Kidnapping. damned if you do… and sometimes if you don’t

By far the most common kind of child abduction is parental child abduction (200,000 in 2010 alone)1

I’ve mentioned in past posts that, at age 7, I was kidnapped by my dad and brought to the US. I’ve wanted to do a post on this topic for a long time as it’s a complicated issue.

There are a couple angles I’d like to speak to:

  • The damage this inflicted
  • The effects it’s had on my life
  • How this history of mine has affected my personal choices as an adult as well as how my perspective on the topic has changed now that I’m a parent myself.

A lot of the stuff I need/want to cover isn’t directly related to kidnapping, but I feel that context is important.

Some particulars of my case

When I was 6, perhaps early 7, my parents separated. We were living in the same town here in Germany where I live now. My mom continued to live in that same apartment for another 30 years. My dad moved to a place not far away with the woman who became my mom in the US. She is my step-mom, but to the folks around me in Los Angeles, she was my mom. She had a very positive influence on me.

I saw my dad very regularly. He’d pick me up to stay with him on many nights. I don’t think it was a planned schedule, but I didn’t sense that mom had a problem with it.

On October 20, 1979, my dad asked me, “you wanna go on a trip to the US?”. I was the kind of kid that loved going wherever. My dad took me to visit his buddies all the time and I always enjoyed it. Many kids hate being dragged along to visit grownups,… boring. I was not one of those kids. So an invitation to go somewhere was something I jumped on.

The next day, my step-mom to be took me to the airport2 for an unaccompanied minor flight from Frankfurt airport to Los Angeles.3. My dad flew over a day or two later and step-mom in about a month.

My grandmother4 met me at the airport and I got to meet my aunt and cousins within a day or two. My dad did not act alone.

The first couple weeks were fun. I didn’t have to go to school. I remember a man in my grandmother’s apartment complex looking at me with stern look, “you need to be in school”. My thought was, “mind your own business”. I didn’t want to have a good thing messed up for me.

Eventually, I did begin school again (more on that later), and didn’t return to Germany until the summer of 1986 after freshman year of high school. Although I did have minor contact with mom, it was very limited. A couple phone calls to my grandmother’s phone (ie not where I actually lived) and a handful of letters, birthday/Christmas cards. (also to grandmother’s address). Understandable measures for a kidnapper to take.

The bad effects

These events had particularly negative effects on at least three people. My mom, my older sister, and to a lesser extent, me.

mom

I think one has to be a parent to appreciate the bond between a mom and her kid. Side track #1.

I have two kids. I think I’m a pretty good father, but I can’t compete with the level of parenting given to them by my wife/their mom.

During my working days, pre-parenthood, I enjoyed my trips to Israel. Two weeks is really the minimum. I didn’t understand why many coworkers either refused to go, or to limit their visits to a single week. You have to be a parent to get it.

Would I make such a trip today? Maybe. I don’t think my wife would even consider it for herself. In total, she’s spent less than 10 nights away from either or both of them.5

I enjoy my role as a parent very much, but I’m unable to put my own needs aside the way my wife does. She does have her own interests. Perhaps one of the ways I support our kids is by supporting their mom. If push came to shove, she’d be able to put all those things she does on hold. I don’t know that I’m capable of that. If she and I were to separate6, our kids would be better off spending most of their time with her.

I imagine this it true for most families. Moms are able to give of themselves in a way that I couldn’t.7

I think most would agree that I was an easy kid to parent. I was independent, I was quiet, I enjoyed being around adults, if I was tired, I just got up an went to bed. In the mornings, I got up and made pancakes for myself.

So there mom was. A failed marriage8. Now a single, albeit not entirely solo, mom.

From one day to the next, her little boy was gone. All communication was basically cut off. I can imagine my family in Germany was not that supportive. I think that few people are qualified to even empathize with such a situation.

Mom once told me that she wasn’t entirely surprised by dad’s actions. She even asked my relatives in my German grandmother’s town to have me for a bit of a visit. They declined 9

sister

As a little kid I spent a LOT of time with my older sister, about 6 years older than me. Here she was a popular teenager, trying to be a teenager, always with little brother in tow, but she and I enjoyed our arrangement a lot. For kindergarten on the nearby US Air Force base10 she and I took the bus. The back of the bus was reserved by the cool older kids. I got to sit back there even when she wasn’t there. If I got hassled by anyone, they’d have to answer to her. She was as much of a mom to me as mom, in some/many ways more.

