I wish that I had a neat little intro to this piece but there is nothing neat or fun about this article. It does not fit in with the rest of the pop culture content on my site, but it is an awful and emotionally draining situation, and I need a place to share my experiences. As I am sitting here, wondering if I should even be writing this post in the first place, I find myself wanting to get right into the story, skip the pleasantries, and jump head-first into the issue I’m facing. Considering the severity, I don’t know where to start other than at the beginning.
I need a thesis or main argument my post is structured around. So here it is: I was a victim of child exploitation by the University of Oregon—they took me from my biological family, tested me and researched on me, gave me a fake diagnosis, used me in experimental surgeries, abused me, and then covered it up. My adoptive mother, Margaret Veltman, unethically adopted me and my brother with the backing and full support of the University of Oregon. I barely escaped, though my mental health was severely affected, my confidence destroyed, and my trust violated. I sat with a huge burden the University of Oregon put on my shoulders for two years, and then I decided to do something about it.
I started researching and learned that what I thought I knew didn’t even scratch the surface of what happened and that there is probably a lot more I still don’t know. Every time I looked for answers, I found more lies, secrets, and cover-ups. People kept telling me: leave this in the past. Move on.” But I couldn’t. This was too big, and it was my life. How do you just move on from something that impacted you from childhood? How do you put something behind you when it destroyed your very identity? I didn’t realize it at the time but the people telling me to “move on” had the most guilt to bear.
This post discusses severe abuse and deeply personal information. Content warning now in affect.
A rough start in life
The bullshittery that seems to be my life started in November of 1994. My twin brother and I entered the world. We were premature and a failure to thrive. Our birth parents, Mike and Paula, were drug addicts, and heroin users to be precise. I had further complications thanks to my cerebral palsy. My ankles were turning inwards. My balance was non-existant. My communication was minimal, and I needed corrective eye surgery when I was older. My brother and I spent time in the neonatal unit before we were sent home. Our birth parents still struggled with addiction and couldn’t feed us. We entered foster care as infants. I have no memory of any of this, and there’s no one I can confirm a lot of this with, our biological parents died when we were 14, and everyone else who had an ounce of the truth wanted to keep it buried and forgotten, to move on and focus on tomorrow. I envy them. Information in my foster care file was heavily redacted, so the truth was difficult to find.
At some point, our biological mother Paula entered a University of Oregon-affiliated program called BASE. Two educated women, Margaret Veltman, and Diane Bricker, were in charge of BASE, a reunification program meant to give additional support, education, and resources to families involved with Child Protective Services. Unfortunately, that was merely a front, a fake face of the program. Its real purpose was insidious, highly unethical, and disturbing to say the least, and it all started with Diane Bricker’s rigorous testing of children with disabilities in the 1970s up until today.
A HISTORY OF TESTING VULNERABLE CHILDREN—WITH DIANE BRICKER
According to the University of Oregon:
While an undergraduate at Ohio State University in Speech and Drama, UO alumna Diane Bricker, Ph.D. visited Columbus State Hospital to volunteer. Horrified by the conditions there, Diane began a lifelong career, working to better understand the needs of children with disabilities and develop interventions that could improve their quality of life. Her research has resulted in two of the most widely used screening and assessment tools worldwide, leading to earlier interventions and improved outcomes for millions of children.
Coming to Eugene in 1960 after earning her degree in speech pathology, Diane earned her master’s in education at the University of Oregon. After graduating, she returned to Eugene in 1978, when she was offered a position as director of the early education program at the Center on Human Development, which serves infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children to this day. Having earned her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, Diane had been developing a child-centered approach there that she further developed in her time at the UO, known as Activity-Based Intervention.
Listening to the podcast episode hosted by Marisa Macy (pay attention to that name because she would pop back up again), I’m struck by a few statements Diane makes. When asked about why she went into the field of early education and intervention, Diane, who was “horrified by the conditions at Columbus State Hospital,” said: “because my father didn’t want me to graduate with a liberal arts degree. He wanted me to have a degree that would let me DO something, and a theater degree wasn’t going to cut it.” It seems to me like overbearing fathers are the common dominator among these women who enter these fields of child development and intervention and then proceed to wreak havoc among the children they claim to want to help. Margaret also had a similar father, I’ll get into that in a bit, but for the moment, let’s focus on Diane.
I find no humor in telling stories about crying children. A child is in distress, what part of that is funny? Furthermore, these children were adversely affected by Diane Bricker’s research methods. An early educator involved in the program was so horrified by what she saw that she quit the project, allowing Diane and her team to continue their research on the most vulnerable children who couldn’t even communicate to defend themselves. It’s interesting that Diane only realized how un-child-friendly her research methods were when they started involving “typical children.” Notice how Diane describes “typical” kids as lovely, and disabled children as “strange little guys with behaviors that needed to be managed.”
There’s the keyword for you: managed. It wasn’t actually about helping children with disabilities, it was about managing their behavior and forcing them into a box where they didn’t belong. It wasn’t about giving them the tools THEY needed or adapting programs and methods to better serve disabled children. It was about data collection and conformity. Their humanity was stripped from them and reduced to “ten trials of this, ten trials of that.”
This brings me to my future adoptive mother, Margaret Veltman.
THE VELTMAN LEGACY
Margaret was born in 1953, one of six children, Vickie, Stephen, Scott, and twins Dana and Dawn. Her father Stanley owned and operated several restaurant chains, so the Veltmans were well-off financially. Stanley was abusive however, he enjoyed belittling people and was physically abusive to Margaret. She told me once that he kicked her so hard across the room that she struck her head against the wall and Stan laughed. There were other stories of his cruelty throughout the years, and the Veltmans all seemed to agree that yes, he was their father, but he was a nasty piece of work.
It makes me hurt for Margaret as a child, for the pain she suffered, for the emotional damage she endured as she grew up. That’s as far as my empathy extends because Margaret took what Stan did and ran with it, doing even more damage. I know I’m jumping ahead, but shortly after Margaret adopted my brother and me, Stan looked at us and then looked at Margaret and said: “One day those boys will destroy you.” It was a statement Margaret was never able to forget, and she made sure we didn’t forget it either, periodically reminding us that Stan saw “through our facade and knew what we were capable of.” It seems to me that toxic, manipulative people are not capable of seeing authenticity because they have none themselves, so they look at everyone as either a tool or an enemy, even two kids who were traumatized over the loss of their first family.
In 1976, Margaret graduated from San Francisco State University with a Bachelor of Arts and received her Master of Arts in 1981. In 1990, she received a degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Oregon. Her area of interest was in early intervention and families at environmental risk. Throughout her educational career, Margaret met and was trained by Diane Bricker, who not only became her mentor but also her close friend, a friendship and collaboration they maintain to this day. Margaret structured her Ph.D. dissertation, “The Effectiveness of early intervention with families referred from child protective services,” presented to the Division of Special Education and Rehabilitation and the Graduate School of the University of Oregon in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Diane Bricker approved Margaret’s dissertation.
