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December 19th, 2007 | News Stories
 

Sacrificing Rebecca

For 14 years, Laurie Recht struggled with her daughter’s illness. At least, that’s what she wanted people to believe.

     
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A Life In 14 Years: Rebecca Recht over the years.

At 7 pm on Thursday, Oct. 11, Sarah Starr asked her husband to make a detour on their way to Borders—it was their sixth wedding anniversary, and she wanted books—so they could drive by the Vancouver, Wash., home of Laurie Recht and her 14-year-old daughter, Rebecca.

Starr was concerned about Rebecca and she had not heard from Laurie since Monday, highly unusual for a woman in the habit of calling five times a day.

Pulling in front of the small rental home in Fishers Landing, Starr could not tell whether Laurie’s Ford Taurus was in the garage. The lights were out inside the house; the shades were drawn. Starr rang the bell, knocked, called out. No answer. She asked a neighbor if he’d seen Laurie. Not since Monday, he said, trash day. Since she’d quit paying her garbage bill, he’d allowed Laurie to stow her trash with his for pick-up. But he had a key to Laurie’s house, and he let in Starr and her husband.

Inside, Starr could hear a television. Before she walked the steps to Laurie’s bedroom, before she felt the cold air from the room’s air conditioner, she sensed what she’d find. Laurie was on the bed, blood on her lips; beside her was Rebecca, so slight she barely made a dent beneath the covers, dried vomit around her mouth. Starr and the neighbor called 9-1-1. An EMT told Starr the condition of the bodies indicated the pair had been dead several days. Clark County Sheriff’s Department Detective Rick Buckner put the probable date of the deaths as Wednesday, Oct. 10. Starr says she knew, in her “heart, it happened Monday.”

Monday, Oct. 8, was supposed to be a banner day for Laurie and Rebecca. As in previous years, they were guests of honor at a concert by Peter Yarrow of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul&Mary. Yarrow had come from New York to sing for Rebecca at Park Academy, the private school for the dyslexic she attended in Lake Oswego. Through a series of benefits, Yarrow raised part of Rebecca’s $14,000 annual tuition. As she had in the past, Rebecca joined Yarrow onstage, where they sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” as classmates cheered and The Lake Oswego Review took photos. Following the concert, Laurie drove Rebecca home and, at some point, gave her daughter a fatal overdose of prescription drugs and swallowed the same herself.

The deaths blindsided many in the Portland area. Former and current teachers, parents and therapists struggled to make sense of how a mother so outwardly devoted to her disabled daughter could take her life and then her own. The Oregonian story about the murder-suicide was headlined “Vancouver mom spent her life trying to get best for daughter” and included a photo of Rebecca singing with Yarrow, noting that the girl “had cerebral palsy and dyslexia.” The story mentioned how Laurie, a single mother, “couldn’t hold a job given the time needed to care for Rebecca” and due to her own pain from fibromyalgia.

In the coming weeks, there would be memorials. At Clark County Chabad, Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg spoke of Rebecca’s piety, her enthusiasm. After services, attendees shook their heads. Laurie had fought tenaciously, they said, for the child born prematurely and burdened with a nearly unfathomable number of illnesses and disabilities. This little girl and her mother had survived so much, and for this to happen, none of it made any sense.

What no one knew was that Rebecca’s mom had made much of it up.

Munchausen syndrome is one of the more devastating and difficult-to-treat psychiatric disorders. Typically, the afflicted feign illness or trauma in order to gain attention and sympathy. Closely related is Munchausen by proxy, or MBP, in which a parent (almost always the mother) fabricates or induces illnesses in the child, again for the purposes of gaining sympathy. As detailed by an MBP website, “Cases have been reported in which children developed destructive skeletal changes, limps, mental retardation, brain damage and blindness from symptoms caused by the parent.” Based on the evidence accumulated since her death, Laurie almost certainly suffered from both Munchausen syndrome and MBP.

“[MBP] is so counterintuitive; it clashes with every concept we have of motherhood,” says Dr. Marc D. Feldman, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama and the author of several books on MBP. “If the parent is not apprehended or the child does not tell, he or she either dies or, in many cases, grows up to be a perpetrator.”

