Gaslighted Out of House and Home

How $300,000 and a talent for storytelling helped a father of six children make their mother disappear.

When Marre Wösten left Athens, Georgia in 1991, few of her friends knew where she was going or what she was getting into. She’d recently left her first husband, and — given the lack of children involved — it seemed like a clean break. Still in her mid-twenties, Marre was optimistic, pretty and talented. It must have felt to her like pressing a “reset” button when she moved away with her boyfriend, Brenden O’Neil.

Before long, they were married. Thirteen years later, they’d had six children.

By the time Marre returned to Athens in late 2013, she’d been ousted from her home in Cumming, Georgia and barred by a superior court judge from contacting her kids in any way.

Her Athens friends try to fill in that 22-year gap with a story that makes at least a modicum of sense. What could she have done? Torched the house? Locked them in a hot car? Strapped herself with dynamite?

The photos she posts almost daily on Facebook depict a mom deeply involved in her children’s lives: kayaking on the Chattahoochee, touring the Smoky Mountains, skiing in North Carolina, absorbing American history in Williamsburg, Virginia. Everyone is smiling.

Conspicuously absent in the photos is the father.

“Brenden couldn’t be bothered to vacation with us,” says Marre, “though he could always find time to go on trips with friends.” One such vacation, to Turkey, spanned three weeks.

Before they had kids, they lived with Marre’s parents, Annelies and Bernard, in Massachusetts. Money was very tight. Within months, Bernard felt as though there was something askew about the relationship. One of the first red flags was Brenden’s pleading with the Wöstens not to reveal to his parents Marre had been married before.

Another was the day Brenden announced he’d bought something he’d been saving for.

“It turned out to be a tiny, single-person hiking tent,” says Bernard. “We were astonished. Why this? Why not a tent he could share with the person he lives with? His explanation was that he had a friend in England who on his last visit proposed they go mountain climbing and camping together. We were thinking, ‘Why not include Marre in this type of activity?’”

After Marre and Brenden’s first child was born, the visible clues of marital strife mounted. “I tried to be close to Marre, called her daily but I never felt that she shared her feelings with either Bernard or me,” says Annelies. “She did not complain nor share negative feelings about her life with Brenden. But she looked sad too many times.”

Was she depressed? “I kept telling myself Marre is a closed book,” answers Annelies. “The first years of the marriage were lonely for her. Brenden was away a lot. (Their daughter) was an only child for the first 41/2 years. She was fun and adventurous, and we did see Marre and (her) a lot. Our house was on a lake; kayaking, sailing and swimming was the order of the day and during the winter we did cross country skiing. She was the center of Marre’s universe and also ours.”

Brenden enlisted in the Coast Guard, and was stationed in Halifax, Virginia. There, according to Bernard, Brenden was twice involved in violent, alcohol-related incidents that precipitated stints in rehab.

Marre and the ever-growing family moved to Cumming, Georgia; eventually her parents found a house close by. With Brenden gone a lot, their support was vital.

By the time the sixth child was born, the eldest was 14. Though Marre got some help from the older kids, it must have been at times overwhelming. “I wasn’t overwhelmed,” she says now. “To me it seemed really natural.”

Brenden’s absences, the audacious charges he later made, and Marre’s insistence that he was lying make it especially difficult to extract corroborating pictures of what life was really like for the family. We know from the Facebook photos that there were many trips to a variety of places. Everyone is laughing and smiling.

Putting aside any career aspirations, Marre says she immersed herself in the daily duties of raising the kids virtually alone. That devotion — and lack of financial independence — would cost her dearly when it came time to defend herself in court.

The beginning of the end was the 2013 trip to Williamsburg. Brenden had recently made an impulse purchase — a brand new camper — and Marre asked if she and the kids could use it for the trip. Brenden said no. Marre was undaunted. “On the way out of town I stopped at Walmart to buy a tent,” she recalls.

Tagging along in their own camper, Marre’s parents helped with the tasks that go with camping with children. Photos on Facebook are indistinguishable from those taken on previous trips: happy kids eager for adventure.

It would be their final trip with their mother to date.

