Lori Brown-Wirth learned a long time ago not to tell much of her story to those she didn’t know very well. They wouldn’t believe her.
Many she worked with never knew about her 2-year-old son who was kidnapped by his father and spent 23 years in Iran, she said.
Brown-Wirth made a risky trip and escape in 1980 during the hostage crisis when she tried to bring the boy home.
Her new book, “Papas with Ponytails,” tells her story under the pen name Alexandra Flowers, from the insecurity that led her to an abusive husband, the years without her oldest child, addiction and recovery, earning college degrees, and her career in the education field.
The book launch is Thursday at the Student Union-UW/CC building at Casper College. Brown-Wirth plans to give a presentation with photographs of her family during the open house celebration of her lifelong dream to write the book.
“The hardest part about writing a book with heartache is that you have to go through the heartache again,” she said. “But fortunately, being in recovery, I’ve learned ways to deal with pain without drinking. And it had a happy ending; but you just, you have to go through it. I poured my heart into the pages. And the reviews I’ve gotten so far is people can see that, and it’s been called very relatable.”
Last week, Brown-Wirth flipped through photographs of her son and family on her computer. Many of them appear on the website for her book. The site features an introduction of each chapter with photos from the time period.
The first introduction begins: “January 1980 — At about 1:00 am, the phone rang … I heaved my huge, pregnant body up out of the bed and rushed to the phone ... all I really remember … was hearing my traumatized little two-year-old crying ‘Mommy’ on the other end. My world began to spin, and I collapsed to the floor in despair.”
In January 1980, a few weeks after their divorce became official, Brown-Wirth waited outside in the cold for her ex-husband to return with their son. She had just had a doctor’s appointment and was five days away from giving birth to their daughter.
But he never came back.
Authorities could do little amid the countries’ strained relations during the Iran hostage crisis, according to 2003 Star-Tribune stories. Brown-Wirth said authorities told her back then that they could not help because the kidnapper was the boy’s father.
She left that April for Iran and lived with her husband and his parents in hope of returning with her son or working things out with her husband to reunite the family, according to the stories. She nearly made it onto a flight with her son but had to return without him after “almost losing her infant daughter and her right to return home,” according to previous Star-Tribune reporting.
She rarely left their home unescorted, and faced anti-American sentiment and even a violent incident before returning home after three months.
Her son, called Luke in the book, lived with a harsh, angry father and was an outcast as an American. He finally escaped through the United Arab Emirates and reunited with his family in Denver in 2003.
He plans to write a book about his experiences as well, Brown-Wirth said.
One photo on the book’s website shows Brown-Wirth laughing alongside all five of her children for a graduation in 2011. A photo of the kids’ most recent reunion was taken in 2014 during the funeral for Brown-Wirth’s father, their beloved “Papa.”
“Still, my dream is to have them all together again,” she said.
It brings tears to her eyes to talk about all the years she missed with her oldest child.
“Both of us had spent our whole lives waiting for each other,” she said. “I could never watch movies where people lost their children.
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“We both believed our whole lives that someday we would be together again. So when it finally happened, you know there was a lot of joy.”
Brown-Wirth’s first lifelong dream was to reunite with her son. The next dream was to return to college. After she graduated from Casper College and the University of Wyoming, she worked at UW helping low-income students prepare for college through the Upward Bound program.
When she retired last year, she focused on completing her book. She’d learned to read at age 4 and always loved to write, she said.
“And I’ve had a lot of prophetic dreams in my life and things like that, and I just somehow always knew that I was going to someday write a book called ‘Papas with Ponytails,’” she said.
Though her father didn’t have a one, ponytails run in the family. Another grandpa of her children wears a ponytail, her grandchildren have more than one papa with a ponytail, and so does her boyfriend of 15 years, whom her children and grandchildren call Papa.
She was required to change the names of herself and others in her book because it contains her allegations of abuse, she said. Her children chose their own alternate names, often from family names, connections or stories.
Her kids gave advice and input from their perspectives, including “Luke,” who helped with details for some of the story about his escape, she said.
“And one of the things that I thought was really interesting, and I think I mentioned it in the book, is there’s a lot of psychology in the book,” she said.
She delves into nature versus nurture, and her oldest son is a good example, she said.
“He came back after living in that country, you know, with a lot of abuse and he has the exact same nature that I do,” she said. “He’s very loving and giving. It’s amazing that we’re so much alike — our nature because we didn’t grow up together. But I did nurture him a lot those first two years.”
She wrote about other difficult times in the book, including the death of her father in 2014 from cancer while she was still grieving. She was his caretaker before he died.
“I put it off and put it off because it was hard to go through all that,” she said.
She debated including an incident in which she was molested, but decided it belonged in the book.
“But I knew that there’s people who’ve been through that exact same thing, and they were always told they couldn’t talk about it,” she said. “And so that’s why I put it in because I really hope that almost everyone will get something out of the book that they can relate to. That’s my hope.”
“There were parts where I really made myself vulnerable and really opened up,” she added, “but I wanted to share the real story.”
Brown-Wirth’s website lists reviews from several readers who said they couldn’t put the book down, and one wrote: “Anyone and everyone, gender, age or any other persuasion, will find themselves in here. From small town life to refugee camps in Costa Rica, to hostage situations in Iran to treacherous Wyoming roads, there is life; and life’s lessons, heartbreaks and rewards on every page.”
The author had planned to use only her first and middle name on the book in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, she said. But the publishing company required her to take on pen name.
“I struggled with using alternative names,” she states on the acknowledgement page, “but ultimately, I chose to change their names rather than change my story.”
She chose the name Alexandra after the largest butterfly in the world.
“And I can relate to the butterfly, because I was really shy and insecure and you know, kind of a caterpillar,” she said. “And as I evolved in my life, I may not look beautiful on the outside, but I feel beautiful on the inside.”
Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner