I feel for Sabrina Allen, the young lady from Texas who was kidnapped by her mother twelve years ago. I hope life will smooth out for her. I hope that both she and her father will find inner peace.
These cases rattle me a bit. I always feel a surge of sorrow for the kid. I also empathize with the parent searching for the lost child, now that I have my own child and can relate to that fear.
My own experience lasted maybe a couple of months. Not so bad compared to what Sabrina Allen and many others go through. Even a mild case leaves scars, though. Imagine what she is going through. The confusion. The pain. The anger.
In my case there were two incidents, the first occurring when my mother left my father when I was seven or eight. An outsider might conclude that leaving was long overdue, coming on the heels of years of psychosis, brutal anger, and violence. There must have been many good, loving moments in my early childhood, but I mostly don’t remember them. What I do remember is huddling under the covers in my bedroom, listening to shouts and bangs and the thud of fist against flesh, and praying fervently for God to make it stop. He didn’t. Coming home from school and finding my mother’s self-aborted fetus in the refrigerator. Her trying to jump out of a moving car while I pressed on her door lock for all I was worth. Marital strife which would conclude with her walking down to the graveyard, lying down with the dead, and my father wearily trying to get her to come home. Police called to a hotel room. Fights and fights and fights. Coming home from school to find her gone, taken away to the state hospital for a ninety day involuntary commitment.
That last incident must have awakened a certain degree of cunning. My mother was not stupid; she was “merely” profoundly mentally ill. She had – has – the type of illness which makes people deeply suspicious of those who tell them that they’re ill, and she was determined to never be institutionalized again. I suppose she must have been careful the day we dropped my father off at the university where he was taking classes. Certainly I suspected nothing. Smiles, kiss goodbye, I’ll pick you up later. That kind of thing. He blithely went off to class. We began the long drive to the next state.
“We’re going to see grandma and grandpa,” she told me. I was just barely bright enough to see that this didn’t jibe with our picking Dad up after school. Shouldn’t he be coming with us? “Oh, he’ll be up later,” my mother lied. Or perhaps it wasn’t a lie; perhaps she knew that he would indeed be up later, just not with her cooperation. This effectively stranded my father at a university in a rural area not exactly teeming with transportation options.
We drove and drove to one of her parents’ houses, which was approximately in the middle of nowhere on a mountain in Oklahoma. Godforsaken. No plumbing, no electricity, foul outhouse by the side of a barn, that kind of thing. It was the sort of place one expects to see naked children chasing chickens in the dirt. Seeing one snake devour another out by the outhouse qualified as riveting entertainment.
I was playing in the dirt when my father pulled up in a rental car a few days later. I was over the moon, but I didn’t get to hug him or really say hello. My grandfather promptly came out with a rifle, pointed it at him, and told him to get off the property. I hated him for that. I was afraid he was going to kill my father. It was terrifying.
I didn’t see my father again until after his visitation rights had been worked out. I have no idea how long that took, whether it was weeks or months. (This is the type of thing I think of when NSA surveillance of citizens comes up. There are some holes in my personal history that I would appreciate having cleared up.)
After that, although my entire world had been ripped apart, there was at least a routine. My mother’s parents had another house, a tiny frame affair in a suburb of Dallas. I was enrolled in school there and got to see my father every other weekend. On Saturday mornings I’d have my overnight bag packed early and be wiggling impatiently by the door, waiting for his car to pull up. It was a routine. Not a smooth life, what with my mother’s work and dating travails – there was always someone out to kill her, it seemed, or she’d grow paranoid about something else and I’d have to calm her down – but it was at least predictable. School, new friends, seeing my father a couple of times a month. Then my mother decided to shake it up.
I don’t know what brought it on. Maybe nothing at all, given the peculiar machinations of her mind. Or perhaps she was weary of the constraints of the custody agreement and my obvious eagerness to be with my father, or she’d had a blowup with her parents over her dating life.
It was a Friday morning during the spring, perhaps before Easter or spring break. I was excited about the weekend coming up; my father was picking me up the next day. When my mother shook me awake, though, instead of telling me to get ready for school, she told me to hurry up and get in the car. There was no time to get dressed; I was bundled away in the old hand-me-down dress I wore as a nightgown. I don’t think I was even wearing underwear, embarrassing as that memory is.
I protested. Wasn’t I supposed to go to school? Wasn’t Dad going to pick me up the next day? “You’re never going to see your father again,” she responded harshly. It was like a punch to the gut. I was bereft. I cried and whined to the point that if she hadn’t already been insane, she would have been driven there. She didn’t give a damn.
We drove and drove and drove. We went west through El Paso, then into New Mexico and Arizona. As we drove, I reflected that at least I could send my father a postcard. After the Oklahoma incident, he’d tucked some self-addressed, stamped postcards in a pocket in my overnight bag. “If she ever takes you off again,” he’d instructed me, “just put one of these in a mailbox so that I’ll know you’re alright.”
However, in the haste to get on the road – or perhaps because of one of my mother’s machinations – my overnight bag hadn’t made it into the car. I had ample opportunity to torture myself with that fact during the drive and during the coming weeks. If only, if only, if only I hadn’t messed up. If only I’d managed to grab the bag or the postcards. But I hadn’t, and I’d messed up good, and I was never going to get to see my father again. My mother was bitterly happy about the latter.
