Four Sisters Confront Dad and the Past

Brennan, P. (1994, March 20). “Four Sisters Confront Dad And The Past”. The Washington Post.

At times, “Ultimate Betrayal” (Sunday at 9 on CBS) is not an easy movie to watch. Based on a true story of incest and physical abuse, it follows four adult sisters as they share their memories and decide to sue their father in civil court.

Their precedent-setting 1990 lawsuit in a Denver court has repercussions on Capitol Hill. If Rep. Patricia Shroeder (D-Colo.) gets her legislation passed, the Child Abuse Accountability Act will establish procedures to allow child abuse victims to claim court-ordered financial restitution by garnisheeing the federal (but not military) pensions of their abusers even years after the abuse occurred. Currently, federal pensions can be garnisheed for alimony and child support.

In the film, Marlo Thomas plays Sharon Rodgers Simone, eldest of seven children in a Colorado Springs, Colo., family. Now a middle-aged wife and mother, she is a fearful person on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a woman who sleeps in her car at night, returning at dawn to help get the children off to school. Her husband is keeping the family together.

When Sharon’s youngest sister, Mary Rodgers LaRocque (Ally Sheedy), calls to ask if she’ll join in a lawsuit against their father, Sharon learns that her three sisters also are leading dysfunctional lives. All four have sought psychological help; three have attempted suicide.

But unlike Sharon, who has no explanation for her undefined fears, the other sisters know why: As children, they say, they were sexually abused by their father. Sharon hears her sisters’ stories but denies that such horrors occurred — certainly, she believes, not to her. As Thomas put it, “Only Sharon had trouble connecting the dots.”

Filled with shame, the sisters — Mary, Susan (Mel Harris) and Beth Medlicott (Kathryn Dowling) — had never confided in one another.

“One of the things that Sue says on the stand is, ‘All my life, I thought this was my shame,’ ” said Thomas. “All of us carry little secrets that have tremendous power because they’re secrets. A secret tears you apart; it stops you. But if you let it out, it has no power. It doesn’t have to be a secret as big as theirs. The secret can be that you just weren’t loved, just the fact that your parents didn’t have time for you.”

But Mary’s secret was a big one, one she had never told. Sheedy, in one of the most touching and unsettling scenes in the movie, recounts to her older sisters the repeated sexual abuse, including a rape that occurred when she was very young and was the only child left at home.

Edward J. Rodgers Jr. said that never happened. Rodgers had been an FBI agent for 27 years when he retired from that career in 1967 and became a child-abuse investigator for the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office (El Paso County) in Colorado Springs. He also served on the board of a group that supports the rights of abused children.

The same year he retired from the FBI, he separated from the mother of his seven children. Two years later, he married a woman with a son and two daughters.

In 1990, long after the Rodgers children were grown, Susan Rodgers Hammond and Sharon Rodgers Simone sued their father, not only to gain money to pay for their therapy, but also hoping for a public accounting and to hear their father acknowledge what happened.

That he would not do. Edward Rogers failed to appear in court, and in a written deposition, he denied that the sexual abuse ever occurred, although he admitted that he had been a physically rough disciplinarian with a quick temper.

Nor would his sons Edward, Steve and John, who are seen in the film being beaten as children, participate in the lawsuit. They are seen in the film berating their sisters in the courtroom at the close of the trial. Sharon’s therapist (played by Eileen Brennan), did testify, as did Sharon’s husband, Patrick Simone.

Without the defendant present, and with no defense counsel, a six-woman Denver jury heard the testimony, considered the evidence for 90 minutes, and awarded them $2.3 million, the largest settlement (at that time) in a case of this nature.

Thus far, said Thomas, Rodgers has never paid a penny of that sum. Schroeder’s bill, introduced in November of 1993, would tap into Rodgers’s FBI pension. Currently, a federal employee’s pension can be garnisheed only for court-ordered child support or alimony.

Thomas pointed out that unlike other cases that have caught public attention recently, “This isn’t a case of false memory or repressed memory,” said Thomas. “The other sisters said, ‘I’ve known this all my life,’ but Sharon wouldn’t allow herself to admit that.”

They related all of this to producer/director Donald Wrye, writer Gregory Goodall and a therapist in an emotional two-day session before the movie went into production. Simone reviewed at least 10 drafts of Goodall’s script. Then the actors were cast.

“The abuse psychologist we spoke to said everybody plays a different role in the family,” said Thomas. “Sue was the one who fought back and got beaten the most. Sharon was the one who tried to make her father calm down and feel loved, met him at the door, brought him a beer. She thought she was helping by helping her father feel loved. But underneath, there was the guilt of the collaborator.

“To me, what was very touching was that she {Sharon} didn’t want to lose her father. Every girl needs her daddy. Sharon told me, ‘There’s a part of me that still loves my father.’ Her fantasy was that they would have this trial, the father would be found guilty, and then they would all go around and help other families. She said, ‘I thought maybe we’d make all this bad become good for somebody.’ ”

Thomas said Sharon eventually came to understand that her vision of family healing was an unlikely scenario. Instead, helping make the movie and working for the Child Abuse Accountability Act have become her way of making “bad become good for somebody.”

Thomas said after she read the script, she gave the movie a lot of thought.

“I’ve never done an ‘abuse movie’ before,” she said. “I put {the script} down and I thought, there’s something very special here. It took a lot of courage for these women to stand up to their father. There’s something basic about having your pain acknowledged, having your reality acknowledged.

“The father had every opportunity to acknowledge his daughters. They asked him to talk, they asked him for money for their therapy, and as a last resort, they sued him to get money for their therapy. But that doesn’t seem to be the real issue. The real issue is, if Dad won’t acknowledge what happened, maybe the jury will. That was the triumph for them.”

This film is the fourth time that Marlo Thomas has portrayed a living person. She was Marie Balter in “Nobody’s Child,” Sis Levin in “Held Hostage,” and Laura Z. Hobson in “Consenting Adult.”

She has kept up with all of the women she’s played. “Once you play somebody real, you’re in their life forever,” she said.

“I like playing real women. It’s like a road map: You can follow the street signs.

“Often with a fictional character, you’re constantly saying to the director, ‘But why would you do that?’ With a real person, you can just ask.”

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