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The Lawson quins turn 50

As children, the Lawson quins’ beaming faces hid a terrible secret. Now, they reveal why they’re ready to smile for real.

By Donna Fleming
The photographer calls out, "Right, ladies. Look this way and smile!"
Five heads turn in his direction and five faces light up with smiles. A few moments later, when they are told they can relax, Deborah Lawson says, "I'm having flashbacks here."
Her sister Selina nods in agreement. "Yes, this brings back memories."
It's been half a century since the two women and their siblings were first photographed for New Zealand Woman's Weekly. As the country's first set of quintuplets, the Lawson quins generated an almost feverish fascination among the public. In their first five years in particular, it seemed just about everything they did was captured by cameras. Birthdays were particularly well documented. There are countless photos of Selina, Deborah, Lisa, Shirlene and their brother Sam celebrating the day they arrived in the world together. The girls would invariably be dressed in identical dresses, their hair pulled into tidy ponytails, while Sam wore a smart matching outfit, and they'd be gathered around a cake while balloons hovered in the background.
Today, the Lawsons are celebrating another birthday – their 50th. The cameras are there again and there is a cake, but no balloons. There is also no Sam – he now lives in Australia and couldn't make it to the shoot. But older sibling Leeann has joined her sisters and recalls how constantly being in the spotlight, especially in their younger days, seemed normal to the quins.
"They were used to having the cameras in their faces – that was just what life was like," she says. "They didn't know any different."
WATCH: The Lawson quins prepare to come home from hospital
The pictures of their happy family made it look like life was idyllic and, in their early years, it was. But as the quins grew older, what the public didn't see was the pain behind their smiles. Their parents, Sam and Ann, divorced when the children were five and, by the time they were eight, Ann was remarried, to painter and paper hanger Gary Eyton. Two days after returning from their honeymoon, Gary suddenly punched Ann and dragged her by the hair along the hallway of their West Auckland home. That was the start of eight years of living hell.
Gary was violent and abusive and, while Ann bore the brunt of his rages, the children were also abused physically, verbally and, in a couple of cases, sexually. While some people close to the family knew that all was not well, the New Zealand public, who had followed the quins' every move since birth, had no idea what Ann and her children were going through.
So in February 1982, when Gary shot Ann dead and turned the gun on himself, it came as a huge shock to the nation. The tragic death of their beloved mother left the already traumatised 16-year-old quins devastated, and would have far-reaching consequences. All used drugs and alcohol to try and numb the pain, several of the girls became involved in abusive relationships themselves, and there were teenage pregnancies, eating disorders and gang involvements.
"People would have been shocked to know what we were going through," says Selina. "We had been New Zealand's darlings in the 1960s and '70s, and it had been a charmed life, but it wasn't any longer. It was horrendous."
A few details about how the fairytale had become a horror story emerged in interviews the quins did over the years. But now the full story has finally been told for the first time in the book Stolen Lives – The Untold Stories of the Lawson Quins, penned by writer Paul Little.
Selina was the driving force behind getting the book written. "I always wanted to get our story told properly," she says. "We were part of New Zealand's history, but people didn't know the half of it. I wanted people to see that we are survivors. A lot of the pain is still there, and it always will be, but we are moving forward."
Not all her siblings were quite so keen to lay their lives bare. "I wasn't going to do the book to start with," says Lisa, the most private of the sisters. "I knew we would be digging up a lot of stuff."
But as Deborah puts it, "When one of us decides to do something, the rest of us girls usually go along with it. It's just something we do."
Only Sam declined the opportunity to be in the book. He'd recently gone through a relationship break-up and didn't feel it was the right time to tell his side of the story. He also thought he would struggle with going into the detail a book would require. The process itself involved much dredging up of the past and brought a lot of buried feelings to the surface. "Even though it was my idea, I found it really hard to talk about a lot of stuff, and I got quite depressed," says Selina.
"The first time I talked to Paul, I had a little cry," Lisa says. "It was emotional. But it is good to have a record of everything – a proper one."
Their early years received plenty of coverage in the media, although, for most of the quins, having cameras and reporters around was not an issue.
"Whenever we went out, we got stared at, but to us that wasn't weird," says Shirlene. "It was just our life."
Lisa, however, found the attention too much. "I hated it. I felt like it was the worst thing you could go through if you didn't have any confidence. I never got used to it."
Sam, speaking on the phone from Australia, recalls being conscious of "having to behave like a Lawson. We felt like public figures, and there was an obligation to behave ourselves."
