A Bright Beam in a Dark Forest

“I never asked anything of the world. But it’s a perfect hell on earth to give a woman children to love and to rob her of them.”
~ Maud Hill

When I set out to write my book Hanging On By My Fingernails: Surviving the New Divorce Gamesmanship, and How a Scratch Can Land You in Jail, I had no idea what “divorce gamesmanship” was, and I had no idea how a scratch could land you in jail.

I knew a pretty small, quite accidental scratch could land you in jail because it happened to me. I knew I must have been on the receiving end of legal manipulations. That was all.  I could only see the dark forest, not the way through it.

I began interviewing legal and police experts, DV advocates and dozens of people whom a HARO (Help A Reporter Out) query revealed like glimmering pieces of a puzzle. The completed puzzle, which casts light on this crazy-common, under-reported and little-understood subject,  is this book.

I hear often from people whom the book has helped. Lately, I’ve been deluged with responses about recent blog posts. Many posts asked more questions whose answers I didn’t know: How is it happening that mothers are losing custody–even modest visitation– of their children? Why is their scrupulously-researched, hard evidence often refused admittance by judges? Why are  children’s drawings depicting parental abuse ignored? Why do the outcomes of so many custody cases seem predetermined before they even began, despite evidence, testimony, witnesses, and thousands on thousands of dollars mothers raise somehow and desperately turn over to the legal system and all the different “experts” and court affiliates who are a part of it?

Once again I found myself in a dim place in which I knew what was happening but couldn’t for the life of me understand how.

One respondee, Robin Karr, who I wrote about last week in my most-read post ever, experienced one of the most painful court custody cases I’ve ever known. Her case teetered step by step into a complete severance of her ties with them in 1999, by court appointment. They’re lost. From where Robin sits, they are milk-carton lost. She does not know them. They are beautiful faces in pictures from long ago.

Unlike many who’ve experienced or heard about this situation, however, Robin does have the answers. Robin recently learned that his Kentucky attorney (he had two; the other was in Texas) was convicted on federal extortion conspiracy charges in 2011. As I was uncovering answers to questions from my own divorce, which, much to my utter joy, resulted in my winning primary custody of my children, she was investigating her far more complex puzzle. Because suddenly, the essential pieces of her life–her children–weren’t there.

The last formal picture Robin Karr has of her children, Matthew and Laura Duckworth
The last formal picture Robin Karr has of her children, Matthew and Laura Duckworth, now ages 15 and 16

The key pieces to even the most difficult puzzle can be found often hidden in plain sight. I think facts speak for themselves, and I believe hearing and seeing the intense emotions and real situations experienced by the people who find themselves in the midst of them are critical to begin to comprehend the facts. Some of them are hard to look at–they make us uncomfortable; they make us sad–but  seeing reality is necessary. Without being willing to keep eyes and ears open, we miss opportunities to learn. Yet with this knowledge comes hope and the ability to help others–and from my personal experience, understanding and being understood are fulfilling in a way blissful oblivion can never be.

Like all stories, Robin’s has a backstory, a middle story, an outcome, and a present. In emotionally charged heartbreaking stories like hers, I guess she probably experiences all of them at once, every day. So in understanding the full implications and all facets of her story, the what, the why, the who and the how, we’re going to start with the middle with a letter Robin wrote to her children one year after the court issued its final severance of her ties with them.

June 21, 2000 

My precious, precious babies… I don’t know where to begin or even how to begin. I just know that I have to try to put into words what my life is like without you. I’m sitting in my kitchen (which you have never seen), and I’m crying… and crying. I’m staring at the magnets on the refrigerator. 

There’s an apple and a  banana with happy little faces smiling at me; reminding me of you. And if I shut my eyes really tight, I can almost see you, Matthew, standing there playing with them and you Laura laughing at your brother. You used to laugh at your brother a lot. You were such a happy baby Laura; always laughing, always smiling.

I’m also staring at a half-empty pan of french fries left over from supper. And… if I shut my eyes really, really tight, I can almost hear you, Matthew, squealing “fry-by”, “fry-by”. I don’t think that’s really a word, but that’s what you used to call french fries. I wonder what you call them now… you used to love McDonald’s French fries. Every time I drive by a McDonald’s, I hear you cry out “fry-by”, fry-by”. It seems so real sometimes. I’ve even looked over my shoulder at the back seat expecting to see you there; there in your car seat kicking and squirming.

But, you’re not there. You haven’t been there for a long time. I still have your car seat, though. I haven’t even had the courage to put it away. And Laura, I still have your little carrier; the one I brought you home from the hospital in. You were my Christmas baby… my gift from God. The alarm will go off in about two hours, and I will have to begin yet another day. I will have to find the courage to get through another day without my babies.

Your big brother Christopher helps Mommy to go on… I wonder if you even remember your brother. I bet you do, Matthew. You used to love playing “basketball” with your “brubber”. “Brubber” would hold you up so you could dunk the ball.  That always made you so happy. You would say “do it again, do it again!”

And Laura, you were content to watch your brothers. You had so much peace. You were such a secure baby. You were taken from your Mommy when you were only nine months old.  I don’t know if you even remember me. I pray somehow you do. I pray God fills the void… you and your brother belong to God. I gave you both back to him just before your daddy took you. I know that god is watching over you. Mommy prays for that day… that day I will hold you once again and kiss you, feed you, bathe you and most of all… put you to bed. What I would give just to watch you sleep.

Psalms 34:18 says that God is near to those with a broken heart. Mommy’s heart is broken. But, God is near. He’s with Mommy, and he’s with you… my precious, precious babies.

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