© 2018 by Sherri McCarthy

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The Ground Beneath Her Fell

February 17, 2017

“Mom, can I go live with grandma?”

 

Annalise took a deep breath. This was supposed to be a simple run for pizza. She gripped the steering wheel and prepared to listen to her 16-year-old daughter’s complaints about her retired police officer husband and his strict rules on dating and homework. Elise had not been getting along with her stepfather lately.

 

“Why, honey? Why on earth would you want to go live with grandma?”

 

“Because dad touched me.”

 

Annalise felt her chest tighten, her pulse quicken, her breath escape and panic rise. Struggling to control the car with trembling hands, she managed enough composure to steer into a parking lot. She faced her beautiful 16-year-old daughter, Elise, whose face was twisted in angst, tears streaming from her pretty blue eyes.

 

“Honey, what happened? What is going on?”

 

“Nevermind, mom. Forget I said anything! I really don’t want to go to jail.” 

 

“You go to jail? What are you talking about? Look at me. You MUST tell me what is going on.”

 

“He said I would go to jail if I told, and he would kill you.  Just forget I said anything, ok? Nevermind, I won’t live with grandma.”

 

Sweating now, Annalise choked back the bile rising in her throat, anger taking center stage. She did not doubt her daughter, did not question her sincerely or her honesty. Annalise had drilled into her children to tell her if ANYONE ever touched them inappropriately—no matter who--and she promised she would believe them.

 

Still, her mind swirled with questions: “How could this possibly have happened?” “How could I have not seen any signs?” “How could a police officer, charged with upholding the law, do this to his stepdaughter?”

 

But for now, fight-or-flight mode kicked in. She took Elise to stay at a friend’s house while she went to confront this man. As much as she longed to be with her grief-stricken oldest daughter, Annalise had other children to protect, and it was up to her to act. 

 

She sneaked into her own house.  She walked past her younger daughter, Emily, and her son, Eric, innocently playing video games, and went first to the bedroom she shared with Rick. Annalise rummaged through the closet to find all the ammunition for his police-issued gun and hide it as a measure of protection.

 

“Rick, can you come here, please? I need to talk to you.”

 

He strode confidently into the room, looking exactly as he had for the past eight years of their marriage--exactly as he had when she fell in love with him.  Only this time, she knew. She knew about the monster hidden behind the mask. She looked that monster in the eye and began.

 

“Elise said you touched her.”

 

He stared straight back and responded coolly, without missing a beat, “Oh wow, now our entire life is going to fall apart because of a teenage lie.  I told her she couldn’t date and this is what it comes down to.” 

 

Annalise continued questioning. As she asked about specifics, he grasped for explanations, and it quickly became clear her belief in Elise was not misplaced. Hairs rose on the back of her neck as he threw out excuses. 

 

“Maybe when I said goodnight I accidentally brushed up against her or something.” 

 

“I mean, in the dark maybe I accidentally touched her and she misunderstood.” 

 

Each excuse confirmed his guilt. Fear mingled with anger and disgust. But she also began to calculate: He was bigger, stronger, and would be able to take her down easily if she confronted him physically. Surveying the situation, she mustered all the strength she had to pretend she believed him, not Elise. She nodded in agreement with his excuses, and prayed silently that he would not notice her trembling hands, that the tears she choked back would stay down. She chanted inwardly, “maintain control,” “pretend you believe him,” “the safety of Eric, Emily, and Ellen depends on you,” “pretend you believe him.” 

 

She felt her best choice was to pretend she was going to confront Elise, to feign belief in his flimsy excuses, and get to a place where she could call the police. Annalise knew she was ill-equipped to continue this charade any longer, and desperately needed the protection of law enforcement to take control of the situation. She believed he would maintain the façade of innocence and wait for her to return with his accuser. She knew her immediate actions after confronting him needed to assuage any suspicion of her true intent: to have that monster removed from their lives, and ensure her children would be safe.

 

The window of time was short, but walking out of the house without Eric, Emily or sleeping Ellen was impossibly difficult. To leave her remaining children with a man she knew was capable of perpetrating heinous crimes against Elise was beyond excruciating. But she feared him. Feared his power. Feared what he would do to them if they fled together. She had hidden the ammunition she could find, but couldn’t be sure there wasn’t more in the house. She faced two options, either of which could end in catastrophe, and had just a moment to make a choice.

 

Her decision to leave her 13-year-old son and her 11-year-old daughter to would be criticized relentlessly by “loved ones” aghast that she would leave her children with a monster and flee for help. But in the moment, sensing she had sold him on her intentions and that he would continue to play the part of “innocent man,” she bravely but reluctantly made the impossible decision.

 

Leaving her children alone with him for the last time, holding her breath, Annalise walked silently out of the room, out of her house, and drove back to the friend’s home where Elise was safely waiting. They called the police and while they waited for law enforcement to arrive, Elise told her mother everything. About the years of abuse, of unbelievable horror. Of being told he would kill her mother if she ever said a word.

 

Annalise’s anger now gave in to a dark sadness that engulfed her as she struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what her child had endured for eight years. Police arrived at the home where they waited together, and Elise once again recounted the details of abuse.

 

Less than a mile away, police plotted the capture of a trained, former police officer in a house full of innocent children.  They stationed themselves around the home Annalise and Rick had purchased together. In flak vests and with weapons drawn, they crept on to the back patio where the family had spent their summers barbequing and playing in the pool. They crouched next to the flowers Annalise had planted. They noiselessly prepared to take him down in the same place her children slept and ate, where her youngest daughter took her first steps. 

 

Rick surrendered without incident and Annalise followed police back inside her home.

 

Annalise had already put her youngest daughter—the daughter she had with Rick, a child he adored—to bed. Five-year-old Ellen slept through her father’s arrest.  Elise was exhausted and still had to make a statement at the police station, but first, Annalise had to tell her 13-year-old son, Eric, and her 11-year-old daughter, Emily. 

 

She pulled the kids close, held them tight and spoke, “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Dad was hurting Elise.” 

Emily immediately burst out, “He’s been doing it to me for years.” Wracked with anguish and anger, Emily began describing similar details to what Elise had endured. 

 

Annalise froze. The ground beneath her fell. The anguish of that evening, of watching her child in torment, of learning her husband’s true nature and knowing she did not protect her child, had overwhelmed her.  And now it had doubled.  Her stomach twisted in to knots and her brain shifted into a sort of numbness that made cognitive thought nearly impossible.

 

Rousing herself from that dark place, she rushed outside where one of the police officers still stood and screamed, “He’s been molesting my other daughter, too,” just before collapsing to the ground. 

  

Her will-to-live died in that moment. All she felt was hatred for a man she once loved rising like fire. The thought of taking even one step forward in life was too painful to consider. “Why should I live when my children suffered such pain right under my nose?” she thought. Utterly crushed by the weight of not knowing, of not SEEING what was happening to her daughters in her own home, just breathing became a burden. Annalise felt guilty the point of complete despair. 

 

The next morning, five-year-old Ellen awoke to learn her father had been arrested. Annalise had to explain to her innocent baby girl that she would probably never see him again. Though not dead, the relationship with her father was severed and Ellen’s small body shook with sobs as though he had, in fact, died. 

 

The trial came. The district attorney said it was the most disturbing case of child molestation she had seen in her 25 years of service. The girls were victimized once last time, forced to face their molester, a man they once called “Daddy,” in court. Their bravery was rewarded with a guilty verdict and two life sentences, to be conducted away from the rest of the prison population because of his status as a former police officer.  He will never step foot outside of prison walls again in his lifetime.

 

The victimization of Elise and Emily is well-documented. They receive sympathy from friends, strangers, family and all who learn of their past. But Annalise’s victimization was just beginning.  She was accused of bringing harm to her children. She took the verbal jabs from friends and some family who were incredulous that any mother could have this type abuse happening in her own home and NOT “know.” Their words hurt. Deeply. But her most vicious accuser was one she faced every day in the mirror.

 

How could I have not seen the evil in that man?

 

How could I have married him?

 

How did I miss the signs?

 

Were there signs?

 

What. Were. The. Signs?