Precise numbers of how many suffer from MBP, says Feldman, are impossible to know: “All we have is a fuzzy estimate of 1,200 new MBP cases in the U.S. each year—and I think a majority of cases are never being recognized.” One reason is, the disorder takes years to identify. “Mothers go doctor-shopping, hospital-shopping; they leave situations,” says Feldman. “They move on.”

In January 1988, Laurie April Recht was 34 years old, a legal secretary preparing to graduate summa cum laude with a degree in sociology from the State University of New York at Purchase. Living in a low-income apartment in Yonkers, she attended a hearing where officials were urged to build more such housing in predominantly white neighborhoods. Laurie, The New York Times reported, was the only white person who spoke in favor of it. Though roundly booed (“Send her to Harlem!” shouted one audience member), her courage was such that the Times did a follow-up profile of the 4-foot-10-inch Recht. It noted Laurie had received death threats on the phone. Several months later, she reported people were painting swastikas on her apartment door. Because of her courage in standing up to these hate crimes and speaking out, she was asked to give the commencement speech at the College of New Rochelle, which awarded her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. That fall, she began law school.

Laurie’s time at law school turned out to be extremely brief: In April 1989, she was charged in U.S. District Court with falsifying threats against herself. Suspicious, the FBI had tapped her phone, which showed no activity during the time Laurie reported threats. The feds also concealed a camera, which captured Laurie herself defacing a wall. Though she could have gone to prison for up to five years and been fined $250,000, she was sentenced to five years’ probation and granted early release in September 1992.

Soon after, Laurie headed to Salem, Ore., to live with her sister, Alana. (Both Alana and her brother Barry declined numerous requests to be interviewed.) At some point, Laurie was artificially inseminated. Or, that’s what she told people.

Rebecca Alexis Hope Recht was born prematurely in Salem Hospital on May 17, 1993. While birth certificates are not public records, Laurie detailed her version of her daughter’s life in “The Story of Rebecca,” written for the girl’s bat mitzvah in 2006: “Rebecca weighed 2 lbs and was 13 inches long…. [She was] immediately transported to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland. Rebecca developed a Grade III bleed on her brain…the result was Cerebral Palsy…on Day 4, she had to have open-heart surgery to repair a hole…. Her 9th day of life…they didn’t expect her to make it through the day.” But Rebecca did make it and, at six months, “started her world of therapy,” wrote Laurie, with psychologists, neuropsychologists, “doctors, therapists, nurses, technicians, phlebotomists and so on.”

Because of federal regulations governing private health information, hospitals and doctors can neither confirm nor deny hospitalizations or visitations. Photos of Rebecca as a naked infant, however, show no scars on her chest. “There would be a scar down the center of the chest if there had been any open-heart surgery,” says Dr. Bassam Hadeed, a pediatrician with Providence. Shown photos of Rebecca crawling, sitting and playing with blocks, Hadeed says, “This baby is about 7 to 10 months old; she is sitting on her own; she is using her right and left hands equally.” He then looks at a photo of Rebecca at age 5, using a walker. “But this is not the same child,” he says and, when told it is, asks, “What happened to her? Using a walker indicates a spinal situation, not a cerebral one.” When shown a photo of Rebecca at about the same age grimacing and sucking a baby bottle, he shakes his head. “Until the child is 5, you are only relying on the parents to tell you what is going on. It’s only over time you realize they might not be telling the truth.”

Those in a position to clarify or confirm Rebecca’s afflictions won’t. Asked to set the record straight on the purported open-heart surgery, representatives for Doernbecher said the law forbade them to either confirm or deny it ever took place. Andy McMillin, a speech pathologist at the Hearing&Speech Institute in Southwest Portland, said he would “dearly love” to talk about Rebecca, but his superiors would not allow it. Angie Lindquist, the Division of Developmental Disabilities caseworker assigned to Rebecca, could not discuss the case because “the state of Washington prohibits it.”

While there is little doubt that Rebecca had some physical and emotional challenges, it is equally clear that the laundry list of disabilities Laurie claimed for her had little basis in fact. Victoria Thomas, whose son went to school with Rebecca for four years, said, “Rebecca had issues, but she could read, she could write; she was smart.” Others spoke of how at various times Rebecca would wear leg braces and other times she wouldn’t. Sometimes she wore a hearing aid, other times she didn’t. Earlier this year, Laurie pulled her daughter out of school twice, once for “eye surgery” and another time for “bone-straightening surgery,” but Sarah Starr says she found it odd there was “not even a bandage” for the former and only a flimsy over-the-counter splint for the latter.

