Pauline Dakin: “My whole life had been this question mark”

Pauline Dakin has a story — one she was warned never to tell. A childhood marked by unanswered questions, the Run, Hide, Repeat author was twice uprooted from her home by her mother and moved — along with her younger brother — thousands of kilometres away from family and friends, both times without warning.

“I don’t think either one of us had the language to talk about it … until the second time we disappeared,” says Dakin. “At that point, we were a little bit older, and so we would debrief in the family room, saying ‘what is going on?’”

Originally from North Vancouver, British Columbia, Dakin’s parents had divorced after years of tension and abuse. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother had sought the support of a minister and counsellor, Stan Sears, to deal with her growing distress. Soon Dakin’s mother was bringing her and her brother along to Sunday morning church services where Sears would preach.

“Stan was a really compelling person. When he talked to you, he really looked at you and paid attention to you. He was full of fun and mischief […] and he really became like a dad to us,” says Dakin.

At the same time, strange things had started happening at home. One day, Dakin’s mother would whisk her and her brother away to go bowling during the middle of the week instead of going to school; another day, Dakin and her brother would be forced to wash their feet vigorously when they got home and walk around the house with plastic bags on their feet.

“Every once in awhile, it started happening that you’d come home and you’d have to be rushed out the door, because something was going on. One time, I came home and mom was emptying everything from the fridge into a garbage bag,” she says. “It made no sense.”

“I don’t know at what point that seemed unusual to me; I was just used to it.” – Pauline Dakin

Then came the move to Winnipeg. Dakin’s mother had taken her and her brother on a vacation to Manitoba with Sears and his wife, only the vacation turned out to be permanent.

“She didn’t even tell us before we left; we just thought we were on vacation, and then when we got to Winnipeg, she told us we’re not going home. I couldn’t understand it,” says Dakin. “She just said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll have to tell you when you’re older. You’ll have to trust me.’”

Another move followed a few years later, this time to St. John, New Brunswick. Once again, Dakin’s mother followed Sears and his wife. This time, Dakin was given notice but warned not to tell any of her friends that she was moving away. A teenager by this point, she figured it must have had something to do with her father.

“We knew that she did not want us to have contact with him, and so we decided he must be the threat that [my mom] was so worried about,” she says.

Dakin carried on, eventually beginning a career as a newspaper reporter in St. John. Her mother moved out to Halifax, starting a masters degree. Sears retired to British Columbia. Life returned to some semblance of normal, until one day Dakin got a phone call from her mother, promising to explain everything.

“My whole life had been this question mark: What the heck is going on?” – Pauline Dakin

Her mother asked her to meet at a motel in Eastern New Brunswick, but not to park directly at the motel. Instead, she was to park at the gas station across the street, where the two would rendezvous in a separate car and return to the motel. Dakin’s mother was on edge.

At last inside the motel, Dakin’s mother knocked on an adjoining room to reveal Sears, who Dakin hadn’t seen in years. They began to tell her a story that would change everything Dakin thought she knew about the people in her life.

“They start to tell me that the reason we’d been on the run all those years is that we’d been running from the Mafia,” says Dakin. Her father was involved in an organized crime syndicate, and there had been threats against her family’s life.

“They tell me that we’ve been receiving protection from this covert anti-organized crime task force, and that in fact, Stan has been working with them,” says Dakin. “This task force ran these communities in remote parts of the country that were partly a prison system for people who were convicted by a military tribunal of organized crime activities — so they would be stuffed away in these prisons for life — but they were also communities for people who had been affected and were on the run.”

“For my mother, truth and trust were at the very top of the pile. Growing up, she would often say to me and my brother […] ‘if you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything.’ So I just knew in my heart that she would not lie to me.” – Pauline Dakin

Dakin listened as her mother told her that soon, she and Sears would be going inside this community — known as the ‘Weird World’ — and living out the rest of their life there. They had come to say goodbye.

A budding journalist at the time, Dakin was floored by what she’d heard. Having honed an instinct for sniffing out lies through her profession, she was confronted by her own mother and Sears, the two people she trusted most.

“For my mother, truth and trust were at the very top of the pile. Growing up, she would often say to me and my brother … ‘if you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything.’ So I just knew in my heart that she would not lie to me,” she says.

The following months were a dark time for Dakin, warned not to tell her friends or colleagues so as not to endanger them. She was told that she was being watched by the government agency, protected from threats by the Mafia.

“Everytime I walked out my door, I was looking over my shoulder to see if anybody was following me,” Dakin says. “I became quite paranoid, and I started isolating myself from people.”

Stan gave her letters from people she’d known back in British Columbia, now imprisoned in the Weird World after getting caught up in the Mafia’s plans. They wrote to her to apologize, he told her.

“All these people who had somehow been caught up in organized crime and imprisoned, and they had repented, essentially,” she says. “And here are all these letters from people telling me things I know are true that I remember, and their writing looks like other examples of their writing that I have from the past, and I’m thinking, How would you know that stuff otherwise?

Sears would return from time to time, delivering new letters and warning of impending threats. Dakin sold her house, quit her job, and moved to Halifax to be closer to her mother, preparing for her own venture into the safety of the ‘Weird World.’ Stan told her a cabin was being built for her there. Always, the promise remained just out of reach.

At some point, Dakin stopped believing Sears and her mother. She’d notice Sears tripping up on an inconsistency in his story, only to divert her mother’s attention when she tried to challenge him on it. The last straw came when Dakin decided to stage a break-in to her home, determined to catch Sears in a lie. She called her mother and told her the house had been broken into.

“She calls me back, and I was so afraid to answer that phone. And sure enough, she said, ‘yes, there were people picked up outside your house.’ … The story was that people who had been following me had broken into the house looking for certain things, and they’d been taking pictures of me, and they found those pictures in their car,” says Dakin. “The whole thing was a lie.”

“All of these years, all of the running, all of the severed relationships, all for nothing. Why the hell would anybody pull this on us?” – Pauline Dakin

Dakin wrestled with anger and bewilderment in the weeks after, at a loss for why Sears would have created this elaborate ruse. She confronted her mother to tell her the truth, but her mother remained convinced: the threat was real.

Sears eventually passed away. So, too, did Dakin’s mother. Still, she searched for an answer.

“None of my reading ever made any sense. It never fit. I could never find the diagnosis that made sense, until one day I was reading something in a medical journal about delusional disorder. I went, Oh my gosh, this is it. It just perfectly fit,” says Dakin.

Now years removed from the confusion and constant paranoia of her past life, Dakin had become a mother and was looking for a way to tell the story to her growing daughters. The anger — intense so many years ago — had softened. Life had gone on.

“It was as though weight was falling off me,” she says. “Dragging around a lot of anger and resentment and bad feelings for so many years, that’s a lot to carry around, and it’s not healthy. Suddenly, to have the understanding that yes, Stan fooled us all, but it wasn’t malevolent. He didn’t mean to hurt us; we just got caught up in something he was going through … I didn’t have to be angry anymore.”

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