Chapter 17 09.06.05 The Worse / Best Day

 

64227399God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Paslm 46:1-2 (NLT)

I punched my passcode into the office wing main door at just after 6 AM on Tuesday September 6, 2005. While opening the door I noticed a smudge on the glass from my wash job the previous day. After starting the coffee, I got a wad of paper towels and polished it away. I then took the paperback book and carefully removed the blank page where I had written the couple from New Orleans name the prior Sunday. I recall thinking, “Good as new”.  I then dropped it off at the bookstore and made my way through the main lobby into the auditorium. To be in that great space alone talking to God was the spiritual highlight of my daily routine.  Dave and I had argued about the issue of the cross on the building, paint colors, wall hangings, the sign and a few others, but we had agreed on the layout of the auditorium and it was perfect. Much of the western wall was constructed of large picture windows framing a meadow that ended at the edge of a thick forest.  We knew that a huge buck called our sixty-six acre campus home along with many other critters. So that morning I was not surprised, in the midst of my conversation with the Father, to see a doe and her fawns grazing at the edge of the woods.  The tranquility of that peaceful moment was a gift from the Lord.  Just a few weeks before on July 3, 2005 we had held our first service in this very spot. The contrast from the hype of that day until the present, now just God, the deer and I, could not have been greater. Opening day the auditorium had been packed; the excitement of an impossible dream realized was off the charts. For over twelve years the dream had slowly but surely morphed into reality. What an honor it was to have been chosen by God to be a part of that amazing team and this incredibly different kind of church. Yet with that said, the interlude between that opening day of celebration and fulfillment and the present had been painful for me on several fronts. In the church world constructing a building, particularly the first one, can easily cause some wheels to begin to fall off the wagon. Often the pastor does not survive. Ours was no exception and that should have been no surprise because, as incredible as our team was, we were still an eclectic group of flawed human beings. Each of us brought our God given gifts and talents to the table. We also brought our weaknesses.

During my prayer time I begged God to give me the strength to make some critical changes in my life. I remember specifically asking for His power and leading to do certain things that I had, up to that point, been unable or perhaps unwilling to do. As I prayed I recall being in a near panic. To be honest I am not sure I thought God would help. I knew what I needed to do but I do not think that I thought I could do it.  That was the last solitude conversation with God that I would have on Knob Hill.

Shortly after 11:00 AM, as I was finishing up the final draft of the coming Sunday’s message, “Believing that Dreams Come True”, I received an email addressed to all staff from Kristen that read: “We are not running the bookstore like we did at Hillsboro High School.  Now everything is inventoried and if you get something out you must make sure that it is taken off the inventory.” Instantly I knew that my taking of the paperback book the previous Sunday to write down the Katria couple’s name was what prompted the email.  So I responded, “If this is about the book I took Sunday, I have already put the book back into the bookstore.

I then continue to read over the upcoming message and then I hit “print” and walked thorough my open doorway into the reception area to the printer which was spitting out the copies. Kristen was at her desk eating yogurt and granola, which as I recall may have been a prepackaged unit with separate compartments.  She looked up and said, “It did not matter that the book had been put back; you should have never taken it in the first place”.  People saw you take that book and just walk off”. Again I explained about the couple and not having anything to write their name on, etc. By this time I was back standing in my office doorway. Out of the corner of my right eye, I noticed Glenn exit his office and walk down the Kid’s Klub hallway toward the auditorium. He did not look our way.  She continued saying that “It did not make any difference that the service was about to start, that I could have gotten a bulletin, gone to your office for a paper or got a tablet out of the bookstore closet.”  Kristen’s mouth was still going full tilt trying to make an issue where there was no issue. She went so far as to suggest that some people saw me take the book and may have thought I was stealing it.  I laughed at her and said, “Kristen there is no way on earth anybody thought I was stealing a book. Let’s drop this and don’t your ever chastise me about a paperback book again. You are way across the line.” I then walked over to where she was sitting, stood next to her, put my arm around her neck and said, “Kristen I love you to death, but sometimes I could break your neck”.  From my perspective it was an innocent kind of happenstance way to end the back and forth of the tiff. I do not recall her saying any more. My guess is this encounter may have lasted three or four minutes.  I did not sense that either of us were angry.  In hindsight I acknowledge that it was indeed a violation of Kristen’s boundaries and I should not have touched her regardless of the intent.  Obviously, I am very sorry.

