In 1994, Lizbeth Meredith said goodbye to her four- and six-year-old daughters for a visit with their non-custodial father—only to learn days later that they had been kidnapped and taken to their father’s home country of Greece.
Twenty-nine and just on the verge of making her dreams of financial independence for her and her daughters come true, Lizbeth now faced a $100,000 problem on a $10 an hour budget. For the next two years—fueled by memories of her own childhood kidnapping—Lizbeth traded in her small life for a life more public, traveling to the White House and Greece, and becoming a local media sensation in order to garner interest in her efforts. The generous community of Anchorage becomes Lizbeth’s makeshift family—one that is replicated by a growing number of Greeks and expats overseas who help Lizbeth navigate the turbulent path leading back to her daughters.
Lizbeth Meredith is a writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in psychology. She has worked as a domestic violence advocate and a child abuse investigator, and with at-risk teens as a juvenile probation supervisor. She blogs at www.lameredith.com, is a contributor to A Girls’ Guide To Travelling Alone by Gemma Thompson, and is the author of When Push Comes to Shove: How to Help When Someone You Love Is Being Abused. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska near her two adult daughters.
Pieces of Me is a book everyone should read. While some mothers should never have been mothers, I believe that the majority of mothers were born to be mothers. Lizbeth Meredith is one of those moms.
Going through a difficult and trying divorce didn’t break her, but when her ex-husband kidnapped her daughters and fled to Greece, the struggle to bring them home almost did.
As the author states in her book, no one can imagine or predict the effects such a trauma will have on children caught in this situation. Children want to love and please both parents, but when one of those parents manipulates them into believing one of their parents no longer loves them, it crosses the line into parental alienation. Too often, the alienated parent does not have the opportunity to correct the lies, and when they do it is often difficult because the people around the children (grandparents, uncles, aunts) also believe the lies and perpetuate them.
When parents come from different countries, retrieving the children is still not easy. There are proper channels and procedures that must be followed even when a non-custodial parent has abducted the children, and we all know the wheels of justice turn slowly when dealing with other countries. Lizbeth Meredith ran straight into this brick wall. But, it didn’t stop her; and she hit it many times.
Pieces of Me is a book about a mother’s determination to find and bring her children back home to the United States after her ex-husband abducted them and fled to his native country of Greece. It was a long struggle that costs Lizbeth and her children more than years of their lives and money. They paid the highest costs, love and piece of mind.
The children are now grown, but as so many victims of parental abduction and alienation will attest to, the nightmares still reign and life may never be normal again. Both the girls and Lizbeth struggle to this day with the after effects of the abduction. She was very brave to take the chance and speak out in order to educate others about their ordeal.
This book is worth the read. Just be prepared to have your heart broken.
Lizbeth Meredith has been kind enough to provide an excerpt from the book. This is the final chapter.
I wish I could say that we’ve gone on to live happily ever after, but real life is much more complicated. Healing from trauma has been a slow and steady process for my daughters, and for me. If you’d asked me a year or two after my daughters returned, in 1996, if they had (mostly) recovered from their experiences, I would have said yes. In my estimation, since I got them into therapy and provided a structured, safe home environment and we enjoyed a stable support network, they were on the perfect path to success. I assumed that the passage of time + counseling + a positive support system = a normal, healthy adult.
It turns out I was wrong. We made it through the initial health challenges: Meredith’s exposure to tuberculosis in Greece and Marianthi’s stomach problems that appeared to stem from anxiety.
Marianthi described her overall sense of guilt at not telling the flight attendants in 1994 that her father did not have permission to take her and her sister on a plane—at the ripe old age of six. The girls flourished in school almost immediately upon their return. They even got pets and eventually came to terms with not getting the little brother they’d requested. They excelled in soccer. One was a cheerleader. Both held jobs after school when they were old enough and helped pay for their extras.
On the other hand, the girls didn’t spare me a lick of pain and suffering in their teens. Both went through periods of experimental drug use. They became moody and defiant around age fifteen, and I felt as if I had very little influence. I, in turn, took it all very personally and responded in kind. When I told Meredith at sixteen that if she lived in my house, she’d have to follow my rules, she moved, renting an apartment with a coworker from Starbucks. It took six months of living on her own to realize she needed to change her ways to have the future she hoped for. Thanks to my older sister, who offered her a place to stay, Meredith relocated to her aunt’s and finished her senior year in high school in New Mexico, where she eventually completed college as well.
Marianthi went to college in Washington for a time. I didn’t notice it right away, but cracks started to develop in her psyche and then webbed out. She was terrified of my leaving her on campus. I told her that all kids are nervous when their parents leave them for the first time. It was only natural—a buck up, kid; you’ll be fine kind of deal.
But she wasn’t fine. By the time two semesters had passed, her anxiety had given way to full-blown mania, and the collateral damage that followed took years to repair. Meanwhile, Meredith became physically ill with heart-stopping, gut-exploding autoimmune conditions that worked against each other to keep her in chronic pain. And, as if that weren’t enough, Marianthi’s physical health also began to deteriorate, and then Meredith was swallowed by depression and anxiety and flashbacks.
I wish I’d been more tuned into the issues they faced. You might think I’d have empathized easily, since I, too, was a kidnapped child, but my experience was different from theirs. I found my father when I was a young adult, and it was a process I initiated. They were located as small children and abruptly brought back to the United states by me without warning.
