The Neighborhood Witch-Hunt
Elizabeth Johnson Lee

Our former neighborhood seemed like a dream come true until the “McDermotts”, who did whatever they could to manipulate and control me, moved in next door. I’m a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and I’ve since studied how such bullies lacking in compassion or conscience think and how they operate. My family’s Earth-based religion, and my disability, were used against me in what turned into a neighborhood disaster.
I have Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition where my brain sends signals to my body, including my vocal cords, to move against my will. Onlookers unfamiliar with the syndrome sometimes misinterpret those noises and movements, called “tics,” as disruptive or intimidating. Even though my Tourette made me an easy target, what happened to me could happen to anyone. Only the victims of bullies understand what they’re really like. Bystanders don’t realize the truth until they too become victims. By then money is lost, reputations are ruined.
My nine-year-old daughter, “Janie”, played for hours everyday at our old house with two neighborhood girls, “Carol” and “Nonie”. When they were hurt or upset, I comforted them and helped smooth altercations. In order to avoid misunderstandings, I explained to the kids and their parents about my tics and asked for their understanding. Janie and I shared with her friends some things about our spirituality. I felt grateful for having such wonderful neighbors.
Then “Bruce”, “Suzy”, and “Dora”, after having lived elsewhere, moved back in next door.
Dora was a 10-year-old girl who was so charming, as she shared stories about her life, that she seemed too good to be true.
Then, in an instant, she changed. She insulted kids, lied, and refused to follow rules for respect in our home. Often as I moved about my house, she stared at me. It was unnerving.
Most disturbing of all was Dora’s finding the pain she inflicted on others, whether emotional or physical, funny. One day I gardened in my front yard. Dora walked up, obviously in her charming mode, and shared how she was caught lying by her parents about stealing money.
“Then I told them the truth about taking it,” she said, “but they punished me anyway because when I admitted it, I laughed.”
“Yeah,” I said, “when you laugh at people when they’re upset, it hurts because it seems like you don’t care how they feel.”
“I know,” she said, nodding. She wandered off. A minute later, as I bent over to plant a rose bush, I heard a loud scream. Looking up, I saw Dora sticking her foot out in the path of her older brother on his skateboard as he hurtled through the air and onto the ground in what looked like a painful wipe out. Dora laughed.
Another time Carol came into our house crying because Janie and Dora wouldn’t let her play their game. Janie and Dora came in, ignoring Carol’s tears.
“Hey,” I said, “you two apologize to Carol.” Janie looked at me and then down, contrite, but Dora laughed. Carol cried harder, and as she did Dora laughed louder, until it was hysterical, uncontrollable. I stared, speechless. It sounded sadistic.
Dora’s parents believed that kids should work out their own issues without parental involvement, an opinion I thought sounded like an excuse to not hold Dora accountable for anything or take responsibility for her actions. When they first moved in, we carpooled the kids to school. Things seemed to go fine until one morning when Janie pleaded with me not to make her ride in the same car with Dora because Dora had been teasing her. Not wanting to upset Dora’s parents, I hesitated, but Janie cried and pleaded until I finally gave in.
That afternoon Dora played on our front yard, which had become the neighborhood playground, as if nothing had happened. “Dora,” I said. “I’m sorry I excluded you this morning when we drove to school. Janie said you were teasing her, and she was very upset about it. Could you both please tell me more about what’s going on?” Both girls aired things, and just as we were resolving them, I heard Suzy’s high, whiney voice.
“Dora, could you come here please?” Dora ran off, and a moment later Suzy walked over to Janie and me. “Don’t talk to Dora about problems!” She yelled. This can’t be happening, I thought, looking in shock at her furious, reddened face. Hadn’t Dora told her I’d apologized? “If you have a problem with Dora, you come to me! You think everything’s always Dora’s fault!”
“No, that’s not true—” I began, shaking my head, but Suzy cut me off. She yelled and yelled, saying that if I was mad at Dora, it was my problem, and that kids should “figure things out on their own”.
“From now on when you have a problem with Dora, you come to me!” She turned and walked off.
I asked “Maddy”, Carol and Nonie’s mother, about Dora. “Dora has a disconnect,” she said, saying that Dora was unable to understand why other kids’ got upset when she was mean, or why she got punished for it; She had no understanding of such cause and effect relationships, nor did she have empathy. “Her teachers have had trouble with her at school, and she’s always in trouble with her parents.” Maddy also said that Dora took after Suzy. “As much as I love Suzy, she’s self-centered.”
One day Janie came to me in tears because Dora told her I was creepy and worshiped the devil, a comment that was a direct insult against our religion. Carol and Nonie had joined her against Janie.
