Podcast: Family on the Run: A Story of Delusional Disorder
When Pauline Dakin was 10 years old, her mother took the family into hiding to escape imminent danger. Fifteen years later, Pauline was told that they were on the run from the mafia.
At first, accepting of this explanation, Pauline’s doubts grew until she could no longer deny the truth: that there was no danger and she was being misled. Join us as Pauline shares how she came to this heartbreaking conclusion.
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Guest information for ‘Delusional Disorder’ Podcast Episode
For many years, Pauline was a trusted voice on health and medical issues as the national health reporter for CBC News. Her reporting and documentary work has been recognized with many regional, national, and international awards. She is a three-time recipient of fellowships from the National Press Foundation in Washington and is a fellow of the MIT/Knight Science Journalism program on medical evidence in Cambridge, Mass. She currently teaches journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, N.S., Canada.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Delusional Disorder’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: Welcome to the Psych Central Podcast, where each episode features guest experts discussing psychology and mental health in every day plain language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. And today I will be talking with Pauline Dakin who is the bestselling author of Run Hide Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood which tells the true story of her mother’s misguided belief that their family was in constant danger. Her book also won the prestigious Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction last year. Pauline, welcome to the show.
Pauline Dakin: Thanks for having me, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: Well it’s an amazing story. Normally I say hello, thank you for being here, it’s wonderful, and we make pleasantries but I want to jump in. I became aware of you by reading I believe a New York Times article on your book and I just I absolutely had to know more. First off, can you tell us just maybe like a brief synopsis of what the book is about and then we’ll get into the details.
Pauline Dakin: Ok, well my brother and I grew up with some very strange things happening. Twice my family disappeared. So it was me, my mom, and my brother and twice we moved away without telling anybody and started a new life. And of course, my brother and I would always say why what’s going on with the why is everything always so secretive? Everything we were always told you can’t talk about this. Don’t talk about that. And the answer was always well when you’re older I’ll tell you. And then when I was 23 my mom and a longtime family friend named Stan Sears met me in a motel room halfway between where I was living in my mom was living and they sat me down and told me that the reason for all our strange behavior and disappearances was that we’d been on the run from the mafia and that my dad was involved in organized crime. So you know and it seemed like a very far fetched idea. You know why us and there was quite a complex explanation for that. That had to do with the fact that Stan Sears who was a United Church minister and a psychologist did a lot of counseling for an organization that dealt with family members of alcoholics and that he had counseled somebody who was involved in organized crime in the Vancouver waterfront. And that that was where it began that he came to the attention of the mob and then a variety of things came together that sort of connected my mother in with that. So a very complex story was still very hard to believe but I did believe that for some years.
Gabe Howard: The very first time that your family picked up and moved. How old were you.
Pauline Dakin: So that was the summer that I turned 10.
Gabe Howard: So your brother is even younger and you said it was your mom your brother and you and that your father was somehow involved. Was he concerned that you were fleeing from him how did he react to all of this.
Pauline Dakin: Yeah well my parents were divorced and my dad was alcoholic and there was a lot of legal conflict about his access to us. So the courts at some point had decided that it wasn’t safe for us to be with him. So there were issues around that. You know he. He was the kind of dad that you know back in the day dads weren’t as involved in parenting and I think he was kind of dad that was more interested in older kids and didn’t quite know what to do with the younger kids. So I know that he was concerned at some point but he didn’t really come looking for us for quite a while.
Gabe Howard: So your mom and your brother and you and the Family Minister when you were 10 years old abruptly left in the middle of the night and took off you were running. I mean they told you were running. This wasn’t like a planned move I assume.
Pauline Dakin: No. What happened was. And so it was the minister, Stan Sears, and his wife. So we were family friends and we often went camping together to families together. And so that’s how it started. We went on a camping trip cross country and when we arrived at our destination that’s when my brother and I were told we won’t be going home and you can’t tell anybody.
Gabe Howard: What, did they change your names or anything? I mean it seems so cloak and dagger.
Pauline Dakin: Yes. No names weren’t changed. And you know I think I often think about how connected the world is today that I can find anybody online.
Gabe Howard: Right. Right.
Pauline Dakin: But in those days it wasn’t so and nothing was computerized. So I guess there were not the same ways to trace people.