What’s His and What’s Theirs

She’d long had concerns about money issues in the household. Brenden, the only surviving child of a wealthy family, saw himself as guardian of that fortune. That meant protecting it even from his wife, who had to beg him for a credit for food money and school supplies.

She returned from Williamsburg determined to change what she’d come to see was a twisted household arrangement.

Brenden quickly short-circuited the meeting by saying he wanted a divorce. Marre, not yet taking him seriously, failed to take steps to protect herself financially. Brenden, meanwhile, was strategizing with a family law firm that would charge him an estimated $300,000 over the next year.

A key strategy was to paint Marre as an unfit, dangerous mother. Another was for Brenden to hide all his assets.

The Williamsburg trip and the money meeting both viewed by Brenden as acts of insubordination, he intensified his “gaslighting” campaign upon Marre’s return, she says. He’d told her repeatedly over the years she was insane, but now he took it further: She was unfit to parent. He held private meetings in the kitchen with the oldest three children. He visited her parents to inform them she’d been having psychological problems.

Before long he had rendered her a pariah in her own house. The oldest three kids began treating her coldly, glaring at her from afar. They told the younger three to lock their bedroom doors at night.

One night in August of 2013, Marre was preparing to leave for a yoga class when her daughters begged her not to go. They wanted to watch a movie with her; in spite of their suspicious change in behavior toward her, Marre relented.

Midway through the movie, five Fulton county sheriff’s deputies appeared in the living room. They had come with a padded wagon for her transport to Grady Hospital’s psychiatric ward. After a distressed Marre convinced them she was not a danger to herself or anyone else, the female deputy let her ride in the squad car. “She actually listened to me,” says Marre, “and she told me to record everything” — meaning all her future interactions with Brenden.

After doctors at the ward found “nothing horrific” over Marre’s 24-hour stay there, they released her. With a dead cell phone and no access to money, she took a bus to the Perimeter Mall in search of a phone charger. She called her oldest child, who intoned, “You are dangerous,” then hung up. Short on options, Marre began walking the six miles back to her house. When she finally got there, the kids ran from her. Marre’s parents, having rushed there fully convinced of Brenden’s claims that she was dangerous and erratic — throwing knives and poisoning dinner, for instance — told her she needed help.

Bernard, Marre’s father, remembers the scene somewhat differently. He says he had a conversation with Brenden during which Bernard admitted Marre had had some problems with depression. Brenden responded, “No, there’s much more than that. She’s got borderline personality disorder.”

“I said, ‘How do you know?’” recounts Bernard.

Their therapist, Barbara J. Bower had said so.

“So I said, ‘How does she know? She’s not a psychiatrist.’”

“But she knows a lot,” countered Brenden.

(Later, Brenden emailed Bernard to tell him he did not want to speak with him again except to make visitation arrangements regarding the children.)

Still on the front lawn, completely at her wit’s end, Marre began screaming at Brenden. She must have appeared to all there as precisely the mentally ill person they believed she was. What mother wouldn’t?

With no safe place to go, Marre “camped out” for a week in a little-used living room of their suburban house.

A week was how long it took Brenden to secure a protective order, which she received at her front door after driving her two youngest kids home from school.

Women’s abuse shelters turned Marre away because there were no police reports of violence committed by Brenden.

If her parents had not lived close by, Marre — a mother of six children who, until being forced out, had lived for over twenty years an upper-middle class lifestyle — would have been homeless. Though she still had a few friends in the area, Brenden had convinced most of them she was deranged and dangerous.

At her parents’ house, low on sleep and hope, Marre swallowed an entire bottle’s worth of antidepressants.

Gaslighting up Her Life

Wikipedia defines “gaslighting” as “a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting (her) own memory, perception and sanity.” The term’s origin is the play written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938. The subsequent 1944 film, Gaslight, starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, whose character hides his wife’s jewelry, slips his own pocket watch into her purse, removes art from the walls of their house, and dims gas lights in an attempt to systematically dismantle her belief in her own lucidity.

When Marre and the children returned from Williamsburg, she viewed the movie for the first time and recognized the protagonists’ relationship. According to her, Brenden recognized she recognized it, and immediately gave up influencing her, refocusing his manipulation on the kids. By the time of the first hearing, the three oldest were ready to testify she was dangerous. All three signed “no contact” orders.

