Shelly Michael was born Michelle Lynette Goots at the United Hospital Center, Clarksburg, West Virginia, on January 29, 1972—the first child of Michael and Kathi Goots. Her greatgrandfather had come from a small town in Italy, emigrating to America at the beginning of the 20th century, settling in West Virginia.
Nestled in the rolling hills of north central West Virginia, Clarksburg lies where the West Fork River meets Elk Creek. Known as “Jewel in the Hills,” it was founded in 1785 and named for General George Rogers Clark, an American Revolutionary War hero known as “the Conqueror of the Old Northwest,” for forcing the British to cede the territory to America as part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Clarksburg’s most famous son was Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, who was born there in 1824, leaving at the age of 18 to go to West Point. During the Civil War, it was an important Union Army supply depot, and the remains of Union earthworks are still on display in Lowndes Hill Park, attracting thousands of Civil War buffs each year.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Clarksburg owed its prosperity to coal mines and natural gas fields. It was a flourishing industrial and shipping center, producing high quality glass and metal products. But in the second half of the 20th century, the town fell into a deep decline, with the population dropping from 32,000 in 1950 to just 18,000 today.
Michael Goots’ father John Batista, known to everyone as J.B., was born in Clarksburg, working most of his life as manager of the Broughton Dairies. His wife Geraldine bore him nine children, and Michael was born on November 18, 1950.
A good-looking, ambitious boy, he was always fascinated by his Italian heritage, dreaming of one day seeing the old country for himself.
At 16 he met Katherine Grant, who was two grades below him at Notre Dame High School, and they started dating.
“It was love at first sight,” recalled Michael.
“I’m not so sure I would categorize it that way,” said Kathi. “But we go a long way back.”
The two teenagers courted in local church coffee houses, going dancing on the weekends. After graduating from Notre Dame, Michael went to refrigeration school, before getting a job with a local company called Wuchner Equipment.
In early 1971, 18-year-old Kathi found herself pregnant. So on June 11, the young couple were married at the Immaculate Conception Catholic church, moving into a trailer on Chub Run Road, in Mount Clare, just outside Clarksburg.
The following January, Kathi gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. They named her Michelle, after her father.
“She was a good baby,” recalled Kathi. “I was lucky.”
Soon after Michelle’s birth, Kathi’s father William Grant died from alcoholism. Then Kathi, who was also now working for Wuchner Equipment, hired a babysitter to look after the new arrival.
In summer 1974, Michael Goots moved his family out of the trailer to 204 Grant Street in Clarksburg, next door to his parents. He then began an extensive remodeling of the whole house.
At 2 years old, Michelle, who had been dubbed “Shelly Bean” by an aunt, had eye surgery for strabismus, a condition where one eye cannot focus with the other.
Soon afterwards, Kathi became pregnant again. On November 11, 1975, she gave birth to another daughter, who they named Jennifer.
With a growing family, Michael and Kathi worked long hours to make ends meet, employing nannies and babysitters to look after their daughters.
When the owner of Wuchner Equipment died, Michael Goots took over the company, renaming it Thermex Refrigeration. He appointed Kathi as office manager, officially incorporating the new company on the Bicentennial.
“July fourth, 1976, is the day we started,” remembered Kathi. “Well, that’s what we put on our business papers and everything.”
Over the next few years their new company prospered. As Michael worked long hours and was on call around the clock, he rarely saw his two little girls. Shelly would later remember one of the many nannies her parents employed, as being “very strict,” often hitting her with a paddle if she misbehaved.
As her grandparents, two aunts and an uncle all lived on Grant Street, Shelly’s father’s house became the “neighborhood hangout.” Some of the little girl’s earliest memories are of playing hide-and-seek and kick-the-can with her cousins.
At the age of 5, Shelly started kindergarten, soon impressing her teachers with her keen natural intelligence.
“She was just real high-spirited,” said her mother. “Bouncy and tomboyish, and she liked just about everything.”
At kindergarten, the tiny dark-haired girl became best friends with Renee Orme, whose parents were close friends of the Goots family.
“We were baptized on the same day in the Immaculate Conception,” said Renee. “Our first interaction was in kindergarten, that’s how far back we do go.”
One afternoon, Shelly was walking home from kindergarten with an aunt, when they saw a woman get hit by a car and thrown into the air and injured. Shelly suspected it was her mother, still lying on the ground awaiting medical help. And as her aunt led her away from the scene, she kept asking if it was her mother, but the aunt refused to answer.
Later Shelly discovered it had indeed been her mom, who spent several days in the hospital with a broken hip.
On April 23, 1979, Michael and Kathi had their third child, a baby boy they named Matthew, who would complete the family.
That summer, Shelly and Renee started at St. Mary’s Elementary School, in Clarksburg. It was part of the Catholic School System, with nuns providing a strict religious education. All the girls had to wear severe navy blue uniforms, and Shelly was embarrassed by her mother making her wear a plaid jumper with matching tie on school picture days.
Years later, Kathi admits to having been a disciplinarian, imposing an 8:00 p.m. curfew and always expecting her children to be well-behaved. She laid down strict rules to be followed at home and would punish the children if they didn’t obey.
“I was very very strict,” she explained. “I guess I was a little too strict maybe.”
Michael, who was seldom at home, left the children’s discipline to his wife.
