About Dr. Marshack’s Blog

Dr. Marshack’s blog postings are short and timely. She shares tips that make your complex relationships work better. She also posts questions because she wants to hear from you and share ideas. Bringing people together to help each other is one of her missions.

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About Dr. Marshack’s Articles

Dr. Marshack has been publishing professional articles, news columns, and expert interviews nationally and internationally for over thirty years. Along with her books, she has written on a variety of topics relating to complex relationships. When you are ready for a deep dive into the research that has shaped Dr. Marshack’s focus on how to empower her clients, this is the place to start reading.

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A Love Letter to my Ex-Husband

A Love Letter to my Ex-Husband

Healing begins where the wound was made.” ~ Alice Walker, author

Love is an antidote to terror

It took me twenty years before I could write this chapter. I was so wounded by a contentious divorce from a man with High Functioning Autism (Autism 1, or Asperger Syndrome) that waves of nausea consumed me every time I thought about it. Since outlining the topic, I have had nightmares and I woke up screaming more than once. Just a few mornings ago I awoke after a fitful night of being unable to breathe. It is clearly not easy recuperating from the trauma of parental alienation.

I decided to brave my fears and write this chapter to free myself of the painful hold Howard has over me. I hate being trapped by my angst and anger. I can still condemn his actions, as atrocious to his family, but I don’t need to carry the humiliating dilemma of loving someone who is also my enemy.

Once you give your love to another person, I don’t think it really goes away. It might fade a bit, but it is still there, waiting to surface and be acknowledged. In fact, allowing the love to be felt again for Howard Marshack, a man who tried to destroy me, is what contributed to the terrorizing breathless nightmares. However, instead of backing away from those feelings, I decided to lean into them. What emerged is acceptance — and the realization that Love is a marvelous antidote to anger and terror.

Falling in love with Howard – circa 1978

I parked my Desert Sand VW a block away from the Horse Brass Pub and walked through the December slush to the front door, for the agency Christmas party. Portland winters are wet, cold and occasionally slushy from the crust of snow and ice that partially melts during the day, and freezes over at nightfall. I was prepared though. Had my warm one-button black wool swing coat, leather gloves, waterproof boots, and a sassy turquoise hand-knit wool beret holding back my long, wavy hair. It was 1978 and I was fond of the Annie Hall look1.

Inside the pub I found my way to the banquet room where the party had already started. It was a fund raiser hosted by the Multnomah County Foster Home Unit of the Oregon Children’s Services Division. I was a young social worker then, working for the Child Protective Services Branch. Everyone at the party was an employee or spouse or date of some social worker at the agency. And by the time I arrived the party was in full swing.

My admission to the party was a toy for a foster child. After depositing the toy in the collection bin, I left my coat, hat and boots at the coat room, slipped on my party shoes, and headed toward the no-host bar. There was a long line, but I couldn’t help noticing the cute bartender pouring champagne for a dollar a glass. He seemed to be drinking a glass for every one that he poured. It was clear he was having a great time.

I liked the cut of his jaw, very handsome, with a mole on his right cheek, just like a young Robert De Niro. He looked like he had just stepped out of “Fiddler on the Roof.” He had wire rimmed glasses, and wore a sporty leather “newsie” cap. His curly dark hair peeked out from under the cap. The black vest he was wearing fit snug against his torso, making him look even more dashing. And for a note of whimsy, he wore a red ribbon rose on his lapel. I could hardly keep my eyes off of him.
He graciously poured me a glass of champagne and I made my dollar contribution. I flashed him a smile and he smiled back. There was a twinkle in his dark brown eyes and he said something, but I couldn’t hear him above the party din. So, I just smiled and turned to find my friends.

I still remember this Christmas party as the best ever. We were all young twenty-somethings, and happily starting out in life. We ate pizza and drank champagne and laughed . . . so much. Most of us were single professionals, so there was plenty of flirting going on, but it was all in good fun. There were a few married couples, like Jim and Sue, and Paul and Vicki. But mostly we were young single social workers, full of idealistic energy. We had made a commitment to pursue a profession of service to the community. Low pay, hard work, and a life-long purpose. We deserved a Christmas party where we could let our hair down.

My face was flushed with champagne and laughter when Howard came to my table and asked to sit with me and my friends. It was then I realized he wasn’t a real bartender but a volunteer from the Foster Home Unit. He was a social worker too.

“Of course,” I said, and scooted to the left on the bench, so that he had room to sit next to me — very close to me. I was energized and having the time of my life.

Howard brought a bottle of champagne to the table and poured drinks for all of us. My boss Bill, and another social worker Jim, sat across the table from us, but it soon became clear that Howard and I only had eyes for each other. By then the fund raiser part of the party was probably on the back burner.

I can’t tell you what Howard and I talked about exactly. He touched my hair with his hand and his fingertips gently brushed my face, “ I saw you when you came in,” he said. “I haven’t seen you before. Where do you work?” I knew from the look in his eyes and his soft touch on my face, that he could care less what I answered.

But I answered anyway. “I just started at CPS. Bill’s my boss,” and I gestured toward Bill on the other side of the table. Bill gave me a knowing smile, but I ignored him. I didn’t think anyone noticed what was going on between Howard and I. Love is blind.

“Oh,” Howard said. “Would you like more champagne Bill?” He poured Bill and Jim more champagne without taking his eyes off of me. I wanted this man and he wanted me.

Time passed. We were falling in love. People were leaving the party. But we didn’t notice. The only thing important was the electricity of the moment between us.

Eventually, I looked around and saw that the room was emptying out. Howard noticed too. He said, “Would you like to go somewhere else? We should get some real food. There’s a Chinese place not far from here.”

“Love to,” I said. As we started to slide across the bench seat, peanuts in the shell fell from our laps. Laughter erupted from another table. A few of our friends had been lobbing peanuts at us all evening, but we hadn’t noticed. We were so “into” each other that time had stopped still.

I turned toward the laughter. Sue lobbed another peanut, just to be sure I knew it was her. Then she said, “Have fun tonight, you two.” We all laughed.

It was the best night of my life with Howard.

Sweet moments – few and far between

I realize now that Howard loved me. That’s why he has never forgiven me for leaving him. As an autistic man, he has no way to explain our rift. He loved me in his own way, a way that seldom reached me, but he felt the love — deeply.

I remember the way we held hands when we walked together. I would put my hand into his and he would gently slip his index finger between my pinkie and ring finger as our thumbs linked.

He used to call me “Kath” — on the rare occasion he called me by name. When I heard him use my name, I felt loved. It wasn’t often, so this makes it all the more precious in my memory.

