Category Archives: Survivors

The Hole

1983_titleMy life has been a paean to the many ways in which society can marginalise, harm, exploit and disempower women. I’ve written extensively about some of those themes — forced adoption, the Magdalene Laundries, and the treatment of women by State, society and religion, particularly in Ireland.

I’m finally ready to write about a part of my life I don’t frequently discuss. It’s been twenty-one years since the event that turned my life upside down and it’s not that I’m afraid to talk about it. It has threads that connect to other parts of my story, who I am — adopted adult, mother of loss, daughter of a Magdalene. I have discussed it before, but typically it’s been through the lens of another journalist or documentary-maker, or as an adjunct to those other topics. Today I want it to be in my voice, and I want to give it the gravitas it deserves.

In 1983, I set off from the home where I was raised outside Philadelphia to take on a new job, a new adventure, in Orlando, Florida. I was 23 and brimming with the joy of being on my own for the first time. It was a move I needed to make. My relationship with my adoptive mother had grown toxic. It had been only five years since I was forced to relinquish my own daughter for adoption, and I hadn’t even begun to heal that wound. My mother’s attempts to gloss over it and get me on a path to “forgetfulness” and “moving on” (classic industry-designed tropes to brainwash we mothers of lost children) were grating on me. I’d spent the better part of five years alternating between self-medicating, sport-fucking and trying the role of “ultra good girl,” all with dismal results. After the shame and stigma I’d experienced being a pregnant, Catholic high school senior, my self worth was too far into negative digits for me to be successful at any type of “healing.” But my adopted self was very good at faking it. I’d been doing that for far longer. So  I gritted my teeth and struggled. And when the opportunity came to take a job that would place me far away from the “scene of my crime, ” I jumped at the chance to escape the claustrophobic confines of a controlling environment where I’d always been expected to fit in and act normal. Whatever the hell that is.

1983
Fake it ’til you make it, 1983. Wounds don’t heal easily. Especially the internal ones.

Moving 1100 miles south seemed just the ticket. And for a while, it was. Unfortunately, I lost a stable relationship with a good guy as a result. I suppose I naively thought he might follow, since at the time of my move he was unemployed (in fact, he was the one who spotted a job advertisement for the very position I was taking in Orlando, and urged me to apply for it). But I just didn’t count on the strong family and community ties he had in Philadelphia. He simply couldn’t break those, and I resigned myself to it. Inwardly, the negative-digit self worth gnawed at me and I ticked the mental box that said “he’s just too good for me.” After all, I was “damaged goods” in respectable people’s eyes, right?

So I shed a few outward tears and ploughed into my work and new friends. I had some good times, and I made some good friendships and kick-started a great career. At the end of my first year there, my parents and grandmother made plans to come down over the Christmas holidays in 1983. It turned out to be one of the coldest winters on record in Florida, and temperatures plunged to below freezing in Orlando for a few days. I recall being out shopping just a day before Christmas eve when my family was due in, and wearing shorts and a t-shirt out in the warm sun. The next day, I was scrambling for the only warm coat I’d brought with me, cursing that I had no gloves, and slipping on a patch of ice as I walked out the front door to pick up my family at the airport.

What was worse was that we’d made plans to do Epcot and Disney, and temperatures were expected to remain in the 30’s throughout Christmas week.  We struggled through it, and by the end of the week, on a trip out to Clearwater, it was warm enough for us to chuck our shoes and wade through the gulf waters (at least briefly!)

One night during the visit, my dad had asked if I would take him to our local bar to sit and talk and have a few drinks. I knew it would be good for us both to get away for a bit from my domineering mother and her equally domineering mother. Plus, although I’d given up smoking before I left Philadelphia, I had taken up the fags again shortly before that Christmas, and while determined not to let my mother know I was smoking again, I was desperate for one and had no opportunity thus far to sneak out during their visit. So off my dad and I went, grateful for the time alone. We sat nursing a drink in the local, me sucking on a cigarette, my dad on his omnipresent stogie, when he suddenly said, “Listen, Mari…you know I’m no good at these things. But I have something I need to tell you. When you got pregnant, I so desperately wanted to be able to help you and Doug [the father] keep the baby. I knew if anyone could do it, it would be you, with a little help. But you have to understand, your mother was about to have a nervous breakdown and was constantly at me to do something. I didn’t know what to do, so to my great shame, we let her have her way. Even your aunt and uncle didn’t agree with her. I want to you to know that. We didn’t want it to turn out that way for you, and I feel miserable about it. But I wanted to tell you that I think about it every day and wish I could make it up to you. It was wrong.”

All I could do was reach out and hug and kiss him, with tears streaming down both our faces. It meant the world for me to hear him say that. Not that it changed anything, nor could it. What was done was done. But to know that it was not his intent meant so much. The rest of their visit was made so much easier by that admission. We went out to Kennedy Space Center, which I knew he would love, and even the time spent with my mom and granny became enjoyable. Soon they returned to Philly and I returned to my life in Orlando, feeling as though at least a ten-pound weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

But I was still not dealing with the self-esteem issues entirely, and was making some bad choices in men. There were brief flings and one-nights that I knew would lead nowhere, yet it was almost like self-flagellation. I think I was even self-aware enough at the time to know it, yet ignored my primal self screaming out in protest. One night, in our favourite little honkey-tonk on the outskirts of Orlando, I met a guy who looked like a fallen angel. Limpid blue, blue eyes; a tragic countenance that would befit a poet. I was sucked in like a moth to a flame. And as it turned out, this man Alan even saw himself as a poet. After some deep conversation and a few drinks (the type of dangerous bar liaison to which we should all know better than to fall prey), he suggested we go back to where he was living and he’d show me some poems he’d written. He might as well have suggested a view of his proverbial etchings, it was that clichéd.

But go I did. Turned out he was staying with a divorced, middle-aged woman and her young adult son in a comfy rancher on Orlando’s southeast side. I was told to be quiet so as not to wake his landlady, and off we crept to his room. We did read his poetry (it was pretty awful) and nothing else transpired that night, as he had to be up early to help his landlady with a newspaper route she franchised. But we agreed to meet up the next night. Things blossomed pretty quickly from there, and soon we were sharing our innermost foibles in life. I hope readers will see the elements in the story of his life that should have served as a red flag for me. Perhaps they will be a useful road map for some young woman considering a relationship with a man as impossibly damaged as this one was. But at the time, I was completely blind to those red flags.

I told him about my lost daughter, and he seemed sympathetic and kind about it. He told me all about his life. About how his father had physically abused his own mother, to the point where she ran off with Alan, his older brother and a sister who was still in utero at the time.  About how his mother ended up with an even more abusive man two states over, with five children of his own; how his mother was nearly beaten to death by this man, and how he, his brother and his now newborn sister were left fighting for scraps of food with the other children. About how the state intervened, removed Alan and his siblings and an emergency phone call was placed to his father in North Carolina to come collect the children. His grandparents years later related to me that when his father got the children and he made a stop on the return at their home in western North Carolina, the three young children were emaciated, withdrawn and ate like they hadn’t seen a meal in weeks. He told me how he struggled in school with what was likely ADHD, and railed against his father and new stepmother. How he said he believed his father had been caught in a homosexual dalliance by his stepmother and a vicious fight ensued, involving his stepmother coming at his father with a two-by-four, and his father attempting to run over her with his pickup truck.

And how he finally ran away at age 15 to be with his mother, who was now finally settled in a good relationship with a new husband in California, but suffering from lifelong (and ultimately fatal) ill-health, a result of the brutal beatings from her second partner. They actually got him on (then new) treatment for ADHD, and he started improving in school in California. But for reasons he didn’t relate (perhaps some petty teenage rage), he ran away yet again, this time back to his father in North Carolina. He got a job washing trucks for Ryder, but was caught when he took one of the trucks out on a joyride, bringing along the 15-year old daughter of a local sheriff, and crossing state lines in said truck. 17 at the time he was nabbed, butt-naked with a sheriff’s 15-year old daughter in the cab, but 18 at sentencing, he was remanded as an adult to Rock Hill penitentiary in South Carolina.

When he told me this last bit of his story, we were several months into our relationship and I had wondered at his unusual reticence at certain sexual acts. He didn’t like to have his ass touched. And then he told me about his prison stint and it came tumbling into place. I should have realized that an exceptionally pretty, golden-haired, blue-eyed southern boy in prison would be juicy “meat.” In greater hindsight, I also wonder if he hadn’t been similarly abused by members of his own family. All the red flags were there. And there was another very odd one that I actually picked up on early. One night, as we lay in bed together, I noticed a strong chemical smell emanating from him. I commented on it, and he quickly brushed it off as some solvent he had been working with on his job at the time, which was applying the outer surfacing to the new Stanton Energy Center towers in Orlando.

But I was blinded by his love and acceptance of damaged-goods me.  I was willing to accept his troubled youth, dysfunctional family, prison history and odd smells. We agreed to move in together and took a small townhouse in Orlando.  I was the one who began making marriage noises, and he eventually did propose, but later said he felt I had given him an “ultimatum.” My parents were (rightfully so) skeptical of the whole relationship. They didn’t really know Alan, he was a foreign concept to them — Southern Baptist boy to our Irish Catholic — they just didn’t get it, but eventually accepted the situation and our Philadelphia wedding took place in June 1985. I met his family for the first time just two weeks before the wedding, and all his stories aside, they seemed polite, decent enough folks. I particularly liked (and still do) his older brother Will and sister Sherry. His younger stepsister Tracey seemed a bit sullen, but she was a young teen at the time, so I chalked it up to the usual teen angst.

We settled into married life and our home, and things were relatively normal. Alan had an interest in some hobbies that seemed rather strange to me, but nothing alarming. Like most North Carolina boys, he loved his cars. He had a battered old Toyota Corolla when we met, and when it seemed the poor old thing was was about to disintegrate, he came across a nearly as-battered old Chevelle and half-heartedly restored it. When both vehicles gave up the ghost, he talked me into leveraging my ’83 Buick into a trade on a new Toyota truck for him and a slightly-used Toyota Celica for me. I should’ve realized then that I was getting the short shrift, but alas — love. He also was heavily into CB radios at the time. They were long past their mid-70’s popularity, but he was enthralled, and bought a new CB unit for both his car and the house. He would spend hours chatting late into the night with strangers on the home unit. I suppose today he’d probably be in Internet chat rooms, but this was a few years before the advent of the web. And maybe that’s a good thing.

I recall at one point, after one of his late-night CB marathons, I grew exasperated and went to call him to bed. I found him in our guest room, sitting on the floor, going through an old photo album. I’d never seen this album before and asked him what he was looking at. With a sigh, he beckoned me down on the floor with him and pointed out a photo of a stunning young girl. “Who’s that?” I asked. “That’s Shelby’,” he replied, as if I should know who this Shelby person, previously unmentioned, was. I looked at him quizzically, and with another sigh, he proceeded to tell me how after he’d gotten out of prison in South Carolina, he met up with a pretty young woman who he quickly moved in with. While he hadn’t much to say about her, he waxed on poetically for the better part of an hour about how beautiful and exceptional her young (perhaps five or six at the time) daughter Shelby was. I never learned Shelby’s mother’s name — he never said it. But the whole thing was odd, and there wasn’t much said about why his relationship with this woman ended, what happened with the daughter, or anything more on the topic. The whole conversation left me perplexed and with more questions than answers, but that was Alan — ever quixotic.

Several months after that, Alan took on a new job, going into business with a local man. This man was not without his own checkered past: at one time, he was the popular, gregarious Orange County Commissioner, until one fateful night he got into an argument with his then wife and shot and killed her. He served a few years’ time in prison, much to the outrage of many Orlando citizens. When he was released, chastened and with no hope of reviving his political career, he decided to open a lawn spray company around the corner from where we lived. Alan got to chatting with him, and soon, they agreed to partner up (although it was never committed to paper). The business actually began to thrive, and between my salary and Alan’s, we agreed it was time to find a bigger place and start a family. But before that move occurred, I discovered something about Alan that would serve as the Achilles’ heel of our relationship forever.

I had been away for two days on business, going downstate to help a new banking client install an ATM network and issue debit cards. It’s what I did, and I loved my job. I traveled mostly within Florida, and got to see a good bit of the state and meet really interesting and nice folks. Sometimes we serviced clients in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Alan seemed proud of my work, my intelligence and my expertise. If we were out at a bar or restaurant with friends, he would often brag about my career. It was nice but oddly uncomfortable at the same time. On this night, returning home from my client, I entered the house and couldn’t immediately find Alan, although his car was outside. So I entered our garage, thinking he might be in there working on something. As soon as I opened the door, I smelled that odd yet familiar chemical odor — the same one I had first smelled early in our relationship. I looked toward the riser at the back of the garage where our washer and dryer sat, and saw Alan quickly trying to conceal something in his pocket. “What’s that?” I asked. At first he tried to act like I’d seen nothing, but after a few moments, he looked down, gave another one of his infamous sighs, and said, “Well, I guess it’s time you meet my mistress…”

With that, he pulled out a crumpled plastic baggie with what looked like snot in it, and held it aloft to me. “What the hell is that?!” I asked. He calmly said, “It’s model cement. I sniff it.” A million thoughts ran through my head:  old after-school specials on glue-huffing, vague warnings from teachers in days of yore — none of it was coalescing into a rational thought. I knew what it was, I had heard the stories, but I’d never in my sheltered, suburban life ever met anyone who sniffed glue. Sure, we had all smoked our share of pot, engaged in some under-aged drinking — but this? This was completely foreign territory to me. I began to pepper him with questions: how does this get you high? What kind of high is it? Why do you do it? Isn’t it dangerous? I thought about my own alcoholic adoptive brother and his struggles with the disease, his identity/abandonment issues and the havoc it had wrought in our family. When I met and married Alan, my brother had already been booted from our family home and was currently going through his own serious ups and downs, including a motorcycle wreck and legal battles.

He began to tell me how he was introduced to it: after breaking up with the eponymous Shelby’s mother, he drifted south to Florida in search of work and a fresh start. He wound up in Tallahassee, finding work in construction on new campus buildings at Florida State University and at the state capitol. He also found a room with some girls who lived off-campus. He claimed it was they who introduced him to the art of huffing, and he was immediately hooked. My mind was just blown. Having just come off a four-hour drive, I was exhausted and just couldn’t wrap my head around this any further, so I told him we’d talk about it later and went off to bed.

The next day, he left before I did for work. When I got to work, I looked up numbers for local rehab centers, thinking, “I’ve got to get this guy help. We can’t be starting a family or continue a relationship if he’s on this stuff.” I nervously dialed the number to a facility and was quickly put in touch with a specific substance abuse therapist after explaining what I was facing with my husband. The woman I spoke with was very knowledgeable — she had done her early training on a reservation in Arizona, and had frequently encountered glue-sniffing as a popular, cheap high among the tribe. She explained that the detox for huffing was long and complicated — it took nearly 30 days to clean the system of the chemicals, and then the real head work began. She also explained that the damage done to the brain and other organs was often permanent, unlike with alcohol or other drugs, where full physical organ recovery (before the addiction becomes chronic or acute) has a much better success rate. It sounded very grim to me, and I was determined I would help Alan get off this lethal stuff.

That night, I had a serious discussion with Alan. I explained that I couldn’t see a future for us if he continued down this path of destruction. I told him about the woman I’d spoken with, and that it seemed his best chance for recovery was in a facility with an experienced therapist like her, who understood the substance he was using. By the time we finished talking, he had somehow managed to convince me he didn’t need rehab, but was steadfast in his desire to quit sniffing glue.

And he did. For a while. We made our move into a much bigger, nice rancher in the Belle Isle section of southeast Orlando (not far from where acquitted child-killer Casey Anthony lived). But I quickly discovered that when Alan stopped using glue, he’d increase his drinking. His preference was Michelob beer, and for a slight guy, he could put it away. Sometimes he’d augment this with Crown Royal, which really made him a horrible, angry SOB. I soon discovered that the glue was what made him the dreamy, trippy poet. Alcohol gave him anger and a “mouth” and on more than one occasion, I witnessed him corner himself into a battle with some guy twice his size and get the lights battered out of him.

But after a few clockings by guys he should’ve known better than to tangle with, he started turning his rage on me. At first, as is typical of abusers, it wasn’t physical. It started with possessiveness and controlling where and with whom I went. He had gotten a speeding ticket and because he’d amassed a few before it, he was now at his maximum number of “points,” and as a result, either had to take a defensive driving course or risk losing his license. The night he had his scheduled class, I had accepted a last-minute offer to meet up with a workmate at her place after work, thinking he wouldn’t be home until later anyway. This was some years before cell phones.  Unbeknownst to me, Alan had started a pot of beans simmering before leaving for his class.  He always fancied himself some sort of master chef, although I never, ever saw him attempt more than a pot of beans. I later learned he had called and left a message at home to tell me he had started the beans. But of course, not being home, I didn’t know. Needless to say, by the time I did arrive, an hour or so later than I usually would have, there was a scalding pot of beans on the stove.

When Alan returned from his class and learned his beans had been burned, he flew into a rage. He shouted about the message he’d left, accused me of “stepping out” on him, and picked up the answering machine, flinging it into (and through) a wall. I was left shaking at the outburst. He’d never displayed such anger directed at me.  And his answer to my alleged “stepping out”? Why, to go out until late into the night drinking, of course.

The next day he was full of remorse (typical pattern), apologized for his outburst and said he should’ve phoned me earlier at work to tell me he was going to start the pot of beans. I accepted the apology, and life returned to a somewhat normal pace.

In April of 1986, I discovered I was pregnant. Life with Alan had stabilized to a large degree, and we were both overjoyed at the prospect of being parents. Even my parents were thrilled at the prospect of their first (well, actually second — of course mom had conveniently completely forgotten her first, born nearly ten years prior) grandchild. We discovered a rancher similar to the one we were currently renting, but much closer to both our employers, and decided to make another move before the baby was born. I had a happy, healthy pregnancy and nothing marred life until just two months before I was due.

It was an unusually bitter cold night in late November, and Alan had gone out with a co-worker of his, a lawn tech he and his partner Ed had hired named Charles. I had never liked this man and Alan had frequently mentioned that Charles had some serious drug and alcohol problems. I’d often told Alan to steer clear of him. Association with Charles would certainly not help his own issues, or the company, and Alan largely complied. But this one night, Alan said that Charles wanted to talk to him, so he agreed to meet up with him. Around 10 pm that evening, Alan came bursting through our front door, looking as if he’d seen a ghost. He saw me with a mug in my hand, and said, “What are you drinking?” “Hot cocoa,” I replied. “Give it to me,” he demanded, and gulped it down. “What the hell is going on?” I asked. In a rush, he told me that he and Charles, coming back from a bar, had run off the road and into a neighbor’s yard just down the road from us. Apparently he’d hit the neighbor’s electrical guy wire and totaled both the neighbor’s orange tree and his own pickup truck. I said as calmly as I could, “What the hell? How much have you had to drink?” He said he’d had a few — enough that he’d probably get popped for DUI, but he knew he’d have to call the police, given the property damage involved. However, his rationale was he wanted to try to sober himself up and left the scene of the nearby accident to run to our home. “Where’s Charles?” I asked. He hesitated a moment, then mumbled, “He took off.” “What?!” I asked incredulously. “Yeah, he took off…apparently he had an unregistered gun on him and didn’t want to be caught with it. So he…took off. I’m going to call the police…come back to the accident with me.” “Why on earth would I go back with you? It’s thirty degrees out there, I’m seven months’ pregnant and how are you going to explain I just happened to show up at the scene of this accident?” (again, this was well before cell phones). “I don’t know,” he answered, “You can say you heard it, ran outside to look and realized it was me…” Yes, lame, I know. And yet off like an idiot I went.

As soon as the police showed up , I could tell they weren’t buying Alan’s story. I don’t remember if there was something in the truck that tipped them off to the fact that someone else had been in there or what. And they clearly knew if they did a field sobriety test, Alan wouldn’t pass. Yet there I was, waddling beside him in all my pregnant glory, shivering in the cold night. The beleaguered, pregnant wife. I was Alan’s trump card and I’m sure he knew it all along. As I was to later discover time and again, I seemed to engender a sympathy in law enforcement that has (on many occasions) been to my advantage, but that night it was to Alan’s advantage. The officer let him off the hook and simply said, “Look buddy, I know I could haul you off. But do yourself a favor — take your wife home and look after her. ”

Somewhat "happier" times. Christmas, 1987, Philadelphia (Alex in the oven).
Somewhat “happier” times. Christmas, 1987, Philadelphia (Alex in the oven).