The introduction of Margaret’s Ph.D. reads as follows:
“This study examined the effects of a comprehensive early intervention program on the life circumstances and perceptions of parents involved with a child protective agency. Parents enrolled in the comprehensive program (called BASE) were compared to another group of caregivers with young children also involved with the child protective agency, but receiving the standard array of services routinely provided by that agency. The two groups were compared at intake, and again after 3 months. The results of the 6-month comparison are not included in this dissertation, as data collection for this interval is still in progress. Original group differences on a number of demographic variables were lessened when participants not available for the 3-month data-collection interval were eliminated.
Still, however, significant group differences persisted on a number of variables, and approached significance on others. The BASE group contained many more families for whom chronic and multiple-risk conditions were creating barriers to adequate parenting (e.g-, substance abuse, homelessness, and lack of services). Despite group differences, the number of children returned to each group after 3 months was not significantly different. Groups did not differ significantly with respect to perceived sources of social support except on day care, neither did they differ significantly in their conceptions of child development. The parents enrolled in the BASE Program, however, persisted in assigning professionals a greater role in influencing children s behavior than comparison families.
Did you notice BASE in the dissertation? I certainly did, and it got me asking, how on earth did Margaret Veltman, the person in charge of the BASE program, who came up with the idea for BASE, designed it, applied for grant funding, adopt two of her research subjects?
That can’t be ethical…right?
Life With Margaret
My brother and I started living with Margaret relatively shortly after we entered the BASE program with our biological mother, Paula, which adds to my suspicion that the BASE program was rooted in something nefarious. We were four years old. Margaret finalized our adoption in 2000 I believe, when we were six years old.
My childhood was difficult, which is a polite way of putting things into perspective. On the outside, everything seemed, if not perfect, then above-average, one that afforded privilege in some ways. I grew up with horses and goats, attended a private Catholic school, and took piano and rocking climbing lessons. I was enrolled at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, where they treated my cerebral palsy with botox injections and strengthened my leg muscles, allowing me to permanently take off my leg braces at 14 years old. Our adoptive mother enrolled us in rock climbing lessons, a theater and basketball camp, and other opportunities. Looking beyond the surface, however, paints a much different picture.
Margaret was violent and angry, often given to outbursts of rage that manifested in severe physical and mental abuse. At such a young age, the violence I endured from Margaret set me up for a lifetime of feeling like an outsider, of struggling with my self-esteem, and of coping with reality. When people ask me what my earliest memory of childhood is, I think of two memories. In one memory, I’m laying outside in the backyard of the condo we lived at. I’m four years old, almost five. My hands are tied behind my back with rope or cloth, that I don’t remember. Regardless, I am restrained, outside, in the rain. I do remember my face pressed into the wood of the back deck, I can still feel the light drops of rain that fell from that grey depressing sky.
My other memory is from around that time. I got in trouble at school. Margaret picked me up, took me home, tied me up, and left me in an empty bathtub. That’s when I first started disassociating. I can vividly remember laying there on my stomach, my hands tied behind my back. I remember replaying recent movies I had watched in my head to pass the time and cope with the situation. One time she locked me in a bathroom and told me I couldn’t leave. I got thirsty and tried to drink from the sink….she had turned off the water.
Some of my darker memories from my early years with Margaret involved the bathtub. She would fill it with water, and then hold my head underneath the water until I would kick my legs to be let up for air. “Kick kick kick,” she would tease. It disturbs me that she thought holding my head under the water was funny.
Even from a young age, I could tell Margaret disliked her adopted children. Sometimes after she would get really mad, I would ask her: “why did you adopt us?” She would answer, “I wanted you to have stability. No one else wanted or could take care of you.” According to Margaret, Paula never stopped using drugs. Our biological mother couldn’t parent two kids with special needs, she proved that when we almost died in her care.
So I was left in a difficult emotional position. I couldn’t be with my biological parents because they were addicts. I couldn’t be with any of my biological family, my aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins…because Margaret realized that she had the tools to “help us” or so she claimed. I had no idea who I was, I felt like a chameleon with no true self, able to shift my identity to please others and to blend in into any social environment with no real voice of my own. Margaret realized my people-pleasing tendencies and we’d have conversations about them, but she never realized she was the root cause of it all, and I wasn’t about to tell her.
We eventually moved from the condo to a house in the country with a big backyard. Margaret wanted horses since she was a child, so we had four horses and grew up taking lessons. I enjoyed it, although part of me always felt like a ranch hand. Margaret would go work (she still worked for various early intervention programs for the University of Oregon) and she would lock us out of the house, expecting us to do things like cut blackberry bushes, fix fences, saw up fallen tree branches, clean the animals’ pens and paddocks. She didn’t trust us to touch her things, her computer, her TV, the kitchen, the washing machine…everything was off-limits to us. That didn’t stop my brother and me from climbing through the window to watch TV or play games on the computer, though Margaret caught on. Her attention to detail was like no one I had ever met. She was highly organized and could tell if one little thing was out of place.
She also wanted us to fill our time being useful, not sitting around watching television or movies. We constantly were doing chores and tasks with limited time for play. I remember being so uncomfortable with sitting in her presence that I would start picking up little crumbs off the carpet to appear like I was “being useful.” My brother fell behind in school, struggling with focus and completing assignments, while also feeling like Margaret’s expectations were interfering with his schoolwork. Margaret scoffed at the idea and said my brother was looking for any excuse not to do chores. It wasn’t like we hated working, I enjoyed being outside and hanging out with the horses. I was proud when I did hard work but as a young kid, I mostly wanted to play. So I started sneaking in playtime whenever I could.
In hindsight, I’m guilty of my behavior as a kid. I always wonder, if I was better behaved, if I was a better son, a grateful adoptee, then maybe my adoptive mother wouldn’t severely punish me, maybe she would be proud of me. I remember being an affectionate kid and wanting to be loved. Some of my favorite smaller memories are when Margaret would give me hugs or rub my head. It made me feel close to her. But I was a problem child, there was no doubt about that. I had big emotions, I was hyper and wild, and so disorganized. I didn’t respect the boundaries that adults tried to set with me. I’d get into trouble and blame my brother, so I was a shitty brother too. I struggled in school and I looked for every opportunity to act up.
It didn’t occur to me, or to any of these experts who were so trained in early education and intervention, that I had PTSD or that I was deeply traumatized from the separation of my biological family. Adoption is always seen as something so beautiful, but no one ever really thinks about what it’s like from the adoptee perspective, to be taken from your entire family and given to a family of strangers, to expect to everything to go smoothly and not to mourn the loss of our first families. It also didn’t occur to me that my brain was severely affected by Mike and Paula’s drug use, my frontal cortex was damaged from their heroin. Margaret claimed she was able to provide structure, but the structure she provided gave me fear, and out of fear came anger.