 

She replayed eight years of marriage in her mind on a never-ending loop,  trying to remember every word spoken, every action she witnessed, struggling to find something she missed.

 

But if a background check by a police department couldn’t screen a man capable of child molestation  severe enough to make even a seasoned  prosecutor cringe, how would a young, single mother of three have any chance to spot his well-hidden evil secret when they met? 

 

The County’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program provided funding for two years of consistent counseling for Elise and Emily and extra sessions as needed afterwards. One year of counseling was given to Eric and Ellen. Annalise also received counseling through the Program. The counseling the family received was vital to their healing.

 

Elise and Emily’s counselors stayed with them as they testified in court, so they had someone they trusted beside them to face the man they once called “Dad.” The rest of the courtroom was cleared due to the sensitive and graphic nature of their testimony. 

 

Even with counseling from a woman Annalise describes as the most beautiful soul she has ever met, and crediting her counselor with saving her from drowning in sorrow so deep she could not keep her head above it, Annalise questioned herself daily, berated herself, prayed to God that He would let her die so she wouldn’t have to bear the pain any more. 

 

Five years after pleading daily with God to forgive her blindness for not knowing, for not seeing, she had a pivotal talk with her daughters. For the first time, their words resonated in her heart,

 

“Mom, we made SURE you didn’t know! He was going to kill you if we told. You are the most precious thing in the world to us and we didn’t want you to die.”

 

While she wished with all her heart that she HAD known, had seen a sign, had been able to shorten their suffering, she was finally able to accept the truth and forgive herself. She did not know about the abuse as it was happening and the very moment she discovered the abuse, she did everything within her power to make sure that monster never came near her family again. 

 

One of the first courses of action Annalise took was to file for divorce and petition for full custody with no possibility for Rick to receive visitation rights if he made bail. Doing so took every penny of Annalise’s small savings. As the primary breadwinner for the family, Rick had contributed $80,000 a year to the family budget, while Annalise’s part time job netted only $20,000. 

 

Faced with losing everything, Annalise filed bankruptcy to keep the house and her car. She began working every job she could find to raise enough money to support her four children.  She went on food stamps for a year until she could make enough money to support the family. 

 

Few close friends stuck by her, and her immediate family was too heartbroken to offer solid assistance, fielding their own pain and guilt for not seeing the signs themselves.

 

She embarked on a lonely journey to emotional recovery, assaulted repeatedly  by loved ones with comments like, “How did you not know? Weren’t you paying attention?” Little did her accusers know that she was dealing with the same questions in her own mind. Indeed, Annalise and the entire family were Rick’s victims.

 

“Vicarious trauma victims” are those friends and family close to a victim of abuse who suffer from information overload and who suffer negative physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual consequences as a result.  The Joyful Heart Foundation recognizes those victims as well and provides help for those in need.  http://joyfulheartfoundation.org/learn/vicarious-trauma

 

Annalise credits God carrying her through the times she wanted to die, the times she heard the accusations of others unable or unwilling to believe she was completely innocent of blame for the abuse suffered by her daughters. Through those times she clung to an old hymn to carry her:

 

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, though has taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed His own blood for my soul

 

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul

 

It is well

With my soul

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

 

Annalise shared with me what she would like for other victims to know: 

 

There is hope for victims.  There is help for victims, you have to be brave enough to face head on the fact that this really happened.  Once you acknowledge it, you must face the heavy sorrow, grief, anger, hate, overwhelming stress. All of it.  It is the single most difficult time I think a person could ever go through and a lonely, lonely journey.  But it’s possible with God’s help to come out on the other side. 

 

Every day I would get up and ask God for strength and then I would chant:  “Your kids need you.  They are helpless without you.  You can do this.  You CAN do this.”  Every. Single. Day.

 

Epilogue: 

Six years after Rick was convicted, Annalise remarried a wonderful, gentle and kind man. Elise is now married with a beautiful young daughter, expecting a second child, and owns her own housecleaning business. Emily will graduate from high school in 2017 and plans to attend beauty school to help all women feel beautiful. She also has hopes of continuing her education to become a child counselor one day to help other kids through trauma.

 

They are resilient.

 

 

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