Thursday, October 1, 2009

Left Behind

by Lisa R. Cohen

I've been thinking a lot about the Jaycee Dugard story, of course, because of the similarities to the Etan Patz case. Blond, beautiful Jaycee was abducted off her bicycle 18 years ago while on her way to school. Blond, beautiful, six-year-old Etan was abducted 30 years ago, walking the two short blocks to the school bus stop, on his own for the first time. Jaycee's stepdad was considered a suspect for years, as was Stan Patz, Etan's dad.

But then there are those important differences in the two cases: unlike Stan and Julie Patz, Jaycee's folks didn't sustain their marriage through such tragedy; and unlike Jaycee -- Etan never came home.

There's been so much talk about Jaycee's two daughters and how they will adjust to their shattering, new reality. But I've also been wondering about how this bombshell is affecting Jaycee's other family - her mother and stepfather, and her younger sister Shana who was just a baby when Jaycee disappeared.

Over the years, the Patzes had a lot of contact with other families of missing children. So much about the tragedy of an abducted or missing child is specific to that one circumstance and simply can't be understood except by another family in the same straits. It's like a terrible, exclusive club no one wants to be a member of.

In 1984, five years after Etan disappeared, Julie took her younger son, then 7-year-old Ari, on a very unique retreat organized by psychotherapist Gary Hewitt. Amid the growing voices clamoring for much needed new legislation on the issue, Hewitt's Center for Missing Children specialized in a narrow spot on the missing child spectrum, one that received little attention but demonstrated a huge need -- the families, and especially the children, left behind. Hewitt treated such families, as well as the rare young victims who returned, carrying the emotional baggage of their captivity.

Julie hoped the retreat would be helpful for Ari. He had come to her on his seventh birthday to express relief that he'd made it through the scary age of six, but a year later he was still suffering the effects of his brother's loss. He'd recently spent hours up in the night weeping after a particularly bad nightmare. Now he would celebrate his eighth birthday at a lakefront resort in upstate New York, in the company of trained therapists and siblings of other missing children.

On the first night, some 60 strangers sang to Ari, then shared his birthday cake after a buffet dinner at Keuka College, 212 gloriously green acres in the Finger Lake region. Gary Hewitt presented the boy with a newly minted coin set for his collection and hoped the familiar birthday ritual would help break the ice at this somber, awkward gathering of 14 families.

But it would take more than cake and party balloons to chip away at their sorrow. These were mothers and fathers who'd molded themselves rigidly into an unnatural public persona, or had kept an isolated vigil by the phone in hopes of a call. Many had completely lost sight of relating to other people. Looking around, Julie felt the oppressive weight of the collective tragedy. She doubted whether some of these people had smiled or laughed once since their child had disappeared.

The next day, at the first working sessions, the adults were split off from the children, as everyone divided their time between group therapy and play. Parents talked to parents, kids to kids. Ari sat in a classroom with other children ranging from seven to 17, who were encouraged to tell their stories. Gradually, the youngsters opened up, but it wasn't until the evening when the families came together again, that the parents had their own protective ice their children.

One after another, with safety in numbers, the youngest voices said what they'd been holding inside. Our brother or sister may be gone, but we're still here. We need to get out of the house, move forward, take a vacation, be normal. Every aspect of life had been on hold, and these children were suffering for that too, not just for the loss of their loved one. As parents listened, and the tears flowed, the adults acknowledged what their children were saying.

Talking about such things for the first time had a profound effect, but it wasn't the only healing tool. In between the talking and listening was what Julie jokingly called the "forced" recreation. These were people who had lost the ability to relax and to feel unencumbered by their grief, or by the appearance they needed to maintain, so that neighbors wouldn't find it unseemly, even suspicious to see the laughing. At Keuka, they were cajoled into waterskiing, swimming and canoeing. There was t'ai chi in the mornings for the most sedentary of the adults and counselors who doubled as clowns armed with balloon animals for the youngest of the kids. And there were goofy parlor games, designed to coax laughter from even the most disconsolate.

It was a rare adventure for all the children and an even rarer break for the parents. For Julie, the entire Keuka retreat was a singular experience, one she would never forget. For the first time in five years she was spending time with other parents - besides her husband Stan - who had shared the same horror she had, and they were free of media, law-enforcement and other "non" victims. She didn't have to worry what anyone thought of her when she cried over an irrational fear, or more importantly, laughed at a joke. For the first time in a long time, she was with a group of peers, so she could feel - almost - normal.

Both she and Ari also spent time with 18-year-old
Steven Stayner and his parents. Steven had left his Northern California home in 1972 a freckle faced seven year old, and reappeared eight years later almost a full grown man. Once home, Stayner had struggled to adapt to a life that on the one hand was free of the abuse he'd suffered in his captor's clutches, but on the other hand was bounded by the parental limits he'd shed during his time away. But Julie and Ari saw a polite, pleasant young man, and a functioning reunited family, and it was evidence that it could be done.

Let's hope that in the future, Jaycee's family will be able to share such experiences with other families too. They could use time away from the rest of the world in the company of others who've been through something similar, even though very few ever have. Again, being able to feel that shared experience will give them one of the most precious healing tools there is at such a challenging time - a sense of normalcy.


Cheryl said...

What a great idea....Is this retreat still in operation?

Cheryl said...

One more question. Didn't Steven Stayner die shortly after returning home? If I remember correctly he also had a brother who ended up murdering 3 or 4 people?

Lisa R. Cohen said...

No, Yes (sort of) and yes.

For years afterwards Gary Hewitt, Julie Patz and others worked to get funding for more of these kinds of retreats, but it was an uphill battle.

Steven Stayner came home in the winter of 1980, nine months after Etan went missing. Stayner died in 1989, in a motorcycle accident.

In 1999 his older brother Cary did in fact confess to murdering four women in Yosemite in a very high profile case. He's currently on death row.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "Once home, Stayner had struggled to adapt to a life that on the one hand was free of the abuse he'd suffered in his captor's clutches, but on the other hand was bounded by the parental limits he'd shed during his time away. But Julie and Ari saw a polite, pleasant young man, and a functioning reunited family, and it was evidence that it could be done."

Judging by what happened with the brother, was it really a functioning reunited family?

Lisa R. Cohen said...

I have no idea what the Stayner household was really like. (I spoke to Mrs. Stayner and one of Steven's sisters for the book. They were perfectly coherent thoughtful people.) I was merely remarking about Julie's impressions at the retreat and how helpful it was for her to see a family that appeared to have made it through this.

Anonymous said...

I read your book on the Patz case after you mentioned it in an earlier post here. I loved the book. I've been recommending it to a lot of friends, and I passed my copy around at work. Keep up the good work. I'll be looking forward to your next book.

Jeannine said...

Thank you for mentioning the therapy that is so crucial for these kids and their family - even the extended family. So much is always sensationalized about the dirty stuff. Hardly anything is ever focused on the psychological ramifcations and how to deal with it. Psychotherapy is so important to discuss openly in these situations - to normalize - and to let people know this does exist. I hope Jaycees family are being treated to the best psychs available. Just as I also hope the same is happening in Austria for a very similar situation almost mirror image to a young woman held captive in the basement/dungeon at the hands of her father. Remember, she and her three children were found a year ago.