I also don’t think Margaret was fully prepared to raise two kids with special needs as a single parent while living on a big property with farm animals and working a full-time job, no matter her educational experience. Unfortunately for my brother and me, who needed stability, who needed time to heal from our loss, who needed to be assured we wouldn’t be abandoned, that meant our adoptive mother was frequently stressed out, and she made sure we knew it. “Some parents snap and kill their kids,” she would say. “You’re lucky I have so much control or you would be dead.”
Margaret had an authoritarian parenting style and said so herself. “I had a choice. I could either raise you with love and affection or I could set limits with you, set you straight,” is what she would tell us. It was her house, her rules and if we broke them, which I did frequently, she would either make us stand outside in our towels after a shower or she would beat us with a metal spatula. She claims she didn’t leave marks but I remember her hitting me so hard that the corner of the spatula cut my elbow. It was a miserable cycle. I struggled to control my behavior and lashed out, Margaret struggled to control her anger and lashed out, and on and on it went, neither side relenting.
Margaret was not someone you dared to question, at least to her family. She was kind and supportive and funny in public. She gave us wonderful presents for Christmas and took us to family retreats in Eastern Oregon. She introduced me to Star Trek and encouraged my writing. She could be the most supportive advocate but she was also a bully and her duality led to so much confusion for my brother and me.
As a young traumatized kid, I struggled to control my behavior and regulate my emotions. I didn’t understand that Margaret wasn’t setting us straight. She was further traumatizing us. She would pace back and forth behind me and would hit me on the back of the head or slam her hand onto the table. I developed a severe startle reflex as a result. I remember watching Margaret chase my brother across the yard and threaten him with a pickax to his face. I was screaming, so she sent me inside, but I could still see what was happening from the window. I never considered that we were both being severely abused and as a result, lived in an almost eternal state of hypervigilance.
I always just thought I deserved the punishment. I felt that there was something deeply wrong with me. On top of having learning difficulties and cerebral palsy, I also *supposedly* had Reactive Attachment Disorder, although this turned out to be a lie, one I wouldn’t discover for nearly two decades.
What is Reactive Attachment disorder?
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. Reactive attachment disorder may develop if the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection, and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring, stable attachments with others are not established.
With appropriate treatment, children who have reactive attachment disorder may develop more stable and healthy relationships with caregivers and others. Treatments for reactive attachment disorder include learning how to create a stable, nurturing environment and providing positive child and caregiver interactions. Parent or caregiver counseling and education can help. Symptoms of Reactive Attachment disorder (RAD) include:
- Unexplained withdrawal, fear, sadness, or irritability
- Sad and listless appearance
- Not seeking comfort or showing no response when comfort is given
- Failure to smile
- Watching others closely but not engaging in social interaction
- Failure to reach out when picked up
- No interest in playing peekaboo or other interactive games
- Behavior problems
- Failing to seek support or assistance
Attitudes towards Reactive Attachment Disorder are changing. Professionals rightly realize that RAD is an abusive diagnosis, which blames the traumatized children and provides a “get out of jail free” card for frustrated adoptive parents.
When I was four years old, Margaret started telling everyone, including adoptive family members, friends, and her peers, that I had RAD. She told everyone in my adoptive family not to hug or pick me up because that would confuse me about who my primary caregiver was. According to a family friend named (I’ll call her Tessa), I was the exact opposite of a child with RAD. I was happy, and desperately wanted attention and affection. Tessa, an early educator, saw me as a happy child, so Margaret said it was because I was manipulative and had everyone fooled.
It didn’t help that I did lie a lot to Margaret. I always thought it was because I was a selfish coward, I learned that from a young age, Margaret was not safe to be around and was untrustworthy. I became deeply afraid of her and lied to cover my tracks. I was always getting in trouble a lot as a kid so I lied to Margaret a lot. I lied to her to protect myself from more abuse, she saw my lies as selfish and compulsive. I hated what being with Margaret turned me into. I hated the toxic traits I cultivated from her to protect myself.
Starting from when I was four years old, even before I started developing behavior problems, I would always be told how deceitful I was, how manipulative I was, how I was charming but had this secret dark side. Margaret would also tell me I didn’t understand love, or feel love because RAD and my early trauma prevented me from forming normal attachments. It messed with me psychologically because then I started questioning everything about myself. Was I good? When I was “good” was it just an act? I was never in therapy for RAD, there was never an official diagnosis. It was just Margaret using her Ph.D. to pathologize me. I accepted the RAD as a fact. I didn’t question it. Why would I? Margaret claimed honesty was an important value for her, and I couldn’t see how unethical she was being by diagnosing one of her own adopted sons or how manipulative and duplicitous she was being by hiding her abusive actions behind RAD.
“You aren’t a typical child,” she would tell me. “So I have to do things to you a typical parent wouldn’t do.” Holding my head underwater, tying me up, chasing my brother with a pickax, beating us, and other borderline abusive actions (hitting me with rakes, kicking me in the sides, slapping the back of my head) it was all to correct *our behavior*. “Do you think I enjoy this?” Margaret would ask us.
Yes, I think she did.
A Child Abuser Exposed
The year is 2009. My brother and I are 14 years old. Margaret is the assistant director, and then the director, of Moss Street Children’s Center, a University of Oregon-affiliated childcare program for students and faculty. Things are shifting at home, my brother starts running away (who can blame him) and other behaviors that put him at risk. The way I see it, he was also at risk of being home, so no matter what he did, he was in danger. Margaret started locking my brother in handcuffs. She would put them on him and lock him to a post on the back deck. This happened several times, and almost every time, I would get the handcuff key and let my brother out until just before Margaret would come home, I would put them back on my brother so it looked like he was locked up the entire time. I felt like a jailor, but I still understood deep down, even if I couldn’t communicate it, that this was WRONG.
Margaret knew it was wrong too, despite her desperate attempts to justify it. “No one would understand this or approve this,” she acknowledged. “But they don’t know what you boys are really like.”
Margaret often left my brother handcuffed outside late into the night. Sometimes she would get him a jacket, sometimes not. Margaret wouldn’t describe herself as dangerous, but that’s what she was, only to us, her family. To the outside world, she was this kind, supportive, funny mentor. But the cracks were starting to show.
Her employees at Moss Street were disgruntled by her leadership style. I always thought she was well-loved at Moss, but as it turns out, she made things difficult for the staff and not many people enjoyed working with or for her. She was also telling her employees stories about us and how she was “managing our behavior.” The red flags were obvious and should have been reported on, but they never were. At least, not from the public. The call about child abuse came from our adoptive aunt.
From what I’ve learned, my adoptive aunt Vicki heard about the handcuffs directly from Margaret. It upset her terribly. She was a teacher and told some of her friends. They warned her she would lose her job if she didn’t make a report to Child Protective Services. CPS didn’t act on her report initially, I’m not sure why. It wasn’t until December 12, 2009 (Margaret’s birthday of all days) that CPS officially became involved.
It was a cold day, 35 or 37 degrees. Margaret had to go to the feed store to pick up hay and grain for the horses and goats. She locked my brother in handcuffs, not even bothering to give him a jacket. As soon as she left, I let my brother out of the handcuffs.
