Two families live side by side in a quiet cul-de-sac in south Overland Park. They’re friends enough to chat and for one’s daughter to be the other’s baby sitter, but not so close to share their troubles.
Their troubles are deep.
The day comes: Aug. 19, 2005.
At 5611 W. 125th St., the body of Shu Yi Zhang, 55, lies in a bloody heap, stabbed multiple times by her 16-year-old honor roll daughter, Esmie Tseng.
At 5607 W. 125th St., Donna Oberstein and her physician husband, Ace Allen, are practically faint with shock, and not just at the murder. But by now they wonder if Molly, their own 12-year-old daughter, had, as Ace put, “so dipped into the pool of madness” that she too might one day kill her mother.
“It was a wake-up call,” Donna said. “We could feel how things were escalating. We had to put the brakes on so that we didn’t have someone else dead on the floor.”
The Oberstein-Allens look at themselves as fortunate — lucky that even after years of Molly seeing counselors and being given psychotropic medications, they stumbled onto a system of mental-health care that, for them, finally worked.
It came just in time. Only weeks after police hauled away Esmie, having killed her mother for what was claimed to be an inhuman amount of perfectionist pressure, Donna watched as police slapped handcuffs on her own thin, scholarly and angry daughter.
It’d begun as a simple argument. Then came a shrugged-off touch on the shoulder that exploded into Donna and Molly pushing, yanking, kicking, biting. They had fought before, but nothing like this. Molly picked up a plant stand to hurl it through a window.
Later that summer, one argument would get so out of control that Donna bound Molly’s wrists and wrestled her to the carpet.
Police led Molly to juvenile jail. That led to a course of treatment — two months of inpatient and outpatient care at Research Psychiatric Center and then five months inside Spofford — that even Molly attests saved her and her family.
“I don’t think it was only me,” Molly, 13, said recently, seated with her parents in their home overlooking the woods. “Our whole family was having problems. Something needed to happen…It worked.”
No parents want their children to be miserable. The Oberstein-Allens were no different.
They wanted Molly to have friends, be happy, and excel in school.
“We’ve always been close even despite our difficulties,” Donna said.
Still, as a kindergartener, Molly seemed different. Exceptionally smart, “she didn’t connect easily as a kid,” Donna said.
She was never teased or bullied. “She was just lonesome,” Donna said. Teachers talked of how Molly seemed more comfortable with adults.
“We figured it was hard for her because of her exceptional intelligence; it’s hard when there are not like-minded kids,” Donna said. The one deep friend she made in second grade moved away. Molly was devastated. She grew more anxious and distracted. She was angry, stubborn and righteous.
“Anything would send her into a rage,” Donna said. “When she wasn’t raging, she would be really down. She just looked unhappy all the time.”
Donna has a brushfire temper, too. They had entered a locked pattern. She and Molly are alike — two powerful personalities that would clash while Ace and Molly’s brother, Benjamin, now 10, would retreat into silence or pleading.
“I think part of the struggle with Molly is it was like having a mirror held up,” Donna said, “seeing part of my own personality.”
By third grade Molly had begun seeing a psychologist. In fourth, she prescribed Adderal, then Ritalin for attention deficit disorder. In fifth, she was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, and had begun seeing a psychiatrist.
By the end of the sixth grade, their home had become “ugly,” Donna said, and “out of control.” Yelling had turned to slapping and hitting. Then came “the Girl Scout incident.”
“Molly needed to pack for Scouts. We needed to leave home at the right time,” Donna said. “She had been in her room for eight hours, she hadn’t packed a thing. I started out yelling. By the end I was pushing her against the wall and screaming in her face as she would be pushing back. It is one of my great shames.”
By the time Molly entered Spofford in November 2005, she was hospitalized three times at Research Psychiatric Center.
“She was on at least four meds at a time,” said Ace, an oncologist. “…One thing I realized is that there is a whole drug culture out there to medicate problems in children that hitherto have not been medicated. And the drugs are fairly powerful. They act on the brain. Most of them, it turns out, are tested on adults. The problem is that kids’ brains are flat-out different — chemically, anatomically, hormonally different.
“It really struck home to me that there is this big soup of drugs being introduced into the psychological milieu of a child and no one knows what they are doing in there. Nobody really knows what happens when you put two or three or four of these things together.”
At Spofford they gradually took Molly off her medications. She also discovered something: She didn’t mind it there.
“I don’t know exactly what it was,” Molly said recently. She paused, thought, and then said, “I could express myself…The staff was nice. The food was nice. The kids were nice.”
In art therapy, anger management, or personal therapy, or in life skills class, she felt listened to and heard. She learned ways to cope with her anger, which she now uses unconsciously. Life was pared down.
“It was easier,” Molly said. “At home, there were all these expectations. At Spofford, you knew your responsibility and you just had to do it. This is what I have to do to get green,” which at, Spofford, was like getting a gold star on the day.
“Here, I was the angry child,” she said. “At Spofford, I was the one who had greens all across the board. I liked it. I liked not being the bad kid. It was more like I was popular there. ‘Molly, can you play with me?’ ‘Molly, can you help me with my homework?’ Some girls looked up to me and asked me for advice. I liked that image of myself.”
She discovered something else: Compared to many of her dorm-mates, her life was good. At Spofford she met kids who had been physically or sexually abused, neglected and with deep psychological traumas. She met kids with no parents or parents who never visited or couldn’t care for them.
Her parents visited constantly. Every Friday she would go on weekend pass to a lovely home. She attended a good school and had friends at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy.
Molly’s parents learned, too. In many ways, they were the ideal Spofford family, deeply involved in Molly’s therapy as well as their own. They came to understand that the key wasn’t to fix Molly, but the whole family. Ace and Donna see a family systems therapist.
“I pay attention to my temper more,” Donna said.
They’ve learned “active listening,” repeating back to one another what the other person has said, so that the other person knows that he or she has been heard and understood.
“I like that she listens more,” Molly said.
“It sounds simplistic,” Ace said, “but we have found that it doesn’t work to respond to rage with rage. One of the definitions of madness is that you do something that doesn’t work and yet you continue to do it.”
They’ve all learned to back off, to disengage when a fight seems imminent.
“One thing you do is just leave,” Ace said. “Don’t talk much. It only inflames things.”
Molly was discharged from Spofford in April and, not long before her bat mitzvah in October, brought her friends and family on a visit to Spofford and her old dorm.
“We’re in an infinitely better place than we were a year ago,” Ace said.
“Not that we’re completely happily every after,” Donna said.
“No one,” Molly said, “is completely happily ever after.”