A family broken in more than one way


BOSTON -- This is the scene that keeps playing in my imagination. The moment when Stephen Fagan turned to 2-year-old Wendy and 5-year-old Rachael and told them: Your mother is dead.

He must have said it more than once. Much more than once. After all, young children ask questions. How many times over the 18 1/2 years from the day he abducted his daughters to the day he was discovered did he have to answer questions. How did mommy die? Where is she buried?

How did he comfort these "motherless" children? Did he tell them how he met Barbara Kurth? Did he tell them that he was sad when she died in that "car accident"? How old were they when he turned their mother into a "brilliant doctor," and their bitter divorce into a tragic death?

And did they eventually stop asking questions, reading something into the response of the parent who made their lunch, did their laundry, gave them what the younger sister called his "unfailing devotion"?

These are the details of deception through which I filter the words of the two sturdy young women standing by their father. I think of them when Rachael talks of the man who had "one full-time job, that of raising my sister and me." When Wendy, renamed Lisa, now 21, praises him as the dad who got up at 3: 50 a.m. to take her to swim practice, and "gave us 100 percent every day."

'The best mother'

Rachael, already 5 when her father began weaving his lies, says he taught her to be "honest and true to myself." Lisa says in words with a special sting, "He was and is the best mother, father and friend anyone could ask for." He was, they concur, "always there."

What is so haunting in the story is not that Mr. Fagan abducted his daughters. That happens 1,000 times a day, literally 354,000 times a year. Not even that Mr. Fagan reinvented himself, went to Palm Beach, married one and then another wealthy woman, passed himself off as a lawyer, professor, consultant, CIA agent, White House adviser. Con men are a dime a dozen.

The painful part is that he justifies 18 1/2 years of deception by saying he did it for the children.

Surely it was a different era in 1979 when Mr. Fagan took his kids and ran. Back then, men had trouble getting custody. Women had trouble getting their abducted children back. Officials and the law treated parental kidnapping as a "family matter."

Mr. Fagan claims that Barbara Kurth was unfit, a drunk, neglectful. The record shows that the children were precocious, cared for, though she may have suffered from narcolepsy. As for Ms. Kurth, the victim of Mr. Fagan's imaginary car crash, we know that she was thwarted in the search for her children, that she was hospitalized for depression, that eventually she rebuilt a life, went to college, became a research scientist.

But listening to her daughters, listening to the water-cooler judgments of mother and father, I wonder. Is it conceivable that a kidnapper who turns into Mr. Mom is a good father to be forgiven? Do we expect that little of fathers? Is it conceivable that a victim who eventually gives up the search for her children is a bad mother to be damned? Do we expect that much of mothers?

I don't fault these young women. Not even their disdain for the woman they believe could have and did not find them. They have had only days to upend their entire life story. They chose the father -- how could it be otherwise? -- over the stranger. It must be easier to "believe," as Lisa said, "that my father gave up his life for Rachael and I for the sole purpose of protecting us."

Stephen Fagan may believe that as well; the human capacity for self-deception is boundless. But even if we accept Mr. Fagan's tale in all its details -- and I do not -- at some point, this man was not acting for the sake of the children. At some point they were no longer children. At some point -- the 100th lie? the 5,000th lie? -- the father was protecting the fabric of his life and lies.

Time to remember

Sooner or later, surely these young women will begin to wonder and remember. They will remember the small lies. The huge deception. They'll wonder what was taken away in the name of love. But today their verdict feels like bleak injustice.

There is a classic joke about the man who murders his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. Stephen Fagan went one better. He "murdered" Barbara Kurth, and won the praise of his children for carrying the double burdens of a single father. He created a car wreck of life and became a hero for saving the passengers. He was, you see, always there for them.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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