When Pauline phoned her eldest sister, Merry, to say she was leaving behind her entire family and moving to California, Merry felt it was probably for the best. The rest of the family agreed.

Until that moment the Stanley family, a once-tight-knit clan of six siblings and nearly two dozen nieces and nephews, had spent the better part of fifty years within a hundred-mile orbit of their white and maroon ancestral home on Arthur Street in Columbia Heights, Minnesota. The siblings occasionally ventured beyond that orbit but, as expected, they always returned home. While on the surface Pauline’s choice to slip past the familial gravitation appeared impulsive, her decision was anything but sudden. 

Her call to Merry in late Fall of 2008 was an informal announcement to the family grapevine. It also came with a request: $10,000, a portion of her inheritance from their father’s still unresolved estate. They agreed to meet in several weeks at their sister Sharon’s bookstore.


Certain things had to happen for Pauline to desire to escape, all of which would bring despair, anger and pain. Her life would have to collapse before she could break free. 

For one, she would have to find herself without her own home. Since her divorce five years earlier, she and her teenaged son, Allan, lived with her parents in her childhood home. Pauline lacked a social life beyond her child and her parents, Sheldon and Gayle, while living in their basement. She made little money waiting tables while she attended graduate school an hour away in Wisconsin. 

Then there was the matter of her parents. They first had to die before Pauline could even consider leaving, and that they did – Gayle in 2005 and Sheldon in 2007. She survived her mother’s death with her father’s company. But his death destroyed her. She quit her graduate program, stopped working, and supported her son and growing crack addiction with child support checks. 

Finally, Pauline understood she could never extricate herself without money. The Stanley siblings, a family once stitched together by the demanding Gayle and soft-spoken Sheldon, had fallen into civil war when Pauline contested their father’s Will,. Unable to touch her inheritance, Pauline felt she had to capitulate to Merry, the Will’s executor. 

The youngest child – the problem child – would slip away to appease the board.

She was entirely alone, and her mind frequently turned to her father’s prescient warning about Merry and the house.

“The moment I’m dead,” he told her, “she’ll kick you out.”


By the Fall of 2008, Pauline’s life was reduced to a curled up position on the black-checkered couch in her late parent’s house. There she spent days on end watching reruns of Merv Griffin’s Crossword and Joyce Meyer’s Ministry – coincidentally her mother’s favorite televangelist. 

Meyer’s ministry is decidedly Midwestern. It places self-determination even above divine intervention. It is a Protestant viewpoint appealing to a people who look askance at boasting but who are secretly prideful in their most minute accomplishments. But Meyer’s appeal extended into a sense of kinship for Pauline: Joyce Meyer’s real name is ‘Pauline Joyce Meyer’ and much of her gospel is tied to overcoming her own personal demons.

Pauline found herself organizing her life into “daily doses of Joyce,” and by November she concluded she needed radical change. She decided to prioritize her son’s well being and that was to be found elsewhere. 

In truth, she had done this sort of thing before. 

Twenty-seven years earlier she fell in love with San Diego when she visited her best friend. The seaside city was the exciting and diverse place she always wanted to run away to. But at twenty, without means or reason, she had to wait. The dream dogged her until she met her Egyptian boyfriend Max in May of 1983. And coincidentally, that same year her grandfather died and left her $1,000.

By August she convinced Max to run away with her to San Diego. But she warned him: tell no one or they’ll try to stop us. Over two months they plotted out their two-thousand-mile journey west in Max’s Mazda RX-7, revealing their plans only to her parents ten days before their departure.

What followed was an atomic Stanley Family blast of lore: a cataclysmic panic that their now 22-year-old daughter was absconding with a foreigner. Her mother refused to talk to Pauline and her father slumped off and cried.

Her punishment was ten days of silence from her parents. She took this to mean: “If you leave, we will never talk to you again. You’re dead to us.” But she didn’t care.

She spent her final night in her childhood room, where she furiously packed only what could fit in the Mazda’s hatchback. Then she heard a soft knock on her door.

Her father had her follow him to the upstairs hallway. While her mother watched TV downstairs in the kitchen, he sat Pauline down on a cedar chest, her toes tangled in the green and blue shag carpet, and hugged her.

“I love you, Pauline,” he whispered. “I understand where you’re coming from.”