The incident seemed to give Alan a much-needed slap in the face (although astoundingly, he and his partner Ed kept on the hapless, and perhaps dangerous, Charles). In January, I gave birth to my gorgeous daughter Jessica. Alan was over the moon with her and delighted in his role as father. My mother and aunt came down from Philadelphia shortly after she was born, and stayed for two weeks to help. Having not had a tremendous amount of interaction with my family (other than our wedding), nor I with his, Alan was ill at ease with my mother and aunt’s presence. While he put on the Southern boy charm, both they and I could tell that he was antsy, and trying just a wee bit too hard.  It was an awkward two weeks, and I could tell that it took a toll on Alan. Not a week later, I could smell the chemical again. The glue was back, and this time, he would go off to an attached workroom off our carport to do his huffing. I was too exhausted from breast-feeding and caring for a newborn to put up much fight, so I just left him to his devices thinking perhaps he’d change as fatherhood continued to put demands on him. The only changes evident were the tighter reins Alan kept on me.

Now that I was a mother, I had somehow become a sort of madonna/whore in his mind. He would isolate me from my friends and my family. If I wanted a night with the girls, he’d somehow connive some unavoidable appointment or work thing at the last minute, and I’d be left with no one to watch Jessica, so I’d have to stay home. If I talked about visiting my parents, he’d insist we didn’t have the money to take a trip. I knew it was all bullshit, and yet I acquiesced. I know now with great clarity that I was simply reverting back to my old role of being controlled by my mother. But at the time, I convinced myself that if I went along and was compliant, it would make him happy, and therefore he wouldn’t huff glue or drink.

About two months after Jessica’s birth, I had a call from my brother, who’d decided to leave Philadelphia and follow my trail south. He had gotten a job with a roofer in Orlando and wondered if he could stay with us for a bit, till he got a place of his own. I agreed, inwardly thinking I’m probably insane to take on an active alcoholic along with my glue-sniffing, drinking husband. But secretly I was glad to have some family near me — someone who Alan wouldn’t feel as ill at ease around or find objectionable. Plus Marty was perfectly willing to help us with rent and groceries (good thing, as that guy could plough his way through milk and cheese like nobody’s business — he had a real thing for dairy!) And as it turned out, it may well have saved my life at the time.

Mary, Mom and me.
Mary, Mom and me.

My brother Marty, despite his drinking and frequent bouts of self-rage, was outwardly one of the funniest, most giving guys you’d ever meet. It really was a joy to have him around most of the time. We spent a lot of time catching up. And one of the best things to come out of his visit was a surprise talk we had one night.

Back in 1983, my mother, aunt and my aunt’s husband took a trip to Ireland. It was the first time she’d been back since a trip she’d taken after high school graduation. I was actually slated to go with them, but got my job in Florida at the time, so had to reluctantly beg out as I knew relocating would eat up all of the funds I’d saved for the trip. Part of that journey was to be a stop at the former mother-baby home where I was born in Cork. My mother actually wanted to see if they had any information on my brother or me, our background or birth families, which was actually rather forward-thinking for an adoptive parent at the time. Her interest in helping me and Marty know our own backgrounds stood in stark contrast to her inability to deal with or face my own firstborn daughter and what that had done to me (or her possible future desire to want to know me). But hey, never look a gift horse in the mouth, right? So even though I wasn’t accompanying them, my mother promised to see what she could learn when they visited Cork.

When they returned, my mother and I had a good sit-down in the kitchen one night, whereupon she proceeded to tell me that the nun now in charge claimed she didn’t really have much background on me (which later turned out to be an outright lie), but she did have some information on my brother. She related to my mother that when it came time for Marty to leave for the US, aged two and a half, his mother was told to get him dressed and ready, as was the case for all of us (our mothers, unless they could pay their way out, were required to remain with us in the mother-baby home until we were adopted).

His poor mother, only 16 at the time, was beside herself and didn’t want to part with him. In their efforts to wrest him out of her arms, one of the nuns got solidly punched by Marty’s mother. Now, why on earth this nun would choose to tell my adoptive mother this horrid story knowing it would break the heart of even the most stone-cold human, is beyond me. But tell her she did. My mother sat crying as she told me all this, saying it explained so much of Marty’s behavior…his drinking, his inner demons and always feeling as though he was battling the world and rejected  by his own  mother. My immediate reaction was, “Mom, you’ve got to tell him this. He’s spent his whole life thinking this poor woman abandoned him.” My mother shook her head and said, “I couldn’t even begin to think how to tell him…I just can’t. What if it makes him feel even worse?” I kept trying to reassure her it wouldn’t, and after she steadfastly refused, I finally said, “Look. Leave it with me. When the time’s right, I’ll tell him.”

Marty, age nearly 3.
Marty, age nearly 3.

So here we were, Marty and I, sitting out on my back patio under a clear Orlando night. Chatting away about funny growing-up stories, laughing at the antics he and my four male cousins used to get up to. Then out of the blue, he asked, “Mari, when mom, Aunt Peg and Uncle Frank went to Ireland, did she ever tell you if she found anything out at…the place we were born? About why we were adopted? Our mothers?” I drew a deep sigh, grabbed his hand and said, “Yeah, Marty…she did. She didn’t find out squat about me, but she did learn about your mother…” and I proceeded to tell him the whole story about how his mother fought — physically — to keep him. He sat for a quiet minute, then began sobbing like the lost toddler he once was. All that sorrow, trauma and loss came bubbling up out of this big, burly 24-year old like a river. And I just held his hand till it subsided.

“Do you think you’ll ever look for your mother?” he asked, wiping the tears from his face. “Yes,” I replied. “I think I will. I feel I have to know. I feel I owe that to Kerry [my daughter, then known as Erin to me], too…I mean, if she ever wants to seek me out. I want to be there for her.” He shook his head slowly and said, “Yeah, maybe I will, too. But I’m not ready yet.” I nodded, and we left it at that. But I saw a change come over Marty…a weight came off him and I think it did mark a huge turning point in his life.

Some weeks later, Marty and Alan had gone out one night together. They were as different as two men could be, but had formed a fragile friendship. I think like the rest of my family, Alan was so different than anyone they knew in their circle, they just didn’t know what to do with him. Marty was no different, and I think had his own unease about him, but hey, guys are guys, and he might as well go throw back a few with his brother-in-law, right? So some number of jars later, the two managed to make it home in a fairly lubricated state. I was still nursing an infant Jessica and exhausted, but waited up worrying about the pair of them. When they rolled in, I was relieved and Marty went off to his room. I heard him humming away. He usually would fall asleep listening to (and yes, even singing in his sleep with) Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman. I was ready to retire myself, and went into my bedroom, only to find Alan huffing away on a bag of glue in our bathroom. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked, “You’ve been out drinking all night…what do you need that for?” His snarled reply let me know right away he hadn’t just been at beer that night. I could hear the Crown Royal raging up his gullet and bringing forth his nastier demons: “I’ll do whatever I want. In fact, I think I want to go back out again…”

With that, he went to grab his car keys off the bureau, but I reached them before he did and snatched them out of his way. “You cannot go back out in that state…you’ll be stopped, and you know it,” I insisted. He lunged for the keys, but I backed away from him toward our bedroom door. Before I even had a chance to draw another breath, the next thing I knew, he had me pinned on the bed, my head angled awkwardly over the wood frame of the waterbed, with his hands around my throat. Something evil and terrible had taken command of him, and he growled at me to give him the keys. I couldn’t even move my arm to comply, but began shouting instead for my brother. It seemed only a second later, I felt Alan’s full weight lift off me and I heard a sudden smack of something against the wall. I quickly leaped off the bed and turned on the bedroom light. My brother had my husband up against the wall, his own hands around Alan’s throat, as his hissed, “If you touch my sister again, I will kill you and not give it a second thought.”

It was one of those life-altering moments when no one knows what to say afterward. We all stood awkwardly for a few moments, until my brother turned on his heel and went back to his room, slamming the door. I stood looking at Alan, who was staring at the floor, muttering , “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…it won’t happen again.”

But it did. There was another night where, in a drunken rage and likely out of his mind huffing glue again, Alan forced me into the car, drove up the street speeding, flipped open the passenger door and tried to throw me out, with me clinging to the frame and screaming at him to stop. He came to some semblance of sanity, and pulled me back in. But I was left badly frightened. On another night, Alan came home late one night while I was in bed, lay down next to me, and I could immediately hear there was something wrong with his breathing. I sat up and asked him what was wrong…why was he breathing like that? He dissembled a bit, muttered some excuse, and finally I snapped on the light. I could see his nose was splattered all over his face. Someone had cold-cocked him, hard. He later admitted he had gotten into it with (yet again) someone twice his size. This time he said the fellow had accused him of coming on to his girlfriend (which, of course, Alan insisted he didn’t). He begged me to tell anyone who asked that he had injured himself while working on the car, and to say that a wrench had flown out of his hands and hit him on the nose. Thankfully, no one asked. Anyone who knew him probably knew the truth anyway.

Sometimes it was just evenings where Alan, completely out of his gourd on glue or drinking, or both, would just crazily ramble about absolutely insane things. But those evenings were just as frightening, because they were evidence that he likely was suffering some irreversible brain damage. I was growing increasingly fearful of his unpredictability.

And still I did nothing. I didn’t leave, didn’t even call my brother for help. Part of me couldn’t believe this was that same gentle, hapless poet. Part of me blamed myself for not doing enough to “change” him.

Barely a few months later, almost within the same week, I was surprised to discover I was pregnant again with our second child at the same time I accepted an excellent job offer from a former Orlando colleague, who wanted me to relocate to Indianapolis to work for a new EFT/ATM service that telecomm giant GTE was starting.  I thought maybe the change would be good for us. Things were going nowhere between Alan and his “partner,” Ed — they still hadn’t put anything on paper to solidify the business arrangement, and Alan wasn’t making much. Obviously, his relationship between he and my brother was strained, and Marty had found an apartment and moved out (although he always checked in with me and kept a wary eye out).

Indianapolis. Stressed.
Indianapolis. Stressed.

So off we went to Indianapolis. Again, with great hindsight, I realized that in addition to the isolation Alan imposed on me by keeping a distance with my family and friends, I was adding to the isolation by moving us to a part of the country where neither of us had family or friends, save for a few former Orlando colleagues of mine who also made the move. I tried to keep up a sense of normalcy throughout my second pregnancy, but I could tell Alan was badly floundering. He found a low-paying job doing building exteriors, but the cold winter put a crimp on much of that work. We lived in a small, drafty rental and were constantly miserable that winter. When our son Alex was born that February of 1988, I had just about had enough of Indianapolis. Neither my mother nor Alan’s stepmother Linda were willing to come help with the baby, so balancing a barely one-year old with a newborn and work had left me enormously stressed. Then my company announced it would be going through massive layoffs. And to top it off, Alan announced one day that he’d bought a gun.

The only gun I’d ever seen or been exposed to was my father’s old service revolver, which he always kept in his bureau drawer with the chamber completely removed. I couldn’t fathom what on earth Alan would need a gun for, and the thought of someone as unstable as he having one petrified me. Soon enough, that problem resolved itself, but was accompanied by another one. After a night out drinking heavily, Alan managed to drive my Celica off the road into a gully. Rather than be pegged for drunk driving, he legged it somehow back to our house and because it was so late, managed to sneak in without waking me and went straight to bed. The next morning, he pretended as though nothing had happened, went out the door as if going to work, then feigned outrage and surprise, announcing our car had been stolen from our driveway.  The police were called, and because I was none the wiser, Alan was obviously able to manage to pull it off since I was so visibly gobsmacked when the police showed up. A report was duly taken, and in no time, the police found our “abandoned” car not far away. They also found the gun under the seat, but Alan claimed it wasn’t his — whoever stole the car must’ve put it there. I didn’t learn until later that the gun he purchased was illegal, and so no registration ever tied it back to him. And again, clueless, gullible me played the perfect foil to the police questioning, as I truly didn’t know where it had come from.

I could tell he was coming unhinged. Badly. Something needed to shift and I think it was dawning on me then that it would have to be me doing the shifting. Around this time, we got the announcement that our EFT division was next on the chopping block at GTE. Several of us were offered positions in other areas in the company, but my offer was to move me to Ft. Wayne, Indiana — to even further isolation — and I’d have to be on the road four out of five days a week training. It was an impossible position. Luckily, one of my fellow original Orlando colleagues realized that when we had all been offered jobs by our old boss with GTE, we had signed employment contracts stating that within two years, GTE’s EFT business would be moved to Orlando and us along with it. We were able to use these contracts to force a breach-of-contract with GTE, who quickly offered to pay our expenses and provide generous severance to move us back to Florida. For his part, Alan had reconnected with his former boss Ed, who said he had moved his company from Orlando to Melbourne, FL and this time he really did want to bring Alan in as a partner.

So with a great amount of trepidation, I accepted GTE’s severance and relocation package, and back we went, this time to Melbourne. We rented a house in the Eau Gallie neighborhood, a nice, friendly little enclave. I quickly learned our next-door neighbor was another former colleague from my days in Orlando, and he, his wife and I struck up a good friendship. Harry and Sarah, along with a younger couple across the street from us, Robert and Cindy, became my guardian angels of sorts. Harry and Sarah had young adult children who were out more than in, so they reveled in my two children, and Robert and Cindy’s own three young kids. Our evenings and weekends were full of children’s laughter, clam bakes, and Robert’s funny military stories. Robert and Cindy were both former Army, and had met as fellow MPs in Texas in a rather ignominious way. While chasing a perp who had gone AWOL, Robert became entangled in concertina wire. He called for backup, and it was Cindy who came to his rescue. They were such a wonderful, laid-back family with huge extended family roots in Texas. I sincerely enjoyed their warmth and companionship during my troubled marriage.

In the meantime, I found a job at the local university, Florida Tech, working on a new campus debit card and student ID program. It was a perfect fit given my EFT banking experience, and I had absolutely lucked out getting the job as a walk-in just filling out an application at the right time, and in front of the right person (the then business manager who was in charge of starting this new program happened to be in the HR office while everyone else was out to lunch, when I showed up). I loved the job, loved the family atmosphere on campus, and quickly made good friends. Among them were the campus Telecommunications officer manager, Linda, a salty, funny woman from Oklahoma, who quickly took me on in a half-mother, half-big-sister way; my assistant, a lovely girl several years  younger than me, Lisa; and later, a delightfully quirky, pretty brunette closer to my own age named Barbie, who has and always will remain the sister I never had.

For his part, Alan was learning the hard way that Ed was still, as ever, full of promises but no real commitment. Their “partnership” never happened, but Alan continued to work for Ed. Over the next year, I could see Alan unraveling, growing more and more disappointed and angry with himself, and conversely, becoming more angry at me as my own job and friendships were flourishing. He grew incredibly jealous of my time with Linda and Barbie. Less so with our neighbors, but then Robert towered over Alan, and despite his gentle demeanor, I think Alan knew he couldn’t pull one over on Robert. Likewise with Harry and Sarah. I think they copped on to Alan’s issues fairly early, and kept a wary eye on him.

In 1990, a co-worker and friend at Florida Tech, knowing my original background as a theater major (we had discussed my love of musical theater many times, as he managed the campus auditorium), suggested I audition for an upcoming play by the local Melbourne theater group. They were using Florida Tech’s auditorium while their own stage was being rebuilt, and my friend Gary was stage-managing the production for them at Florida Tech. I hadn’t been on a stage for nearly fifteen years, and other than singing lullabies to my kids at night, hadn’t professionally sung in just as long. But at Gary’s urging, I decided to give it a go. At first, Alan was somewhat supportive. I think he never thought I’d make it past the audition phase, and frankly, neither did I. But the night of auditions, I went in prepared to sing — of all things — Ariel’s ‘The Girl Who Has Everything’ from The Little Mermaid (hey, this is what singing to toddlers brings you to). I was able to pull off the dance audition without tripping myself, and was astounded to learn I’d been cast in the production, which was Neil Simon’s They’re Playing Our Song.

As I said, I don’t think Alan expected me to get past auditions, so although initially supportive, he quickly became jealous and enraged as rehearsals and eventually performances took much of my time. By the time the production was over, he had lost any veneer of sanity he once had and his behavior toward me became more and more bizarre and ugly.

Each morning, before leaving for work, he’d make me stand in the front doorway with full sunlight to my back, to make sure (as he put it) that you couldn’t see my privates through whatever skirt or dress I was wearing, and that it was long enough to cover my knees.

My contact lenses had been destroyed when a young, curious Jessica discovered them in the bathroom one day, thought they were some sort of cool mint, and tried to chew them. When I’d suggest to Alan that I needed new ones instead of my badly out-of-date clunky ’80’s tortoise-shell glasses, he’d insist we couldn’t afford them and my old glasses were fine. I wasn’t allowed to buy new clothes, and was only saved by my mother and aunt, who had opened a consignment shop in Philly, and sent down things for the kids and me. We weren’t allowed to have a phone because we “couldn’t afford it.” Granted, I wasn’t making huge money at Florida Tech, but I knew it was enough to pay the bills and afford a phone. Yet Alan demanded I hand each paycheck over to him. He’d deposit enough in our bank account to cover the rent, utilities, and lob me some grocery money. The rest went into his pocket, along with whatever he was making with Ed. I never saw it. Sometimes I’d get lucky enough when he was drunk and passed out and find the odd $20 in a pocket of his pants I was preparing to wash. I’d carefully hide those found bills in an envelope tucked in a photo album.

Not having a phone proved to be crucial when, in October 1989, my family tried to reach me. The only number they had was Alan’s work number and my own, and it turned out my dad had suffered a massive stroke, aged 60. The hospital called both my work and Alan’s work and left messages. Alan got in to work early, just before I left, so by the time I got to my desk, he had already received the message. He phoned me at my work to deliver the bad news. All we knew was massive stroke and he was on life support. I quickly called my uncle, who filled me in as much as he could. He also arranged to cover flights for both my brother and I out of Orlando. As it turned out, my flight from Melbourne to Orlando was delayed, and I couldn’t get up until the next morning. My brother got in ahead, and collected me from the train station outside Philadelphia. The news was not good. Marty told me that our dad had, for all intent and purposes, been declared brain dead. He said he was being kept on life support only as long as it took for me to get up and for us to convince our mother that any hope of his surviving the stroke was long gone.

When we arrived at the hospital, my mother was beside herself with shock and grief. She had just been at the travel agent’s the day before to pick up plane tickets for her and my father to come down and visit us. It would have been his first trip down since I’d moved in 1983, and her first since Jessica was born. They had planned it for their 35th wedding anniversary. I knew the minute I saw my beloved father that he was gone. No amount of tubes or breathing machines could convince me it was anything more than smoke and mirrors. But my brother and I had to somehow gently talk my mother into letting go. We went outside the room for a bit to confer with my father’s eldest brother, my Uncle Ray, who had just arrived. Ray went in to chat with my mother, and Marty and I stood in the hallway, uncertain how to proceed. As we held up the corridor walls, I caught a slight figure coming down the hallway, all in black, and bustling at a rapid and familiar gait. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I blinked and looked again: sure enough, striding toward us (but not yet seeing us) was the figure of one Father Francis Sabatini. Father Sabatini had been my director in high school plays, and had actually married Alan and me. My father, in his salad days, used to do technical directing at a local Catholic girls’ high school. It was his passion — he loved electronics, gizmos, recording equipment, special effects — you name it. I’m actually certain that listening to his collection  of old 33 rpm show recordings as a young girl were the inspiration for my love of musical theater (along with a fairly sizable genetic predisposition). Plumbing was his family legacy, but he had a true gift for all things electronic and would have been an enthusiastic user of today’s tech wizardy, had he lived to see it. When they adopted my brother and me, my father gave up his theater work. But when I got into theater in high school, and discovered the school’s tech director was giving it up, I knew just who to ask. And my father very enthusiastically agreed. So for years — even long after I graduated and moved away — my father continued to work with Father Sabatini and manage the technical directing of his plays. They had a deep friendship and admiration for each other, while my mother had rather a love-hate relationship with Father Sab, as we called him. I think because he got so much of my dad’s spare time, especially after I left, my mother was a bit jealous.

