POST FALLS — Laura Landgraf’s father was a pastor, missionary and later, a theology professor. He was also an abusive, evil man who molested all five of his daughters, impregnating one of them.
Landgraf’s mother was a psychologist who protected her husband, institutionalizing victims rather than having her husband face justice.
So when Laura Landgraf recently handed her kids the manuscript telling her life story, they told her they were proud of her — but they couldn’t bring themselves to read it.
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Landgraf was just shy of 4 years old when her father started molesting her. She was one of five children, three of whom were adopted. All five girls were subjected to molestation, other physical abuse and emotional and spiritual abuse.
When the girls turned 13, Landgraf’s dad put them through an initiation to become women. He never slept with his biological children, Landgraf and her youngest sister, but over the course of their childhood, he did bed his three adopted daughters. The eldest had his child.
Landgraf’s book, called “The Fifth Sister,” was released last month. A Post Falls resident, Landgraf is doing a reading and book signing this evening at 6 at The Well Read Moose, 2048 N. Main St. in Riverstone.
In her book, Landgraf uses fake names for her sisters and children to protect them and to not involve them in the book. Those fake names are used here for the same reasons.
This story, as Landgraf herself might say, is R-rated — R for realistic content.
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Landgraf’s father would make each of his adopted girls his mistress for a while. When Landgraf’s mom found out Michelle was pregnant, Michelle was sent off to a boarding school family. She had her baby and put it up for adoption, and Michelle also was adopted by another family who had no interest in contacting her former one.
Once Katie turned 13 — she is only a few months older than Landgraf — she became her father’s mistress. Landgraf said these relationships would last a few years at a time.
When a sexual relationship was discovered by their mom, that girl was sent to boarding school. Their dad would just move on to the next daughter.
“At the time I would have said I loved my dad and I hated my dad. Incest is a very complicated and messy situation,” Landgraf said in an interview with The Press.
see ABUSE, A2
“As a child you are completely dependent on these people for your existence, so you live in that circumstance and it’s all you know. Later, when you start piecing together all the parts, you get a look inside it and how difficult it is to get out of it.”
Landgraf and her sisters were kept isolated. They grew up mainly in Oregon until she was about 11. They moved around a lot during that time, which is typical of an incestuous family, Landgraf said. They never stayed at one school for very long so the girls couldn’t develop close relationships with anyone, and above all they couldn’t tell anyone what was happening.
On top of moving a lot and keeping the kids from outsiders, Landgraf said, the religious and spiritual dynamic in her family made everything even harder to deal with.
“When your father is the pastor or missionary and your mother is the wife of the pastor or missionary, they are teaching you that you need to forgive,” she said.
Landgraf and Katie were the closest of the kids because they are closest in age. They were in the same class at school and shared a bedroom. None of the sisters talked about what was happening to them, but she and Katie talked a little.
There were mixed feelings between all the sisters because they kind of knew what was happening, but they knew they didn’t want it to happen to them, Landgraf said. But one thing they could rely on was the physical abuse by their father that happened sporadically and spared none of them.
Katie was often angry at Landgraf because it was Katie who was the mistress and not she. Landgraf felt guilty for the same reason — and there was nothing she could do to stop anything.
“The whole dynamic in the family is shame and guilt and anger that it’s going on, but not knowing how to change anything because these are your parents,” Landgraf said.
Landgraf thinks their mom was caught off guard when Michelle, the eldest daughter, got pregnant. After that, their mom became distant when something was going on in the background.
“She became slightly complicit with the relationships later,” Landgraf said. “She developed migraines and wasn’t very functional during those periods of time. It’s strange how it happens in a family like that.”
When Landgraf was about 11 years old, the family moved to Ethiopia. Landgraf thought this was a new start for her and her family. She fell in love with traveling and experiencing new cultures. She adored Ethiopia and its people. She picked up the language pretty quickly and made friends.
Everything was OK until it wasn’t.
The girls’ father started being physically abusive again and that was when he “initiated” Katie and started having a sexual relationship with her.
When he got angry or would start to beat Landgraf, she would run out of their house to tribal members, her Ethiopian family. They would bar the door to one of their houses and wait for her dad to cool off. Then she would go home.
“There were things about my world that were wonderful, like traveling that I got to experience by being in the family,” Landgraf said. “It wasn’t all crazy, bad stuff. So trying to sort out what’s normal and what’s not, it’s hard.”
Landgraf and her sisters tried to escape the abuse of their family two different times. When she was 15, Landgraf jumped a horse over the wall of a Swedish embassy in Africa to seek asylum. The embassy told her they couldn’t help and they would have to go through an American embassy. They were then returned to their parents. Landgraf said things didn’t go well in the house after that.
The girls then told some missionary friends in Africa what was happening, but they didn’t do anything about it, either.
“When you tell and people don’t believe you or nothing happens or bad things happen, you stop telling. You learn when retribution happens, and it happens hard and fast. You learn quickly how to avoid it,” she said.
Their dad would beat them with a metal bicycle fender, which Landgraf can only describe as “hurting like hell.” He would throw them, often into a wall.
