“I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”
~ Excerpt from Gloria’s monologue in the Barbie movie (2023)
For mothers who are targeted for parental alienation.
Any parent, male or female who is a target of parental alienation carries an enormous burden, usually for the rest of their lives. However, in this column I want to describe the unique hardship imposed on women who are victims of this form of cruel abuse.
There is something insidious about going after a mother with nothing more to target her than that she is a woman. When I saw the Barbie movie I was reminded of this harsh fact and how it played out in my life. As Gloria says,
“It is literally impossible to be a woman. . . You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.”
Gloria’s words proved to be true for me time and time again for many years and resulted in the loss of my children. I remember the day I sat in Judge John Nichols’ courtroom, once again defending myself against frivolous accusations by neighbors that my ex-spouse encouraged to sue and harass me. Fortunately for me the judge was able to see through the craziness and found in my favor. But he turned to me after making his ruling and said something chilling.
“Dr. Marshack, I am warning you. You are a target. Make sure you protect yourself at all times.”
I was stunned, but I knew that he knew I was in danger. I only wish I had known how to protect myself better. How do you protect yourself (and your daughters) when the accusations are nothing more than that you are failing to meet some womanly standards established by others? To this day the best Howard can do is complain that I am “just too much,” whatever that means.
In the following pages I will describe to you what I went through, and still endure emotionally, as the target of parental alienation by my former spouse, Howard Marshack. It’s taken me a long time to understand what I went through. If you are in this situation I want you to know how to better care for yourself than I did. You may not be able to stop the abuser, but you certainly can have a better handle on how to deal with this type of family destruction — and hopefully find a way to carry on your life.
I escaped without my children.
Probably the most important step to date, toward real healing for me is to let go of protecting my daughters. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you think about the role of a mother it makes sense. If I don’t let them go — to discover who they are, outside of my immense shadow — then they will forever by trapped by their one-sided anger/terror. My role as a mother of grown daughters is clear.
My daughters are grown women in their thirties, roughly the ages that I became a mother, first to Bianca and three years later to Phoebe. If they are ever going to heal from the parental alienation that their father started twenty years ago, they need to face their complicity in this family tragedy. Continuing to reinforce the fiction that I am somehow to blame for everything that has gone wrong in their lives — or that I am a heinous mother to be avoided at all costs — is not just ludicrous but damaging to everyone in our family — even those who have yet to be born. My daughters need to step up and take on the problem without me covering for them any longer — or they will never know they can be strong, capable, forgiving women.
Parental alienation is a trauma for all involved, even the abuser. Howard has handicapped his own personal and spiritual development by destroying the relationship between his daughters and their mother. He has made it impossible for our girls to be at peace with their lives, forcing them to choose him and his irrational belief system over what they surely know to be the truth. Good grief, Phoebe is a mother herself. Is this how she wants her own children to behave?
Furthermore, Howard has set up his current wife, Susan, to support the alienation in order to justify their marriage. How does she explain to her children and her grandchildren that destroying a mother is the way to handle divorce? Poor Susan, she even went so far as to file an annulment petition with her church (Catholic) demanding an annulment for Howard on the grounds that I am a diagnosed mentally unfit parent. Absurd.
It really is time for me to stop protecting my daughters. I do understand how they got manipulated and dragged into Howard’s horrifying game. They were just teenagers when he started his vendetta. I was terrified when they were younger because I couldn’t figure out how to protect them. But I was simply no match for the narcissism of my ex-husband. He spread malicious lies. He enlisted the aid of powerful people (Vancouver City Attorneys, the Mayor’s office, the owner of the local newspaper, the Chief of Police). He even encouraged neighbors to come after me (see the libelous photo for which this HOA paid me $25,000 in damages).
He complained to my professional licensing boards. He even went so far as to spread lies among family members. He strangled me financially because he refused to pay for the girl’s care (especially painful since Bianca is autistic). I was dancing as fast as I could to protect us, but always on the defensive and terrified — so I wore down.
I made plenty of mistakes during this time, as you can imagine. Almost everything I tried to do was used against me. Howard rejected my offers of therapy for the children, and reconciliation services for all of us. But my biggest mistake was to feel guilty for what was going on. I suppose that is a mother’s mistake. I kept thinking that our problems could be fixed if I just tried harder. I cried. I pleaded with Howard to stop the abuse. I asked the Courts and the police for protection. I implored my father-in-law to help protect his grandchildren. All that happened is that Howard ratcheted up the alienation.
I got deeper in debt as I attempted to protect us and keep our lives on an even keel. It took almost a decade and a half and over half a million dollars to escape the abuse. I did escape, but not with my children. By then they fully embraced the alienation.
Don’t ask why or how parental alienation happens.
So how does something like parental alienation take hold, when there is not a shred of evidence against the targeted parent? This is probably the wrong question. The reality is that people believe lies and there are lots of folks out there to help spread malicious gossip. For example, one time when Phoebe was on the run (and refusing to answer my phone calls and texts), I called everyone I could think of looking for her. I called her boyfriend’s house numerous times, but no one called back. After several panicky days, I messaged Joyce Glaser, the boyfriend’s mother. She hadn’t responded before but this time she answered me on Facebook Messenger. She confirmed that Phoebe was staying at her house with her son Jared Glaser. I pleaded with Joyce to have Phoebe contact me but she refused. She said, “I always knew you were a horrid person, so why should I help you?” I hardly knew Joyce, but apparently it suited her purpose to despise me.