But now here he was, coming down the hallway of Chestnut Hill Hospital. And I could think of no better man than him to help my mother through the crisis. I called out, “Father Sab?” He looked up and I think he thought he was seeing ghosts himself, “Mari T — is that you?” I rushed up and gave him a warm hug. “What are you doing here?” he asked. I think when he took in the scene and my brother standing there with me as well, he knew immediately. “Oh no…is it your dad?” I broke into tears and nodded. He took both our hands and bustled into the room, but not before I explained to him where we stood and what we needed to do.

He embraced my mother, who was equally shocked to see him, and my Uncle Ray. Then he blessed my dad, and went back out into the hallway with my brother and me. Fortunately, at that point, my father’s doctor (whom we had already met and with whom we had already tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my mother to let my dad go) arrived back, and we quickly explained the relationship between Father Sab and my dad. He seemed relieved to have a “holy” backup, and the two again approached my mother. This time, with all of us, including my Uncle Ray, we were able to gently persuade her it was time for my dad to go.

While at my mother’s, preparing for my father’s funeral and burial, I had a visit from my old boyfriend, the one whom I’d lost moving to Orlando. I knew how much he hated funerals (he lost his own mother at a very young age), and was not surprised when he said he didn’t feel able to make it to my dad’s, but wanted to come by personally to express his condolences to my mother and me. We sat and chatted for a long while. He told me how he used to run into my dad at dad’s favorite watering hole. They’d talk congenially about everything and nothing, but the one thing that stood out to my friend Ron (and to me) was that he said my father expressed how worried about me he was. He felt (even without seeing it firsthand or me telling him) that Alan was a danger to me, and he constantly fretted over it. My mother was more of the school of “she made her own bed, now she can lie in it,” so I suppose she managed to keep him from “interfering” in any way. I dunno. A part of me wishes he had come and rescued me. Perhaps between he and my brother, I would have felt strong enough to break free before it was too late. And I hope that I in no way contributed to any stress that could’ve caused my father’s stroke. The doctor told us it was likely a congenital abnormality (my dad was born a preemie in a time when preemies weren’t supposed to survive) that led to weakening of the arteries in his cerebellum, leading to a cerebral hemorrhage. But there are days I feel the guilt, regardless. And I deeply miss him.

But at least after that event, we finally got a phone at home.

Once back in Melbourne, and the misery that was my marriage, fate stepped in the way again. I discovered I was pregnant again. This time I was panicked and I knew there was no way I could bring another child into the increasingly toxic mix that was our relationship. One day, I slipped out during work and quietly made an appointment with our local clinic. After the initial appointment, I scheduled a date for an abortion a week later. That weekend, Alan, the kids, and I were driving to just outside Orlando to visit with old friends of ours, a fellow Alan had worked with and his wife, whose company I had enjoyed. We spent a relaxing day with them, but by the end of the day I was feeling crampy and very ill. We got home and I told Alan I was going to take a shower to ease the cramps. After about five minutes under the hot water, all I remember is feeling incredibly dizzy and nauseous, and seeing a huge amount of blood swirling toward the shower drain. I thought I screamed several times, sure Alan would come running, but I don’t think a sound was actually coming out of my mouth. At some stage, Alan did come into the bathroom, found me collapsed on the shower floor, and called 911.

I came around just as the EMTs showed up — a panicky young fellow who had clearly never seen that much blood in his life, and his more calm female superior, who took charge and knew immediately what had happened. I had miscarried, fortunately very early. But I still lost a good deal of blood. I recall being told at Holmes  Regional Medical Center that I needed blood, and asked if I was a donor. I said yes, I had been a regular donor in Orlando for years, especially as I was A-negative, and asked if I could be sure I would get my own banked blood. When they told me no, they could not promise that, I told them I would refuse any blood given. I was just too leery and aware of the problems the Red Cross had with blood pre-1992, and I wasn’t taking any chances. So they reluctantly released me after an overnight, with instructions to eat large amounts of liver, dark greens and a prescription for iron supplements.

Alan played the attentive care-giver while I recuperated. It was just before Christmas and his father, father’s girlfriend and her young son were supposed to be down to visit us. I was hardly in a fit state to be hosting company, but after they arrived, Alan demanded I play the role of good hostess and had me up and down non-stop. Thankfully, even his father and his girlfriend realized I was in no fit state and urged me to rest, admonishing Alan for forcing me to do all this work. While he acquiesced during their visit, afterward he became a tyrant, reminding me they were no longer around to give me an excuse to sit on my “lazy butt.”

His demands grew crazier. One night, I had dutifully fixed supper but Alan was a no-show. After waiting several hours, I finally took his plate, wrapped it, and placed it in the fridge. When he eventually arrived home late that night, drunk, he flew into a rage that supper wasn’t hot and ready for him at the table. My parenting skills were questioned, laundry wasn’t done right — nothing seemed to please him. Sex became rape — he took it when and how he wanted it. There was no foreplay, no loving embraces leading up to it. Just brutal, cold sex when the mood hit him. There were two incidents where he became physically aggressive and I called the police. But on both occasions, I lost my will and declined to press charges. On the second occasion, I got a stern lecture from a female officer who explained that the next time I might not be so lucky, and I would be well wise to leave him. I took it on board, but like so many others in my position, convinced myself that “next time” wouldn’t come.

In late 1991, I got a phone call from him late one night. He’d been arrested for open container and needed me to come bail him out of jail. We barely had enough to cover our expenses, and I had to scramble to come up with $250 dollars in one night. But dutiful idiot that I was, I drove to the Melbourne municipal jail, paid his bond and drove him home.

Following that, I was cleaning out our back laundry room one day, which included some shelving full of Alan’s tools and assorted stuff. I spied a phone wire coming from somewhere amid a jumble of things, only to discover it led to a hook-up to both our telephone and a tape recorder. As I played what was on the tape, I realized Alan had set up this elaborate yet amateurish recording system in hopes he catch me out cheating on him, which I had never done nor given him any cause to believe I was. I was astounded, to say the least. I left the system in place, thinking it could potentially backfire on him, giving me evidence of his insanity and brutality.

A few nights after that discovery, about mid-evening, I heard a commotion out front. Alan hadn’t come home at dinner time (a pattern I’d grown used to). But now he was outside and I could see a Melbourne police cruiser, lights flashing, and my neighbors Robert and Harry holding Alan down on the hood of our car. I was almost afraid to even go out, but eventually crept out the front door and quietly stood by the kerb, watching this tableau unfold. Alan was clearly out of his mind, blindly trying to fight the much-larger Robert and stronger Harry. The police officer stood by ready to intervene, but I think he felt (as I did) that Robert and Harry had the situation well under control. After they finally got Alan subdued, they let him up and he stalked sullenly into the house. I stood outside a few moments more, looking to Robert, Harry or the cop for some sort of answer. After Robert explained that I was the lunatic’s wife, the cop told me he had pulled Alan in our neighborhood for suspected DUI. Alan, enraged, got out of the car intent on ignoring the cop. Robert and Harry happened to both be outside chatting when all this unfolded. They were trying to convince him he needed to stay put and talk reasonably with the police, or risk being arrested for resisting on top of the DUI. He decided to resist both Robert and Harry, which is where I came in. The cop decided the better part of valor was to just let it go, although I later learned a more detailed reason why that happened years down the road.

Back inside, I tiptoed around Alan, not wishing to poke the bear any further. I didn’t even wince when he decided to take sex in his usual brutal manner. The next day, a Saturday, Alan didn’t rise with his usual post-binge remorse. He awoke still angry and decided to take it out on me. I don’t even remember what triggered it, but before I knew it, he had grabbed me hard by the arm and flung me against the front door. I took the proximity and opportunity, opened the front door and ran outside. He chased after me, grabbing me again and flinging me to the pathway outside our door. Luckily, Sarah happened to be outside. She knew better than to second-guess, and immediately ran over, ignoring both Alan and me, grabbed the kids from inside and ran back with them to her house. Apparently there, she called the police, then came back outside to grab me. I think her quick actions left Alan standing there motionless and shocked. The police arrived quickly, chatted with me, examined the bruises now showing on my arm, and arrested him on the spot.  I was given the same lectures by the police as the last two calls, but this time I knew that Alan had unraveled beyond any point of redemption. I knew they were right, I knew what I had to do, and although frightened of what lay ahead of me, resolved to do it.

Because it was the weekend, Alan was being held in the county jail until he could face a judge on Monday morning. I had been advised by police to file a restraining order which would keep him out of the house until his sentencing. That Monday, I submitted a copy of the restraining order to our campus security office, as Alan would probably attempt to contact me there first. I ignored all phone calls from him, and kept to my shaky resolve to be free of him. Eventually, we did talk by phone which involved him being conciliatory and cajoling — begging me to drop charges, he would seek treatment, etc.  But I told him the charges were beyond my control, which was the truth — the Florida State Attorney’s office has the discretion to proceed with a case of domestic assault even if the victim elects to drop charges, and in this case, they were moving ahead. As far as him seeking treatment, I told him that was great, but until it happened, there was no way he could be in my or our children’s lives.

I had been invited up by my mother to visit that June of 1991. I was really looking forward to getting away from the morass my life had become. But there was a snag. Alan was demanding that our son Alex remain home and he be allowed to spend the time with him. He even threatened to come take Alex or stop him boarding the plane if I didn’t acquiesce. After several exchanges with my mother, the State Attorney’s office, and the police, it was agreed that for my son’s safety and my own, Alan be permitted to have his way to avoid any potential for violence. It killed me to do it, but Jessica and I went to Philadelphia and tried to enjoy the time with my family. At one point during our visit, my brother phoned. I hadn’t talked to him in a while, but I suppose my mom had filled him in on the situation with Alan and me, and when she handed the phone to me to speak with Marty, he was livid. He couldn’t understand how I could let Alan have Alex, but did calm down somewhat when I explained the tricky situation. Then he coolly told me that it was long past time to “take care of Alan,” and that he could find easy ways to do just that. I begged him not to — imploring him that it wouldn’t help me or my mom if he ended up going to jail for murdering my husband. Thankfully, he listened. Much as that would be an easy solution, I knew it wasn’t the right one.

When Jessica and I returned to Florida, I had no choice but to have some limited interaction with Alan. Leading up to his trial, he would attempt to come by the house or phone me, persistently begging me to drop charges and ‘resolve it’ as a couple. Somehow, we finally made it to the trial date. I had been appointed a State Victim-Witness Advocate, a lovely young woman who was my rock throughout the ordeal of his hearing. He sat at the front of the courtroom, and I in the back with the VWA. I watched as his jaw worked non-stop, clenching and unclenching as the judge read out the charges and adjudicated him guilty of battery spousal abuse. His “sentence”? The toughest under Florida law at that time: six months probation, one anger management course and twenty hours’ community service.

He was taken to the back of the courtroom by a bailiff to complete paperwork, and my VWA went along. When she returned, her face was ashen and she told me we needed to go down the hallway and file a second protection injunction (my existing one was set to expire). She explained as we walked to the clerk’s office that my husband had threatened in front of her and the bailiff to take the kids and flee the state. She signed an affidavit for the clerk, indicating she had witnessed this threat, and recommended that he be given no contact whatsoever with either me or the children (our prior order gave him every-other-weekend visits with the children).

The clerk, accompanied by the VWA, took the PVO request into then family court Judge Tanya Rainwater, a woman with a reputation for siding in favor of fathers in custody cases. When they came back out, my VWA’s face was even more ashen. She looked absolutely shocked. “Rainwater has approved your PVO, but she says your husband has ‘rights’ and deserves unsupervised visitation with the kids, so the every-other-weekend still stands. I can’t believe it — despite that I told her his history and the threat to leave the state, she still agreed to this shit.” I was just as shocked. The only good news was this restraining order was good for eighteen months.

Alan did eventually enter into treatment, and things were blissfully quiet for a week or two. Then I discovered I was pregnant again. I suppose I thought the stress of the trial and everything leading up to it had just thrown off my menstrual cycle. But two months in, I knew. So again, I made plans to schedule an abortion. Several nights prior, I’d been invited by my friends Linda and Barbie to watch Trains, Planes and Automobiles at Linda’s, with the kids. It was such a wonderful night — we laughed until we wet ourselves over the movie, over silly things. And then suddenly I was wracked by that familiar cramping. I rushed to Linda’s bathroom, and after several tense moments, the pain passed and I thought perhaps it had just been a brief scare. I had some spotting on my underwear, but based on my previous miscarriage, there was nothing to alert me to anything drastic. I went home that night and slept fitfully, knowing I had a unavoidable meeting scheduled with Alan and his treatment therapist the next day, and the appointment at the clinic looming two days after.

I went to work and started suffering more cramps, but soldiered on until I was due to meet with Alan and his therapist. I drove to Twin Rivers, the local rehab, and was directed to a room where Alan and his therapist, a woman, were waiting. As I sat on the couch, I immediately began to feel lightheaded and nauseous, and the cramping began again. I must’ve looked horrendous, as the therapist immediately became concerned. “Are you alright?” she asked, as she placed a hand to my forehead. “You look as white as a ghost.” No sooner were the words out of her mouth than I blacked out on the sofa. Apparently they called for an ambulance, which in hindsight seemed quite silly to me, as the hospital was directly across the street from Twin Rivers. I came to as they were strapping me on a gurney. Alan was loping behind me, with his therapist telling him to come back. Luckily, he listened. I gave the therapist my number at work and asked her to alert my colleagues.

I was placed in a wheelchair and pushed into the corner of the emergency room waiting area, where I sat painfully for a good twenty minutes. During that time, my friend Barbie arrived and found me facing the wall. “Are you being punished, girl?” she asked, brightening my spirits immensely. But then just as quickly, I was hit with a massive cramp and asked her to wheel me to the restroom. While in there, I passed what I thought was a huge clot, became lightheaded again, and pulled the nurses’ call cord next to the toilet. They came rushing in and immediately took me back to the treating area. After an ultrasound, examination and further testing, they felt pretty certain I had suffered another miscarriage and that there was some evidence I might also have fibroid tumors. I was told to arrange for further testing with my doctor.

When I was finally released (this time I didn’t require blood and didn’t feel as weak as the first one), I did schedule a biopsy with another hospital, having heard horror stories about the local Melbourne hospital. I opted instead for one further north, with a better reputation. My friend Yvonne’s husband David (who we affectionately called Gonzo) offered to take me for the outpatient biopsy and wait with me.  As I came out of my anaesthetic fog, the first thing I saw was the fuzzy image of Gonzo’s purple satin LA Lakers jacket — a comforting sight, indeed. They discovered I had two massive fibroid tumors, one internal to my uterus and one external. I was told I had the option of a full hysterectomy, leaving the ovaries, or they could remove the fibroids leaving my uterus intact, but with no guarantee I wouldn’t develop more down the road. Given that I was only 31 at the time, I know the hospital staff probably saw a young woman capable or desirous of having more children. But they didn’t know my story, so I think they were caught off guard by my decision to go with the full hysterectomy. Jessica, Alex and my lost daughter Kerry were all I ever needed or wanted, I reasoned. And with the way things were going, more children were clearly the last thing on my mind.

By the time my hysterectomy was scheduled, we were approaching Christmas 1991. I was able to work the surgery and recovery around our work closing for the semester break. But what I didn’t count on was the fact that Alan was now out of treatment, ‘clean and sober,’ and ready to take on the role of doting husband and caregiver while I recovered. He insisted he wanted to be there for me, see me through the surgery and help with the kids when I got home. I suppose I was just too weakened physically at that point to protest. But I by no means saw it as any kind of permanent reconciliation. Too much water had gone under that bridge.

So I allowed him to drive me to the hospital, care for the kids while I was in there, and take me home afterward. But I very carefully explained as I finished my recovery heading into the new year, that I just couldn’t get back together with him. His sobriety was too fragile. And luckily at that point, he had chosen my friend Linda (herself a recovering alcoholic at the time) as his sponsor, so he was permitting himself to be very much guided by my wishes and her advice. He stayed away after that Christmas and New Year. At least for a while.

I could tell when he fell off the wagon immediately. In the spring of 1992, the phone calls became bizarre again. And I had one from his brother Will, who related to me that he was getting crazy, long-winded, late night phone calls from Alan as well. He warned me that he thought Alan was dangerous and to protect myself. Linda was concerned as she hadn’t heard from him and he had missed numerous AA meetings. And even despite a new restraining order, I was increasingly besieged by calls from Alan and attempts to come to the house. He was unhappy and angry that I wasn’t willing to reconcile. He was making threats of physical harm, and again, of kidnapping the kids. I called the police and asked what I should do. Their suggestion was pretty blunt: I needed to move to a domestic violence shelter. And fast. My friends and work colleagues felt the same way.

So one day at work, we all sat down in the cafeteria to discuss the plan. A napkin was brought out to write it all down. I was going to arrange with the Melbourne police to have an officer on site while I cleared out my belongings and packed a few bags for the kids’ and myself. My friend Gary, manager at the campus auditorium, agreed to store furniture and household effects for me until I found a new place to live. He also lent me the use of an old black Buick, since Alan and I only had one car at the time. My boss gave me a cell phone to use for emergencies — one of the early Motorola phones that looks like a big, gray brick. He also set up a trap on my work phone, to catch any calls or messages left by Alan. I was going to stay with a work colleague for two days until the local Cocoa Beach DV shelter had a spot available for us. Alan didn’t know this colleague, so we felt it would be safest. I was and will always be grateful to the Florida Tech community who rallied around me. They kept me steady, focused and safe.

When I arrived with the kids at friend and colleague Nina’s house, I couldn’t have been made more welcome. Nina shared her own story with me, which was eerily similar to my circumstances. When she had to flee her own abusive husband, with two kids in tow, a friend took her in. Nina was embarrassed that she had no money to help with groceries, etc., but the friend told her not to worry. “One day you’ll have the opportunity to pay this forward to another woman in need, and that’s all the payment I need,” she told her. So Nina was now doing exactly what her long-ago friend had done. And I couldn’t be more grateful to her for it. She gave us normalcy and safety in those two harrowing days, knowing my life was going to change irrevocably once we entered that shelter.

After our two days with Nina, we drove to Cocoa and the Salvation Army shelter in July 1992. We were checked in and the rules were explained to us: NO contact with the abuser, lists of shared chores, etc. We settled in to our room, which contained a single bed for me and bunk beds for the kids. We met the other women and children there and sat down to our first communal meal. I had been in touch with my mother, who although initially horrified, I think was ultimately glad I was taking the first steps to break free of Alan.

Life there was interesting. There were stories far more harrowing than mine, women who had been violently battered by their spouses or partners. There were women who continued to be cajoled by their abusers, sweet-talked back into reunions, and one woman booted out for violating the no-contact rule. Since I was one of the few with a car, I would take groups of us and our kids to the beach on the weekends, where we could momentarily forget our misery and watch our kids play in the surf. Getting from Cocoa to work was a bit of an adventure: although I was grateful for the transport Gary had loaned me, it had a bad habit of overheating on the 13-mile journey to Melbourne. So I frequently ended up using the brick phone to call while stranded on the side of the road. But we got through it. And as part of the shelter living, we also had regularly scheduled meetings and counseling, which helped me enormously to understand what I was going through and how many others like me experienced it.

There were a few times on leaving the shelter when I would spot Alan’s old Dodge station wagon parked across the road, so I was under no illusions that he knew where I was and likely followed me quite frequently. But he never tried to make contact, other than leaving pleading and bizarre messages on my work voicemail. And of course, every other weekend, I’d have to meet him at the Melbourne police station for his unsupervised visits with the kids, which always made me a nervous wreck. I’d count the minutes and hold my breath until 6 pm on Sunday, when his car would roll back into the MPD parking lot. At that point, I didn’t even know where he was staying or where he was taking the kids. But I knew enough from talking to the police that if I violated the PVO, I could go to jail.

The shelter policy was a 45-day stay, so I knew I’d have to quickly find a new place to live. I located a small rancher for rent in nearby Palm Bay, and with the help of my mother, was able to secure a used Toyota and move in August 1992.

