If You Tell – Gregg Olsen

Three sisters. Now grown women. All live in the Pacific Northwest. The eldest, Nikki, lives in the moneyed suburbs of Seattle, in a million-dollar home of gleaming wood and high-end furnishings. She’s in her early forties, married, with a houseful of beautiful children. A quick tour through a gallery of family photos in the living room touches on the good life she and her husband have made for themselves, with a successful business and a moral compass that has always kept them pointed in the right direction. It takes only the mention of a single word to take her back to the unthinkable. “Mom.” Every now and then, she literally shudders when she hears it, a visceral reaction to a word that scrapes at her like the talons of an eagle, cutting and slicing her skin until blood runs out. To look at her, no one would know what she’s lived through and survived. And outside her immediate family, no one really does. It isn’t a mask that she wears to cover the past but an invisible badge of courage. What happened to Nikki made her stronger. It made her the incredible woman that she is today. The middle daughter, Sami, eventually returned to live in her hometown, the same small coastal Washington town where everything happened.

She’s just turned forty and teaches at a local elementary school. She has corkscrew hair and an infectious sense of humor. Humor is her armor. It always has been. Like her older sister, Sami’s own children are what any mother dreams for their little ones. Smart. Adventurous. Loved. When Sami runs the shower in the morning before getting the kids ready for school and heading off to the classroom, she doesn’t pause a single beat for the water to warm. She jumps right in, letting the icy water stab at her body.

Like Nikki, Sami is tied to things in the past. Things she can’t shake. Things she can’t forget. The youngest, like her older sisters, is a beauty. Tori is barely in her thirties: blonde, irreverent, and brilliant. Her home is farther away, in Central Oregon, but she’s very connected to her sisters. Adversity and courage have forged a strong, impenetrable bond between them. This young woman has made an amazing life for herself developing social media for a major player in the hospitality industry. Her posts for work and for her personal life never fail to bring a smile or even a laugh out loud. She did it on her own, of course, but says she couldn’t have managed it without her sisters.

Whenever she’s in the cleaning supply aisle of the local grocery store and her eyes land on the row of bleach, she turns away. Nearly a wince. She can’t look at it. She certainly can’t smell it. Like her sisters, it’s the little things—duct tape, pain relievers, the sound of a weed eater—that propel her back to a time and place where their mother did things they swore they’d hold secret forever. Enduring their mother was what bound them together. And while they might have had three different dads, they were always 100 percent sisters. Never half sisters. Their sisterhood was the one thing the Knotek girls could depend upon, and really, the only thing their mother couldn’t take away. It was what propelled them to survive.

PART ONE MOTHER SHELLY CHAPTER ONE Some small towns are built on bloody earth and betrayal. Battle Ground, Washington, twelve miles northeast of Vancouver, near the Oregon state line, is one such place. The town is named for an incident involving a standoff between the Klickitat nation and the US Army. The native people freed themselves from imprisonment in the barracks, but while a surrender was being negotiated, a single shot rang out, killing the Klickitat’s Chief Umtuch. It’s fitting for Michelle “Shelly” Lynn Watson Rivardo Long Knotek’s hometown to be known for a major conflict and a false promise. As it turned out, it was pretty much the way Shelly lived her life. For those who lived there in the 1950s, Battle Ground was quintessential small-town America with good schools, neighbors who looked out for each other, and a bowling league that kept the pins falling every Friday and Saturday night. Dads worked hard to afford the new car and nice house. Most moms stayed home taking care of the children, maybe later returning to the workforce or taking classes at Clark College to continue dreams thwarted by conventions of the day and marriage. If Battle Ground had a Mr.

Big Shot of sorts, it was Shelly’s father. At six feet, two inches tall, with broad shoulders, Les Watson, former Battle Ground High School track and football star, was a big deal around town. Everyone knew him. He was quick-witted and could pour on the charm, a smooth talker and a master of BS. Handsome too. All the girls in town thought he was a catch. Not only did he and his mother own and operate a pair of nursing homes, Les also owned the Tiger Bowl, a ten-lane bowling alley complete with a twelve-seat snack counter. That was where Lara Stallings worked in 1958. She’d just graduated from Fort Vancouver High School and was selling hamburgers to save money for college. Lara’s curly hair was blonde, with a ponytail that swung back and forth as she took orders.