If suicide didn’t occur to someone in Marre’s shoes, some might think that person was crazy.

“I regretted it immediately,” she says now. Her dad drove her to the ICU. When she awoke two days later, an ambulance took her to a psychiatric ward, where she remained for ten days.

It wasn’t all bad. “They taught me how to deal with a bully,” Marre says. “It was a good recharging period.”

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick, who presided over the custody hearing a few weeks later, didn’t see Marre’s stay there quite as positively.

“She wasn’t interested in why I was there,” says Marre. “It just fed into Brenden’s whole story that I was dangerous and insane.”

The details of the alleged violence in the O’Neil household are difficult to fathom: Marre whipping the youngest child with a dog leash, raising a guitar over her head and threatening to kill the third-youngest child, and slapping the face of the oldest child as she operated a car.

Those details were not only fathomed by Judge Barwick — they were believed completely.

She awarded Brenden full custody, invoked a PPO, and granted Marre very limited, supervised (no overnight) visits with the three youngest children.

Marre began saving money for the divorce hearing. By January 2014 she was able to retain an attorney for $1500. This lawyer, knowing well the hourly rate of Caroline Kresky (the leader of Brenden’s legal team), estimated Marre’s husband had already spent $300,000 on the case.

Given the discrepancy in money — and therefore time and effort put into the case — it’s not hard to predict how the June divorce hearing went. Nancy Grossman, a mediator who presided over the closed-door moderation, stated Marre had done “horrible things to the children,” and, without giving Marre a chance to refute those claims, the judge ruled in Brenden’s favor. For reasons yet to be determined, Marre’s lawyer advised her to sign the decree.

Regrouping in Athens

Marre Wösten hasn’t seen any of her kids since. She moved back to Athens and began cobbling together an entirely different life from what she’d known. She reconnected with some old friends. She got a job caring for kids at a Montessori school. She began pursuing fashion design, an old passion she’d put aside since the birth of her first child.

Yet her mantra has continued to be “I just want my kids back.” Realistic about what kind of kids she’d be getting back, Marre knows it will take time to undo the damage a father she claims to be a narcissist (now with a new, undoubtedly overwhelmed, stepmom who, along with her three kids, moved in with him six months prior to the divorce) can do to children he isolates from outside influence that might refute the story he’s told them. “I know they’re messed up in a lot of ways,” Marre says, “and it will take some time.”

It’s understandable that she’d be anxious to get the healing process started. In August of this year, assuming she could message her 18-year-old without violating the protective order, Marre texted “I love you” to her third-oldest child the day of his high school graduation.

The next day, police showed up at her workplace, handcuffed her and hauled her 80 miles to Fulton County jail. She spent ten days there. Vic Valmus, the lawyer her parents hired to get her out, told her that her decree is “the most lopsided divorce ruling” he’d ever heard of. But like most lawyers Marre approached, Valmus wasn’t interested in taking her case as long as Kresky was involved.

By the time Marre returned to Athens, she’d lost her job.

The Road Back

Marre accepts help wherever she can get it, and in the past few years she’s joined up with coalitions of women who have endured similar nightmares. Recently she appeared on mothers’ advocate Geerte Frenken’s web program, “Hell is for Children,” and calmly recounted the story you’re reading here. Frenken, a barred mother in her own right, has heard many such stories, but seems especially flabbergasted at this one. Her outrage is palpable: “I’m gonna take a wild guess,” she says, throwing up her hands in exasperation upon hearing Brenden’s claims of poisoning. “He’s been diagnosed with narcissism.”

Marre “Motherofsix” Wösten’s Facebook posts documenting her plight continue almost daily. A recent one shows a picture of her at a river with her beloved Weimeraner, Leilah. The caption reads: “At Ben Burton Park w Leilah my 7 year old Atlanta Weimaraner Club Rescue who i adopted two years ago. She was dumped by a puppy mill, she was a breeder that was no longer wanted or needed by her owner because she was too old. She and I have had parallel lives, we were both treated like animals, controlled, used, had our offspring taken then dumped. SHE IS THE SWEETEST dog I have ever had.”