Things were quiet through that fall. There were still the every-other-weekend visits, and Alan had managed to convince MPD to allow him to pick the kids up from my home (I was NOT happy that he now officially knew where we lived, but figured he’d already followed me and found out anyway).  Unfortunately, by moving to Palm Bay, I had also placed myself outside of MPD’s jurisdiction. He told me he was staying in a friend’s work shed in Rockledge, north of Melbourne, which had been fitted with a bed and kitchenette, and that when he had the kids, he would bring them to another friend in Melbourne who had a single-family home. Trying to be conciliatory, he told me I was welcome to come check this place out so I knew the kids were safe, and arranged for me to pick them up there on one of the Sundays. I found the owner of the house, I guy whose name I don’t even remember now, to be odd. A divorcee himself, and somewhat older than Alan, he gave me the creeps. But his house was clean and when I arrived to pick up the kids one night, they were finishing up what looked to be a normal dinner of home-cooked spaghetti and meatballs. The kids always seemed withdrawn and quiet whenever they’d leave their father. I’d ask if they were okay, did they have fun, and typically got affirmative replies, but never much detail.

That Thanksgiving, I decided to hold a party — sort of a thank-you to the friends and family who had helped me through this ordeal. I had also met a new friend and neighbor, a woman my age with two kids about the same ages as my two, girl and boy. As a stay-at-home mom, Brenda offered to provide daytime afterschool care for my two, and we quickly hit it off. My mom came down from Philly and we all had an enjoyable time. My mother and I agreed it was time to begin the process of filing for divorce, so while she was in town, we made arrangements to meet a female attorney who’d been recommended to me and filed the initial paperwork. I was starting to feel normal-ish.

By the beginning of 1993, Alan was served with the initial divorce paperwork, which caused him to become agitated again and ramped up his stalking behavior. I’d find his car parked outside our house late at night. There were legions of messages left on my voicemail. One night after picking the kids up from his weekend at his friend’s house, I found him following behind me. Petrified, I drove to the Melbourne police department and went in to file a report. They noted this stalking attempt, and took a report of previous times I’d found him outside my home, and suggested I start recording his calls and messages. I told them I didn’t have a phone in my home yet (couldn’t afford one), but that he usually called my work phone and my boss had already set up a recording trap on that phone.

They walked me and the kids out to my car and thankfully, Alan seemed to have been put off by my last-minute decision to pull in at the police station. I spent the next month or so in a constant state of vigilance and agitation, never knowing when I’d see Alan in my rear-view or outside my home. And still I had to comply with the visitation terms of that damned restraining order.

In February, our first hearing before a judge on the divorce was scheduled. Alan had somehow managed to retain a legal aid lawyer, and we had been informed they were filing a motion for counseling and to dismiss the divorce proceedings. My attorney and I met them in a court chambers in Melbourne. We presented the legal history of his abuse, my restraining order, the police reports and taped evidence on his stalking. When it came time for them to present their motions, Alan spoke about his numerous stints in rehab, his attempts to get sober and his desire to try rehab again and further counseling for both of us to save our marriage. The judge looked at him blankly and said, “Mr. Steed, going by that litany, I’d have to say that you are ‘counseled out’. If you haven’t gotten it by now, you never will. Motion dismissed.’

He was enraged and when we were all walking outside to leave, he shouted across the parking lot, “You know you’re not going to get away that easy.” My attorney told me she never felt so chilled in her life.

More threatening phone messages were left after that, their intensity increasing every day. Friends, work colleagues and campus security amped up their vigilance and I was rarely left alone.

One Friday, April 2, 1993, I came home from work to collect the kids from my friend Brenda’s. Alan was scheduled to pick the kids up that evening at 6 and had already left an annoyed message to “have them ready” at my work. When I walked inside her house, Brenda had a serious look on her face and asked me to come into her bedroom for a minute, while the kids were all watching TV in her living room. She sat me on the bed and said, “Listen, I have something to tell you that’s going to be hard. Jessica told me something today. She said that her father had been touching her and described it in great detail. I really don’t think she was making it up.” The room began to swim in front of my face, and I stopped breathing. Breathe. Do it. 

What I relate here will be the simplified, clinical version. The entire narrative is ultimately my children’s to tell, particularly Jessica. And only if she ever wants to.

When I was able to gather breath and power of speech, I only managed to squeak a “What?” to Brenda. She elaborated. I wanted to throw up. How had I missed this? Why didn’t Jessica tell me? Images and words banged around in my head, as I scrambled over the last year of interactions with her father, searching for any clue that might have told me this was going on. The only outward sign I could remember was their quietness after I’d pick them up from Alan’s friend’s home. Brenda continued on, “I don’t think Alex was molested, but I think he was made to watch it.” The nausea rose up my throat again.

I ran into the living room and clutched my kids to me. I don’t even remember what I said, but apparently I had enough presence of mind to reassure them they were brave, they were right in telling, and I would make it right. I turned to Brenda, “I’ve got to go to the police.” She nodded. “But Alan is due to pick them up in half an hour.” “Don’t worry about that,” Brenda said. “No doubt if he finds you not home, he’ll come to my house. George [her husband] and I have no problem telling him to fuck off, that we don’t know where you are. Just go.”

So I jumped in my car and sped to the Palm Bay police station. After carefully explaining to a desk duty officer why I was there, I was asked to sit in the waiting room while they went to find a detective. While we were waiting, I used the pay phone to call Brenda to see if Alan had been by. “He has — and he’s hopping mad, ” was Brenda’s reply. “He’s on his way to PBPD to file a report on YOU, if you can believe that.” Oh Jesus. On his way to where I was at that very minute. I ran back to the desk duty officer and explained this new development. Thankfully, as we were talking, he looked behind me and said, “Detective Santiago is coming down now…here he comes.” I turned and a detective was approaching me. I blurted out the disturbing news that my husband was on his way and I felt unsafe standing in the lobby.

He quickly ushered us upstairs and we sat and talked about the circumstances. As it turned out, my husband was NOT in fact on his way — that was a bluff to Brenda and George. He had phoned the police, but Detective Santiago had put him off saying he’d phone him back later. He took a statement from me, then said he’d need to interview both children without me being present. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of knowing your children are having to explain something so awful, at such a young age (they were 6 and 5 at the time), to a complete stranger, albeit a police officer. They were videotaped and I could not be there for them, although I completely understand why. We reconvened back at Santiago’s desk afterward, and another officer took the kids off to a play room to watch a  video while Santiago spoke with me.

He started by saying that Jessica was one of the most credible 6-year old victims he’d ever encountered. She was able to describe in great detail what her father did (thankfully, shy of intercourse, he believed), using adult terminology for body parts. I explained that I had never been a fan of using cutesy, childish terms for the children’s genitals and always taught them to use the correct anatomical descriptions. “Well,” he said, “You have no idea how much that helps.” At the end of the interview, his phone rang and it turned out to be Alan. To this day, I’ll never understand what transpired next, whether it’s proper police protocol or what, but in the course of the conversation, Santiago told my husband he was under investigation for suspected sexual abuse of his daughter and endangerment by having our son witness it. I almost fell off the chair. I was seriously concerned that if Alan knew he was under investigation for these charges, he’d do something completely deranged.

When Santiago hung up I asked him what was next. “Well, we’ll need to have a state child protection agent interview the children tonight, and then schedule for a physical exam for both children on Monday morning. I feel pretty certain what’s happened is exactly what your children described, but we need to have all proper documentation. Once the physical exam is done Monday and all the evidence is prepared, we’ll have a warrant issued for his arrest.” He gave me the address of the medical practice where the exam would take place, and I gulped when I saw the name. I knew exactly where it was — directly across the street from the auto yard and shed where Alan was currently staying. He continued on, “The problem now is that he’s living in Rockledge, so the warrant will have to be served by them. And he won’t give us that address, so we don’t know where in Rockledge he is.” “But I know exactly where he’s living,” I said. And I proceeded to tell him where, and what his car looked like. “So my kids need to be interviewed again tonight?” I asked, looking at my watch. It was already after 9 pm by this point. “Yes,” he replied. “Unfortunately we do need to send someone out tonight. I’ll try to have them out there as soon as possible. And we’ll have an officer keep watch on your house, in case he tries to show up there.”

We left the police station, and I drove home on autopilot, still not over the shock of the last four hours. When we got home, I could tell the kids were exhausted, and normally they would be the ones begging me to stay up and watch TV. But tonight they were beyond that, and I felt like the world’s worst mother trying to force them to stay up as we sat on the couch waiting for the CPS investigator. She rolled up about 15 minutes after we arrived home, but Alex was already solidly out like a light when she arrived. Gratefully, she agreed that his interview was not critical and just questioned Jessica. The whole interview took no more than half an hour, and I was permitted to be present.

The rest of that weekend was a blur. There were no phone messages from Alan, but now this was a more terrifying thing than the usual nuisance. I spoke with my friend Linda, who offered to put the kids and me up at her place, but I felt it unwise to risk her and her family in case Alan tried to do something truly stupid. Besides, I had seen the police cruiser outside my house Friday evening, and there had been several cruiser drive-bys on Saturday. We somehow made it through Sunday, and I went off to work like a zombie Monday morning, leaving the kids at Brenda’s until it was time to collect them for the physical exam in Rockledge at 1:30. I was completely distracted at work, but managed to hang on until it was time for our appointment.

When we arrived in Rockledge, the first thing I made careful note of was that Alan’s car was parked in the auto yard where he was staying. I phoned Detective Santiago from my brick phone and let him know he was there. He advised that Rockledge would be serving the warrant on Tuesday, after the full report was written up. We entered the medical clinic and were met by another CPS investigator, a kindly man named Mark Foley, who immediately put me at ease. He very patiently explained the procedure, and seemed well versed on our case. While both children were being examined, he sat with me and seemed to genuinely care for what we were experiencing. It was over and done within the hour, and Foley promised he would rush the report back to PBPD and FL CPS. He felt certain they’d get a warrant within hours.

I again made it through Monday night on autopilot, with still not a sound from Alan. At work the next day, I arranged with a co-worker to go to her house in Palm Bay that night with the kids. Her husband had undergone some sort of nasal surgery, and she had two young children and a new baby. She asked for my help with her kids while she nursed her husband. I thought it might be a welcome diversion, so off we went after work. We had a nice evening fixing dinner, watching our kids play, and listening to her husband’s constant moaning. It was nearly 10 pm when I told my friend I needed to leave and get the kids to bed.

Upon my return, I immediately got the sleepy kids to bed and went on to my bathroom to draw a bath. A subtle movement by the bathroom door caused me to turn and I thought that perhaps one of the kids needed a final trip to the bathroom. To my horror, I was facing my husband with a drawn .357 magnum.

I screamed hysterically, which only made him hysterical. So I eventually calmed down, somehow figuring this would have the same effect on him. For a while it did. Alan was obviously drunk and I could tell he’d been sniffing glue. He rambled on and on about “what I was doing to him” and, if convicted of sexual abuse upon a child “what they’ll do to me in prison.” He repeated over and over that he would not “lose his freedom.”

Korth_357_MagnumThis siege continued for about two hours — him flailing his gun around, which I could see from the close proximity of its barrel had five cartridges in it, me sitting naked and shivering on the bathroom floor against the tub. I finally got him to allow me to wrap two towels around myself. Eventually and somewhat bewilderingly, his thoughts turned to sex . Although this was Alan, after all. Nothing in our eight years together had made sense. Why should it now? He raped me, with the gun in his hand on the pillow beside my head. Afterward, I wrapped two bathrobes around me — I could not stop shivering, although my rational brain told me it was not cold, but shock.

He forced me back into the bathroom, and pulled the door. But obviously, one or both of the kids had wakened. The words guaranteed to tear a mother’s heart out escaped from their bedroom: “Daddy, are you going to shoot mommy?” I don’t even know which one asked it. Calmly, he replied, “No…go back to bed. Mommy and daddy are just talking.” He continued to lean on the sink, with the gun trained on me as I sat on the edge of the tub. He babbled incoherently, talking to himself. He just stared…at me, at the floor…off into space. We both chain-smoked. Then, strangely enough, when we had both run out of cigarettes, he permitted me to go into my kitchen to make coffee, albeit with his nasty gun trained on my back.

In retrospect, I know my mind reviewed and discarded a hundred possibilities of getting away from him. But I guess I was so paralyzed with fear and shock, I simply exercised every ounce of concentration I had in talking to him. Trying to get him away from his suicidal and murderous plans. He wanted to kill me, then kill himself, sending the children to my sitter’s house three doors down before doing himself in. This was replayed over and over again as he seemed to consider it himself. I felt that if he was still weighing all these options, I might just have a chance of convincing him that NOT doing it at all was also an option. At one point he posed a hypothetical: “What would happen if I were to just leave now, walk away — what would you do? Would you call the police?” I responded that if it meant my life, I would never tell another breathing soul he had ever been in my house.

This seemed to, if not appease him, at least make him sit and think. And it was at this point that I, in a state of shock and total exhaustion, sitting next to my deranged and estranged husband (we were now just two weeks shy of the final divorce decree) on the sofa, fell asleep or went into total shock around 5:10 a.m. At 5:20, I awoke to the feeling of someone or something punching my right jaw — hard. Oddly, it didn’t really seem to hurt. I felt it in an objective sort of way — pressure more than pain. Following that, I heard a loud explosion that lifted me completely out of the fog and sat me upright with the realization that he had fired the gun. I never really looked at him, at least I don’t remember doing so, but knew instinctively that he had shot himself and that I had been hit in the side of the face in the process.

Friends and police told me after the fact that I must have gone to my bathroom to survey the damage of the hit. They found evidence of bloody hand prints on bathroom faucets and door lintels. They also found my hand prints on the door lintels in my children’s room where I hastily awakened them. I vaguely remember telling them that we had to get to my friend Brenda’s house and call 911 (I still had no house phone and the brick phone’s battery was dead). I took them by the hand and remember passing the living room at a great rate of speed, where Alan lay gasping his last breath. My children have no recollection of actually seeing their father on the couch. Although at one stage, they both talked as if they did recall it, and that they thought their daddy was wearing the “funny sunglasses.” At the time, I had a pair of chintzy plastic turquoise and pink novelty sunglasses, probably from some local carnival. The kids always took turns wearing them, playing at “rock star” are just goofing off. Whether they saw those glasses or the remains of their father’s head, I have no idea. I think I don’t want to know, and more recently, my now-adult children say they don’t really recall ever seeing him that night, other than going into the bathroom.

We made it to Brenda’s house, where she exercised great presence of mind in a) answering her door at 5:30 in the morning to a crazed woman wearing two bathrobes, grasping the hands of two frightened children, and streaming blood from her face; and in b) getting me help and keeping the children safe until my mother was notified and arrived. I remained pretty much conscious, albeit still in shock. I went in to Brenda’s bathroom while she dialed 911, and promptly spat out two teeth into her sink. I still wouldn’t look in a mirror and had no clue how I appeared. When I came back out to the living room, Brenda had already shooed the children into her and George’s bedroom, where George had them watching TV, while she was on the phone with 911. There seemed to be some sort of problem: I heard Brenda shouting into the phone, “No — 781 Angle is where the shooter is. 801 Angle is where the victim is. No, fuck 781. I don’t give a fuck what’s going on there or what happens to that asshole. You get your asses to 801 and take care of the living!” Bless Brenda. Moments later, an EMT crew arrived, strapped me on board, and we silently rolled through the early morning toward the local hospital. One of the female EMTs, in touch with the ambulance behind us, felt it necessary to tell me the second ambulance was transporting my husband and that he was still breathing, as if this was amazing and wonderful news to me. I turned my head away from her and simply closed my eyes.

When we arrived at the hospital, there was much bustling about as they took information from me, including where to reach my mother and Alan’s father. I guess I was able to provide all this — I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I recall being very thirsty, and they brought me orange juice. I quickly gulped it down, and then just as quickly threw it back up, along with what looked like a quart of dark blood. At one point, I recall a nurse coming in to tell me that my husband (brought to the ER room next to mine) had died. I shed one single tear — it burned as it rolled down my good cheek — for all that could have been and the life that had been wasted. It was the day before my 33rd birthday.

They took me up for x-rays, trying to determine where the bullet had ended up. They didn’t do much else beyond that, and I absently wondered if they’d found it, and why weren’t they removing it. Shortly after, I saw that familiar purple LA Lakers jacket at the foot of my bed. It was my friend Gonzo, the knight in shining purple satin who had gotten me through my earlier biopsy. He and his wife Yvonne were among the good people who had been my ballast over the past several years. It was comforting having Gonzo there. He looked like a less-gray Jerry Garcia and was one of the funniest and smartest humans I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. He was trying to explain that Linda, our mutual friend, wanted to come immediately, after Brenda had called her to tell her what happened. But Linda’s husband Jimmy had wisely advised her that she’d never seen a gunshot victim before, and it might be better for Gonzo, the Vietnam vet, to see me first.

I’m guessing Linda didn’t listen to Jimmy, because moments later, she too entered the room, taking charge in her non-nonsense Okie way. Just behind her was Barbie. Gonzo asked them how they’d managed to get in, considering he had been given a hard time by the ER staff and had to tell them he was my uncle in order to get in. Linda and Barbie  told the nurses they were my sisters. When the disbelieving nurses apparently looked sideways at them, Barbie quickly countered with, “We’re sisters. We just had different mothers.” I love that girl to bits. I felt bad for Linda, as I knew she had just sat vigil in this very hospital not two weeks prior, where they lost her 8-year old niece. She had been admitted with a flu bug and some mild dehydration, and ended up dying from a staph infection she contracted in the hospital.

I tried to fill them in on what happened, but was so woozy and out of it, I’m sure none of it made sense. They knew the obvious: Alan was dead and I had been shot in the process. That was enough. But where was the bullet, and why hadn’t they removed it, they both wanted to know? Suddenly, Linda leaned down directly over my face, and peering intently at me asked, “Honey, did you have mascara on?” “No,” I weakly replied, “Why?” “Well, you got a little smudge of somethin’ black next to your nose. Oh God. Darlin’, whatever you do, don’t sneeze.” I swear, those were her exact words. She ran to get a nurse, who quickly summoned the doctor. They had found the bullet. It was lodged in my sinus cavity just under my eye. Without a moment’s hesitation, the doctor ordered the nurse to bring him a pair of tweezer-grabber thingies, a small metal bowl and some gauze. When asked for the gauze, the nurse queried the doctor, “Sterile?” Linda turned on her like a cobra and hissed, “Is that what killed my niece? You’re going to go spelunking up this woman’s nose into an open wound, and you need to ask whether the gauze should be STERILE?!” The nurse backed away like she’d been bitten and the doctor sternly replied, “Yes, of course sterile.”

Moments later, I felt a small tug and heard the clink of metal on metal, followed by a new rush of blood out of my nose and down my throat. I threw up again. The bleeding was staunched. I was checked into a room and scheduled for maxillofacial surgery the next day. I had a wonderful surgeon who did skillful work on the side of my face as well as the destroyed upper right section of my shattered facial bone, jaw, gum and teeth. My mother was later thrilled to hear he was a graduate of Temple University’s excellent school of dental surgery.

When I was returned to my room and came to after surgery, I was somewhat horrified to realize that I had not been cleaned up one bit. I took my first look in the mirror and saw bits and pieces of my late husband still stuck in my hair and on my face. I called for a nurse and asked if there was any way they could wash me off. She calmly responded by turning on the bathroom sink and was starting to show me how I could turn my head upside down under the sink tap and use the hose extender to wash myself off, when I wheeled on her and in my best Linda impersonation, said, “I’ve just been shot in the face and my head feels like it’s been in a vise. You seriously want me to bend my head upside down under a tap and wash myself?! Are you people nuts?” They never did wash me. I tried to do the best I could, upright, with a wash cloth. Such was the treatment I received at Holmes Regional. It wasn’t until I’d left two days later and was staying at Barbie’s house (while mine was cleaned by professional crime-scene cleaners) that I was able to take a shower and wash what was left of Mr. Steed off me.

My mother arrived the day I was in surgery. It had somehow been arranged she would also stay at Barbie’s. I also didn’t learn until afterward that Brenda had done something very, very brilliant. Somehow she knew that if my mother was a day away from coming, and the police knew there was no other living relative on the scene, that they could quite literally take my children into state care. And if that happened, it might have been weeks until I’d get them back. Brenda later told me Detective Santiago came to her house the day of the shooting, looking for the kids. She had wisely moved them to her own mother’s house, several blocks away, and told Santiago  that my mother was already here and they were with her. Smart lady. But now I knew they were safely with my mother and Barbie.