When I got back into my office I noticed that I had apparently left the final page of the message in the copier. So I went back to the copier; Kristen was at her desk finishing up her yogurt. As I passed through the threshold of my doorway I said, “But I admire your spunk”. I meant that sincerely and still do.  I retrieved the missing page and went about my business. It saddens me to say that as far as I can recall that is the last conversation that Kristen and I have had. I pray that someday that might change. A few minutes later I noticed Kristen walk to her car and drive off.

Perhaps thirty minutes later, Dave and George came charging into my office, screaming and yelling that I had violently attacked Kristen in a fit of rage. Neither of them asked me what had happened or John what is going on?  Dave was amped up like he was when we got into the argument over the number of ushers a few years earlier. Just like then, he threatened to punch me out.  He was saying that when Kristen arrived at their family insurance office that she was “terrified, hysterical and could hardly speak”. The whole time George was saying, “John you know what you have to do”.  I was clueless about what I had do. It was like an out of body experience.  Dave was screaming that he should have me arrested. I said guys, “I do not know what is going on but I didn’t attack Kristen, I would not even call it an argument. It was more of a ‘tiff’”.   Dave continued screaming about calling the police and putting me in jail. Looking back I wish that he had because most likely that would have short circuited the entire situation by injecting cooler heads. Since she obviously was not injured, it would have at worse ended up being a “he said / she said”. All this time George was saying, “You know what you’ve got to do” like one of the old 45 RPMs with a stuck needle. I suggested that I would gladly take a polygraph; that offer still stands today. George, not Dave, responded, “No we do not need a polygraph. We know what you did. Now you need to resign.”  I never responded to George.

Here I was standing next to my best friend of over twenty years. The man who had actually lead me to a relationship with Jesus Christ and his dad were telling me how awful I am and I need to resign, only a few weeks after our twelve year quest together  had been realized. Frankly it was almost more than I could absorb. Realizing that the situation was totally out of control, I suggested that we go down the hall to a classroom to lessen the chance of a visitor walking in on this quickly unfolding spectacle. When we got there Dave continued to hammer me and George kept calling for my resignation.  At one point my mouth got so dry that my tongue was actually sticking to the roof of my mouth. So dry in fact that I had to call time out to go to the kitchen for a bottle of water. Thankfully that had never happened before or since. Trust me, a sticking tongue is quite an awkward experience.

Just after I returned with the water, Glenn came from his office to join the fray.  The very first thing that I can recall him saying was, “John this is all about what you told me about you being abused by that priest.” At my wits end I had told him that in confidence about a week earlier. No sooner had the words left his lips, I had an emotional breakdown. I began weeping and wailing with the tears flowing like white hot rivers off my cheeks. Forty-five years of carrying the shame of being abused were exposed in an instant without notice for two of my best friends to see by Glenn’s betrayal of a very personal confidence. I had confided in him only because he had a psych degree and I was at the point where I did not feel I could not keep the secret any longer.  I am quite sure my emotional collapse sucked the air out of the room. Immediately the three of them began telling me how much they loved and cared about me and that they were going to help me. George prayed for me. It did not register with me at the time, but neither Dave nor George expressed any surprise when Glenn dropped his bombshell revealing my deeply buried 45 year old secret. As I write this ten years down the road, I find that somewhat odd. Neither of them asked Glenn what he was talking about. My only conclusion is that he had already told them.  Be that as it may, their mood did instantly do a 180 from hostility to “We are here for you”. I am unable to adequately describe the feelings that I was experiencing from Glenn’s proclamation. I expect that for a time at least the original issue of the incident with Kristen had been overshadowed by my complete breakdown. I realize that most people who are reading this will not be able to appreciate the dark fear of discovery that an abuse survivor lives. It is a constant fear of “what will they think about me and will they abandon me?”

