Raised in an affluent family in Brazil, Karen and her then-husband Henry were abducted at gunpoint and brutalized for 45 days before the ransom came through. At 57, Karen decided she needed to share her story of survival and speak out against torture. Her new memoir, Parrot’s Perch, has just been released.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born on in 1953 and was raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My father was born in Nova Lima, Brazil in 1911 and my mother was born in Hasting on Hudson, NY in 1919. They met at West Point in 1946 and are now deceased. I had a privileged childhood, traveling first class by air via Pan Am or ship via Moore-McCormack and Delta Lines to the US once a year. I also visited Europe and South America. We had maids, housekeepers, cooks, chauffeurs, and nannies. I dreamt of becoming an Olympic equestrienne.
As a child I didn’t know anything about our income; that’s just the way my life was. When my father worked for big multinational companies (Westinghouse and Ford), things like “home leave” housing, schooling, etc. were all paid for by those companies. Today I believe my father was CIA and we really have no proof about where his income, especially the funds used to bribe the police, came from. My father had a numbered Swiss Account, and by all the means I’ve attempted thus far, we have no way to discern how he acquired those funds.
I attended an American Catholic K-12 private school, graduating in 1970, and also attended the University of Sao Paulo from 1971 through 1975. I had plans to finish my degree in Child Psychology in 1976. I was married to Henry Manning Sage, Jr., grandson of NY Senator Henry Manning Sage. We had two weddings, one in NY in late 1975 (attended by US Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan), and a formal Catholic Church wedding in Sao Paulo in early 1976. Four months later, Henry and I were abducted from our home in Sao Paulo after being pistol whipped and verbally threatened. We thought the men who took us were criminals, intent on kidnapping us for ransom. This was a common occurrence in Brazil then and still is today.
The men who took us were in fact police, but criminals just the same. We were never charged with any crime and our family was asked to pay a huge ransom for our release. It took 45 days for the money to be available in US dollars. During this time, we were beaten, raped, tortured, and starved. We witnessed others being tortured and abused and I believe we also saw one man die as a result of that torture.
After we were released, our marriage disintegrated, but I tried to fix it by getting pregnant. I had my own personal ah ha moment when my son was born. When I first held him, I knew I would do everything in my power to be a good mom. But nothing could fix my marriage and after two years, I decided I needed to leave Brazil and everything and everyone I’d known my entire life in order to find happiness.
I fled with our 18-month-old son and came to the US. I had little money, nowhere to live, and no means of support, but felt I could do it. I was unable to tell anyone I was leaving, including Henry. I would have been stopped. I had to forge my husband’s signature on a form giving me permission to travel with our son. My father had been adamant that I should stay in Brazil, and he told me that if I left he wouldn’t help. I also couldn’t tell my mother; I believe she would have been coerced to tell my father.
I worked as a maid and waitress; we lived and slept on the floor in a migrant farm workers’ complex in Encinitas, CA. I began doing drugs, drinking, and having meaningless sex. After considering suicide, I had another aha moment; I realized that my son depended on me and I needed to care for him. I finally saved enough money to move to a better home. Eventually, I met and married my current husband, Jack, who supported and loved and believed in me.
I had numerous jobs, as I traveled across the country, always following my husband who was our main financial support. I was a riding instructor for the YMCA and Executive Director for a chamber of commerce, I wrote weekly columns for a local newspaper, I became the first-ever female General Manager of a men’s hockey league, Roller Hockey International. I was GM of the Florida Hammerheads, also of that league, for three years. The league had been founded by Larry King (Billie Jean King’s ex) and Dennis Murphy (founder of WHL) but it failed after four years. I then became VP of Franchise Sales for Frannet Consultants in New England.
When did you start to think about making a change?
We had a great life. I was very engaged, comfortable, and happy. But something was still missing; a piece of me was still buried and locked away. My real aha moment came in 2010, when I was 57 and in the first year of my yoga practice. My teacher, an amazing woman named Carolyn Pelletier was speaking about forgiveness. During Shavasana (corpse pose) she said, “Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that your past could ever be any different.” These words struck me like lightning. I went home and over the course of two days realized I had to speak out. I decided to write my story.
What is your next act?
I am an author and activist.
My memoir, The Parrot’s Perch, has just been published by She Writes Press. The book begins in 2015 when I decided to testify at the Brazilian National Truth Commission at the United Nations in New York City. The story unfolds through my testimony concerning the events as they occurred in 1976, detailing the horrors my husband and I experienced in our 45 days of captivity. Following our release, the story moves on to the aftermath and how we each coped with the atrocities we had endured. The story takes an unexpected turn as my brief marriage falls apart and I make a dangerous move to start a new life. The story continues with my struggles with drugs and sex as I attempt to move forward. It goes on with the discoveries both the Truth Commission and I made along the 43 years from abduction to present day.