I told the kids to leave, to not come back until they apologized. “I can play here any time I want, and you can’t make me leave,” laughed Dora from the upper branches of our magnolia tree. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally convinced her to come down and leave. Twice during the next half hour, we caught her playing in our yard. The third time, I yelled, telling her again to leave. Let Suzy come yelling, I thought. Did they expect me to be a saint? I had to let Dora know I meant business.
Suzy was back. “You were in her face a year ago, and now you’re in her face again!”
“This is the only time I ever yelled at her.”
Leaning her face within inches of mine, she said, “That—is—a—bunch—of—crap!” Feeling threatened, I stumbled backwards.
For five months, Janie became a whole different child. She gave up biking and rollerblading and wouldn’t go outside because she was afraid of Dora. She withdrew inward, defeated, and complained of stomachaches and headaches.
I asked the police if there was anything we could do. They suggested a restraining order, and asked to talk with Dora’s family. I refused unless there was another incident, but there wasn’t because Janie wouldn’t play outside. In order to quell any rumors, I told a few neighbors. “No wonder I never see her playing outside anymore,” they said.
Trying to be positive, I smiled and waved whenever I saw Dora. One of those times she looked away and went behind a car. Wanting to reassure her she didn’t need to fear me, I went over, peeked behind the car, and again smiled and waved to her. She quickly walked away. Feeling discouraged, I left. I would later regret what I had done.
Dora’s harassment of Janie continued at school and my husband, “Scott”, and I complained to the principal. He met with the girls and emailed all four of us parents. Rather than investigating past problems, the principal said, he asked them instead about their current relationship, saying that both girls denied current problems. His misleading statement led to an ordeal I’ll never forget.
The next morning Bruce came to my door. “I was wondering if I should take legal action against you,” he said.” Legal action, I thought, for stopping their kid from bullying my kid? I felt instantly on guard. “We doubt your claims of harassment are true.”
“They’re true, but Janie hasn’t had any problems with Dora since we reported it to the school.” A month later my words would come back to haunt me in the most twisted, distorted way.
Scared and not knowing where to turn, I did what would later be considered an unforgivable act:
I spoke with Dora’s teacher.
I wanted an advocate, some support, and if the McDermott’s really did take legal action, I wanted information. After school let out, I waited until five minutes had passed. Then, thinking that Dora had left by then, I entered her classroom. There, with the teacher and two other kids, was Dora.
Smiling, I approached and greeted the teacher, asking, in a quiet voice, to speak with her alone. She told the kids to leave, and I waited until they’d gone to speak. “Did Dora admit to harassing Janie?” I asked
“Have any other kids in your class had trouble with Dora?”
Looking suspicious, she hedged, and I realized that she couldn’t share that information without breaching confidentiality.
“It’s just that,” I said, my nervousness growing, “they’ve threatened to take legal action against me for reporting Janie’s accusations of Dora’s bullying to the school, and I’m so frightened.” She looked at me as if I was the one to be frightened of instead, and I realized that Dora’s parents had probably told her they believed that I’d made everything up too. “I’d appreciate it if you could keep our conversation confidential,” I said. Thanking her, I left.
That afternoon the principal called me, upset. The teacher had blabbed. Dora’s parents had threatened me for protecting my daughter, and the school was mad at me? Bruce and Suzy showed up at our door, also angry. Someone had blabbed to them too. Later the doorbell rang again.
It was the police.
The officer told me, as my family gathered nearby and my mouth went dry with fear, that I wasn’t to talk to Dora’s teacher again, nor was I to approach Dora anymore and make intimidating gestures. “They can get a restraining order,” he said.
“But officer,” I said, “I haven’t been trying to approach Dora and intimidate her. What’s that about?”
“They said you have.”
“Once when I walked my dog while she was playing on the street, I smiled and waved to her, and she hid behind a car. Is that what they meant?”
The officer looked away to the side and then down, as if I’d taken all the oomph out of his momentum. “It’s obviously been a misunderstanding,” he said.
The next morning Scott received from Dora’s parents a multiple page vindictive of things they claimed I’d done to “harass” them, imploring him to make me stop. He pointed out Bruce and Suzy’s description of my “intimidating gestures” from when I’d sat alone in a chair thinking no one was watching me at a block party, six months before: eye rolling, head shaking, intentionally dramatic frowning, and mouthing words. “These are your tics,” he said. I looked down at the printed page.
“Hey, you’re right. They are. They know I have Tourette syndrome, and they’re trying to use it against me.” Other accusations included:

*That all my complaints of Dora harassing Janie were only figments of my paranoid imagination, a result, they claimed, of my having been bullied as a child and my resulting identity as a victim
*That the principal had investigated everything and claimed Janie said that Dora hadn’t harassed her
*That I’d told Bruce that Dora hadn’t harassed Janie
*That I’d loudly complained about Dora to her teacher in front of Dora and other kids
*That I seemed psychotic and was stalking and harassing Dora
*That I had an odd fixation on Dora and they were all afraid of me

They, afraid of me, I thought. But we were the victims, not them.
If they didn’t receive a signed letter from me agreeing not to complain about Dora again by the next morning, they said, they’d file a restraining order against me.
I was aghast. That’s blackmail, I thought. Ron, a lawyer who took my case, said it was obvious they had twisted the facts around, exaggerated them, and taken them out of context. He advised me not to write them such a note.
Two weeks later, after I’d decided they were just bluffing, a process server served me at my door with a subpoena/restraining order. A sharp pain stabbed my gut. “They did it,” said Scott. “They actually did it.”
At the court date, Bruce, Ron, and I approached the judge. Bruce clutched declarations that he’d collected from others to use against me. There wasn’t enough time for the judge to hear our case, so we had to reschedule. The judge refused to accept the declarations. “I’ll take those,” said Ron, snatching them right out of Bruce’s hands.
They were damning.
Four of them were from neighbors who, at one time or another, had confided in me about messy neighbors or difficult husbands, and my feelings of betrayal were overwhelming. Two neighbors didn’t say anything about me, but their descriptions of Dora’s superficial charm made her sound like the second coming of Christ. It was obvious from their wording that every neighbor believed the McDermott’s twisted version of events was true because they’d known them for decades. Maddy said that Dora seemed like a “normal” kid, an exact contradiction to what she’d told me before. A friend of the McDermott’s said that Dora had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a condition that explained all of Dora’s behavior problems.
I felt attacked, and my dream of a happy childhood for Janie came crashing down around me in tiny fragments. It felt like a conspiracy; a Witch-hunt.
The next court date was a month away. I was supposed to stay thirty feet away from the McDermotts, their vehicles, and their pets at all times. It was impossible. Dora played in front of our house, their cat came into our yard, and they parked their vehicles in front of our house. When I picked up Janie from school, I had to walk around the playground and then circle back to get to her classroom.
One day I came face to face with Dora.
After staring at her for a second in horror, I hurried away. Would the police be there to meet me when we got home? They weren’t, but the stress was unbearable. Everyday I cried. I could barely eat, and sleep was almost impossible.
Ron asked if there were any neighbors I could ask to testify for me in court. All the ones I knew best had sided with the McDermott’s. Any others, I feared, might also do the same. “Uh—no,” I said. I gathered my family and friends to come to court and testify.
The next court date finally came. “What a big crowd of people,” the judge said when my group, 11 in all, entered the courtroom. The McDermott’s group, including Maddy, numbered five. Again the judge didn’t have enough time to hear our case. Bruce and I approached the judge again. My heart hammered in my chest. Bruce yelled on and on, complaining about all the alleged hardship I’d caused their family. When he said I’d made up all the bullying complaints, I spoke up.
“Excuse me your honor, but my daughter told me that Dora had been bullying her.”
“Oh come on,” Bruce said. “We both know nothing happened.” He continued his rant, saying, “I don’t want Liz mouthing words at Dora.”
Again, I cut in. “Excuse me your honor, but he’s referring to my palilalia, one of the symptoms of my Tourette syndrome.”
“I can’t give anyone an order saying they can’t look at someone,” said the judge. “When you live next door at the end of a cul-de-sac, sometimes a restraining order isn’t the best solution.”
That took all the wind out of Bruce, who, smiling apologetically, requested mediation.
The mediators explained to the McDermotts that it was unlikely the judge would grant them a restraining order, and they dropped the case.
We’d spent thousands of dollars defending me against their discrimination, and my neighborhood reputation was ruined. We moved out of the toxic environment, sold our home and switched Janie to another school. Word of what had happened to us spread, and two parents told me about their own experiences of dealing with the difficult principal when their children had also been bullied. Two teachers told me my confiding in Dora’s teacher had been the right thing to do. Surely, said one, the principal had been reprimanded for violating our confidentiality. He was later transferred to a different school and then resigned and left town.
Many parents and kids confided in me about Dora’s bullying, saying that she’d been reported to the principal again and later expelled for drug possession. Janie had a difficult few years adjusting and making new friends, but she is now an active, happy girl again.
I studied bullying, narcissism, sociopathy, and psychopathy; anything I could find that helped me better understand the McDermotts. Seeing their behavior described in those disorders was the only thing that brought me peace.
I knew that sooner or later the McDermotts would target someone else. A former neighbor told me that four families from the cul-de-sac had problems with them after we left. Their kids no longer played with Dora. “That’s what the McDermotts do,” she said, “is look for people to go after with their power, or the power they think they have. We witnessed Bruce and Suzy, for five to ten minutes, repeatedly kicking Dora around their driveway.”
They had targeted their own daughter.
I called the police and reported the McDermotts to Child Protective Services. Their karma had finally caught up with them. At last.

Elizabeth Johnson Lee is the author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2



January 2015

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