Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Memoirs From Broken Little Girls

Last week a friend sent a link to the story of Dominique Moceanu’s secret sister, Jennifer Bricker—a child given up at birth because she had no legs. But Jennifer didn’t suffer because of it. She led an idyllic childhood in spite of her impediment. Adopted and raised as the only daughter of a doting couple who believed there were no limits, “Jen” went on to become a champion high school gymnast and the Tumbling Champion of Illinois.

Jen fared much better than Dominique. The secret sister video led me to Dominique’s memoir, Off Balance—the story of Dominique’s tempestuous life.

Dominique tells the unvarnished truth about life in an abusive household as well as life with the infamous Karolyis. She recalls many stories when Bela Karolyi and her father “teamed up” to produce an Olympic champion through mind games, fear tactics, and physical abuse while her mother turned a blind eye.

From Chapter 6: (Tata is Dominique’s father)
“I will never forget opening day of compulsories at Worlds in Japan when Bela made me do my compulsory bar routine over and over again during morning warm-ups. During this time I wondered if there was an end in sight, or if he was trying to get me to break down and beg him to stop. I didn’t. It never seemed perfect enough for Bela. I thought maybe Bela wanted to humiliate me in front of the other gymnasts to make sure I didn’t get a big head, having just won US Nationals. With almost no rest in between, my hands were on fire, and by the eighth or ninth run-through the physical and mental drain started to accumulate no matter how much I suppressed it, and I began to make silly, uncharacteristic errors on my bar routine, which seemed to infuriate Bela. Frustrated that I was getting tired and not executing perfectly, Bela loudly accused me of eating too much and suggested that I was making mistakes because I had gained weight during my visit to Japan. He ordered me to get on the scale, so he could weigh me right there for everyone to see. Looking back, I’m sure he knew perfectly well that I was making mistakes because I had just done my compulsory routine sixteen times, not because I had eaten too much. This was typical Bela. It seemed to me that any time practice wasn’t going well, he’d try to blame it on my weight and threaten to call my parents (which really meant Tata), so Tata would then punish me for having eaten too much.”

“Bela exaggerated his affections for us in public, which was perversely rewarding at competitions because we feared him so much and were so desperate for his praise. He was a different person altogether when the cameras weren’t rolling.”

Later that year Dominique suspects that the Karolyis search the gymnasts’ rooms and backpacks for forbidden foods. When they find candy hidden in a secret pocket of her teddy bear they inform her father. 

“‘Why are you eating what you’re not supposed to?’ Tata blurted one last time before hitting me across my right cheek so hard it made my whole body jerk back….At that moment I despised the Karolyis for calling Tata and hated Tata for humiliating me for eating a handful of Mentos….I remember refusing to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry, but somehow I still felt tears flooding down my face…. 

“I lost all respect for Marta and Bela at that moment as the two of them stood there seeming to gloat and nodding as if their mission were complete. I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore. Nobody, including Mama, reacted to the wallop across my face. I figured they all knew it was coming—God knows, Mama was expecting it since she’d seen Tata lose control and get physical timeless times before.”

Dominique’s story has a happy ending. After all the tribulations in her young life she has risen above the abuse, reconciled with her father, married her best friend, and is the proud mother of two beautiful children.

Dominique has told her story to expose the truth of the Karolyi’s Texas ranch and Marta’s total control of the National, World, and Olympic team selection.

Does anyone care that USA Gymnastics no longer holds Olympic Trials? For many years I have followed women’s gymnastics and observed verbal and emotional abuse from various coaches—and this is just from watching events on TV!  The problem of demeaning and mocking children to get them to perform seems to be wide-spread in the training of the elite gymnasts who become the Olympic stars.

The story begins when Jeanette is three. She’s standing on a chair boiling hotdogs when flames engulf her. After numerous skin grafts and six weeks in the hospital her father, Rex, believes that burns need air to breathe and not bandages so he whisks her away against medical advice.  A few days later she’s back to boiling hotdogs with her mother insisting that Jeanette couldn’t live in fear of something as basic as fire.

TheGlass Castle is a story of broken promises. Rex moves the family frequently to avoid bill collectors and ends up in Welch, West Virginia the town where he grew up—the Nation's Coal Bin. Here, the family descends into the lower regions of hell. Rex is an alcoholic and gambler who steals money from his wife and children to support his habits while Rose Mary, Jeanette’s mother, an artist and certified teacher is a free-spirit who expects her children to look out for themselves.

It’s difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional household: An intellectual father who likes to think out of the box and dreams of striking it rich, an educated mother who would rather paint a picture that will last a lifetime than cook her family a meal that will be gone in 15 minutes, and children left to fend for themselves; sometimes eating popcorn for days on end, sometimes eating week-old ham after picking maggots out of it, or sometimes eating nothing at all. The memoir is haunted with so many horrible stories that every time I read one I was sure things could not get worse. I was wrong.

 Even though they are poor the parents reject welfare stating that they can take care of their own and if they depended on welfare they’d become lazy.

The mind games ran rampant: When the family moves from Phoenix, Jeanette takes along her cat who doesn’t enjoy riding in a car. Rex throws the cat to the curb and speeds off. Jeanette is told not to be so sentimental, that the cat is going to be wild now, which is more fun than being a house cat. Perhaps the saddest statement comes from Rose Mary when the family moves into a rat infested, broken-down house without plumbing. The children protest but Rose Mary said, “Count your blessings. There are people in Ethopia who would kill for a place like this.”