He grabbed a jacket from the garage and ran away and didn’t come back. He walked several miles in the dark and cold alongside a busy highway to a friend’s house. He showed them the handcuff marks on his wrist, so they called CPS, who came to our house with police while Margaret and I ate dinner. Margaret immediately acted innocent. The police asked me how my brother got out of the handcuffs, I was too scared to tell them, especially with Margaret standing right there. CPS took note of all the locks on almost every door of the house, the handcuffs, and other signs of child abuse, and removed me. I was back in foster care a second time. I was 14.
Return to Foster Care
I hated being back in foster care. I had no privacy, I was with strangers, I missed my family and the animals, and I was afraid. Movies, tv, video games, and books became my escape. I played lots of Sims 2 and Animal Crossing. Deep down, I was lost, scared, and overwhelmed, but for the most part, I ignored those feelings and focused instead on external stimulation to distract me and please my new foster family so they would accept me. My grades in school suffered dramatically. I was unhealthy and unmotivated. Margaret would talk to me on the phone and tell me that I needed to be brave and “tell the truth.” She was so confident in her innocence, so it seemed.
Margaret assured everyone the truth would come out eventually. “The boys are lying,” she told people, and I think they believed her. After all, she was the expert, and we were troubled kids, suffering from issues long before she adopted us. Maybe that was their reasoning. The things people tell themselves to excuse violence against children are honestly disturbing.
Margaret retired early from her position as Director of Moss Street Children’s Center. She blamed us for that and was afraid she would get arrested for child abuse at her work. She borrowed $15,000 from her mother to pay off her house so a loan wouldn’t be taken out if she missed or couldn’t make the child support payments. She learned it was her own sister who also made a report to CPS about the handcuffs, causing tension in the family. Margaret cut anyone out of her life who thought her actions were abusive and surrounded herself with a cohort of enablers and abuse apologists and people she could easily manipulate. These people included Diane Bricker and the assistant director of Student Services, Jessi Steward, who oversaw Moss Street.
Margaret’s manipulations extended to me, and any attempt I made to protect myself meant further attacks. Laura, my foster mother, noticed I was sad and empty after conversations with Margaret. Laura started monitoring my phone calls with my adoptive mother, which angered her. She blamed me for reporting what she said to Laura and told me that I must have enjoyed getting her in further trouble. My identity crisis exploded as I began to see my authentic feelings as manipulations. Margaret was successful in her vindictive quest. I had no idea who I was, who my allegiances were with, or what was in my own best interest.
Laura took all of her foster children to a Church she attended. I was a closeted gay teenager, and I felt like I was wrong in every single way. I started writing about my experiences and feelings and surviving my adoptive mother’s abuse. With Laura’s encouragement, I called my writing “This Changes Everything” and entered it into a church writing competition. Writing is an outlet for me and it was my way of finding my voice for the first time. Somehow, the essay was entered into my foster care file as evidence, Margaret would tell me later. I don’t know how but my adoptive mother got a copy of the essay and read it. She was enraged, claiming that it was full of lies and that I was looking for attention. She was horrified that CPS would allow such an action. They said what I felt, “It was part of his healing process.”
Too bad I never healed. I was being bombarded with attacks on my very identity, accused of being a manipulative liar who intentionally wanted to destroy his mother’s career because he had a fun time playing video games in foster care. Margaret called foster care “Pleasure Island,” and would say things like: “You boys like being in foster care because you can do whatever you want, unlike at my house which has rules and structure. You love being on Pleasure Island.”
The truth was, I hated foster care but it was nice not being abused, belittled, and attacked constantly. At one point, Laura took me to Shriner’s Children’s Hospital and I was able to permanently remove my leg braces. Margaret felt she missed out on this experience and also blamed me for that. “Another thing your little stunt took away,” she said later. “Laura didn’t get you through the cerebral palsy, I did.”
My biological aunt, Karen, my father’s sister, eventually made contact with my brother and I. We visited them in the coastal town Karen lived in with her husband. Karen told us she would be willing to foster us. My brother wanted to stay with Laura, I think he felt that his biological family had already abandoned him and he had developed strong relationships at his school with a group of friends and didn’t want to uproot that. It was a different story for me. I wanted to be with family, and the thought of being with my biological family filled me with a sense of belonging that hadn’t been there before. I didn’t realize this at the time, but Margaret informed me years later that she reached out to Karen and let her know about the child abuse investigation.
I moved to the coast with all my belongings in trash bags. I had my own room again, I was with family (though not my brother), and I loved the coastal town I now called home. Karen and her husband went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable. They owned and operated two restaurants and were active in the community. I asked my aunt and uncle to adopt me back into the family, but that never came to pass.
I was happy, but still struggling with an identity crisis and many years of unresolved trauma and pain. My grades suffered in school, I struggled to focus and I had such a deep dislike of myself. I don’t think Karen was trauma-informed. She also didn’t know how to handle my identity crisis. I still missed my adoptive family, but Margaret was officially out of my life. It didn’t last. The only birthday card I ever got when I was in foster care was from my adoptive grandma, who wrote: “I hope that you will be encouraged to tell the truth.” It was that sentence that suddenly made me doubt and question everything I went through. Everyone saw me as a liar, so I started seeing myself as one too.
I started missing home. I also relapsed into old habits, pushing boundaries, acting up, and being dishonest. No wonder everyone doubted me. I eventually told my aunt, eight months after I moved in with her, that I wanted to go home. Karen called Margaret, who said I could come home on one condition:
I needed to retract everything I said about being abused. Without a second thought, I requested my foster care file, laid it out on Karen’s dining room table, and got to work clearing Margaret’s name.
The Voyage Home
At first, Margaret and Karen’s instructions were simple: go through your CPS file, write retractions, and admit to lying. I went through every single page, calling myself a liar, making retractions about things that happened, and writing a multi-page document and apology letter. I was so desperate for attention and love that I didn’t see the harm I was doing by writing these letters and retracting my statements about the abuse my brother and I endured. I was 15 now, still very impressionable, with no real identity of my own outside the toxic projections of Margaret and now my own aunt as well.
My aunt Karen fully bought into the toxicity. She looked for holes in my story, priding herself on her “investigative abilities,” and started communicating almost daily with Margaret. Margaret saw Karen as an ally. “She saved you,” she would tell me. “If it wasn’t for Karen, you wouldn’t have told the truth.”
Looking back, I wish I never went to Karen’s house. To have your own flesh and blood turn on you and send you back into a dangerous abusive environment was a betrayal I’m still recovering from. All the warning signs were there, and my own foster care file said premature contact with my adoptive mother would result in further trauma. I guess my aunt missed that part. Karen took me to one joint-counseling session with Margaret and a therapist named Carl Peterson. They all lectured me about telling the truth, told me I gave away my moral compass, and that my “lies about my mother” had deeply hurt her.