With sparkling blue eyes, she was undeniably beautiful. She was also smart. Later, she’d lament that her brain wasn’t in full gear when she agreed to date, and then eventually marry, Les Watson. Les was also ten years older, though he’d lied and told his teenage bride that he was only four years her senior. “I got caught up in all he had going for him,” Lara said years later, bemoaning the choice she made. “I fell hook, line, and sinker. He just wasn’t a great guy.” Lara’s jolt into reality came the day after she put her hair up in a French twist—like Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock classic, The Birds—and married Les in a civil ceremony in 1960 in Vancouver, her hometown. Only Lara’s family was present, though her parents had been against the marriage. Les had had good reason not to invite his.

They knew what was coming. When the phone rang early the next morning, Lara answered. It was Les’s first wife on the line, calling from California. “When are you coming to get these damn kids?” Sharon Todd Watson spat into the phone. Lara didn’t know what she was talking about. “What?” Les had never mentioned to Lara that he’d promised to raise his children by Sharon: Shelly, Chuck, and Paul Watson. The omission of that little detail was typical of Les, though Lara knew that she’d never be able to fix that—and that her parents’ concerns had been justified. After the early-morning call, Les told Lara that his ex-wife, Sharon, couldn’t raise the kids; she was a depressive and an alcoholic. Lara took a deep breath and agreed. And really, what could she do about it anyway? They were her husband’s children, and she knew she would need to buck up.

It turned out to be a very big request. Shelly was six and Chuck was just three when they moved in. Lara took on the role of stepmother—Sharon had kept the youngest son, Paul, still then an infant, with her. Shelly was a beautiful little girl, with wide eyes and thick, curly auburn hair. Lara noticed a strange dynamic, however, between Shelly and her brother. Chuck didn’t speak a word. It was Shelly who did all the talking. She seemed to control the boy. And as Shelly grew more comfortable with her new environment, she often voiced complaints or unkind words. “She told me every single day that she hated me,” Lara recalled.

“I’m not joking. It was honestly every day.” Sharon Watson returned home to Alameda, California, after dropping off her two oldest children with Lara and Les in the fall of 1960. Once Sharon was gone, it was like she’d never existed. She never called or sent birthday cards to either Shelly or Chuck. No Christmas wishes either. There were few excuses for this “out of sight, out of mind” approach to child-rearing, though Lara later wondered if the course had been set long before Shelly’s mother had married and divorced Les Watson. “Sharon came from a very dysfunctional family,” Lara recounted, having heard about Les’s first wife. “Her mother was married five, six, seven times and she was an only child. I understood she had a twin that died at birth.

I don’t know if that’s really true or not, but that’s one of the stories I’d been told.” Regardless of what had led her to that point, it was understood that while Sharon had serious problems with alcohol, there was more pulling her down. She’d gotten caught up in a dangerous lifestyle. Family members speculated she might even be a prostitute. Finally, in the spring of 1967, a call from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department came to the Watsons’ home in Battle Ground. A homicide detective said that Sharon had been murdered in a seedy motel room and the coroner needed someone to identify her body—and to pick up her little boy, Paul. Les didn’t want to go get his son, whom he knew had exhibited myriad behavioral problems, but Lara insisted. It was the right thing to do. Reluctantly, they made the trip to California to get him and to identify Sharon’s body. Les reported to Lara what he’d learned from the police and the coroner.

“She was living with a Native American, but they were homeless,” he told her. “Drunks. Living on Skid Row. She was beaten to death.” Later, when Sharon’s cremains were sent to Washington, her mother refused to take them. Nor did anyone hold a memorial service for her. It was tragic but it fit her story. In images culled from a tattered old family album, there are only a handful of pictures of Sharon, almost never with a smile. Her perpetual despondency preserved forever in black and white. When Shelly was told what had happened to her mother, the thirteen-year-old didn’t seem the least bit interested.