Glenn quickly suggested that I should call his shrink, Dr. Pete Harris, for an appointment to start working on the sexual abuse issue. For the time being, there was no more talk about what “I had to do” or calling the police. I was able to contact Pete a bit later after I got some semblance of self-control. Unfortunately I could not see him until September 8.  I later invited Dave and Glenn to accompany me for my appointment with Pete.  One reason I suggested that was to have somebody other than those involved know what had happened with Kristen.  Later when I got my bill there was a charge of $125.00 for Pete meeting privately with Dave and Glenn on Wednesday prior to my appointment on Thursday.  All of us already knew each other since; Pete had been our neighbor for the years the church office was on located on Music Row. In that September 8 meeting with Dr. Harris, Dave and I were able to come to an agreement as to what had actually happened as far as the physical contact with Kristen was concerned: I had put my arm around Kristen’s neck, there was no physical injury, there was no cussing and that I had said, “Kristen sometimes I could break your neck”.  Dave refused to sign off on my complete sentence, “Kristen I love you to death but sometimes I could break your neck”.  I took what I could get. Dave preferred to call it a chokehold.  We further agreed not to discuss the incident with the church members.

Pete was able to quickly discern that the critical issue for me at that particular time was to immediately begin the process of working through my childhood trauma. He strongly advised that that I go to Sierra Tucson (sierratucson.com) for a thirty day inpatient stay in its highly respected trauma treatment program.  As we approached that subject Dave and Glenn both said that they “loved me and would be there for me” when I returned. Dave said something to the effect that going away for a month will be good because, hopefully in thirty days Kristen would be past the incident. He went so far as to say, “If she is still pissed off when you get back just work from your house for a while. It will pass”. As he and Glenn were leaving. Dave patted my foot and said, “It will all be OK”.

The following day, September 9, 2005 Dave apparently wasted no time in telling Lou Alvarez, the man whom God had sent us a few years back to head up the acquisition of our property and the construction of our building,  that I had attacked Kristen in a rage and violently put her in a chokehold.   Lou was our key lay leader of HPC and by far our biggest donor to the building fund.  He promptly came to my house and was shocked at what he saw when I answered the door. I looked so bad that he insisted that he take me to lunch.  We went to the City Limits Café in the neighborhood. I may have eaten a bite or two but at that time I had no interest in food. By the time I weighed in at Sierra Tucson a week later I had lost nearly nine pounds. Since I was pretty much a walking basket case now that my well-kept secret was out, I allowed Dave to do the Sunday 11 message which I had already printed the day of the incident. During that service I made an announcement written by Dave and Lou that I was taking a thirty day sabbatical. After the service I met with Dave in his office. This time he did not pat my foot and say. “It will all be OK”. Instead he looked at me and said, “John you are the worse of the worse”. About two week earlier I had baby sit his two young children at the church while he and Kristen shopped. That had been common for years.   As whacked out as I was, it seemed obvious to me that someone, most likely George, was exerting a strong influence on Dave to make the most of my emotional collapse.  Driving home it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to pick up a tape recorder.

On Monday September 12, the day before I left for Sierra Tucson, Dave called me at home. Unfortunately I took the call in my kitchen so I was not able to activate the recorder.  After a bit of chit-chat he said, “We have decided for you to resign”. I assumed that “we”  included his dad for sure and possibly Kristen and Dave.  I literally begged him not to do that to me. I was crying. His response was, “We can have you arrested”. That mantra would be repeated time and time again as he effectively used it on me to get his way for the next five weeks.

I reminded him that only a few months earlier I had refused to  accept his resignation when I learned that he had secretly given himself a raise to more than cover his pledge to the building fund. That day he was the one crying. I was merciful; Dave had no intention of returning the favor. He then proposed that I send him an email saying that I had attacked Kristen both physically and verbally, that I was going to Sierra Tucson to work on what he referred to as “You anger issue”. And that I was willing to work out of my house when I got back from Sierra Tucson.  In my diminished emotional state over my “outing” by Glenn Cole, I emailed my “confession” which was word for what he had asked me to write.