It took a long time for me to wrap my mind around not only the aftermath of the girls’ kidnapping but also their difficult return home to their former lives. A child kidnapped by a family member is abruptly uprooted from her family life, her friends, her toys, her routines. There is no closure. All normalcy simply disappears. If she’s taken to another country, she loses her language and culture, too. And in order to survive, she mustn’t grieve but instead align with her abductor, who often works hard to replace the child’s positive memories of her left-behind parent with negative ones. Little by little. “Your dad tried to kill me,” my mom insisted over and over. “Your mom locked you in a room when you were little and left you alone,” Gregory told my daughters.
The abductor skillfully applies guilt to the child if the child demonstrates loss, and more guilt comes when the child learns she must lie to authorities about her life. “My mom is dead,” my daughter told her new Greek teacher. There is guilt for lying to new friends made, and guilt when the child realizes she is forgetting her left-behind parent. Identity is lost. The abducted child understands that there is no one to depend on because a parent she loved took her away from the other parent she loved. Childhood, and the feeling of safety that should accompany it, has ended.
I assumed things would bounce back to near-normal upon the girls’ return, but the recovery from abduction is more like a second abduction. Once again, the child loses all, without closure. My daughters lost their Greek friends, their Greek extended family, their teachers, their new culture, and their father. All the same losses, all over again. They were planted back with me, the woman who didn’t protect them from being kidnapped in the first place.
When people later heard of their kidnapping, their response was, “Oh. At least it was with your father,” minimizing, if not discounting altogether, the girls’ experiences. So then they felt self-conscious. Just get over it was the implied message, and I seconded the sentiment. I wanted them to be thrilled about being reunited with me and was crushed when they displayed emotions to the contrary.
Similarly, I acted as if their adult suffering were a personal affront, at least at first. Don’t I deserve some pleasant years, now that I’ve raised my kids on my own? Why do I have to do all of the clean-up, anyhow? Why doesn’t their father get to feel the brunt of his abuse of our daughters? All I want is to see them grow up and take flight so I can be proud and then reclaim some of my life for myself. I am driving home one day from work when I hear Dr. Bessel van der Kolk on the radio. I have read some of his works before. Dr. van der Kolk heads the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, and authored The Body Keeps the Score.
He speaks about the destructive impact early traumas have on a person over the course of a lifetime. When I was a young parent, I assumed that since I left my husband when my daughters were tiny, they wouldn’t feel the full effect of being exposed to domestic violence. Likewise, when they returned from Greece, they were still little girls, so I told myself that the damage would be less impactful.
Not so, according to Dr. van der Kolk, and other brain researchers agree. Prebirth experiences—things like domestic violence and stress from poverty—affect how well a child develops language, develops connections with others, and develops physically and mentally. Trauma after birth will likely compromise that little human’s physical and mental health and, if unaddressed, will shorten her life expectancy by up to twenty years.
A brutalized child develops an angry brain, Dr. van der Kolk says. “Children kept in a state of terror and fear get brains that are chronically afraid.” And if a child hasn’t been able to trust her parents to protect her early on, then her response to subsequent traumas is that much more magnified. The lens through which the traumatized child sees the world is changed and determines how our muscles and our stress hormones organize themselves.
The body keeps the score.
Dr. van der Kolk endorses treatment from both Eastern and Western cultures. “In the East, people move. Yoga, meditation, tai chi . . . They learn to calm their bodies.” This, he says, helps move trauma out of the body. “In the West, people learn to talk and to speak the truth.” Talk therapy is helpful, especially combined with movement, to help us learn to calm and nurture ourselves.
My daughters, now in their late twenties, embrace both talk and movement therapy, and I believe they will have long and meaningful lives. Meredith finished college and works as a financial analyst. She is a yoga fanatic and enjoys outdoor sports. Marianthi is working toward her degree in psychology and, like her sister, loves the outdoors. Both are smart and sassy tomboys at heart. I hope that they’ll be able to fully reconnect with their family all over the globe, including their father, from whom they remain estranged after a fleeting attempt to have a normal relationship with him tanked a few years ago.
As for me, I’ve slowly and steadily worked my way back from being a hot mess with my own flashbacks and periods of rage to being a contented woman with an increasingly healthy lifestyle. I started with talk therapy, followed by Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); then I earned a graduate degree in psychology and found meaningful work in state government.
I also began reconnecting with family when the girls and I got strong enough, and thanks to social media, it’s been easy to stay in touch and to continue meeting more of my relatives. It’s also allowed the girls to remain in contact with their Greek cousins and provided a means for their little Greek sister, born fourteen years ago, to contact them and reach out for sibling support. In her pictures, she looks like a perfect hybrid of both of my daughters, who plan to meet her.
It took well over a decade for me to climb out of debt, and there’s not been a single day since when I’ve lost my feeling of gladness. I’ve found there is an upside to having survived much turbulence. My daughters and I don’t have strong attachments to things and prefer to spend our time and money on shared experiences. We’ve been the recipients of uncommon grace and have all made a point of paying it forward through volunteering.
Each of us is passionate about culture and language, which is a good thing, since there are more than one hundred languages spoken in Anchorage alone. And we’ve grown more in love with Alaska, for both the wildlife and the generous people here, who take care of one another as though we are all extended family.
My life isn’t perfect, but it’s turned out better than I could have imagined. And despite my best efforts not to let some of the worst circumstances define it, they have. Because from them, I’ve learned to love writing and storytelling. I’ve carved out meaningful work helping people affected by trauma. I’ve become addicted to the adrenaline rush I get when traveling alone across the globe. And I’ve come to know the joy of contentment and the beauty of watching my kids blossom into adults.
My daughters may tell their own stories one day, but this is what I want them to remember of mine: once upon a time, a young mother with only pocket change, a host of bad memories, and a whole lot of love traveled the world to fight for their return, all by herself, and with the help of everyone. And they lived together, happily enough ever after, and with the knowledge that they were much more than lucky.