Trust was implicit. Howard trusted that I would take care of him and our family. He didn’t always like my decisions but he usually cooperated. Like a child he seemed to know that one of us needed to take charge — and that it should be me. I used to feel burdened by always being the grown up in the room, but now it feels like love. Trust is a kind of love.

I remember the day he made me laugh, and I loved him for it. I frequently complained about the way he dressed. He had no sense of style and would often wear smelly, worn-out clothing even to work (and as a professional man, an attorney, this was shocking to me). I would scold him and send him back to the bedroom to change. One workday morning he came out of the bedroom wearing high water light gray polyester knit pants showing white socks. Tucked into the pants was a red and green plaid shirt, sporting a yellow and blue Rep. tie. I couldn’t believe it! In fact, I was so stunned at this outlandish outfit, I couldn’t utter a word. I just stared. He asked, “What do you think?” I caught the twinkle in his eye and burst out laughing. “You had me going there for a minute. Where on Earth did you get those clothes?” Howard had made a special trip to the Goodwill to find this outfit. I loved that he went to all of that trouble to make fun of himself — and to delight me.

In fact, when we were dating he would send me correspondence addressed to “Kathy Eye Johnson,” teasing me about my professional signature “Kathy I. Johnson.” One day I got a white business envelope addressed to “Kathy Eye Johnson” and when I opened it, hundreds of paper punch scraps fell out onto my desk. It was cute. It was juvenile. But I loved this quirky guy and his antics made me smile.

Over the years though, Howard’s love language became tedious to me. He never grew beyond that middle school behavior. It was tough for me to see the love, to feel his love for me. Now I know this is the best he could do. I know that it was love in whatever form he was capable. I expected the love to grow and mature, but just because he couldn’t do that, doesn’t mean he didn’t love me. It’s not easy being loved this way — to have to accept the love in an intellectual way – an autistic way.

The children drove us apart

I hate to admit this but our children drove us apart. It’s not their fault of course. Howard was just not equipped to be a parent. I often say that if we had not adopted Bianca and Phoebe, we might still be married. I might have been able to grow in my acceptance of his autism and the way he loved me — in his one-sided childish way.

But the problem is that we had kids and they needed more love and attention than even I did — or than Howard was capable of. I could instruct Howard on the way to diaper a baby, or how to mix the formula. Or give him a basket of towels to fold — that he would forget to put away. I could give him assignments, such as taking a child to her soccer practice, but if I wasn’t specific, he would forget her cleats or how to get to the practice field. I could walk him through how to comport himself at a parent-teacher meeting, but I couldn’t control all of the outlandish things he would say to the teacher.

Parenting is more than following the color-coded calendar I prepared to help Howard track his responsibilities. Parenting requires engaging with the child, getting to know her, putting aside your own needs so that she feels appreciated and encouraged. Parenting is sharing the joys with your wife of helping two daughters become all they are capable of.

I was the parent who planned for the children and recognized their developmental needs. As our oldest daughter Bianca started showing signs of a developmental disorder (later identified as autism) I was the one to research the mental health and educational system for the best fit for her. As Phoebe became angrier, drinking alcohol, and doing poorly in school, I was the one to search for alternative education and therapy to keep her from emotional collapse.

Howard couldn’t fathom the complications required of ordinary parenting, let alone parenting two children with disabilities. I didn’t know at the time that Howard had Empathy Dysfunction and Autism (Emd-0). While he could do assigned tasks (when reminded) he struggled to understand the inner needs of his wife and children, so the three of us were left behind, feeling unloved and unappreciated.

After a while we no longer held hands. Howard may have tried to entertain me with his juvenile humor, but I was too busy dancing as fast I could to protect our children. I longed for those days, when Howard would rub my back at night, or send those silly messages to “Kathy Eye Johnson.” It is very tough to hang onto feeling loved by an autistic man, when he never even says it. Now I know he still felt it, but that’s not the same as giving it freely, is it?

Love is a conversation, not a transaction

I got a call from Richard Marshack, Howard’s brother when we first separated. I was surprised to hear from him since we weren’t particularly close. He said, “Howard told me that you want a divorce. He said you were not happy with the sex.”

I demurred that this was not a subject I cared to talk about with my brother-in-law, even though it was true. After the first year of our marriage, Howard showed very little interest in intimacy. Often months would go by. One time a whole year elapsed, as I tried to be patient with his excuses and fatigue. In 25 years, it never improved. I was heartbroken. How does a wife keep the love alive when her husband is not interested in sex?

Richard continued. “You don’t have to tell me about it, but I want you to know that Judy and I separated for a while a couple of years ago. I complained that she functioned at a C- level in that department, and I was sick of it. So, I moved into an apartment and started dating.” Judy is my sister-in-law and the mother of Richard’s three sons. I knew that he was tough to live with because of his abrasive personality. He also would embarrass his wife with his public flirting with other women. In fact, the first time I met Richard he walked out of his bedroom wearing nothing but his boxers even though he knew I was alone in the kitchen having breakfast.

I said, “Richard, I am not sure what your situation has to do with Howard and I.”

He said, “Well Judy begged me to move back home and so I did — on one condition. I told her that she had to do better in the bedroom or I would leave again. That scared her! She notched it up to about a B+ level so I compromised. It’s not what I want, but it is better than it was.”

“I’m not sure that would work for Howard and I. Shall I tell him you called?” I wanted to get off the phone and get some fresh air. The one thing I know about Howard’s family is that they are so transactional that I am not sure if any of them are motivated by kindness and love.

I consider love a conversation not a transaction, as Richard suggested. Love is a reciprocal knowing, sharing, and understanding of the loved one that feels precious, special. Love is not an object or even an idea. Love is dynamic energy. I felt that energy with Howard on the night we met, but it disappeared much too soon. I loved Howard very much, but I couldn’t bring myself to bargain with him for sexual favors. I suppose I stayed as long as I did for the memory of what we once had.

I failed Howard

I was very hurt when Howard became vindictive during our divorce. I’ve written elsewhere of the harm he inflicted, but I failed him too. I don’t blame myself for not knowing of his autism at the time. But this ignorance contributed to my codependency. In other words, I worked harder and harder to cover all of the mistakes and social missteps that Howard demonstrated. Most of my daily life and my children’s lives revolved around accommodating Howard.

For example, on weekends I would have to remind him to shave and take a shower and put on clean clothes. He would complain that he should get the weekend “off,” like he was that middle school child who doesn’t want to use deodorant. I would insist that he clean up since we had friends coming over, or we might be heading out to shop. Sure, it was OK to dress casually, but I would explain that it’s a common social courtesy to clean up. I would also explain that I wanted him to create a good example for our daughters — to which he retorted “Why do they care if I shave?”

