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Emerging from a notorious hell of abuse to counsel others

Laura Cowan was desperate and alone with two children when she moved into a motel with a man and his family. What followed was a bizarre, four-year odyssey of polygamy, torture and mental trauma.

November 09, 2011|By David Kelly, Special to The Times
  • Laura Cowan with her 13-year-old daughter Tasslimah Fatimah Airabella Muhummed at their home in Avon, Ohio.
Laura Cowan with her 13-year-old daughter Tasslimah Fatimah Airabella… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Cleveland — Inside a stuffy Cleveland classroom, Tim Boehnlein explained the mechanics of domestic violence and then posed a question.

"So why do women stay?" he asked his class of would-be counselors.

Ignorance, low self-esteem, lack of education, they speculated. No one really knew.

PHOTOS: Survivors of abuse

Except maybe the silent woman in back — the one fidgeting and looking at the floor.

"I thought if I said something, it might frighten other people," she explained later. "You don't just blurt out, 'was held hostage in a garage' on the first day of class."

It's taken more than a decade for Laura Cowan to come up with an answer to the seemingly simple question of why women stay: "They are just trying to survive."

Cowan, now 53, survived one of the most notorious abuse cases in recent California history. Her encounter with the twisted logic of abuse began in 1995 outside a motel room in Riverside. That's when a spate of bad luck led her into a bizarre, four-year odyssey of polygamy, torture and psychological trauma.

The case, involving 19 victims, made national headlines, earning the abuser seven life terms in prison. As outrageous as it was, her story fits a typical pattern. It's a story of fear so intense it strips victims of everything but the will to survive.

Now a speaker, counselor and forceful advocate for abused women, Cowan still deals with the fallout of her ordeal. A warm, easy-going woman who can energize any crowd, she lapses into awkward silences when pressed about her own past. "I don't think I will ever get over it," she said.

Cowan went to that motel room to find help. Her husband had gone to prison, his San Bernardino restaurant had failed and she was broke and alone with two children, Ahmed, 3, and Maryam, 7 months.

"I was totally desperate and afraid, not knowing what was going to become of me and the kids," she said, telling the story from her living room in Avon, Ohio.

A few weeks before she went to the motel, a casual acquaintance from her mosque had begun coming around.

Mansa Musa Muhummed, an eccentric, charismatic figure who favored robes and turbans, made Cowan an offer — why not move in with his family until she could get on her feet? He invited her to the motel where he was living with his wife and 12 children.

It was quiet when she arrived, so she opened the door.

"They were all sitting on their knees staring at the wall," she said. "They were like little robots."

Her instincts told her to run, but her legs didn't move.

"When you are in a dependent situation, you will overlook anything," she says now.

Muhummed's kindness was a ruse. He was following the abuser's well-worn script of manipulation and control.

He was born Richard Boddie Jr. near Norfolk, Va. After converting to Islam, he dubbed himself Mansa Musa Muhummed. He home-schooled his children and required his wife and daughters to wear veils.

At first Cowan thought he was a good father who employed unorthodox methods to create a disciplined, religious family. Soon he asked her to be his second wife. "He told me I couldn't just live with him.... I would be looked down on as a lewd woman," she said.

He began isolating her from her children. "He told me that Ahmed shouldn't be sleeping in my room, so he put him in another room. My son's entire demeanor changed. He no longer smiled and just stared at his shoes," she said.

There is a favored illustration among those who counsel abused women known as the Domestic Violence Wheel. Its spokes contain phrases like: using coercion and threats, using isolation, using children and using intimidation. The spokes are arrayed around a central hub called 'power and control.'

Cowan had begun her lonely sojourn around the wheel. "The cycle often begins when someone starts yelling. Then there is a push or shove," said Linda Johanek, chief executive of the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center of Cleveland, where Cowan volunteers. "Pretty soon .... they allow you to do things rather than you wanting to do things."

The family moved around the Inland Empire. Wherever they went, they kept the curtains drawn and rooms dark. Beatings were meted out for the slightest infractions. Sleeping through morning prayers earned a bucket of water in the face.

A dark curtain had fallen over Cowan's life, a sequence of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by sudden, disconcerting terror.

Muhummed screamed at Ahmed so much that the mere sound of his voice caused the boy to soil himself. Cowan tried to make sense of it. Perhaps her son needed to be "toughened up."

Now, she sees her distorted thinking as a sign of how much Muhummed had manipulated her perceptions.

"You start thinking you are wrong and he is right," Cowan said. "Between fear and guilt, fear is the more powerful of the two."

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