Trial Of Incest Doesn't End With Final Gavel

December 30, 1990|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

Last March, when Sunday school teachers Ralph and Betty Smith were convicted of subjecting two of their children to more than a decade of incest, daughter Lisa Smith Clark knew life would never be the same for her and her siblings.

Crying happy tears, Clark gestured toward the sister and three brothers who had stood behind her. (Her other two sisters had testified on behalf of their parents.) "We start to live," she said that day. "This is our birthday."

It wasn't just the criminal trial, although Clark and her siblings were quick to say they felt vindicated when a county Circuit Court jury convicted the Pasadena couple after deliberating only 40 minutes. There was the decision to name names and go public with their experience, their story of how children -- by now adults and out of the house -- could successfully prosecute their parents for sexual abuse that took place years earlier.

They've told their story on national television and sold the rights to a Hollywood film company that specializes in TV movies.

Along the way, the Smiths inspired a handful of victims across the nation to come forward. Closer to home, the Smith case prompted Kim Shaffir, a former schoolmate of Clark's at Chesapeake High, to file sexual child abuse charges against her stepfather, who was convicted and sentenced to jail.

Shaffir and Clark, both 29, knew of each other but weren't friends in high school. Now, although Clark lives in Florida and Shaffir lives in Annapolis, they have become tight friends, bonded by a determination to overcome the effects of upbringings marred by incest.

In an emotional ceremony last August, Lisa and her husband renewed their wedding vows. Their first wedding in 1985 had been, in Lisa's words, a disaster. She recalls her father torturing her with sexual mind games, whispering lewd, cutting remarks as he escorted her to the altar in a Linthicum church.

This time, Michael Smith -- the brother with whom she had been forced to commit incest, the brother who once despised her because he thought she was a willing sexual partner to their father -- gave away the bride.

All the while, their parents sat in prison cells, both serving 15-year sentences. Ralph L. Smith Sr., who owned a trucking company, turned 64 Friday. Betty L. Smith, 57, had been a nurse at a Glen Burnie nursing home.

But living happily ever after is for fairy tales; the story doesn't ever really end for most incest victims. If the jury's verdict last March signaled a birthday, the start of a new life, then some of the first steps have been awkward.

For Michael, the 30-year-old son who testified he was forced to commit incest with both his mother and sister, the healing comes slowly. His hair and mustache are black, giving him a dark, brooding look. He sighs and speaks in a deliberate, articulate way when reflecting upon the fallout from the trial -- and the decision to go public.

"A couple of us have gotten better and a couple of us have gotten worse," he said. "I'm one of the ones who hasn't gotten much better. In fact, it's gotten much worse."

He yearns to be a writer -- though he never finished high school, his talent is obvious to anyone who reads his efforts to put his feelings down on paper. He has written a 150-page autobiography he hopes to publish as a book. But he works as a truck driver, a sometimes lonely occupation that provides more than enough time to brood.

"Sometimes it's so bad I'll have to pull into a rest stop and go get a soda and try to shake it off," he said. "Now that this is over, there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it, and I mean think about it a lot."

Though he doesn't really blame them, friends and co-workers who seemed so sympathetic when he went public with his experience no longer want to hear about it, he said. And it hasn't been easy to forge relationships with his siblings -- his parents had for years maintained control over their children by pitting one against another, nurturing distrust, they say.

"When this all started," said Michael, "we didn't know each other. We were very careful with what we said to each other. Now we aren't so careful and feelings are getting hurt. It's an awkward situation."

But he says his sister Lisa is his hero. "I think she's turned into an absolutely wonderful person." Referring to her recent work as a model and film extra and her participation in a beauty pageant for petite women, he added, "She doesn't have any limits."

"Michael is very sensitive, very caring, very compassionate," Lisa said.

"When he sees others in the family hurting, I think it weighs heavily on his soul, more than his own pain.

"There have been regrets, but that's when you're having your really bad days, when you're feeling really puny and lost," she said last week from her home in Florida. "It's a really heavy feeling that you get that overwhelms you. . .When things get really tough -- and they do -- it makes it a lot easier for me to know I've helped other people."

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