What is abundantly true is that the child was very medicated. According to a number of friends, Rebecca was at various times on Concerta, a central-nervous-system stimulant used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Risperdal, a powerful anti-psychotic used to treat schizophrenia in adults and the irritability associated with autism.

Starr, who says she and her five children “loved Rebecca right away,” was struck by the excessive amount of medication she took. “Sometimes [Laurie] would just give [Rebecca] her own [Laurie’s] medication, or too much medication,” she says. “She would be calling when Rebecca slept over [at our house], saying, ‘Give her medication, give her two.’” Starr says she “really agonized over it” and chose not to give Rebecca any. “And she was fine.”

“Thinking Laurie did this to Rebecca—it’s hard to comprehend,” says Lisa Morasch, who met Laurie 10 years ago. Of the woman she reservedly considered a friend, Morasch says, “She was a talented seamstress—and she loved my chopped liver!” Aside from these qualities, however, Laurie was constantly in crisis, constantly asking for money. “She always required your extra-special sunniness,” says Morasch. “It was exhausting.”

Laurie’s pleas for attention were accompanied by a phantasmagoric list of her own maladies, which friends collectively recall included back pain, colitis, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, hemorrhoids, yeast infections, yeast-infected hemorrhoids, depression, and post-traumatic stress stemming from several alleged incidents in New York, including being raped by a doctor who later pumped bullets into her front door, and the death of her fireman fiancé in a fire. (Asked whether she thought Laurie seemed the type of person to have been engaged to a fireman, Starr says, “I kind of wondered about that.”)

Shortly after Rebecca’s birth, Laurie moved them into the house in Fishers Landing, a state-subsidized dwelling for which, at the time of her death, she paid $184 a month in rent. The woman who’d dreamt of becoming a lawyer, whom the Times lauded as “the lone voice,” was not exactly living the dream. Collecting disability, permanently estranged from her family, and in her 40s grown gray and portly, she created a tax-exempt organization in 1998 called the Friends of Children’s Society (a name unusually close to Friends of the Children, a national, Portland-based mentoring program for at-risk kids). She did not, however, lawfully register her charity, according to the Washington state secretary of state’s office. That office received a call from someone who was solicited by Laurie; the secretary of state sent Laurie a letter in 2004 and again in 2005, asking her to register but never heard back.

The Friends of Children’s Society’s stated aim was “the procurement of tickets from Portland-area providers of children’s cultural events to families in need.” Via the nonprofit, Laurie appealed to a number of companies and individuals for donations, including Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and, according to her friends, received cruises and vacations to Disney World; sewing machines and fabric; concert tickets; and videotapes. “Rebecca certainly went on more trips than my kids ever did,” says Morasch. Clark County Detective Rick Buckner recalls the Recht home as “so cluttered with stuff you couldn’t get in the front door.”

“That’s how everybody got to know [Laurie] in kindergarten, sending home letters to all the parents saying, ‘I’ve got tickets to the circus. Who wants to go?’” says Victoria Thomas.

Laurie’s talent for procuring donations, says Thomas, was matched by her tendency to keep them: In 2000, when Thomas’ son and Rebecca were in first grade at Harmony Elementary and Laurie was vice president of the PTA and in charge of fundraising, $800 was discovered missing. After an audit and police investigation, in Thomas’ words, “fizzled, plus the [school] wanted to drop it,” Thomas, newly elected as PTA president, forbade Laurie to handle school funds. Laurie never forgot this indignity. By January 2004, the relationship between the two had grown so strained that school officials at Illahee Elementary (which the kids now attended) advised Thomas to have an escort when on school property. Thomas says Laurie also began to leave threatening messages on Thomas’ answering machine, and to tape notes to the outside of her home in the middle of the night.

“She wrote, ‘LEAVE ME ALONE,’ all in capital letters, like she was the victim,” says Thomas, who petitioned for —and was granted—a two-year restraining order against Laurie by Clark County District Court. Laurie immediately flouted it. When ordered by police to get off school grounds, Laurie pulled Rebecca out of school and accused one of Rebecca’s teachers of sexual misconduct. Asked whether she thinks Laurie encouraged her daughter to lie, Sarah Starr says no. “Laurie would not tell [Rebecca] to lie; she would convince her that things were true.”

