Eric PapeThe Atavist Magazine |March 2023 | 2,005 words (7 minutes)

This is an excerpt from issue no. 137, “Sins of the Father.” 

A small, good-natured boy named Pierce O’Loughlin was growing up between the homes of his divorced parents in San Francisco. Nine-year-old Pierce was accustomed to custody handoffs taking place at Convent and Stuart Hall, the Catholic school he attended. On changeover days, one parent dropped him off in the morning at the hilltop campus overlooking the bay, and the other picked him up in the afternoon. The parents avoided seeing each other. Their split had been ugly.

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On the afternoon of January 13, 2021, Lesley Hu, Pierce’s mother, arrived at Convent and Stuart Hall for a scheduled pickup. Hu planned to take Pierce to a Coinstar machine to exchange a small bucket of coins for a gift card he could use to buy toys. Then they would go to dinner at a restaurant called House of Prime Rib, because Pierce loved to eat meat.

But Hu’s son wasn’t waiting for her at the school. Staff told her that he had been absent that day. They didn’t know why.

Another mom might have assumed that her child had a cold or that his dad had let him skip school and taken him somewhere fun for the day, but not Hu. She wondered if Pierce had been kidnapped—not by a stranger but by his own father.

Over the course of their marriage, Hu had watched as her now ex-husband, Stephen O’Loughlin, became obsessed with pseudoscience, self-help gurus, and conspiracy theories, spending long nights watching videos online, then sharing the details of fantastical plots with Hu, their friends, and people he barely knew. The COVID-19 pandemic had only made things worse. O’Loughlin huddled for hours at his computer streaming YouTube clips and poring over right-wing websites—what he called “doing research.”

One of O’Loughlin’s fixations was vaccines. He believed that Pierce had been damaged by the routine inoculations he received as a baby. O’Loughlin was adamant that the boy be given no more shots—not for COVID-19, when a vaccine was eventually authorized for kids, nor for any other disease.

In 2020, Hu had filed for the sole legal right to make decisions about her son’s medical care, which would empower her to vaccinate Pierce regardless of what her ex wanted. She felt good about her chances in court. On January 11, as a condition for a continuance he had requested in the medical custody case, O’Loughlin suddenly agreed to let Pierce receive two vaccinations. In retrospect, according to Hu’s attorney, Lorie Nachlis, “it all seemed too easy.”

When Hu discovered that Pierce wasn’t at school, she wondered if O’Loughlin had agreed to the vaccinations only because he was plotting to steal Pierce away before their son could receive them. To Hu it wasn’t improbable—her ex seemed that far gone.

Hu and her boyfriend, Jim Baaden, had recently decided to move in together; Hu was planning to tell Pierce the news that evening at dinner. Now Baaden picked Hu up at Pierce’s school, and together the couple sped to O’Loughlin’s home in San Francisco’s posh Marina District, trying not to dwell on worst-case scenarios.

When they arrived outside O’Loughlin’s Mediterranean-style apartment building, they noticed that the blinds in the living room, which was on the ground floor of the unit, were drawn but disheveled. For a moment, Baaden recoiled. O’Loughlin was a gun owner. What if he’d barricaded himself and Pierce in the apartment? Baaden imagined O’Loughlin aiming the barrel between the blinds, ready to shoot.

Baaden and Hu approached the building’s intercom and buzzed O’Loughlin’s apartment. No one answered. Hu began banging on the door to the building and screaming. She considered breaking in, but Baaden told her to call 911 instead.

Hu could not fathom how someone like O’Loughlin—a man of means and privilege—had come to believe outrageous lies. She knew that various misinformation networks and snake-oil salesmen had facilitated her ex’s paranoia and exploited his psychological fragility. But Hu had always stayed focused on what she considered her most important task: raising and protecting Pierce.

There would be time in the future to consider, almost endlessly, what happened to O’Loughlin. For now, in a panic, all Hu could do was wonder: Where had he taken their son?

Adozen years earlier, Stephen O’Loughlin was a very different man. At least he seemed to be when Hu first met him at an Italian wine bar. O’Loughlin, then in his mid-thirties, with a strong jaw and a slightly crooked smile, started chatting her up. He said that he was in finance and that he worked out. Hu, 28, wasn’t interested in his advances. She considered herself an independent woman. She worked in midlevel management and had served as the executive director of the Hong Kong Association of Northern California, a business group. The child of immigrants, she had aspirations to achieve more, to make her parents proud. Besides, she had gotten out of a long relationship recently, and she wasn’t at the bar looking for a date—she was there to cheer up a friend going through a tough time.

But O’Loughlin was persistent, and after several glasses of champagne, Hu decided that he was funny. He asked her charming if oddly specific questions: What was her favorite kind of wine? What sort of bottled water did she drink? As Hu prepared to leave, O’Loughlin asked for her number. She hesitated but gave it to him.

He texted to ask her out. She had a busy work schedule at her family’s company, which leased shipping containers, but O’Loughlin insisted that they find time to meet as soon as possible. When they did, he picked Hu up in a brand-new car stocked with her favorite water. A bottle of sparkling rosé she liked was waiting at the restaurant where they’d be dining. “He remembered everything I said the night we met,” Hu explained.

