Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Homage to Betty Mahmoody

Part VI

In the summer of 1987 the world my children, mother, and I had known for six years had fallen apart. Separated from, but not trusting my estranged Iranian husband, I knew that I could not make it on the small paycheck I received from the Alameda County Library System as a clerk. Because of having seen Betty Mahmoody interviewed following her experience with her young daughter in Iran and having spoken to both the Center for Missing and Exploited Children with whom she was now working and the United States State Department, I genuinely feared for the safety of my four year-old son. My Iranian in-laws had left my home, but not the area. Their visas were good until December, but before then my father-in-law would want to make sure that my husband had divorced me and I was loathe to take a chance on my husband having even one unsupervised visitation with our son. So far I’d insisted that he only see our son in a public place with me present. These meetings were highly stressful for all concerned and our son celebrated his fourth birthday, not with a party and cake at home with balloons and merriment, but at McDonald’s in a celebration that was painful for all the adults.

I’d made my decision to return to Washington from California and put as many miles as possible between myself and my Iranian in-laws. My husband did not want me to move our son so far from his control and was unwilling to help, but rather insisted that I stay in the Bay Area. For six years I had been homesick for the green of the Pacific Northwest, missed my extended family from which I’d already lost my grandmother. My ex-husband was coming to help me move my four children, my mother, and me back to familiar territory. Instead of King County where I’d been raised I was headed to Pacific County on the Southwest Washington Coast. This was where I’d spent my childhood summers and always wanted to live. I had an aunt who lived in the family summer home full time and a cousin who lived there, too.

My aunt and cousin had sent me copies of the little local weekly paper and I’d poured over employment and rental ads. There was few of either. My hopes had been raised over the posting of a school district position in a school library, but although my experience outstripped the person they hired, the fact that she was already a school district employee trumped my years in the Fremont Main Library. And house rentals seemed nonexistent. But my relatives were encouraging so we’d packed our boxes, reserved a truck, and I’d picked up my ex-husband from SFO. With the date of our divorce mediation growing closer, all that remained was for me to pack the truck and drive off into what I hoped was a sunrise, but there was one more thing I had to do that I believed would protect my son or at least protect me.

I knew that as soon as my husband discovered I’d left with our son he’d attempt to come after us. I’d seen enough of his bad temper to not doubt that his aim would be to take him away from me as I was taking our son away from him. The difference was that he could get on an airplane and be in Tehran without anyone stopping him. I did not want to just “disappear” and take all of us away from all family connections. That was exactly what I felt I would have to do if we were to live on the run. The notion of us all taking on new identities and living in some strange place where my husband would not think to look was exhausting. I did not want to make myself a fugitive and more than that I didn’t want to make fugitives of my children.

So I came up with the notion of writing a letter to my husband. In my mind it was like leaving a note on the kitchen counter about running an errand. In it I explained that continuing to live in the Bay Area, surrounded by his family but none of mine, was untenable. I told tell him that I was going home to Washington and even got as specific as telling him that we were headed to the Long Beach Peninsula. He knew that I had an aunt there, but didn’t know exactly where she lived and I knew that there were places on the Peninsula where people could disappear. Moreover, no one had a street address there. Either they had a rural route address or a post office box depending on where they lived. My aunt had a PO Box and so I included that in my letter.

It boiled down to the fact that I was taking our son to Washington. Not only was I telling my husband about it I was giving him an address to which he could write. It was a gamble, but I had neither the money nor the time to do anything else. I mailed it registered mail with the receipt to be sent to my aunt’s PO Box. I didn’t want my husband to be able to say he hadn’t been informed of what I was doing. Now we had about 24 hours to get as far away from the Bay Area as I could.

The next question was whether or not our nine-year-old Buick station wagon was going to make the nine hundred mile trip to Washington. I’d spoken on the phone to my best friend in Oregon and she had advised me to change the coil before leaving so that we wouldn’t have that quit on us in the Sierra Mountains. She made it sound very easy to do and told me to have my ex-husband do it as soon as he arrived. Perhaps it would have been easy for someone with rudimentary knowledge of car engines, but by the time he had put the new coil I’d purchased into the car it bucked and chugged all the way to the gas station where the mechanic put the sparkplug wires in the proper order with only mild laughter and without charging me too much.
I’d given my notice at the library and lined up a young couple who worked there to help my ex-husband and I load the truck. Anything that belonged to my husband before we were married or were gifts from his parents was tossed into a closet.