Victoria Thomas says Rebecca’s disabilities were “kind of like [Laurie’s] meal ticket.” And, of course, it appealed to people’s better instincts to help. What they could not know, at first, was that helping only enabled and emboldened Laurie to ask for more. Bryan Trenary, whose company, Rainbow Play Systems, provided a massive play structure for Rebecca, says Laurie’s phone calls “were relentless. It was nonstop pandering. It was just easier to give her what she wanted.” Often it was a relief when Laurie moved on. Why people did not listen to their own instincts about her belligerence, about her mothering skills or lack thereof, speaks to people not wanting to pass judgment on a woman who had an inexhaustible list of reasons her life was harder than theirs. Should they risk incurring Laurie’s wrath? Would taking Rebecca from Laurie put the child in a better or worse situation? Starr says Rebecca, too, loved her mother fiercely. Things might look bad from the outside, yes, but how bad, and how, really, to proceed?

It is striking, in the midst of this turmoil, that Rebecca is remembered by parents and teachers as a happy girl.

“She was a very vibrant young woman, resilient beyond the definition of resiliency,” recalls Park Academy director Paula Kinney, who says Rebecca returned to school this year with the announcement, “Here I am, the new Rebecca!”

In fact, Rebecca had made great strides since starting Park Academy four years earlier: She was reading at grade level and, out of the student body of 24, was first in Spanish.

The highlight of the school year had undoubtedly been the Yarrow concert, which he’d committed to perform after Laurie approached him and asked for money when he played a Portland show in 2004. Yarrow said no, but agreed to put on an annual benefit. Yarrow became devoted to the girl he called by her Hebrew name, “Rivka,” a girl with whom he shared near-daily emails and who referred to him as “my very, very, very best friend in the whole world.”

Although Yarrow had been putting on benefits for Rebecca for three years, the event this year soured. For months, Laurie had been asked by the school administration to contribute something toward Rebecca’s tuition and stop demanding that Rebecca be given more homework. She’d responded by standing regularly outside Park Academy, a doublewide trailer located on the edge of the Marylhurst College campus in Lake Oswego, in order to badmouth the school to parents. In an email she sent to one teacher last spring, she wrote that she, Laurie, was so depressed, “I come home each day, take my meds and get into bed,” that she’d stopped making meals, that none of this was good for Rebecca, and that if the school would not pledge never to make Laurie pay tuition, she might have to put Rebecca up for adoption.

“The mother would share this with the child. The child would come in shaken, and the mother would say, ‘See? This is what they’re doing to you,’” says Kinney, who took over as director only in September but knew in “my gut that this child was being manipulated…. But our hearts went out to Rebecca, and so we put up with the mother.”

By the time of the concert, Laurie had distressed the staff at Park Academy to the point she was not invited to a thank-you luncheon the board was giving Yarrow. Kinney recalls that Laurie exploded, saying, “This is horrible; I should have never invited him here!” and then, to Rebecca, “He’s not your friend anymore!”

After the concert, Yarrow tried to calm Laurie, to tell her the day was not about her, but her daughter. Laurie rebuffed him, ordered a trembling Rebecca to the car and, according to Kinney, shouted, “I’m just going to go home and take some Valium!”

“My last view of Rebecca was in the back seat, and I’m saying, ‘Laurie, you’re talking about going home and taking Valiums; I need to report that,’” says Kinney. “She said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to kill myself,’ and I said to Rebecca, ‘Are you OK?’ and she said, ‘I’m just scared for my mom.’”

Laurie drove home, called several people to tell them she’d been betrayed—by Yarrow, by Kinney—left phone messages at school saying she and Rebecca were “going on a long vacation” and then, it appears, overdosed herself and her daughter. (The Clark County medical examiner has yet to release the cause and manner of death.)

“Laurie was jealous of Rebecca, because she—not Laurie—had so many people deeply committed to her,” says one of the girl’s teachers, who last year got an unlisted phone number to put an end to harassing calls from Laurie. “This event created such a strong need to reflect, to ask, what the hell could we have done? Could we have known more? I don’t think so. I think Laurie would have gone underground, and the fear was, we would lose our point of contact with Rebecca.”

Which, of course, happened anyway.