Gabe Howard: And that probably helped it. But what year are we talking here.
Pauline Dakin: So we’re talking about the mid 1970s and you know there were no cell phones. There was no Internet. It was a very different world.
Gabe Howard: So here you are you’re 10 years old and you’re starting over you’re starting a new life. You thought you were going camping but you left most of your stuff at your old place and now you’ve started a new. What was that like. Did life go on as normal for a while. I mean I imagine this was very shocking but did things just settle in. I mean a lot of things are shocking to kids you know.
Pauline Dakin: It was our normal in some strange way it became our normal and we became used to this. You know don’t talk about what our family is doing or where we’re going or what’s going on. I mean we always thought it was strange. We always tried to say you know what’s going on with our weird family. But yeah it just became kind of the thing that you would just sort of shrug and go there mom goes again. In other respects we had a very stable home. I know that sounds like a crazy thing to say but you know my mom had a beautiful Sunday dinner on the table every Sunday it was sacrosanct. You didn’t miss Sunday dinner. She played catch with my brother in the backyard after dinner every evening when he was trying out for the baseball team. We were up early before school to do drills for our math you know. So there was a lot of stability and support. And my brother and I have talked a lot about this and said there was never a moment that we didn’t feel loved and cared about. And I think that that’s very protective for kids. So even in the midst of all of this chaos that you know with these moves and other bizarre things going on there was some consistency and some sense of stability around being cared about.
Gabe Howard: And how long did this new life last before you moved again? And what was that move like? Was it in the middle of the night? Did you go camping again?
Pauline Dakin: No. So this time I was 13 so it had only we only stayed a few years. My brother was eleven. My mom said OK I’m we’re going to move again and I’m sorry that the way that happened last time and I won’t do that to you again. But it’s a secret you can’t tell. And so she was going to sell the house that we were living in and we just weren’t allowed to talk about where we were going. And so the house finally sold. And Stan and Sybil Sears, his wife, had already moved away a few months earlier and we were going to join them this time at the other end of the country so we’d gone from coast to coast now. And that I have to say that that was the most difficult move for me. But by far I was a 13 year old I had great friends. I loved my school. It just felt like it had become a good place for me. And then just to sort of get ripped away from that I found very hard. And I went to a new place that was a smaller community. It was a smaller town and in fact in the neighborhood that we moved to. Nobody could remember anybody moving into the neighborhood. It was none of the kids my age could remember anybody ever moving in. It was just you know one of those more small town places. So it was tough.
Gabe Howard: And the way that you make friends is by sharing details of your personal life. And this was expressly prohibited. Now all the kids at your new school are like Hey where are you from what are you doing here and you’re like.
Pauline Dakin: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: What was that like?
Pauline Dakin: Oh that was a huge issue for me because this was a town. It was had a pulp mill it you know it didn’t really have a lot of things to recommend it. At least the people who lived there didn’t think that. And you know I kind of agreed with them and so people would say well why would you ever move here. And I thought yeah but I wouldn’t have if it had been my choice. But you couldn’t say that and I said to my mother What am I supposed to say when they say well why would you ever move here. And she said just tell them you know that we wanted to live by the ocean again which just sounded like such a lame thing to say as a 13 year old we wanted to live by the ocean. It was very it was hard. And yes having a secret that you’re keeping is like putting a wall between you and everybody around you. And I didn’t really understand that until really I stopped keeping that secret. And suddenly I felt this huge relief and I could allow people to really know me. And so I was. My relationships improved dramatically as a result.
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Gabe Howard: So eventually you become an adult. Do you go off to university? You go off to? What happens to two adult Pauline?
Pauline Dakin: So yes I went off to university you know got my own place. I became a reporter and so I was a new very young reporter at the time I got this phone call from my mom. Hey I know that you’ve been very frustrated about all the secretiveness in our lives and so on. It’s time to tell you. So that’s what was going I was just about to graduate from university I’d been working part time for a newspaper as a reporter and I was about to start full time. And that’s when the call came and I learned this crazy story.
Gabe Howard: And here you are. You’re in a motel. Your mom is there. Stan is there. And the two of them together tell you about the danger the mob the running and just the whole dramatic story. What’s the first thing that went through your mind.