She barely reacted. Lara thought it was strange. It was as if there had been no true connection between Shelly and Sharon. “She never once asked about her mother,” Lara recalled. CHAPTER TWO The newest member of the Watson family brought a host of problems to Battle Ground. Paul possessed zero impulse control and positively no social skills. He didn’t even know how to sit at the table at dinnertime. His first or second day in the house, Lara caught the boy on the kitchen countertop stomping around looking for food, opening cupboards and tossing out whatever didn’t meet with his approval. “Paul was wild,” she acknowledged. “He was like an animal.

He even carried a switchblade. Really. Not kidding. He did.” Lara did what she could, but she knew almost right away that she was in way over her head. Les was busy with his businesses, and Lara didn’t fault him too much for not having much time for his children, but she was doing all she could as a stepmother to three handfuls—willful Shelly, wild Paul, and silent Chuck. Chuck, who still didn’t speak unless Shelly put words in his mouth, was a loner. People who knew their birth mother suspected that his difficulties might have come from some kind of child abuse, though in the 1960s little of that was actually put into words. “A neighbor told me one time that they’d seen Chuck in his room with the window open and he was just standing there crying,” Lara said. “It was something that he did all the time.

” As difficult as Paul and Chuck could be, the child who created the most difficulty for Lara was Shelly. The Watsons put extra emphasis on getting the most out of their family time on the weekends, shutting out all other distractions and focusing on the kids, which by now also included a daughter and a son Lara and Les had had together. They made regular trips to the Oregon or Washington coasts for boating in the summer months, and in the winter, they skied the slopes of Mount Hood. It would have been a fine and happy life, if not for Shelly. She pitched fits, started fights, and would flat out refuse to go. If something wasn’t Shelly’s idea, it was a nonstarter. Whenever she didn’t get her way, Shelly was crafty enough to find a suitable solution. Usually it involved a lie. Her excuses were vague and often ridiculous. She didn’t like doing her homework, for example.

So she’d complain that her youngest siblings had destroyed all of her hard work. When that ruse didn’t work anymore, she’d simply refuse to go to school. “I’d try to find ways to make [things] easier for her in the morning,” Lara recalled. “I would set her clothes out at night, so she wouldn’t have to worry at the last minute to decide. I would set cereal and fruit out on the dining table—all ready to go. Anything to make the mornings go a little more smoothly. But that didn’t matter. Shelly didn’t want to do what she didn’t want to do.” Each morning, a sullen and frequently angry Shelly would head off to school and the morning battle would be over. At least that’s what Lara believed at the time.

“I got a phone call one time from the Standard Oil service station down the street from the school. They said, ‘This is the craziest thing! We’ve been seeing this little girl come in and going in [to] use the bathroom, and she brings in a sack of clothes [and then] she goes out,’ and they say, ‘She’s got a pile of clothes here. But she leaves with another set of clothes, jeans.’” Lara got in her car and drove to the Standard station. She was astounded by what she found. Shelly had indeed left behind a stash of clothes. “Probably had four or five dresses and skirts of hers squirreled away there. Beautiful brand-new things that Shelly didn’t want to wear to school.” The impasse on clothing was only a fraction of the discord between Shelly and Lara, though Lara kept trying to find a way to get her stepdaughter on the right path. When Shelly was a little older, Lara took her to dance lessons, but half the time the girl refused to go inside the studio.

She’d skip the recitals too. “Everything was a big drama with her. Every little thing. Shelly always looked distraught and upset, whatever we did, wherever we went. No matter what it was. Even doing something nice for her like getting her a gift brought anger. ‘What are you being mad about?’ I’d ask. No answer, but I knew from the way she acted that nothing was good enough. Nothing whatsoever. Nothing satisfied her.

” In time, Shelly’s behavior began to change from being merely disruptive and ungrateful to dark and vengeful. She especially resented her siblings. Every bit of attention to another person meant a deficit in what she felt was owed to her. Whenever the deficit wasn’t paid, Shelly sought revenge. Her tactics were brutal and, frequently, sadistic. There would be lies about family members, stolen money, and even suspicion of arson in the Watson house. Years later, Lara took a deep breath, recalling, “She used to chop up bits of glass and put them in the bottom of [the kids’] boots and shoes,” she said. “What kind of person does something like that?” Lara didn’t have to look far for an example. Grandma Anna, Shelly’s paternal grandmother, was just that kind of person too. CHAPTER THREE For Lara, seeing her mother-in-law, Anna Watson, meant a tightening of the muscles along her spine, hoping that Les’s mother wouldn’t cast her sharklike eyes in her direction.