I don’t even think Margaret was required to take parenting classes. So many corners were cut with our foster care case, and so much abuse was enabled. With my retractions complete, I was allowed to return home. My brother and Laura tried to warn me what would happen. They asked what I was doing, why I was doing this. I said: “because we lied.” My relationship with my brother completely fell apart, and I deserved it because I betrayed my brother and was essentially calling him a con artist. The battle lines had been drawn, and now we were on opposite sides of the field. I was in the enemy camp, silently enabling and prolonging more trauma and abuse.
When I returned home to Margaret, she made me call every single member of my adoptive family and apologize for lying. They accepted my apology. I was 16 and started high school at the Academy of Arts and Academics. I was able to turn my grades around and I started making goals for myself again. I wanted to go to college and graduate with a degree in journalism. Margaret heavily encouraged this but went overboard, punishing me if I got Cs and telling me that Bs weren’t going to get me into college.
Margaret was also starting to show signs of explicit mental unwellness that she was able to hide from everyone but me and her siblings. She would alternate between a sweet lady with a sense of humor and a cruel, calculated manipulator with ease. Somehow she became even more rageful and vindictive. She would scream at me for hours about how selfish I was and how I had given her PTSD from “my little stunt.” She amped up her game about Reactive Attachment Disorder, telling me that it was the root cause for a lot of what happened.
I was trying to just exist. I wasn’t in therapy, I started acting up again; stealing from school, running away from home, and lying to Margaret about all my activities. She would set a limit and I pushed back. I never really understood why my behavior was so bad. I didn’t understand that Margaret had astronomical expectations of me that she didn’t hold herself to. I remember emailing Karen, telling her about what Margaret was doing and that she was attacking me for not doing enough to clear her name.
This was Karen’s response:
No one would help me. No one would listen. So I tried to get my shit together and in 2014, I graduated high school and was accepted into the University of Oregon. I truly thought things would improve. How wrong I was.
The Letter Writing Campaign
During my freshman year of college, Margaret again increased her attacks. I was living in the dorms and would never move in with her again, but that didn’t stop her from periodically reminding me what a terrible person I was. As an alumnus of the University of Oregon, Margaret never lost access to her university email. Margaret didn’t text, she only emailed. The emails she sent started in 2012, two years before I even began college. They were excruciatingly abusive and cruel, accusing me of being a master manipulator, and a criminal, and referencing my “attachment disorder.” She also demanded that I do more to clear her name. “You are an adult now,” she would write me. “You can’t expect to be successful or live a rewarding life with these skeletons in your closet.”
Margaret’s goals were clear, even though I couldn’t see them at the time. She wanted her career back, and her friend and mentor Diane Bricker was willing to help her. Diane played an interesting role in all this. She listened to everything Margaret told her. She also established a college fund for me with $15,000. Margaret told me Diane would only let me have funds if I continued retracting and being “honest.” I was taking out loans to pay for college and the $15,000 would help make a dent in student loan repayment.
It took me a while to start the process. I was so guilty and believed to my core that I was a terrible person who did these things to my mother without a second thought. I eventually started writing more letters, first to the Governor’s Advocacy Office of Salem, then to the CPS agents involved in our case, and finally to the Child Care Division, explaining that I had reactive attachment disorder, I was a hateful child, and that I intentionally destroyed Margaret’s career:
Those letters, along with Margaret paying to have her arrest record expunged, seemed to be enough to clear her name. Diane hired Margaret to work at EC Cares. Margaret would test children and also prepare testing kits for other employees. She wrote a chapter in Diane’s new book along with Marisa Macy, Kevin Marks, and Jane Squires, all early educators who were working alongside a child abuser.
Meanwhile, over the years, I struggled in school and eventually dropped out, even though I was 11 credits or so credits from graduating. I felt guilty so I lied to Margaret and told her that I had graduated. The lie wasn’t sustainable obviously and it didn’t take long for Margaret to learn that I hadn’t graduated. She wanted to see my degree and kept asking me when I would get a copy of it. She was enraged that I lied to her and told everyone what I had done. I honestly struggled so much to tell Margaret about any of my shortcomings, so I lied instead. She thought it was because I hated her, but the truth was simple: I wanted to get away from Margaret and her sphere of influence. I didn’t feel safe at the University of Oregon, especially because her EC Cares headquarters was across the street from my apartment. As a result of Margaret’s mental torture of me and the letters she forced me to write, my grades plummeted, and I became depressed and withdrawn.
I tried working as an administrative assistant at another childcare facility for almost two years, but I struggled with focusing and completing my duties. I felt like I was learning things too slowly and felt guilty that I had to be reminded about things by my supervisors multiple times. I also was still being hounded by Margaret, who demanded my help at her house with the horses and told me that I was re-affirming her fears of my attachment disorder whenever I chose not to commit to her or the family.
I was feeling ready to snap.
I was Brainwashed
I met my partner Alex, who I believe, became one of the first people to love me unconditionally. Alex was sweet, kind, nurturing, and funny. He was protective of me and also patient, allowing me to take time to become intimate. He listened without judgment, and only wanted to be supportive when I told him that, as a teenager, I had issues and fabricated abuse stories about my mom that caused her to lose her job. I started dating Alex and for the first time, started feeling comfortable about my identity. I came out to my family, friends, and colleagues. Alex and I were very private, we didn’t post pictures of ourselves online or anything. We just enjoyed each other’s company. We worked through issues by talking about them, although it did take me a little bit of practice to do this.
I was so used to walking on eggshells and I was always afraid to reveal my true feelings. But Alex showed me he cared deeply, even when we had a disagreement or fight. I felt like he understood me on a deep level, more than anyone else. I loved his laugh, his intelligence, and his warmth. He stuck by me no matter what.
I told Margaret about Alex and she was very supportive. She always knew that I was gay and I did appreciate the way she encouraged that part of my identity. For me, knowing that she always knew I was gay was comforting, it tricked me for a moment and made me believe, that yes, Margaret knew me better than I knew myself. However, Margaret didn’t believe I told Alex about the “terrible thing to her I had done.”
“You need to tell him what you did to your mother,” she insisted. “You can’t expect to build meaningful or lasting relationships with people if you have a huge lie in your past like the one you have.” Margaret also told me that she hoped I had a relationship in my life that ended because I hurt that person so that I could experience what it was like to be betrayed. “I hope that doesn’t happen to you, because losing a relationship is hard, but I do hope it happens so you can experience consequences for the first time,” she told me. Margaret believed I had this uncanny streak of luck that let me get away with everything with minimal consequences.
Margaret’s repeated lectures about how I was this secretly charming guy with a dark side completely took a toll, and I tried to go no contact. It was hard and I was full of guilt for being a bad son, not clearing her name, and for carrying around this huge secret of this terrible thing I had orchestrated. It was impossible to go no-contact. Margaret wanted to know where I worked, what I was doing, and why I wasn’t helping her.
