The motivational speaker and author overcame trauma. Now, Eliza VanCort helps women live "unapologetically."

By Sam Gillette
May 11, 2021 10:00 AM
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Eliza VanCort
Mary Louise and baby Eliza
| Credit: H. Matthys Van Cort

The second time Eliza VanCort's mother kidnapped her, Eliza remembers the feeling of her feet lifting off the ground. Her mother scooped her up and carried her as she ran to a cab.

Just 4 years old at the time, Eliza was on a scheduled visitation with her mom, Mary Louise Marini VanCort, who had recently been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, in a park in Ithaca, New York in August 1975.

"We hitchhiked across the country by truck," Eliza, now 50, tells PEOPLE. "It was a profoundly traumatic experience for me."

Mary Louise and her husband, H. Matthys Van Cort, had been legally separated for two years before Mary Louise had her first psychotic break at the age of 31 in 1975. Matthys was awarded temporary custody of Eliza. Over the course of the next three years, Mary Louise, a "devoted" and "loving" mother before her illness, kidnapped their daughter three times, first taking her to Texas and then twice to California. This experience — some of it hazy, some of it resulting in harrowing memories highlighted by terror — transformed Eliza's life.

"You have to be as quiet and small as you possibly can, if you want to survive," says Eliza of the lesson she learned during these trips with her mother.

Now a motivational speaker and author, Eliza is overturning what trauma taught her. She's teaching women to "claim space" through their very words and posture. With her new book, A Woman's Guide to Claiming Space, which published on Tuesday, Eliza is motivating women to take ownership of their life story "unapologetically and bravely."

But Eliza had to travel down a long, hard road before she could do that herself.

Eliza VanCort
Eliza VanCort
| Credit: Credit Lucian Mead-Van Cort

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Eliza opens up about her tumultuous journey in depth for the first time: During the second kidnapping, Eliza says she was present while her mother was sexually assaulted by a truck driver. Years later, when she was a 16-year-old high school student, VanCort says she had a Me Too experience that she's only just begun to grapple with as an adult. And in 2014, the mother of four suffered a severe brain injury that undermined her ability to communicate and temporarily robbed her of her short-term memory.

Instead of collapsing under the weight of these trials, Eliza has pushed forward, acknowledging that if it weren't for "a million small acts of kindness," she wouldn't have made it. Now, Eliza is using her background in theater (she is the founder of the Actor's Workshop in Ithaca) and hard-won lessons to help other women feel confident and seen.

"You need to believe that you have the right to claim space — to claim space is to live the life of your choosing unapologetically and bravely," says Eliza. "We need to believe we have the right to do that. We are given so many messages that we can't... [Women] are 50 percent of the population. So we should be taking up to 50 percent of the space."

A "Fearless" and "Beautiful" Mother

Eliza VanCort
Mary Louise and Matthys
| Credit: Jan Van Cort

H. Matthys Van Cort, a director of planning and development in Ithaca, and Mary Louise Marini, a "beloved" English teacher, married in 1969 and had Eliza two years later. Before her breakdown, Mary Louise was a "wonderful" mom, Eliza explains.

"Everyone said she was the most devoted mother you'd ever meet. She was a creative, loving, and endlessly patient mother," says Eliza.

According to Mary Louise's daughter, not only was she beautiful, she lived boldly.

"My mother was a great beauty. She was a stunning, beautiful woman," the author says. "My father said people would run into telephone poles as she walked down the street. And she was fearless."

Mary Louise's younger sister, Nancy Marini Beck, 68, agrees.

"My sister was one of my biggest cheerleaders. She was a champion in people's lives," Nancy says in a statement to PEOPLE. "Anyone who talked to her would say her gift was this: she made you feel important and special, like you could do anything. She inspired people to be better."

Decades after they left her classroom, Mary Louise's former students still seek Eliza and her family out to share how Mary Louise changed their lives.

And Mary Louise was just as dedicated to her daughter as she was to her students. While Eliza was growing up, Matthys shared a story with her that proved just how fierce of a mother Mary Louise was before her illness presented itself.

"Someone came up to her when she was pregnant, she had one of those big peacoats on, and put a gun to her stomach," says Eliza, recalling the time her parents lived in New York City before her birth. "My mom looked at him, apparently with this look of 'I will murder you, if you hurt my kid.' The guy looked at her and ran away."

Memories of Abduction

Eliza VanCort
Mary Louise
| Credit: H. Matthys Van Cort

Mary Louise's life and that of her family changed forever when she had her first psychotic break at 31. Looking back, there were signs beforehand, Eliza says. (At the time of her psychotic break, Mary Louise and Matthys had already separated.)

