I was kidnapped by my mother


CJ Daugherty: ‘After my dad kicked in our door one day over some minor perceived offence, my mother finally decided it was time to go.’ Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

ANY detective will tell you that when children go missing, the person most likely to have taken them is a parent. I was one of those children. My mother kidnapped me and my brother when I was 13 and he was seven. It probably saved our lives.

I never talked about this, in public or private, while my parents were alive. I’m talking about it now only because I know there are children out there going through what I went through. And women who don’t know what to do. If my own experience could help someone, it’s worthwhile.

Let me backtrack a bit here. I’ll start with the facts. I grew up in Texas. My childhood was one that news presenters might euphemistically describe as chaotic. My parents got married too young. They made bad choices the way teenage parents often do. My mother was 19 and beautiful. At 20, my dad liked fast cars and handguns. He could light up the room with his smile when he was in a good mood. But you didn’t want to be around him when his mood took a darker turn. There were other – stranger – things about him. He believed in demons. He thought Satan was talking to us through rock music and Sesame Street. He performed amateur exorcisms on us. You get the picture.

When I was seven, he moved us to a log cabin deep in the Rocky Mountains because he believed a revolution was coming. He stopped shopping in most stores, and announced that we would now raise or kill all our own food. He adopted a habit of wearing his gun in a holster on his hip like a sheriff in a western.


CJ Daugherty, aged 11, when her mother moved away from her father.

It was in that mountainside cabin that things got out of hand. He grew increasingly unstable. His temper was uncontrollable. People got hurt. Despite all of this, it took my mother a long time to leave.
It finally happened when I was 11, and after that I was the happiest kid of divorced parents ever. We left the log cabin and moved into a housing estate in town. My mother got a job and started making friends. It seemed like the worst was over. It wasn’t.

My father bought a house nearby where he lived with his new family (his secretary – oldest story in the book). He liked to show up unexpectedly at our flat. On more than one occasion, he forced the door open and then settled down on our battered Naugahyde couch, gun bulging at his hip. We were terrified of him. We believed that one day he was going to use that gun.

I kept begging my mother to move us away from him, but she was too frightened of what he might do if she dared. She waited too long. As if he knew what we were thinking, my father filed for – and received – an injunction to stop my mother from taking the children across the state line without his permission. We were trapped.

But laws can’t always stop a determined woman. After my dad kicked in our door one day over some minor perceived offence, my mother finally decided it was time to go.

Very late one night, she woke my brother and me from a sound sleep and gave each of us a suitcase. “Pack only what you need for the next few days,” she said. She wouldn’t tell us where we were going.

God only knows what I put into that bag. I was groggy with sleep, and didn’t understand what was happening. All I was certain of was that something wasn’t right. Her terror was contagious. I can still remember her shaking hands clutching cigarette after cigarette. And her voice urging me to “Hurry … hurry …”

She drove all night. My brother slept in the back seat but I stayed awake with her. She was so tense – hands white-knuckled on the wheel, teeth chattering – I was afraid if I slept I’d miss the crash. We expected police cars to start chasing us at any moment. But the scream of sirens didn’t come.
She didn’t stop driving until the sun was high in the sky and we were two states away. We pulled into a cheap motel – the kind with wood-panelled walls and ancient carpeting. I remember that there was a pool, and I could hear happy kids swimming and laughing. I felt confused and very distant from their world. Only after we had slept for a few hours, did she tell us where she was taking us – back to Texas to start over as far away from my father as possible.

My little brother cheered at this news, even though he didn’t fully understand. I recall a stomach-churning mixture of tentative joy that we might have escaped the danger that had overshadowed us for so long, and fear that we’d never make it that far. We all knew my father would come looking for us. He would be so angry. And he drove fast.

With this in mind, we travelled mostly at night – dodging police cars and staying off the major highways as much as possible. It took two days to drive to Dallas. When we crossed the Texas state line (“Welcome to Texas, the Lone Star State”), my mother wept.


CJ Daugherty’s mother with a deer after her father said they would raise or kill their own food.

We went straight to my grandparents’ house, but we didn’t stay there long. They tried to smile for the children, but when they thought we weren’t looking the mood was grave. My father knew where they lived.

Years later, I would learn that my father drove as far as southern Colorado before giving up on finding us in the vast western mountains. Finally realising the futility of his pursuit, he headed back home and went to the lawyers. But he would soon discover that we were protected by the state’s stubborn independence – a Montana injunction did not much interest the judges of Texas.

My brother and I could keep a secret – neither of us ever told our father where we lived. I can remember him shouting at me in frustration during a telephone call – my mother prising the phone from my hand as I stood there in tears, hanging up the receiver, then unplugging it from the wall.

America is a big country – it is easy to get lost there. And for a while, like so many others before us, we did lose ourselves in it in order to stay safe. It was a long time before we could live what most people think of as a normal life. But that was OK. For the first time in our lives, we were safe.

Without my father around, my mother grew stronger. She stood up for herself to anyone who challenged her – sometimes to a fault. The three of us worked as a unit. We looked out for each other. My mother worked full-time, so I took on responsibility for my brother after school – ensuring he did his homework and stayed close by the house when out playing with friends.

After nearly two years in hiding, my parents negotiated visits – once a year in the summer, my brother and I would go to our father’s house for a few weeks. The rules were simple – if he hurt us, we’d never come back again.

I didn’t want to go – I was still afraid. But kids don’t get a choice.

On that first visit, I found my father somewhat subdued, as if the entire experience had diminished whatever it was that fired his rage. I kept my distance, nonetheless. It would be a long, long time before my father didn’t frighten me.
Even years later, our relationship was never close. I stayed in touch … just. Ironically, my mother would shout at me if I didn’t phone him regularly. “Just let it go,” she would say, without ever spelling out what “it” was.

The southern tradition of family loyalty and respect for elders trumped my miserable childhood and lingering resentment in her playbook.


CJ Daugherty’s mother with her younger brother.

That loyalty and obedience probably played some role in the time it took her to leave him. If I’m honest, much as I loved her, some part of me never forgave her for not running away earlier. And for allowing us to have the childhood we had.

I understand that she was caught up in an abusive relationship, and that those are complex monsters to disentangle. But emotionally I will never understand why she didn’t get her children out of danger sooner. I would urge any woman in an abusive relationship to pack those bags the first time he hits you. If he hits you once, he’ll hit you again. And if the law says you can’t take your kids out of a dangerous situation? Take them anyway. They will thank you later, when they are old enough to understand.

I spent years forgetting my childhood. I swore it would never define me. An unhappy childhood is just one tiny part of who I am. I was the world’s happiest teenager, I promise you. And I am a very happy grownup now.

My childhood will not define me, but I know it all stayed with me, buried deep in my subconscious. I believe profoundly in running away from your troubles. I do it all the time. Until recently, I had never once, in all my life, lived in the same house for more than three years.

When things go wrong, I still feel the urge to hit the road. And I hear my mother’s voice, brittle as glass: “Pack a bag. Hurry … Hurry … ”

• CJ Daugherty’s new novel The Secret Fire is published by Atom, £6.99. To order a copy for £5.59, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p on orders over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99