No matter how much I cajoled or complained, Howard did not improve, so I just ramped up the codependency. Since he couldn’t seem to pay the bills on time, I took over the family finances. I drove the car most of the time since he was erratic on the highway and frightened me and the children. I made lists for him often using Post-It notes so that he could tack the list to the bathroom mirror, or the visor of his car. He would even carry extra pads of Post-Its in his pocket to hand me when I would make a request. “Would you write that down for me?” he would say and pass me a pad of Post-Its.

I kept using the strategies you would normally use with NeuroTypical adults, such as seeking conversation to create a win/win solution. I would paraphrase, ask for his opinion, seek a compromise, etc. But Howard never understood how to reciprocate my bids for connection. He never grew in social skills. Not understanding his developmental disorder of autism (and concomitant Empathy Dysfunction), I grew increasingly frustrated, weary and angry.

As I mentioned before Howard usually cooperated with my decisions, but when we separated I had even less control of his behavior. He became petulant and uncooperative. For example, he refused to contribute to the medical and educational bills for our special needs children. Worse, when he got angry with a child during a visit, he would refuse to let her visit again for a lengthy time. I would implore him to change his mind, but he would say, “I’m not ready yet.” How can a parent say they’re “not ready” to love and care for their own children?

I started waking up to his disability at this time of our separation. The decisions he made shocked me, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Howard’s lack of conscience was long known to me if I had only digested the evidence earlier. For example, as a grad student in Social Work, he was pulled from a practicum because of his failure to meet standards of care for clients. Later as a Social Worker (when I first met him) and he was charged with the vital responsibility of supervising children in foster care, Howard bragged about how he had coffee and donuts with foster home parents but never met the children. Why didn’t he know this was wrong?

I can still hear his complaint when I asked him to take his own children to visit their grandfather in southern California. We were separated at the time and Howard had yet to take the children on a vacation or even a weekend excursion. I said, “Why don’t you take the girls with you to visit your father when you go this time? They don’t get to see their grandfather very much. You could even take them to Disneyland for a day.?” He stopped me cold with this response, “I don’t want them ruining my vacation!” I was speechless, utterly speechless.

But Howard’s transgressions are not the reason that I failed him. By growing codependent, I failed to set clear boundaries of conduct and care. In fact, I became such a super hero, that when I finally crashed and burned — when I just couldn’t carry the load any longer, Howard felt justified in blaming me for nearly everything that had gone wrong for us. He was so used to me handling it all, that when I stopped, it never occurred to him to pick up the slack. Since I was the only adult guiding Howard, he had no one to confront his immaturity. Sadly, there were plenty of people surrounding him encouraging the worst. And our whole family suffered accordingly.

Healing the wound

Alice Walker wrote, “Healing begins where the wound was made.” There’s a lot packed into this message, a lot more that I will need to unpack over time. For now, the healing is three-part. First, forgive myself for not knowing about High Functioning Autism (Autism 1 or Asperger Syndrome) at the time I was living in a NeuroDivergent marriage. Goodness knows I asked for help from therapists and doctors and read many books. But I just didn’t realize the system was rigged. My empathic skills were no match for Howard’s transactional mind set (and professional training as a win/lose litigator).

Secondly, I can accept that Howard did love me and I can forgive him for not knowing any better how to be a better husband and father. He has done a tragic disservice to our family, but he doesn’t know any better either. I don’t think he meant to be so destructive. I suspect he doesn’t believe he has been, but if I am to heal, it is important to place the responsibility where it belongs. He tried to destroy me and our daughters, whether he believes it or not2.

Thirdly, I spent decades of my life enmeshed in codependency, trying to “fix” a man with autism, instead of accepting him as he is. If I had let go of all that goes with this codependency — the shock, the hurt, the rescuing, the anger — I might have spared all of us the years of suffering, or at least given room for each member of my family to discover their divine nature.

This is true for all of us who face overwhelming relationships.

  • Take responsibility for your part in the problem.
  • Give responsibility to the other person for their part.
  • Let go of trying to fix anything, especially the other person.

Yes you may still need to set firm boundaries — and maybe even leave a relationship that is dangerous for you — but love is what heals all wounds, especially your own. Never deny it. I loved Howard deeply in spite of the tragedy he caused my daughters and me. It wasn’t wrong to love him. It was a gift — the gift that comes from God. I will treasure those moments of love that I shared with Howard because now I understand that tragedy does not destroy love.

Even in your grief, remember that Love is your super power.


1. Annie Hall is a 1977 Woody Allen movie, staring Diane Keaton as Annie.

2. For more on the specifics read my book, WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to Stop Those Hell-Bent on Destroying you.

Only You Can Know Your Duty

Only You Can Know Your Duty

We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me
~ 1985 lyrics to “We Are the World” by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson

My song.

I was startled out of a dream by the sound of an amazing orchestra with a chorus of backup singers, singing the famous Michael Jackson song, “We are the World.” I was in the spotlight on stage, singing too, but the words I was singing were different.

Only You can know your duty.

Only You.

No one else.

Only You can know your duty.


I don’t usually forget powerful dreams like this one, but apparently I did until last Saturday. On that day, I opened my iPad to pull up the New York Times, a habit I have each morning. I like to start my day by checking the news and maybe a few emails or texts, just so I have a handle on what happened during the evening, and what is coming up for the day.

What came up — out of seemingly nowhere — was a handful of emails I had sent over five years ago, including one about the dream that I had sent to my minister. He was impressed and suggested I record the song before I forgot. I meant to, but I got busy with other things. Isn’t that the way with human beings? We can be awakened by a potent message and then toss it aside in the busy-ness of taking a shower and looking for the right scarf to wear with that sweater — and matching earrings too!

This time though, I paid attention. On Saturday, five and a half years after I sent this email, why on Earth did it pop into my feed today? Plus, there were other emails too — all from that time period — reminding me of something very important — but what? So, I read every single one of them and the pieces started to fall into place.

My email.

I was shocked as I read the emails I had written to my cousins all of those years ago, warning them of my concerns for one of their siblings. Why was I shocked? Because I was reminded that I had tried desperately to warn the family of the tragedy that lay just around the corner. 

I sent these emails just days after returning from an out of state visit to a part of my extended family which was supposed to be a joyous celebration of the birth of a new grandbaby. Even as I held and admired the new baby, I struggled to contain my disbelief when I saw my dear cousin. The deterioration was intense. B– was morbidly obese, with pockets of fat skin spilling out of their shoes. They could hardly walk through the doorway. Although I intended to visit at B—‘s house too, the rest of the family advised against it because their house was an “awful mess.” 