"My father says that she had a lot of pre-schizophrenia signs," Eliza recalls. "But he said, 'Eliza, it was the '60s. Everyone was trying to look weird.' "

After Mary Louise was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Matthys was granted temporary custody of Eliza — a fact Mary Louise couldn't accept. Because Eliza was 4 when Mary Louise took her away the first time, she has few memories of that trip to Texas. (All of the abductions occurred during scheduled visitations. Each time, Matthys would search frantically before eventually bringing his daughter home, Eliza tells PEOPLE.)

During the first kidnapping, "My dad could not find me," Eliza explains. "There was no social media. You couldn't track a phone. And this guy called my dad and said, 'You've got to come [get] your daughter. Your wife is really, really sick.' " (Though Matthys and Mary Louise were separated, it took time for their divorce to be finalized because of Mary Louise's mental illness, Eliza says.)

The second and the third kidnappings traumatized Eliza in ways she can vividly remember. (The chronology of the kidnappings were outlined in notes taken by Matthys' lawyer, the late Richard Stumbar. The three kidnappings were also outlined in court documents filed by Matthys in December 1977, requesting that Mary Louise's request for visitation be denied by the court. Both documents were reviewed by PEOPLE.)

During their second cross-country trip together, Eliza says her mother was raped — a traumatic scene she also recounted in her 2018 TED Talk.

"It was starting to rain and my mother didn't want me to get wet," Eliza remembers. "So she went into this cab of this truck with this dangerous person to get me out of the rain. And then she was raped in the back of the cab."

Eliza continues: "She looked at me and she said, 'Eliza, whatever you do, do not come back here. Whatever you hear, do not come back here.' I think she had told the guy that she would do something with him and it went too far and she was assaulted. It was a profoundly horrible experience."

After that traumatic encounter, Mary Louise and her daughter ended up in Berkeley, California. It took nine months for Matthys to find Eliza and get her back from Mary Louise.

Before she was recovered, Eliza remembers her mother taking her to an ashram because Mary Louise mistakenly thought she and her child were both of Indian descent. Eliza also remembers going to the grocery store by herself and buying marshmallows and ice cream for them both. It was the only food Eliza ate during their months-long stay in California.

Eliza VanCort
Credit: Amazon

When Matthys found her, Eliza was "severely malnourished," she says. But the long and scary journey wasn't over yet.

Mary Louise took her daughter illegally from New York for a third time in August 1977, and Eliza remembers sobbing when she was told they were heading back to California.

Eliza says that Mary Louise was able to pull off the third kidnapping because she was "smart" and tricked the person who was supervising the visits, but about a month later, they were discovered by highway patrol.

"There was a national APB out on us," Eliza explains.

"My mom said, 'I think this is it, kid,' " says the author, remembering the moments after they were pulled over. "She told me to hide in the passenger seat on the bottom of the car."

Eliza remembers her mother "screaming" as she was pulled out of the car.

As the police apprehended her mother, a police officer took Eliza across the street to an ice cream shop, so she wouldn't have to witness the scene.

"Even at that age, I started to develop sort of a gallows humor about life," the authors says. "The other cop brought me into an ice cream store to keep me from hearing my mom screaming. And I remember thinking, 'I've been eating ice cream for a year. This is not a treat.' "

Eliza was placed in foster care while Matthys fought to regain custody of his daughter, since Mary Louise had taken her across state lines. Eliza's time in the foster care system greatly impacted her life, which she reflects on in her book.

After finding Eliza again, Matthys disguised her as a boy to transport her from California to New York in order to avoid another custody battle.

After the recent death of Stumbar, the attorney who helped Eliza's father gain full custody, Matthys outlined the tenuous situation Stumbar helped him navigate in a letter of sympathy to his grieving family.

"Mary Louise slipped in and out of rationality and in and out of town, making it very difficult to sort out our legal problems. (You cannot have a legal settlement against an incompetent person.)," Matthys wrote in the letter he shared with PEOPLE. "The facts of our case were extremely complicated, with Mary Louise traveling all over the place by car, truck, air, and bus, alone or accompanied by various sometimes unsavory characters who helped her or took advantage of her or both."

"Her swings in and out of psychosis took her in and out of many mental hospitals (and jails) in multiple states and cities," he continued.

He explained that during the abductions, Mary Louise placed their daughter "in terrible psychological and physical danger."

Both Matthys and Nancy emphasize how much Mary Louise loved her daughter — but her mental illness put Eliza in danger.

"My sister took Eliza without permission three times and put her in grave danger. She never understood she was putting Eliza in danger," Nancy says in a statement.

Both Mary Louise's mother and sister were willing to testify against her so that Matthys could get full custody, as difficult as that decision was, Nancy explains.

"She loved Eliza to the end of the earth and back. Her illness wouldn't let her understand. She never would have hurt Eliza willingly. Not ever, but she did," Nancy continues. "I can't imagine taking a child in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on your back. No one in their right mind would do something like that. She was just so sick. That's why it happened. She was just so sick."

