Julie Beekman was an eighth-grade girl scared for her life when she walked into Emily Chernicoff’s office in 1980.
Chernicoff was a 28-year-old psychologist in her first job, “flying by the seat of my pants,” as she recalls, but perceptive enough to recognize a child in danger.
It took months of meetings in a library classroom at Upper Moreland Middle School, quietly sketching together when Beekman was too shy or afraid to talk. Eventually, the girl opened up. She recounted abuse from as early as age 4, describing the softball bats and belts used on her, the twisted psychological torment, the sexual assault. Chernicoff helped the 14-year-old escape that hell.
“I feel like Emily saved my life,” Beekman, now 51, said from her home in Boulder, Colo., this week. “She is such an important part of my story. She is the turning point in my story.”
Beekman wrote that story — Two Trees, a Memoir, published last year by Rogue Phoenix Press. The title refers to a sketch Beekman made during art therapy sessions with Chernicoff that has come to represent the two women. Beekman will appear with Chernicoff at a book signing at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Narberth Bookshop.
Beekman’s memoir chronicles her life from adopted infant in Grand Haven, Mich., to a search for her biological mother at age 20. In between she describes surviving abuse, living with six different foster families in four years, and an unwanted sexual relationship with a former Warminster police chief beginning in 1983. She is one of 12 women who said they were sexually assaulted by or had sexual relationships with Elmer Clawges, who became Warminster’s police chief in 1978. Clawges, who retired in 1993, was never prosecuted.
“This guy never had to face any consequences,” Beekman said of Clawges. “I hope he reads this. I really do. I hope a lot of people read it because a lot of the stuff that myself and the other women that came forward said back then … we had to hear people saying, ‘These girls are liars.’”
Reached by phone Wednesday, Clawges said he had no knowledge of the memoir.
“This is all news to me, and I denied it back then,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in there or what the heck she’s saying. I’m sorry it’s being dredged up again, to be honest with you.”
A 1994 Inquirer investigation, featuring Beekman in a front-page photo, found that as a police officer Clawges repeatedly approached women for sex, or had sex with them. One girl said she was 13 in 1973 when she and Clawges began a sexual relationship that lasted 13 years.
Beekman said she was 16 when Clawges first had sex with her. At the time, she was working as a clerk for the police department. Their sexual relationship would continue for two years, including in spring 1985, when Beekman was a foster child living with the Clawges family.
Beekman writes in her memoir about how the abuse started.
His hand was suddenly on my head, stroking my hair. “I care about you.” He stood closer to me, over me. “I have since the day you started working here.”
“Oh.” I … took deep breaths. I was terrified and felt stupid and small. He was the chief of police.
Beekman says she moved out of the Clawges home after trying to asphyxiate herself inside a vehicle parked in a church lot.
The Bucks County district attorney declined to prosecute in 1994, saying the statute of limitations had expired. A private criminal complaint filed by Beekman was also rejected by the district attorney, the Inquirer wrote, on the grounds that the relationship was consensual and that Clawges hadn’t used his office to hurt or detain her. A pledge by the township to independently investigate the matter never moved forward.
Beekman doesn’t see the same outcome happening today, when #MeToo has become a rallying call to take accusations seriously.
“I think we’ve come such a long way. I hope,” she said. “Can you imagine today if I had gone to somebody and said, ‘Hey, he’s telling me he loves me, and I think I know what that is, but he’s 40 and the police chief, and do you think this is OK?’ ”
She hopes other women who feel trapped in abusive situations read her story — which, though tragic, is also funny and hopeful.
“When you’re in that kind of situation, because someone has power, you don’t have a choice,” she said. “You think you don’t.
“Find things you’re grateful for and find things that you enjoy, and take care of that part of yourself. Find somebody to talk to. It’s lifesaving.”
Beekman found Chernicoff again in her early 20s. She’d tried to move on from the Clawges experience but renewed contact with one of her abusers and a lifetime of trauma were still gnawing at her.
After years of therapy, Beekman found herself on the other side of “victim-mode,” as she called it. The book is an ultimate step out of it, she said.
“From the moment I was born, I was just a magnet for craziness,” Beekman said. “I think it’s given me a great sense of humor. I also think it takes a longer time to trust, for sure. And that’s why I always try to put myself out there. I wrote this book to say, ‘This is who I am, and I’ve made huge mistakes and really poor decisions, and I’m doing the best that I can.’ ”
Beekman lives in Boulder with her wife, Carol, and black Labrador, Francesca. She is co-owner of two organic sandwich shops, and likes to run marathons, hike and ski. She still talks to Chernicoff once a week and visits once or twice a year.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” said Chernicoff, 66. “She is so resilient and so constitutionally strong.”
Chernicoff went on to complete an art therapy program, which she attributes to her work with Beekman. She realized back then how art could open people up.
“Art is before and beyond words,” Chernicoff said. “It is our first language … It allowed her to talk before she was ready and tell her story in her own way.”
Chernicoff got a doctorate in psychology doing specialized work with the LGBTQ community. She worked in private practice in Bala Cynwyd for nearly 30 years. Now she’s on medical leave because of non-small-cell lung cancer, which doctors have told her is terminal. She considers Beekman’s book, arriving now, a gift. (Beekman wanted to have a reading in Narberth so Chernicoff, who lives in Fairmount, could join her.)
“My work is what has given my life meaning, and Julie has sort of pulled together my reason for being,” Chernicoff said. “She deserves credit for everything. I was a bystander. I held her hand through the journey. I just tried to keep her eyes open and be a safe place.”