I listened and watched and thought during that trip. I hadn’t seen B— in several years, so I hadn’t witnessed the disintegration of their health — and their life. But now it was obvious that B— was suffering and needed protection. I spoke privately to one of their siblings but got the brush off. Not quite denial but more an excuse that their hands were tied since “B—wouldn’t listen anyway.”

When I got home from the trip, I sent an email to the other siblings suggesting that B— was in “life threatening danger.” I listed my concerns specifically, not just about the obesity (about 400 pounds on a small-framed person), but also about the possibility of hoarding (i.e. the “awful mess” at their house), and a host of other symptoms that appeared to be autism to me. I considered it urgent that B—‘s family get on board. I suggested an intervention if B–  wouldn’t voluntarily seek professional help.

The responses I got back were painful enough the first time but excruciating on Saturday. All of the responses were defensive and nasty. 

  • The first response denied even the obesity (i.e. they “just need a good diet”).
  • I was accused of conspiring behind my cousin’s back. 
  • I was told that it was unethical to diagnose a relative.  
  • My professional standing was belittled (i.e. “You think everyone is autistic”).
  • They even went after me personally (i.e. “Just because your family is a mess, don’t come after ours”).

More emails four years later.

Why was it so excruciatingly painful to read these emails many years later? Because four years after I sent them, my dear cousin was hospitalized, near death, in a coma.

Here’s the short story. After not hearing from B—for a few days, a couple of family members went to their house. Amid the filth and the flies and the stench of the out-of-control hoarding, they found B— huddled in a corner, hallucinating and terrified to move. In the hospital they were diagnosed with encephalitis and place in an induced coma. The recovery was slow but after several weeks, they were transferred to a nursing home, and later assisted living. There was more than one incident of decompensating while under medical care — each time followed by a miraculous recovery. B—‘s home was stripped and disinfected — and sold in order to provide for their medical care and living expenses. They lost all of their belongings, including family heirlooms that had been entrusted to them by the family.

I called and texted and offered my help to this part of my extended family. They seldom responded, or  only sent a brief text of “thanks, we got this.” But they didn’t. They still were in massive denial about B—‘s problems. Yes they now accepted that a sweet life was in danger, but they could not accept their complicity. 

I get it that the guilt would be horrendous, but denial means they are still not prepared to do the healing that is required for the entire family to recover. So, I sent more emails, explaining what I know. Crickets.

What’s My Duty now?

As you can imagine, on Saturday when I re-read those emails from 5 ½ years ago, I burst into tears. I need some healing too. I tried to warn my family. I offered not just my professional opinion but also my love. But I couldn’t reach them. I couldn’t get past their confusion, their denial , their defensive accusations. I watched helplessly as a precious member of our family suffered without anyone to understand them and guide them to the medical and psychological help they needed.

So, what is my duty now, as my dreams from years past suggested? I am still unfurling that flag. I know it has something to do with being resilient so that I don’t cave when I know what I know. It also has something to do with trusting that there are lessons even in suffering. Another duty is to respect the rights of others to be wrong — in their wrongness are lessons unique to them.

“Only you can know your duty. Only You. No one else.” What I know, I will share with you shortly, so that it is not only me who knows this important fact — facts.

The first duty is to me. Easier said than done, but if we all take note of this you can do so much more with your lives. Frequently  I tell my clients to be brave, to take on the tough stuff of your life, to be authentic — to Stand Up, Speak Out, and Talk Back. But this is so much easier than living your life for joy. Think about it, if you treat yourself with the love and respect you offer others, and if you FIRST create each day with a joyful embrace — then you can’t help but make the world a better place.

The second duty is personally mine, not yours, but it is yours to share with me if you wish. You see, I know quite a bit about family systems, and in particular NeuroDivergent family systems. It is the breakdown in my family system that contributed to the terrible consequences my cousin faces. This breakdown doesn’t have to happen again to any other family if you understand how to intervene when the worlds of NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse collide. I will discuss the nature of this collision in the next installment. 

Uncle Ed: ASD in the Family Tree

Uncle Ed: ASD in the Family Tree

Quiet Uncle Ed was autistic.

My Uncle Ed was a cowboy. Truly! He wore a cowboy hat, western boots, those plaid shirts with fancy snap closures, and one of those impossibly big belt buckles. He smelled like leather mixed with the scent of aftershave. At least as a child that is how he smelled to me, when he would drop in for a surprise visit. I can still see his immaculate yellow and white ’55 Chevy sedan parked in front of my childhood home. He always kept it in pristine condition, even the white sidewalls.

Edwin was the antithesis of John Wayne, however. He was short and stocky and wore a pencil-thin mustache. He rarely talked, but I do remember his smile. He seemed happy with his life. In fact, I often remember that smile when I walked into the kitchen where he was sitting at the table, drinking coffee with my mother Irene (his baby sister). The conversation always stopped when I walked into the room, but not because it was anything private or profound. Uncle Ed would look at me, smile a broad warm smile and say the same thing he always said when he visited.

“You have your Grandmother’s hair. Did you know that? It’s the exact same color.”

I wasn’t sure this was a compliment. It felt more like an observation. Mom never said anything either. She gave no indication that she was pleased with my uncle’s observation. So, I just accepted it as a sort of odd Uncle Ed greeting, and quickly found a way to exit the room.

Uncle Ed was an itinerant farm mechanic, who made his living travelling between the ranches of eastern Oregon and Washington. Behind that ’55 Chevy, he towed everything he owned in his little travel trailer. It was a simple life. Ed would park his trailer at the ranch and start to work repairing whatever the farmer needed. When his work was completed, he’d move on to the next ranch. 

Sometimes he’d stay for a week at one ranch, sometimes longer. Between gigs, he would drop in on our family. I suppose that’s why he smelled like aftershave. When he came to town, he’d clean up, wash his car and trailer, and arrive on our doorstep to visit. He never called ahead but in those days no one did. You just showed up for a visit. 

Uncle Ed was always gone before I knew it too. I don’t remember him ever saying “Goodbye.” Nor did he bring gifts for my mother or either my sister or me. He just showed up, sat and talked quietly with my mother over a cup of coffee.

Many years later when he passed away, my Uncle Phil (another of Mom’s brothers) went to Wenatchee to close down his meager estate. Uncle Ed had “retired” and parked his trailer on a small lot he purchased near Lake Wenatchee. In the process of cleaning out his trailer, Uncle Phil found something he thought I might want to have. Sitting atop his TV set, Uncle Ed had placed three tiny photos in a folding golden metal frame — all photos were of me as a child. There were no other decorations or photos in his travel trailer, just pictures of me that my mother must have given him long ago.

