American Stories: 1974-1994
03/07/1994 at 01:00 AM EST
A mother finds safety in exile
For years, a happy ending to her ordeal seemed beyond imagining. In a 1987 legal battle that made headlines around the world, Washington plastic surgeon Elizabeth Morgan was sent to prison after refusing to allow unsupervised visits between her ex-husband, oral surgeon Eric Foretich, and their daughter Hilary, 5, whom Morgan alleged Foretich had sexually abused. Morgan went free after 25 months, but Hilary remained in hiding with Morgan's parents in New Zealand, and in 1990 Foretich, who has always sworn his innocence, tracked down his daughter and filed for custody.
Today, for Morgan and for 11-year-old Hilary, now called Ellen, those nightmare days are a fading memory. "Ellen is fine—that's the beautiful part," says Morgan, 46, who won sole custody in a New Zealand court. Returning to the U.S. would still mean enforced visits with Foretich, so mother and daughter now share a small house in Christchurch with Morgan's mother, Antonia (who is separated from Elizabeth's father, William). Morgan, who does not allow Ellen to be interviewed, says their new life hasn't always been easy. "Ellen was scared of being angry at me—when you lose something, you don't want to lose it again," she says. "The day she got angry, I knew she was feeling normal."
A sixth grader who's "not a tomboy, but not what she calls a Miss Priss either," says Morgan, Ellen enjoys gymnastics and ice skating with her mom, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in trauma psychology. Morgan's husband of four years, Washington judge Paul Michel, can't move to Christchurch but visits twice a year. "It's tough," says Morgan. But she'll take-it. "Being back together with Ellen," she says, "is the most wonderful thing in the world."
A child's new home in the heartland
The abuse started even before her birth. While pregnant, her mother was so brutally beaten by her husband that scar tissue formed and constricted Adriana's limbs. She was born with a malformed hand, a missing forearm and club feet. And, like thousands of other unwanted children in her desperately poor country, Adriana was warehoused in a crowded, unregulated Rumanian orphanage.
Today, 5½-year-old Adriana (nicknamed Ana) lives in Bright, Ind., with her adoptive family, the Dorrs: Greti, 40, a hospital coordinator; Rick, 36, a technician for British Petroleum; and their children, Elizabeth, 8, and Benjamin, 5. And on this winter day, the preschooler has a special visitor: Barbara Bascom, an American pediatrician who has spent years working to upgrade Rumania's orphanages. Bascom, 57, was cuddling Adriana in a photo that ran in PEOPLE in January 1991, a photo that touched the Dorrs so deeply they decided to adopt Adriana. After traveling 5,300 miles—and wading through miles of red tape—Greti brought their 3-year-old daughter home in July 1991.
If Greti is delighted to meet the doctor ("Her name has been a household word," she says) and Bascom is happily stunned ("Ana's progress is beyond my wildest dreams"), the little girl takes it all in stride. "I don't know if I remember or not," says Ana, who speaks beautiful English and loves Barney, "but I know anyway."
Sadly, many adopted Rumanians, scarred by years in institutions where children may be tied up or sedated, have serious problems, particularly in learning to communicate. Bascom is now trying to establish support services for their U.S. families. And while orphanage conditions have improved in Rumania, she says, "There are thousands of kids who need homes like Ana's."
Ana doesn't take her good fortune lightly. After operations that separated the fused fingers of her left hand and straightened one of her feet, she has been fitted with her second right-arm prosthesis. Her gratitude is simple and profound. "I was born without a hand," she says. "Now I have a new one. I feel better."
On for the record books
If you wore on Route 2 in Massachusetts on April 30. 1986, you may remember seeing Ashrita Furman. Mo was the one somersaulting the reverse, downhill route of Paul Revere's 1775 ride from Lexington to Charlestown—and into the Guinness Book of Records. Since then, Furman, 39, a health food store manager in Jamaica, N.Y., has continued to exert himself. A follower of guru Sri Chinmoy, who is himself an advocate of athletic overkill, Furman has completed 307 consecutive hopscotch games in 24 hours, balanced a milk bottle on his head for 70 miles and carried a nine-pound brick in one hand for 64 miles. He also notched his 12th entry in the Guinness book by pogo-sticking for 3 hours and 40 minutes in the Amazon River. "It was scary," he says, "but it got me over my fear of piranhas."
Determined to make the grade
Frustrated in her attempts to master English, Korean immigrant Yong Duckworth enrolled in elementary school in Chrisney, Ind., in 1986 as a 35-year-old first grader. "I got smart brains," she said at the time, "but I lazy." Lazy? Duckworth liked school so much that she kept at the books even when her factory-worker husband threatened divorce unless she got a job. (The pair split last year.) Now 42 and a high school junior with a 3.5 average, she has improved her language skills—though son Simon, a sixth grader at her old school, still helps her with English composition. Duckworth makes ends meet by doing tailoring, but she has bigger dreams. "I want a Ph.D. in art," she says. "I want to go all the way."