My ex-husband is a master at packing. We worked through the day and into the night packing the largest U-Haul I could get with our worldly belongings. We culled things that wouldn’t fit and gave them away to the neighbors. We slept on the floor that night before getting up in the wee hours of the morning for a quick breakfast and left the keys to the house with the next door neighbors.

My ex-husband had made himself straw-boss and I was too exhausted physically and emotionally to argue with him. He drove the truck with one of the children with him and I drove our overloaded station wagon with my mother and the rest of the children following behind, all the time looking in the rearview mirror. Our trip was relatively uneventful. We honked and pumped our fists when we crossed the California-Oregon border. Oregon might not be home, but it was like being back in the neighborhood.

We camped that night in Bend which was where our only hitch happened. When my ex-husband went to drive to a nearby store and get some—probably beer—the car wouldn’t start. I dissolved into a puddle of exhausted tears as I contemplated having to create a life for my family in Bend since it seemed we weren’t going any further. Ex-husband hitched a ride to town where he found a mechanic and arranged to have a tow truck come the next morning to get the car. I fell into the first real sleep I’d had in weeks blessing my parents and the fact they’d sent their credit card with him.

As we drove away from our old life toward the unknown of a new one I couldn’t help but wonder at my husband’s reaction to my letter. He would borrow his cousin’s car and drive incredulously to our rental house where he would find only his own things. He would be furious. His parents would fuel his fury and he would have the support emotionally and financially of his more well-to-do cousins. He might go to the police or an attorney. I had plenty of time to contemplate what he might do and what might happen. We weren’t out of the woods yet.

We drove hard, only spending the one night in Bend on the road. Even though it was summer twilight was deepening into night when we crossed into Washington. We had driven to the Oregon Coast and come through Seaside to Astoria. As we paid the toll to cross the Columbia River and climbed the high rise on the Oregon side I could barely make out the Douglas firs on the Washington side four miles away. Home. “There it is,” my mother whispered. Tears ran down our cheeks.

Although there were challenges ahead, challenges of finding a place to live and a job. We put our things in storage so my ex-husband could drive the truck to Portland and get a flight back to Seattle. The day we unloaded the truck into the storage facility an old friend and Vietnam veteran came loping down the street from his parents’ house. We chatted a bit about where we’d been the past 15 years and then he said, “Don’t worry Goospies [short for Mother Goose]; there’s plenty of places on this peninsula to dump a body. Nothing’s going to happen to your little boy.” Fortunately I would never have to take him up on his thinly veiled offer.

I spent days and days looking for both a house and a job and was on the verge of moving my family from my aunt’s home to Ft. Canby State Park as she was ill with undiagnosed Lupus and needed up away when my cousin found us a house in Chinook. Shortly after that I found work at the bakery in Long Beach.

In October 1987 Not Without My Daughter showed up in the window of the bookstore across the street from the bakery. I bought two copies, one of which I sent to my husband with a note telling him that this was the reason I’d left California. While what my children and I lived through was nothing to the story of Betty Mahmoody and her daughter, her story was the reason that I was very, very scared.

During that time a scathing letter from my husband arrived to my aunt’s mailbox. He was angry and from the wording of the letter I concluded that he’d consulted either an attorney or the police about charging me with kidnapping, but to no avail. He asked me to call him which I did from a payphone across the street from our house on Highway 101. I refused to tell him where we were living. My aunt’s mailbox was in Ilwaco and her house in Seaview. I worked in Long Beach and lived in Chinook. I felt relatively safe or at least until the day the bicycle arrived.

One day there was a knock on the door of our rental. When I opened it there stood a UPS driver asking if I were me. Yes, I answered hesitantly. “Sign here,” he said and left a large package with the name of the sender being my husband. To put it simply I freaked out. We had no street address so how had he found us? We had no telephone so making inquiries had to wait until I was at work when I called UPS. They said that their drivers on the Long Beach Peninsula just knew where people lived and that there would be no way for my husband to trace the delivery point. I went back to looking over my shoulder.