Alan’s father arrived that same day, along with Alan’s sister Sherry. I didn’t know what to say to them. We spent an uncomfortable several hours at the hospital with me trying to explain what happened. I think they understood and accepted that Alan was very, very sick and they were not surprised it ended the way it did. Because Alan had indicated he wanted to be an organ donor on his license, they couldn’t take possession of his body. But I promised to keep in touch with them and let them know if any service would be planned for Alan, or if they wanted his ashes, they could certainly have them. His father, W.A., said he’d take care of the car, which police had found a block from my house. Evidently Alan had broken into my house while we were at my friend’s that night. He lay waiting, hidden in a dark corner in my bedroom. I never saw him before I went in to draw my bath, even though I had gone into my room to put my glasses on my bureau.

W.A. and Sherry left the hospital later that day looking ten years older each.

After I was discharged, spent a few days at Barbie’s, and my mother returned to Philadelphia, I began the slow process of recovery. There was the physical: I had to do these ridiculous exercises with increasing numbers of stacked tongue depressors, holding them between my upper and lower teeth (or what remained of them) every day. I had a clear plastic protective bandage over the wound in my face that I wasn’t permitted to wash for weeks and had to change daily. It took another almost two years of ongoing orthodontic, maxilllofacial and dental surgeries to continue the internal repair work to my face. I still have remaining dental work to be done to this day, but after two years with my mouth stretched in never-ending dental dams, I just couldn’t take it anymore.

After three weeks, I returned to work and the welcoming arms of the Florida Tech community, who rallied around me, raised money, made food and otherwise kept me sane and steady.

We held a very small service for Alan. I felt it was something the kids and I needed for closure. It was Kafkaesque, to be honest. None of Alan’s family came. My mother was there, and my close friends. The legal aid attorney who worked with Alan on the divorce showed up, oddly. She tried to talk to me, but I wasn’t in exactly the right mood for that. She awkwardly backed off, signing the guestbook and departing with murmured condolences. Much later, Linda, the kids and I gave Alan’s ashes a send-off at a spot on the St. John’s river where he used to like to airboat. I was a bit disconcerted when we went to launch his ashes out of the container and a small metal disc fell on the ground. One of the kids went to pick it up, and we discovered to our horror that it was obviously his toe tag. We left it there. Soon after we spread the ashes in the water, we saw a small alligator rise to the surface and gobble them in. Fitting.

I also received a bill from the hospital for $300, representing the oxygen they had used to keep Alan’s organs ‘alive’ until harvesting. While one is not supposed to know such things about organ donation, I did discover that Alan’s heart had gone to a local man, an employee of the hospital, who had been in need of a transplant for some time. I knew this because the story had been in the paper. The man had a rare blood type — same as Alan’s — and he had received his transplant the day after Alan died. Too coincidental. I also received letters from the regional cornea and marrow banks, thanking me for those donations. So I sent copies of the story on the transplant and donation thank-you letters to the hospital, along with the bill, and explained that I was fairly certain they had been repaid their $300. I never heard from them again. In 1994, on the anniversary of the shooting,  as part of my ongoing recovery, I wanted to bring a bouquet of flowers in to the ER nurses at Holmes Regional as a way of saying thank you. When I entered and explained who I was and presented the flowers, I was met with a cold “just put them right there,” response.

Mama grizzly guards her cubs. Key West, 1994.
Mama grizzly guards her cubs. Key West, 1994.

In the aftermath, I became obsessive and hyper-vigilant around my children, sort of a mama grizzly on steroids. And then there was the PTSD. That’s been a bit longer-term and harder to deal with. Popping balloons, police sirens, or even just the the muscle-y sound of a police cruiser going at great speed down a street can trigger audial hallucinations. I’ll “hear” the gun going off and instinctively jerk and go into a panic attack. I even to this day avoid watching any live coverage of traumatic events, as they can be triggers. I made the mistake of watching the horror in NYC unfold on 9/11 and immediately regretted it. It triggered a series of audial hallucinations and had me nearly under my sofa.

One day, shortly after I’d returned to work, I was trying to send a fax from our cramped, temporary Telecomm headquarters (our office was being remodeled, so we were squeezed into a corner of the university copy center). Linda and Barbie were next to me, chatting, and I was wearing a sleeveless linen dress that day. Suddenly, our current campus business manager, a man despised by many of us and later fired over sexual harassment and assault on one of our female employees, had unbeknownst come up behind me. He discovered my bra strap had slipped from under my dress strap and took it upon himself to fix it for me. I physically jumped on top of the fax machine when he touched me, shaking like a leaf, while Barbie and Linda nearly tackled the jerk. I don’t know what was said to him once those two hustled him outside, but I’m sure he’ll long remember it.

I did take advantage of the on-campus psychological counseling offered to all employees. The kids and I were matched up with wonderful individual therapists, and it was through those sessions that I began to repair and heal not only what I’d been through with Alan, but the issues that led me to seek someone like him in the first place. It was the first time I’d acknowledged the loss involved in my adoption, as well as losing my own daughter. And it felt good. It set me on a path of self-discovery and awareness that has only resulted in positive answers and outcomes for me. And for my children as well. They flourished under their therapists. Their school was sensitive to what had happened as well. Shortly after the shooting, I remember picking them up from school and was asked to meet with the school counselor for a moment. She wanted to show me a picture Jessica had drawn. She pulled out a beautiful colored drawing of a woman standing with her arms outstretched, a rainbow, sun, fluffy clouds and birds over her head. She said she had asked Jessica to draw how she felt about me, and my being shot. When she drew this gorgeous picture, the counselor asked her what it meant to Jessica. Jessica replied, “It’s my mom…she’s free now.” I can’t even type that, much less tell someone those words, without sobbing. My kids rock.

At one point in our recovery, I felt an urgent need to remember all the events leading up to that final shot. Did he say something meaningful? Admit his guilt, finally, in sexually abusing our children? Did he say I love you? Good-bye? Fuck you?

It was at the gentle urging of Gonzo, who has sadly now passed on, that I finally abandoned this idea. Gonzo would ask, “Why do you want to know? What good would it do? Live for your future. This asshole did you the biggest favor he possibly could have. He had nothing valuable to say to you.”

I think he’s right. And I’ve learned a bit more compassion along the way, and have forgiven Alan. He was sick and tortured, and lord only knows what he himself suffered as a child. I don’t have much contact with his family anymore. Shortly after W.A. and Sherry returned to North Carolina, I had a call from Detective Santiago. He wanted to warn me that Alan’s younger half-sister, Tracy, had been in a bit of denial over Alan’s death. She had contacted a local Raleigh sheriff, insisting that I was somehow the one who pulled the trigger and shot her brother, and she wanted it investigated. Of course, I think the sheriff knew better, but went through the motions of calling the PBPD. Santiago certainly knew better. The official police report read that Alan had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and that I was shot “accidentally.” I’m not sure about the last part, especially considering how many times Alan said that night that he could do a “two for one” and take us both out. Maybe at the end, he didn’t mean to hit me with the bullet exiting out of his head. But I do know, as does Santiago and anyone with a rational brain, that there was no way I could have reached around to Alan’s right side and shot a gun through his head and managed to hit myself in the face. I understand Tracy’s grief and that she only knew Alan the poetic, dreamy teenage brother. She’d had no real dealings with him once he left home at 16. She didn’t know the half of it. I called W.A. after I spoke with Santiago and it turned out he was unaware of what Tracy had done. He was upset and said he’d speak with her and get her “straightened out.” I left it at that and never heard another word about it, at least from Tracy.

I stayed in touch with W.A. , Sherry and Will for a while. We visited them over the years. Even the fences with Tracy seemed somewhat mended, and she shyly met with us on those visits. Nothing was ever said about her earlier claims. But one year, shortly after I relocated back to Philadelphia in 1998, W.A. invited the kids to come down and stay with him. Several days into their visit, I got a call from Jessica that left me deeply disturbed. She wanted to leave Pappow’s. Right away. She wouldn’t tell me anything more than that she felt uncomfortable there, as did Alex, and would I come get them right away? I made the 5-hour trip to his house, now in Virginia, and not much was said when I collected them. The drive home was equally silent. Neither has spoken about the visit since, although I did try to ask Jessica about it not long ago. At that time, she said that she didn’t really remember what had bothered her…something vague about not liking the way he was treating his then-girlfriend. I hope that was it. And I think if there was anything else, she would tell me. But even now that they’re adults, I’m forever vigilant.

Sherry and I kept up phone contact for a bit longer. Having never known her mother since she was given back to her father as an infant, she was curious. She knew her mother had died in 1986, but as I was the only other person besides Will and Alan who’d had contact with Joyce, their mother, she wanted my take on her. I’d only ever spoken to her once, but found her a sweet, soft-spoken woman who seemed to have genuinely found happiness with her husband Don in California. Unfortunately, each time I spoke with Sherry, I was constantly reminded of Alan. She always seemed drugged-out or under the influence of something when she called, and her questions or conversation were often bizarre.  Thankfully, her calls were few and far between.

In 2005, while I was on a trip to Ireland and to visit my mum in England, my daughter Jessica called to tell me Sherry had phoned. None of us had heard from her in probably five years at that point. In this conversation with Jessica, she was now claiming a suspicion that I had killed Alan. I don’t know where this came from, what spurred it, but Jessica had the presence of mind to essentially tell her she was sadly mistaken, and that Tracy had already been corrected on this same assertion years before. We have not heard from any of the Steed family since. I would love the opportunity to talk with Will again, who seemed the one member of the family I could relate to. But he’s remained silent and I no longer know where he lives or how to reach him. I would hope he hasn’t bought into the Tracy-Sherry delusion that I was somehow responsible for Alan’s death. As the recipient of many of Alan’s late-night, incoherent phone calls, Will would be the only one who knew most what was going on in our marriage, and how his brother suffered. Perhaps that’s why he’s stayed quiet and out of contact.

In the intervening years, I’ve come across many former acquaintances of Alan’s who have shared stories of his behavior and occasions on which they prevented him from returning home after drunken binges, briefly sparing me his inevitable violence. I also learned that the man whose property he was staying at was the one who gave him the .357 and a supply of .38 wad-nose cartridges — the bullet I with which I was hit. I learned that a young woman I worked with at Florida Tech (ironically the very woman our ex-business manager had sexually assaulted) had befriended Alan during our separation and had given him a box of hollow-point bullets. As my late friend Gonzo explained, the hollow-points would have most assuredly ended my life had he used those. They were found in his car along with an ungodly collection of empty Old Milwaukee beer cans, dried out glue baggies and what little else Alan had left on this earth.

About a year after the shooting, I was attending the wedding of a friend and former co-worker. Her sister, who I also knew, and brother-in-law, a Melbourne police officer, were seated at the table with the kids and me. As we got chatting and the Melbourne officer realized who I was, he related to me that he had been the officer on the scene the night Alan had gotten into it with our neighbors, Robert and Harry. He told me the only reason he had let Alan go that night was that he was well-known to MPD, and it was his assertion that if he had arrested Alan, the aftermath of me being forced to bail him out yet again and the potential for escalated violence against me outweighed the benefit of taking him into custody that night. He may well have been right.

I’ve often thought that even if I had managed to divorce Alan, I’d never be truly rid of him. We could move to the opposite side of the country, or even abroad, and he would still have found ways to make our lives miserable, no doubt leading to the same, sad conclusion. One bad bar hook-up was the catalyst for that conclusion. One bad mistake on my part, driven by feelings of desperation and self-loathing. I hope no young woman ever finds herself in that place. I hope every young woman reads this and learns to recognize those red flags and avoid it.

It seems unbelievable that life changed so radically nearly twenty-two years ago. I’ve learned so much since then — about myself, about the dynamic between partners and the violence often prevalent between them. I know how lucky I am to still be alive, after what transpired. In a six-week span following my shooting, there were six murder-suicides between Brevard and neighboring Orange Counties in Florida. Of those six couples, I was the only one to survive.

I know how badly the Florida system dealt with domestic violence then, and how much still needs to be done to make it safer and better for women, children and even men in those situations. To this day, I cannot fathom why a female judge, Tanya Rainwater, would allow such an obviously deranged man as my husband have contact with children. It’s a question I know my daughter wants answered, and she has vowed to write to Judge Rainwater seeking an explanation. I can’t wait to read the response to that one.

With partner violence and rape so much in the news throughout 2014, I’ve read all the sage attempts to explain it. But the only points of view that ring true for me are those written by actual survivors. One standing outside it can only offer a subjective point of view, because until you’ve walked a mile in our shoes, you’ll never get it right nor keep it from happening,

For my part, I’ll just tell my story as warning, and hope to continue to “pay it forward,” as my friend Nina once did. The physical hole in my face has been largely repaired by skilled surgeons. The psychic hole has taken longer to mend, but I’m getting there day by day.

 

 

 

Visiting Ghosts

ghosts

 

“We are the ghosts of the children no more. We lay in the graveyard of the home for unwed mothers, next to the church with the beautiful rose window, underneath the disturbed soil of Ireland. Our mothers came here, sharing secrets, being quiet, toiling and attending Mass with each other, though they never shared their true names. There was a momentary sisterhood, it seemed, and we thought we might one day live here, and be happy…” – Gavriela Maxime Ze’eva Person, Ghosts

 

Our two week journey began in typical American fashion: sitting at the gate in Newark, delayed by a line of thunderstorms.

Arriving NY from Ireland, 1961
Arriving NY from Ireland, 1961

The sit turned into four hours, as we were 40th in a line of equally delayed international flights, requiring refueling before even getting into takeoff position, and the wait was requited only by a cup of warmish water and a biscuit. Despite it all, we arrived into Shannon the next morning, Tuesday, only two hours late, released from our flying tin can disheveled and jet-lagged. My travel companion Cathy’s Kerry-based cousins graciously were on hand to collect and deliver us down to Cork, and by 1 pm, we were safely ensconced in our B&B in Glanmire.  Poor Cathy had been suffering from a stomach bug before we even left New Jersey, so she required a major nap/repair session as soon as we arrived. For my part, as is typically the case on arriving Ireland, I found myself too amped to sleep, so just powered through the jet lag. We made arrangements to meet up with two of the media crews in town to cover the mother-baby home scandals and interview mothers and adult adopted people.  The Rochestown Park Hotel, where media and others were staying, soon became ‘command central’, as we claimed a corner of their outdoor restaurant area as our own throughout the five-day stay in Cork. Food and drink seemed to magically appear as needed (I suspect a huge thanks is owed to some of our media friends for making a good bit of that happen!)

This little corner quickly became our haven – a safe meeting place where old and new friends met, hugged and chatted, shared our personal stories from a deep gut-level, dried each other’s tears and recovered ourselves when each day’s journey sometimes proved too much. The mix was eclectic: a renowned archaeologist and anthropologist well-trained and sensitive in the matter of infant graves in Ireland, Toni Maguire; international and local journalists; adopted people, mothers, siblings, spouses, partners, eyewitnesses and more. We were all there for one purpose – to investigate and validate what we knew were the true stories behind the Irish mother-baby homes, including the many who perished behind their walls and lay in unmarked graves across the grounds. It was a sobering mission, but in so many ways empowering as well. We could feel the ghosts of our lost mothers, brothers and sisters leading us forward and giving us strength.

Storming Normandy Beach
Storming Normandy Beach

Wednesday was D-Day: we met early at the Rochestown, scarfing down a quick breakfast and planning our reconnaissance for the day like Eisenhower going into Normandy. Toni was leading the charge. Ordnance survey maps were perused, privacy issues were duly considered and respected, notes were made and at last we set off for the Bessboro mother-baby home in Cork.

'Angel's Plot', Bessboro, Cork
‘Angel’s Plot’, Bessboro, Cork

Our first stop was a respectful visit to the designated ‘angel’s plot’, an odious term for what is really a twee faux cemetery, where only a few nuns and two or three babies were laid to rest. New memorials have been laid by grief-stricken families who still don’t know where their departed little ones or mothers were truly lain to rest. We suspected going in that far more lay scattered throughout the property.

Toni Maguire explains unsettled soil
Toni Maguire explains unsettled soil

We quickly learned the true meaning of Toni’s oft-repeated phrase about the immediate visual identification of unmarked graves, “The earth never truly settles over these spots.” Dips and swells, vegetation patterns and colourations – all proved to mark various spots surrounding the ‘angel’s plot’, including areas even outside the marked grounds of the Bessboro property, in an area recently brokered for sale. It wasn’t even necessary to complete ground probes or sophisticated radar and soil testing (although surely that will need to happen in the course of the Commission of Inquiry‘s investigation). The visual markers were all there. And the ghosts cried out to us. It is hard to describe the feeling of walking upon hallowed but unremarked grounds. Beneath us lay the tiny remains of children for whom life (if they even drew first breath) was all too short, but perhaps mercifully so in some cases. We all felt we had a duty of care to give these tiny ghosts a voice; to share their plight and the plight of those of us who dared to survive with the world. Life was not kind in these homes.

Bessborough
Bessborough

In 1922, Bessboro (Bessborough, or “BEZZ-bora” if you come from Da Real Capitol) House was purchased by the Sacred Heart Sisters of Jesus and Mary, a French-founded and London-based order, from the Quaker Pike family. History maintains the Pikes were not a very gracious lot, and treated those who worked for them in a quite unkind manner. Family members and the babies of workers there prior to 1922 would similarly have been buried on the property, creating even more mass or Cillini graves. The Sacred Heart sisters, upon local diocesan bishops’ invitations, came to Bessboro and later to Sean Ross Abbey (Roscrea) and Castlepollard (Westmeath) for the purposes of establishing mother-baby homes, ostensibly to replace the disease-ridden and harsh county homes or workhouses with “better” accommodations for unmarried mothers and their children. But witness this excerpt from the 1939 report of Ms. Alice Litster, inspector for boarded out children in the Department of Local Government and Public Health:

“The chance of survival of an illegitimate infant born in the slums and placed with a foster-mother in the slums a few days after birth is greater than that of an infant born in one of our special homes for unmarried mothers. I except the Manor House, Castlepollard, in which the infantile death rate is comparatively low. In theory, the advantage should lie on the side of the child institutionally born. Pre-natal care, proper diet, fresh air, sufficient exercise, no arduous work, proper and comfortable clothing, freedom from worry, the services of a skilled doctor, the supervision and attention of a qualified nurse, all should be available and should make for the health  of the expectant mother and the birth and survival of a healthy infant…Cleanliness, medical attention, dietetic knowledge, all the human skill may continue to preserve child life should be at hand. Yet any infant born in any other circumstances appears  to have a better chance of life. I have grave doubts of the wisdom of continuing to urge Boards of Health and Public Assistance to send patients to the special homes so long as no attempt is made to explore the causes of the abnormally high death rate The illegitimacy birth rate shows an upward trend. In 1916 it was 1530; in 1925 it was 1662. We cannot prevent the birth of these infants. We should be able to prevent their death.”

And witness these two shocking letters, transcribed from the Cork City Archives:

Found in LG 11 Box 91

"The Board of Public Assistance for the South Cork Public Assistance District. Secretary's office, Boardroom, Douglas Rd. Cork. 12th January 1945 A Chara Sacred Heart Home Bessboro Blackrock I wish to inform you that in a Circular Letter, P.2/1945 dated 10th January, 1945, Dr. Ward, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for local Government and Public Health, directs that, for the time being, no unmarried mother, or expectant mother should be sent to The Sacred Heart Home and Hospital, Bessboro’, Blackrock. Patients who normally would be sent there should be sent to the County Home

Mise le meas,

Signed, (unreadable)
Runaidho

To Dispensary Medical Officers, Medical officers, Matrons and Head Nurses of Hospitals, Assistance Officers and Superintendant Assistance Officers."

Why would they redirect mothers to county homes? Because:

"Evaluation to Ireland of Mothers and Children.

Copy Cork County Council. Public Health Dept 66 South Mall 17th August 1943

F Wrenne Esq. NA County Manager Courthouse.

Dear Mr Wrenne Bessboro Maternity Home With reference to the high rate of infant mortality in the above named institution as drawn to your attention recently by LCD (?) this matter has been investigated by Dr O Briain assistant (HCH?) who reports the following terms: 

Bessboro Maternity home and High Infant Mortality
I investigated this home and figures obtained were Deaths 68% sixty eight of the births. Diagnosis in most of these cases was Debility some were given as gastroenteritis and a small number as prematurity Most of the deaths were from 2-3 weeks to 3 months. This is the period they leave the Maternity Hospital for the home. The sister in charge has no Hospital training in infants and children apart from 2 months in Temple Street Hospital Dublin. This may or may not be a cause but I suggest a specially trained qualified in infant feeding should be appointed for 6-12 months. The figures could be then compared with the previous term Signed, D O Briain Asst Co H O H"

Moreover, spokeswoman for the Sacred Heart Sisters, Sr. Julie Rose, to date cannot even publicly confirm if children were buried in proper coffins or simply buried in shrouds/bags at Bessboro. We’ve spoken with several mothers who lost, or were told they lost, children at the home. In one case, the mother went back to reclaim her son, born in 1979, only to be told (by a nursery nun, not a social worker) that the months-old baby had died of ‘congenital heart failure’, despite that he was a healthy, nursing infant when his mother was there. When confronted with this horrifying news, the young mother was offered no cup of tea, no sympathy, not even a moment to sit down and collect her breath. And chillingly, no death cert exists for this child.