The following morning she left to no fanfare or farewells. Not even a goodbye. But she was happy to be on the road, and every mile away the family’s expectations melted away.

Her escape lasted four years. She’d had enough of Max and his abuse and left him and California. In 1987, on New Year’s Day, she flew back to Minnesota and returned to her parents.


Stealth would remain a part of Pauline’s life changes. Now, once again, she kept her plans to a select few: her son and her ex-husband, whose help she would need to make her escape.

After his own father died in 2007, Derek Kew had relocated to his childhood home in California. Aware of what was happening with child support checks back east, he threatened to take Allan away from her. She ate her pride but she saw an opportunity: she and her son could start anew out west.

She told Allan just before Thanksgiving. He was 15 and an angry young man, often bullied in school, singularly frustrated by his inability to connect with his peers and his absent mother. There was little holding him in Columbia Heights and he was happy to go.

She swore them both to silence. Their family and friends, she said, could not be trusted. 

Each day, while Allan attended school, Pauline packed their belongings and disposed of her parents’ leftover possessions. Although her siblings had taken a lion’s share of furniture and heirlooms, they had neglected the particulars of Gayle and Sheldon’s lives. 

So she set about dismantling four lives on a cocktail of televangelism and crack . Particularly taxing were her parents’ clothes, of which each article and their scents possessed an attached memory, all of which she stuffed inside a black garbage bag. But onward she pressed, determined to close this chapter of her life and theirs. Everything she and Allan were keeping went inside the back of a Penske moving truck, their Jeep Cherokee, and beneath the tarp atop their fiberglass boat. Her parents’ refuse she left for her siblings on the snow-dusted lawn.

Though her siblings lived close by they had no idea what she was doing. They kept their distance. And this, in turn, would explain a good deal about the Stanleys’ family dynamic – a relationship best understood by an audience with the dead.

Gayle and Sheldon acted as tyrants and caregivers to six children. The home was chaotic; nothing was off the table for discussion and dissection. Each child would eventually seize on the first opportunity to escape – even though they never quite made it all the way out. A mix of chiding and guilt always brought them back into orbit.

Everyone knew where they stood with Gayle. Each sibling well understood the depth of warmth as well as her capacity for cruelty. Sheldon was another matter. “Puzzling” is a word all the sisters would use to describe their father. He was outwardly quiet and mild-mannered. With Gayle around, he rarely strayed from accepting her open opinions. Yet in private he could express to each child a profound understanding of them and their needs – even when they deviated from Gayle’s. 

It was Sheldon who, intentionally or not, set the children against each other. He insisted that his Will was clear even as he privately warned every one of his children to be on guard against the others. He appointed Merry to be the estate’s executor, setting in motion a clash between her and her five younger siblings who wanted their inheritance and fast. He did this even as he warned Pauline – “the moment I’m dead she’ll kick you out.”

Years later, the siblings would each have different versions of the same stories told by their father.

“You’re not sure which is the real story,” said Sharon. “He would say things to placate people; he would say whatever would make you feel okay.”


Now, as she worked to finish packing, Pauline needed her money. The temperature had dropped to below zero. It was snowing, and the sun was setting when she set off to meet Merry at St. George’s Christian Books and Gifts, which their sister Sharon owned in nearby Blaine.

As it happened, Merry had moved to a trailer in Blaine 30 years earlier when she made her own escape from her parents. Her husband was returning to Vietnam for his second tour and she could longer stand the chaos in her parents’ home. They had a fit and told her, “We’ll never see you again.”

She and Sharon anxiously waited inside the shop as Pauline pulled up in the Cherokee. A menagerie of Christian iconography surrounded them: crucifixes, rosaries, jewelry, paintings, nativity scenes and statues. Sharon was panicked when Merry first told her Pauline was leaving: what if something happens as they’re driving a truck across the desert, and over the mountains, and in the middle of winter? 

Pauline would remember the visit as short and transactional. All she could think about was what remained to be packed and her next hit of crack.

She asked Merry for the $10,000 check.

Merry handed it to her.

Then Merry and Sharon pleaded with Pauline to reconsider leaving.

“Polly, are you sure you want to do this?” she recalled they asked.

“You know you don’t have to do this. You’re moving so far away.”