A few minutes after I hit send he called back and said the email was “good” and that it showed my “good faith” as I was taking responsibility for my actions. He then said that he had “talked to an attorney and that since I was going to be away for 30 days that I should resign as senior pastor while I was away”.  He then said that the attorney had said that normally this should be done by registered mail, but since we are such “close friends” (I am not making this up. Truth is much better than fiction) it would be OK to do it by email”. He then dictated to me my resignation. “I resign as senior pastor of Highland Park Church and continue as an employee at will.”  He said that we are doing this for two reasons: “If any emergency comes up while you are away that as ‘co-pastor’ I could act in your place.  Secondly and more importantly, it would be a ‘sign of good faith’ to Kristen that you are taking responsibility and  willing to cooperate to do whatever was necessary to work on ‘your issues’. Then when you return you could revert back to senior pastor when Kristen has gotten over everything.  Of course that smelled like three day old road kill to me but I sent it anyway. By that time I would do anything to keep from being abandoned. All of my life that had been my chief fear. If people found out they would run from me. I was whacked out but I realized my worse fear was in the process of coming true. I was able to record that call.

Because Highland Park Church has a digital security system that operates 24 hours a day, there is a video of part of the incident with Kristin. The system does not record sound.  Unfortunately the camera does not show the contact with Kristen. The camera shoots down the administrate hallway from the front door down past the back hallway. The lens is not a wide angle, so it does not show beyond the front portion of Kristen’s desk.  I have not seen the video, but it has been described to me by five people: Lou Alvarez, Dianna Mitchell, David Mitchell, Kathy Kirkham, Judy Gouldener. They told me that the video shows me standing in my open office doorway having a discussion with Kristen, not in a “violent rage”  as has been reported by the Robinson family, but apparently a normal discussion. It clearly shows that I never slammed my office door, as Kristen has told several people.   They say it shows me talking to Kristen; while Glenn in the background come out of his office and then calmly walk down the back hall without ever looking toward Kristen and me.

This incident, be it a tiff or a rage or something in between does not get Glenn’s attention at all.  The video then shows me walk toward Kristen out of the picture for a few seconds. I assume this is where I put my arm around Kristen.  It shows me go into my office and then return, walk toward Kristen to disappear for a second when I went back to the printer which was behind Kristen’s desk and out of the camera range. It then shows me come backing into the camera range with the final page from the printer.  It shows me walking down the hallway toward the restroom area and Kristen calmly walking out of the building.

I had informed my sister, Kathy Kirkham of the existence of the video of the incident. On Sunday October 9 Kathy insisted that Dave show it to her.  He called a meeting after church to discuss her request further.  The five people named above attended the meeting along with Dave, Dave’s dad, George and Glenn Cole.  In the meeting Kathy argued for the right to see the video. Dave kept saying, “No it is too disturbing”.  Kathy can be very persistent.  Finally Glenn Cole screamed with red face and bulging neck veins, “Show them the (expletive deleted) video and then have him (that would be me) arrested when he returns to Nashville”. The video was then shown and the time stamp showed the whole incident lasted about three minutes not the 15-20 minutes that has been reported in various Robinson generated versions of the incident.

I have rehashed the events of September 6, 2005 in my mind countless times. How could Kristen and I have such wildly different versions of the event? I have considered every imaginable scenario from:  “Did I actually do what Kristen claims and my brain has shut it out” all the way to “It must be some kind of conspiracy to take over the church”.  I have no doubt that, as a result of what happened between us that day, it did in fact evolve into a takeover. However, I do not think that is how it started. My thinking, ten years removed, is that when Dave and George confronted me on September 6 that Dave was in fact reacting to a genuinely terrified and hysterical wife but I do not think I was the true cause of her hysteria.

