Monday, January 5, 2009
Terra Linda woman debuts album 20 years after being forced into hiding
Marin singer/songwriter Kathryn Keats calls her debut CD, "After the Silence," an apt title that celebrates her new life, a second chapter free of the relentless fear of being hunted down and killed, murdered by a psychopath who had once been her songwriting partner, her mentor, her lover.
For the better part of two decades, during what should have been the heart of her musical career, Keats gave up her public life, hiding from a murderous madman under a new identity provided by the Alameda County Victim Assistance Program.
She was escaping from a psycho former boyfriend and erstwhile musical director named Ken Ford, who told her the Zen gods commanded him to leave her "dismembered and hanging from the trees."
"It was terrifying to always be looking in closets and behind doors, to be afraid to walk on the street," she recalled, sipping a cup of tea at the dining room table of the comfortable Terra Linda home she shares with her husband and their two young sons.
Free at last
Keats is a zipper-thin woman in her late 40s, hip looking, with short, spiky black hair. On this gray day, she wore low-rise jeans that hugged her trim figure and padded around barefoot in her tastefully decorated house, its walls hung in fine art.
In 2005, she received the news she had been awaiting most of her adult life: that Ford had died, of lung cancer. Her first response was to express her relief, her long pent-up emotions through music.
"I wrote a song the day I found out that Ken was dead," she recalled. "I was crying, writing it at the piano. Lorenzo (her then 8-year-old son) was behind the couch. He slowly stuck his head up and sang the chorus out of nowhere. I said, 'May I use that?' He replied, 'Yes, but how much will it pay?'"
What emerged that day was a country ballad, "Why Don't You Pray," that begins, "It's my first day of freedom for many a day," and goes on to rejoice over the end of a murderous affair that forced her to abandon her musical career and kept her emotionally paralyzed with fear for decades.
"You know I spent 20 years, almost half a life," she sings. "I don't recommend it. You forget how to cry."
She's excited about this second chance she's been given, even though she says she doesn't quite know what to make of it yet.
"I've had a hard time getting comfortable in suburbia," she said. "I'm grateful and I love it. It's beautiful. But I'm really just a funky musician. To feel of value, all I need is a city, some places to work and to be composing and producing music with creative people."
Even in less than funky upper-middle-class Marin, she's set free her long suppressed creativity with her new album, a slickly produced independent CD that showcases a half-dozen finely crafted original pop songs she co-wrote with titles like "My Life," "Hold Me" and "Lovin' So Easy."
"To come out of hiding and take back music is a really different vibe," she said, lamenting the confusion it has caused her children. "It would have been easier to take back music and not come out of hiding because I'm a good musician, songwriter and singer."
In all of her time underground, she was none of those things. She didn't have the heart to write songs and wouldn't have sung them in public if she'd wanted to. She couldn't even use her real name, Ellen Munger, which was becoming known in musical theater circles before the nightmare that ended her career just as it was beginning to take off.
To elude her stalker, she legally changed her name to Kathryn Keats, the first name borrowed from her grandmother and the last from her favorite romantic poet.
In the early '80s, after a dramatic and unprecedented Alameda County court trial, Ellen Munger ceased to exist.
"The last show I did was in Theater on the Square in San Francisco and someone in the audience recognized me," she recalled. "It was my last attempt to work. I knew when that happened, I was done, that was it, it was over. It was proof that I could no longer do what I'd done my whole life. And I didn't really know how to do anything else. That's all I loved."
Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll
Growing up in Evansville, Ind., she had been a natural-born performer, announcing to her family when she was 5 that she wanted to be a singer when she grew up.
She spent her youth pursuing that goal, singing at Nashville's Opryland when she was still in high school, appearing a number of times on TV in "The Mike Douglas Show," studying at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
She wasn't yet 18 when she moved to New York in the mid-1970s, landing a part in "Let My People Come," a lurid off-Broadway show that billed itself as "a sexual musical" and included nudity, simulated intercourse, X-rated songs and a lot of offstage drug use.
That's where she met Ford, the show's long-haired and handsome musical director, 13 years older, a powerful and charismatic personality.
It didn't take long for her to fall under his spell and for her to move in with him in Philadelphia when they weren't on the road, touring with the show for the next five years.
"Ken was a great musician," she says, even now. "All we did was write music together."
And do drugs.
Keats was alarmed when Ford began showing psychotic symptoms, hearing voices, seeing spirits in the shadows on the walls, a schizophrenic splitting into multiple personalities.
Angry and paranoid, he turned on her, beating and sexually abusing her.
"None of this probably would have happened if there hadn't been so much drug use," she said, remembering those free-wheeling hippie days. "People in Marin need to know that drugs really screw you up. And they really get you in trouble when you're a teenager, which I was when I met Ken. I was 17."
A life-saving trial
The insane romance turned into abject terror in 1983, when they were living in an Oakland apartment. For 54 harrowing days, Ford held her captive, subjecting her to unspeakable torture and humiliating abuse.