There may be other people who aren’t so quick to judge you, but most people don’t want to really dig into the situation. Over and over again I got the message from “friends” that they “didn’t want to take sides.” How do I protect my family, as Judge Nichols suggested, when no one wanted to step up and help?
The harsh truth, as Gloria says in her Barbie monologue “. . . never forget that the system is rigged.” Howard was able to make me look bad to my daughters for a variety of complex reasons. The fact that I worked night and day to pay the bills cut into our time together as mother and daughters. The fact that I was inundated by a barrage of lawsuits that cost my energy and finances meant that it looked like I was the problem. The fact that he successfully had me arrested three times, all on frivolous charges which were later dismissed, but still made me look like I was a criminal in the eyes of my girls. The fact that I cried every night, into the wee hours of the morning, made me look emotionally unstable.
By the way Howard is a divorce attorney, so he also had a specialized knowledge of how to undermine people. He pulled out all the stops to take me down. Never once did he consider he was targeting his children too. They didn’t stand a chance to feel safe in that environment.
So, no it is not helpful to understand why people do these things or even how they will do it. The frightening reality is that if you are targeted by an unscrupulous narcissist you will inevitably be harmed — and you will be harmed mightily. You are simply no match for these malevolent people.
Step out of your fear and soar.
What you can do however, is to step out of your fear. Whether you are in the middle of being targeted, or it has passed and you have lost, fear is your enemy. If you are fearful, it is understandable, but if you show your fear you will lose more. As much as you want to acknowledge your fear, because it feels honest to do so, save it for your therapist or a really good friend who won’t be intimidated. But the reality is that human beings are animals and no animal likes the smell of fear. It frightens them too — and they react accordingly.
What do frightened animals do? Think about it. Even your dearest friend will turn on you if you show fear. And there is no doubt that the narcissist will revel in your fear and use it to harm you. As painful as it may seem, keep the fear to yourself and fight your battles smartly.
The ability to handle fear properly is the key to surviving the attacks of a narcissist, especially the pernicious attacker who targets a mother. You may not fear as much for yourself as you do your children. I know that fear and it is frightening to know that you can do nothing to help your child cope with an aggressive and abusive co-parent.
The best way to manage your fear is through mind calming therapies and God. Meditation or prayer steadies you. Knowing that there is a power greater than yourself that loves you and your children is a huge relief. You may still have to walk the path alone of being a targeted parent, but if you feel the presence of a powerful, all loving presence, it feels like you can do it.
I was reading about a young woman who was trapped in a bunker by the side of the road, where she and other Israelis had taken refuge from the Hamas terrorists, during the early hours of the war between Hamas and Israel (2023). Facing certain death, the small group began chanting a Hebrew prayer together. The young woman reported feeling like she left her body and came to be comforted by a loving presence. She heard and felt nothing, until she returned to her body. Then she saw the orange dust floating around her. She smelled the blood of the dead. The Hamas killers were gone, along with her boyfriend whom they kidnapped — but she had survived miraculously.
I felt this same peace when I was in the Clark County jail. I felt this peace when I was handcuffed and ankle chained to other prisoners and led to the courtroom for arraignment. I felt it again when I had to face trial on false charges. I know it seems odd but the fear left me for a time when I prayed and asked to be protected. It was obvious that I was outnumbered by the forces opposing me — but I felt comforted and safe just the same.
[Just to be clear, I have no criminal record. Any charges brought against me were dismissed. I won nearly every civil matter too. The only time I had to pay a fine is when I installed speed bumps in front of my house to prevent my neighbors from swerving across my lawn and frightening my daughter and our dog. I asked Judge Nichols if the fines collected against my neighbors ($5000), as well as mine could be donated to the SW Washington Autism Society, in recognition of the terrorizing my neighbors had leveled against my autistic daughter Bianca. He agreed.]
Be a proud mother.
What Gloria shows us is that being a mother is the greatest gift we can give our children — even in absentia. Be proud of your mothering, whether a target of alienation or not. Standing up against oppression, with a feminist spirit, and losing to the alienator is no shame. It is a demonstration of the power of your mothering to be there for your children no matter what.
At the end of the Barbie movie, Gloria asks the CEO of Mattel to create a doll that is just an ordinary woman with all of the quirks and flaws that make her human. At first the executive declines until someone mentions that the “ordinary Barbie” would be profitable. Why is that do you think? Do we need more women like Gloria who confronted her fears and fought for her daughter and rescued Barbie from her shame and rebuilt the Sisterhood of Barbie World— and discovered a new life of feminist joy?
One of the toughest things for me to get over is that my daughters caved to the oppression of their father’s alienation and ignored the strength in the Sisterhood. I taught them about the power of feminism to heal by bringing us all together (female and male). This principle infuses my work and life to this day. I pray that they wake up and once again rediscover that power. They deserve to have a better life. But they will have to earn it just as I have.
Yes it is time for me to let my grown daughters go, but deep in my mother’s heart, where I will love them forever, I hope Bianca and Phoebe know that I believe in them, just as Gloria believed in Barbie.