The Washington Post
Stealing Love: Confessions of a Dognapper (A Memoir)by Mary A. Fischer
By day, Mary A. Fischer is a respected, award-winning journalist who covers the criminal justice system. At night, sometimes, she is also a dognapper—trading in her tailored suit for a sleek thief’s outfit, complete with black turtleneck and flashlight—as she commits misdemeanors in the name of love. More than once she has staked out a
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By day, Mary A. Fischer is a respected, award-winning journalist who covers the criminal justice system. At night, sometimes, she is also a dognapper—trading in her tailored suit for a sleek thief’s outfit, complete with black turtleneck and flashlight—as she commits misdemeanors in the name of love. More than once she has staked out a neighbor’s home, snuck quietly into their backyard, and jimmied a lock to rescue a very grateful dog that was being abused. It’s a risk every time, but for Fischer the danger of standing idly by while innocents suffer is greater still.
Her own painful experiences of loss and neglect have led her down both paths: covering the law and breaking it. When she was four, her mother was committed to a mental institution, and she and her sister were sent to a strict Catholic boarding school run by nuns who believed in discipline, not affection. In the absence of her adoring mother, love was something she had to work for, something she had to steal in bits and pieces.
Growing up, Fischer developed an acute sensitivity to injustice that has taken her on assignments around the world to visit people in prison who have been wrongly accused and convicted. Her best-known stories—the McMartin Preschool child sexual abuse case, Wayne Williams, the so-called Atlanta Child Murderer, and the 1993 Michael Jackson scandal—took a unique, unpopular stance only to be validated later on. Her motive in both journalism and dognapping is the same: to stand up for the underdog and defend those who can’t defend themselves, be they human or canine.
Stealing Love is a moving memoir of lost—andrediscovered—love and illustrates firsthand the power of the individual and the incredible bond between humans and dogs.
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Read an ExcerptStealing Love Confessions of a Dognapper
By Mary A. Fischer Harmony Copyright © 2006 Mary A. Fischer
All right reserved.
It began innocently enough, with an ordinary family. All of us sitting next to the Christmas tree, smiling, the picture of normalcy. A young family just starting out. Our first house, small but cozy. Wedding day photos on their dresser. Our baby pictures on the piano. The white china, rimmed in gold filigree, protected behind the buffet's glass doors. The only thing missing is a family dog--and she would show up the following year.
The photo is what's left. It's the proof we once existed as a family, and sometimes I need the proof. When I found it a year ago, buried in a box in my basement, the image startled me at first because I'm not used to thinking of us as a family. We were like fragments, spun off one by one from a centrifuge that didn't stop whirling until there was no center left. A good friend offered a simple reason for why none of us stuck together: There just wasn't any glue.
I rifled through the box, hoping to find others from that time. I found several of my father with my sister and me, but only this one of the four of us, taken in 1954 in our house in San Francisco. So I examine it closely, as if it were a rare and valuable artifact from a lost civilization, looking for clues that might help me understand why, when we seemed to have itall right there, it wasn't enough.
I scrutinize the face of my father, still so young and handsome, looking for any signs that might reveal dissatisfaction, but I don't find any. With his happiest years surfing in Hawaii already behind him, he looks here like a devoted family man, his arms around me and my mother. I know now that it was an awkward, ill-fitting role that he would soon tire of, so I savor his display of affection--evidence, physical evidence you might say, that he actually loved my mother, and for a short time, including that Christmas day, he may have even embraced the idea of being a father.
In those days I worshipped him and worked hard to win his love. I called him Daddy then--and throughout his life--trying to preserve a close father-daughter relationship.
On to my mother, sitting so poised and graceful like the lady she was, dressed in her favorite forest-green knit suit, beaming--and why not? Everything she desired most is here--a husband she deeply loves, two children to nurture and raise, a comfortable home, even the other love, her baby grand piano that she played effortlessly without even looking at the keys. So, from her, I don't really expect to find anything amiss. It's safe to say she had no inkling of how drastically her life, all of our lives, would change in the coming years.
Back then I called her Mommy, but that, too, would change as speaking that name became awkward for me. For a while I wasn't sure what to call her. Who she was then largely remains a mystery to me, and I view her here as a pretty stranger, a fleeting illusion that soon shatters and disappears. Yet even in the brief time my sister and I had her as our mother, she tried to instill in us a sense that we were special and worthy of being loved. She gave us the only real, uncomplicated love we ever knew--and, it occurs to me now, that's why I never stole from her.
