Peter Kurth wonders why his sister Barbara has been put on trial by the media after the arrest of Stephen Fagan, who abducted their two daughters and lived with them under a false identity for 19 years before his recent Palm Beach arrest.

By Peter Kurth
May 7, 1998 3:48PM (UTC)
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Over the last two weeks, my family has been sucked
willy-nilly into the jaws of the American media scandal
machine, into the world of Oprah and Montel, of Dateline
and "20/20," of CBS, ABC, Fox, CNN, People, "Inside
Edition," the Globe, the Examiner, the Enquirer, the
Star and -- most unnerving of all -- into the sights of
Hollywood movie producers dangling dollars in front of our
eyes. The speed with which all this has happened has
taken our collective breath away. We are not celebrities.
Monica Lewinsky doesn't live at this address, though we're
deeply sympathetic all of a sudden to her plight.

The story as it broke around the country last month was
no surprise to us. In 1979, after their divorce in Massachusetts, my
sister Barbara's ex-husband, Stephen H. Fagan, had abducted their two
small daughters and vanished without a trace. We had known since September that Fagan had finally been
located in Florida and was about to be arrested on kidnapping
charges. Over the months, we've had plenty of time to
compose ourselves, to think and to wait. My sister, in
particular, has become an expert at waiting -- it's been 18
years since she last saw her children.


She did not watch them on television last week when
they gave a press conference in Boston or the next day when they appeared with Katie Couric on the "Today" show,
declaring their unswerving love for the father who raised
them. She knows what they said, and she is not surprised.
Rachael, now 23, and Wendy (renamed "Lisa" by her father),
21, have been raised on the lie that their mother was dead.
They have known no other parent but Fagan since they were
2 and 5 years old. They know nothing of Barbara's
story or the years of suffering and recuperation that
followed their abduction. They do not know how strong she
is, how honest she is or how hard she has worked to rebuild
her life.

Certainly, they could not have learned about this from the media. Instead of talking to us about Barbara's plight or Fagan's innumerable crimes, reporters have been grilling us nonstop about my sister's character and fitness as a mother. Another deficient mother is squarely in their sights, it seems.

Since my sister has not spoken to reporters so far,
apart from reading a short statement at a press conference
on April 21, "her side" of the story needs some filling in.
After their divorce, Fagan had accused her of a number of
parental crimes -- among them alcoholism, drug abuse and
neglect -- in an effort to win custody of the girls. His
allegations were investigated and dismissed by both the
courts and the Massachusetts state welfare authorities, but
you have to dig deep in the back pages of most newspapers to
find this out. In 1971, Barbara had been diagnosed with
narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that can cause its victims to
pass out suddenly and at other times leaves them drowsy and
incoherent. Her condition was well known to Fagan and to
us. Nor did Fagan ever complain about her fitness as a
mother until she left the Boston area after the divorce and
moved with the children to North Adams, Mass., hoping to get
as far away from Fagan as possible while keeping the girls
within state borders, as she was required to do while
permanent custody was being decided.


Only then, when he felt that she had thwarted him, did
Fagan claim that Barbara was an "unfit mother" and a danger
to the children. His attorneys gathered testimony from
three women who were Barbara's neighbors in the public
housing project where she lived (largely because Fagan was
withholding child support). One of them claimed that
Rachael and Wendy had been left outside for hours at a time,
"wandering the streets, naked and hungry." Another
maintained that the girls were seen eating "raw meat out of
a toaster" while Barbara lay passed out drunk in her living
room. Because of the seriousness of the charges, a guardian ad litem was appointed. He and
the Department of Social Services both recommended that the
girls remain with their mother, but a final decision was still
pending on Oct. 25, 1979, when Fagan arrived for a
routine visitation, took the girls and never returned.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I lived with Barbara and her children for six months in 1978, when
she was getting her divorce, and saw the children
frequently after that in the months before their disappearance. I can
affirm without reservation that she was neither abusive nor
neglectful in her care of them. I can also report that when
she came home to us in Vermont in 1980, still reeling from
the effects of the abduction, she went to work in a day-care
center and stayed there for more than a year without anyone
complaining about her "fitness."


My sister was robbed not
only of her children, but of her role and identity as a
mother. For years she spoke of the girls as if they had
only gone away on vacation. She spoke of them always in the
present tense, kept their clothes and toys until she
couldn't stand it anymore, observed their birthdays and
pursued every avenue available to her to assist in their
recovery. She hired private investigators; she contacted
the courts, the police and the FBI; she wrote to senators in
Washington, all without success. She dragged Fagan's parents, among others, into
her lawyer's office to depose them under oath; three months later, they also

This was in 1980, before any real awareness of parental
kidnapping had entered the public consciousness and when the
police considered the problem to be a "family matter,"
outside their jurisdiction. A warrant for Fagan's arrest
was issued in Massachusetts but never pursued. In 1982,
Barbara sent investigators and my father to the home of
Fagan's sister, Sheryl Klein, who lived near Palm Beach and who we understood was accepting Fagan's mail. Klein
refused to help and, in fact, slammed the door in my
father's face. When he went to the police, he was told that
the Florida authorities could not intervene. No crime had
been committed in Florida, they said; even if Barbara could
locate her children, and provided that Fagan wasn't tipped
off in advance, she would have no recourse but to kidnap the
girls all over again.


"I won't allow their lives to be ruined a second
time," Barbara told the family when she heard this. She refused to
turn her daughters' lives into a permanent
battleground. She continued searching, when she could
afford it, until around 1987, but finally gave up in the
knowledge that the girls were growing up with new identities
and new selves and that they probably wouldn't know her if
they saw her again. Resigned to her loss, but still keeping a room
in her house dedicated to their memory, she went back to
school, married again, earned a doctorate in cell biology
and is now a highly respected member of the faculty at the University of Virginia.