As dysfunctional as Rex and Rose Mary are, there’s little doubt that they love their children. Rex inflicts a tender mind game one Christmas in the desert when there is no money for a tree or gifts. Rex takes the children outside, one by one, sets them on his knee and asks them to choose a star that will be their present. Jeanette chooses Venus, a planet, but Rex lets her have it all the same. They laugh at the kids who believe in the Santa myth and get nothing for Christmas but cheap plastic toys. “Years from now when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Rex says, “you’ll still have your stars.”

Jeanette manages to survive but her parents are never willing to change. When Jeanette is older, educated, and living on Park Avenue her parents squat in an empty building in NYC and find their meals and clothes in garbage cans and dumpsters—her mother’s way of “recycling”. When Jeanette asks her mother what she should tell people about her parents, her mother answers with a smile, “The truth.”

In the summer of 1991 Jaycee Dugard is a normal kid who does normal things until the day a sexual predator steals her life. For 18 years she is a prisoner, an object for someone to use and abuse. She is not allowed to speak her own name. On August 26, 2009, she takes her name back. Jaycee Lee Dugard doesn’t think of herself as a victim. She thinks of herself as a survivor. A Stolen Life is Jaycee Dugard’s story—told in her own words.

Little Jaycee is kidnapped…in broad daylight, within a block of her home while her stepfather watches, while her schoolmates watch. Jaycee disappears without a trace…or does she?

We can only imagine what torture Jaycee Dugard experienced during her 18 years of captivity. I won’t go into the content of the sexual abuse since most of us remember the horrifying media reports back in 2009. What I want to share about Jaycee’s story is the personal nature of it, it’s sensitivity and honesty. Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped by a mentally ill, sex-crazed, drug addicted, pedophile one week before she finished the fifth grade. She lived in “the backyard” of her captor’s house, which was visited over 60 times by police and parole officers. Not once did any of these people search the backyard compound that contained a soundproof studio, a shack, tarps, and tents all surrounded by a tall fence. Even when neighbors reported that children were living in one of the tents no one investigated. The children were Jaycee and her two daughters, both sired by her captor when she was 14 and 17 years old.

Jaycee chronicles her story in first person present tense. Each chapter ends with a reflection. There’s not a hint of self-pity, which makes this story all the more heart wrenching.

The memoir includes journal entries from 1998-2004 which contain lists of her favorite music (Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Green Day, and Jason Mraz), places and things she wants to do (see Mom, touch a whale, visit Norway to see Aurora Borealis, and visit Victoria Falls in Africa). She also lists affirmations for her life to counteract her negative feelings:

I am a creative, positive, successful person.
I can achieve anything I set my mind on.
We will succeed in everything we are trying to accomplish.
I make it a habit to be happy.
Today is a glorious day.

Perhaps Jaycee’s most poignant memoir is a list of her favorite quotes:

“What will happen will happen. There is time for miracles until there is no more time, but time has no end.” Dean Koontz

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope; for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” T.S. Eliot

After the first few months, Jaycee’s captor removes her shackles and gives her free range of the backyard. Couldn’t she have scaled the fence and escaped? After all she tells about peering over it once and a woman asking her name. If she had shared her name with the woman the ordeal would have been over years sooner. But her captor has a stun gun that can shock her into paralysis. There are two (supposed) very aggressive Doberman Pinscher’s outside, and she is told that if she even tries to escape her captor will sell her to people who will put her in a cage. Later, when Jaycee is older, her captor becomes her protector from the “evil outside world”. So she adapts and becomes complacent. She doesn’t have the will to leave. It is the monster’s world and she is simply trying to survive.

A Stolen Life is the story of indestructible hope and that perspective makes this book worth reading. Jaycee wrote this memoir with the hope that victims of sex offenders can learn to survive without shame and to inspire people “to get their head out of the sand and to speak up when they see something amiss”. Finally, she wrote this for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials whose job it is to protect the public from people like her captors.

Check out Jaycee’s foundation: JAYC (Just Ask Yourself to Care)

The abuse and neglect of children is timeless. In my novel Child of My Heart Annie Lancaster witnesses many forms of physical and psychological abuse as well as parents maiming and even murdering their own children. The stories are true and were taken from my personal experience as a pediatric and NICU nurse for over 40 years. (Names, age, sex, locations and situations were changed.)

Near the end of the novel Annie reflects on the most recent incident of child abuse she’s seen as she strokes the forehead of a baby girl raped and beaten unconscious by her father. “I couldn’t think of a single thing that could ease the pain or lessen the disgust. I thought about all the interventions for children and families that weren’t available years ago. So many dollars invested in doctors, social workers, and research, yet the suffering continues. Why, I decided, was a question I shouldn’t ask.”

The manipulation of children is the common link between these stories though the mechanisms differ in each case. I pose the question Annie dared not ask; what is wrong with our social fabric and how can it be corrected?


  1. All disturbing stories, but very moving, Shelia. Thank you for pulling these together for us. Judith

    1. Thank you Judith for reading my blog and posting a comment. I chose these stories because each "little girl" survived to become strong women. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

  2. Wow, Shelia, this was a powerful post and heartwarming. The controlling, emotional abuse of our children is too widespread. My daughter is trying to get full custody of her 2 little ones because of emotion abuse, but the courts didn't see it that away and she's had to deal with the repercussions - our courts can't seem to protect our little ones unless it physical! Too many little ones out there like those you speak of - by the way, that a sweet family picture. I'm always glad to hear the happy end of a sad story.

    1. Thank you Judy for posting a very personal and emotional comment. Best wishes to your daughter and your grandchildren. <3