One time a fire broke out several miles from Margaret’s home. My aunt Karen called me and told me about it, asking me if I was planning to help my adoptive mother. Another example of Karen quietly pushing me back into an abusive relationship. I felt guilty and called Margaret to check on her. She asked if I was planning to help her move the horses and pack up and leave if the fire was severely out of control. I told her I just wanted to check on her and hung up. She wasn’t in any danger and the fire was dealt with.
She would mention that incident on several occasions, using it as an example of “how I hated her.”
Alex and I moved in together but I became deeply depressed, just in time for the beginning of the pandemic, when COVID spread like wildfire and killed millions. I was freaked out, mentally and spiritually exhausted, and all the past trauma was beginning to catch up with me. I resigned from my job and became a hermit, barely leaving the apartment, happy for the quarantine because it gave me a chance to stay home, the one place I felt safe and in control. I felt like a shell of a human being. I was starting to begin to realize that I was not the things Margaret said I was, but the realization was a long process.
Margaret stole my identity from me and gave me a false one based on her own toxic projections. She brainwashed me so deeply for many years, but her control over me would soon start to break.
Back into the Lion’s Den
In 2020, I was still depressed, not working and not leaving the apartment. Alex was doing the best he could to support both of us, and I felt guilty and still do for putting this burden on his shoulders. Being the partner of a traumatized adoptee is never easy and takes lots of time to build trust. I hadn’t yet told Alex the full scope of the abuse I experienced. In some ways, it was locked in the back of my mind, inaccessible at the moment. I just thought I was a shitty person. For many years I struggled with suicidal ideation. I never went beyond wishing I didn’t exist, but I truly felt like a drain on society. I thought it was only a matter of time before I destroyed someone the way I had done to Margaret.
And then, Margaret called me.
“Can you come and feed the horses for a few days?” she asked me. She told me that she had a pretty significant spinal surgery coming up and she would need time to recuperate. Margaret was slowly losing strength in her hands and arms for a few years, and it related to an injury in her spine.
Without even thinking, I said “Yes.” I was grateful actually, because I thought this is what we needed to repair our relationship. I thought it was time for us to finally move forward as mother and son.
A few days later, Margaret’s neighbor picked me up. My adoptive aunt Vicki was staying at Margaret’s house. I guess they reconnected and had something of a relationship, but I was surprised when Vicki told me that she was going home the very day Margaret got out of the hospital. Vicki was exhausted and had a heart attack recently in the past, so I didn’t blame her for leaving. I also knew Vicki had a right to protect her peace, a peace Margaret frequently violated. I figured Margaret must have made arrangements for care with someone else, maybe her brother, Stephen, or even her sisters Dana and Dawn.
But when Vickie left, no one else came to take her place. A family friend drove Margaret home from the hospital. I had just fed the horses and was preparing to leave to go back home for the evening, but Margaret looked exhausted and overwhelmed when she realized none of her family was there to help. I didn’t know it at the time, but Margaret was beginning to experience consequences for the way she treated people, and one of those consequences meant she didn’t have help from the people she needed it most from.
“Is anyone staying with you?” I asked her. I was very concerned for her, but I was also taken aback by her condition. She looked small and frail. I felt protective over her and couldn’t believe that for many years, I had been deeply terrified of this woman.
“No,” she told me.
So I offered to stay and take care of her. I remember feeling reluctant to do this deep down inside even though I willingly extended my help, and I was guilty for being reluctant. I didn’t understand that my brain was telling me: Get out. Never see this woman again. Let her own family deal with her,” but none of her siblings were there and I didn’t want her to be alone. I told myself that things would be okay. I stayed with Margaret for a week, managed her medication, washed her hair, cooked for her, fed and cleaned up after the horses, and helped Margaret with her physical therapy.
Margaret thought I was doing an excellent job taking care of her and managing things. “You should consider a career being a caregiver,” she suggested. I declined but pretended to be somewhat interested because that’s what people pleasers do. She suggested I ask questions to all the nurses who visited the house and told them all how good at this I was. I was happy to help, happy to feel needed by my mother. She even let me drive her Chevrolet truck (which I hated driving because of how big it was and I didn’t think I was a good driver), back and forth from my apartment to her house. I would feed the horses in the morning, clean their paddocks, and help Margaret with household chores and cooking. I’d go home for a few hours and then return in the evening to do it all again.
Slowly Margaret started adding to my duties. She had me powerwash the wooden fence that surrounded the deck, cleaned the windows and her truck, run errands in town, took her to appointments, and clean out the garage. She had me sit down and write a list on my phone of all the duties she wanted me to take on. “You’re here and I need your help,” she told me. “I could easily find someone else, so if you don’t want to do this, tell me.” But Margaret knew what to say to make me feel guilty, and I didn’t want to let her down by walking away.
Despite the “positives,” I was starting to feel extremely overwhelmed. Margaret was taking all my personal time, and I started only seeing Alex in the evenings when I returned home from Margaret’s house. Margaret didn’t even want me talking to Alex on the phone when I was around her. “Your attention needs to be on me and your chores, not Alex,” she would say.
Margaret also suggested I go back to school. She paid for a $3,000 balance I had when I dropped out, which let me register for courses. I was re-enrolled at the University of Oregon, and I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time. Besides, Margaret seemed proud of me for stepping up. She also encouraged me to have a relationship with Diane Bricker. “Let her be your mentor,” Margaret told me. “Diane is well connected and smart.” Diane was proud of me for going back to school and for “being honest.” She would take me to NPR benefit dinners that she attended. I truly thought Diane had my best interests at heart, I couldn’t see that she was also manipulating me and enabling horrific abuse.
Margaret’s cruelty would often rear its head, she’d make comments on my weight and demand to know my exact weight. If I didn’t lose a pound or two, Margaret would tell me: “I guess your health isn’t that important to you. If it was, you would lose weight.”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” I told her. I was 27 years old and it was the first time I tried to set boundaries with her. “No, we are talking about this,” she insisted. “You tell me that you want to lose weight but you haven’t lost anything for a while. It must not be that important to you after all, but at least be honest about it.”
Another incident stood out to me. Tibby, Margaret’s dog, passed away. I loved Tibby and felt very attached to him. I dug Tibby a grave and we buried him after he died. I was crying and Margaret looked at me and said: “I just don’t know if your tears are real.”
Over the summer at Margaret’s house, I’d shred papers and receipts for her and I managed the recycling and took the trash out. I also made copies of the paperwork she needed at Kincos. I accidentally recycled a piece of paper with Margaret’s social security number on it. “How could you be so careless?” she asked me. She instructed me to go to Kincos and dumpster dive until I found the piece of paper with the social security number. At this point, I was starting to feel broken and worn down. I knew I made a mistake but it was never just a simple mistake with Margaret. She found every opportunity to exert her control cruelly. I remember driving to her house the next day, I was feeling overwhelmed and knew she would lecture me about the paper with the social security number.