Here she was, basically a part time mom. That role was torn away from her (remember my comments above about moms). To make it worse, she was just the sister. No one imagined that she could be hurting too. Some family folks even put some of the blame on her. “If you hadn’t been a pain in the ass step-daughter, maybe dad wouldn’t have left.”.

All this as a teenager. A more emotional teenager.

Some people are emotional in nature. Others (like me) are not. Emotional folks tend to react emotionally, others (like me) tend to react without emotion. Emotional people can be rational and others (like me) can feel. Tendencies. Tendencies lie on a spectrum. My sister is on the emotional end. It’s her nature.

My sister was an unplanned pregnancy 11. She spent her first years with our grandmother and our great-grandfather 12. Our mom was 18 at the time. My sister’s bond with mom was weak, at best. My bond with my sister was unquestionably strong.

Gone.

me

The negative effects of being kidnapped were not as great on me though I didn’t really understand the negative aspect until I was an adult.

I was a pretty oblivious kid. I was in my own world. I enjoyed being around people but there were only a handful of folks that were important to me. Mom, dad, sister. The community in my grandmother’s small town was one I felt safe in. 13

Has it been more difficult for me to make connections with people as a result of being kidnapped? 14 I used to say no, that’s just popular psychology. I saw a therapist in early high school, but that didn’t really help me. I’m not really sure why I met with her. During my time in Isreal, I met with a therapist for a while, Haiah was her name. In the beginning, I made it clear that if she wanted to talk about being taken away from mom, she’d have to tread lightly. It’s an argument everyone likes to make without really knowing anything about me or the specifics of the situation. Eventually, she convinced me there the effects were real. 15. I think it’s fair to say that my connections to most people is not as strong as they could be. I’ve learned some strategies 16

On the big balance-sheet of life, growing up in the US was almost definitely a net positive for me. If the math were expanded to include everyone,… hard for me to say. My mom and sister would have had it easier if I’d stayed. My dad would have had it harder (more on that later). My life wouldn’t have been as blessed/lucky as it has been.

 

The benefits to me

Probably the most obvious benefit to me is in education.

I was a difficult student. I have a memory of getting up during class, 2nd grade, and running around the room. The school didn’t know what to do with me. The plan was for me to switch to the other special needs, “short bus” part of the school. It seems doubtful that I would have ended up at MIT or Intel with such a start.

It’s difficult to decide how I feel about my German school experience. Now that I’ve returned to Germany, I want to reach out to my old teacher and tell I don’t hold it against her. My mom was kinda mean to her about it. My teacher went to the same gym and mom went out of her way to tell her about MIT, Intel, living in Israel now… I once asked my mom how she thinks my teacher felt about it all. A dark cloud appeared on mom’s face that I’ll never forget “I think she feels awful”.

The principal was a different story (in my mind). I have a memory of sitting in the office and getting this look of despise from him. There was also the school psychologist, of whom I was very fond.

All this is to say that a change in schools was very good for me. Even though the school I attended in LA (Lennox actually) was in Da Hood, I had a good experience there. My new teacher Ms Rhoda Hart was wonderful. She collaborated with my dad and step-mom very effectively. I was with her through the remainder of 2nd and all of 3rd. Things went so well that it was decided for me to skip 4th.17

I think my 2nd and 3rd grade experience is a good case study in how things can go right. I had a passionate teacher. I had a step-mom who had the time, energy, and desire to keep me focused on school. My dad was the enforcer 18. They all worked together. They got me on a track that enabled me to be successful in the future.

2nd grade was basically just about learning English 19 3rd grade was my first time getting straight As. Silvia 20 accidentally taught me the idea of negative numbers. The look on Ms Hart’s face when I demonstrated this knowledge was a real confidence booster. These experiences all gave me early momentum to believe in my ability to succeed.

My kidnapped environment was positive for me in a way that the previous one probably wouldn’t have been.

Education has been a boon for me and it why, at 46, I’m basically retired. There were other secondary benefits. I was bilingual eventually. I’ve gained perspectives that are only possible through exposure to another culture. The stuff that comes with being traveled.

My choices as an adult

Between April of 1998 and the end of 2000, I lived in Haifa, Israel. For a period of about a year, I was in a relationship with a wonderful woman, Shlomit.21. Shlomit has a son of whom she had 50% custody.22 While Shlomit and I were together, her son (who was 3.5 at the time and I grew close. For the first time, I had a child seat in my car. I came to really understand why people have kids. I’ve always liked being around kids, but the love of a child to a parent and even to parent-like figures is addictive.