My husband had asked me to talk to our son once per week so we arranged for a certain time on Saturday evenings for him to call the phone booth. We got a PO Box in Seaview and he began to send child support payments. My ex-husband was in the midst of a divorce and payments for another child with his second wife and so was no more reliable as a source of income than he’d ever been. When I applied for my daughter’s SSI to be transferred from CA to WA they decided that they needed to have her examined to make sure she hadn’t recovered from her disability. While I worked at the bakery I was able to actually save some money which saved our lives when I got laid off just before Christmas and Social Security decided that my daughter might have had her Down’s Syndrome magically go away.

By December my in-laws had moved to Seattle to my brother-in-laws and my husband decided to come for a visit. I wanted very badly to refuse, but I also wanted to keep him on an even keel so I agreed. He drove to Seattle with his cousin whom he left with his brother and parents and then drove to Chinook. He stayed one night and I “slept” on the floor in front of the door to the bedroom my son shared with his brothers while my husband slept on the couch. When he left the next morning my son climbed to the window on the landing overlooking the driveway, leaned his head on the window and with tears running down his little face whispered, “Bye Bubby,” his name for his Baba. It tore my heart out, but not for a minute did I regret taking him away from a situation that I considered dangerous.

In February, two months after their visas had expired, my in-laws returned to Iran. My husband did not go with them. His visits became twice a year, his phone calls weekly, and his child support checks like clockwork. I made one foray into the notion of picking up where we’d left off, but he just shook his head.

But the story has a happy ending. At my high school 20th reunion in 1989 I became acquainted with a gentleman whom I’d gone to school with from seventh to twelfth grade. This incredible man fell in love not only with me, just the way I am, but with my family and in August of 1990 we were married. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. When my husband arrived for Christmas 1989 he spent three days and nights crying and begging me not to divorce him. When I asked if he would call his parents in Iran and tell them he wanted his family back he just looked at me. I was calling his bluff. There was no way I was going to trade unconditional love from a man who grew up where I did, shared memories with me and who loved all of my children and I knew there was no way he was going to stand up to his father. To my knowledge I’m the only one who ever did.

My husband continued to be a houseguest even after I was remarried and gradually we became friends again. Finally, when our son seemed old enough and my husband and I had instructed him how to place international telephone calls we let him visit his father in California without supervision. As hard as it was to let him go, I felt that I owed it to my son. Sometimes when you deny a child a thing it becomes an obsession.

When my son was a high school student a letter from his grandparents in Iran arrived. Clearly his uncle in Seattle had furnished them with the address. “Well,” I said, “either we move or answer the letter.”

“You answer,” my son said. “They are nothing to me.”

It took me several weeks and torn up letters to write to them and I still don’t know why I did. I knew that my son was safe and old enough to not be kidnapped and not foolish enough to go to Iran where he could be drafted. I believe that I felt sorry for my ex-mother-in-law. She had remained silent during our entire ordeal. She knew where her place was and she stayed there, but she was a mother and a grandmother and with 10,000 miles between us I could afford a tender heart so I for a while I wrote a few letters and sent pictures. They told my son’s uncle that they couldn’t understand why I was being so nice to them and therein lays an example of the cultural conflict between America and Iran.

We Americans expect to be liked and are flabbergasted when we are not. I was flabbergasted that my Iranian in-laws did not like me. They are flabbergasted that I can forgive them. When I discovered a letter to my son from his grandfather saying that they wanted to hear from him not his mother I stopped communicating with them. Perhaps America and Iran will never be able to communicate because we come from such different cultural mindsets.

Through it all I’ve never doubted his father’s love for him, what I doubted was his ability to stand up to his own father. When he was 24 my son went to California to try out living there and keeps his father, who has never remarried, company. Our son will be 26 in July. Recently, I asked him if Bubby had any plans to visit Iran. “He won’t go, Mom. “ I hope not. He never missed a support payment even when he was part of the dot.com bursting bubble and had no job. I finally had to tell him to stop paying when our son graduated from high school. Should he ever get stuck in Iran we’d be hiring a hit team to go after him.
If I have a regret about this entire episode it is perhaps that I protected my son too much. When we first arrived in Washington he would talk about the night everyone was yelling and the police came and how his brother had held him in his arms. I thought that little almost four-year-old knew what was going on. He never asked questions about that night or anything else. When he was a junior in high school he wrote an essay to the prompt of his name and ethnic background. His teacher called me to her classroom to show me his assignment. In that essay he mentioned that he did not understand why I had taken him away from California and his father. What little he'd gleaned in family conversations over the years he did not believe. He did not believe that his father would have ever done anything to hurt him. That night I explained, in a far briefer fashion, the story I have told here and it is to him that I dedicate this story. Until he is a father he cannot understand the depth of love a parent's heart can feel nor the fear. Having a child is truly like having your heart out walking about outside of your body. I could not let my heart be taken to Iran. I could not allow even the possibility of that.

