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Breaking the painful cycle of incest

Six weeks after his son was born, 25-year-old Eric Culver hung himself with a cat leash in his bedroom. A victim of incest, he thought it was the only way to stop the cycle.

Now, years later, Eric's sister has found her own way.

Kathie Lee Forrester is pressing charges against her father, who she says sexually abused his four children and untold numbers of others.

"We all bear the scars of trying to kill ourselves," Mrs. Forrester said, pushing up a sleeve to reveal the marks of her childhood etched across her wrist. "Eric followed through. In a way, he was braver than anyone.

"He was certainly braver than my father. He was beyond getting help, and he did the only thing he knew to do."

After years of therapy, Mrs. Forrester, 34, has gotten to a place where she can openly discuss the years she was abused and can fight for other victims.

Last year, she started the ERIC Foundation, an advocacy group for abused children named for her brother. She also turned his name into an acronym for Everybody's Rights Including Children.

Through ERIC, she fights for changes in the laws and tougher penalties for incest in Pennsylvania, where she now lives. She also works to connect children with counselors, and she started the Bucks County Incest Prevention Task Force.

"I started out wanting to save the world," she said. "Then I realized I can't do that. But maybe I can make the world a little safer for children."

Between calls to senators and judges and lawyers and support groups, she must fight her own battle _ against her father.

Asa Eric Culver, who now lives in Old Town, near Cross City in Dixie County, is charged with rape and forcible carnal knowledge _ according to the law as it read in 1966, a time when Mrs. Forrester says she remembers him molesting her almost daily in their Tarpon Springs home.

Because Florida law has no statute of limitations for raping a child, prosecutors were able to build a case around his children's memories and Culver's own admissions of what took place 25 years ago.

Culver is also charged with raping another daughter and a former stepson. As a rule, rape victims are not identified, but Mrs. Forrester has come forward to encourage others to do so.

Because they don't agree, her sisters and ex-stepbrother are not named to protect their identities.

"It has taken me 10 years of hell and therapy to get here," she said. "They're just not ready yet."

Standing alone in front of a judge's bench in a courtroom, she says, her 57-year-old father appears small and meek, but the sight of him can still leave her shaken and in tears.

"I get those old feelings that I've committed the ultimate betrayal by turning him in," she said. "I hate to be the one to do this, but I have to remind myself that he betrayed me. He took something away from me."

Mrs. Forrester did not turn her father in until it was clear to her that he had not stopped abusing children when his own grew up.

A year ago, Culver was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior in Lake County for allegedly masturbating in front of a 9-year-old art student he was teaching through a non-profit, church-oriented organization in Mount Dora.

The next day he called his daughter.

"He told me it wasn't his fault," Mrs. Forrester said. "He said, "She's just a seductive little 9-year-old.' I knew right there it was still going on, and I couldn't keep silent anymore. It had to stop."

"Shameful family secret'

To the world, the Culvers lived an average, middle-class existence. Asa Culver spent 13 years in the Marines and worked in a variety of jobs, including one with the Upper Pinellas Association of Retarded Citizens, Mrs. Forrester said.

But inside the house on Holiday Drive in Tarpon Springs was what Culver once described in a letter as a "shameful family secret."

Mrs. Forrester says her first recollection is of her father molesting her while giving her a bath when she was 3.

"Our mother was never really much of a mother, and he really had most of the caretaker duties," she said. "He bathed us and put us to bed."

The problem, she said, was that he would take advantage of his children.

"He was our friend, he paid attention to us," she said. "Our mother never did. She always acted like she was mad at us. So we turned to him for the affection we didn't get from her."

The abuse didn't end until she was 18 and left home. But, she said, when she was a teenager it was rare because she was better at avoiding her father.

As a younger child, she said, she could be manipulated into sex by her father.

"I was the oldest and he told me I was his special girl, his favorite," she said. "He told me I was helping him and Mom. As a child, you'll do anything to make your parents happy."