"Later on, it got harder because we felt like we were being judged by people," says Deborah. "And once Gary came on the scene, it was hard to smile and look happy because we weren't. But those early years were wonderful. We have some very happy memories."
Those recollections include holidays on Great Barrier Island, where their parents had a property. Away from the spotlight, they would spend their breaks swimming, fishing and generally having fun. Back at home, one thing they especially enjoyed was getting to have one-on-one time with their mother.
"Each night, we would take turns to brush her hair, and that was nice, having that individual time with her," says Sam.
"She always treated us exactly the same," remembers Shirlene, "and I think that is why we get on so well. We never bully each other – we never run each other down. We help each other and lift each other up. That is because of Mum. She was an amazing woman. We always say that if anyone was meant to have quins, it was Mum."
Leeann adds, "It was as if she was chosen because she could handle it. Mum was very organised, very capable and very loving. She just got on with it."
Their dad, Sam Sr, found it harder to adapt to the major changes having five babies at once brought, and the marriage was strained. He and Ann separated not long after the quins started school. Sam remembers doing whatever they could to help Ann out. "We were making our own school lunches by the time we were about seven – not because we had to, but because we wanted to help Mum. We were a unit. We soldiered on."
The eight-year-old quins were happy for their mother when she married Gary, three months after meeting him. But the beatings that followed essentially signalled the end of their childhoods, says Shirlene. "Before Gary, we were a calm, relaxed, loving family. To start with, we just stood there in disbelief. We had never seen anything like that in our lives. There were times when we tried to stand up to him, but it didn't make a difference."
"It was the complete opposite of how we had been brought up," says Sam. "There was a constant flow of drama, unhappiness and stress. Mum got the worst of the beatings. She aged 25 years in the eight years she was with him. With the girls, a lot of the time it would be psychological – he would play mind games. You didn't know when and where he was going to lash out. The moment you woke up, you'd be thinking, 'What is he going to be like today?'"
Gary once horse-whipped several of the girls because they kept walking behind their horses while brushing them, when they had been told not to. Another time, he shot Deborah's cat in front of her because it soiled inside.Then, when she was 10 or 11, he went into Deborah's room one night, lay on the floor and proceeded to describe to her how he was going to molest her.
"Mum came in and turned the light on. If she hadn't done that, he would have raped me," says Deborah. "He tried to get to me again, but he didn't succeed."
However, around the same time, he began sexually abusing Selina. She kept silent because he threatened to hurt her. "He would creep into my room, so I kept it really untidy with things all over the floor, so hopefully he would stand on something and make a noise."
At the age of 14, Selina – so distressed by the ongoing abuse that she had run away from home and was using drugs – told her mum what was going on. Ann decided the best way to keep the children safe was to send them to boarding school in Hawke's Bay. She moved there to be close to them, but Gary went after her and abducted her at gunpoint. The incident made the newspapers, but Ann was never named. She tried to leave Gary, but to no avail.
"She kept saying, 'I can't get away,'" recalls Selina. "He'd stalk her, and then the abuse would start again. He'd drag her up to her room and do God knows what to her."
By the time the quins were 16, Selina and Deborah had left home to be with partners who also turned out to have violent streaks. Selina's boyfriend had gang connections and she began mixing with a dangerous crowd – she was gang-raped
on two occasions. But Selina eventually went back to her family. She was partly persuaded to do so as Ann had finally left Gary, following a particularly vicious attack where he'd tried to strangle her.
On February 15, 1982, four of the quins – Deborah was absent – were at their grandmother's house in Whangaparaoa, where the family had been based since Ann's marriage had ended. Ann and Leeann went to the pub with a friend and returned home in separate cars. Lisa saw Ann arrive first, then watched in horror as Gary emerged from behind a concrete wall, held up a gun and shot her mother.
"I yelled at him, 'You bastard, you bloody bastard!'" Lisa remembers.
"As soon as we heard the pop, and Lisa yell that, we knew Mum was dead," adds Shirlene.
What they didn't realise was that Gary had then shot and killed himself.
"We were screaming so much we didn't hear the second shot," says Lisa, recalling the siblings' feelings of terror that he would come after them. It's something he may have intended, since he was discovered with six bullets on him.
"I believe he was planning to kill us all," says Sam, who had run to a bedroom and was preparing to jump out of the window. "I believe that killing Mum shocked him into some sort of reality check – he shot himself instead of us. I feel that Mum sacrificed herself so that we could live."