I never realized I was important to my uncle, other than having hair color that he treasured. He never brought me a birthday present or even gave me a hug. Like my mother he must have been autistic. He kept to himself and kept his feelings quiet too. But now that I look back, I realize that he must have loved me and didn’t know how to tell me. All he could do was drop in for a visit, sit at the table conversing with my mother, and admire me from a distance.

Discovering Autism in my family tree.

Many NeuroTypicals who are married to someone with High Functioning Autism soon recognize the autism in our own family trees. First, I realized that my adopted daughter Bianca is autistic. Then I could see it in my mother, Irene. Slowly I awoke to the traits that were obvious in my ex-husband Howard Marshack. Eventually, I started waking up to the many relatives who are on the Autism Spectrum. Howard’s father Irving is classic. Also, there are several of my cousins, especially on my mother’s side of the family.

Soon I could see it in other relatives such as my Uncle R– and a couple of his children. Uncle R– married my father’s sister, so there is no genetic relationship to me. But that got me to thinking, why did my father and his sister marry people with High Functioning Autism?

Maybe that is the wrong question anyway. “Why” is the booby prize if you think about it. Besides autism is much more common than you think. When I first started to study this developmental disorder (autism) about 20 years ago, the estimate then was that one in 100-150 children were born on the Autism Spectrum. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 36 children are born with autism.

Researchers suggest the numbers are growing because of better and earlier diagnosis, not because there is an epidemic. In fact, retrospective studies show that the number of autistic individuals in the population has remained very stable over hundreds of years. While we didn’t have the modern diagnosis until only the last few decades, we know that autistic people were mistakenly diagnosed with other disorders long before they could be properly identified.

So, it makes sense that my father and his sister, both of whom were outgoing and intelligent themselves, would each marry a smart, yet aloof Autist. Like my Uncle Ed, my mother and my Uncle R– were reserved “Aspies” who led quiet lives, spent long hours on their special interests, and left the rest of family life to their NeuroTypical spouses to tend to.

Getting past family resistance to the diagnosis.

That last sentence ought to hook you. How do you raise children in a NeuroDivergent home, when you have had nothing but convoluted NeuroDivergent family relationships for generations? How do you clear up the mysteries? How do you help family members come to know who they really are if they have memories that confound them?

Shortly after my mother died I had a dream about her. I saw her walking through the dining room at the home of my Uncle R– and his wife Aunt P– (my father’s sister). Even in my dream state, I knew my mother was dead, but I was puzzled about what the dream was about. I wanted to talk with her, but she didn’t look in my direction. She said nothing. She just walked past everyone silently. I saw her but apparently no one else did, in the dream.

I was only 25 when my mother died, but there was a message in that dream, a message meant for me.  As she walked past my uncle and his wife and their four children, I now realize what we had in common. Autism. Another message in the dream is that no one, but me could see my mother’s message — only me. Many years later that premonition would bear out, tragically.

Last summer, my cousin’s wife K– leaned across the picnic table and asked me if I had any recommendations for her granddaughter. Apparently the young woman was reluctant to return to college because she suspected she was on the Autism Spectrum, and she was fearful of failure. She confided in her grandmother and asked for guidance. I was surprised she asked but was happy to help and referred her to some books that might appeal to a college age young person. Of course, I also suggested to K– that she ask her granddaughter to seek professional psychotherapy back home on the east coast where services are abundant.

I had been visiting my cousins on a wine tour in California at the time and we were having lunch in the backyard of K—‘s brother (who fortunately lives in California wine country). I was surprised when K– asked me for help since the family was very reluctant to consider the diagnosis in the past (and had actually been quite hostile to the subject). But I guess worry for the welfare of her dear granddaughter got her to be more open — and perhaps the recent hospitalization of her husband’s sibling.

I was hopeful that this new interest might lead to more openness in my family. It had been a real struggle getting them to reach out and help one of their own. Five years before the picnic I had suggested that one of Uncle R–’s children was on the Autism Spectrum, OCD and morbidly obese. I urged the siblings to talk among themselves and plan an intervention. However, I was summarily dismissed with some very unkind comments:


  • “Oh, you think everyone has a diagnosis just because you are a psychologist!”
  • “How dare you talk that way about one of our family! And behind their back too!”
  • “I don’t see any problem here at all. B– is smart and productive and doing just fine.”
  • “Just because you have problems in your own family, you want to find problems in ours!”
  • “I don’t want to get involved, frankly. B– has been a nuisance all of their life. I’d just as soon let them pay the price for their mistakes.”

So, I was ignored for five years. I found some old emails the other day in which I implored the family members to reconsider their attitude. I feared that this dear cousin of mine was in “grave danger,” and making some terrible life altering decisions. I spoke directly to this cousin too, but B– did not comprehend the severity of the problems they lived with. K–’s granddaughter is living in a more enlightened generation that is willing to look at the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. But my cousin, having grown up with no help and no awareness, faced tragic deterioration — all alone.

Facing the tragedy of untreated autism.

When I got the phone call, I was not surprised but I was horrified. My cousin was in the hospital in a coma. B– had been found huddled in a corner of their house, hallucinating amid the clutter and filth that accumulated over the years of their life as a hoarder. Near death with encephalitis,  they were rushed to the hospital.

The story is long and painful and I won’t go into the details. Thank God B– survived after many months in the hospital and a nursing home. But the home was so infested with vermin that it had to be stripped of everything, so my cousin lost all of their belongings, including family heirlooms that the siblings treasured. After the house was disinfected, it had to be sold to help pay for B–‘s medical care and living expenses — in an adult foster home.

You would think that this tragedy would help my cousins come to their senses, but this is a slow process. For many years they blamed their NeuroTypical mother for the problems. “She drank too much and was too controlling,” they would confide. Never once did they consider why their NeuroTypical mother drank too much. Why was she distressed in her marriage? Why was she a helicopter parent, fighting with every scrap of her being to manage her troubled family?

Time to rewrite your family legacy.

This is the legacy of undiagnosed and untreated autism in a family. I see it often. Anger and resentment divide a family so that they are unable to come together for one of their own. Even in my own nuclear family, it is tough for them to listen to me. If anyone knows about the dysfunction in untreated NeuroDivergent families, it would be me. But by the time I became aware of these problems as an adult and a psychologist, my family had been suffering for generations.

My own children blame me, their NeuroTypical mother, rather than taking a long hard look at the family system that produced these problems. When the worlds of NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse collide, it can literally destroy families. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are NeuroDivergent families charting a healthier course. But without guidance, it can be so confusing and painful that it is the sorrow that rules the day. 

It will take a lot of courage for my cousins to realize that they got it wrong. There is no blame. No one meant to do harm. But harm was done nonetheless — serious unalterable harm. Before more harm is done, I hope they can forgive themselves and reach out to each other to create a new healthier legacy for their children and grandchildren.