While I was at Sierra-Tucson my therapist first suggested that possibly the key to how the whole incident got so far off the rails was that putting my arm around Kristen’s neck triggered a flashback to a previous violent encounter. She said that it could be something called PTSD.  Then she described how many of our soldiers in Iraq, in their minds relive a past horror of combat as if were happening in the present. Of course over the last ten years I have learned much more about the term, first from my time at ST and because the term as been in the forefront in the ongoing struggle to get our combat vets the mental health care that is long over do. When I returned home, in my aftercare program, I asked my therapist if a flashback was a possibility. She said that it was. I then asked her, “Then isn’t likely that at some point that Kristen will realize her mistake?” “It is possible”, she replied. But then she extinguished my faint flicker of hope when she said, “However, John it is not likely, even if she does come to that conclusion, that she would ever recant. As far down the road as this has gone and as public as it has become, I would be very shocked that she will ever turn around to say she was wrong”.

Some of the most well respected  mental health people in the county, both at Sierra- Tucson  and locally,  were unable to identify any rage characteristics or mental illness whatsoever in my personality. In fact my final diagnosis from ST was “Anxiety Disorder NOS” — meaning that I tended to be tense, worried a lot and feared something bad might happen, rather the “rage disorder” that Dave Robinson falsely claimed that one of the doctors had told him in a phantom phone conversation. Sierra-Tucson, citing HIPPAA Privacy Rules, denies any such contact with Dave.  Actually my discharge diagnosis was “Anxiety Disorder NOS code 300.00”. From scores on my “Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory – III” (See appendix) I scored high in dependence (on others)  — “a pattern of submissive behavior, with a strong need for support, may have difficulty expressing disagreement with others fearing loss of support or acceptance and some self-defeating traits and some obsessive- compulsive features”.  Up until 2005 that seemed to describe me perfectly. Thankfully, I do not think that is an accurate description of me today.  The only times the word “rage” is used in my records from Sierra-Tucson, of which I have a complete copy, is in the context of me describing what the Robertsons and Glenn Cole had said about my behavior on September 6, 2005.  ST was unable to find any rage markers.

Having said all of that, here is what I believe could best explain Kristen’s reaction to me putting my arm around her neck. Let me be very clear this may be wrong, but it is the only way I can make all the pieces fit together without one of us being an outright liar.  Perhaps Kristin had a flash back to an earlier time when someone actually did violently choke her.  I have several reasons to believe that could be the case.  First and foremost, now with a clear mind, I know with certainty that I did not violently attack Kristen or even raise my voice. Although in a pure legal sense I did violate Kristen’s personal space and boundaries when I touched her.

Several years earlier while I was working from my home office, Kristen called to ask if she could come by to talk. Since Cathy and I had a near family-type bond with her, I immediately sensed that something was terribly wrong.  I gave her my standard reply, “You know you never have to call to ask if it’s OK to come here”. Kristen replied that she was on her way. I knew the marriage was apparently going through some rough waters.  For months she had confided in me, on several different occasions, that she was considering leaving Dave. On one occasion that I specifically recall she threatened to take the kids and move to North Carolina.  I considered it just Kristen’s “tough girl” musings. But it apparently was no secret as she had apparently openly told people at a “Scrapbooking Party”. Two of those were her best friend Pat Perry who, I am told, actually encouraged her to leave and Heather Lowery who was horrified to hear it. Heather’s husband, Levi, had recently come to work for HPC as our youth pastor. He came into my office the morning after the party and was visibly upset over what Heather had reported. It told him that it was just Kristen’s “Nobody messes with me” talk.

I assumed perhaps she was coming by to replay the tape one more time and I would give the same advice, “please do not, instead go see Gordon Peerman” a counselor whom I knew. When she arrived at my house she was crying.  In the many years we had known her this was only the second time I can recall seeing her cry. The first was when she was living with us at our home in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, as our guest while attending college. She came home late one night and Cathy and I heard her wailing loudly in her room. We were concerned, so we finally went downstairs to see if we could help her. She was like our daughter. Kristen was  hysterical and gasping as she tried to tell us what was wrong.   She explained that on the way home on I-40 West, she had hit something; she feared that she may have hit somebody on the dark highway. She wanted me to call Dave, who at the time was her boyfriend. I did and Dave and George immediately came out.  It proved to be nothing. There was no damaged to her car.

