From victim to victor

We’ve all heard the expression “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Well, I know someone who was pelted with lemons her whole life and is now making lemon meringue pie. Her name is Stacey Kananen and I am in awe of her.

Stacey was in second grade when her abusive father left her on a floating deck at a local lake to swim ashore or drown. For him, it was a win-win: either his kid learned to swim, or he had one less mouth to feed and a convenient excuse for her demise. Six-year-old Stacey had to make a deliberate choice: sink or swim. She defiantly chose to survive.

Richard Kananen violently and sexually abused his wife and three children for decades. In constant fear for their lives, the family endured his unpredictable whims by ducking bullets, knives and fists, walking on eggshells to avoid sadistic “learning lessons,” as he called the abuse. When he vanished in 1988, they were so relieved by his absence that no one reported “The Monster” missing.

Fifteen years after Richard’s disappearance, Stacey’s mother Marilyn went missing and an investigation led police to suspect her brother, Rickie, of foul play. Rickie confessed to police that he buried his father’s body under the cement floor of his mother’s garage, and Marilyn’s body in Stacey’s back yard.

Rickie eventually agreed to a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty and told police that Stacey—who angered him by cooperating as a witness for the State—helped him murder their parents. She was arrested and charged. Her murder trial aired on CNN’s In Session, as dueling attorneys verbally danced around inadmissible evidence, e.g., Rickie’s own admissions that he had killed their father, his half-written novel about a severely abused boy who grows up to join a secret organization that kills abusive parents, his deposed statement that Stacey was innocent, and much more.

Stacey and Diana Tennis

Miraculously—after years of preparation and in a flawless, Matlock moment—Stacey’s defense attorney, Diana Tennis, finally unearthed a missing piece of evidence that conflicted with Rickie’s story and proved that Stacey had been railroaded. She was found not guilty, but her relief was short lived. Now she had to rebuild her devastated life.

Finally in therapy, she struggled to make sense of what had happened to her. She felt an all-consuming urge to become an advocate for abused kids. She asked me to co-author a book because I—her friend and neighbor—witnessed the seven year process from murder to verdict and had attended her trial. She trusted my background as a writer for MSNBC and knew that I could be completely objective and non-judgmental. The writing of that book is now underway.

But writing a book wasn’t enough. Stacey knew that her calling was bigger than that. Visions of creating a kids’ camp or some sort of advocacy program haunted her and wouldn’t let her go. We brainstormed and researched, and discovered that there is an infinite number of programs already in existence. We wondered: if so many advocacies are already in place, why does this problem still exist? Apparently what society is doing isn’t working. We knew we had to come up with a new idea.

And so, we developed our own program, a new concept called Amnesty for Abuse, to extend a non-judgmental olive branch to those who wish to quit the cycle of abuse. The premise is that the majority of abusers were once abused themselves: abuse is usually learned behavior—victims victimizing victims. Part of that learned behavior is shame. Both the abused and the abuser feel shame for the role they are playing. When one feels ashamed, one is not likely to ask for help to get out of their abusive situation. In addition, admissions made in therapy are often subject to mandatory reporting to authorities. Amnesty for Abuse recognizes the courage that it takes to ask for help and offers amnesty for those admissions as long as the abuser stays in and sincerely works the program.

The format is a compassionate holistic, body/mind/spirit method of therapy that addresses all facets of the human condition and family dynamics in order to help all family members to heal and be healed. The family works together to stay together, if at all possible. The program works as an alternative to the legal and CPS systems, in order to keep people out of the courts and in their homes.

We realize that this could be perceived as Pollyannaism. After all, so many laws make it impossible to offer abusers anything other than harsh punishment, in the “eye for an eye” vein. But as Bill Clinton—who knows a thing or two about judgment and forgiveness—once said, “…  the anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you — they harden the heart and deaden the spirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds.”

So if Stacey Kananen—a woman who has endured the most horrific things that can be inflicted upon a child—can see the value in a program like this, then why not give it a try? As I said, nothing else seems to be working. Various therapists and healers have expressed amazement that something like this isn’t already in place and recognize the value in this approach.

Stacey with Natalia Antelava

The program is in its infancy, but we’re already gaining support and interest from experts in the field. We have sent out information packages to some pretty powerful people and, as a result, Natalia Antelava–a reporter for the BBC–heard about Stacey’s story. Stacey and I just returned home from a trip to Washington DC where Natalia interviewed her for a documentary about child abuse that will air on the BBC in September, and on PBS here in the States.

Stacey and me in front of the BBC building in Washington

We’re on an exciting road, Stacey and I, and we can’t wait to see what happens next. We’re actively searching for the next logical step in the progression and growth of the book and the program. Are you one of the missing links between now and then? If you feel that you would like to be a part of this cutting edge approach to an age-old problem, drop us an email at!

Stacey’s own blog can be found here.


3 responses to “From victim to victor

  1. Every time I read a part of Stacey’s story my respect for her deepens. Amnesty For Abuse is an idea whose time has come. It is time to see these behaviors as an expression of illness that can be treated, not easily and certainly not with the empty platitudes that have been tried in the past. This is work for the courageous soul who can stand up in the face of pain, fear and rage and declare it self-responsible. One who can hold space for that self-awareness in blunt, honest love.

    I only know Stacey through your writings and just a bit on facebook, but I know you, Lisa as one of the finest people I’ve ever known. I know you have this strength, and I know that you would only believe in Stacey if she too had such strength. I look forward to the changes and healing your works will bring about!

  2. Pingback: The Winds of Change bring big news! | Here's you a blog …

  3. Pingback: October 2011: « Amnesty for Abuse News

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