In fact, the other day one of them sent me a text asking for help for a colleague. He wanted to know how to help his colleague who is diagnosed with High Functioning Autism. Apparently she is being harassed at work, and my cousin wanted to know how to get protection for her. Of course, I responded right away with some tips on regulations that protect Americans with disabilities, as well as referral to mental health services. 

Ironically the dream I had so many years ago (when I was only 25) — and before I had professional training in the field of autism — when my deceased mother walked through the dining room of my autistic uncle — that dream was not just waking me up to autism in my family tree, but also a reminder that it would be a long journey before anyone would listen to me. 

My cousin dropped the ball with his sibling and allowed a tragedy to unfold. But if he can make a difference for someone else on the Autism Spectrum, who is struggling and frightened— well that’s a win for all of us. But deep in my heart, I hold out hope for my family too, that they can do even better than help a stranger. If our family can heal and come back together, that would be a terrific gift to give the world.

When Alcoholism Meets Autism: Healing the Chaos and Misunderstandings in NeuroDivergent Relationships

When Alcoholism Meets Autism: Healing the Chaos and Misunderstandings in NeuroDivergent Relationships

Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. 

Anything is possible. ~ George Saunders

Adult Children of Alcoholics.

“All of us. . . cousins are adult children of alcoholics, and none of us have escaped the negative effects of that. . . I have keenly felt your distress. . .and I’m beginning to think it may not even matter that you are right  about what is going on, as I think you have often been.”

In this email my cousin was attempting to understand the convoluted family system we both had lived with our entire lives. His message actually wandered through many pages of text as he attempted to come to terms with my concern:  That his sibling is autistic and in “grave danger” due to their morbid obesity, OCD and hoarding — and that he and the other family members needed to pull together to protect them from a “life threatening situation” (as I put it in my email).

As my cousin fumbled for a way to throw me off track, I remembered my own similar attempts to understand and protect our dysfunctional extended family. Yes protect. That’s what many children try to do. It’s an impossible task of course in an alcoholic family. But it is extraordinarily insurmountable in an undiagnosed family of NeuroDivergence (NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse family members). While the alcohol abuse is fairly easy to spot, the Empathy Dysfunction of High Functioning autistic parents (and other family members) is frustratingly covert. No wonder it has taken me decades (and generations of my family history) to ferret out that our problems are not due to being children of alcoholics, but of being children in NeuroDivergent family systems.

Read my dear cousin’s message again. At some deeper level, he knows that I am right but he wants to dismiss what I know (and what he inherently knows) because it is profoundly painful.

When survivor children marry.

My cousin’s mother and my father were siblings who grew up impoverished during the Great Depression. Their parents (our Grandparents) divorced when they were young children. The boys (Earl Jr., Eugene, Wilford, and Herman) went to live with their father. The girls Eileen and Patia stayed with their mother. It was a matter of survival.

I remember the stories of hardship such as the death of my father’s twin sister, Wilma Pauline. Or the story of the boys riding the train from the Midwest to Oregon to be with their father. They were all alone and frightened. But their mother was poor so that all she could do was pin notes inside their jackets to make sure they had directions to their father’s house.

But there were joyful stories too, like the pride my father took in earning his Eagle Scout award or playing first chair clarinet in the high school band. I suppose he was driven to achieve because he came from a “broken” family. He also shared the honor of serving his country in World War II with four of his siblings. Earl Jr. was a Marine. Eugene a Paratrooper in the Army. Wilford Paul (my father) was a Navy Signalman. Herman followed his older brother into the  Navy at age 16 (lying about his age). Patia, the baby and youngest daughter was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps.

I could tell you more, but alcoholism doesn’t really play a part — exactly. Yes my aunt and my father drank and sometimes too much. But now that I realize they both married High Functioning Autistic partners, there may be another explanation. Rather than my cousin’s description that we are “Adult Children of Alcoholics” a better description is that we are “Adult Children of NeuroDivergent Parents,” — and worse, undiagnosed NeuroDivergent parents.

I have written extensively about my mother’s undiagnosed autism. My uncle (my cousin’s father) on the other hand is a relatively new realization. As I recognized the autism of my cousin (and another of their siblings) and traced it back to my Uncle Ray it is obvious. He wore the same clothes day after day. He engaged his special interests by disappearing into his shop for hours. He prepared meals for the family but never sat down with us at the dinner table. He was sweet and kind in many ways, but never made any time to get to know me. He was brilliant but aloof.

I remember one particularly sad moment with my uncle, after my aunt had passed away (at the young age in her 50s). I guess he realized that I might know something about psychology and mental health and grieving. As he talked about his wife, he said, “I don’t think I handled things the way I should have with Pat.” He looked at me with a rather flat expression (so autistic), but I surmised there was sadness. I tried to be comforting, “I am sure she knew you loved her.” At least I hoped that was true, but in NeuroDivergent relationships it is debatable that my NeuroTypical aunt knew she was loved.

Now that I have a different perspective I know that my father and my aunt were remarkable people, intelligent, good looking, vivacious, curious, capable and they married two Autists because they were so empathic and giving that they could accept the oddness in their partners. Plus of course  there was the insecurity of their impoverished childhood that drove them to take care of others, as they couldn’t their parents and siblings. This is the legacy for me and my cousins too.

Parenting is about creating memories.

How could my cousins and I have gotten it so wrong? We were children at the time we experienced our parents for the first time, so of course we couldn’t possibly understand the entire convoluted dynamic of a NeuroDivergent family (especially a multigenerational NeuroDivergent family). The subtle gas lighting, and microaggressions, and social missteps of our NeuroDiverse parents were overshadowed by the drunken frustrations of our binge drinking parents. 

I always knew my autistic mother was “different” and “difficult.” We never laughed together or had warm moments baking cookies, for example. My home was not the place the neighborhood kids gathered because we were usually locked out of the house so Mom could have her “solitude” as she used to say. She was stern and aloof and one to be avoided.

My father on the other hand was playful. He noticed me. He talked with me. We went for walks when the weather was good. I especially liked walking to Sam & Jean’s Market for pecan pie on a summer evening. When we watched our favorite television programs Dad made our special snack of mayonnaise on saltines. It was because my father wanted my sister and I to know more about the world we lived in, that we spent almost every school break traveling to some state or national park. We crisscrossed the country on those marvelous road trips.

In fact, some of my fondest memories come from those trips in our 1953 Buick Deluxe (Aqua Azure). Dad let me sit up front, while my mother and sister slept in the back seat. In those days there were no seat belts and children could sit up front, even though it wasn’t safe, but we didn’t know that. Dad and I would sing songs and tell jokes and laugh so hard we both cried. 