Betty Mahmoody and her daughter Mahtob have lived under assumed names since their return from Iran. According to more than one website, Mahtob, who is nearing 30, has never again seen Moody who is described as an aging doctor who longs to see his daughter. One website, obviously run by a Persian, claims that Betty’s rendition of the events of their time in Iran is twisted and that Betty was happy there. This is another example of cultural conflict, but I believe Betty and honor Mahtob’s decision not to communicate with her father. Betty and Mahtob suffered in ways my children and I did not. Because of their bravery, Betty’s bravery to tell her story, I kept my son safe.


Lorraine Hart said...

A hard story of survival...with so much heart, my friend. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. I celebrate your freedom...and your forgiveness. Lox

Stephanie Frieze said...

Thank you, Lorraine. I hope that people will consider the voiceless American children who are being held hostage outside of the US and the grieving American parents who can do little to nothing to retrieve them. One woman hired former Navy Seals to go to the Middle East to get her daughter. Without the financial resources to mount such a campaign, which in itself can be dangerous to the child, parents are left with only prayers and broken hearts. At the time of our ordeal 10,000 American born children were being held outside of the United States and beyond the reach of American courts.

Stephanie Frieze said...

I've not yet been able to discover how many American children have been taken from the U.S. by a foreign parent, but here's some good news: The International Parental Child Abduction Prevention Act of 2003 gave the Department of State the power to revoke visas for nonresident aliens related to an abducting parent. While that would not prevent a noncustodial foreign born parent from taking a child out of the United States, it raises the stakes for those who defy a U.S. court order and kidnap their children from the United States. In the last few years there has been an increase in returned children.

Anonymous said...

Mahtob was only 4-6 years old when she was in Iran. I know I hardly remember anything from that age. How can she accurately judge her fathers actions from her recollections at that age. I think Betty certainly must have influenced her daughter to turn against her father, especially at that young impressionable age. Regardless of what her father did (only Betty and Mahmoody really know), Mahtob should be forgiving and show some honor and respect to her father. I think her turning her back on her father who gave her life was very hard-hearted and cruel to say the least. Notice that her father still loved her even though she hated him. So who is the guilty one?

Stephanie Frieze said...

I was able to see that my son had and has a relationship with his father, but then my son's father is HERE, not in Iran and he did not imprison me, nor threaten to kill me. I am sure that Betty Mahmoody did not endure all that she did to keep her daughter safe on a whim. Unless we assume that she made up the entire year and a half, Moody's behavior could be viewed as unforgiveable. Being a woman in Iran is a dangerous thing to be. If Mahtob has never gone there to visit the family that was cruel to her mother I think her decision was wise. As the female offspring of an Iranian man she would not have been allowed to leave Iran without his permission.

The problem of the abduction of American children by foreign born parents is a very real problem. Because of Betty Mahmoody and her willingness to share her story, I kept my son safe until he was of an age to keep himself safe.

How I see it said...

I personally, am trying to help a Muslim mother from Jordan who had to leave her violent Muslim husband and cannot get to even see her children again. Their religion and laws put women down and men get what ever they want. She is devastated but had to escape before he killed her (which he almost did several times). She is even afraid to break any of the religious laws for fear of others, including her own family. So she morns the loss of her children. The father teaches the children they have no mother. When they think of her it is with Hate in their hearts. If they do speak of her, the have fear that their father will find out and beat them. I haven't heard of such a sad story that is linked within their own culture and religion. No one can tell me that Muslim men are not violent. They will do ANYTHING to save face. If anyone has any ideas of how I can help this poor mother to even see her children again, I would love to hear it.