For a while, I strongly considered the idea of remaining in Israel and making a life with Shlomit. It would have been a life that surely would have included one or more additional children.

In the end, for a variety of reasons, I realized that staying in Israel was not for me. Largely because she has a son, coming to the US with me was not an option. 23 One of the issues that I considered related to my kidnapping.

If you go to another country, find love, and have a child there are four possible outcomes

  1. you live happily ever after.
  2. the relationship doesn’t work out and you stay in the other country. In my case, I’m not Israeli and I’m not Jewish. I would always be a foreigner. Forever being an outsider… asshole possibility number 1.
  3. the relationship doesn’t work out and you return to your home country without the kid(s). asshole possibility number 2.
  4. the relationship doesn’t work out and you return with the kids(s) leaving the mom behind. asshole possibility number 3.

Both of my parents had divorced twice. If I stayed and had a kid in Israel, chances were good, I’d become an asshole of some sort.

So what’s my point with this post?

I don’t know that I have one, but these are some thoughts that have rolled around my mind for some time. For me, the situation is probably a net positive. For a handful of important people around me, it was surely a net loss. Was my dad evil for doing it? I don’t think so. If I were in the same position, I’d consider doing the same.24

If my mom were still alive to read this, I’m sure that pissed would not be a strong enough word. I imagine my older sister will read it and the same will be true for her too.

Life is complicated. Even issues that seem black and white… maybe aren’t. Remember that next time you find yourself in some political debate.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_abduction

  2. I don’t remember my dad coming along

  3. I doubt this would work today. Airlines and border folks are paranoid about kidnappings now. For example, to get an American passport for a child today, both parents need to be present to file the application.

  4. She had visited Germany at least once so I knew and liked her

  5. neither of them has ever spent a night away from both of us though we’re talking about changing that for Lydia.

  6. which I don’t see happening

  7. I’m mostly fine with this balance. My wife is a source of inspiration to me. Also, I think that as the kids get older, I’ll be better able to align my interests with theirs. The gaga-googoo phase was actually more rewarding than I expected. I thought I was just going to tolerate it, but it’s turned out to be alot of fun.

  8. I don’t blame either of them. They both have some pretty big flaws in the people relationships department

  9. That my grandmother, my Oma, wouldn’t have me at the time is surprising to me. I plan on a blog post just on her place in my life.

  10. Although dad wasn’t active duty anymore, it was the reason he was in Europe/Germany in the first place. Like many discharged servicemen, he found work in the defense dept system.

  11. she would say unwanted, but given the people involved, I don’t agree

  12. I got my middle name, Friedrich, from him. My daughter Lydia got her name from out grandmother.

  13. I was safe. It was the kind of place where I could walk around town by myself as a 5 or 6 year old. If I got lost, I’d ask the first random person I came across which way to go. Without any words, whoever it was could just point, “your grandmother’s that direction”.

  14. It took a long time for me to even refer to it was being kidnapped. I used to just say “I moved to LA with dad”. After many debates/arguments/discussions with mom, I see it as disrespectful to talk about it with words other than “kidnapped”.

  15. Haiah, was a wonderful person. Our meetings were mostly her speaking Hebrew and me speaking English. I’ve seen two other people since then. One of her biggest impacts on me was to convince me of the value of therapy. She also made a funny assertion once. “all American therapists are Jewish” (remember this was while I was in Israel. Haiah is Jewish herself.) “really? all?”. “all“. One of the two therapists I saw in the US is, the other isn’t. Oh, there’s also my wife’s mom as well her step-step-mom, but of whom were/are therapists and not Jewish. Still, it’s probably mostly true.

  16. I probably have some Asperger-y elements that play a strong role as well.

  17. In my second year, I started acting up a bit, but some discipline from dad kept me mostly in line. Given this, a better solution in Germany might have been to simply put me under a different teacher.

  18. I should do a whole post on that topic

  19. sadly, I also lost German, which I’ve had to relearn

  20. my step-mom who does have a name

  21. anyone who knew me at the time would know who I’m talking about and that we were a couple, so not referring to her by name would be silly.

  22. It was actually a nice arrangement. She saw her son AND she was able to have a life. She wanted more time with her son but the arrangement did have a bright side.

  23. I don’t think she would have been happy in the US. Her ties to family and to Israel are too strong. It turns out two other American guys also on relocation there at the same time did bring back Israeli women.

  24. Though if we talk about being a jerk, there were some ways in which he went “above and beyond”