How is it possible for a young child (that’s me at age 4 just a few months before I was abducted) to develop a deep fear of a loved parent and to submit to life on the run and in constant hiding and fear in order to avoid that parent?
I share my story in order to help others understand how this can happen, and to understand how deeply damaging high-conflict custody battles are for all involved.
My father abducted me in 1974 from Norway to the USA. He was an American living in a foreign land, and once my parents´ marriage fell apart he wanted to go back to his homeland. That is understandable, but since kids cannot be split in half, I lost out big time by his drastic actions. I lost a part of myself by becaming hateful and afraid of my mother and my life in Norway, which is what happened once I was abducted. I lost touch with my maternal family, and I lost touch with an integral part of myself in the process. A part of me became the unknown, became dangerous in my eyes, and that is one of the biggest tragedies of high-conflict custody battles in my view. By parents hating one another and inflicting that hatred upon their children, children learn to hate a part of themselves.
Let me share with you what it was like to be on the run for 14 years, what it was like to lose a part of myself and the loving presence of one of my parents.
My father and I boarded a British Airways flight from Oslo to New York City via London. My mother is Norwegian and my father is American, they had met while my father was on a trip to Scandinavia, and they married a year before I was born.
The memories are hazy since I was so young, but I recall that after arriving in New York City I couldn’t understand why my mother wasn’t with us, and why my father got angry when I asked for her. He told me that she would be “coming soon,” but was “busy” and that she couldn’t come just yet. My strongest memories are of great sadness and pain, and of crying myself to sleep and developing fears and phobias around that time.
Having no understanding of what was going on, I clung to my father and felt abandoned by my mother. At the same time I had to get acclimated to a new culture and new language and surroundings. I was traumatized but did my best to cope.
It was not okay to ask about my mom. I sensed an undertone of disapproval and anger in my father when I dared to mention her. I was given the silent treatment if I talked about her, and soon learned not to mention the “M word” again, not even to myself. It hurt too much. I was so young that in a short time memories of my mother began to fade (I should add here that time is the biggest obstacle in these situations. Once my mother became a stranger to me as my memories began to fade, I didn’t miss her or want to see her anymore). I forgot what she looked like, and together with what must have been major trauma at feeling abandoned by her, and being told that she was a bad person and had a bad family that would hurt me, I felt glad to be away from her.
Later on, told that she had changed her mind and was now looking for me and wanted to take me away, I willingly lived a life of hiding to avoid being found by the person who had become a frightening stranger. I didn´t want to leave all that had become familiar to me, even if it was not stable or secure.
New York City was our base, but I lived most of the next 14 years on the run and in hiding, living on buses, traveling through 3 countries and 34 of the 50 US states, pretending to be a boy, having my hair dyed, changing identities, rarely going to school, and being exposed to unsafe situations, all to hide from my own mother.
My father was my hero. He was sacrificing his freedom and happiness to protect me from “bad people,” and I had to cooperate and help him help me.
It was a life of homelessness and fear, of sleeping in a different town every few days or weeks, and of telling lies to keep from being found. I had to remember which name to use where, and which bathroom to use, boys or girls, I had to beg for money at times, and was told not to trust anybody except my father, because they would take me back to “her” if I wasn’t careful. I wasn’t allowed to get too close to anyone or be too friendly with neighbors, because they might betray us. There was a constant shadow of suspicion and fear.
It took a long time, most of those 14 years, for me to begin to see the truth, that I was living a lie. My father’s actions were so extreme, and for no good reason. He didn’t do what he did to save me or protect me (although that may have been his self-stated intentions–it is easy to fool oneself when in pain), but out of his own issues and frustrations. As I grew older it became increasingly clear, from meeting my father’s sister at 15 who I hadn’t been allowed to speak to until then who took me aside and told me my mother was a lovely person I should get to know, or from seeing my picture on a milk carton as a missing child, from sensing the tremendous anger that my father held inside and seeing his tendency to exaggerate supposed “wrongs” against him, From piecing together comments and retrieving long hidden memories, and just maturing and gaining a sophistication that I did not have as a very young child, it began to dawn on me that what had happened might have been very wrong. That became the understatement of my life.
What he did was meant to hurt my mother, and it did. But the irony is that it hurt him, too. My father has many good sides, and I still love him. I feel compassion for him and for how his poor choices have affected him today. Things could have been so much better for us all had he made better choices.
I’ll jump ahead now to today. My mother and I have a good relationship today, complete with all the mother/daughter ups and downs that come with having had such a rocky history. There was and is lingering pain to deal with, and I feel responsible for that sometimes, like it was my fault somehow. But it is good for me to know about her side of my family, and I have reclaimed an integral part of my roots and identity. It is comforting to have accepted her, as it helps me to accept myself. I had to deal with and accept the fact that my father had betrayed my trust in a deep way, that he chose to take away from me the love of both parents. I tried to hang on to the belief that what he did might have been justified, because it hurt to believe otherwise. It was hard to let my mother into my life. Only when I let go of the image I had of her as a bad and threatening person could I open up to the idea of having a mother again. It was difficult to start from where we started from, shared pain and lost time, of knowing of each other but not knowing each other, of having to do so much healing, and establishing so intimate a relationship in a context that was so unfamiliar. We had a lot of healing to do, but we made it. It took time and lots of love and understanding, but we’re officially mother and daughter now. I had to deal with a lot of pain, and figure out who I was, before I could feel okay about having a whole new family again.
So many others are not as lucky. It is very challenging to heal from the past, reestablish relationships with left-behind parents and move forward. Many must live life with unhealed wounds and lost love.
Ever growing numbers of parentally abducted children will have to deal with these and other issues related to parental abduction. A painful past, an uncertain future, feeling trapped between two worlds. The pain doesn’t end when a child is “found,” there is so much aftershock to deal with. These are the pains, such unnecessary pains. Not knowing who to trust and what to believe, how to let one hurting parent into your life and somehow come to terms with the hurt the other has inflicted.