When I look at my sister, Kate, the first thing that strikes me is how sweet and pretty she is, so happy and content, so open to life, that I can't understand why my father didn't value her more. She didn't share my devotion for him; instead, she bristled under his domination and withdrew into herself, finding safety in detachment, separated from us as she is here.
As for me, life couldn't have gotten any better. I have the best position, in my father's arms, and were it not for the fact that I'm clearly the only one with an eye toward opening presents, I would have been perfectly content to stay curled in his embrace. My father and I shared a bond from the beginning, and people tell me I was his favorite. I used to think that made me special, and I suppose a part of me still does. My sister would never admit it, but I think she still holds that distinction against me and wants me to keep paying for it. But what she doesn't know is how much I've already paid.
A few months ago I finally got around to framing the photo, and it hangs now with others in the hallway of my house. One picture shows the three of us standing by a tree, my father's arms around Kate and me, the sun filtering through the leaves, making our hair shiny. Another is of me on my first Holy Communion, taken in the parlor of the convent school where Kate and I lived after Mom left. I'm dressed in a white veil and starchy white dress that scratched my neck, and I think my sweet, innocent nature comes through loud and clear. But when Kate first saw the photo, she groaned, rolled her eyes, and swore that my delinquent side had already begun to emerge. But as best I can remember, with all the nuns around on that holy day, anything improper was the furthest thing from my mind--except maybe escaping from the convent, which I admit was my plan at one time.
I suppose the photo of me on my thirty-fifth birthday, holding Kate's dog, Charlie, in my lap, could be used as evidence that I stole him six months later, since my growing attachment for him is obvious.
Since there is no one left, I rely on these photos, along with my sketchy memory, my illegible journal notes, and my intricate dreams, to help me tell this story. And to do it right, to tell it honestly, I must burrow deep into dark places that once threatened to smother my spirit. And as I return there, deep wounds that I thought had healed long ago now rip open again, and I'm back at the beginning.
When friends drop by my house, they sometimes stop in the hallway and survey the photos. I draw their attention to this one of the four of us, as if to say, See, I once belonged to a family just like you! Every once in a while a particularly astute visitor, upon seeing the photos with just the three of us, will ask where my mother is in all of them. Then it comes, slowly at first, the wave of sadness I'm usually so good at holding back.
My mother used to say that she was a born mother, which I took to mean she had yearned to be one and that nurturing came naturally to her. However, for many years I didn't know whether that was true because she left us when I was still so young. The landscape of my memory from those years is, I regret to say, almost completely barren. Where did the memories go? Has age simply swept them out, like dust from a cluttered house? Or have they, in kind deference to my heart, been erased? The few memories that do remain--sparse, spindly trees left standing in the dense forest of my consciousness--suggest the tenderness that could have been.
I'm three years old and lying in my twin bed, buried under mounds of blankets, sweating and shaking all at the same time. We still live in San Francisco, and I'm as miserable as I can be, having just come down with German measles. Because my father is German, strict and unyielding, I wonder if I got this particularly virulent strain because I am his daughter. And I would have been undoubtedly better off with a milder case had I, drawing on my mother's Celtic ancestry, come down with Irish measles--if there even were such a thing.
In those days the prevailing medical wisdom had it that light could blind a person afflicted with measles, so my mother had drawn all the curtains in my room. Alone in the dark, I scan familiar landmarks: the antique dresser with a crocheted doily on top, a porcelain music box with a graceful, spindly ballet dancer inside, Kate's bed perfectly made and empty, all intensifying my aloneness. She had been moved unwillingly, and with a fair amount of complaining, as I recall, to the living-room couch to ensure her safety from my disease.
My mother quietly enters the room, as she must have done many times during that siege, and places her cool hand on my forehead. I am still burning up. She brings a cold washcloth, folds and drapes it over my forehead. She sits on the edge of my bed and gently strokes stray, moist strands of hair away from my burning cheeks. Her voice is soft and soothing. "You're on the mend now, sweetheart," she reassures me. "The worst is over." Then I feel safe and secure in her presence, but I'm not sure if I'm supposed to do or say something in return for her kindness. Part of me thinks I should try to make her laugh, as I sometimes do; it amuses her when I imitate our next-door neighbor's dog, the feisty Jack Russell terrier, the way he puts his snout straight up in the air, like a snooty aristocrat, to follow some interesting scent. But I'm too weak and can barely move.