If Anna passed by, it brought Lara a shudder of relief. Only then could Lara take a breath. A very deep one. At least that’s how Shelly’s stepmother felt whenever she faced the singular terror that was Anna Watson. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, and transplanted to Clark County when she was a teen, Shelly Watson’s paternal grandmother was tall and large, with muscled, shot-put shoulders and the sinewy trace of tendons that ran from her neck into the collar of her plain blue blouse. Anna tipped the scales at more than 250 pounds, and her left foot dragged when she walked, emitting a scraping noise that let people know when she was coming or going. Like her physical size, Anna’s self-certainty was formidable. She was absolutely right about everything, so much so that no one ever dared challenge her. Not Les, and certainly not his young wife, Lara. Anna ran one of the Watsons’ nursing homes, and there was no mistaking that everything had to be done her way.

“Iron fisted” often came to the lips of those recalling Anna Watson’s style. Anna’s husband, George Watson, was the opposite of his wife. He was kind. Sweet. Endearing, even. He was smaller than Anna, standing four inches shorter, and did whatever his wife told him to do. For more than twenty years, Lara recalled, George slept in a small eight-by-eight-foot shed just outside the back door to the kitchen. He never slept in the house, because Anna insisted he stay in the shed. Not long before Les and Lara married, two women from Western State Hospital, near Tacoma, came to work for Anna at one of the nursing homes the family owned in Battle Ground. While their names were Mary and Pearlie, Lara only ever heard Anna refer to them as her “retards.

” She lorded over them as a cruel queen might order around less-favored house servants. There was no task too low for the women to attend to in a nursing facility where there were more than enough such tasks. From Lara’s perspective, the women were nearly slaves to Anna. At home, Anna made them clean her house, do the dishes, wash the floors. She’d order them to stop whatever task they were engaged in to wash her feet, do her hair. If the women moved too slowly, Anna would punch them, kick them, or pull their hair. One time when Lara went over to Anna’s to pick up Shelly, she noticed that Mary was upset about something. Pearlie’s hair was wet and wrapped in a towel. Lara asked Mary what was wrong, and she confided that Anna had stormed out of the house with Shelly. She had been so angry about something that she had held Pearlie’s head in the toilet bowl and repeatedly flushed.

Lara was stunned. She’d never heard of such a thing. “Why would she do something like that?” she asked Mary. “She does it all the time when she gets mad,” she said. “They were always afraid of Anna,” Lara said later. Everyone was. Everyone, it seemed, but little Shelly. Lara started working in the nursing home office shortly after Les’s children came to live in Battle Ground. She had wanted to go to college, but those plans had been waylaid by instant motherhood. Since Shelly’s school was next to the nursing home, Shelly would often go to Grandma Anna’s after school instead of taking the bus home.

Lara would call to see if she was there, and Anna would seethe that her granddaughter was being neglected and needed to stay with her to have a “proper” meal or be bathed correctly. “You don’t need to wash her hair, Anna.” “You don’t do it right. It’s filthy.” Anna knew what was best for Shelly. Indeed, she knew what was best for everyone. Lara held her tongue, a practice she’d come to master over time. Another time, Lara came to pick Shelly up and found her beautiful red hair all cut off. Grandma Anna stood next to her granddaughter with a pair of scissors and a mean smile. Lara was shocked.

“What happened?” Grandma Anna snapped at her. “You can’t keep her hair brushed properly, so I cut it!” It was a cruel, frenzied hack job. It looked awful. Shelly looked demoralized. “She has very thick hair,” Lara said, fully aware that Shelly was going to blame her for what her grandmother had done. “I brush it every day,” she insisted, glancing at Shelly, who would scream every time a brush came near her. Grandma Anna made a dismissive face and turned away, sliding her bum leg over the polished wooden floor. She’d done exactly what she’d wanted to do. Making people unhappy was her way of having fun. Lara could see it even then.