Heart-wrenching memorial for a deceased infant whose true burial spot remains unknown.

In another case, the mother and her son were both infected by a dirty needle during childbirth (no explanation for the use of said needle has been given, considering the mothers received no pain relief during labour during this mother’s time, 1960). She and her infant son were stricken with septicemia, and despite her pleading with the nuns to seek medical treatment for her son, he was taken too late to nearby St. Finbarr’s Hospital and died. The mother herself barely survived, and continued to be afflicted by her infection long after she’d left Bessboro and resettled in the UK. Yet her discharge papers show her in “good health” upon leaving. She begged to know where her son lay buried, but was merely shown a weedy, overgrown patch well beyond the defined ‘angel’s plot’. Hardly a fitting resting spot for this poor infant. To say this knowledge added to the solemnity of our work on Wednesday would be understatement.  And still more stories came.

Remembering Bessboro Babies Ceremony
Remembering Bessboro Babies Ceremony

We met with individuals who would have deep historical and firsthand knowledge of events and records at Bessboro. Their testimonies were equally harrowing and disturbing. It’s a small wonder any of us survived, and that theme of survivors’ guilt continued to plague many of us throughout the visit. We were physically and emotionally wrecked by the time we returned from our day at Bessboro. Why was it we mattered so little? How on earth could anyone have deemed it an acceptable ‘solution’ to incarcerate women for the ‘crime’ of a non-marital pregnancy, and then forcibly (and often illegally) separate them from their children? What sick god would sanction such an act of ‘Christian charity’?

On the 8th of January, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Inquiry will be released. The little ghosts are waiting, watching…and so are we, their living, breathing brethren.

The Last Piece of Dirty Carpet: Adoption in Ireland

9
Bessboro, Cork, 1961

The tides are finally turning…

Twenty years I’ve been at this, promoting and advocating for the rights of adopted people in and from Ireland (and in the US). We’ve talked, cajoled, written, and held countless meetings with successive governments in that period.  A small but fearless band of us connected in the early days of the Internet, spanning the Atlantic. It was the first time I’d ever spoken with people adopted in and from Ireland in my life.  We eventually began a Yahoo! group, which even today continues to receive members and posts. Some of us who had been ‘banished’ to the US, particularly in the Northeast, formed a small group (Adopted Citizens of Eire).

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Solidarity for Magdalenes, 2009

The topics have certainly been well-covered, even internationally. In 1989, activist and survivor Paddy Doyle led the charge with his excellent The God Squad. In 1997, former RTÉ journalist Mike Milotte researched and published his results on the trafficking of children from Ireland to the US in his seminal Banished Babies (updated in 2012). Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan had written Suffer the Little Children on the heels of Raftery’s award-winning three-part series States of Fear on RTÉ in 1999.  Stephen Humphries produced an excellent documentary on the Magdalene Laundries, Sex in a Cold Climate, in 1997 and it eventually became the basis for Peter Mullan’s award-winning feature film The Magdalene Sisters in 2002.  BBC also released the documentary Sinners in 2002. The latest, and perhaps most widely-seen chronicle of Irish adoption, is the award-winning film Philomena. The film was inspired by Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book,  The Lost Son of Philomena Lee. And our heroine, the real-life Philomena Lee, has been playing a blinder as one of the most eloquent, gracious and courageous spokeswomen for Irish mothers of loss. Thanks to her good work, Adoption Rights Alliance has now partnered with The Philomena Project, and it set the cogs in motion toward the most recent explosion and revelation in Tuam.

Our merry band in Ireland, the US, and the UK eventually formed AdoptionIreland: The Adopted Peoples Association of Ireland and began the first full-throttle campaign to restore the rights of adopted adults. We were bolstered by a wave of adoption activism in the US, and particularly informed by the work of Bastard Nation.  Eventually, AdoptionIreland and those of us involved in it withered from burnout. Sometimes it becomes prudent to stop banging your head against a brick wall, hide behind the sofa and take a break. But in the interim,  some of my intrepid colleagues and I, whose mothers had been in Magdalene Laundries in addition to the mother-baby homes, found the energy and impetus and decided to fight the cause of the Magdalene women. We founded Justice for Magdalenes (now JFM Research) in 2003, and began a long campaign to seek restorative justice and redress for those women. In 2008, some of our original AdoptionIreland core group were rejuvenated enough to resume battle, and Adoption Rights Alliance was formed, quietly but diligently working with a small group to foment change at the legislative level.

Philomena Lee at her son Anthony/Michael Hess’ grave, Roscrea, Tipperary, January 2014

Throughout this work and the long campaign for adoption rights, we’ve often talked about the children left behind, buried in mass graves on the properties of many of the mother-baby homes in Ireland, or at the Angel’s Plot in Glasnevin and Mt St Jerome’s, Dublin.  Shortly after Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s arrival in Dublin in 2004, appointed as ‘cleaner extraordinaire’ by Rome to deal with Ireland’s many problems of child/women abuse and rape, two of my JFM colleagues, Angela Murphy and Claire McGettrick, met with him to discuss the Magdalenes, mass graves and adoption rights issues. None of this is new.

We saw a glimmer of hope in 1999, when the Irish government finally decided to lift the lid and investigate industrial schools, residential homes, mother-baby homes, vaccine trials and Magdalene Laundries. But it was too much — too massive a horror — for them to cope with. So sadly, the mother-baby homes, those of us subjected to illegal vaccine trials, and Magdalene Laundries were left behind in that investigation. More than ten years passed before we were finally able to achieve a small measure of justice for Magdalene survivors.

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Original Irish birth certificateThere is no doubt some of the reticence to peek into the dark past of Ireland’s history of adoption involves the fathers. Oh yes, those daddies. Frequently known as “Mr. Diagonal Line” for those of us with dodgy birth certificates. Some (or perhaps even many – we’ll likely never know) were men of standing: government officials, the clergy, prominent businessmen. So of course we can’t sully their “good reputations,” right? But the scab of that “old boy club” secret has finally got to come off, however painful. Ireland must finally deal with and it appears the collective will of the public demands it.

There is no doubt some of the reticence to peek into the dark past of Ireland’s history of adoption involves the fathers. Oh yes, those daddies. Frequently known as “Mr. Diagonal Line” for those of us with dodgy birth certificates. Some (or perhaps even many – we’ll likely never know) were men of standing: government officials, the clergy, prominent businessmen. So of course we can’t sully their “good reputations,” right? But the scab of that “old boy club” secret has finally got to come off, however painful. Ireland must finally deal with and it appears the collective will of the public demands it.

Obviously, dead babies lying in unmarked graves is nothing new in Ireland. Again, we’ve talked about this before, with the Magdalene cause, and certainly Toni Maguire’s (Queen’s University, Belfast) excellent work in uncovering and excavating the mass grave sites of Cillini (unbaptised babies) has been well known for some years. So what tipped it this time? Was it the horror of the phrase “septic tank” as the purported tomb for these infants just the final straw? Whatever the cause, we are grateful the world is finally seeing what we’ve known for many, many years. #800 babies is now catching fire in the way #200girls did a month ago.

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Sean Ross Abbey, Tipperary, 1950’s

Here are some of the gruesome statistics we’ve collated over the years, which bolster what the world has recently learned about Tuam, Galway:

In 1943, the birth and death rates for the three Sacred Heart homes were as follows*. This year is particularly poignant, because it is also the year former Chief Medical Office for Ireland, Dr. James Deeney, undertook an investigation of the Bessboro, Cork Sacred Heart home and discovered an epidemic of staph infection among the infants, witnessing nappies filled with infected diarrhea, babies with sores and raging fevers, etc.

Sean Ross Abbey births: 146
Deaths: 45
Mortality rate: 31%

Castlepollard, Westmeath births: 77
Deaths: 6
Mortality rate: 8%

Bessborough, Cork births: 106
Deaths: 60
Mortality rate: 57%

*Initial, early research is based upon available online (Mormon-held) records, and may not include some records, quarters or is otherwise missing data. Further in-depth research is ongoing to pull all actual death certificates and available archival records. Initial inspection of some death certificates indicates marasmus (severe/acute malnutrition) was a leading cause of death among these infants.

Two years later, in 1945, the Bessborough, Cork home was shut down for a year as a result of Dr. Deeny’s investigation. and care and treatment of infants and mothers began to slightly improve. But overall, marked improvements weren’t to be seen until the arrival of Cork-born midwife, June Goulding (author of A Light in the Window) in 1950-51. It is remarkable that in 1951, only one infant and one mother perished under June’s care. The picture of neglect and ill-treatment at the hands of the religious at these institutions begins to become quite clear when juxtaposed against these statistics.

The call is to now demand the government put in place a full, independent inquiry. This means it cannot be a case of the government investigating the government (and let’s face it, they’re even more complicit now than in the case of the Magdalenes – the State has always paid capitation grants to mother-baby homes, the equivalent of an industrial wage, for each mother and child). That would be like allowing the burglar who cleaned out your house to investigate the crime. It needs to be led by a completely independent chair/body. I would suggest someone on the order of a Felice Gaer, UNCAT; or perhaps Mary Laffoy, Ireland Chief Justice who valiantly did try to have our issues covered during the 1999-2003 Child Abuse Commission Investigation; UNICEF, Amnesty – other human rights groups would also be possible choices. But absolutely not the Irish government. That will get us nothing more than a retread of the Martin McAleese-led Magdalene “independent” investigation, and his subsequent white-washed report. The UN CAT stated that was not unacceptable, and we couldn’t agree more. The memorials and stones and gardens and what have you can come later…no memorials before true justice.

taken_adoptionLet’s rip it all up. It’s long past time it be dealt with. And let’s remember that it’s not just about 800 dead babies in Tuam, Galway, or the thousands more we’ve commemorated and honour in Dublin, Roscrea, Cork and elsewhere. But it’s also about the living – some 60,000 Irish-born adults who are still considered second-class citizens by virtue of our birth, and denied access to even the most basic information about ourselves.

For more information or to join relevant Facebook groups campaigning for justice:

Adoption Rights Alliance (website)
The Philomena Project (website)
The Philomena Project (Facebook group, open to all supporters)
Banished Babies (open to all supporters, those trafficked to the US and the wider adoption community)
JFM Research (website)
Justice for Magdalenes (Facebook group, open to all supporters)

Because personal and private information is shared, some of these Facebook groups and pages are only open to only those who are adopted, mothers/fathers of loss or those who have a family connection:

Adoption Rights Alliance
Sean Ross Abbey
Bessboro
Castlepollard
St. Patrick’s Guild
St. Patrick’s Navan Road
Justice for the Tuam Babies

The Hijacking of Narrative

trafficked

I am an adult. I vote, pay taxes, have raised children and grandchildren, drive, may legally have the occasional drink if I wish, and in my youth, was able to serve in the military. I am not a convicted felon, terrorist, stalker or miscreant. And yet the one thing I cannot do that all other citizens can (including the aforementioned felons, terrorists, stalkers and miscreants) is access the original documents of my birth, my identity and my heritage. I am one of more than 2,000 children trafficked from Ireland to the US for adoption. And I am weary of everyone from politicians and political pundits, to pro-life campaigners and religious think tanks, conveniently hijacking our narrative, our lived experience and using it to flog other issues or controversies. Yet I am the one who has been flogged clean of my rights, and seem to have no voice in my own narrative.

It seems unthinkable in a modern Ireland that this remains the case, despite that immediately across the water in the UK, citizens there have been able to access those same documents for nearly forty years.

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Likewise, in most European countries and five US states. I continue to hear The Taoiseach, Ministers and TDs elected by the people tell me that these rights, access to these documents, represent “complex Constitutional issues.” Nothing could be further from the truth. They are confusing issues involving basic human behavior and relationships, with issues involving rights.  My right to know who I am is a civil and human right, one enshrined in the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption and by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And yet more than 60,000 adopted Irish adults continue to be denied that right.

What may be considered “complex” is seeking out one’s family of origin and making contact with those individuals.

But thousands of Irish citizens do that every day, despite sealed records.

We are also told that natural parents (mothers especially) were guaranteed confidentiality and somehow are granted this extra layer of protection – a level of protection no other citizen enjoys. Nothing could be further from the truth: this myth of “privacy” has been trotted out ad nauseum by agencies with a great deal to hide, and it has increasingly become a dog that simply won’t hunt. No documentation has ever been produced to prove this. In fact, quite the opposite, mothers of loss have come forward with documents they were forced to sign, promising that they would not seek their children in future. We are also told that opening records will cause adoption rates to plummet and abortion rates to rise, yet in jurisdictions where records have always been open or were opened in the past, nothing could be further from the truth (Alan Guttmacher Institute: http://www.agi-usa.org/pubs/journals/3026398.html).The basic right to our identity is not mutually inclusive with search or contact.

Many adopted adults in open records countries/states obtain their original documents and never choose to trace natural family.

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And at the end of the day, all human relationships are complex by design, whether shaded by adoption or not. In fact, most countries in the free world, including Ireland, have already enacted laws that protect individuals from unwarranted or harmful contact by way of barring orders, anti-stalking and harassment laws, digital privacy laws, etc. Why do our elected officials feel that adopted people must be harnessed by extra layers of protection against contact with blood-related individuals? One can only assume that our government believes us so pathologically unable to handle our interpersonal relationships that we are somehow “damaged” or “less than” because of the circumstances of our birth. And that is just plain discrimination. If we treated any other minority group in the same manner, the hue and cry would be earth-shattering.

So do we continue to believe lies designed to hide past bad practice, adoption fraud and a generational legacy of shame and stigma?

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Do we continue to allow mothers and fathers to live in pain, closeted by shame and stigma created by a nation caught in the stranglehold of outdated religious mores and control, and acted out by their own families and a State?

Or do we finally drag ourselves kicking and screaming into the 21st century, into the light of what we now know to be best practice as it applies to adoption and open records? Do we now finally acknowledge that we have spent the last half of the 20th century marginalizing, infantalising and discriminating against an entire population of adults?

Lamentation, Feet-Washing: Why Paddy Doyle is a Great Man

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Paddy Doyle, author of ‘The God Squad’

Despite spending most of his adult life bound to a wheelchair, Paddy Doyle is a formidable man. Formidable in many ways. After years of neglect and abuse in the Cappoquin, Wexford, industrial school in Ireland (including continued misdiagnosis and medical experimentation which resulted in his ongoing health battles), Paddy was one of the early voices exposing the extraordinary horrors many Irish children were subjected to under the “watchful” eye of Church and State. His book The God Squad (1989, Raven Arts Press/Transworld UK) serves as the definitive survivor’s testimony. It is an unapologetic, unflinching, and often humorous account of his battle with dystonia (which he pithily maintains, “It might well sound like a breakaway Russian Republic but it isn’t”) and a life punctuated by abuse and loss. I cannot recommend this book enough – it is so completely opposite the typical mis-lit treatise that it stands apart. You will not pity Paddy – you will applaud this man’s iron will and wry outlook on life, despite what that life has hurled at him.

When he was four years old, Paddy’s mother died of cancer, and he witnessed his father’s subsequent suicide by hanging.

Incarceration followed in a series of institutions, in which he was not just used with harshness, ignorance and insensitivity, but was also subject to physical and sexual abuse, culminating in brain surgery. He is now permanently crippled in body though not in spirit.

He has used his experience well and is now recognized as one of Ireland’s leading disability activists and has served as member of the government-appointed Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. Paddy was also recently been appointed by the Government as a member of the Memorial Committee to Survivors of Child Abuse.

I’ve been privileged to know Paddy through his Internet circle of friends and fellow campaigners for some years now. I’ve enjoyed many an amusing and enlightening e-mail exchange with Mr. Doyle, and my life is enriched knowing him.

When the child abuse scandal first broke in Ireland, Paddy was one of a very few voices of reason advocating that no deals be cut, no decisions made, without the input of every survivor. “Nothing about us without us” has long been his motto, and with good reason. Many ‘representatives of’ survivors and survivor groups played loose and fast, dealing sub rosa with the Irish State and the Catholic Church and in the process, sadly rendering survivors’ rights impotent. Some have even further perpetuated the abuse upon their own by misusing funds paid out by Church and State meant for survivors’ needs.

Paddy saw all of this coming, warned against it and continues to expose it. He suffers no fool lightly. Last week, he sent an alert to his wide circle of friends to let us know a ceremony was being planned for Sunday, February 20 at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral – a “Liturgy of Lament and Repentance.” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin were on hand to perform a symbolic “foot-washing” for selected abuse survivors, among them prominent survivor spokeswoman Christine Buckley. Read the full text of the service at the Boston Globe.

The irony of this dog-and-pony-show is not lost among those of us who continue to campaign for justice for survivors whose voices have not yet been heard; particularly survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Protestant-run Bethany Home, who were omitted from the 2002 Redress Act. ‘Twas Mary Magdalene herself made most famous for the whole foot-washing thing, now equally infamous for her connection to the Church ‘penitent’ model, notably as applied to the Magdalene Laundries and their ‘penitent’ slaves.

procathedral_picture_41298308010Sunday’s particular show was organised between the Church and abuse survivors Father Paddy McCafferty, Catholic activist Paddy Monaghan and survivor Marie Collins, who allegedly set about preparing a liturgy in consultation with survivor groups. Unfortunately, this consultation did not include voices like Paddy’s, mine and many other good people. Had we been consulted, we would’ve advised against such a theatrical spectacle, as it does nothing for the very real needs of an aging population coping with the results of a lifetime of abuse, denied education and life skills and struggling with daily needs such as housing and medical care. Not to mention those still left without even a public apology.

I think any of us in Paddy’s circle could agree that this exercise scheduled for Sunday was a slap in the face to so many who seek justice as more than a foot bath. And today’s press would indicate it backfired in a mighty way. But the slap didn’t end there. Paddy made the trip up to Dublin on the day from his home south of Dublin, accompanied by Mary Smith, a woman whose mother had been sent to a Laundry after falling pregnant with Mary. Mary herself ended up shunted off to an industrial school and Laundry. She had a letter for Cardinal O’Malley with her and wanted to attend the ceremony and deliver it to him.

Paddy Doyle and Mary Smith are refused entrance at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral

But Paddy and Mary were denied admittance at the door. A phalanx of Irish gardai and Church officials would not allow them in. Amid a group of survivors protesting the event, Paddy told The Irish Times it was “getting to the stage where apologies are becoming cliches.”

In the wake of the 2009 Ryan Report and then the collapse of the Irish economy and call for new government, this theater of the absurd foot-washing episode seems a desperate cry by Church (and State) to be done with it all…more of a symbolic hand-washing rather than foot-washing. As my colleague in Justice for Magdalenes, Professor James Smith put it: “It is as if now that the national finances are in the toilet, the notion of justice, ethics, [and] morality is suddenly contingent on the national coffers.” And Sunday’s service was an expedient and desperate attempt to put close to it all. Many of us are still dealing with, as James put it, “closed ranks and silence” on serious human rights issues: the abuse and unpaid labour of the Laundries; vaccine trials perpetrated on babies marked for adoption, without mothers’ consent; survivors of the Bethany Home; and more.

And yet somehow this morning, the ever-pragmatic Paddy was able to put his infamous humourous spin on it all: “The cops couldn’t arrest me because they hadn’t got a van to put the wheelchair in!”

Paddy is the keeper of the fire that burns in those of us still denied justice. An ailing economy and Church urgency to get their house in order (which involves further sweeping of elephants under the carpet) will not silence or stop our voices. And certainly not with the formidable Mr. Doyle leading the charge. Long may he reign.