Margaret’s behavior in other matters also weighed heavily on my mind. She would talk to me for hours about how terrible I was for lying about the abuse. She asked me: Was I abusive? I didn’t want to anger her so I said “no.” But deep down I knew the truth, and I decided that it was time for her to find someone else to take care of her. The way I saw it, I had taken care of her for several months and my attention to detail was not where it needed to be to meet her expectations.
I entered the house and was almost ready to tell her it was time for her to find someone else to help her. “You look like you’ve been shot,” she told me, seeing how uncomfortable I was. I told her I didn’t like the way she treated me sometimes, it was hard to do. “So you’re just going to leave,” she said to me. “You got what you wanted, I paid for your balance to go back to school, and now you want to be done with me.” She kept saying things like that and was angrier and angrier. “What is wrong with you?” she shouted at me. “You are so selfish.” She then wanted me to give her my phone so she could call Alex (who was at work) and ask him what was going on with me. “Give me your phone,” she said, her face red and her voice sharp as a knife. “No,” I told her. “Give it to me!” she shouted.
I couldn’t believe this. I was 27 years old and she was treating me like a child. Then it struck me. She would never see me as an adult. Suddenly Margaret changed her tactics. “The horses need you,” she said. “I can feed them but it will take me a long time. Please just stay for the animals. Please. Do you want me to beg you?” With that, I caved to her again, even though my brain was screaming at me to walk out and never return. Margaret then informed me it was my responsibility to tell her all the times she was mean to me. She would say something and then look at me quickly and say “Was that mean?”
Margaret’s bullying was taking a toll on me. Alex noticed how sad and exhausted I always seemed when I came home from Margaret’s house. I didn’t tell him about her cruelty, but he suspected. “Something is wrong,” he told me. “No,” I assured him. “I’m okay.” I should have listened to him, I should have opened up about what I was experiencing. Instead, I denied and deflected, thinking it was all just me.
Margaret received a letter from her sister, Dawn, and the letter hurt her deeply. Dawn confronted Margaret about the 25 years of mental and psychological abuse she had experienced from her own sister and ended their relationship. “Am I abusive? Did I abuse you? Why does everyone say I’m abusive?’ Margaret would say to me. In Margaret’s mind, she was never in the wrong, everyone else was. She couldn’t see her own actions, or she didn’t want to see them. But the truth was there and everyone in the family knew it. Margaret was an abuser. It was a painful truth to come to terms with.
I started some communication with my brother. We had talked on and off throughout the years, and somehow, he never held against me what happened. He understood, more so than me, how Margaret had used me to save her career and clear her name. Margaret warned me to always be on my guard with my brother. “He’ll take advantage of you,” she insisted. “He’s a liar and a fraud. You would understand because you are one too.”
It was now December of 2020. I had been taking care of Margaret for six months. I was finally at the end of my rope.
The Last Straw
A few weeks before Christmas 2020, I was helping Margaret write Christmas cards to her friends and family. Margaret was making some progress with her physical therapy but the use of her hands was still extremely limited. I was planning on having Christmas breakfast with Margaret and Alex. A small voice in my head kept telling me not to expose Alex to any of Margaret’s games. She liked him a lot (“Now there’s a young many who loves his mother,” she would tell me) and I didn’t think she would pull anything with him around because she had learned to be on her best behavior when she was around anyone but family.
I picked up Margaret’s address book when I came across the name of a friend of hers, Mary Langness. I won’t go into too much detail about Mary, but Mary was a babysitter and foster parent who Margaret knew. Mary would often look after me and my brother, but she was extremely abusive. I guess abusive people flock together. Mary struck me on the back of the head with a chain, I think I was around ten years old. It caused a pretty big cut and I was bleeding. Mary and her daughter Sam used wipes on me to clean up the blood. I never told Margaret what happened until years later, because I didn’t think she would believe me and I was so used to carrying around the secrets of cruel adults.
Anyway, I came across Mary’s name in the address book. Margaret was sitting next to me and noticed. “Let’s send Mary a Christmas card,” she joked. “Merry Christmas Mary. Remember when you bashed Mack’s head with a chain?”
I felt instantly sick to my stomach.
“No,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm.
“No,” Margaret mimicked me, exaggeratedly contorting her face and changing her voice to a higher pitch as if to further dehumanize me.
I knew this was the final straw. I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s like the truth smacked me in the face as if to say: “I’ve been here the whole time, why didn’t you notice me?” I didn’t say much to Margaret as I left, only “goodnight” and that I would see her tomorrow. I drove halfway home in Margaret’s truck before I pulled into the parking lot of an Albertsons and broke down. I was crying. I let all my emotions out. I called my brother and told him what happened. He told me the same thing he had told me every time he heard about the things Margaret was doing and saying: “Get away from her.”
I drove the rest of the way home. I broke down to Alex. “I can’t do this anymore,” I told him.
“So don’t,” he told me gently.
The next morning I called all of my adoptive family. I was in one mindset: Margaret had used me and taken advantage of me. I was done. She was no longer my problem, let her siblings deal with her. I felt so betrayed and I realized Margaret would never change, no matter what I did. I drove the truck to her house, dropped it off, and left. That was the last time I saw her, even to this day.
Margaret had forbidden me from talking about her with anyone in the family. I didn’t care anymore. “I don’t think any of you know how serious her condition is,” I told my adoptive family. I was surprised when my adoptive family informed me that they did know, but that they wouldn’t be taking care of Margaret, who had pretty much destroyed all her relationships with her family at that point.
Vicki was supportive and told me that everyone in the family agreed I should get as far away from Margaret. “She treats everyone well except her family,” Vicki told me. I realized this was my chance, to be honest with my adoptive family, so I called every one of them and told them: “I never lied about being abused.”
The response I got back shook me.
Out of the Fog
At first, it felt good to have my experiences corroborated by everyone in the family. I felt comfortable enough to tell them the truth about Margaret’s abuse and how she had done things like hold my head under the water and tied me up. I also started questioning reactive attachment disorder. In recent years I had my suspicions that my diagnosis was faked, but Margaret refused to be upfront about it. “It’s probably in your file somewhere,” she lied to me when I asked her the date I was diagnosed, and who diagnosed me. I knew she was lying.
I related this information to Vicki. I also sent Margaret a final email, telling her I remembered her abuse and that I was done. Margaret sent me a response email.
All of a sudden, it was like the mask had fallen off and I could see Margaret for the abuser she was. I also could tell how much manipulation and gaslighting was in the email, and her line: “I’m not denying the actions, just the intent,” stuck out to me. I then realized Margaret had sent this email from her University of Oregon email. I started looking through my email and found ten years’ worth of abusive, retaliatory emails Margaret had sent me. I requested my files from when I was a infant and toddler and found nothing that referenced any attachment disorder. I also found copies of all the letters Margaret forced me to write.
Reading the letters ten years after I had written them made me sick to my stomach. For the first time, I could see how easily I let Margaret brainwash me. I took screenshots of the emails, saved all the letters, and knew that I could never be around Margaret again. I was angry. I felt like Margaret had stolen everything about me and replaced it with her twisted version. Vicki was also disgusted by the details I shared with her.
