News » Cover Stories

A different kind of Christmas

'I promised not to tell. He thought I wouldn't. But I did.'



Editor's note: The parents in this story acknowledge that for years they were unable to deal with serious personal problems. Both sought help and they now say their family is healing—even from the shock last January, when the couple learned that their 11-year-old daughter had called a sex-abuse hotline, accusing a close family friend of rape.

The parents and the girl, now 12, wanted their names used in this article, both to counter the stigma associated with sex crimes and to encourage other troubled families to seek help. Due to the age of the child, however, the Times required pseudonyms for the family. All other names are real.

Alle is wearing a green Riverfest T-shirt and gray workout pants. She's barefoot and her hair's tied back in a ponytail. She sits on a couch in her grandfather's house, responding easily to questions. At her request, her parents have left the room. They sit outside on a porch swing. She says it's "embarrassing" to talk about this in front of them.

"I was four when they got divorced," she says. "They fought all the time. When they got divorced, my mom moved to Texas and my brother left me. He was about 14 or 15 and he moved in with friends.

"The chaos of my whole life has been horrendous. For so long, my dad was an alcoholic. I was scared it was literally going to kill him. And my mom was caught up in being a teenager again. That's why I went to a hotline instead of her."

In separate interviews, Alle's parents, Powell and Annette Dell, talked about Alle's call to the sex-abuse hotline—and what preceded and followed it. Both believe that the timing of her call, on Jan. 4 of this year, 10 days after Christmas, is central to their story. As Annette put it: "Of course, this was after Powell had been sober for a year and one week."

On the surface, Alle has good life. She lives in Hillcrest, just a few blocks from the house where her father grew up and where her grandfather still lives. Her parents used to own a local business. From kindergarten until last year, Alle attended the private Cathedral School, which she loved.

"It was very calming and I felt very relaxed there," she says. "We had chapel on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we'd sing songs, and the music would touch me. I would just sit there and be happy, and I would think how good I actually did have it."

But that placid surface hid a number of deepening fractures. Some are evident even in the brief history recounted by Alle's parents, Powell and Annette.

Having met at Central High School, they married at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in 1982. She was 19. He was 23. Their first child, a son, was born eight years later, in 1990. Four years after that, they started their business.

Powell liked his work, but found he hated owning a business. It was all-consuming. He missed seeing his son grow up. Annette, having abandoned hope of becoming a veterinarian, turned to accounting and kept the shop's books. "We lived in the neighborhood," she said, "so it was 24/7."

The couple felt close to Powell's parents. "My own family was so, so dysfunctional," Annette says, "it was as if God had blessed me to have this family as my family."

'Family sickness'

But by 15 years into their marriage, Powell, who'd begun drinking after high school, was an alcoholic. "I was scared of my shadow," he now says. "I was scared of people, places, anything that was new. I was always scared, and alcohol just took that away. Then, somewhere in the last 10 years, the alcohol quit working for me, and I wanted to quit but I couldn't."

When Powell's mother, the "rock of the family," died unexpectedly in 1997, he says, "I didn't know how to grieve. That is when my substance abuse got out of control."

He tried to quit drinking the next year, when the couple's second child, Alle, was born. He failed. And Alle was not a healthy baby. "She was diagnosed with asthma by the time she was 2," Annette says. "She couldn't eat any solid food until she was 4 and a half. She was on a lot of medicine. So all her life she was not able to do what other children were able to do."

Struggling, but determined to be more present for both their children, the Dells quit their business and took jobs. Then, when Alle was 2 and her brother 10, Annette's grandmother—the woman who had raised her—died. The next year, so did her brother, at the age of 37.

Looking back, Annette thinks that those three deaths, combined with Powell's worsening alcoholism and her own unaddressed problems from childhood, pushed her over the edge. "I was sexually molested between the ages of five and nine by a second cousin," she says. "It wasn't rape and I never reported it. It stopped when he went into the military. I have another relative who was sentenced to seven years in prison for sexual abuse. It's a family sickness, for sure, in my dad's side of the family. But it was swept under the carpet."

For Annette, the result was "a mental breakdown." Between 2002 and 2004, she was admitted four times to a mental hospital. She also found spiritual help.

"I went through three and a half years of cognitive behavioral therapy," she says. "I wanted to understand what was wrong with me. I wanted to help myself, plus my family." Upon returning from her fourth hospitalization, she kicked Powell out of the house. Alle was six years old.

"That's right," Powell says. "Annette booted me out and filed for divorce, which is what I needed." Needing a place to stay, Powell called his friend Zay Dee Whitaker, who was also recently divorced, and moved in with him. The couple divorced in 2005. Alle and her brother visited their father at Whitaker's every Wednesday and every other weekend.

But the "chaos" of Alle's life, with an alcoholic father and a mentally disturbed mother, did not end with the separation. Annette married again and moved to Texas, leaving Alle with Powell's father, so that she could stay at her school. When that marriage failed, Annette returned to Little Rock, where she struggled to make it on her own, moving often, taking Alle with her. Powell's alcoholism, meanwhile, had worsened, and he'd moved in with his father. Their son was getting into trouble with drugs.

Finally, Powell says, "I started realizing my drinking was making me and my family miserable. I started asking for help. Actually, I started to pray."

In 2008, Powell's boss told him, "Go get help." Powell checked into a hospital for four days of detox, then joined Alcoholics Anonymous. By Christmas, things were looking up. He and Annette were discussing getting back together. For the first time in four years, the family was going to spend Christmas Eve together.

But Powell blew it. A drink after work turned into a night of drunkenness. His promise to bake cookies with Alle crumbled in the ruins.

"In the past I would have 'fixed' it," Annette says, "but this time, when he came home, I told Alle, 'You go in there and ask him why he's doing this.' "

"She was very angry and hurt," Powell recalls. "She said, 'What if you died? Why did you do this to me?' She glared at me through her tears. 'Why did you drink that stuff? You promised me you wouldn't. Why did you do it?' I just remember her face and her hurt."

He now says, "Alcoholism wants you to kill yourself and it wants you to hurt everyone who loves you the most while you do it." That Christmas, Powell stopped drinking for good. After Alle confronted him, he says, "the obsession went away."

Annette, too, was back on a course she wanted in life, studying to be a nurse. The couple remains together. "We're not trying to rush anything," Annette says. "We're trying to lay a good foundation, and not screw this up by doing something silly."

On Christmas 2009, with their son doing better and now in college, he, Alle and their parents celebrated the holiday—and Powell's first year of sobriety—together. Powell's gift to Alle, now 11, was a cell phone.

It was a happy time, or so Powell and Annette believed. They did not realize how badly their daughter was faring.

Comments (13)

Showing 1-13 of 13

Add a comment

Add a comment