Pauline Dakin: Well the first thing was this can’t be true. But why would these two people who are that he was, Stan was like a dad to me. He was wonderful to us as kids because our dad was never around and so it was like this cannot be true. But these are two wonderful people who really care about us. They’re respected in the community they have responsible jobs. Why would they make this up? So it was just mind blowing to me and then they started saying hey do you remember the time that this happened? Remember the time that happened? And they started sort of putting these puzzle pieces together convincing me that this was true and you know you can, well. It was somewhat convincing. I mean I was still struggling with it but ultimately, I decided if I can’t believe these two people who have never been anything but trustworthy and supportive in my life then who could I ever believe. So I guess I decided to believe it despite the fact I really was struggling. My second thought was if this is true maybe I should go to Australia and try to get lost.
Gabe Howard: If it is true you’re potentially still in danger but if it’s not true your family lied to you for half of your childhood. So your choices are not great.
Pauline Dakin: Yes. Yes.
Gabe Howard: And one of the themes that sort of runs throughout your book is that you know your mom was not a bad person you love your mother very much Stan was not a bad guy you looked up to him and respected him and there’s no I’m going to ruin the ending for everybody.
Pauline Dakin: That’s OK.
Gabe Howard: They were not fleeing from crime the ending of this is not that they robbed a bank and we’re trying to outrun law enforcement. There was none of those things. They were good people who broke no laws who did nothing wrong but they had this belief that although not true impacted you very greatly.
Pauline Dakin: Yes that’s right.
Gabe Howard: And you’re trying to put this together. So you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place on what to believe but eventually you start trying to put this together and prove definitively about whether or not you’re in danger or about whether or not your mom is wrong. Can you talk about that a little bit.
Pauline Dakin: Yeah well I mean it just became harder and harder to continue the belief in this. And you know part of it was that my mother that Stan had gone inside so he had essentially disappeared into a secretive world that was kind of like a… a protective custody situation. But anyway is a very complex world and it was a big part of the story. And then my mother decided she was going to go inside and the big surprise was by the way Stan and I have been in love for years we’ve never done anything about it but civil has decided not to go inside. We want to be together and I’m just you know my head is spinning and eventually I reached the point that I just had to know I just had to know. And so I kind of did a sting where I mean the problem with a secretive thing is it’s very hard to prove something is true or not true because every time you say well what about this? Well, that’s a secret. So there’s no way
Gabe Howard: Right.
Pauline Dakin: To prove or disprove a secret. So I pretended my house had been broken into and I called my mother at a time. So Stan used to come out to visit her from inside and at a time I knew he was visiting her. I called her and said My house has been broken into what should I do. And she said I’ll call you right back. I’m going to talk to our friend. And of course you do you talk that way because your phone is probably bugged right. I hang up and I wait for her to call me back. And it was just excruciating. And then she called and she said yes. He says that two people have been picked up outside your home. They broke in. They were looking for certain things. They’d been following you. They had photographs of you. So you in all this crazy stuff. And in that moment I knew none of it was true because there hadn’t been a break in. So oh it was just like having the rug pulled out from under you. And so eventually I confronted them and they were very upset mostly because they were afraid that if I didn’t believe the story I would not take precautions to protect myself. And so it began a time that you know we still all loved each other very much. I still loved my mom. I don’t know. I was struggling more with Stan but but you know we were looking at each other from across this abyss of this story that they believe deeply and I could not any longer believe at all.
Gabe Howard: Now in that moment right before you did the sting Were you still open to the idea that it might be true. As soon as this thing was over you were 100 percent positive that everything was was a lie. Where were you the moments before you incorporated the sting.
Pauline Dakin: Yeah I think I’d been creeping up the spectrum towards disbelief for a long time. And by that time I guess I was probably about 90 percent sure it wasn’t true but I had to know because of everything that was at stake and for me to say definitively you’re not telling the truth to me it was you know an understanding that I was going to do terrible damage to some of the closest relationships in my life. My mom in particular.
Gabe Howard: And you did so after the sting you. You’ve sat down with your mom and you looked at her and you said Mom there was no break in. You told her the whole story. You know this is untrue. What happened then.
