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By Shawn Cohen
MOUNT VERNON - Arthur Meuse desperately wanted to visit his daughter, hospitalized in a psychiatric ward after attempting suicide, but feared he would make things worse because he is the root of her problems.
The 64-year-old Mount Vernon man molested her when she was 6, and the abuse continued for a year. It led to the breakup of their family: His daughter Sherry Meuse got shuffled between foster homes, where she suffered more abuse. Struggling with drugs and depression, she grew up to have four children with four fathers. She's now 31, living with her mother, unable to make it in the outside world.
Sherry Meuse fell into a depressive spiral last month after her father, wearing nothing but a bikini top and black wig, was arrested. He was accused of masturbating as joggers passed him on the Bronx River Parkway in Greenburgh.
"My therapist said to let her calm down," Arthur Meuse said, chain-smoking menthol cigarettes at his kitchen table late last month. "I want to go, but he's right. If she's in there and she's upset about me, all I'm going to do is escalate it to a higher level, and I don't want to do that. I think I've done enough damage to her."
Days before her hospitalization, Sherry Meuse was already in a dark state at home in northern Westchester, reliving memories of her childhood trauma. Even so, she was anxious to see her father, to tell him she was upset but also to show compassion. To this day, she expresses no anger toward him for what he did to her as a child.
"You only get one father, and I'm not going to disown or hate my father for what he did," Sherry Meuse said. "I still love him. I'm still daddy's little girl, even though I'm fully grown."
A father's guilt
Even her father wishes she would accept that what he did to her was wrong. He and others around her think this would be a major breakthrough in her recovery.
"She's in denial, and it's upsetting me," Arthur Meuse said. "Since I got out of prison, I've been trying to convince her that the reason your head is screwed up and you are the way you are is because of what I did to you. She goes, 'No, it's not.' She just refuses to listen to me. I fear she's never going to get better. That's where my punishment is."
Arthur Meuse, a high-risk sex offender, is still struggling with his own demons. After serving eight years for abusing his daughter, he got involved with a teenage girl and had two children with her. He is now fighting to get them out of foster care. The only job he has found is delivering bread for a local bakery, on the graveyard shift. He is waging a continuing battle to control his deviant sexual urges - through therapy and what he calls the victimless practice of wearing women's clothing in the woods.
"It is totally impossible for anyone with a rational mind to understand this," Meuse said, trying to explain the origin of his compulsions. "You get out of control. All rational thinking, right and wrong, goes right out your freaking head. It's like a drug addict.
"Where this comes from," he continued, "I think it's my mother; her abuse of me as a child."
His mother, now deceased, treated him as if he were nothing, he said.
"When I was a child, any time I took my clothes off - I'm talking a 1-, 2-, 3-year-old kid - any time you'd take your clothes off in front of your mother, you'd get your ass beaten," he said. "When you tried to hug her, you're going to get your head handed to you. Try to kiss her? Same results. My mother was totally cold and unemotional."
His sister was her mom's favorite, he said, and she would get lots of affection.
"She'd get all the new (stuff)," Meuse said. "So somewhere in my perception, as a kid, girls get new clothes and get away with stuff. Boys don't. They're useless. So in my mind, it's connected to clothes. I feel comfortable in women's clothes. Do I want to stop? Yes. But at the same time, if I don't, then the compulsion gets stronger, where I do something stupid outside."
As a young boy in White Plains, Meuse would dress like a girl, go out in the yard and sometimes expose himself to neighbors. He continued this into adulthood, but said he never harmed anyone, not until his marriage began to fall apart in the mid-1980s.
"In 1985, communication between me and my wife broke down," he said. "I ended up going to my daughter emotionally."
Sherry Meuse grew up in White Plains as the middle child, with an older brother and a baby sister. She and her father tell a similar story about how the abuse started.
"I caught him masturbating one day, and I was always daddy's little girl and I wanted to help daddy feel good," Sherry Meuse said. "The first time, he pushed me away. And I kept coming back, and his illness gave in after that."
As he explained it, "The fantasy world took over."
A year after the abuse started, her friend saw them and reported what she saw. Sherry Meuse recalls the day police came into her kitchen, put her father in handcuffs and took him away.
"I ran through the apartment screaming, 'No, don't take my daddy!' " she said. "I was hysterical. I didn't know what he did was wrong. He didn't hurt me. It was like the end of the world for me. They were taking my father, the one person I ever really, really loved."