Lorraine Hart said...

Dear "How I See It"

I send you, and the woman you are trying to help, my most sincere love and support as sisters on this planet.

I wish I knew a way to help in this particular situation but don't. Still I want you to know you are heard by someone, that many stand with your friend and with you in this pain and frustration.

I do, however, have to urge you NOT to make blanket statements, for I know of many gentle, humble, loving Muslim men...and know many Christians, including men in my own family, who are as violent and oppressive. Please don't think I am trying to release responsibility of the men who are a number of centuries behind, or the countries who encourage this thinking, by these words, for I am not. The danger is our own thinking in generalities...lumping ALL of a culture, religion, etc. into one basket of goodness or badness.

Any/Every story of children being held hostage, especially kept from a loving parent, breaks my heart. I've advocated, given shelter, hidden and helped women and kids to get away, within country...but being able to leave and be protected from prosecution, or women held and abused beyond the reaches of our legal system...makes me feel so helpless and angry. Where is the office within the United Nations where one should be able to appeal for help?
We are still so young in this fight, even in America. I think of the women who were beaten, raped and killed for trying to obtain the right to vote in this country...in 1917...not even 100 years ago in our own history. Not meaning to digress...just point out that the wave of Feminism came about for good reason...and it is the women who have strengthened one another with their courage and stories, passed even between Burqas. It was the women of Afghanistan who called out to the world for help against the oppression of the Taliban.

There is much I would change about the world and there is much to give us cause to weep. I believe we have a Secretary of State who stands strongly for women around the world...perhaps that is the Office to reach out to?

The truth is our mantra.

Cindi said...

For a long time I was adamant that the Betty Mahmoody story was NOT typical of bicultural marriages.

I was married to a Pakistani. I've heard more stories of abductions of noncustodial parents lately. I left my husband and moved cross country to be closer to my family. We have had an open visitation arrangement where he comes here, stays with us to visit his daughters. I know he doesn't want the responsibility of raising them himself. In our divorce decree I got full legal and physical custody. During his last visit he asked for a copy of their birth certificates. He said it was for a visa for the woman his parents are arranging for him to marry. I didn't believe it so told him I would find them and get them to him sometime. I checked the USCIS site and discovered he really didn't need them. I was afraid that someone in his family was pressuring him to bring them there.

I have since put their names on an alert list but this does not stop him from getting them Pakistani ID cards and passports--which he can do without my permission. It also doesn't stop him from getting on a flight with them. I'm still concerned but feel I have done what I can. They don't have passports which helps.

Thanks for telling your story, Stephanie.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Cindi, you will be in my heart as I send thoughts of protection for your children. I can think of nothing for frightening than the thought of losing one of mine. It was a scary time and remained so until my son was big enough to be able to seek help if his dad tried to take him. It was a walk done on a knife's edge to allow him a relationship with his father and keeping him safe. Most abducting fathers are not interested in actually raising the children, only in hurting the mom. And to be fair there are mother's who abduct children, too, as in the Sean Goldman case. In your case, the best hope may be that your exhusband's parents find him a new wife and he starts a new family which will distract him from yours. It may be hurtful to your children, but it may also keep them safe.

Diane said...

Rachel,so, although this is a little late, I would question your motive in saying what you said. Are you in favor of staying with a man that beats you and in front of your child?

Pome Mango said...

I am re-reading Not Without My Daughter, and your story is very interesting. As for the people who say when they were between the ages of 4-6 and do not remember much, well that is not true for everyone. I actually was surprised to learn a few years ago that people my own age do not remember things in crystal detail that I remember from around those ages. I have some memories from before I was one even, and my parents were surprised I could recall being at certain places at certain times. My detailed memories started around the age of five, and I have crystal clear memories from then on. For instance, I never really watched television until the age of five because we did not have reception, so I remember watching MTV for the first time as a kid. I remember watching the news as well, and recalling things Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan said on the news. I also remember camping trips and school events with great detail. Perhaps I have detailed memories from when I was a kid because it was a hobby of mine to remember things in their details. When I got to be in my twenties it became less fun to always recall events this way, but I still have a penchant for this. So it is just not true to say people around the age of four do not have detailed memories because some of us do.

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