“She needs to be in jail,” Vicki told me once. I didn’t want Margaret to go to jail.
But I did want accountability. I contacted my biological aunt Karen and asked her: “How could you let me go back into this environment? You knew she was abusing me.”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Karen snapped. “It was your choice to go home. Not ours.” Karen did acknowledge that Margaret had brainwashed me, but I realized she wouldn’t be honest with me and that she was unwilling to look at how much abuse she enabled against her brother’s sons. I cut Karen out of my life.
I called two of Margaret’s friends, Diane and Jessi, who both still worked at the university. Jessi was a close friend of Margaret’s and would often come over for dinner or drop by the house. She is also the assistant director of student services at the University of Oregon, and she oversaw Moss Street while Margaret was the director. Margaret was also friends with Jessi’s mother. She made sure to tell them about how I tried to destroy her career.
I met with Jessi in her office. I started telling her everything about the abuse and how Margaret had lied about everything. Jessi looked shocked before she interrupted me and said: what is your goal here? I had nothing to do with that.”
My conversation with Diane Bricker was similar. “How could this happen?” I asked her. I was in tears and deeply distressed. “I never lied about the abuse.” I also asked Diane about the supposed “Reactive attachment disorder?”
“I know you have problems,” Diane told me. She then suggested I check myself into a psychiatric hospital. Diane built her career and livelihood off the exploitation of disabled children. When confronted by one of the disabled children she exploited (me), Diane denied and deflected, told me to check myself into a psychiatric hospital, and suggested my therapist call and talk to Margaret to “hear her perspective.” I knew that was a bad idea and I was starting to feel that Diane was manipulating me. “There are no perspectives,” I argued. “There’s only the truth, and the truth is she abused us.”
“I won’t tell your mother we had this conversation,” Diane said. I realized I needed to stop talking to her, so I hung up the phone. I also realized how deeply involved in this Diane was. All the people who enabled Margaret’s abuse suddenly had nothing to say, they wanted me to shut up.
I also cut contact with all my adoptive family. I couldn’t believe how much they enabled, how much they stood by. I couldn’t believe they all accepted my apology when Margaret forced me to apologize to each of them individually for “tearing apart the family.” They knew what Margaret was capable of, and somehow felt comfortable letting me deal with it on my own.
I told Alex the whole story of what Margaret had put me and my brother through. He was sad about what I experienced and asked me why I hadn’t told him the recent things Margaret was saying and doing. I think it’s because I forced myself to compartmentalize. It’s almost like Margaret existed in another world for me, and as soon as I left her world, her cruelty and abuse became locked away in my mind. I still felt the emotional aftermath, but I didn’t dwell explicitly on the abuse until recently. I normalized her emails. I normalized her belittling remarks. I had normalized her behavior since I was a child.
For the first time in my life, I could see how abnormal Margaret’s behavior truly was. I grieved immensely. I grieved for the mother I never had, for the childhood that was robbed from me. I grieved for the little boy whose head was forced under the water, who was left tied up multiple times, and who had his humanity stolen. I grieved for my brother, who was attacked and slandered needlessly and cruelly, some of it from myself in my attempts to clear Margaret’s name.
I remember laying in bed listening to this Linda Ronstadt song over and over, Different Drum, a song Margaret loved. I listened to it and it made me feel closer to Margaret the human. But then I realized I could no longer separate Margaret into different people. She was my abuser. It was a difficult thing to reconcile. I deleted the song from my music. I still haven’t listened to it to this day.
I also tried participating in online weekly therapy for almost six months. My therapist diagnosed me with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. She had some tools for dealing with being raised by a parent with narcissism, but I didn’t agree with her approaches to my adoption trauma. It almost felt like I was being encouraged to move on, forget about it all, and focus on the future, which is a nice sentiment. But someone said something recently that stuck with me: it’s hard to move on when you’re an adoptee. Not every adoption experience is the same, but one of the most healing parts of this journey was discovering a whole community of adoptees who’ve had similar experiences.
It’s also hard to move when you’ve experienced the levels of corruption and cruelty that I experienced. I knew that forgetting about all this wasn’t in the cards for me.
The Exploitation of Vulnerable Children. There are other survivors. Let’s find them.
At the end of the day, these educated white women with resources at their disposal went into a field where they could exert control over the most vulnerable populations. It was never about helping us, it was about data collection and it was about advancing their careers. These women like Diane Bricker and Margaret Veltman weaponized education in the most insidious way possible, for their own advancement.
I maintain that the BASE program (which thankfully doesn’t exist anymore) was rooted in unethical behavior. Margaret and Diane purposefully targeted a group of people in crisis with few resources. Margaret adopted two of her research subjects, myself and my brother. Her friends, Erika and Joseph, adopted another girl named Acacia after Acacia’s young birth mother entered BASE. I remember Acacia, I think I met her a few times when I was a kid. What I remember is Erika and Joseph would send us Christmas cards and gifts every year, almost like they were thanking Margaret for helping them steal a child from their mother who was trying to do everything they asked of her.
I started researching BASE. I found Margaret’s Ph.D. and then I found the dissertations of several early educators who based their work on Margaret and Diane. I found several articles on Margaret’s research and realized that as a child with cerebral palsy and communication issues, I ticked every box of her avenue of expertise.
I found a legal report detailing a young parent who entered BASE only to have her parental rights terminated by the court (guess who was at the termination hearing? Yep. Margaret). I realized this was widespread and deeply rooted in systems of oppression, taking advantage of children in crisis, often disabled children. Margaret was taking videos of the children in BASE and sent those videos out to other universities. It’s all rooted in corruption.
How I’ve Healed—or the lack of healing
I haven’t healed from this experience. I am looking for an adoption-competent therapist now. I also refused to carry the secrets of these abusers any longer.
Their actions directly impacted my life and my issues are severe. I still heavily disassociate and I barely leave the apartment. I don’t work, I didn’t finish my degree. I suffer in silence and in darkness, doubting myself every step of the way. The guilt on my shoulders is a heavy burden to bear. Who I am? Who am I outside of what Margaret tried to mold me into? Maybe I’ll never get an answer to that question.
Maybe I’ll never get accountability from Margaret Veltman, Diane Bricker, Karen Bedard, and Jessi Steward. Maybe enablers like Marisa Macy, Kevin Marks, and Jane Squires will continue to work in the field of early education. Maybe nothing will change.
But the truth is in the open now. My voice was stolen from me for years but I’ve found it again. My moral compass was hijacked by toxic individuals who held me to higher standards than they held themselves. I’ve broken free from their influence and I will never let anyone treat me like that again. Period. Full stop. End of discussion.
If you’ve made it to the end of this, I thank you. Truly. Thank you for reading my words. I hope the people who can affect change see this. I hope fellow survivors see this. I hope anyone who was victimized by Margaret Veltman and Diane Bricker knows that I will listen to you, I believe you, and I’ll fight for you.
Whatever it takes.