In the weeks before her death, friends say Laurie grew extremely agitated. She beat a constant drum for funds and called at least three people, pleading car troubles and troubles with the state withholding money for Rebecca, and always enumerating Rebecca’s health problems. The girl’s most recent “ailment,” according to Laurie’s friend Elizabeth Harris, was a dangerous case of constipation. When several doctors recommended nothing more than laxatives and suppositories, Laurie insisted that, in Harris’ words, “Rebecca’s paralysis on one side” meant she could not feel the amount of pain she was in. Harris says Laurie told her X-rays showed the stool had “backed up all the way into the appendix, where it was crystallized,” and that Rebecca might require an appendectomy. There is no medical basis for stool crystallizing in the appendix.

Perhaps Laurie felt the walls closing in. Park Academy was questioning her fitness as a parent; Rebecca was having a fantastic year and would inevitably, as teenagers do, begin to pull away from her mother. Perhaps Laurie was preparing for this not to be so: A week before the deaths, Harris says, she overheard Rebecca say to Laurie, “When I go to heaven, I’ll get to meet Anne Frank.”

It’s midnight in New York, three weeks after the deaths, and Peter Yarrow is walking his dog in Central Park. “I assure you, she was a warrior for peace,” he says of Rebecca. And while he knew Laurie as “highly narcissistic” and “really, really manipulative,” he helped her anyway, out of love for her daughter.

“She had a right to take her own life, but that she took her daughter with her, the part of her that’s not insane, I am so angry, I cannot tell you,” he says. “And I keep thinking: Could I have prevented this occurrence? But I just didn’t anticipate it at all.”

Someone who was concerned, he says, was Paula Kinney. “She took me aside and said, ‘This is ghastly; we’re worried about the abuse this child is receiving. Should we report it?’ And I said, ‘Laurie loves Rebecca; I can’t see putting her in services, and she’s blossoming so.’ Plus, Rivka knew her mother’s craziness; I had faith she could handle it.”

He pauses. “Ultimately, Laurie was both someone who loved her daughter fiercely, and who mercilessly used her. It’s all of a piece.”

The house on Northeast 164th Avenue where Laurie and Rebecca lived is not a cheery place. It’s cheaply built and devoid of color, save for thick, dirty brown shag carpeting. There’s a hall barely wider than one’s shoulders leading to Rebecca’s room, where a poor-quality hospital-type bed partly obscures a Pokémon poster, and to Laurie’s bedroom, where the bodies were found. The mother’s bedroom is empty now, save for a piece of embroidery Laurie made, with the phrase, “Death is the final reward, for death brings peace of mind.”

If one is feeling generous, one might say Laurie loved Rebecca too much and the world too little. That she did not trust the world to deliver anything but pain. That it had been bad for her, and would be worse for her daughter. Rebecca, too, loved her mother fiercely, “more than I’ve ever seen a child love a mother before,” says Starr. More, there is one of the emails Laurie sent Park Academy last spring, saying, “Rebecca is mine, and no one can take her from me. Or even make the threat.”

When the bodies were found, detectives saw no sign of resistance. While what Rebecca knew or did not know can only be speculated, Starr says Rebecca trusted her mother, that it would only have been a matter of Laurie saying, “Take a pill; take another pill.” And then Rebecca did what she undoubtedly had done countless times before; she crawled in bed with her mom to watch TV. And while Laurie was found on her back, Rebecca was on her side, curled toward her mother.


Munchausen syndrome is a psychiatric illness in which people falsify, exaggerate or self-induce illness in order to win attention, care and sympathy they feel unable to obtain in any other way. Hypochondria, by contrast, is marked by excessive anxiety that one actually is sick.

Papers found posthumously at Laurie’s home include a letter she wrote to an adoption agency before she left New York, stating that as a child she felt “unloved” and her mother had been “horrible,” but that she, Laurie, would foster ambitions in any child of her own. There is no evidence she was given a child.

Sarah Starr says she met Laurie and Rebecca in 2006, when Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg asked her to do a mitzvah. “In Judaism, a mitzvah is a good deed,” she says. “I need you to befriend this woman,” the Rabbi told her. “You’re going to have to look past the anger she has; she needs a friend.’”

Greenberg, who counseled and cared for Laurie, knew she’d been arrested and charged by the FBI with making threats against herself, including painting swastikas on her own door. “In the Torah, you can find places that say, if a person does not help himself, then, you don’t need to help him,” he says. “But if you read deeper, you will find these are the people you need to help the most.”

 
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