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Even at age 6, you know when you've hit rock bottom.

Standing Outside
The Bathroom Door

By Ana Simo

FEBRUARY 18, 2000. "When I go to the bathroom, he stands outside the door until I come out," Marisleysis Gonzalez recently confided to the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung. She was referring, of course, to her famous second cousin, 6-year old Elian Gonzalez. The boy is that attached to her, she said. He sleeps in her bedroom and confides in her; she comforts him when he cries. "At no time" in the almost three months they have been together has he told her he wants to go home to his father in Cuba.

Although Juan Miguel Gonzalez has complained to the INS that his Miami relatives obstruct his phone communication with his son, Elian, Marisleysis Gonzalez told DeYoung that the boy talks to his father twice a day after he comes home from school. "Sometimes he doesn't even want to. We have to make him," she added.

How much of this is true, and how much is wishful thinking, or spin, is anyone's guess. What is clear, however, is that Marisleysis Gonzalez tells her story as validation of her surrogate motherhood, and proof that Elian should remain in the U.S. She, not Elian, is the real center of this tale, which is about her transformation from girl to mother, and from obscure 21-year-old neighborhood bank clerk to minor media celebrity.

A more troubling story emerges if we shift our focus to the child standing outside the bathroom door, waiting for his second cousin to reappear. Even at age 6, you know you've hit rock bottom if you're compelled to stand outside that door, waiting.

The story is even more chilling if the child really is refusing to talk to his father. Experts call this "parental alienation syndrome" or PAS. It is what happens when an abducted child bonds with the "abductor-parent" (or, as in this case, distant relative), and rejects the "victim-parent", or "left-behind parent", or "abandoned parent", as people like Juan Miguel Gonzalez are called.

Dr. Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist and author of the book The Parental Alienation Syndrome, says that "a child exhibiting PAS embarks on a campaign of denigration against the victim-parent that is caused by brainwashing on the part of the alienating or programming parent," in other words, the abductor.

Elian's situation mirrors, in many ways, that of children abducted by a parent or relative. "The term 'parental kidnapping' encompasses the taking, retention or concealment of a child by a parent, other family member, or their agent, in derogation of the custody rights...of another parent...", says Patricia Hoff, legal director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.

It's clear Elian's Miami relatives are retaining him. That their motivations may be humanitarian, as they claim, or coarsely politicized, as their critics assert, and that it is all happening in plain view, does not change the fact that this is a case of "parental kidnapping".

Elian's behavior with his grandmothers may offer some hope that PAS has not yet taken full hold of him. While unable to relate to them at the beginning of the visit, he is reported to have warmed up after an hour. But grandmas are not dad, and Juan Miguel Gonzalez could be, and sadly, perhaps already is, the object of Elian's full PAS-induced wrath.

elian_hands"He does not understand why his father is not there", Maria de los Angeles Torres, a political scientist at DePaul University with a master's degree in psychology, recently told the Chicago Tribune's Laurie Goering.

Torres should know. At age 6 she was one of 14,000 Cuban children sent alone to the U.S. by their parents as part of the "Pedro Pan" airlift. Ironically, the Pedro Pan parents feared losing custody of their kids to Castro. "When I first came," Torres recalled, "the women taking care of me would call my parents and I would refuse to speak to them. I was angry with them. A child just doesn't understand why you're not there."

Much has been made in Miami of the fact that Juan Miguel Gonzalez refuses to go there to fight for his boy. It is highly unlikely that Elian, whose life until recently was a media whirlwind, has been sheltered from this disparaging view of his father, or that the subject has never come up in the Gonzalez Miami household. Perhaps unfairly, it is hard to imagine the Miami Gonzalez family as exercising restraint in the privacy of their home for Elian's sake, given their apparent willingness to allow the child to be exploited in public.

Cuba has probably also begun to suffer, in Elian's mind, that "campaign of denigration" that Dr. Gardner referred to. Not "Castro's Cuba", which, like all things political, is in many ways ephemeral, but Cuba, the tropical Caribbean island where certain material things don't work as well, or mean the same, or matter as much, as in Miami. "Elian tells me what a difference there is with school between here and there," Marisleysis Gonzalez told DeYoung. "There, the bathroom was so dirty. He couldn't drink the water, because it was very dirty."

Related links:

For Mary Murray's MSNBC story The Strange Meeting With Elian.

For Dr. Nancy Faulkner's report Parental Child Abduction Is Child Abuse.

For Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction which the U.S. has ratified.

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