In the war on drugs, fire was their weapon
The police were unable to stop drug dealers from invading Detroit's working-class Barlow Street, so in 1987 neighbors Angelo "Butch" Parisi and Perry Kent took the law into their own hands and burned down a crack house. Barlow Street made heroes of the two, raising money for their legal defense. Parisi and Kent (back on the block) were acquitted of arson, but their victory was short-lived. As Barlow Street continued to deteriorate, landscaper Kent, 34 (left), moved to another neighborhood. Auto repairman Parisi, 34, stayed on, but without his girlfriend, who was so terrified the dealers would retaliate that she moved out with their two children. "I feel like I won the battle on the street," says Parisi, "but lost the battle at home."
They called it murder, but the he did it for love
I have no regrets about what I did," says Roswell Gilbert. "If I thought it was wrong, I'd be a miserable bastard."
On March 4, 1985, in the living room of their Fort Lauderdale home, Gilbert, 77, shot and killed his wife, Emily, 73, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis. His punishment—he was sentenced to 25 years—set off a national debate about mercy killing that helped lead to Gilbert's release in 1990. Now back in the condo he shared with his wife, Gilbert, 84, frail but "not too lonely," he says, spends his days reading and seeing friends. "I can't believe anyone would get bored living in these times," he adds. He dreams often of Emily ("I can't see her face, but! know she's there") and is prepared to join her. On the wall in his kitchen, where no one can miss it., hangs his own living will.
Spreading the word on Alaska's husky hunks
Anchorage day-care manager Susie Carter felt that the single men of her home state were an underappreciated resource, so in 1988 she started Alaska Men personals magazine. Women readers, mostly from the Lower 48, quickly boosted circulation to 23,000. Of the dozens of marriages Carter, 51, attributes to the magazine (there have also been divorces, but who's counting), she's proudest of the one between her daughter Cheryl, 26, and bachelor Shawn Babbitt, 28. Business reverses drove the magazine into bankruptcy in 1991, but Alaska Men, with new financing, is back—without addresses, a feature of early issues. "Women kept showing up," says Carter. And readers are now advised: "Don't send money or plane tickets."
In one bookshop, he's a best-seller
All the fancy New York City publishers rejected "me 77 Henry," Walter Swan's collection of homespun tales about his Depression-era youth, so in 1989 the retired plasterer paid to have it published and opened the One Book Bookstore in Bisbee, Ariz. Swan, 77, has sold more than 25,000 copies at $20 each, providing a retirement nest egg for himself and his wife Deloris, 72. Their new $500-a-month space, down the street from the old store, includes a section called the Other Book Store that carries the latest additions to Walter's oeuvre—The Old Timer's Cookbook, "me 'n Mama, "How To Be a Better Me and Adventure Stories. "I don't have any business writing books," says Walter, an eighth-grade dropout, "but I've got imagination that just won't quit."
Cher today, gone tomorrow
Wendy Oates does not do a Cher impersonation. "I leave that to my gay friends," she says. It's not that she's bitter. It's just that looking almost exactly like Cher—as Oates, 46, did for much of the 1970s—was such a mixed blessing. "I was asked for autographs," she says. "I got great tables in restaurants." Yet even as she turned down big-money offers to pose nude, Oates says she saw her promising modeling career fade as the resemblance made advertisers shy away from her. In 1979, tired of looking, she says, "like a biker slut," Oates chose a remedy that Cher herself might admire—yes, plastic surgery. The TV guest parts virtually poured in and today, with her auburn hair, new nose and reshaped eyes, she doesn't look like the old Wendy Oates or the old Cher (not that Cher does either). Lately, though, people have been saying she looks like Anjelica Huston.
They're not rocket scientists—but they could be
As newlyweds in 1987, artificial-heart inventor Dr. Robert Jarvik and Marilyn Vos Savant, brainiest person on earth according to the Guinness Book of Records, named "nucleosynthesis of lithium, beryllium and boron" as their No. 1 turn-on. Well, that part of the honeymoon is over—and probably not a moment too soon. Vos Savant, 46, and Jarvik, 47, still live in Manhattan, and they're still smart. He's working on a new heart pump; her new book—I Forgot Everything I Learned in High School—will be published this spring. But now they have a new obsession—ballroom dancing. "My husband's not so hot at the tango," says Vos Savant, "but don't tell him."
Hey, he's a bright guy—he'll figure it out.
Learning to be ordinary again
Like the rest of us, heroes have to grow up. In January 1992, John Thompson personified bravery. After his arms were severed in a machinery accident at his family's Hurdsfield, N.Dak., farm, he endured microsurgery to reattach his limbs and charmed us all with humility and humor. "I came in in three pieces," he said as he left the hospital. "I'm going home in one."
