Fargo pastor unveils dark, family history in new book
FARGO — As a Lutheran pastor, Matt Valan is used to contemplating big, important questions.
For most of the last decade he's been obsessed with a simple one: Why?
Why did his sister, Cordee Jo Tungseth, kill her husband, Steve, in cold blood in the summer of 2006?
Valan knew the facts. The couple had a strained relationship that was getting emotionally more distant day by day. That, coupled with Cordee's mental illnesses led her to point a shotgun at her husband's chest as he walked in their kitchen one day and pull the trigger.
"Basically that blew a hole through the fabric of our family," Valan says.
In his search for answers he started journaling, which about seven years ago turned into a book, one he wasn't too interested in publishing.
"It's not about publishing. It's about seeking the truth," he told The Forum in 2011. "For me, I already accomplished what I wanted."
Valan has since decided to publish and "Sister Secrets" is in its second printing with NDSU Press.
Why the change in heart about the book?
"I didn't achieve the truth I thought I had," Valan said recently.
The rough manuscript ended up in the hands of Suzanne Kelley of the publishing house, who called Valan. The work was intriguing, but unfinished.
"It definitely needed some revising and some anger removed," Kelley says. "There were some things he needed to revisit from distance, I felt."
That distance turned beneficial to the author as he looked back through dark family history. The book is about not only Cordee, but her older sister and close friend, Liz.
Like Cordee, Liz struggled with mental illness and bad relationships with men. Like Cordee, her life took an unexpected turn as she died in a car crash after spending the Fourth of July with family and friends.
Liz's death in 2005 triggered Cordee's mental downfall leading up to the murder the following summer.
As the title indicates, the sisters had undisclosed aspects to their lives that they kept to themselves or told only each other.
"The book is about the pain of a lot of family secrets, but also the catharsis that comes with it," Valan says. "What this book helped me discover was how this sweet, wonderful, Christian baby sister could wake up one morning, have a 'nice day' and then kill her husband."
Valan has shared some of the stories before. In 2011, he held a series of special services called "Surviving the Unfathomable" at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Moorhead, where he was pastor from 1997 to 2016. He joined Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in 2016 and has spoken of his family history there and themes of forgiveness on the "Hour of Worship," televised on WDAY, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.
"People are suffering and it helps when public people acknowledge they suffer and survive," Valan says.
He says he learned too little too late to change the tragic course of his sisters' lives, though what he discovered along the way helped answer some of his questions.
He had long assumed his young sisters' wild days in the 1970s and '80s was a form of rebelling from their stern, but loving sugar beet-growing parents. After Liz's death, Cordee told him how her older sister protected her from a sexual assault when they were children by literally switching spots. Liz's attacker was a hired hand on the farm who ate breakfast with the family daily.
When Cordee struggled with an unwanted pregnancy, Liz confided that she'd had an abortion in high school and helped her younger sister terminate the pregnancy.
"At times I was her protector," Valan writes of Cordee. "Other times I failed her miserably. Because of those failures both perceived and real, I am haunted by what I have done and left undone in my relationship with her."
One thing Valan did learn was a fuller diagnosis of Cordee's mental illnesses. In the Women's Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, Minn., where Cordee, now 58, is serving a 28-year term, she's been getting the care she needs, including a diagnosis for schizoaffective disorder, which "ignited a number of disorders" on the day of the shooting, creating a perfectly fatal storm, he says.
Kelley says the book is already helping open discussions about mental health and getting treatment.
One thread of conversations Valan may not be having are with Cordee's four children, who, he says, are moving on with their lives and not excited about the book.
"I may be estranged from them for the rest of my life," Valan says. "It made it easier (writing the book) knowing it could help. When you reveal so much of your history it's intense personally and with family."