When I was about eight or nine and could read well, Dad would put me in charge of reading the paper map on these trips. He would help me unfold the map and then refold it into a square for the section we were driving. He’d show me the route we would take. It was my job to add up the mileage on the map to figure out how far we were from the next stop. Often I would notice the “scenic” spots notated on the map. Dad always said, “If there’s something we should stop and see, please let me know.” He trusted me like that.

Often I would find something intriguing, like the “World’s largest Frying Pan.” Dad never said no — never. He’d say, “That sounds perfect. Let’s go. Give me directions.” So, we would turn down some old country road, while I guided Dad with my map. We’d bump through a few potholes, past the Grange or a field of sunflowers, and eventually come to stop in front of an old oak tree with a huge cast iron frying pan hanging from a tree limb. Mom would wake up at this point to be shocked that we were “off the track.” She would scold us, “What the h— Paul! Where are we?” But Dad and I didn’t care. We were out of the car — Dad with his Kodak in hand, already taking a picture of me in front of the “World’s largest Frying Pan.”

I had no idea how adventurous we were then until I researched some of our old travel photos. Wow! Dad steered us to Yellowstone Park in the days before they had paved roads. My sister and I are photographed on the Teacup ride at Disneyland, during their Grand Opening in 1955 (yes he took us there for the opening!). I have lots of photos with family too, like the time a “passle” of us  cousins visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. On another occasion we stood in awe at the edge of Niagara Falls. So, so many memories . . . all because my father was the type of person who believed the purpose of parenting was to create memories with his children — show us our world — and help us to grow into big hearted adventurous Souls, just like he was.

What about the drinking?

My parents and their siblings grew up during the Great Depression. They came of age during World War II. They were part of that marvelous generation that were scrappy and innovative and built our modern society from their blood, sweat and tears so that their children could have everything they didn’t have when they were kids. I have a wonderful life as a result. I am in their debt.

For this generation social life centered around drinking and smoking cigarettes and playing cards. They’d hang out at local bars and shoot darts. At least that is what my parents did. They weren’t part of the elite. They were among ordinary factory workers, and mechanics, and cocktail waitresses, who wanted more for their children — and they gave it to us.  

I can’t be certain that my father and my aunt wouldn’t have become alcoholic regardless of who they married. My aunt loved to drink mixed alcoholic beverages. My father preferred beer. All I know is that my father occasionally got drunk on the weekend, but he always got up to go to work on Monday morning. He would sometimes be belligerent when he was drunk, but mostly he would just go to sleep.

It never occurred to me as a child that he drank to cope with my mother. But I suspect that is true. I know that they argued. I know that he got increasingly anxious over the years. And when my mother died from lung cancer at age 49 (mostly likely due to her chain smoking) my father was bereft. He never remarried. He was lost and sad. 

Once I recognized my mother’s autism, long after my father had passed, I finally understood my father’s loneliness. This incredible loving man was crushed under the weight of my mother’s undiagnosed autism and Empathy Dysfunction Disorder. All I have are my childhood memories so I don’t remember the truth as an adult would know it. But I can guess that my father and mother were sweethearts once. It was long gone by the time I could notice them with the eyes of a teenager (not quite adult perspective). I believe their love was destroyed by undiagnosed NeuroDivergence.

When a NeuroTypical parent is not enough.

I know only too well what it is like to parent an autistic child with an autistic coparent, and yet have no idea what I am doing. Neither Howard, nor Bianca were diagnosed before I had thoroughly wrapped myself into codependency — just like my father Paul and my Aunt Patty. I was anxious. I was scared. I was dancing as fast as I could to keep up with the impossible mishigas of an undiagnosed NeuroDivergent family. And yes, I drank to cope.

When my cousins remember their mother, they discuss all of the ways she let them down. According to them she drank too much. She yelled too much. She expected too much, especially of her eldest child — the child who is autistic. My cousins felt sorry for their eldest sibling and blame their mother to this day for the terrible outcome that befell their sib this year (when they had a frightening meltdown, amid their infested hoarding, and was rushed to the hospital with encephalitis and near death).

Unfortunately, I can relate to my aunt, not only the despair of a mother trying to parent an undiagnosed autistic child, but also the indescribable pain of being blamed for not being a good enough mother. For example, I watched in despair as my Bianca got more bewildered by the social world, even though I worked so hard to help her learn interpersonal skills. Her hygiene was awful too, but she fought me to take a shower, or brush her teeth, or even to use toilet paper. My aunt and I were both NeuroTypical mothers with autistic children, coparenting with an emotionally absent NeuroDiverse partner. The result? We both are maligned.

When my cousins rail about their mother’s shortcomings, I ask them, “Who was the primary parent in your home? Was your father ever around?” Often I get a blank look and then a nod, “Well Mom was the primary parent and Dad was never there — but you know she was mentally ill and too harsh!”

Letting go of that belief that their NeuroTypical parent is to blame for all of the chaos and misunderstanding in their childhood — seems next to impossible in NeuroDivergent families. My own children believe this of me too. Odd isn’t it? That the parent most responsible for loving them and being there for them through all of their childhood ups and downs — is also blamed for the problems that emerge in a NeuroDivergent family.

I hope someday my cousins forgive their mother — and I hope my children forgive me too — for not knowing what I didn’t know at the time, and that I made terrible mistakes that hurt them, but that I tried with all of my heart. I hope they finally recognize that it is not alcoholism that destroyed our family, but that it was undiagnosed and untreated autism.

Get a diagnosis to free your family. 

Autism is a primary disorder and needs to be diagnosed in order to save relationships, children and families. As I have mentioned in other blogs and podcasts, autism is not the problem per se. It is the collision of the worlds of NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical that lead to the problems in these  relationships. When you don’t understand this dynamic, then it is all too easy to blame and wreak havoc in families. 

A diagnosis levels the playing field, so to speak. It gives you information and tools to work with. I often hear people disparage the diagnosis and say foolish things like, “I don’t need a label.” Autism is far more than a label. A diagnosis can be a lifesaver. My family is a heartbreaking example of what can happen when there is no diagnosis. 

When I say that autism is a primary disorder I mean that it is important to identify the autism first, and early on. Families need to know what they are dealing with as soon as possible. It is important to guide the Autist to find a constructive way to develop their authentic self. But it is also important to help the NeuroTypical family members (spouses, partners, children, siblings, etc.) to discover who they are  too. 

Chaos, misunderstanding, chemical dependency, and yes, even child abuse, are the tragic result of denying the autism in a family. I understand my father and his sister because I lived this life too of a NeuroTypical going through an existential crisis within my NeuroDivergent household. Is it any wonder that all three of us turned to alcohol to cope?