Immediately, I knew this would be a different kind of visit.  It became one that would, in fact haunt me to this very day. As soon as she came through the front door, with the explosive force of a shaken bottle of Coke, she cried out, “You have to promise that you will not tell Dave I told you this. If you do he will kill me”.  She was an emotional wreck. She could hardly get her words out and was again gasping as she talked.  I was scared. Instinctively, I blurted “I promise”, without an inkling as to what I was committing to.  By this point she was sitting on the edge of an ottoman. I was standing near the fireplace. With deep sobs, Kristen wailed “Dave tried………to………kill me”.  “What are you talking about?” I shouted. “We got into an argument in the bedroom……..he was on top of me…..choking me. I was about to past out when Beth (their small daughter) came into the room crying and he let me up”. Since I knew her husband quite well, I had very serious doubts as to the veracity of her account. I had been subjected to his rage on a few occasions. Even so, I was positive and still am that he had not tried to kill her. Again Kristen made me promise that under no circumstances would I let him know she had told me.   By this point, seeing her condition, I was in a near panic myself.  I was afraid the marriage of two people I loved dearly might actually be unraveling before my very eyes. That was bad enough, but there were also some major personal implications for me and the church. I made her promise that she would call my friend Gordon Peerman that day to make an appointment to see him.  After she left I was emotionally exhausted. I was also frightened. I tried to sort out what I had just heard. I was confused. I called Gordon and left a voice mail and followed up with an email.  Later Kristen told me that she had met with Gordon and that she and Dave had an appointment together the following week. I am certain that Dave did not try to kill Kristen any more than I did. But I can also say with equal certainty that Kristen was  extremely upset when she came to see me that day. I know factually that at least Dave met with Gordon Peerman several times.  In the late fall of 2005 Dave and Kristen met with the district attorney seeking a warrant for my arrest. It is my understanding that the DA was a friend of theirs;  she discouraged them and instead suggested that we all meet for mediation. On November 16, 2005 during a mediation meeting with Dave, Kristin, Rev. Bill Henry and myself, I was forced to bring that event up. Dave angrily denied it ever happened and called me a liar. Kristin did not say a word on that subject.

As I was attempting to sort out things regarding the September 6, 2005 incident, I recalled a time shortly after Dave and Kristen married when Dave was at our house for dinner. I think Kristen may have been in Canada but I am not sure. In any event she was not there. During the meal Dave told Cathy and me that he was “really worried” about Kristen, because he had woken up some nights and Kristen was not in bed. He then found her “cowering and crying in the hallway” just outside the bedroom. He said she would not tell him what it was all about. Dave is by far the most private person I have ever known. For him to share that with us was completely out of his character and a clear signal to me that it was a major concern for him. Later Dave Mitchell, a friend of ours whom Kristen used to work for, told us a story about how one day he had called her at home to tell her that he was on his way to her house to drop off some work. It was the middle of the day. When she answered the door she was armed with a large knife. There is another, I think more telling reason, why I have come to this conclusion, but I will have to save that for another chapter.

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4 Responses to “Chapter 17 09.06.05 The Worse / Best Day”

  1. Janie Tantisook says:

    John. I am so sorry for all this confusion in “our” lives. I struggle to find the message, as I think there always is one, and most importantly to not judge….but again I struggle as I read, your words, but I have also heard other words from my niece and her ex-husband. This hurt me for so long about you and the church of my dreams “On the Hill”. I guess I still struggle as I was afraid to even hear the story being it, one side or the other.
    Thanks for telling your side in writing so that I was able to choose to read or not.
    Praying that we all get HIS peace.

  2. john says:

    Thanks Janie. I decided in the fall of 2005 to walk away and not fight because that would hurt the church I love even more. Now that HPC has weathered the storm and is healthy, ten years down the road I have a responsibility to all who were hurt to tell the story from my viewpoint. As I say in the book from beginning to end, none of the actors are bad people. We are simply flawed human beings just like Paul preached about in Romans. In the end I assume personal responsibility for the split and only blame myself. God bless those cranberries!

  3. Robert McLemore says:

    John Gouldener,
    I love you. Happy Easter to you and your family.

  4. john says:

    Rob, Great to hear from you. Where are u these days? Hope all is well with you. Been a long time!

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