Elsie, who was one year younger than Landgraf and Katie, was having a hard time learning her times tables. Their dad picked her up by the pony tail and threw her around. She hit a wall when her hair was ripped from her head.
Eventually, all the girls grew up and moved out of the house. They stayed in touch but no one talked about the abuse.
“None of us thought he was still involved with that behavior,” Landgraf said. “We had all left the house, so who did he have left to be involved with, was what we thought.”
All the sisters wanted to move on and focus on building a good life.
They stayed in touch with their parents, too, because they were family.
Landgraf returned to the U.S. when she was 18 to go to college in Eugene, Ore. She studied psychology.
She married her first husband halfway through her college career. After she graduated she got a job helping medical offices streamline their insurance procedures. When she was 24, Landgraf had her first child.
She never let her parents babysit them. She couldn’t have told you why at the time, but she’s glad it never happened.
One day when her kids were 4 and 6 years old, Landgraf’s parents were at her house to visit. By this time she had moved her family to California, which is where her parents were, too. She walked into her living room to find her dad playing a game with her daughter.
She had a flashback to when he played that game with her. It always ended in molestation.
Around that same time, she found out her mom was considering divorce because her dad was having an affair.
Landgraf asked her dad when the affair started. It had started when the girl was 13.
“That brought it all back to me; it was the same pattern. This initiation into womanhood somehow, then I saw the game with my children,” Landgraf said. “That was enough. At that point I was the mama bear and there was no way that was going to happen to my children. I began to face forward actively to protect my children.”
Landgraf took legal steps to remove her parents’ grandparents’ rights so they wouldn’t be able to see the kids again. The statute of limitations for child abuse in California at the time was one year from the incident, Landgraf said. She said it takes a person an average of five years to talk about their abuse, if they ever do.
“In order to use events in court, it had to have happened within a year, and considering the statistics that we don’t talk about it for five years, that’s a pretty inept law,” she said.
By the end of her case, though, Landgraf was able to help increase the statute of limitations to 10 years.
Landgraf couldn’t use the events of her childhood to prove her father was dangerous to her children, so she had to prove a period of history where he was a dangerous person.
She got in touch with her eldest sister, Michelle, who testified her story about having her father’s baby. That was the first and last time Michelle was in contact with Landgraf’s family since she moved out of the house.
Landgraf doesn’t know how many victims her dad had after his children. She knows of three total, but guesses there are more. He worked at a university in southern California and Landgraf assumes he probably abused some of his students, too.
During that time she also found out how her mom had been protecting her dad.
“What we discovered over the course of time was that my dad would send the young women he was involved with to my mom, who was a psychologist. If the young woman told her who the guy was, if they named my dad, she would institutionalize them, rendering them unreliable witnesses,” Landgraf said. “In my mind she was worse than my dad, and my dad was really bad. That my mom would finally go into collusion with him on it, that was a really difficult part of the whole unveiling.”
Landgraf used this information to find her father’s latest victim. She got a deposition from the girl and was able to prove a 30-year history of her father’s abuse. She won the case and secured the safety of her children.
Landgraf said it was hard to talk to her parents. Her dad would not admit to anything unless it was proven. She never got an answer as to why he was the way he was.
“To this day I don’t know what turned my dad because he has brothers that are not abusers,” Landgraf said. “We can’t figure it out and he wouldn’t tell. He died, but even while he was alive you couldn’t have that discussion with him.”
Nor, apparently, could you have it with others.
After winning her kids’ protection, Landgraf approached the president of the university where her father worked. She told him what had happened and what kind of person her father really was. He did nothing about it.
When that president left the school, Landgraf told the next president the same thing. That president didn’t do anything, either. The third university president she told listened to her and made sure her dad was never invited to give speeches or guest lectures.
Even though none of her attempts resulted in backlash for her father, Landgraf said it was nice that someone actually listened to her and did something about it.
At the time of her legal pursuits to stop her dad, Landgraf was encouraged to write a book about her experiences growing up. She couldn’t do it, she said.
She had just succeeded in protecting her kids and didn’t want to drag them into her past anymore. She wanted to live her life and enjoy it.
Now, 30 years later with her kids all grown up and with kids of their own, Landgraf decided to revisit her past. “The Fifth Sister” was published in April.
“My intention for my book is to give a voice to the people who can’t talk about it, or haven’t felt they could talk about it, or have never shared their experience because they didn’t know how to share it,” Landgraf said. “And to say that if I could do it, so could they. Our childhood was pretty messed up and yet I’m loving life, I’m married to a good man and my children are healthy and whole.”
She wants people to understand that a bad childhood is not a life sentence. Her life growing up was hard and her first marriage didn’t work out well. She thought she had bad blood and was doomed.
But Landgraf worked on herself and provided a fulfilling life for her kids. She and her current husband run Landgraf Retreats out of their house on the Spokane River. They help counsel groups, couples and individuals.
The best thing someone can do to help another person who might be being abused? Ask them about it, Landgraf said.
“The most important thing is to believe them, love them, listen to them and let them talk because you may be the first person they’ve talked to,” she said.