Culver would show them pictures of adults having sex with children, she said, so they would think it was something that was supposed to happen _ something a father teaches his children.

She shared a room with a younger sister and when he didn't climb in bed with Kathie Lee, she said he would climb in bed with her sister.

Her brother and sisters never really talked about what was going on, she said, but they all saw the others having sex with their father.

"I thought I was growing up with a normal father who loved me," she said. "I thought his way of showing he loved me was molesting me."

In a letter Culver wrote to his daughter last summer, he admits abusing her, but denies ever touching his youngest daughter.

"(She) was never involved," he wrote. "However, I know she saw us at least once." He also says he began touching his children as a result of his own abuse.

"I didn't know of my own childhood abuse at that time, so I was acting out what had been done to me," he wrote. "I know I will need years of therapy to heal the pain of my own childhood."

When Mrs. Forrester looks at her family tree, she sees sexual abuse passed on from generation to generation. She imagines her ancestors as children living through what she did.

And it makes her that much more determined to make it stop.

Scars that don't fade

Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor Karen McHugh, who specializes in child molestation cases, researched the history of the child rape laws for months before filing charges.

As she learned more about the case, she became struck by the lasting damage that incest causes.

"I usually just see the children and can hope that with therapy they'll be all right, but now I'm seeing what it does to people their whole lives," she said.

Eric Culver committed suicide.His sisters have been in therapy and hospitalized for emotional problems at one time or another.

"What happened to Eric is a sin," Mrs. Forrester said. "The system let him down big time."

Mrs. Forrester was divorced three times by the time she was 23 and blames her problems in relationships on her father.

And when she had her children, she was scared to death she would do the same thing to them.

"It was so bad, I would turn my head and look away when I changed my son's diapers," she said. "I was so relieved when I didn't get any urges. Luckily, my husband has been very supportive and been there with me through hell and back."

She and her husband, Ron, have been married eight years. He is an accountant, and she, between ERIC Foundation duties, shuttles two children _ 7 and 14 _ to ballet, tennis and karate lessons.

She also speaks to high school classes about incest and molestation. And the comment she gets most often from the teenagers: "You don't look like a victim."

"I'm proud of her," Ron Forrester said. "She's got so much courage and strength. With the foundation and her work with other survivors, she's turning all the negatives in her life to positives."

Asa Culver says he has been trying to work through his own problems in group therapy.

His attorney, Patrick Doherty of Clearwater, said Culver had been addressing these problems long before his arrest.

As a child, Doherty said, Culver was molested by a Boy Scout leader and raped by someone who picked him up hitchhiking.

"The case itself is just an American tragedy," Doherty said. "It's the breakdown of a single American family. . . . He was a victim of child abuse himself and the cycle continues."

Culver has told his daughter that he is sorry he has caused her so much pain, and Doherty said Culver feels terrible that because of what has happened, he may never see his daughters again.

In most cases where grown children say they were abused as children, the molesters deny the accusations _ whether true or not.

"Most people say prove it _ whether they're innocent or guilty," Doherty said. "This man is unusual. . . . I think he is resigned to this taking its course one way or another, whatever it takes."

Mrs. Forrester sees her father's remorse as a tactic to get her to drop the charges. When he was arrested on the lewdness charge involving the 9-year-old, he called her to ask that she stand up for him in court. And he has repeatedly asked her not to prosecute.

"The hospitals, the therapy _ nothing helped. This is the only thing that will protect other children," she said. "Doing the right thing can be hell. It's been heartwrenching because I knew that with this I would have to say goodbye to my father forever."

Turning her father in

For years, Culver and his daughter were estranged. Then, after Eric died, Culver tried to establish a new relationship with her. They would talk on the phone every few weeks, but she saw him only twice in seven years. All the while, she said, he would tell her he was better. Through therapy, she said he told her, he knew he could not be around children.

"The dysfunction was still there, but held in check," he wrote to her last year. "I still didn't understand my problem but I knew I would never again touch a child."

