Warning: This story series contains descriptions of physical abuse.
by Tess Willoughby
Part Two: The Legal Aftermath
I fled to the farm where I grew up and spent several weeks just trying to get the fuzz out of my head. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed Abi with failure to thrive. I supplemented her with formula but continued to breastfeed, because for once I had the luxury of breastfeeding by my own lights, and I intended to enjoy it. I moved six kids, 9 years old and under, in with my mom and dad, who were absolute angels about it. I do not remember either of them complaining even once.
What were Tess’s long-term plans? Did I want separation? Divorce? Neither? Was God angry with me? Could I ever go back? I just stumbled through the days, utterly numb. I could not feel the presence of God, which struck terror into my heart. I could not pray, and opening a Bible freaked me out. Where had my faith gone? What did I believe? My thoughts were like muddy water that must be filtered through normality until the water runs clear. It took a long time to get clear, and in the meantime, I made a very costly mistake.
I filed for legal separation but then withdrew my action. Here is how this went down:
Nate called four or five times a day. He also sent multiple long emails every day. A few highlights:
- “I will counter-sue for divorce on fault-grounds of desertion.”
- “Venue (where the divorce will be held) is where the marital home is. You will have to travel back and forth repeatedly.”
- “I will avail myself in good faith of every legal procedure available. This means massive expense to your father. I will appeal any and all negative decisions.”
- “As I am living in the marital home, you will lose the [custody] fight. And of course, if I have the kids you will be paying me child support.”
In every email and phone call, Nate demanded that I come home immediately. In one email he made a condition: “Because of your hart [sic] heartedness and manifold sins against me, I will require that you sign an oath before God that you will submit to my authority completely, without question or dissention, and joyfully.”
Nate sent me the van in “good faith” to “work toward reconciliation,” but when reconciliation did not happen within his two-day deadline, he demanded the van back: his children’s sole transportation which was titled in his name. He threatened to prosecute me for possession of stolen property. He sued for divorce, alleging desertion and mental cruelty. He also sued as the children’s “next friend” against me for the “severe injuries” all six of them had suffered in the wreck (one child had a tiny cut above the eye). He sent my attorney dozens of faxes and called her office many times a day to run up my legal expenses. He mailed me the credit card bills which were in my name. He negotiated with my most prized possessions, using wedding gifts from my grandparents as bargaining chips. He demanded to talk to the children on the phone so that he could manipulate them into telling me to “come home.” They got off the phone and cried, saying, “Daddy is so lonely. Why did we leave him?”
Finally, Nate went bawling into the office of a pastor (not our pastor, of course) and got Rev. So-and-So to email me. Rev. So-and-So sent me the following proposition. We would declare a legal cease-fire and he would counsel with Nate. It was a terrible thing, Rev. So-and-So thought, to break up a family. He quoted the Bible on that score. He assured me that Nate was really repentant and seeking change. I did not want to even see Nate again, much less sleep with him, but I was still very deferential toward pastors and desperately wanted that legal cease-fire. I was not capable of traveling six hours to Virginia Beach for litigation. I was still very weak and confused and had six little kids to care for all summer. I felt guilty about the burden on my parents, which guilt Nate manipulated. My mother would have to take care of six kids so I could come to court and my father would have to pay the legal bills. I didn’t believe my lawyer when she said she could get a protective order that would keep Nate away from me and the kids, or that we would win the venue fight and I could go to court downtown, or that I would win the van in a lawsuit. Besides I had gotten a little foretaste of what even a winning legal battle with Nate would cost in time, money, and aggravation. Nate did nothing, it seemed, but sit at the computer churning out emails, letters, and legal papers around the clock. Some of the emails were composed at 2:00 a.m.
I dropped the legal separation and Nate dropped the divorce and the personal injury suit. The threatening emails became relentless, saccharine declarations of undying, “unconditional” love (Pastor So-and-So must have thought the submission oath was a bad idea).
This lasted for about a week, until Nate stormed into Pastor So-and-So’s office in a rabid froth about his marital rights. Pastor So-and-So emailed me, bewildered at the dramatic change in his penitent, who not only refused to continue the counseling, but damned Pastor So-and-So to hell for refusing to help exercise spiritual discipline over his wayward wife. Pastor So-and-So warned me not to come home.
Does it sound as though I had been gone at least a year or more, given the sheer number of tactics, schemes, scams, and coercions I’d suffered through to this point?
Guess again. Nate had done all this in just shy of six weeks.
I emailed Nate and told him I wasn’t coming back. Then I braced myself. Turns out I didn’t brace myself quite hard enough for what was coming, or how quickly.
Nate showed up at 3:00 a.m. the next morning and demanded the keys to the van or he would have us all arrested. My father gave him the keys and told him to get off his property or he’d be arrested for trespassing. I was crying over the loss of the van the next day when I got word that Nate had been at the children’s school and demanded to see his children. The principal brought them to the gym for a meeting, and Nate picked up little Moriah and ran, with the principal chasing him. The principal called me and the police, and I followed my former family van out of town in my mom’s car while having a panic attack. The police pulled Nate over but then let him go, because I had no custody papers.
The police had to pick me up out of a muddy ditch where I had collapsed, weeping, as my little girl was legally abducted. In Virginia, even if you have custody (which I didn’t), any parent who has visitation rights can abduct a child from anywhere at any time, and they are guilty of, at the most, a second-degree misdemeanor. Parental kidnappers are never subject to arrest in Virginia unless they cross state lines. It is believed that most of our missing children are missing because they were abducted by non-custodial parents. When your child is abducted by a parent who has any parental rights at all, your only recourse is to file a show cause and go to court. I would have to regain custody in Virginia Beach.
I got a lawyer in Virginia Beach and filed for divorce and custody. My attorney bills went into the stratosphere within a month. As with my former lawyer, phone calls and faxes were unceasing. One Sunday afternoon my lawyer received a 52-page fax from Nate. The personal injury suit was scheduled for trial as well.
I would not see my little girl again for nine weeks.
I had landed in the hall of mirrors commonly known as the juvenile justice system, and its machinations were limited only by the time and energy of a man possessed, a man running on sheer rage. Only with me, it would never stop with juvenile court. In fact—and I’m thankful I did not know this in 2000—it would never stop at all. When Nate said he would avail himself of every legal procedure available, and appeal every negative decision all the way up, he was making the only promises to me that he’s ever kept.