Back in Cumming, before the trouble, Marre had been active in rescuing and fostering Weimeraners from euthanasia. When she was ousted from her home, she had to leave behind Kingsley, a beloved pet that required a special diet and daily walks on grass. A few months after the PPO was invoked, Marre was informed Brenden had not only had Kingsley euthanized, but had insisted all the kids bear witness. “I interpreted this as a form of intimidation,” says Marre, “to show the kids the power he has.”

The river photo, as well as other recent ones appearing on Marre’s Facebook page, was shot by Joe Willey, a longtime Athens musician and Marre’s boyfriend. Joe has filled in some gaps in consultation where there should have been paid lawyers, helping her write letters, organize legal documents, and get her out of jail when she was arrested on the “I love you” stalking charge.

I wondered about the difficulties of being with someone who’s endured hardship and loss on the scale of Marre’s. “(It’s been) difficult at times, especially when Marre is triggered by reminders of her abuser,” says Joe. “But I love her and care about her, and I have faith that she will continue getting better.”

Joe is cautiously optimistic about Marre’s prospects. She’s recently retained a lawyer who’s willing to take the case. Also, Judge Barwick, who oddly sent a Facebook friend request to Marre in early September, has recused herself from the upcoming custody hearing.

It’s a good man’s nature to fend harm from the one he loves. Is Joe itching for a confrontation with Brenden? Not the kind you might think. “I’d mention (to Brenden) that my own children immediately noticed his malice when they saw him,” he says, “and I’d ask him if that’s really how he wants people to see him.”

Marre’s parents are less charitable. “Brenden, I know there are terrible people in this world and you are one of them,” Annelies would say to her former son-in-law if she had the chance. “What you have done to the loving mother of your children is unforgivable. You are a very sick and selfish person.”

Recently they moved to Athens to lend support to their daughter. In turn, Marre is helping them sort out their possessions. When seeing them interact there’s a sense of a gentle caring one wouldn’t associate with child abuse. They’re all grieving, trying to find their way.

Whom to Believe

When trying to assign credibility in a case like this — when two peoples’ stories are so wildly divergent, and when impressionable children are involved — it helps to have irrefutable evidence that one of them has willfully lied. Bernard, Marre’s father — whom Brenden had long ago begged not to tell his parents of Marre’s former husband — says Brenden told a whopper to several people before his marriage to his present wife: that he hadn’t known Marre had been married and divorced before she married Brenden, that he’d only found out when he recovered some documents Marre had discarded.

Brendan had hired a private detective to find out details of that divorce, says Bernard, and the detective visited her first husband, Marc Tissenbaum. After a brief conversation, the detective went to the Athens Clarke-County courthouse to find the documents, which he promptly faxed to both parties.

Brenden hadn’t counted on Tissenbaum telling Marre about the visit, which predated the faxing of the documents. If Brenden hadn’t known of Marre’s previous marriage, how did he know to send his detective to her first husband’s house?

Also, did he forget that just prior to the end of that first marriage, he and Tissenbaum engaged in a public shouting match at the Athens restaurant at which Brenden worked, during which Tissenbaum shouted, “She’s my wife — I want to speak to my wife!”?

I posed the question to Tissenbaum himself: Is there any way Brenden could not have known Marre was married when they met? “No,” said Tissenbaum. “That’s impossible. Is that what he’s saying?”

Empathy or Enmity?

If Brenden is as mentally damaged as his alleged behavior toward the mother of his children — as well as psychological diagnoses in his past — seems to indicate, then he is in dire need of the sort of help he convinced the children their mother needs. Under different circumstances — if he hadn’t inflicted so much damage on someone he used to love — he’d be deserving of some compassion.

When the Boyer character is finally found out and apprehended near the end of Gaslight, he is tied to a chair in the house from which he’s about to be hauled. Finally vindicated, his wife confronts him; her final words to him are devastatingly satisfying:

“If I were not mad, I could have helped you. Whatever you had done, I could have pitied and protected you. But because I am mad, I hate you. Because I am mad, I have betrayed you. And because I’m mad, I’m rejoicing in my heart, without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!”

(During research for this article, a message was left at Brenden O’Neil’s place of work, requesting his side of the story. To date, he has not returned the call.)