Pauline Dakin: Well she was very upset and you know how could I have done that. And now I you know I couldn’t be part of the Inside group of insiders you know it’s either you’re with us or against us kind of thing right. And now I might be in danger. And so on and I just said Well there is no particular danger and then I confronted Stan. We went back to where he was and confronted him together and he was very sad. His reaction was that he was very sad because now I was no longer part of this circle. And I had the sense and this has been borne out that you know this was always Stan story. He was you know there were letters that came from the what we called the weird world like the inside from people who had been involved in organized crime and arrested. You know I would receive letters from these people some of whom were supposedly family members of mine who’d been involved in or like on my dad’s side. And so you know they all this stuff always came through Stan. He was the arbiter of all information and all contact and so on and so I knew this was his story. And I guess my mother just sort of loved and had such regard for him that she just adopted his story. She couldn’t believe that he would ever lie.
Gabe Howard: And these letters were fake? Were they written by Stan? Made by Stan? I mean just.
Pauline Dakin: They had to have been there and how he had the time. There were hundreds of them.
Gabe Howard: Oh wow.
Pauline Dakin: And how he ever had the time to do that I don’t I can’t imagine the whole the whole thing is there’s still some real mysteries around the story.
Gabe Howard: That is incredible. So where are you now? Did the rift heal? Did you find a way to continue on? How did Stan react? What happened to you and your family after all of this?
Pauline Dakin: Well my brother and I got together and talked about how could we essentially rescue our mom from this situation and he went to the police and the police said she’s an adult not nobody’s being hurt. Nothing we can do. And so we just kept on keeping on. And you know I struggle my mom and I struggle a lot to maintain any kind of a relationship. Then I got married and had kids and so we just had this relationship where we agreed to disagree and not to talk about any of that stuff and if she raised it I just shut it down. I’m not talking about that. I don’t believe that. And she continued to worry about me and my brother and would we be OK. And then she got very sick. She’d had cancer twice and she had a recurrence of cancer. And she came to live with me for the last nine months of her life. And you know we weren’t we were never able to resolve this between us. But what we were able to do was come to a kind of peace where I know you believe that I don’t believe that but I really love you. And you know, she was incredibly grateful to be living with me when she was sick and dying. And so you know there was some grace there for us not resolution but some grace.
Gabe Howard: From the time that you confronted your mother until the time that she passed away how long of a period of time was that.
Pauline Dakin: So from the time you know of that initial confrontation until the time she died would have been almost 20 years.
Gabe Howard: And so for those 20 years you did find a way to stay in your mom’s life. And what kind of a grandmother was your I mean your children had a 20 years a long time. Your children had a relationship with their grandma. What was that like?
Pauline Dakin: Yeah you know she was always a very loving person and she was thrilled to have grandchildren and they were all very close. Things kind of changed because Stan died. And so then the whole kind of story went underground and there were only a couple of times that she said things that made me know that she still believe. But it was important to me that she not be talking about that stuff to my kids. So we were clear about that. And outside of that she you know she loved my kids and they really loved her. I’m really grateful they got to know her.
Gabe Howard: From the time of the you know the sting operation to the time that Stan passed away How long was that.
Pauline Dakin: Only a few years maybe four or five years.
Gabe Howard: So your mother outlived Stan by 15 years. So did your mom and Stan’s marriage end in divorce?
Pauline Dakin: Well they never got together really. You know they wanted to be together. They wanted to go inside and be together in protective custody. But that never happened. And so you know she would see him on these visits and he would phone her and so on. Yeah. So the way she found out that he had died was that she got a letter from his wife. So he had never you know he was still in his primary marriage at the time he died.
Gabe Howard: This is absolutely incredible and it’s all chronicled in this book Run Hide Repeat: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood and from a personal level you had to recall all of this. What was that like for you to relive all of this, in writing the book?