Her father pleaded guilty to avoid having his daughter testify in a trial, and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The young girl spent the next two years in foster care, during which time she said she was sexually assaulted at knife point by a foster uncle. Her own newly aggressive behavior got her kicked out of several schools and group homes.
"I had a very bad temper," Sherry Meuse said. "I started keeping all of my feelings in, to the point where I didn't even know how I felt anymore. I was physically unable to cry, and I'd have a lot of anger outbursts that got me in trouble."
A method to cope
Sherry Meuse's coping mechanism is not uncommon for victims of sex abuse, mental-health professionals say.
"For someone who's been abused in childhood, one of the common ways a child will survive the abuse is to develop a skill of dissociation, where, psychologically, they're not present," said May Krukiel, director of Victims Assistance Services in Elmsford. "What happens is, if abuse continues for a significant period of time, something that starts as a healthy way to cope in desperation becomes habitual, something that some survivors can no longer control."
In her teens, Sherry Meuse sought to visit her father in the Fishkill Correctional Facility, but he wouldn't allow it. It wasn't until the year after his release that he agreed to meet her, in the food court of the Galleria mall in White Plains. They hugged, and the first thing he did was to apologize.
"I said it was OK, I forgave him," she recalled. "He's always apologized, and he's waiting for the day when I finally find my anger toward him and confront him, and yell and scream at him. And it's just not going to happen. It's not."
She blames her problems on her foster experience, not her father.
Arthur Meuse was nearly 50 when he got out of prison. Shortly thereafter, he started dating a Mount Vernon teenager, the daughter of a friend.
"I was having problems with my mom, and she told me to stay away from him," said the woman, Brandy Thompson, who has a learning disability and doesn't work. "That just drove me right to him."
Thompson is now 29 and lives with Arthur Meuse on a Mount Vernon side street.
They have a 9-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, both of whom were taken away in 2005, when Thompson was accused of striking the boy. That case got dropped, but the children remain with a foster family.
Arthur Meuse said he believes it's all because of him, because he molested his daughter and continues to be registered as a Level 3 sex offender.
The stress has gotten to him, and, as he struggles to pay bills and reunite his family, his sexual compulsions have grown stronger, he said. He relieves the pressure by going out in the woods, dressed in a bikini, with the risk of getting caught making it more exciting, he said.
"I can't be a saint like everybody wants me to," Arthur Meuse said. "I wish I could, but the anxiety and the depression and feeling like a piece of (expletive), and not succeeding at what I want to do, the commotion comes on. So I go and put on my clothes and sit under the trees."
This obsession is no secret to his daughter, who occasionally joins him in the woods, and his girlfriend.
"I knew he was going out in girls' clothes," Thompson said. "Everyone, including myself and his therapist, told him to stop doing it. If you keep telling him to stop, the more he's going to do it. It calmed him down. He did it because he didn't want to repeat what he did to his daughter."
Arthur Meuse was arrested Aug. 13 on two counts of public lewdness, a misdemeanor; a police officer said he saw him fondling himself. He posted $5,000 bail. He is due in Greenburgh Town Court on Friday.
While he faces up to six months in jail, he said his greatest concern now is for his children. He fears the arrest will make it impossible for him to get them out of foster care, so he is considering moving out of his girlfriend's apartment, hoping this will make it easier for her to get them back.
He also is worried about his older daughter, Sherry Meuse. But despite concerns raised by her therapist, he did end up visiting her in the hospital; she was the one who persuaded him, urging him to drop off cigarettes.
They had a cordial visit in which he expressed concern for her well-being. Doctors placed her on an anti-depressant and sent her home Sept. 1. She's hoping to see her father again soon.
Arthur Meuse said he's hoping to remain a part of her life, even though it hurts, because it reminds him of the damage he has done.
"Every time I talk to my daughter, it's a slap in the face," he said. "I want her to face the fact that if I hadn't molested her, she wouldn't be the way she is today. She's in denial, and it's upsetting me.
"She shouldn't be blaming herself," he said. "She didn't do anything wrong, just like I didn't do anything wrong when I was abused. I just found out a little too late that my mother was abused. And the cycle just keeps going on, down the generations."
Reach Shawn Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-694-5046.