Of course, I am not blaming my mother, or my dear Uncle Ray. I am being open with you because I can only hope that other NeuroDivergent couples and families will learn from our family misery. 

When you look for simple answers alcoholism makes sense. But if you are willing to dig a lot deeper, you might find that autism explains more about your family mystery. Armed with a proper diagnosis and treatment you might find a way back to sanity for all of you in a NeuroDivergent family.

Time to Let My Grown Daughters Go

Time to Let My Grown Daughters Go

“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.

Time to Let My Grown Daughters Go

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.

My Dog is a Buddhist: He Taught Me the Middle Way

My Dog is a Buddhist

“Peace requires us to surrender our illusions of control”
~ Jack Kornfield

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

When I worry about the fate of the human race (and who doesn’t?), I remind myself of the lessons I have learned from my dog Kokomo. In Kokomo’s world, extremes of any kind are not relevant. He prefers the Middle Way. This philosophy has served both of us very well, especially me, since I have a tendency to ride the roller coaster of life from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. Through Kokomo’s teachings, I have learned to be more moderate in the demands I make upon myself, and others.

We humans have made a mess of things in so many ways, but we have also made incredible contributions too. There is art and architecture, literature and religion. We are exploring the galaxy and beyond. We have cured polio and created marvelous life-saving medicines for many other maladies. I just installed solar panels on my roof and ride an e-bike to cut back on my carbon footprint.

I could regale you with all that is wrong in the world, but you already know that stuff, and probably worry about it too. Looking at what’s wrong is not the solution anyway. I also think it is not terribly helpful to only look at what’s right in the world, like some Pollyanna. Solutions require looking at the bad and the good. My personal motto is “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” I think Kokomo would agree.

Kokomo’s Middle Way of Peace.

My motto may seem incongruous for the Buddhist philosophy of the “Middle Way,” but let me show you the “Middle Way,” through the eyes of my Golden Retriever (English Cream) Kokomo.

Lesson 1 – Be authentic.

My first lesson came when I adopted Kokomo, when he was six years old. He had just left the puppy mill, where he had one job . . . stud. Yes, he is a very good-looking dog. Everyone tells me so. People also give me credit for his sweet temperament and cooperative nature, but I always explain that this is just how he is. At age six when adopted, I can hardly be responsible for his personality. He was a stud on the farm because he has all of these desirable qualities inside and out. I like to think that coming to live with me may enhance these qualities, but then I am probably being egocentric. Rather Kokomo is the one who helped me find a way to calm my nervous energy by accepting who I am. Not everyone can be beautiful and smart like Kokomo, but we all have our gifts – and purpose.

Lesson 2 – Choose your friends wisely.

Being true to yourself is all well and good, but we also need to be surrounded by folks we get along well with, who are respectful, and love us beyond measure. There are very few people that Kokomo takes to right away. I think this is wise, don’t you? Why trust people just because they offer you a treat or a scratch behind your ears? I have learned to choose my friends wisely so that I don’t get drained by people who are just out of synch with themselves.

As for his favorite peeps, his pace quickens when he sees other dogs on our daily walks. But not just any dogs. He really can’t stand little dogs, especially those who have high pitched yips – and their Moms have them dressed in colorful baby clothes (so undignified). He pulls me in the other direction if he senses one of those encounters. On the other hand, he much prefers dogs of his size and temperament – unless they are aggressive or mean. When dogs bound up to him, eager to play, he stands very still – until both dogs have passed the sniff test. If they pass he happily races around us humans with his new “forever best friend.”

Lesson 3 – Don’t give bullies the time of day.

Kokomo has been attacked a couple of times on our walks. It really shocked me because each time he was just trotting along, sniffing his way along the path, stopping to examine a pine cone or bury his nose in a pile of leaves. Out of nowhere he was charged by a dog who attacked with such fierceness that most dog owners would expect a “dog fight.” Not Kokomo though. He falls to the ground with the first head butt, and lays there motionless. I have learned to step in, scream at the other dog (and sometimes the owner) and often I have to kick the offending dog — who then scuttles away.

The first time Kokomo was attacked, I was worried he had been injured and that he would be shaken emotionally. Nope. Once I kicked the offending dog, Kokomo got up off the ground and stood by unfazed – out of reach of the nasty dog – waiting for us to continue our walk.

Does he know that bullies want a fight, and that if you don’t fight back they cave? Or perhaps he figures I am his protector so he can relax and not worry? Or does he just accept that if you are a “stud” you might bring out the envy in other dogs – like it’s the price he pays to be the beautiful dog he is?

This is a darned good lesson for me. If I am going to be true to myself, take on my responsibilities, and live out my mission — I need to be brave enough to face the bullies but not fight back. Never give a bully the time of day, not one little bit of satisfaction for their attacks.

Lesson 4 – Don’t rush into anything.

If Kokomo determines that things just don’t feel right, or sound right, or look right, or smell right, I can’t get him to budge. He plants his little paws so firmly that I would have to pick up his full 62 pounds and carry him. What’s the fun in that, for either of us? I have learned to let him have his way when he feels this strongly about something. Who am I to contradict how he feels?

This is one of those complex lessons isn’t it? This lesson requires being respectful of the other person even when you can’t understand what’s going on with them. They have their reasons and that’s good enough. As for me, I have my reasons too and don’t need to explain them to anyone. I could be wrong, but if I don’t get the go ahead from my own inner knowing — I have learned to take my time.

Lesson 5 – Be charming and persistent.

My grandfather used to say “You get a lot more with honey, than you will with vinegar.” Watch this 30 second video of Kokomo and tell me if he doesn’t exude this principle. He is exceedingly charming, and just as exceedingly persistent toward accomplishing his goal of getting me to go for a walk.

But there’s more than just being charming or persistent here. Kokomo and I are a team. We belong to each other. We trust each other. We share the walk. He delights me with his cheerful doggy antics as we walk the neighborhood, or the beach. He accepts the limitations that I impose such as when he reaches the end of his 24-foot retractable leash. He stops and waits for me to signal that he can go on again. He waits patiently when I stop to talk to humans along the way. At the end of a long day, when my work is done, and dinner is cleared from the table – and we have had our evening stroll, Kokomo contentedly snuggles me while I read or watch TV. Charming.

Give up the illusion of control.

There are many more lessons I have learned from Kokomo over the last two years he has shared my life with me, but underlying all of them is to fully recognize that the only way to a peaceful life is give up the illusion of control. If you want to have abundant love and peace you don’t need that illusion anyway. All you need is to be:

  • Authentically you,
  • Surrounded by trusted friends,
  • Quietly ignoring bullies,
  • Respectful of your inner knowing, and others,’
  • Charmingly persistent toward your goals.