Merry or Sharon would not remember the meeting as Pauline did. What they can recall is a reluctant sorrow and a feeling of having waded too deep to turn back. 

“Everybody’s family felt the tension,” Sharon later said. “It was like, okay that’s what’s going to happen next.”

Merry, meanwhile, was relieved by the easing of the tension, even as she felt she had failed as a sister. “I resented my parents for putting that on me,” she later said. “The tremendous burden they put on me, it made me the bad guy in all this.”

They hugged goodbye, not knowing when or if they would see each other again. Pauline disappeared into the snowy evening, check in hand, playing a game of packing Tetris in her mind.


Jenny would be the last sibling to say goodbye to Pauline. On December 30th, the day before she was to leave, they performed a perfunctory walkthrough to ensure the house was empty and in order. But for Jenny it was also a chance to see how to fill the house where she would soon live. They awkwardly proceeded from the basement to the upstairs bedrooms, the tension rising from floor to floor.

Jenny avoided discussing the estate despite any misgivings she may have had. She was burdened with her husband’s recently diagnosed bladder cancer and her own deepening methadone addiction. She simply wished that Pauline and Merry could settle their remaining differences. 

 Jenny understood that Pauline’s leaving was yet another catalyst for disruption in all their lives, made all the clearer by the house’s emptiness. Not simply Pauline’s possessions, but everything reminiscent of her parents and family had disappeared. All that remained was her parents’ couch, a 45-inch box television and her father’s empty safe. Fifty years of history were wiped out and only memories remained.

Their tour ended in their father’s bedroom, empty save it’s plush and yellowed carpet. Jenny began to cry.

“I don’t even know when I’ll see you again,” she said.

As it happened, when Jenny was 16 she wanted nothing more than to thumb her way to California. The worries of what-might-happen dissuaded her, and she never moved far away from home. Now, even as she struggled to pay her sisters the rent on their parents’ house, she was proud of Pauline for doing what she had not.

“She did something I thought I’d be brave enough to do and never did,” she later said. “She did it like a good Stanley-hardworking-girl would do it.”

Pauline placed the keys in Jenny’s hands. It was her house now.


Pauline, Derek and Allan rose at dawn on New Year’s Eve. Derek climbed into the moving truck’s cabin and turned the keys in the ignition. Nothing. The engine was frozen solid.

Overnight the temperature fell to -9°, a normal winter morning for Minnesotans. Derek called the moving company, and several hours later a technician arrived armed with a flamethrower. He fired short bursts of fire beneath the engine and along the length of the vehicle’s axle to quickly thaw out its components. They would take no more chances; they left the engine idling.

But they were delayed again at noon. Engulfed in a teenaged tantrum, Allan slammed his palm on the back passenger window of the Cherokee and shattered it. He was unaware the intense cold had weakened the tempered glass.

They waited several more hours for a friend of Pauline’s to arrive and cut a replacement window out of plexiglass. Father and son sealed the temporary fix with duct tape. It would hold until they made it to California. 

It was four o’clock and nearly dark when Pauline and Allan said goodbye to Arthur Street. It reeked of many tragedies and happy days, anger and love, resentment and joy – all lingered on in an empty house their footsteps echoed within. They walked past the garbage bags that litter the lawn, boarded the Cherokee and moving truck, and started the long journey west.

Pauline chose to drive the truck alone; she wanted time to think. Over five hours she talked to herself, laughed, prayed and cried. Somber as it was, she remained true to her Stanley roots with a glib feeling about the garbage bags: wait till they see what’s inside, wait till they see what of Mom and Dad’s they left behind.

It was nearly 9pm when they checked in at a roadside motel just outside Des Moines. They had not gotten as far as they’d planned, but each of them had reached the same conclusion. 

“We just had to get out of the state.”

Derek and Allan unhitched the boat and the trio drove to a nearby strip mall restaurant. The only prerequisite was that it would stay open past midnight. 

Among strangers, they ate surf and turf and drank a lot. After dinner, Derek and Pauline danced to country music from the jukebox, and at midnight they watched the ball drop in Times Square from a corner TV.

The next morning the trio set out west – Allan and Derek in the Cherokee and Pauline in the moving truck. She only thought about her new home and son. She was reclaiming herself and her motherhood: “I can change this. I’ll show him this is not me.”