Keats didn't try to escape because she believes she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims become emotionally attached to their abductors.
"When you're in that situation, you learn to do anything to love your perpetrator, so you stay alive," she explained. "You'll get killed if you get away. So you end up identifying with the perpetrator because if you don't, the perpetrator will kill you. So you'll do anything to stay in the good graces of that person so you won't be murdered."
Ford's descent into madness resulted in him once showing up at Keats' sister's doorstep looking like a prophet of doom, barefoot, wearing a white robe and white wig.
Just in time, the sister intervened, calling the police, who took Ford to Highland Hospital in a straitjacket. After he was released, he called Keats from a pay phone, threatening to find her and kill her.
In mortal fear for her life, she took her case to a young district attorney named Leo Dorado, now an Alameda County Superior Court judge.
"When I went to see the apartment, then there was no doubt in my mind that he was very dangerous," Dorado recalled last week. "The things he had written on the walls were not just disturbing, but totally dark and scary. It was incredibly frightening. That's when we knew we had to do something."
Hamstrung by the limitations of the law in domestic violence cases in those days, when stalking wasn't even illegal yet, Dorado cobbled together what he calls "a kind of hybrid case, between a criminal and civil proceeding, to indicate that he was dangerous, but that there was a psychiatric foundation to his dangerousness.
"We hadn't really done this before and we couldn't find any precedent for it," he continued. "But we knew he was so dangerous we had to get the psychiatric community to present a case that was coherent to a jury, to give her some time."
Keats, then still known as Ellen Munger, was a powerful witness.
"Despite the mortal fear for her life on an immediate basis, she was able to hold it together in court," Dorado said. "She's so intelligent she was able to give a good factual history to the jury and show how bad he had become. What impressed me about her was her strength through all of this. To be able to focus and be able to stand in front of a jury and recount these things. She knew better than anybody what was in his mind."
The jury believed her, and Ford was sentenced to a six-month involuntary psychiatric commitment.
"Without a doubt, she was in mortal danger if we didn't have him committed, and the jury understood that," Dorado recalled. "But there was only so much we could do to keep him committed."
"After the trial, I lost touch with her," Dorado said.
And so did just about everyone else except for a few close relatives.
With her new identity, she went into hiding in Los Angeles, serving as an assistant to photographer Herb Ritts and working as a "schlepper," her word, in the film industry.
In 1989, while managing an acting studio in San Francisco, she met and fell in love with Richard Conti, an actor and owner of a marketing design business. They married four years later and now have two sons, 11 and 13.
She kept the door to her past closed, except for an occasional crack.
"The real details I didn't know," Conti said. "There were certain things I really didn't want to know, to be honest, because some of them were really bad. I could see it was really painful to her, so she kept that to herself."
But fear is not easily hidden or kept to oneself.
"There were episodes when we'd be out to dinner and someone would walk by who would spook her, who would remind her of Ken, and we'd have to go right home," Conti remembered. "Even at home, if someone strange was parked across the street, she'd make me go over and ask him what he was doing. She had a lot of bad dreams. There was always that fear."
Afraid no more
The fear evaporated four years ago when the call came that her tormentor, who had become a street person, was dead.
"It was like the biggest weight off her shoulders," her husband recalled. "She really changed. She totally opened up. The day she found out she was in tears because it was an incredible release. Interestingly enough, she sat down at the piano again and started singing. It was automatic."
She also called Dorado, the former prosecutor who had saved her life all those years ago.
"I didn't hear from her until one day she called me, not that long ago, and said, 'This is Ellen Munger. I don't know if you remember me but I just wanted to tell you that Ken Ford is dead and I can come out now.' It was really a stunning call after so many years had past.
"She recited to me what she'd had to do, to stifle her creativity because of the publicity, of not being able to rest until she'd heard he'd died. We have a good relationship now. We don't always have good stories and happy endings in these kinds of cases."
In March 2006, Keats told her story for the first time in an article in Reader's Digest.
"I wanted people to know who I was, to know what I'd been sitting on forever, to know why I'm so weird, why I'm so extroverted but so terribly introverted, why no one knows anything about me," she explained. "And also the fact that since I lived through it, it was really my job to come out and speak about the issue."
Keats doesn't regret the good that her story has done in helping other abused women, but she wishes she could have spared her sons from it.
"Can you imagine being a child and the one person you trust implicitly, your mother, is not who she said she was for the first 10 years of your life?" she asked. "I would never have come out of hiding if I had known the impact it would have on my children. Never, never, never."
But the past is the past, as Keats knows better than anyone. And she has her first CD, at long last, and her career in music is beginning again.
"The music part is awesome," she beamed. "Everything I'm tied to in my whole being is music. Oh, my gosh, just to be back in public with music and write music and work with people I want to work with. It's so cool."
'After the Silence'
What: Kathryn Keats sings in Marin for the first time, accompanied by bassist Michael Manring and pianist Kevin Gerzevitz
When: Friday, Jan. 23
Where: 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at email@example.com