“But we had no real problems with Shelly,” said Kathi. “She might lip a little . . . but that’s about all.”
Shelly would later describe her parents as “not very affectionate people,” complaining that she rarely received “hugs and kisses.” She also felt that her father did not give her enough “quality time,” as he was so busy building his business.
Shelly hated her mother’s curfew, as her friends were allowed to stay out playing far later. Often, after doing her homework, Shelly would sit alone in her bedroom, playing her favorite Blondie and Michael Jackson singles over and over again on her record player. When MTV was launched in late 1981, she became addicted to watching music videos.
She and her best friend Renee loved participating in the annual St. Mary’s Christmas pageant and other talent shows. They once dressed up as the Go-Go’s, performing their big hit that year, “We Got the Beat,” as well as giving several roller-skating performances.
It was the first time Shelly had performed in front of an audience, and she loved it.
At the age of 9, Shelly claims to have been sexually molested by someone close to her family, who forced her to masturbate him.
“[I]t made me feel terrible inside,” she later wrote. “I never told any one about it because I was too ashamed.”
That same year, she started cheerleading for Pop Warner, the junior football and cheerleading organization dating back to 1929. Her mother enthusiastically pushed her into cheerleading for the Clarksburg Bears junior football team. Over the next few years, she would become her daughter’s biggest fan, attending every game Shelly cheered in.
“She really loved cheerleading,” remembered Kathi Goots. “It just struck her . . . and just stayed with it.”
Cheerleading soon became the most important thing in Shelly Goots’ life. She loved the applause of the crowd, when she back-flipped across the football field. And it fulfilled a deep need she would always have, to be admired and respected.
Years later, she would complain that her father was usually too busy to see her in action, writing about her excitement on the rare occasions when he did.
In 1984, a Clarksburg newspaper wrote a story about Shelly and another student making it to the final of the Junior High Division of the Individual Cheerleading competition. There was a photograph of the grinning 12-year-old, holding a giant pom-pom.
The now yellowing clipping remains one of her most treasured possessions.
In May 1985, Shelly started junior high at Notre Dame High School, where her father had gone. Renee Orme went along with her, and they both immediately tried out for the cheerleading squad.
At the time it was a requirement that cheerleaders do back-handsprings, so the tenacious 13-year-old spent weeks practicing hour-after-hour to perfect her technique. But she kept falling on her neck, and just could not get it right.
“She stuck at it,” recalled her mother. “In Junior high she wouldn’t or couldn’t do a back-handspring. And I was working on it [with her]. Her cheering advisor said, ‘Michelle, if you can’t do your back-handspring, you’re going to have to sit over there, and we’re going to stop the practice until you do it.’ ”
Eventually Shelly mastered it, quickly learning a lot more throws and tumbling tricks.
“Cheerleading was my life,” she later recalled. “I loved everything about it.”
Shelly was proud to be a Notre Dame cheerleader, going along as they won several state championships. She loved being known in town as the best, delighting in wearing the squad’s “trademark” pigtails, fondly known as “Mickey Mouse ears,” in their hair.
“That was something she was always passionate about,” recalled Renee, also on the cheerleading squad. “It was just something that was an important part of her.”
By the time Shelly joined Notre Dame High School, she was a driving force behind the cheerleading team. She modeled herself on the squad’s experienced coach, Carol Morrison, who was from Kentucky.
“One of my ‘idols,’ ” Shelly later wrote. “I wanted to be just like her; a successful career woman, an excellent cheering coach, and a great mother and wife.”
But Shelly Goots didn’t just make a name for herself, cheerleading on the football field. She was also a straight-A student, and at the top of her class in science and math.
“She excelled academically,” recalled Renee. “Always great grades. It seemed to come easy to her.”
Shelly also found time to run track, swim and play basketball. She was an active member of the student council, on the yearbook committee, manager of the school store, a member of the Key Club and the Spanish club, and vice-president of the National Honor Society.
“She did it all,” remembered her sister Jennifer, who was two years behind her in school. “And she was very popular.”
According to Renee Orme, Shelly never had a single enemy in high school.
“She had no airs about her,” she said. “She was just this little tiny girl with a lot of energy.”
As his business prospered, Michael Goots took off alternate weekends from work to devote to his family. He would take his three children camping in the mountains, or to the racetrack, where he competed in truck and stock car races. And they also vacationed at Virginia Beach, Niagara Falls and amusement parks all over the East Coast.
“Shelly’s family was loving, supportive and tight-knit,” said Renee Orme, who joined them on several vacations.
On Christmas Eve, three generations of Gootses would gather at grandfather John Batista’s house, for the traditional family celebration.
“We’d have a big family get-together,” said Jennifer. “Shelly played a big role in it.”
But Jennifer had problems growing up in the shadow of her over-achieving older sister.
“We didn’t get along all that well,” she admitted. “I guess there was too much sibling rivalry. Shelly’s super smart, super athletic, super everything.”
Later Shelly would explain that her need to excel masked feelings of deep insecurity and low self-esteem. Although she was an exceptionally pretty girl with the perfect body of an athlete, Shelly considered herself plain and unattractive. In her early teens she developed bad acne, making her insecure around boys.
“Most of my friends were very pretty,” she later recalled. “I was just referred to as the ‘nice’ one.”
Excerpted from Playing with Fire by John Glatt.
Copyright © 2010 by John Glatt.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.