A few moments pass, and as she gets up to leave, she kisses my forehead. I try to say, "Don't go, stay a little longer," but my words are too faint and she leaves. It was the first refrain in a lifelong chorus of similar pleas, but as on that long-ago morning, the pleas never got the desired response I was hoping for.
As the door closes behind her, I'm again left alone in my dark tomb, when one of the curtains falls open and a thin sliver of light cuts across the foot of my bed and stays there. It's as if a friend has come to visit, and we lie there together, my new friend and I, content in each other's company, unwavering, neither of us going anywhere, until dusk comes and the light gradually shrinks and disappears.
Many years later, I watched a friend plant a potato in a jar of water, balancing it on the edge with toothpicks. Then she put it on a shelf and forgot about it. Weeks later I noticed the potato again. It had been pushed to the back of the shelf, but what I saw surprised and intrigued me. Despite the lack of care and any direct sunlight, it had not only survived, it had thrived. Its brown nubs, now sprouting green stems, had curled and twisted toward the only available light, which came from a narrow window clear across the room.
That would be my mother's legacy to me--a predisposition to seek out light amid all the darkness. I wasn't to value that inheritance until I was in my thirties, a writer living in New York, feeling lost and alone, and I saw by my mother's example how, from a forgotten place on the shelf, a whole and loving human being could spring forth.
My other memories of her take place the following year, after we had moved to Southern California, where Daddy went into the real estate business. The import-export business he had pursued in San Francisco hadn't worked out, and Mom didn't like him being away so long on buying trips.
According to one story, after I was born, my father went on a business trip to South America and returned when I was two months old. As he stood over my crib, Mom cautioned him not to pick me up. "You're a stranger to her and she might get scared," she said. "Nonsense," he said, reaching into my crib. According to him, I smiled and reached up for his embrace without the slightest hesitation. I cherished his delight in telling that part of the story, and it went into the collection of other evidence I relied on to prove that he loved me.
Kate was born first, in August 1948, into a renewed world of hope after the long, hard winter of World War II. My proud father, playful as usual, wrote to his older brother, Boyce, in Hamilton, Ohio: "Enclosed is a picture of our infant. I urge you to have a gander just so you will both realize you're not the only couple that has produced a high-type breed. I am currently engaged in re-tooling for a male of the same thoroughbred proportions." Two and a half years later he got me instead.
In 1955 we moved to the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles, an area where people from all over the country were flocking. It was like a second coming of the old gold rush, but instead of the lure of gold, the new settlers came for the land. Vast, sunbaked stretches of land that seemed to go on forever. After the war, thousands of acres of ranch land and alfalfa fields were subdivided and sold off to newcomers, and the Valley became the fastest growing area in the country. Tract after tract of mostly plain-looking houses sprang up like weeds, and some streets, including ours, didn't even have sidewalks. Farming gave way to massive airplane plants, and real estate became the booming business to be in.
Daddy was drawn to the speculative frenzy and persuaded Mom to move even though San Francisco suited her refined sensibilities. She was reluctant to leave its gentle, quaint culture for what must have seemed to her an unruly, unsophisticated place. But she loved my father so much that she would have followed him anywhere.
Our life in the Valley seemed idyllic. When my parents bought a nearly new ranch-style house, I thought they must be rich. Who but a well-off family could have a front yard with five trees (one that I climbed), a front porch that ran the length of the house, a circular driveway, carpeting in every room, pine-paneled closets big enough to hide in, and, the ultimate status symbol, a swimming pool in the backyard. We loved our pool and spent much of the spring and summer in it doing cannonballs off the diving board and playing tag.
This is when Queenie, our devilish beagle, entered the picture. It was Mom's idea to get her. I'm not sure who gave her that name, but it suited her perfectly. She wasn't particularly regal, nor was she all that dignified or pretty, but she had an air of entitlement as if she owned the place and could do as she pleased.
Her throne was on top of the lattice that covered the barbecue in the backyard. She used to climb up, seat herself on the beams in front, gaze out over her kingdom, and howl whenever the mood struck her, which was usually at dawn, when we were still asleep.
Excerpted from Stealing Love by Mary A. Fischer Copyright © 2006 by Mary A. Fischer. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Mary A. Fischer is a recipient of the John Bartlow Martin Award and has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award. For seven years she was a senior writer at GQ and has contributed to Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Elle, Rolling Stone, Reader’s Digest, and O Magazine. In 2004 she was a consulting producer for ABC’s Law and Justice Unit. She lives in Los Angeles.
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