The pretender

The Rev. Harvey Cutting had one last chance to come clean. He chose to lie.

For 50 years, he had counted on silence--and fear, and the distance that separated people who possessed pieces of the truth.

The Rev. Harvey Wesley Cutting had built his life around deceptions. But he was adept at pretending, and put on the constructs of his imagination like a cowl.

To fellow teenagers in his youth group at a fundamentalist church in Milwaukee many years ago, he was the aspiring man of God--the "most likely to succeed" among Bible-thumping youngsters who vied with each other for greater demonstrations of Christian zeal and disdain for worldly things.

To his parishioners in a succession of evangelical churches, including the Dallas area's Mayflower Congregational Church, he was a charming, strikingly handsome man and a mesmerizing preacher--a skillful orator who wielded the scriptures persuasively.

But at home, he dropped his righteous garb. His first wife--whose existence he hid for many years--remembers him as a tyrant, a physically and verbally abusive man who controlled every aspect of his young bride's life.

Today, her memories of the man are mercifully few, and those she has are recalled with tears a half-century after the fact.

The reverend's secret life away from the pulpit may have hit bottom with his second family, however. His daughter, Linda Katherine Cutting of Boston, has published a book in which she details her memories of repeated molestations by her father from the age of 2 1/2 to adolescence. She also describes the suicides of both of her brothers, and her own attempts to take her life.

Memory Slips, released in January by HarperCollins, has brought with it national attention--as well as controversy, since Linda Cutting's recollections are "recovered" memories, some of which intruded into her consciousness as she played piano for The Boston Pops Orchestra.

Cutting, now 41, tells of hearing footsteps approaching the piano just a few measures into her opening of Beethoven's Sonata in E. On stage, she experiences a terrifying "memory slip": Losing her place in the music, she connects the footsteps with the sound of her father approaching her bedroom as a child.

"It took about 17 seconds to recover the music I forgot in the Beethoven," she writes. "It has taken 10 years to recover the life I forgot I had lived. The life that began before music or words."

Linda Cutting's story has been told on NBC's Today Show and in several major newspapers and magazines. Reporters have tracked down the 75-year-old Rev. Cutting in Sun City, Arizona, where he still serves as a minister in a Methodist church.

To suddenly be the subject of such scrutiny must be overwhelming for the Rev. Cutting, an obscure, small-town preacher and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. His charm, his threats, and his posture as a man of God no longer seem to yield the same results.

So late in life, the Rev. Cutting appears to have lost his control over the truth.

I have been in pursuit of the man behind the pretender for several weeks now.

That's because the Rev. Harvey Cutting is my grandfather: my grandmother's first husband and my mother's father. Not my real grandfather, mind you--by real, I mean the Milwaukee man who cared for me, took me fishing for the first time, and taught me to play chess. It just so happens he isn't related to me by blood, something I only found out as an adult.

But I can't get this shadow grandfather out of my mind--even though I've never met the Rev. Cutting and only recently saw his photograph for the first time. (He is handsome--or was. My only photo dates from the 1940s.)

A few months ago, Linda Cutting, whom I've also never met in person, called and asked me to corroborate something she'd heard about her father's first marriage: that my grandmother left him because he was abusive toward her.

Neither my mother nor my grandmother would confirm this publicly at the time, and reporters from all over the country wanted something to hang their stories on besides Linda's recollections, which are vulnerable to attack because of questions concerning the validity of recovered memories.

The theory behind recovered memories holds that recollections of traumatic experiences can be repressed, even to the point where the victim manifests another personality to keep the memories hidden from outsiders. Therapy can involve recalling incidents of childhood sexual abuse that supposedly took place decades earlier.

Critics are suspicious of the therapist's role in retrieving those memories. They say there's no way to determine whether recovered memories spring from real or imagined events without corroborating evidence.

In Linda Cutting's case, that evidence appears to be lacking. Both of her brothers are dead, and her younger sister apparently will not comment on the allegations in Memory Slips. (Skip Simpson, Harvey Cutting's Dallas attorney, says the sister recalls no abuse--physical or sexual--in their family.)

What's immediately obvious, though, is that Linda Cutting's memories--whatever their origins--are terrifyingly real to her. Her appearance on The Today Show in late January was a stunner. She fixed her gaze and spoke somberly about her father's "darker side."

"It was the other side of him that, for some reason, couldn't keep hands off of his children and beat my brothers and beat me, came into my room late at night and did unspeakable things," she said.

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