Our Lady of Nothing at All (Part II)

 

9Honora was the youngest daughter in a family of five, from a small village in Wexford not far from the port of Rosslare.  While her father and several brothers mostly worked quarrying rock, her own mother’s people were mostly seafarers.  Hardly prosperous, they at least managed a steady living and had survived the worst of An Ghorta Mor.  Honora was the pet of the family, an exquisite dark-haired beauty who learned early on how to wrap a man around her finger, starting with her besotted father.  By the time she was 16, in 1926, she had become pregnant by a local farmer’s son.  With Honora’s own charm, coupled with her father’s desire to do anything to keep his precious Honora from harm as well as his own local influence, they managed to keep the scandal quiet.  The resulting baby boy, John, was quickly hustled off to live with a pair of uncles in the next village over, and Honora resumed her normal life.  Disaster struck again three years later, when Honora managed to bewitch yet another local lad and bore him a daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

This time Honora’s aggrieved father shuttled her off to a small set of rooms shared by a bachelor and his sister in yet another neighboring village, but told her the child was now her own responsibility.  Honora’s mother by this point had lapsed into a near catatonic state over this flagrant family shame.  She would spend most days rocking by the fire, only ever asking if any of her three boys were home from work yet. Honora’s father did most of the cooking and cleaning, looking after his now witless wife as best he could.  What little spare time he had, he would visit Honora and the baby girl, Ellie, or go by and pick up baby John for a brief visit with his mammy.

 

 

 

 

 

On one such visit, not quite a year after Ellie’s birth, Honora’s father entered the small house she shared to find her retching into a basin.

 

 

 

 

 

—Honora, girl, what’s wrong with you?

 

 

 

 

 

Ellie was squalling on a cot in the corner, and as Honora’s father went to pick her up for a cuddle (he could resist his grandchildren no more than he could resist Honora, bastards though they may be), Honora wiped her ashen face and straightened.

—It’s happened again, Da.

—What’s happened again, lass?

—A fella’s been at me

—What?!

—Oh yes, that fine fella you begged me to take rooms with, Nick…well, he’s not such a fine fella is he?

—Ah jaysus, the fecker’s gone and knocked you up?

—Yes, Da…I swear I did nothing to encourage him, honest

—I believe you Nora, I do.  Men can’t help but be dazzled by you, sweet. I know.  But honestly, what are we to do now?

He sighed heavily and sat with resignation on a stool, scratching his balding head.  He knew in his heart his own budget, never mind Honora’s (which was only supplemented by the laundry she took in for neighbours) would never stand another babby.

—Nora, you know you’ll have to give this up…the county home will find the babby a good family.

—They won’t, Da!

Honora let out an anguished cry, but just as quickly clicked her own mouth shut, realising with an awful finality that she could not support another child.

And so, when this third baby was born, Martin, he was quickly christened and given over to the county home in Enniscorthy.  For agonising months, Honora and her father would make the long drive to the county home and visit with little Martin.  Each time they were assured that the paperwork was in process to find him a fine family. Finally, after a full year of such visits, Honora was told that a family was found and that she shouldn’t be bothered to visit Martin anymore — it would only upset and confuse him, trying to settle in with a new family.

Honora accepted her and Martin’s fate as best she could and went back to the sad house she shared (uncomfortably now) with the father of the child and his sister, who couldn’t resist making snarky remarks and darting nasty looks at Honora behind her back.  Her father promised to write to Honora’s older sister Anne, who was now married and living in Manchester, England, and see if Honora couldn’t come live with them until she could find suitable employment and (fingers crossed) a suitable spouse.  Arrangements were made and funds collected to send Honora for a short visit with Anne, hoping to lift her spirits and let her glimpse the joys of a stable marriage and family life.  The joys Honora glimpsed while in Manchester were evidently not quite what her father had envisioned.  She came back pregnant for the fourth time, this one resulting from a rapturous fling with a handsome, dark friend of her sister Anne’s husband Michael.

Her father was now convinced Honora was soft in the head, bewitching ways notwithstanding.  He could not believe a girl could be so daft as to not realise what had gotten her this way four times!  Enough was enough.  He sat her down in front of the fire and told her in no uncertain terms that this child was straight off to the county home, and no fond visits for a year.  Afterward, she would return to Manchester, to Anne and Michael (who would be under strict orders to keep her away from men, unless it was a proper, supervised courtship) and would not be bid welcome in Wexford again unless there was a ring on her finger and a proper husband in tow.

Honora was miserable…she loved her babies, including this unborn one. She loved the sex she had had with the men who’d produced these children, no matter what the Church and the neighbours said.  It was all just down to bad timing.  She’d believed her father could make everything work, but even she came to realise that the man was carrying far too much on his shoulders.  So when this last little babby girl was born, christened Philomena, Honora resignedly made the journey again to the county home for what she believed was the last time.

She had little Ellie and would occasionally see John, and now she’d be off to Manchester.  She tried to push the loss of Philomena and Martin, and her precious visits with John, out of her mind as she prepared for the journey to her sister’s.

But fate was not done with Honora yet.  Shortly before Christmastime, four-year old Ellie came down with a mysterious fever and blinding headache.  Nothing could console or aid her.  For two days Honora and her equally distraught father administered soup, water or anything they could to get the fever down.  But Ellie had lapsed into unconsciousness and they knew their only hope was to get her to the county home, which was the nearest place affording any class of medical service.

A somber resident paediatrician informed them that Ellie was suffering from meningitism.  Ellie’s vital signs languished to nothing overnight, despite fluids and what treatment was offered.  Four days after her illness began, Honora, her three older brothers, father and catatonic mother buried the little girl in the local cemetery.  Honora’s bitter tears flowed over Ellie’s small gravesite with the cold, December rain.  Something inside her hardened then, but made her resolved to always watch over her children, wherever they may be.

Three months later, Honora carried her grief and the secret of her children on the boat to Manchester.  She arrived at Anne’s doorstep weary and still somewhat in shock.  She had changed from the raven-haired, rose-cheeked, laughing beauty Anne had known as a girl.  Now a quiet, somber young woman stood before her.  Anne immediately folded her into her arms and set about restoring Honora into a marriageable catch.

Over the course of the next two years, Anne’s transformation began to work its magic.  Although Honora remained a quiet and sober woman, the roses did come back to her cheeks and evidently provided enough of a lure to attract a straight-laced railway worker she was introduced to at the local Irish club.  Anne made sure that Honora understand this was a fine man: God-fearing, a temperance Pioneer for many years, and exceedingly modest in his dealings with women.  Under no circumstances could Honora share any of her past — nothing about her children, living, dead or missing — to this man Tom, or he’d have nothing to do with her.

Tom seemed enthralled with Honora’s quiet way, taking it for modesty as opposed to some deep, abiding sorrow.  Within three months, he had offered her marriage and Honora’s entire family rejoiced.

Tom and Honora settled outside London, where work was more plentiful, especially for experienced Irish railroad workers, now stepping into the English jobs left vacant by World War II.  But that itself concerned Tom; they had three young children by the start of the war and he wanted his wife and children out of harm’s way.  So they were sent off to his father in Kerry, to a one-horse town where life seemed at a standstill.  Honora hated it, and disliked Tom’s taciturn father, who was forever ordering her around like some servant.  Her only relief was going into town to shop, where every male head would turn her way.  This barren outpost from the 18th century had never seen a woman the likes of Honora.  With her long dark hair flowing behind her and her imperial posture and direct gaze, she commanded men to their windows in passing.  But Honora was now a married matron and had no time for these staring ohmaudans.  She had another more important mission.

On occasion, Honora was able to convince Old Tom, her father-in-law, that she needed to go to Wexford to see her own family, usually because ‘someone was sick’.  She’d leave her three toddlers in Old Tom’s care (the foul old bastard was well able to look after them, and besides, that’s what a grandfather was for now and again) and hop the train.

Her first visit was to Wexford, where her oldest son John, now nearly 20, met her at the railway station.  She passionately embraced him, but was not surprised when his own embrace seemed a bit confused and stand-offish.  Poor lad hadn’t seen her in so many years, he’d probably forgotten she was his mother.  After a quick visit with her father, brothers and uncles (her mother had passed as quietly as she lived, in her own world, some five years ago — Honora and Anne had not attended the funeral), Honora made her way to the county home, now called St John’s.  Her mission was to try and learn where Martin and Philomena went and perhaps check in on them.  She was surprisingly able to follow their whereabouts, but no thanks to the staff at the home.  Her source was local gossip and it told her that contrary to what the county home had promised, Martin had ended up an ‘orphan’ in a local industrial school and Philomena was being raised by nuns at a girls’ convent school.

Honora arranged for further ‘day-trips’ from Old Tom’s place in Kerry and was able to slip by train to Kilkenny and Cork, to see Martin and Philomena.  Martin was a sad little fellow who seemed to want nothing to do with Honora, but the visits at least helped Honora to hold onto her sanity.  Philomena warmed more toward her, curling her small hand inside Honora’s as they sat in the children’s nursery together and tried to make conversation.  Honora did her best to explain her situation to both children, but they were far too young to grasp it and all she could do was try to cuddle them both and assure them she loved them.

The return trips to Kerry left Honora unsettled and empty.  She could never tell her Tom about these children, and yet she felt compelled to remain part of their lives, somehow. Her only hope was that she somehow wasn’t doing the children more harm than good with her sporadic visits and subjecting them to a life among strangers, in foster care and industrial schools.

Twenty-five years passed, bringing Honora another four children with Tom and a settled life in the London suburbs.  And although she occasionally saw her eldest son John, who was now married with his own son and living nextdoor to her sister Anne in Manchester, she had still not acknowledged her four Irish-born children to Tom and the younger children.  And on visits with her sister Anne or the requisite funerals and weddings where John was present, she was forced to pass him off as a “cousin” to her husband and children.  The pain and confusion that registered in John’s eyes on these occasions broke her heart.

She had also not set foot back in Ireland since the War years, and so could only follow Philomena and Martin’s progress through sporadic letters from her father, who didn’t know much about them himself.

One day a letter arrived, not from her father, but from one of her aging uncles.  Honora’s father had died, they said, peacefully in his sleep. She knew she would have to go back for this funeral.  So it was arranged that Honora would travel with her sister Anne.  She was shocked at what a small, sad place her family village in Wexford had become.  She and Anne tearfully buried their beloved father and Honora felt as if she was burying her last link to Ireland with him.  Except for the children — still out there, somewhere.  At the small gathering held in her bachelor Uncle George’s home, Honora struck up a conversation with a cousin, Biddy, who seemed to be in the know on everything.  Biddy also knew about John, Martin and Philomena and tactlessly asked Honora if she’d been in touch with them.  Honora sadly admitted she had not seen Philomena and Martin in over twenty years, and John only occasionally.  She was unprepared for the shock, then, when Biddy told her Philomena was still with the nuns, now in Waterford, doing sewing for them.  Honora had thought pretty Philomena would be lucky, and some nice family might’ve taken her in by now…or she’d by now be successfully married. Without hesitation, she hastily re-arranged her trip back to England, telling Anne to let Tom know she would be spending a few extra days ‘straightening out her father’s affairs’.

She wasted no time in traveling to St. Dominick’s, demanding to see her daughter when she arrived.  The nuns led her to an ornate parlor and she nervously sat waiting for Philomena, clutching her purse.  The spectre that soon appeared before her was shocking.  Now a grown woman, Philomena was still small, thin and had horrendous dark circles under her eyes.  The lively, sweet child Honora remembered had turned into a docile, resigned woman.  She didn’t know where to begin, so just stood up and hugged Philomena to her.  She could feel the bones in the girl’s back and was horrified.

— Oh my Phil, my poor, sweet Phil!  What have they done to you?

Philomena looked up into her mother’s eyes, a woman she barely knew, and felt nothing.  No sadness, no remorse, no anger.  Just a giant void of feeling.  However, that soon turned to relief when Honora announced her intentions to get Phil out of there.

They packed Phil’s meager belongings together and Phil noted the small wad of bank notes that passed between her mother’s hand and the sister who ran St. Dominick’s.  Honora hired a cab to take them down to Cork City, and soon they were settled in a small restaurant on Patrick Street, sipping tea and eating sandwiches.

—I know I haven’t been much of a mother to you — Honora hesitatingly began.

—Mum, it’s all past.  I understand.  John and Uncle George would send me letters and they told me about your husband and children.  I’ve been fine, really.

Honora eyed Phil suspiciously.  Her appearance told her otherwise, but for now, she was just glad to see and touch Philomena once again.

—Look, because of Tom, I still can’t be much of a mother to you, but I can do something.  Tom has a sister who is head Matron at a hospital in Dublin.  I’m sure we could find you a suitable job there.  Better than working for the nuns.  Did they even pay you for the work you did?

—No, mum.  None of us were paid.  We got our keep and that was it.

—Right.  Then that’s it…you’ll slave no more for the likes of them.

The two women finished their lunch in awkward silence, not knowing what else to say between complete strangers who hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years.  Honora paid for lunch and called for a cab to take them to the train station.  Soon they were on their way to Dublin, and a whole new life for Phil.

Honora located them a small, reasonable bed and breakfast in the city and rang to make an appointment with Tom’s sister, the head Matron at Our Lady’s Hospital.  She was careful with her words, introducing Phil by phone as a “cousin” from Wexford, with solid training from the nuns. Tom’s sister happily agreed to meet them, and soon after their proper introduction, Philomena was welcomed to the small army of ward staff employed at the hospital.

Satisfied that at least Phil was rescued from a life of slavery to the nuns, Honora said yet one more sad good-bye to her daughter, as they stood in the staff dormitory.  Honora’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged Phil tightly to her.

—I wish things didn’t have to be this way.  I wish I had you near me every day.

—Don’t worry, mum.  I’ll be fine.  I’m a grown woman now.  And thank you for getting me out of St. Dominick’s.  I know I’ll love this job.  I’ll write as soon as I’m settled.  And don’t worry — I’ll write as your ‘grateful cousin’.

—Thank you for understanding, Phil.  I love you so.

And with that Honora turned and exited the dormitory.  Phil would not see her again until Honora’s death, some twenty years later.

Part I, Our Lady of Nothing at All

Our Lady of Nothing at All (Part 1)

img_02371277213625The first sensation Maura became aware of was a sort of sloshing, slurping sound. Other sensations seemed to indicate she herself was actually a part of this sound, like the tugging and pressure she felt on her tiny body. There was a sudden whack of something — air — assailing her nostrils, now open and no longer filled with fluid. The new air carried a strong Scent to Maura’s brain, something remembered, known. It gradually became identifiable as the Scent belonging to the Gentle Voice, the warm cavern that had held Maura for some time now. It was much stronger now, though. She could almost taste the scent on her rosebud lips and became excited to take in more of it. But that meant more of the sloshing and slurping and the tugging and pulling.

To take itself off the uncomfortable feeling of tugging and pulling, Maura’s mind reviewed her time spent in this warm world. She could hear the Scent singing to her, lulling her with soothing sounds like water running over smooth stones. The Scent was always singing to her, although sometimes Maura would catch sounds in between that seemed far more sad and troubled. The Scent would shudder slightly and Maura would feel a gentle pressure, a clasping of some kind, on her little sphere and body. And Maura would be aware that she, too, felt sad and unhappy. But the clasping part made her want to see more of the Scent.

At last, she made a decision to go with it and moved closer toward the strong scent on the new air, and with a final slurp, she entered this new world. What met her senses was a full-on assault. Loud noises, things clanging, voices shouting, and light — blinding light. Mixed in with the Scent she knew were other smells; harsh, acrid ones she couldn’t identify as belonging to the world she knew. It took some moments as her over-stimulated nervous system quieted and she was able to adjust herself to the new surroundings.

Her tiny nose and ears and body were picking up strong signals from everywhere, but her eyes, the weakest of her senses, couldn’t seem to adjust. Everything was fuzzy, distorted and very, very frightening. It was all mostly bright light, really, with odd, dark shapes moving in and out.

And worst of all, she couldn’t find the Scent — it was out there, but not as close now, she could tell. Suddenly, it was replaced by another Scent, not one she knew, and her whole body convulsed in response to it. The new Scent clasped her tightly (that part Maura liked), but just as quickly unclasped her and laid her on something cold. More sounds followed.

—She’s five pounds and fifteen ounces, what a mite!

—And cute as a button.

—Is the mother okay?

—Sure, but she’s taken it on the chin, poor dote. She’s exhausted.

—Right. Fingers and toes accounted for, check. Eyes responding and reflexes fine, check. Nice head o’hair. I’ll wager mammy was belchin’ and burnin’ up the oul’ gullet on this one!

The sisters gave Maura a thorough cleaning, then wrapped her in a soft blanket and placed her on a small, metal cot. For the next three hours, she felt very disconnected from her Scent and familiar sounds and world. She was very frightened.

She tried to emulate the sound of her Scent singing to her, thinking perhaps she could find the Scent that way. But what came out was more of a screeching, and it startled even herself.

Eventually, a sister came in and scooped Maura up. She was taken down a long corridor of bright lights, more acrid smells and jangly sounds. The sister opened a door to a room where three young women lay in identical beds. Maura was taken to the furthest bed, next to a window, where a small, dark-haired woman lay.

—Up now, Phil…here’s your darlin’ babby. Isn’t she lovely?

Philomena, the dark-haired girl in the bed, sat up painfully, minding the new row of stitches in her belly, and eagerly held her arms out to the sister. She settled Maura into them, holding her close to her breasts, and immediately began half-singing, half-cooing to her. Maura instantly opened her eyes and became acutely aware of comfort. The Scent was back! And closer than ever! She settled into her mother’s arms contentedly and closed her eyes, allowing the exhaustion of this startling, new world to take over. Soon all was dark and warm again.

Philomena was a 27-year old new mother, lying in a cot in a hospital in Cork, Ireland on the 8th of April, 1960. Until last night, she had been living for the past two months at a mother-baby home on the outskirts of Cork City along with twenty other young women. All of them were pregnant and not married to the fathers of their children. There were also the appalling whispers of fathers and brothers, cousins, and even a priest being responsible for some of these pregnancies. And that was the way it was in Ireland . If you made the fearful mistake of becoming pregnant outside of wedlock, no matter the circumstances, you did your time at one of these god-forsaken Gulags run by fearsome nuns who made you feel right shite every waking day.

But where else would Phil have gone? She had no family herself to speak of. Some dim memories would flit across her mind of the mother who would visit her on odd occasions, as she shuttled from one foster family to another, and then finally on to the nuns at age 15 to work for her keep. That was it. No real brother-memories or sister-memories — no sense of who her own father was. Just the constant rootlessness and dependency on others.

So she’d had no choice but to turn to the nuns when she discovered she was pregnant with Robert’s baby.

Philomena had been working in Dublin (her first, real on-her-own-job) as a domestic ward aide in a large hospital when she met Robert. She liked the work and was good at keeping her wards spotless, as well as giving the patients the benefit of her sympathetic and kind nature. Many of the sisters there encouraged her to pursue nursing, and Phil kept that in the back of her mind as her own private dream.

She also liked the other girls she worked with and struck up easy friendships with many of them. All the ward aides roomed together in a section at the back of the hospital for staff. It was certainly no worse than anything the nuns or foster families had offered her as hospice over the years, and it was enhanced by the fact that the girls could pretty much come and go as they pleased within curfew.

So Phil and many of the other young women she worked with would pretty themselves up on Friday nights and rush off to the dances at the old Star in Dublin. They were all meeting up with fellas they were dating, or with new fellas they hoped to meet at the dances. It was at one such fateful dance that Phil was introduced to Robert by her friend, Eileen.

—Hey, Phil, wouldja have a look at that fella over there with my Joe? Is that not dreamy or what?

Philomena glanced over in the direction Eileen indicated and took in a tall, dark-haired man wearing a better-than-average suit. She couldn’t see his face clearly as her vision wasn’t the best, and she hadn’t yet saved enough for new glasses (nor would she necessarily choose to wear them when she went to the Star, remembering the line Marilyn Monroe used in that American film How to Marry a Millionaire: “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”). Plus the lighting in the dance hall was wretched. But going by Eileen’s genuine enthusiasm, Phil could tell Eileen thought she’d snared quite the catch for her.

—Is he not gorgeous? What, are ya an eejit? Are ye lookin where I’m pointin’?

—Sure, sure…I see him. He looks pretty good from here. Who is he?

—A friend of my Joe’s. Joe wants me to set you up with him, Phil. He’s brilliant…comes from good family, Joe says, and has a good, steady job.

—What’s he do, then?

—Joe says he works up Finglas way for a stained glass company — y’know, does all them fancy church windows and the like.