So when he was arrested last year on the charge regarding the 9-year-old girl, she contacted prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.

Then she called her dad.

Hooked up to a tape recorder and a three-way phone call monitored by police, Mrs. Forrester had a heart-to-heart talk with her father about her childhood abuse.

They talked explicitly and, again, he apologized.

Then, she said, when she told him how his brothers _ her uncles _ also had raped her, he broke down.

With the tape, deputies obtained a search warrant and raided his apartment, where they found pornographic magazines and cartoons; two 11-by-14 nude color photos of Culver; a large painting of himself in the nude; photocopies of genital areas; pictures of nude children; and an electric vibrator.

Mrs. Forrester was sickened by the evidence and tried to help prosecutors send her father away for a long time.

But he was treated as a first-time offender and sentenced to 60 days in jail and 10 years' probation.

"But he's not a first-time offender," she said. "He's been doing it for years. And there is no reason to think he won't continue to. Who knows how many victims there have really been."

No one to turn to

People often ask Mrs. Forrester why she waited so long to come forward. Why didn't she tell someone sooner?

"I told my best friend when I was 10 and she looked at me like I had two heads or something," she said. "She didn't know what I was talking about."

Her friend, Yvonne Steiger, remembers when Mrs. Forrester told her. There wasn't the same awareness there is now and she didn't know what to do.

"I remember her telling me," Mrs. Steiger said. "And if I can help her now or provide information for the prosecutor, I will. But I don't want to jeopardize anything by talking about it."

Mrs. Forrester says she tried again to tell someone when she was 18. This time, it was her mother, who, by then, was divorced from her father.

"She cried with me and told me she knew what it was like because she had been abused by her father when she was a child," Mrs. Forrester said. "Then, the next day she kicked me out of the house."

From then on, Mrs. Forrester was considered a troublemaker. Her sisters weren't allowed to talk to her. Other relatives said she was lying and the family disowned her, she said.

Even now, after her father has admitted the abuse to the family, she said, they are angry with her.

She has received letters from relatives apologizing for what happened to her and for not having believed her.

"They tell me, "Okay, so he did it, but that was a long time ago," she said. "Why drag the family through this."

Only her sisters and a former stepmother are supportive.

"I think she has a lot of courage to take this on," said Joan Hanna, who was married to Culver when Mrs. Forrester was a teenager. "When she told me, it made sense. It's awful to think that he would get out of my bed to go to theirs."

But her real mother wants to stay out of the court proceedings and out of Mrs. Forrester's life.

Her attorney, John Shahan, recently filed a motion with the court, asking that "the ex-Mrs. Culver" be exempt from testifying or having her named revealed.

The motion states she has no knowledge of abuse and therefore cannot help. Because she is a victim of sexual abuse herself, her name should not be revealed, the motion states.

She also states in the motion her daughters may be doing this for attention and money for the ERIC Foundation.

"I can't believe my mother could stoop so low," Mrs. Forrester said. "Not supporting me is one thing. But to say those things. .

.

. My life's been no picnic because of this. And I can think of a lot better ways to get attention."

Taking her life back

If convicted, Asa Culver could spend the rest of his life in prison. And by law, if convicted, he could not apply for parole for at least 25 years. In that scenario, he would be 82 when released.

Because victims are consulted on plea agreements, whether Culver goes to trial or works out a lighter sentence is ultimately in the hands of Mrs. Forrester and the other victims, his attorney said.

"He knows he can't undo the past," Doherty said. "In a secular way, every one of these people are trying to work through this and find salvation. This legal process can be a part of that or it can be very damaging."

At this point, Mrs. Forrester wants to go to trial, even if it means reliving painful experiences.

No matter what happens in that courtroom, she said, the process will help her get on with her life.

"This final phase for me is for me to stand up to my father and my family," she said. "This finishes it for me. I'll have my life back and I'm still young enough to enjoy it."

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