Recovery, though, has proved onerous. After 15 operations, Thompson, 20, can make fists but is unable to grasp objects. He spent a year at the College of Mary in Bismarck, N.Dak., but left because he found the combination of school and physical therapy too taxing. "I drank a lot," he says. "I didn't want to be alive."
Thompson, who now receives counseling, lives alone in a Bismarck apartment, where he cooks and cleans with a small hook attached to his right wrist. He lectures often on farm safety and hopes someday to make a living as a singer. "He's strong and he's getting stronger," says his doctor, Allen Van Beek. That's an appraisal Thompson can live with. "Some people expect me to be a hero, but I can't do it," he says. "I just want to get on with my life."
A doctor who has made a practice of charity
Plagued by poverty and malnutrition, Tutwiler, Miss., had not had a doctor in 13 years when Anne Brooks, an osteopathic physician and Catholic nun, took over the town's abandoned health clinic in 1983. From desperate beginnings ("I guess we're doing a lot, but nothing ever seems to change," she said in 1986), Brooks, 55, has wrought progress. She still treats—for little or no fee—some 9,200 cases a year, from rat bites to AIDS, but her staff has expanded to 22, and her annual budget, thanks to grants and donations, is now $600,000. The clinic arranges housing for the poor, markets Tutwiler-made quilts and runs high school equivalency classes. "It's been like a phoenix rising," says Brooks. "But I didn't do anything—the people of Tutwiler did."
Changed forever by Love Canal
Lois Gibbs's old life as a housewife in Love Canal, near Buffalo, N.Y., ended in 1978 after her children, Michael and Melissa, developed asthma and blood disorders. The revelation that the town was built atop a toxic-waste dump turned Gibbs into a lifelong activist. After battling for compensation for residents, she divorced her husband in 1980 and moved away. Now head of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, Gibbs, 42, lives in Falls Church, Va., with her second husband and their two children. Michael and Melissa are in college and show no signs of illness. Authorities have given Love Canal a clean bill of health, but Gibbs (in the old neighborhood) says, "Those homes aren't safe. I think history will repeat itself."
A young boy's trial by fire
Some nightmares will not end. On a rainy evening in 1983, while 6-year-old David Rothenberg slept in a motel room near Disneyland, his father, Charles, doused the room with kerosene and set it ablaze. It was Charles's ex-wife, David's mother, he was apparently trying to hurt. But it was David who was harmed: Burned over 90 percent of his body, his face terribly disfigured, he became a symbol of child abuse at its most extreme.
Now 17 and set to graduate from his Orange County, Calif., high school in June, David has recovered remarkably. "I've got my life back on track," he says. Skin grafts and 35 operations have healed his body, while psychotherapy and support from his mother, Marie Hafdahl, have helped when he has felt depressed. He can't remember the fire, but its pain still sears. "How could my father do that if he loved me?" asks David, who now calls himself David Jordan Robinson (after his heroes Michael Jordan and David Robinson). Marie fears that Charles, who served seven years of his 13-year sentence for attempted murder, will return and "finish what he started," although a restraining order bans him from Orange County. David doesn't think that way. "If I saw my father, I'd probably be scared at first, but then I'd be gruff," he says. "I can take care of myself."
...and she earned Kermit's undying gratitude
For California students who think all life is sacred, high school biology class now offers a choice—they don't have to dissect frogs. That wasn't the case in 1987, when Jenifer Graham was a sophomore at Victor Valley High School in Victorville, Calif. The 14-year-old's refusal to dissect brought her A down to a C—a grade that still stands. Jenifer's subsequent lawsuit was dismissed, but the publicity and her testimony before the state legislature led to passage of the 1989 Students Rights Bill. Now 22 and the mother of 3-year-old Joshua, Graham sticks to meatless meals, but she's no crusader. "I didn't want to make that big a deal out of it," she says of her refusal to dissect. "I just thought it was wrong to destroy a living thing." For the last year she has been studying to become a medical assistant. An odd career choice? "People always said I cared more about animals than humans," she says. "I guess they wouldn't say that now."
She challenged television's beauty myth
Too old, too ugly, not deferential to men." That, says Christine Craft, was the judgment passed on her by her bosses at KMBC-TV in Kansas City, Mo., when they demoted her from anchor to reporter in 1981. Craft, then 37, sued for sexual discrimination and won, before losing on appeal. In many ways, though, it wasn't a loss. "There are several women over 45 on network TV now," says Craft. "I'd like to think my case helped make the climate a bit easier for them." Now 49, Craft is a fill-in host on a radio talk show in San Francisco and is enrolled at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, near the home she shares with her four dogs. And should anyone be wondering, her ego has survived intact. "I'm not ugly," she says with a grin. "I'm cute as hell."
