True Story: My parents were con artists + I grew up on the lam

Imagine moving 10-20 times before you were 16 years old. You're repeatedly told that you're "going on vacation" and you never come home. Your grandparents hire a private investigator to find you. Click through for one woman's story of growing up on the lam >>
Imagine this: Your mom shakes you awake in the middle of the night and tells you you’re going on vacation. Your bags are already packed and you’re going to Disneyland. Awesome, right? What if that happened over and over and over and over? Till your grandparents hired a private investigator? This is Caitlin’s story of growing up on the lam.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Caitlin, and I’m 28. I grew up in Texas, and eventually moved back to my home state which is where I live to this day. I run a company that provides guided trips along a segment of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, my spiritual home. I’m an unabashed travel addict, linguistics nerd, and animal lover.
When you were growing up, what were your parents like?
My mother was a stay at home mom, and I THOUGHT that my father was a dentist. Now I know that in actuality, they were con artists.
Despite this, there was nothing about them that anyone would think odd. They were both charismatic, friendly, NORMAL people. However, my mother can be cruel and judgmental, and my father is a habitually flirtatious, “recreational” liar with the emotional maturity of a 13 year old.
Do you remember the first time your family picked up and moved in the middle of the night?
My mother woke me up in the middle of night with a statement I would come to be familiar with: “We’re going on vacation.” Our bags were already packed and loaded into the van, so we were off. It seemed so exciting, a surprise vacation.
The trip I don’t remember so much, but I do remember how thrilling it was when we got to LA. We went to Disneyland and Universal Studios and visited the beach every day. My parents made sure that we did everything fun it was possible for a kid to do.
At some point, they filtered in the “let’s just move here” narrative, and there was no way I was arguing with that. Later, my parents would say we flipped coin to decide where to go: “Heads California, Tails Wales.” I heard that so many times I came to believe it was true, and that I had been the tiniest bit of luck away from becoming British.
Over the course of your childhood, how many times did this happen? 
I would say we moved about 10-20 times. The reason for the uncertain number is that I use the term “moved” very loosely. Occasionally that meant moving to a new house, getting registered for school and living there for a while. But often we would leave on “vacation” and never come back.
At one point I spent an entire year out of school living in hotels, never in one place more than a month. It was a never ending vacation AND I didn’t have to go to school, so of course I didn’t question it.
We lived semi-permanently in Avalon, CA and Las Vegas, NV, and bounced all over southern California, Florida, and Georgia in various hotels. We also lived on a dry-docked boat for a while.
Was there are pattern to this? 
At the time it always seemed to come out of nowhere but it’s fairly apparent to me now what was happening. Basically my mother wanted to be independent, so we would settle somewhere. Eventually the law would catch up with us. My mother would turn to my father, who was working and living under various aliases.
Of course, these periods of reuniting as a family never lasted; they had a very volatile relationship. When they split up, we’d start all over again.
How did you parents explain this to you?
They always said we were going on vacation. It seems insane now but when you’re a child you have no frame of reference for what is “normal.” I’ve heard similar things from people who grew up abused or destitute, that we just didn’t know any different.
I remember at one point, after we had been gone “on vacation” for several months during the school year, we returned and I thought I could just pick up where I left off. I strolled into class and said “I’m back.” My teacher, of course, informed me that I couldn’t just be “back” and sent me to the office for truancy.
How did this constant moving affect you as a kid?
I was kind of shy and slow to make friends as a child. Very quickly, I realized that being the kid sitting alone eating lunch is torture, so I became adept at making friends quickly. I can talk to anyone about anything, since often my only friends were hotel staff or other guests. I pined for things like birthday parties that I felt were only for “normal” kids.
Educationally, I dodged a bullet; if I’d been a different kind of kid I believe it could have gone a lot worse. Aside from the entire year spent completely out of school, I also missed several months of 6th grade. Since I was left to my own devices, I also skipped class a lot.
I consider myself lucky because I’ve always been fairly self-educated through reading, and I attended a magnet school in elementary. These factors kept me from being too adversely effected by the instability.
When did you realize that what you were experiencing wasn’t normal?
After years of no contact with them whatsoever, one day my grandparents randomly showed up at my school. They had hired a private investigator to track us down. It seems odd but even then I didn’t fully understand the situation. It took several years before the truth came out entirely.
And what did you do once you realized this?
At the end of that school year, I decided to move back to Texas with my grandparents. I can’t say how much of that idea was of my own. I know my grandmother wanted to get me away in case my mother decided to disappear again. My mom begged me not to go, but I was tired of moving around and missing out on what I felt was a normal life.
I imagine a childhood like this is pretty tough to get over. How have you worked through these issues? 
Maybe I’m just a well adjusted human, or maybe I’m in denial, but honestly I have very few issues regarding this period. I look back on it with fond memories; It was all such an adventure.
My one issue is that until I was 16 no one told me WHY we’d been moving. When I found out, I felt like my entire life was a lie. The betrayal was devastating, and I resented it for a while. Luckily, I haven’t developed trust issues overall, since I don’t assume that everyone is like my parents. I supposed I’ve worked through it with my inherently optimistic personality.
What are your parents up to now? What’s your relationship like with them today?
With the statute of limitations being up on their crimes, they’ve both settled down considerably. My mother is an event planner, something that she really thrives doing. She’s also made considerable steps to improve trust levels between us. Mostly our relationship is not great for a very boring reason: we just don’t have much in common.
My dad is a different story. He’s never addressed the lies, so I just take everything he says with a grain, or maybe a spoonful, of salt. Because he’s so immature, and because he never was a paternal figure in my life, I consider him to be more one of my friends than my father. He’s living under his real name, and even has a regular Joe Schmo job that requires filing his taxes, something I’m pretty sure he forgot how to do.
Do you think your childhood has influenced who you are today? Has it affected how you feel about having kids or your sense of home and place?
Aside from the immeasurable social skills I gained, rebelling from my parents shadiness has given me strong morality. I value honesty above any other quality in a person, and I would rather hear an ugly truth than a pretty lie. I have no tolerance for lying, cheating or stealing.
I never wanted children, even when I was little. I don’t think if I’d wanted kids that my own childhood would have changed that. I am not my parents and would never put myself or someone else in the situations that they did.
The most practical effect is I don’t have any sort of record of my childhood past a certain age; I don’t even have medical records. I also don’t assign sentimental value to objects, so I don’t own very much, especially not any sort of clutter. You will never see me on an episode of Hoarders.
What have you learned from this that any of us could apply to our daily lives? 

I’ve learned that honesty is one of the most important gifts you can give someone, even if it’s uncomfortable, and that running away from your problems might seem like an answer in the short term, but everything will eventually catch up. And of course, that “on the lam” is an excellent phrase to be able to work into your life story.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Caitlin! Do you guys have any questions for her?

P.S. Other stories of questionable parenting: My mom made me smuggle drugs, I have a toxic relationship with my mother, my father is in prison on child pornography charges.

photo by lachlan donald // cc

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1 Comment

  1. Ryan Hayden

    Yeah, my childhood except both my parents are at about 14 years old maturity level and have not stopped the life at all they still run scams. Mostly fraud or embezzlement. I am always involved and unaware till after the fact when cops ask questions I never have much info for them. Also wanting to protect my parents as well still love them wish they would stop already. Maybe it’s time I just end it my dad’s latest is something big, that’s all I know all the cops or CRA Canada’s IRS. Pretty sure my mom is on AISH on fraudulent terms as well, not like she needs it she really is handicapped anyway.

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