I don’t think she had a plan beyond getting in the car and driving. I think she very rapidly ran out of money. There was a man or men. In one town we stayed with a stranger for several days. I dwelled on his couch in front of the TV. My mother would disappear into the man’s bedroom at night, telling me “Don’t tell him I’m wearing my nightgown. He thinks these are my normal clothes.” A desperate lie told by a mother whoring herself out and wanting to hide that fact from her young daughter.
Then came the inevitable dawn awakening, the dramatic rush to the car. “We’ve got to get out of here! He said I need to be in a mental hospital,” she hissed, “He’s going to have me committed!” I’ve since concluded that this might have been a very tidy way for the man to get us, a couple of moochers, to move on. It worked.
So much of that time is a blur. Was there one new school or two or three? There is no one to ask. I remember fingernail inspections, square dancing, and a handkerchief requirement at one school. I also remember vomiting, not wanting to eat, and begging for my father.
Eventually we landed at her sister’s trailer house in Arizona. There was an uncle by marriage, a kind man who had dark hair like my father. He saw me admiring his slide rule, which was like the slide rule my father had given me, a device I used for cheating during multiplication tests. I felt incredibly homesick. My uncle gave me the slide rule. It was a sympathetic gesture during an especially low point in my life, and I hope that he’s been repaid in kind.
I don’t know how it all came to an end. I dimly remember mutterings about a phone call from my mother’s parents and there being a warrant. I can still see my mother glaring at me in brittle anger, biting out “The child wants to see its father.”
I did get to see my father again, thankfully, and was living with him and his new wife by the summer after the fourth grade. It wasn’t a formal arrangement at first, just my going to visit for the summer and never quite going back to my mother. Eventually she granted him custody. There was certainly an element of convenience for her, but I also think that, despite being mentally ill, she was trying to do the right thing. She did love me. In the rational part of her brain, she knew I wanted to be with my father, knew that he could give me access to opportunities that she couldn’t. Or perhaps, as my stepmother liked to put it, she was simply “irresponsible and didn’t want to have to take care of me.” Either way, it cost her dearly.
There wasn’t a happy ending, despite everyone pretending that there was. I wonder if there ever is. My mother frequently expressed fears that they would “turn (me) against (her)”. Although paranoid and inclined to say such things anyhow, she was not incorrect. I did adore my father and it was clear that my best option for a stable life was living with him and my stepmother. The devil’s bargain, which was unvoiced but rapidly became clear, was that to gain their approval, I would have to hide any sign that I loved my mother or wanted to see her. I did this. I turned my back on my mother. It hurt and I felt traitorous, but I did it. I fully bought into the tacit and damaging “your mother is dirt and your stepmother is your new mother” game.
My father did his level best to minimize my contact with her. I think he was partly motivated by a very real knowledge of her capacity to wreak havoc, but he was also extremely angry and, I believe, vengeful. She did not know our address or phone number, and could contact me only via a mailbox in another town. When I received mail from her, they would read it or have nasty comments like “What crazy thing is she up to now?” From time to time my father would get an evil smile and say things like “I’m not saying that you never have to see her again after you turn 18, but if you choose not to, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
On one occasion, when I hadn’t seen her for months, a visitation was arranged. The drop off point was a motel. She was perhaps five minutes late. My father chose to interpret that as her not having shown up, and gleefully sped off. In the rearview mirror I could see her pulling up. It hurt. I had wanted to see her, but felt I had to pretend that I didn’t. I was torn.
When I did see her, there would be an interrogation afterwards, mostly from my stepmother. There were nasty derisive comments about what we’d done. I wasn’t smart enough to avoid or deflect them. “When you’ve been to see your mother, I can smell her on you,” my stepmother once said, her nose wrinkling, “I can smell her personal odor on you.” Suddenly something which should have been nice, going to see my mother, became dirty and shameful.
Life goes on. At some point years down the road, I suppose one gains compassion for everyone involved: the profoundly mentally ill young woman who wasn’t capable of managing her own thoughts, much less marriage or being a mother; the man who tried to live up to his responsibilities as a parent but didn’t throttle back his rage and bitterness; the woman who married into a dysfunctional situation, was thrust into far too much responsibility, and came to hate her stepdaughter.
One gains compassion, but one also loses trust. One learns that the people one should be able to depend on most in the world can’t be trusted to put aside their anger and do the right thing for a child. Or perhaps they will do the right thing, but only to a point. “Honor thy father and thy mother – at least, until it becomes inconvenient for the custodial parent.” As the years go by and one silently observes the unchanging behavior of the main players, sees their treatment trickle down to one’s own child, the distrust solidifies into a wall. Perhaps one is damaged in other ways as well. The kind of anger which leads to kidnappings and using one’s child as a pawn is corrosive for everyone involved.
Think a kind thought for Sabrina Allen. Whatever the specifics of her own story, that which she thought was true has become a lie. Her life has been turned upside down.
Her father, for his part, has had one form of agony and uncertainty removed, and is now embarking on the difficult journey of trying to build a relationship with a daughter who regards him as a stranger.
May they both find peace.