Pauline Dakin: You know what, it was a very hard time. But I think you just reach a certain age and I had spent a long time just thinking OK forget about this. This was a terrible thing it happened but forget about it put it behind you move on. Focus on your family and your career and so on and that’s what I did for a long time but then I think at some point you just have to stop and shake your head and say what the heck was that. What happened there. And so I began to think about it and then I began to write out to write about it as a means of trying to sort it out for myself and knowing that someday I would want to tell my kids this in a way that wouldn’t make them hate their grandmother who they loved so much I wanted to be able to tell them about this in a very nuanced way within a context. And so that’s why I started writing. And actually it was while I was writing I was doing research thinking so what could have been going on with Stan? I was a health reporter for the national broadcaster in Canada for a while. And so I you know I read a lot of medical journals. And so you know I was looking for information about you know he didn’t show any. He wasn’t schizophrenic. He didn’t have any of those other symptoms you associate with major mental illness. What was going on? And it was while I was doing that that I made a big discovery which was became the impetus for me to share this story more widely. I mean initially it was just for my family but then I when I made this discovery I just thought nobody has heard of this before and I need to share it because it essentially had such an impact on my life and my brother’s life. Other people should know.
Gabe Howard: And what was the discovery. Because I think to the average person listening to this story they’re like Oh Stan was a con artist and your mother must have given him a lot of money like that. That’s where I’m sitting here right now thinking that’s got to be it. And I’ve read the book
Pauline Dakin: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: So and I still want to believe that.
Pauline Dakin: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: But what did you learn?
Pauline Dakin: Well so first of all no he no. My mother never gave money in fact he often helped support her family. So what I discovered was an article by a professor psychiatrist at Harvard writing about something called delusional disorder and he described it as something that at least in the literature is extremely rare and in fact you know I called him up and said OK can I can I talk to you about this. I mean as a reporter I was used to calling people up and interviewing them so I can I talk to you about this. And so we had a very long conversation where I described what had happened and he was fascinated of course. And so you know he said during that you know most doctors will never see a case of this because these people appear completely normal. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with themselves. And so they don’t go looking for help. They don’t turn up as an issue in society unless they have you know there’s some subtypes of delusional disorder that occasionally you hear about. But with the kind that Stan had persecutory delusional disorder where you believe that somebody is coming after you somebody is trying to harm you somebodies hunting you down that that rarely comes to anybody’s attention because they keep the secret. Right.
Gabe Howard: Right. For their safety.
Pauline Dakin: You know he was able to have a completely normal life in a very public and responsible job. Retired. People loved him. People come to when I do a book reading people come and they cry and they tell me what a wonderful man he was and they just how could this have happened. You know so it’s a very bizarre condition.
Gabe Howard: It really really is. What did you hope people would take away from this.
Pauline Dakin: I think there are several things. One is that children can be so vulnerable and I often think about you know the teachers and the adults in our lives. And you know did anybody raise concerns when a couple of kids just kind of disappear from school and after school activities in the neighborhood and so on. Again I don’t know that this could happen today just because of how connected we all are. But I just I wanted to say you know you never know what’s going on in somebodies life and kids there needs to be ways of protecting kids. So that’s one. But you know on the other spectrum I think there is a remarkable story about you know everybody always says to me how did you survive this. Well it’s a resilience thing you know and resilience isn’t. Either you got it or you don’t. Resilience is something that you can develop in your life. And I believe that my brother and I have the resilience to get through all of this because of how well loved we are. And I know it’s paradoxical. So a parent who puts you in jeopardy but at the same time who gives you the resources and the support to become a resilient person. It’s a crazy thing but that’s what I believe. And I guess the other thing is I really wish people would pay more attention to delusional disorder. I wish somebody would try to do more research on it. I’ve heard from people all over the world who’ve said to me Oh I never knew what was wrong with my son my aunt my father my husband. You know that must be it. So I doubt that it’s really as rare as the medical literature would suggest.
Gabe Howard: Where can we find you and where can we find the book.
Pauline Dakin: You know the book has been out for almost two years now. So at one point it was available around most bookstores in North America. But if it’s not Amazon’s a good spot I have a Web site PaulineDakin. com with links to places that you can buy it. And I really appreciate your interest.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much Pauline. I just I really appreciate having you on the show and thank you everyone for tuning in. Wherever you grab this podcast if you can give us as many stars as humanly possible and use your words tell other people what you liked about it or Hey what you didn’t. But we like fans more. And remember you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counselling anytime anywhere simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We will see everybody next week.
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Central Podcast, T. (2019). Podcast: Family on the Run: A Story of Delusional Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-family-on-the-run-a-story-of-delusional-disorder/