Shelly and Grandma Anna were inseparable, constant companions. While occasionally her victim, Shelly mainly served the role of protégé in her grandmother’s life. Grandma Anna’s favorite, her shadow, her mimic, was paying close attention to everything she did. In time, Shelly would reveal just how good a student she’d been. CHAPTER FOUR Shelly’s first real strike came when she was almost fifteen. It was a stealth attack, the kind of tactic a practitioner of discord learns is the most effective means to wreak the most damage. She was a no-show after school in March 1969. While she’d been tardy before, this time felt a little different. She was later than normal. Lara stared at the clock in her spotless kitchen.

She drummed her fingertips on the surface of the table. Where are you, Shelly? What are you up to? Who are you with? Growing anxious, Shelly’s stepmother finally phoned the principal’s office, and what she learned took the air from her lungs. Shelly hadn’t come home because she’d been taken to the juvenile hall detention center in Vancouver. Shelly, a month shy of her fifteenth birthday, had told a counselor that something was going on at home and she couldn’t handle it anymore. “What are you talking about?” Lara pressed the school employee for additional details. “You need to tell me what’s going on here.” “I really can’t say anything more,” the woman on the other end of the line said. Her tone was cool. That alarmed Lara even more. She hung up and immediately phoned her husband, Les, at the nursing home and told him to get home.

She was sharp and direct. “Right now,” she said. “Something’s happening with Shelly.” After another frantic call to juvenile hall, the Watsons were on their way to find out just what had happened at school that afternoon. “No one was telling us anything,” Lara said later, looking down at photos of Shelly as a child, then a teenager. There was no denying Shelly’s beauty. Red hair framed a face with a freckled nose, and her blue eyes had thick lashes like the undulating fringe of a sea anemone. But to Lara, the kind of beauty Shelly possessed was like that of nightshade berries. They appear to be delicious but are actually dangerous. Innocent.

Sweet. A mask. Lara was frantic. “I even called the principal at home, but he wouldn’t say anything either. I’m thinking Shelly just stole something because she used to steal my things and take money out of my purse. I thought that maybe Shelly stole some kid’s purse or something like that. I had no idea what she’d done this time.” It was frustrating. Painful. It had to be something very, very bad.

When the Watsons arrived at the juvenile detention center in Vancouver, they asked to see their daughter right away but were denied the request by the superintendent of the facility. “Under investigation now,” he said. “What investigation?” Les asked. “Shelly has accused you of raping her,” said the grim-faced man. Les’s eyes nearly popped from their sockets, and his face went completely red with anger. He immediately pushed back. “Oh Jesus!” he exclaimed. “What in the world is Shelly saying that for?” Lara stood there feeling sick. The accusation was the most disgusting thing she’d ever heard in her entire life. Shelly was a known liar, but this was too, too much.

Even for her. As Shelly’s stepmother saw it, there were a lot of things people could call her husband, but “rapist” wasn’t on the list. “She doesn’t probably know what it means,” Lara finally said, reaching over to calm her husband. “We need to see her now,” Les insisted. “Absolutely not,” the superintendent snapped. “You can’t. We’re investigating a crime here.” Les threw his hands upward. “Fine. We’re calling our doctor.

We’re going to demand he examine her. Now.” Family doctor Paul Turner ordered Shelly to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Vancouver, and the Watsons returned to Battle Ground. That night, Lara went into her stepdaughter’s bedroom. She really didn’t know what she was looking for. An answer, maybe? The truth. Something. As usual, Shelly’s room was a mess, with clothes and dirty dishes everywhere. Papers too.

Scribblings in notebooks. Shelly fancied herself a poet and was always writing something, but nothing Lara saw as she picked through the mess provided a clue. After a while, she found herself poking around the bed to see what she could unearth there. Bending down, she reached between the mattress and the box springs. Her fingertips grazed the edges of a magazine and she pulled it out. The air leaked from her lungs. It was a dog-eared copy of a True Confessions magazine. The cover screamed in bold type: “I WAS RAPED AT 15 BY MY DAD!” Lara felt her blood pressure rise. It was unfathomable that Shelly could’ve made such an accusation, one that mirrored exactly the cover of a magazine. “Look here,” she said, showing Les her discovery.