When the case
broke open again last fall, we urged Barbara to move
quickly, to call out the cavalry, alert the media and make
her presence known to her daughters in advance of their
father's arrest. But she was hesitant, for reasons we did not fully understand until she told us plainly, "I'm not ready for
the fact that they may not want to have anything to do with
me." At the request of investigators, too, she kept silent.

What none of us knew before Fagan's arrest in Palm Beach
were the elaborate details of his life in hiding -- the
false identity; the outlandish claims to nonexistent jobs,
connections and college degrees; the $1.6 million oceanfront
mansion and the buckets of money that apparently propelled
him into Florida Gold Coast high society, where he hobnobbed
with socialites, served on the board of the Palm Beach Opera
and dazzled a lot of ladies with tales of his adventures and
utterly bogus accomplishments.


Calling himself Dr. William Martin -- he stole the
name and identity of a 6-year-old boy who had died --
Fagan has claimed variously to friends in
Palm Beach that he is a psychiatrist, a chemist, a student of
philosophy, a CIA agent, a professor at Harvard Law, a
think-tank consultant and a former advisor to President
Nixon. His own daughters apparently never knew what he did
for a living. When interviewed by a newspaper in 1993 for a
story about her achievements as an Olympic track athlete,
"Lisa" answered, "Ummm, I don't know. Well, he's retired.
So I guess you could say he's a retired, uh, lawyer. Well,
he was a doctor and a lawyer. And I guess he had his law
degree first, and then he became a psychiatrist."

Fagan does, indeed, have a law degree from Suffolk
University in Boston, though it took him five tries to pass
the Massachusetts bar and he never had a legal practice to
speak of. All the rest is as false as the hairpiece he was
sporting on the day of his arrest. For what it's worth, we
think the press -- and the FBI and the IRS -- ought to be
investigating where he gets his money, how he's been walking
around since 1979 with multiple driver's licenses and a
phony passport, how he's managed to use three different
Social Security numbers in the last 18 years -- none of them
his -- without reporting income on any of them. (This is a
man, we now find out, who used to arrive at my nieces' swim
meets in a $250,000 Ferrari.)

All this has been widely reported in the press, yet Fagan has been treated as a sympathetic single dad, if not a hero. In the meantime, my family has been forced to defend my sister against charges
of drunkenness and abuse, and suggestions that she made no
real effort to find her children over the years. In news
reports, when she isn't being smeared as a drunk, Barbara is
described as a former "coat check girl," since that was the
job she had when she first met Fagan at a Boston nightclub
at the age of 19. Common decency does require some
acknowledgment of her amazing transformation from a bereft
and shattered mother into a dedicated research
scientist, but even so she comes across in most accounts as
a "medical worker," giving the impression that she's some
kind of bedpan changer.
A public
relations campaign is already under way in preparation for
Fagan's defense, using the girls as pawns and designed to
blacken my sister's reputation. On the one hand, Fagan's
attorneys are claiming that he had to disappear, cover his
tracks, change his name and invent a completely false
identity for himself in order to "protect" his daughters and
keep them safe from a mother who had put their lives in
danger. On the other, in a fabulous non sequitur, they're
saying that my sister must not have cared about her
daughters very much because they were -- honest! -- easy to
find. According to Rachael and Wendy's own comments on the
"Today" show, all Barbara had to do was look up Fagan's
parents in the phone book. (They are misinformed about
this. As the Boston Herald
reported last week, Palm Beach phone books and area
directories show no trace of Fagan's parents before 1996, by
which time Barbara had given up any active search.)


"Well, I don't know," strangers interviewed on the evening
news remark. "She couldn't have loved them or she would have found
them." Or: "Look how well they turned out! Why does she
want to ruin their lives after all this time?" My nieces are also blaming their
mother for the mess their father has caused, decrying her
for creating a "media circus," lambasting her for having
made a single statement to the press and emotionally blackmailing her,
if indirectly, with the suggestion that they will not even
consider seeing her if their father goes to jail. If she
reaches out to her daughters now, she will be blocked by
Fagan and his attorneys, as she was blocked by Fagan's
family, all of them apparently complicit in the abduction,
when she demanded information from them years ago. If she
does not reach out, she will be accused of not caring.

Lost in all of this is any consideration of the turmoil
Barbara is in, the doubts and confusion she herself has
experienced at the prospect of seeing her daughters again, the just and well-founded fear she has had that when they heard of her existence they would reject her
out of hand. People have seen too many TV movies. In a
case like this, they don't want to see a quiet, cautious
parent carefully considering the right thing to do. They
want an orgy, an explosion of sentiment, some visible proof
of what they imagine to be a mother's love. They want
Sally Field snatching her child back from menacing Iranians.
They do not know, they cannot know, the depths and
shades of emotion involved or the precarious peace my
sister had finally made with this tragedy over long years of
waiting -- a peace that is now torn apart not by her, but by
a Florida phony's highfalutin tales.

The wisdom of Solomon insists that in disputes over
children, the "true" mother will make all the sacrifices. In
this case, the old king was right on the mark. "At least
they have each other," Barbara said after she saw her
daughters fleetingly on television at Fagan's arraignment.
"If they have nothing else, they have each other." This
thought sustains her in the face of their rejection, and she
has one advantage that her girls do not: She has known
their father longer than they have. She can wait for them,
if she has to. She can wait, and she will.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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