I also work with an international group, Survivors of Torture International, that helps rehabilitate people who have experienced torture and are having difficulty coping. I do some speaking for them and also help spread the word about them on social media. Speaking about my personal trauma helps me feel empowered. My hope is to bring about change by spreading my story. It makes me feel good to know that what I experienced might be helpful to others.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I knew I’d made all the “necessary changes” by adapting to life and working at whatever job was necessary for the wellbeing of our family, but I’d never “fixed” what was missing in me.
After that yoga class in 2010, I went home and collapsed in the shower, crying, shaking, and scared—until the water ran cold. I knew I’d never be “cleansed,” even though showers and baths had been my refuge for years, unless I did something to change that. When my husband came home that night, I told him I was going to write my story. He was completely supportive, as were my friends. I worked for three weeks straight. Jack cooked his own meals and went to sleep alone while I wrote my heart out. The story poured out of me. I had never prepared for this, so it was raw. After three weeks, I had the first very rough draft.
What challenges did you encounter?
My biggest challenge was writing about the horrors Henry and I had witnessed and experienced and reliving those moments. Talking about them still makes me break down, but I get stronger every day. I also get some nasty comments on social media from time to time, saying I deserved what I got, or that my story is stupid and who cares. My husband Jack and I were also afraid of retaliation. Brazil is very corrupt. Many who have reported difficult situations have been killed. I still feel like I’m in danger. Sadly, Brazil is in financial meltdown and the government corruption is pervasive.
I believe my mother would have been very proud of me. She passed away in 1997, one year after my father died. Henry is not alive to see our story come to light as he passed away in 2001.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
In the process I learned that I really AM strong. Today, I believe I can overcome anything! I also have come to believe that we (humans and possibly women more so than men) possess a 7th sense. I believe it’s something we all have inside ourselves, a superpower—like intuition and determination and drive mixed together—that gives us the ability to power through difficult situations. I believe we have the ability to heal ourselves though that “little voice” we hear. I wish that every woman struggling to make a change in her life could trust in herself and “just do it”. Even if she fails, she will feel accomplished, knowing that she made an effort and never gave up. It’s not easy, but you can do it. You just need to believe in yourself. I know it sounds trite.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. Each experience of my life has taught me something. Good and bad. I used to wish that these events hadn’t happened to me, but today I am grateful they did because of everything I’ve learned about myself and how it changed me as a person. And I believe today that where I am now is where I was meant to be.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Like everything we do in life, I believe we must go into it with NO EXPECTATIONS. We just do our best. Que sera, sera, also sounds simplistic, but it’s good advice. Do your best and it will lead you where you are meant to go. Just listen to your heart. Meditate. Make time to breathe. Practice yoga. Practice grace. Smile more. Simple things that work. Everyone can do it. It changed my life.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing a memoir?
These are my recommendations for anyone who wants to write:
WRITE, WRITE, WRITE.
Read books in the genre you are thinking of writing.
And then read anything and everything you can get your hands on.
Then read and re-read ALOUD what you’ve written. If it doesn’t sound right, rewrite it.
WRITE, WRITE, and WRITE some more.
Then hire an editor. They are experts at what they do. Take their advice. Your ego has no place in the process of writing a good book. Park it somewhere while you work. I highly recommend mine, Bridget Boland. She was kind, understanding, and encouraging, but also intuitive. I felt as if she knew what I’d been through and she gave me all the tools necessary to write about it.
What advice and resources can you give would-be writers?
Read these books by Brooke Warner:
Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing
Write On, Sisters!: Voice, Courage, and Claiming Your Place at the Table
What’s Your Book?: A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published Author
Read This interview with novelist Densie Webb.
Attend writing conferences and meet as many authors as you can. This is a lot of work. Don’t think you can “just write” a book and that it will become a best-seller; you need to learn all about the publishing industry and all about how much work it takes to promote and sell a book once it has been published. This is critical.
Once you’ve done all of the above, read and re-write your manuscript. Make certain that you know every little thing about it. Make certain there are no typos, mis-spellings, and mistakes.
Have a realistic budget that includes:
– Publishing costs
– Editorial costs
– Printing costs
– Advertising costs
– Publicity costs
– Travel expenses
– Business cards, etc.
WARNING: Do not spend your rent money or grocery money or your emergency funds.
Writing is a business. In order for any business to succeed you must be willing to invest time and money.
And then finally, have no expectations. Send it out into the world and let it go. If it’s meant to be, it will. If not, hopefully you enjoyed the process and learned a lot about yourself during that time.