Les shook his head in disgust and disbelief. He’d been crushed by the accusation, but he was more troubled by his daughter’s behavior. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked. Lara didn’t know. She’d never heard of anyone making up such a destructive story. It didn’t make sense. The next morning, when Dr. Turner arrived at the hospital to conduct the exam, Lara brandished the magazine. “She’s made it up,” Lara said. In the Watsons’ view, the magazine was proof nothing had actually happened, that the lurid story had merely been Shelly’s inspiration.

But this was more than just another beat in a drama that Shelly created with her destructive and outrageous behavior. Les and Lara had had it with her. They had their other kids to consider. Les’s career too. He was the president of the chamber of commerce. If even a whisper of Shelly’s lie got out, the scandal would ruin him. “This is really bad, Lara,” Les said as they waited outside Shelly’s hospital room. Lara let out a sigh. “It’s Shelly,” she said. “It’s what she does.

” A little while later, Dr. Turner emerged with the results of his exam. “This girl’s completely intact,” he said. “No bruising. Nothing. She’s never even been touched.” Shelly was released on one condition later that night. “Your daughter needs serious counseling,” Lara said the juvenile hall superintendent told them. “She needs a psychologist.” Unfortunately, rounds of family therapy and private sessions with a psychologist proved less than successful.

Shelly wouldn’t entertain the idea that she might have problems that needed fixing. Even though she’d been confronted with the truth, Shelly remained adamant that nothing was her fault. Nothing had ever been. Lara and Les came to know something that few understood in the late sixties and seventies: no one can help a troubled person who doesn’t think they need it. Indeed, Shelly never even admitted to fabricating the story of her rape. She didn’t even seem to grasp the magnitude of what she’d done to her father. Instead, she seemed happy to have tossed a grenade into the circle of her family, and to have received the attention she craved because of it. Shelly wanted to return to Battle Ground High School, but administrators declined to take her back. “You burned that bridge,” the principal said. Shelly sat blank eyed in his office while Les and Lara looked on.

“We don’t want you in class here. We just don’t want any more trouble.” Hearing that, the Watsons were beside themselves. Shelly was only fifteen. She had to go to school. Lara immediately tried to get her enrolled in Annie Wright, a prestigious and expensive boarding school in Tacoma, but that was a no-go too. “They researched her,” Lara recalled later. “They turned her down flat.” While the Watsons made a good income, the truth was they’d have paid just about anything to get Shelly out of Battle Ground and into a classroom somewhere. Anywhere.

Eventually, they found a spot for Shelly in Hoodsport, Washington, living with Lara’s parents, who quickly learned to walk on eggshells around the teenager. No one wanted to set Shelly off. There simply was no telling what she would do next. She was volatile, unpredictable. She had a mean streak that was sometimes hidden by a pretense of caring about someone or something. For instance, she’d volunteer to help Lara’s mother with the dishes, but would end up throwing the unwashed utensils, plates, and even pots and pans into the garbage. When she was in a more productive mood, she would wipe the plates “clean” with a cloth instead of washing them. Shelly said she loved kids and wanted to babysit for the neighbors. Even better, she loved babysitting so much, she said, she even volunteered to watch them for free. She seemed to enjoy being seen as a benevolent, caring girl.

It was an affectation that didn’t last long. When the parents came home from a night out, they found their children in bed with clothes still on and tales of how Shelly had barricaded them in their rooms with heavy furniture. Shelly also turned on her grandparents after only a few weeks under their roof. “With all their grandchildren, my mom and dad never had a problem,” Lara said, looking back many years after Shelly returned to Battle Ground. “I found out later that my parents were so glad when school finally finished and they could send Shelly home.” Shelly had apparently also accused Lara’s father of abuse. “I learned that Shelly actually told the neighbors that her grandpa was messing with her. And they contacted my mother immediately.” It was baffling to Lara. “I don’t understand Shelly’s constant need to try to ruin people’s lives.

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