—Hmmm

—Is that all ye can say?! Shush now, here they come over…

Eileen and Joe awkwardly made introductions, while Philomena and Robert blushed furiously at one another. Finally, he offered to get her a lemonade and gently guided her by her elbow away from her friends. They wound up in a dark corner of the hall, where the music wasn’t quite so loud and there was no danger of reeling couples dancing into and over them.

—So, howyeh, Phil? Where are ye from? Not from here, I can tell that.

Philomena blushed furiously, always conscious of her somewhat questionable background. But she could tell from the impish grin on Robert’s face that his question was not intended to be judgmental; he was just breaking the ice.

—Em, no. I’m from Wexford way.

The impish grin widened. Robert handed her a lemonade and reached inside his own pocket for a small flask.

—Care for a bit extra in yours?

Phil nervously eyed the flask and realised that Robert had brought a bit stronger concoction to reinforce his bland ade. She shook her head no.

—Cheers, but I’d rather not.

—Well then [he poured a generous measure in his own glass], here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

The man was definitely gorgeous in Phil’s estimation, now that she could see him closer, but she could plainly tell this was a fella who liked to party. Possibly too much. He already seemed a bit well-lubricated. Not unsteady or sloppy, mind you, but clearly a few spiked lemonades down.

Robert finished his drink and asked Phil if she’d like to dance. As they glided back onto the noisy floor, the showband whomping away like mad, she was surprised at what a deft dancer he was. He smoothly whirled her around the floor, never losing his footing or stomping her toes as so many other fellas did.

A few sets later, Phil and Robert, now sweaty and laughing, rejoined Eileen and her Joe. It was nearly closing time, but both couples were not quite ready to call it a night. As Joe had a small flat of his own, he invited everyone round to his place and Phil nervously accepted the invitation with Robert’s enthusiastic encouragement.

As they stepped out of the Star, they were met with a warmish June night and the humid smells coming off the Liffey. Arms linked, the two couples laughingly made their way toward the river, crossing north toward Joe’s ramshackle neighbourhood, singing as they went. Robert’s fine baritone merged nicely with Phil’s own strong soprano, and she shyly smiled up at him as their voices bounced off the river and cobblestones. From somewhere off to their left came a loudly shouted WOULD YOU EVER SHUT THE FUCK UP? All four laughed and wound the song down to a low chorus.

They arrived at Joe’s and climbed the two flights up to his darkened flat. Joe went about flicking on lights and opened the one window in the place. His upper body disappeared out the window and returned with a quartet of bottled stout. Phil accepted a bottle as she was more than thirsty again from the walk and quite sure Joe had nothing of a non-alcoholic variety there.

A radio was switched on and Joe and Eileen began a slow dance, nuzzling and kissing one another as they circled the room, oblivious to Robert and Phil. Robert’s left eyebrow shot up and he motioned Phil to a dilapidated sofa, which served as the only furniture in the room besides two wooden chairs and small table. She sat down next to him and he immediately launched an arm around her. Phil hadn’t much experience with men, and what little she did have was not of a positive quality. During a brief stay working with a farm family when she was 14, Phil was accosted in her room one night as she slept by the foul, sweaty patriarch. Instinctively, she lashed out with a solid foot to his groin and effectively rolled him off her before further harm could be done. The sight of the doughy farmer squealing down the corridor, his startled, now wide-awake wife three steps behind him and shouting questions was nearly worth the cost of Phil’s job. The farmer’s wife stared Philomena down the next day at breakfast, flinty-eyed and convinced that Phil had seduced her lout of a husband. So that was that — out she went and lucky, according to the farmer’s wife, that the gards weren’t called.

Fearful of a future of jobs like this, where’d she be at the mercy of some sex-craved father or husband, she turned to the nuns in Cork for help, where she’d spent most of her limited schooling. Their response was to send her to an institution known as St. Dominick’s up in Waterford, notorious for taking in ‘wayward women’ to do commercial laundry and sewing, often never to see the outside world again. But Phil felt her choices were limited, and besides, the nuns told her because of her fine hand with the needle, she’d be doing fancy sewing instead of the hard, leg-killing laundry work. Still, she’d spent ten years in that dreadful place. Ten years of being taunted by fellow inmates for her somewhat ‘elevated’ status as a seamstress, taunted by the nuns for minor infractions, and taunted by the public every time the girls were all trotted out for May processions or outdoor Masses. It was soul-sucking and Phil feared her decision may have been ill-informed: she was becoming a shapeless, nameless thing like the rest of the inmates and the nuns began to treat her in kind. What little money she’d saved before coming to St. Dominick’s had been given over to the nuns for her ‘keep’. Phil harboured no illusions about the money the nuns made off her stunning, intricately embroidered Irish linen tablecloths. She knew she’d never see a penny of it.

On the brink of becoming a mindless automaton, one day Phil was pulled from the sewing room and told a visitor was there to see her. When she was ushered into the nuns’ ‘special visitor’ parlor, she was confronted by a somewhat wild-looking woman of middle age, her obviously long, thick hair swept up into a whorl with pins. Dark and gray clashed in this whorl and Phil found she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She finally met the face under the hair with her gaze and realised she was staring at her own mother, Honora.

When ‘Justice for All’ becomes justice for…some

Author’s disclaimer: the comments made here are my personal comments and do not reflect the opinions of any other group or organisation. If you have the inane notion to take “legal action,” please note that you must take it with me — Mari Steed: personal assets=$0; self-respect and dignity=priceless. And for those who truly don’t have a clue, anything with an ellipse or quotation marks is just that — a quotation. In other words, not something I said, but a remark someone else said that I’m quoting. Clear?

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For anyone who knows me, my history with adoption, Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries, you know that my mantra has always been if you support these issues as I do, then I’m with you, 100%. My personal history: my mother spent ten years in the Magdalene Laundry in Cork, and then suffered the further indignity of being shuttled through three different Irish mother-baby homes, finally giving birth to me at the mother-baby home at Bessboro’, Cork. I am also the reunited mother to a daughter relinquished under Pennsylvania’s sealed records system in 1978.

A bit more background: I’ve worked with an advocacy group called Justice for Magdalenes for going on the last ten years. Our primary goals are (i) to bring about an official apology from the Irish State and the Catholic Church, and (ii) the establishment of a distinct redress scheme for Magdalene survivors. Once JFM achieves these objectives, the door will be open to every survivor and/or her family and/or other groups representing Magdalene survivors to pursue their own claim for redress. And for the record: when (not if) that time comes, I will be glad to lay down the mantle and call it a job well done. I have no interest in taking on the work of running a support service or centre, don’t care to be the recipient of any State or Church compensation for such, and want to just quietly fade into the background. Having seen the state of many Irish survivor support groups, I want no part of that. I just want to kick the door down for women like my mother, and then let them all flood through on their own steam.

As part of JFM’s work, we have often been contacted by academics, researchers, documentarians, journalists, etc. In the early days, we were happy to offer our time, information and resources to these folks to help them with whatever project they undertook. Our mission was to spread awareness and their work was critical to this mission. In 2006, we were contacted by a young, eager man (an actor by training) from Ireland who wanted to create a documentary with a new twist: follow the travails of a Magdalene survivor or survivors, modern day, as they sought to achieve redress or file a claim under the existing 2002 Redress Act. We felt this was an important project and spent time connecting him with survivors we felt were up to the task of such a project, providing him background information on the Laundries, etc.

Fast forward to late 2008: said filmmaker is nearly at completion of his project and lets our online discussion group know the title he’s chosen for it: The Forgotten Maggies. Unfortunately, this caused a row among some of the group members, many survivors themselves, who feel that the term ‘Maggie’ is a derogatory insult to the women who were incarcerated in these asylums. Our young filmmaker takes great umbrage to this and a heated dispute evolves on the list over the next few months, with me and others trying to smooth the waters, unruffle feathers and generally try to keep people’s eyes on the prize: redress for Magdalene survivors. It’s about the ladies, people!

In early 2009, I approached New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House with the idea of doing a panel session on the Magdalene Laundries (they’ve done screenings before of the documentaries Sex in a Cold Climate and States of Fear). It was embraced enthusiastically by IH director Eileen Reilly and we started to plan the components. Initially, my thought was to screen Peter Mullan’s excellent The Magdalene Sisters and invite him as a panelist (I’d met with him at a Philadelphia screening in 2003 and spent fours hours over pints and fags discussing the Church and other topics with this very erudite man) as well as our resident advisory committee member and expert, the man I admire as the most esteemed scholar on the subject of the Magdalene Laundries, who has done more to further our cause than anyone I know.

But we were unable to pull the Mullan panel off, so my next thought was to invite the young documentary filmmaker to show his film, which he jumped on. Unfortunately, as plans for the Glucksman event gelled, the controversy about his documentary on our discussion list continued to devolve into angry accusations, childish behaviour and just downright nastiness, despite our best efforts to keep the train on the track.

It finally got so bad that our advisory committee scholar begged off the Glucksman event (understandably, albeit regrettably) because he didn’t want to professionally engage with this most unprofessional of young documentary filmmakers.

I managed to survive the event and even be civil and cordial to the filmmaker despite my misgivings about the quality of his film, his motivations and his practise of undermining others. After the event, I decided to keep my distance. I would neither promote his film nor decry it. He unfortunately took this and the discussion group’s criticism a bit too much to heart and thought we had turned on him, refusing to see the truth: that a documentary should be nothing if not accurate, and that it’s never wise to piss off the very people who helped get you where you are. In other words, he had bitten the very hand that fed him and then marched off declaring us all nefarious, treacherous, etc.

In fact, with the lone exception of myself, he refused to even acknowledge the help others within JFM gave him — not that they asked for acknowledgment. But it was as if survivors magically appeared from a fairy fort to talk with him and allow themselves to be filmed, rather than the careful and considered approach my colleagues took in asking the women if they’d like to participate and then liaising them with the filmmaker. We never just willy-nilly turn a survivor over to a journalist, filmmaker or other representative of the media without carefully preparing them. Primarily, out of respect for their confidentiality, we just aren’t in the habit of giving out people’s names.

And what many don’t realize (even the subjects themselves) is that even granting a short interview can bring up memories and emotions a survivor isn’t prepared to deal with. I’ve done my share of media interviews and my background isn’t nearly as harrowing as that of a survivor of a Magdalene asylum, yet it still leaves me feeling like I’ve been in a car wreck afterward. So we are very careful with how that’s handled. Our filmmaker apparently takes this to mean we’re ‘secretly’ guarding survivors or jealously hoarding them like china figurines. They are like china figurines in their fragility, but we’re certainly not hoarding them. We just like them to be prepared, fully aware of what they’re being asked for and permitted to make a decision of their own free will…something the Church never allowed them.

We’ve seen the results of his controlling, manipulative behaviour with the very women he highlighted in his documentary and now continues to trot out in an uncomfortable dog-and-pony show.

He recently screened his film at the London Irish Centre (where he seems to feel he received a less than warm reception — no wonder, since he originally wanted to charge survivors to see his film!) One attendee at this screening said that “…at the end he asked the woman to stand up and more or less ‘let the people look at you.’ [Survivor – name removed by request] , who was also in front of me had to be pushed to stand up but would not face the crowd and the others tried to get her to turn but she remained rigid.’ Apparently our gallant filmmaker doesn’t understand that pushing these women into very public and traumatic scenarios like this is about like putting someone through intensive therapy and not ‘putting them back together’ before they leave the therapist’s office.

In other words, he is piling trauma upon trauma and it’s agonising to watch these poor women dance to his machinations.

And the poor sod has even gone so far as to libel us, declaring via a shared e-mail that we had gotten “$10,000 from Miramax” for our cause. The truth is (and Miramax brass are prepared to back this up), we received an in-kind donation of 5,000 black-and-white postcards to be used in a campaign to mail then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

He’s now banded together the original women featured in his documentary (two of whom also wanted to be part of our advocacy group, and one of whom actually was on our committee until she was told by the filmmaker that she had to declare an allegiance to one or the other of us!) along with some other survivors and started a group called ‘Magdalen Survivors United’. Recently they began a public Facebook group in support of Magdalene survivors called Magdalene Survivors Together. I tried to join this group, but apparently was blocked by the young man. When I contacted and clarified by e-mail with him that I was indeed blocked, and suggested that this was discrimination, his response was: “If that’s the way you see it that’s your choice!” Wow, that’s professional.

No, my friend…it is discrimination, pure and simple. I am the daughter of a Magdalene survivor and I am not permitted to join a public Facebook group devoted to Magdalene survivors and, presumably, their family members, because of my affiliation with another group. Boy, do I feel like I’m in the third grade again (“Wipe your mouth, you look like a dirty Irish orphan.” That’s a bastard story for another day).

So enough is enough: I’m outing him publicly. This is a man who refuses to accept that his film may have some warts and could not digest constructive criticism to save his life; this is a man who manipulated women no differently than the way they were cruelly manipulated and controlled by the very nuns and priests who abused them (despite that they may not even know they’re being manipulated); this is a man who will not allow these same women to have any allegiance or ties to our advocacy group; and this is the man who will not allow me — a Magdalene survivor family member — to join a public Facebook group.

In fact, this type of behaviour is actually indicative of an abusive personality, a personality I’m unfortunately all too familiar with thanks to my late, abusive husband. And as I know only too well, the women involved, victims of abuse at an early age themselves, are perversely attracted to this type of personality and can be easily swayed by a manipulator of his ilk. They like to control, isolate and bully, but do it as smoothly as a used-car salesman. Ask any cop on the beat and they can generally spot the type a mile away. They don’t all use their fists, either.

It is also, sadly, indicative of the way many Irish survivor groups have gone. They devolve into elementary schoolyard donnybrooks: “You can join this group…but you can’t! Nyaaah, nyaaah, nyaah.” In fact, some have devolved into actual donnybrooks featuring real violence and allegations of fraud, misuse of funds, etc. Which is why I share the motto of the esteemed Mr. Paddy Doyle: nothing about us without us.

And now apparently our young “hero” has moved on into the murky and often treacherous waters of adoption search and reunion. He crowed from his Facebook group: “50 Years ago a mother was seperated from her daughter. 50 years later the same mother and daughter have been reunited. her mother had struggled for 10 years to find her daughter. It took me 3 weeks to find her. I’m delighted to have played my part, I’m delighted to have been the one to reunite them. Anything in this life is possible!” and later, “Delighted to announce that mother and daughter are getting on fantasticly [sic]! It was great to see such lovely photos of both of them together after all this time. It’s amazing to think that each involved has no regrets or sorrows. Can’t wait to catch up with them again.. JUst goes to show everyone has a Gaurdian Angel, yo…u [sic] just have to find them. Such an emotional thanks, done with such decency, respect and gratitude to me for my help. “) So glad the woman contacted me initally as there’s alot of people out there who claim they can help when they can’t.” [no misreading the last aspersion — that’s a direct potshot at a legitimate organisation that does do fine work].

I have never in all my many years in adoption reform, activism and support seen any one of our very humble, reliable and behind-the-scenes ‘search angels’ (folks who volunteer their time and expertise to trace down birth certs, lost relatives, etc.) express a level of self-glorification like the above. “It’s all about MEEEEEEEE! Aren’t I grand? Aren’t I brilliant?”

What’s saddest of all is this young man doesn’t get that the arcane laws that prevent family members from knowing and finding one another, that prevent access to the documents of our birth, and that prevent women enslaved and abused from seeking justice, still exist in Ireland and that the real work is tearing down those walls. Those of us working toward those goals don’t seek gratification or medals or accolades. It just needs to be done. And individuals who undermine or cast aspersions on that work only denigrate themselves to the very individuals they seek to ‘represent’.

Scarier yet, this approach to trace and reunion, with no training or regard for the history behind an adoption relinquishment is not only foolhardy but possibly dangerous. Those who do the fine work of reuniting families do so with years of experience and training behind them. Not because they’ve just made a barely undergrad-quality film and now think they’ve written the book on it. I shudder to think of the potential botched reunions looming in this man’s future. But hey, I’m not gonna be the one to tell him…I’ve already spent enough time on this subject with him. Done and dusted.

I hope this is read as a cautionary tale: I stand by everything written here and do not share it lightly. This young filmmaker is not the first person to take up the painful and complicated causes of the Magdalene Laundries or adoption and make a shambles of them; nor, I suspect, will he be the last. Re-victimizing victims by exploiting them for self-glory is an international pasttime for some. Even among the victims themselves.

I am furious.

I am furious.  Absolutely furious.  Over a week ago, the Justice for Magdalenes organization issued a press release to all of the major newspapers and media in Ireland as well as to all members and parties of government (full press release is shown below).  We challenged the compartmentalised, two-tiered response by the Irish state towards institutional abuse that results in survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, many of them children at the time, once again being ignored under the 2002 Redress Act.

Specifically we asked that the Minister for Children investigate the plight of children (which we now have mounting evidence that some were as young as 11 years old) who were placed directly into Magdalene Laundries.  Their applications to the Residential Redress Board are routinely rejected because “the Applicant had not established that she was resident in an institution covered by the Act or any Order made thereunder.”

Not one media outlet or newspaper or government official responded or publicised the press release.  Not one.

For fourteen years, since the inception of the original Magdalene Memorial Committee (which morphed into Justice for Magdalenes in the late 1990’s), we have fought a Sisyphean battle to seek justice for the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries.  Yet it would appear the media (and perhaps the public) are more interested in viewing again and again the ‘exoticness’ of survivor trauma – the gut-wrenching stories of misery these women were subjected to, often far worse than prisons.  How much more does the public need to see or hear before they take action?

We challenge Irish society to stop clamouring for the tragic stories, watching and reading as if bystanders at a car wreck scene, and stand up for the abrogated rights of these women.  Take action and write your local TD.  Tell them you support the cause of justice for Magdalene survivors – a decent pension for the unpaid labour they performed, a public apology from all the religious orders responsible for their incarceration, an investigation of the illegally unreported deaths at High Park Convent and the equally illegally exhumed bodies moved from those grounds, and acknowledgement that the fabled land of ‘saints and scholars’ was complicit in not ‘cherishing children’ equally and treating women as something less than human.

 


Press Release:  29 July, 2009 

Justice for Magdalenes committee calls on Government to provide redress for Magdalene survivors

Justice for Magdalenes welcomes the publication of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009: Implementation Plan, and we look forward to witnessing the immediate implementation of the ninety-nine measures outlined therein.

However, we challenge the compartmentalised, two-tiered response by the Irish state towards institutional abuse that results in survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, many of them children at the time, once again being ignored.

Specifically we ask that the Minister for Children investigate the plight of children (which we now have mounting evidence that some were as young as 11 years old) who were placed directly into Magdalene Laundries.  Their applications to the “Residential Redress Board” are routinely rejected because “the Applicant had not established that she was resident in an institution covered by the Act or any Order made thereunder.”

“The fact that these children were never committed to a residential institution (e.g., an industrial or reformatory school) is immaterial,” said Justice for Magdalenes spokesperson Mari Steed, whose mother was a Magdalene.  “The fact that a family member signed these children into the ‘care’ of the nuns does not obviate the state’s responsibility for their welfare. These children were and are citizens of the state and they deserved to be cherished.  Yet increasingly we’re discovering they were all but ‘invisibly’ moved between residential institutions and Magdalene Laundries, with little or no record maintained by the religious orders or Departments of Health, Education, Children or Justice,” she added.

Children’s Minister Barry Andrews in his remarks insisted that Irish people no longer show deference towards the Catholic Church. But the government maintains precisely the same deferent attitude towards the religious congregations that operated the nation’s Magdalene Laundries, i.e., the Good Shepherd Sisters, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, and Mercy Sisters. No one has apologised.  No one held accountable. And the core issue is still liability and the State’s evasion of all financial responsibility for institutions they continue to view as “private” and “voluntary.”  This deference is also clear in the government’s dismissal of claims submitted by non-Catholic survivors of such institutions as the Bethany Home.  JFM demands that the Minister for Children introduce amending legislation whereby survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, regardless of how they entered such institutions, are provided with redress and reparation for their abusive childhoods, the unpaid labour they performed and the abrogation of their civil and human rights.

Furthermore, JFM demands that the Minister for Justice introduce legislation for a distinct redress scheme for survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries as outlined by JFM and submitted to all politicians in Dáil Éireann on July 3 (copy attached).

[END]

Justice for Magdalenes seeks to promote and represent the interests of the Magdalene Women, to respectfully promote equality and seek justice for the women formerly incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries and to seek the establishment / improvements of support/advisory/re-integration services provided for survivors.