The siblings can talk quite openly about what happened that night, but it's no surprise that losing their mum so violently left them traumatised. It didn't help that they were told by several people they were to blame for their mother's death. Shirlene tells, "At the funeral, a family member told me we'd killed our mother because it was so stressful for Gary, bringing up all these kids who weren't his. Can you imagine what it is like to be told that? It wasn't our fault and it wasn't our mother's. It was him. There was something very wrong with him. But this came from people who felt guilty, because they knew what was going on and did nothing."
In the wake of their mother's death, the quins and their sister were virtually isolated. Their father, who died of cancer 16 years later, was distant, and the teens were not offered any form of counselling or support.
"We were basically left to fend for ourselves. Nobody came near us," says Shirlene.
Since then, they have all faced other tragedies. It is hard to believe so much heartache could befall one family. Selina fell pregnant at 17, but lost custody of her daughter to her ex-boyfriend. She went on to have three sons and spent 10 years in a volatile relationship with the father of two of them. She later married a man who wasn't abusive, but the relationship ended in divorce. Now happily married to her second husband, Mike Erkkila, Selina feared she could lose him when he suffered from a serious heart infection and complications four years ago.
"Things are good now, but there have been a lot of ups and downs in my life. When I look back at some of the things I was involved with when I was younger, I realise I'm very lucky I didn't end up like my mother," says Selina.
Deborah was also a teenage mum, welcoming son Vincent when she was 19. Tragically, he died from cot death at six months old. Her biker boyfriend later beat Deborah so badly, he thought he'd killed her.
Deborah went to live in the United States with Leeann, who was based there and she also partied hard. "The drugs were a part of my journey, but I got to the stage where I knew the drugs and alcohol weren't good for me, and I moved on."
While she was overseas, she fell pregnant with a second baby, but a scan revealed a serious neural defect that would have resulted in brain damage, and she had to undergo a medical termination. Her third child, daughter Kowai, survived pregnancy and childhood, and Deborah, who is now separated, became a grandmother nearly two years ago when Kowai had a daughter, Harmony, at 19.
Sam spent some time in the US with Leeann and Deborah, before returning to New Zealand, where he started a family and did a variety of work, including developing properties and working in a plant nursery. His marriage broke up and
he moved to Australia 10 years ago. He recently split up from his long-term partner.
Shirlene and Lisa also moved to Australia for a few years shortly after their mum died. Shirlene went out with a biker, but came to realise the gang environment was stopping her from growing up. Back in New Zealand, she married park ranger Clayton Colcord, and they've been together nearly 25 years and have two children. In 2013, Shirlene nearly lost Clayton after he had a heart attack. Lisa suffered from eating disorders and severe confidence issues. She was later in a relationship for 11 years and had two children. Her son was very ill with bacterial meningitis at birth and was diagnosed with developmental delays.
She later fell in love with Pete Tiscornia, the man who would become her fiancé. But before they could marry, he died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 2013.
"It has been tough," admits Lisa. "I've had post traumatic stress over what happened with Mum and, when Pete died, it just about tipped me over. I have depression and every day is a difficult day, but you have to keep going."
She says she copes thanks to anti-depressants and red wine. "I'm not joking about the wine – it's what helps to get me through!"
Shirlene, Selina and Deborah all eventually realised that drinking and using drugs was self-destructive. They have since stopped taking drugs and cut back on alcohol, and are staunchly anti-drugs. Sam and Lisa both admit they drink more than they should. They say it's a coping mechanism.Knowing that they have each other and Leeann to turn to has also helped.
"We've got strength from our mum, but I also think a lot of it is the strength we give each other," Deborah explains.
"I feel it is important to move on and to look for happiness. We had eight years with this man, and although terrible things happened, I don't want his actions to affect me for the
rest of my life."
Adds Shirlene, "There have been some very hard times, but there have also been some good ones. When I look back on my childhood, the overwhelming feeling is one of love."
"I think Mum would be proud of us," says Selina. "We've come a long way – we've survived."
"I think she would look at us and see her handiwork in each of us," adds Deborah.
"We went through a lot together, but we are separate people and we've had separate journeys. All we can do is be there for each other. And if anybody tries to hurt us again, they will have to take on all of us."
Stolen Lives – The Untold Story of the Lawson Quins by Paul Little, Paul Little Books, RRP $34.99.
In this week's issue, on sale now, read an exclusive extract from Stolen Lives.

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