binna’s mom, then 30, to marry him. The sister thought Young Ok, who was among the most zealous, devout Christians at their church, could turn her brother’s aimless life around. Binna’s mom agreed, and took him on more like a project than a husband. “They never loved each other,” says Binna. “They didn’t even like each other.”

Binna’s relatives described her mother as a “very energetic, very lively” woman who was always happy and spontaneous when she was single. But soon after she married, her husband ordered her to be quiet, obedient and serious. Over the years, her mother grew depressed. Though she loved her children very much, she wouldn’t dare question her husband, a strict disciplinarian. Binna remembers her father once slapping her for not doing her homework. Shocked and hurt, she looked to her mother. Binna’s mom, emotionless, turned and kept cleaning the kitchen.

Binna’s dad had worked at a printing company in Seoul that made fake U.S. visas. One day he decided to make one for himself, and that’s how he entered the United States. He got a job managing a motel in Koreatown, and rode his bicycle around Los Angeles so he could save money. Binna and her mother finally joined him from Korea when Binna was 10 months old.

Her father, who would later work as a realtor, was constantly stressed about not having enough money, recalls Binna. And yet, he seemed generous to a fault. Once, he loaned an acquaintance a large sum of cash and never heard from the borrower again.

Another time, he and Binna got into a huge fight. He took her to the Santa Monica pier, one of his favorite spots, to try to make it up to her. When she wouldn’t be consoled, he angrily asked her, “Are you embarrassed because your parents are poor?” But for Binna, money was the furthest thing from her mind.

About six months before the shooting, Binna noticed her father was acting more stressed than ever. He was trying to start an American restaurant franchise in Seoul, and he had borrowed heavily to finance the project. “I remember my dad on the phone, having tense conversations with people, saying things like, ‘I’ll get you the money,’” Binna recalls.

Ironically, the stress that would eventually lead him to kill his family came at a time when he was finally starting to have a decent relationship with his daughter.

“I was always scared of my dad,” says Binna. “When I would hear him coming home and unlocking the front door, I would get so nervous.” But one day, she mustered up the courage to scream at him, “I get mad at you because that’s all I’ve ever seen from you!” Her dad initially got furious—then began to cry.

“That’s the day when everything changed,” Binna says. “I wasn’t scared of him anymore. I realized he has this tough outer shell, but it was starting to crack. I was beginning to understand where he was coming from.”



That’s also when Binna realized how much she was like him: hard on herself, unwilling to let others in, feeling like she could never be good enough. He is also the one who inspired her love of fashion. He may not have showered her with hugs, but, ever since she was in the fourth grade, he would often surprise her with pretty clothes. “He had good fashion sense,” says Binna. “I wore everything he bought for me.

“I guess it was a way for him to show love.”

And, his actions the night of April 6, 2006, that was out of love, too, Binna says. “He did this to protect us,” she explains. “How much was he suffering that he felt he had to do this, to think this was the only way out?” she says, crying.

“He did this out of love,” Binna repeats, “and I feel hesitant to say that because a lot of people would be really confused by that, and they would think I’m delusional or I’m just trying to make up excuses for something. But, no, he loved us, and he did this because he loved us. I know that’s really hard to wrap your head around, but that’s what I truly believe, and that’s what I will always believe.”

She has forgiven her father.

Binna is aware of the spate of murder-suicides that occurred around the same time in 2006, and just the mention of the other victims gives her pause. “I just felt really sad by it,” she says quietly. “I felt sorry for them.”

At that time, the events unleashed an internal debate within the Korean American community. Some leaders tried to explain that culture, including Confucian ideas, may have been at the root of these Korean fathers taking the lives of their families, not just themselves, to avoid leaving survivors living with shame and disgrace. Others passionately disputed that notion, saying issues of domestic violence or mental health were at play.

Binna says she cannot speak for these other fathers, only her own. But she does note that there should be more organizations that cater to Korean American and Asian American families so that fathers, especially, “can really let down their guard or their pride” and receive support. “It’s just that they, you know, expect and hope their lives will be a certain way and when it’s not, they get so let down and just lose hope, and they just, you know, give up.”

***

Sitting at a Thai restaurant not far from her college campus just a few weeks before Christmas, Binna can say something she never imagined possible five years ago, or even one year ago: She’s happy.

“The best Christmas ever!” Binna posted last month on her Facebook page. “I love my family so much.”

She is turning 21 this month, and gets a glint in her eyes when she thinks about that milestone. “I can’t believe it,” she says. “There’s just so much freedom.”

Once she turns 21, the therapist she’s been seeing will no longer be available to her. She has to find a therapist for “adults.” But because she’s in such a good place, Binna says she is planning to stop therapy.

“If I do need help, of course, I’m going to call,” she says. “I just feel like I’m strong enough. I know more now. I know how to handle situations better. I just want to try standing on my own.”

When asked where she wants to go from here, Binna pauses. “Getting a job. Living on my own,” she replies simply. Then, something very Korean: “Helping support my [current] parents. I want to send them on a nice vacation. I want to buy them a house and a car.”

And today, Binna has dreams—good dreams. Her ideal job would be anything related to fashion: working at a fashion magazine, boutiques, slaving away for a designer—anything. “I just love clothes. If I see something cute or something beautiful, my heart literally melts,” she says, laughing with a slightly embarrassed grin on her face. Her favorite stores are Urban Outfitters, J. Crew and Anthropologie. She admits to visiting style.com daily—she calls the ritual “exercise for the eyes.”

Her immediate goals are physical and emotional. She would love to go out on her first date and have a boyfriend. Someone who accepts and loves her for who she is, someone who touches her tenderly and shows her affection, those things she never got from her biological parents nor witnessed them giving to each other. “We never said ‘I love you’ in my family,” she laments.

At one point, she also mentions that she wants to have children one day—three sons. Although she knows boys can be highly energetic with lots of untamed energy, she thinks it would be “fun.” One can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection to her deceased brother, and the love she still longs to give him.

She hopes, with time and continued physical therapy, the muscles in her face, arm and leg will get stronger, so she doesn’t have to limp, doesn’t have half a smile, doesn’t have to wear flats all the time. “I want to wear heels so bad,” she says, “but I know I can’t do that.” Never? “That’s what my [physical] therapist told me. Because [there] was brain damage. Nerves only grow one millimeter each day.”

And then there’s a longer-term, perhaps eternal, goal: to understand the reason her life was spared.

“Sometimes I go to this church in L.A. with my friends and the pastor there, he has a gift where he can talk to God or he knows what God wants for certain people. He told me. ‘God wants you to share your story.’ That sort of helped me to come out and share my story. [But] I will always ask why this happened to me. Why me? Why my family?

“I know that there is a purpose, but I don’t know what that is. There must be a reason why I’m still here.”



Given that she was in such a “dark place” even a year ago, Binna says she’s proud of herself for coming this far. She has contemplated suicide many times in the past, but says that is no longer an option. “All that therapy, all that hardship I went through, it’s not going to mean anything if I give up. I’ll let my friends down, all the people that support me. There’s just no point in giving up.”

When asked if she has a message for others, she initially declines. “I can’t because I’m not someone who did anything heroic or substantial to tell someone what to do or what they should be feeling,” she answers.

After pondering a few more moments, she changes her mind. She does have a message—first for Korean fathers: “They need to accept that they can’t do everything. They’re not perfect. My dad, he couldn’t accept that. If my dad was here, I would tell him to please stop living in the past.”

Second, for the children of strict Korean fathers like hers: “Try opening up to your dad, and maybe your dad, or parents, will do the same. If my dad was still here, I would just say ‘I love you’ to him, even though he might not say it back. If I could just keep doing that, maybe he’ll get used to it and start saying ‘I love you’ back.”

Then, her message for everyone else: “Don’t worry about little things. Believe that everything will fall into place. That’s what happened to me. I never imagined that I would ever be this strong or this happy. It just happened. And with time, everything will be OK.”

-With additional reporting by Julie Ha