They began going out with friends for fun, alcohol-infused nights at clubs around San Francisco. O’Loughlin often brought Hu flowers. He was generous, picking up the tab on club nights and when dining out with Hu and her parents. “He was like that for months,” Hu recalled. “He said that he’d talked to his Asian friend and that he should be generous with my family.” Reaching for his wallet at the end of a meal, O’Loughlin would insist, “No, I’ve got this.” (Hu later learned that he’d been using his professional expense account.)

Early in their relationship, O’Loughlin, who grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, painted an incomplete picture of his parents and sister. His mother, he told Hu, was “the greatest person in the world.” He was more reserved when talking about his father. He said that he adored his two nieces, and when he and Hu visited the girls on the East Coast, O’Loughlin took them to Toys “R” Us and bought them whatever they wanted. “They were elated, so surprised,” Hu said. She told O’Loughlin she wanted kids of her own. He said he did, too.

Still, when O’Loughlin proposed after about a year of dating, Hu wasn’t sold on the idea. She didn’t like the way O’Loughlin, an arch conservative, got blustery when talking about politics. Hu, a Democrat, didn’t feel like he listened when she spoke about serious issues. O’Loughlin projected such certainty about their future as a couple, however, that Hu found herself saying yes to marriage.

Almost immediately after the engagement, O’Loughlin changed. The flowers, gifts, and other gestures of affection disappeared. He stopped paying for meals with Hu’s parents. Hu realized that O’Loughlin’s generosity had been transactional. He was a salesman by trade, peddling financial services for the firm Eaton Vance, and he brought the strategy of his job to his personal life: Once he landed a deal, he stopped spending time and energy on it.

Hu’s parents were concerned. Her dad took O’Loughlin out for a drink and suggested the couple at least wait a while to get married. “Steve came back really angry,” Hu said. After that, O’Loughlin attended gatherings of Hu’s family only begrudgingly. He wore what Hu called his “shit face,” looking bored or angry. He urged Hu to quit her job at her family’s company.

The situation became so bad that Hu gave her engagement ring back. “I can’t do this,” she told O’Loughlin. “It’s really hard.” As both of them wept, O’Loughlin promised to do better. Hu wanted to believe him. In return, she agreed to leave her job. “It was the only way it would work,” she said. O’Loughlin couched distancing Hu from her family and their business as an opportunity: He suggested that she could find employment in fashion retail, a field he knew she was interested in.

Figuring out a new career path, however, took a back seat to wedding planning. Hu threw herself into designing a celebration in Italy, until O’Loughlin nixed the idea. Instead, they reserved space at a resort in Santa Barbara. They were married in front of 150 guests on October 10, 2010.

For their honeymoon they traveled to the Maldives, the tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Hu described it as “paradise.” The newlyweds stayed in an elegant cabin suspended over pale blue water alive with stingrays and other aquatic life. They were supposed to be spontaneous, to relish nature, to jump in the water whenever they felt like it. But O’Loughlin was hardly in the moment; he took part in a single activity with his wife each day, then went back to their room to immerse himself in self-help books. He complained to Hu and was rude to hotel staff, especially waiters. When he learned that most of the employees, like nearly all residents of the Maldives, were Muslim, he seemed disturbed.

Hu noticed something else: O’Loughlin wouldn’t walk beside her. He was always a few steps ahead. “Anywhere we went,” Hu said, “I was secondary.”

It was all enough to make her contemplate a quick divorce right after the honeymoon. But when they were back in California, Hu was hit with waves of nausea. A test confirmed that she was pregnant. She decided it was no time to break up the marriage.

Despite what he’d said while courting her, O’Loughlin didn’t seem excited by the prospect of having a child. According to Hu, he acted as if she wasn’t pregnant. He didn’t ask how she was feeling and didn’t want to put his hand on her belly when the baby kicked. He took Hu on a babymoon to Australia, only to reveal that the trip coincided with an installment of Unleash the Power Within, an event organized by self-help guru Tony Robbins. Among other things, O’Loughlin was drawn to Robbins’s idea that nutrition was an essential building block of self-improvement. He started eating dressing-free salads and supplement-filled health shakes that he insisted Hu prepare for him.

O’Loughlin also became convinced that Eaton Vance was swindling him. He talked Hu in circles about how he should have been earning far more money through commissions than he was, and he became argumentative with his bosses. Late in Hu’s third trimester, O’Loughlin sat down with colleagues for what he thought was a regular meeting. Instead, they took his work computers and informed him that he was fired. As Hu’s due date approached, O’Loughlin became preoccupied with the idea of suing the company.

Hu went into labor on July 27, 2011, nine months and 17 days after her marriage to O’Loughlin. It was a difficult birth. Hu, a petite woman, had to deliver an 8.3-pound baby. She was in such tremendous pain that doctors pumped her full of medication. “I couldn’t push the baby out, so they used a vacuum [extractor],” Hu said. Once Pierce arrived, there were more complications—his oxygen levels were dangerously low.

Rather than express concern for the baby or his wife, O’Loughlin seemed put off by everything that was happening. He had expected a cinematic birth. “He kept saying, ‘That wasn’t normal,’ ” Hu recalled. “He was so obsessed with the birth not being right.”

Nothing, it seemed, was ever right for O’Loughlin.