Like most people, Mahtob Mahmoody Googles herself every once in a while.
But it’s not for fun.
The 29-year-old community relations professional searches her name online to make sure there’s no address attached to it.
That’s because Mahmoody isn’t looking to be “found” by her father, who she hasn’t seen or talked to in nearly 24 years. But she remembers what he said the last time she did.
“He promised that we would never escape, but if we did he would spend the rest of his life trying to find us, kill mom and take me back to Iran,” Mahmoody told a rapt audience at the Oct. 23 Candlelight Vigil sponsored by the Culpeper Task Force on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “I feel like the father I loved so much died,” she said in an interview prior to her 45-minute talk. “I have already grieved that loss.”
It was a country at war and inside the Mahmoody home there was violence.
Mahtob, only 4 at the time, remembers watching as her father beat her mother and his family turned a blind eye. The little girl, however, “felt a strong sense of responsibility to protect my mom,” she said.
“If I was stuck in between my dad and mom, maybe he wouldn’t hit her. Maybe if I stuck my finger down my throat and I tried to vomit, I would distract his attention. Maybe if I cried and said I had to go to the bathroom he would let her take me and that would buy more time.”
One time, her mother — who wrote about the experience in 1987’s “Not Without My Daughter,” later made into a Lifetime movie — got terribly sick with dysentery, begging Mahtob not let her father give her a shot.
“She was so frightened he was going to give her an injection and kill her.”
As time passed, the beatings became increasingly violent, Mahmoody said, until one night her father locked her in an upstairs apartment.
“I was 5 years old at the time and for two weeks he interrogated me. He asked every day, ‘Where do you go? Who are you talking to?’ He thought we were trying to escape. For two weeks he tried to get me to break. I didn’t break.”
Soon after, Betty saw an opportunity to, in fact, escape the violence after her husband was called away on a medical call. She convinced the woman “standing guard that night,” said Mahtob, that they had been invited to a dinner and needed to go buy flowers — an Iranian tradition. By some grace of God, the two were dropped off in the center of Tehran’s marketplace.
Here, Betty contacted the man who had been helping her navigate an escape. Via car, horseback and on foot, they fled over snow-covered mountains in Iran, arriving after several days at the embassy in Turkey, and eventually home to America.
Mahtob remembered, “There was so much snow on the route we took even drug smugglers didn’t use that route.”
But Mahtob and Betty were not finished running. Though her father cannot legally enter the U.S., Mahtob said, he has a way of working with other people to get to her, and he has many times, usually around September, her birth month.
“He definitely hasn’t gone away. He’s still a presence in my life so I’m very careful not to say where I live, not to say too much about what I do, not to have anything published connecting my name with the business I work with or the community I live in,” she said. “I take all kinds of precautions.”
As recently as a few weeks ago, her father tried to contact her, again seeking a reunion.
Mahtob said she’s used to it by now. She chooses to stay upbeat.
“At the beginning, it totally incapacitated me. I would cry and wouldn’t get off the couch,” she said. “This time it was, yeah, OK, this is the natural progression of things. He is going to try to contact me. I’m not going to respond. Let’s move on.”
But it wasn’t always so easy to move on, like when she got her own place at age 25 and came home one night to find someone had broken in — the toilet lid was down.
“Such a small thing, such a tiny, miniscule inconsistency: to anyone else it would mean nothing. But in my life, it meant someone was in my home and most likely it meant my dad was trying to find me again,” Mahmoody said.
Another night, after installing security cameras and motion detectors, she returned home to find the TV on. Mahtob decided then to get a concealed weapons permit though she had never before held a gun.
About the same time, the local authorities contacted her to say they had no leads in her case and that they were closing it.
“So I packed up everything, put it all in storage, moved into my mom’s house and ran. At age 5, I kept my mouth shut. At 21, I four-pointed every (college) class. At 25, I broke.”
And then Mahtob realized, “Nobody changes until the pain of staying the same becomes worse than the fear of change.”
These days, she lives in a community that fully supports her so next time, she won’t have to run, Mahtob said. These days, she “collects happiness,” an exercise she learned in a senior year psychology class at the University of Michigan, where she earned a degree, with honors.
It’s simple: make a list every day of five things about which you’re happy. For Mahtob, one day that included cleaning out the vegetable drawer in the fridge. Another day, she viewed an old man and old woman talking and so obviously in love. One time it was a grandpa pulling a little girl in a wagon.
From this exercise, she learned a lifelong lesson.
“We all face challenges in our life, we all go through difficult times. I really believe our attitude, more than anything else, determines the outcome. Collecting happiness is all about attitudes. Every time I turned a corner, there was something else,” Mahtob said.
First and foremost, she added, God has helped her through the tough times. Mahtob, saying her story is not unique, urged others living in violence to get out.
“You don’t have to stay. I promise you the reality of staying is worse than the fear of change.”
Allison Brophy Champion can be reached at 825-0771 ext. 101 or firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Flowers in a garden’
It was a deadly year in 1998 for two Culpeper women and an innocent baby boy.
Mr. Jenkins, of Spotsylvania County, is raising Christina’s other son, now a teenager with serious anger issues because of his mother’s murder. It got so bad, said Jenkins, that he was recently forced to put his grandson in a hospital.
Jenkins, present at the recent Candlelight Vigil for Domestic Violence Victims in Culpeper, remembered the pain of losing his daughter and other grandson.
“It was like somebody had hit me with a baseball bat. My feet just went out from under me.”
The date was May 31, 1998 and the place Christina’s home on West Street. In a bizarre case that spanned months until an arrest was made, an ex-boyfriend, Kevin Wesley Beahm, arranged for an out-of-state hitman to kill Christina.
Christina was a lovable child, he said, who loved animals and children. She was a tall girl with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes, Mr. Jenkins said. The two were very close.
“I was her father and one of her best friends. She called me for everything. It’s been 11 years, but I’m still not over it.”
“At times it will catch up with you,” Mr. Shanks said outside at the Candlelight Vigil. “When I see a car that looks like hers, that gets to you.”
“She called them her little monkeys,” Lacey said.
“I think it was God balancing it to keep us sane,” Lacey said, taking a positive outlook on her sister’s death. “I wish she was here, but sometimes God takes the best flowers out of the garden. She was one of his roses.”
Allison Brophy Champion can be reached at 825-0771 ext. 101 or email@example.com.