New York -- "Next on 'Donahue': Bible-thumping parents have sex with their kids."
With those words, the show was on. For an hour yesterday, the cameras rolled while five siblings, ranging in age from 21 to 39, sat beneath the bright lights of a New York City sound stage and described growing up in Maryland in a family with a history of more than two decades of incest.
From the outside all looked well: Ralph Smith owned a trucking company. Betty Smith, his silver-haired wife, was "nurse of the year" at a convalescent center. They were church-goers, Sunday school teachers admired by friends and neighbors.
No one knew what went on inside the modest rancher with the backyard swimming pool off Mountain Road in Pasadena.
"Very charming, very charming people," said Lisa Smith Clark, a 30-year-old nurse. "You would never suspect them."
Then, for the cameras, the siblings described the 1990 criminal trial that ended with both parents being sentenced to 15 years in prison. (No broadcast date for the program has been set.)
Host Phil Donahue asked Michael Smith and Lisa Smith Clark about testifying in court while his father's gaze said, as Michael put it, " 'I'd kill you if I could.' "
He asked them about the times the parents forced them to have sex with each other, how they grew to hate each other, how they now love each other. He asked the other three, whose cases never went to trial, about growing up in a household where screams in the night were not unusual.
When 24-year-old Michele Smith Elam said she remembers being forced to perform oral sex on her father at age 4, the talk show host said, "Holy smokes. I can't . . ." He couldn't find the words to finish his sentence.
Audience members who were disappointed when they heard what the topic would be -- they wanted to see movie stars, not a depressing discussion on incest -- gasped when the Smiths said their parents forced them to mimic pornographic films as a form of sex education.
When it was their turn to ask questions, those in the stands wanted to know, among other things, whether birth control was used, whether the Smiths' adult relationships were affected and whether they believed their parents were possessed by the devil.
Not possessed, Michael said, "[His father] is just a man, a very bad man."
pTC And when the show was over, about five members of the audience congratulated and thanked the Smiths -- explaining that they, too, were incest victims.
"It touched my heart," said Ms. Clark. "I'm really glad we were able to help. That was the whole purpose of doing the show."
"Donahue" was not the family's first brush with mass media fame. Hours before their parents were sentenced, Michael and Lisa, along with Michele, appeared on "Nightwatch," a short-lived overnight news show on CBS. A Hollywood film company that specializes in TV movies bought the rights to their story, but the project was scrapped due to lack of network interest.
The siblings say they have rejected overtures from tabloid-style programs such as "Inside Edition" and they were paid only expenses to appear on "Donahue," but the question remains: Have they crossed the line from being courageous victims stepping forward in the name of education to being publicity hounds? Different Smiths -- who are scattered now from Maryland to Florida and are in different stages in their efforts to reclaim their lives -- give different answers, but all agree it is a fair question.
Lisa -- the nurse who spoke the most and who seemed to strike a chord with the audience -- says talk, and not silence, will help protect young incest victims. "This is a problem that's built on secrecy," she said. "I'll always be out there for children's rights and I'll speak anywhere if it's being done for educational purposes."
For Joe Smith and Ralph Smith Jr., who had not been on the CBS show or quoted in magazines, the "Donahue" show was their first chance to have their say.
Joe, 39, says he is still disappointed prosecutors decided not to pursue his case because his parents had already been sentenced to prison. "The whole ordeal was therapy for all of us, but some of us didn't get a full load," he said.
Ralph Jr., 21, says he'll answer questions, but he denies wanting a spot in the limelight. "It's not a question of popularity. You'd want to be a famous singer or actor. Who'd want to be a famous victim?" he said.
And then there is Michael, the brooding 31-year-old who in the past year has switched jobs three times and is now working "as a lowly security guard," admits his inability to stop talking about the effects of incest have driven away more than one friend and co-worker. He says he's not a crusader, but he says it's only human to want to be the center of attention.
Of the day his parents were sentenced, he says, "One time, one day, one minute in my life I was worth something. It's been hard living up to that. I want it back."