A burn victim battles back
Like many kids her age, 12-year-old Sage Volkman keeps a scrapbook. But Sage calls hers a "yuck book." In it she saves pieces of scabs and old stitches, mementoes of her life since she was trapped in an early-morning camper fire in New Mexico in 1986. Sage suffered third-and fourth-degree burns over half her body and lost her nose, eyelids, left ear and most of both hands. To date, 45 operations have given Sage, now a seventh grader in Albuquerque, eyelids and a new nose and restored partial use of one hand. She will require many more operations. But the spirit that helped Sage (with friend Kate Scott then and now) survive the inferno is apparent as she approaches adolescence—she plays soccer and volleyball and has learned to water-ski. "I just want to be a little kid," she says.
Full lives lived in half-light
Afflicted with a rare, often fatal genetic disease that makes them vulnerable to skin and eye cancer if exposed even briefly to bright light, Jaime Harrison, 8 (right), and sister Sherry, 7, spent much of their young lives in shadow. They played in the moonlight and learned by candles, watched ceaselessly by parents Jim and Kim. They must still avoid light, but the sisters started school part-time last year in rural Meridian, Calif., where facilities have been adapted to their needs. "We're okay with it," says Sherry of their circumstance. After school the girls take dimly lit ballet and judo. "I'll never tell them they can't do things because of the sun," says Kim. "There has to be a way."
A real-life Rain Man's progress
He didn't speak until he was 25, but he always knew the language of music. Leslie Lemke, 42, is a savant who, despite blindness, mental handicaps and cerebral palsy, can play any piece on the piano after hearing it once. Abandoned at birth, he was raised near Milwaukee by his now-deceased foster parents, May and Joe Lemke, and began giving concerts when he was 22. Dustin Hoffman modeled his Rain Man character in part on Lemke, whose musical ability has deepened with time: He recently started composing. He's happy when performing, and his stepsister Mary Parker (left)—who took him in after May (inset) became ill in 1985—plans to see that he gets the chance. "I'll do what my mother started," says Parker. "She wanted him to share his talent."
She showed she could play with the big guys
Lynette Woodard was all-American at the University of Kansas and captain of the 1984 gold medal U.S. Olympic basketball team, but her greatest challenge was being the first female Harlem Globetrotter. "We had a grueling schedule," says Woodard, who was chosen over eight other contenders, "but there were sold-out crowds everywhere. "And her teammates adopted her as a little sister. "If a guy I liked didn't get all their votes," she says, "he was out." After two years, Woodard moved on to women's leagues in Italy and Japan. Now 34, she's working with shorter players—as director of athletic development for the Kansas City, Mo., schools. "I tell the kids that everyone has a gift," she says. "You let it take you as far as it can."
One man's growing family keeps growing
First, Taurean Blacque adopted twins Paul and Christopher. That was in 1986. Then came Marc and Jennifer. Then, Whitley, Marshall, Richard, Sammy and Randy. But Blacque, who played Det. Neal Washington on Hill Street Blues, didn't seem ready to quit. "God will tell me when to stop," he said then. God, it seems, still hasn't spoken. With the addition of Ashley (1991) and Jeremy (December 1993) the 53-year-old single father is up to 11 adopted kids, ranging in age from 2½ to 15 and all from troubled backgrounds. After a local gang threatened two of the boys last year, Blacque left L.A. for an eight-bedroom house on two wooded acres in an Atlanta suburb. Says Blacque, who had bypass surgery in 1992: "I'd have had six or seven heart attacks worrying about the kids in schools with guns." He still has to worry about supporting his brood. His last full-time acting gig, in the soap opera Generations, ended in 1991, and two buildings he owned were burned out in the L.A. riots. But he has never regretted his decision. "These adoptions were the right thing to do," says Blacque. "When I seethe children growing, I say, Thank you, God.' "
A stolen child, a mother's crusade
We think of Jacob as being out there somewhere," says Patty Wetterling. "He's part of our family—his name comes up often." Jacob was 11 on Oct. 22, 1989, when a man abducted him at gunpoint near his home in St. Joseph, Minn. Since then, chiropractor Jerry Wetterling, 45, and his wife, Patty, 44, have tried to cope with their grief while making life as normal as possible for Amy, 18, Trevor, 14, and Carmen, 12. "There's so much tension, so much anger, that you have to struggle to remember the good stuff," says Patty. "I wouldn't be here with out family counseling."
The investigation into Jacob's disappearance continues, though without promising leads, and the Wetterlings still get calls from people who think they have seen him. Patty volunteers full-time for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, which she and Jerry founded in 1990 to combat abduction and to help the families left behind. She lectures at schools and lobbied successfully to make sex-offender registration part of the 1993 omnibus crime bill. "I'm outraged that Jacob is still missing and that so many children are abducted," she says. "I'm outraged a lot."