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Just Whose Life Is It? : Family and Lover Battle Over the Care of Paralyzed Woman

August 05, 1988|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

Sharon Kowalski, a 31-year-old woman who loved to golf, fish, ski, play basketball and ride motorcycles, now lies in a Minnesota nursing home, a profoundly brain-damaged paraplegic barely able to speak or move.

But around her rages a vicious, four-year court battle over her custody between her father and a woman who says she is her lover.

Donald Kowalski, a retired iron miner, has won guardianship of his daughter in court and has barred her former roommate, Karen Thompson, from seeing her since 1985.

Thompson, however, has made unceasing attempts through the courts to gain access to Sharon. She disputes some doctors' assertions that Sharon has the mental capacities of a 6-year-old and argues she may have sufficient presence of mind to help decide who should care for her.

If Thompson, a 41-year-old physical education professor, can gain guardianship of the woman she considers her spouse, the verdict could affect hundreds of similar cases in which homosexuals or disabled individuals are seeking broader interpretations of their civil rights.

A Family in 'Hell'

In interviews this week, Donald Kowalski called Thompson "an animal," and said he does not think his daughter was or is a lesbian.

"I don't feel like I should be forced into believing Karen Thompson," said Kowalski, 57. He spoke softly, sadly as he recounted the "hell" his family has been through since the 1983 accident, in which a drunk driver in a pickup truck struck Sharon's car, severly injuring her and killing her niece, Melissa, 4.

Since then, Kowalski said he has suffered two heart attacks. His wife, Della, was treated in 1984 for "moderately severe depression," which caused "sleeplessness, weight loss, lack of energy and chronic anxiety," a court document said.

Kowalski, one of the 1,408 residents of Nashwauk, Minn., said he thinks it is unimportant whether his daughter is a lesbian: "What difference does it make, in Sharon's condition?

"I don't believe in that life style but I would not disown our daughter (if it were true). The good Lord put us here for reproduction, not that kind of way. It's just not a normal life style. The Bible will tell you that."

When asked if he found his daughter's mental capacities to be those of a 6-year-old, Kowalski said: "You want my opinion? What difference does it make? She's in diapers, she can't talk, she can't even turn herself. Really, what difference does it make if she's 80 or 32? She's not consistent. Her mind is all over the place."

Parties from both sides agree Sharon's short-term memory is impaired. Her sister, Debbie, said she has told Sharon repeatedly that her niece is dead and cannot visit her. But Sharon never remembers.

Thompson, nonetheless, said Sharon "is not a child," and noted that Sharon has typed, "Karen, make love to me," for her former companion before she was banned from visiting her. Sharon also "startled" a Minnesota newspaper reporter, who, on a 1987 visit, asked her what her favorite flower was, "and she laboriously types out 'columbine.' "

Thompson feels it is discrimination against the handicapped to assume they are non-sexual; the Kowalskis, however, have brought individuals to court to testify Sharon is in danger of sexual abuse if Thompson is allowed to visit.

That is a charge Thompson, a St. Cloud State University professor, angrily denies. She said Kowalski is part of a "rich, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, male system, which oppresses anyone who's different."

Thompson, who once was nervous when speaking to her classes and was a lesbian so deep in the closet that she did not even mention the word gay to her lover, has undergone a transformation.

To underscore her wish to care for Sharon, Thompson revealed their lesbian relationship to the Kowalskis, and, soon after, to audiences nationwide.

Thompson has become a feminist lesbian activist, giving speeches across the country to raise money for her legal bills and to encourage homosexual couples to make out living wills. She said she has written a book about her experience to be published this fall.

Support committees for her cause have sprung up in several cities. On Sunday--the eve of Kowalski's 32nd birthday--lesbian, gay and disabled activists plan to draw national attention to the matter by staging various events in more than a dozen places, including Los Angeles, to "Free Sharon Kowalski."

Thompson's public campaign has infuriated the Kowalskis. Sister Debbie, whose daughter was killed in the accident that so severely injured Sharon, bitterly noted that Thompson admits she had an abortion years ago.

"If she killed her own baby," she said, "what would she do with Sharon if she found out Sharon wasn't everything she thought she could be?"

Reacting to that statement, Thompson's words flowed in rapid bursts of frustration and anger. She accused the Kowalskis of "attacking me physically and verbally" for five years.

Abortion Was a 'Mistake'

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