The multiple kidnappings had a lifelong impact on Eliza.

"Those trips taught me that the world is a scary place, and that people will hurt you, and you have to be as quiet and as small as you possibly can, if you want to survive," she says. "Those trips were when I started conflating invisibility with safety."

Mary Louise's Disappearance

Eliza VanCort
Eliza with her dad after the second kidnapping

Finally home for good, Eliza formed fond memories of being raised by her dad, now 78, and her stepmom, Beth Prentice, 76. He made sure she got the therapy she needed, Eliza says.

In 1981 court records obtained by PEOPLE, Mary Louise's petition for custody was denied and Matthys was granted full custody. Though it was clear that "each party has a love of the child in question," Mary Louise didn't provide "evidence of her present mental state and home stability," according to the court filing.

"I loved my dad. My dad was my world. He was my everything. We were inseparable," says Eliza.

Not long after the second kidnapping, a photo was taken of Eliza riding on her dad's shoulders. "That says it all," she explains.

But Eliza's relationship with her mom continued to be a saga of pain and trauma. Mary Louise was hospitalized and jailed multiple times over the next decades.

"I remember being so angry at her as a high schooler. In hindsight, I realized I was so mad," says Eliza, remembering visiting her mom in the hospital. "It was always when she was giving me this amazing advice [when she was lucid], because I think I wanted to hate her. But I think it was more about me thinking, 'Why is this not my mother? Why is this woman not my mother?' "

Mary Louise also had a nightmare-inducing habit of disappearing for months.

"We'd live our lives terrified with worry, and she'd always re-emerge," Eliza explains.

The last time Eliza heard from her mom was 17 years ago, when Eliza was four months pregnant with her son, Lucian. Mary Louise, still severely ill, had been calling Eliza "every five minutes, all day long" and routinely sent her "traumatizing letters." It was too much, Eliza says.

Mary Louise realized this, her daughter explains. In 2003 she called Eliza for the last time from a bus stop. When Mary Louise didn't appear after about three years (she had a habit of disappearing for up to two years at a time), Eliza hired a private investigator, who never found any sign of her. About a year after the failed search, Eliza received a photograph of Mary Louise smiling at a picnic table, with no note attached. Eliza believes the photograph was her mom's way of showing her she was okay.

But Mary Louise was already in ill health when Eliza last heard from her mom, and Eliza and her family believe that Mary Louise has since died. She considers her mother's decision to disappear the "ultimate sacrifice."

"When I saw that photograph, I was a mother myself. I thought, 'She just made the ultimate sacrifice,' because she was so hard to deal with in some ways," Eliza explains. "When I was pregnant, the stress I was under with her calling every five minutes, all day long was intense."

Eliza continues: "I think, in her mind, she thought the best thing she could do for me was to go away. I don't think that was logically correct, but I am convinced that that's why she did it. She fell on her sword for me, really."

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A "Bad Night"

Even with a supportive and loving family, it took Eliza years to embrace her "extrovert" self. She remembers hiding behind her hair as a young girl and feeling like she was experiencing life differently than other kids her age.

In her book, Eliza recounts two little girls asking her to play with her in vivid detail when she was in the fourth grade.

"I started coming out of my shell then, but I still didn't feel like I was really me," she says. "I always felt there was a part of me that needed to stay protected because the world was just so dangerous."

In middle school, Eliza found a "magical" and safe space in theater and formed a circle of lifelong friends. But real danger appeared in her life again when she was 16.

"I had a Me Too experience in high school, which at the time we called a 'bad night,' " she says. "In hindsight, it was date rape, the first time I ever had sex. So I had some really traumatizing, hard experiences."

During her research for her book, Eliza had a realization: "I was being drawn towards situations that were dangerous because I had no internal compass of what was safe and what wasn't."

The author is thankful that the conversation around consent is changing with the Me Too movement — and that her own daughter has a keen sense of what women should and should not put up with.

(Today Eliza shares her three biological children — sons Jonah Matthys, 24, Lucian Johannes, 17, and daughter Annabella Catherine, 21 — with her ex-husband, Dr. John-Paul Mead. She also helped raise her nephew, Eric Anthony Cuadrado, 25, who joined her household as he was entering his senior year of high school.)

"I think many women my age have revisited some of the things that have happened to us and realized that, if you're telling someone to stop and they're not stopping, that is a rape," she says. "And we didn't think of it that way."

In A Woman's Guide to Claiming Space, Eliza dedicates a whole section to helping women navigate anything from "microaggressions" and "mansplaining" to sexual harassment and bullying. Throughout the book, Eliza also emphasizes the importance of support systems.

"This is a story of resilience, and it's not because I'm so amazing," she explains. "It's because I've had every bit of support and love that I could have possibly had from people, who just scooped me up and decided they were going to make sure I was okay."

Fearing a "Dysfunctional Mind"

Eliza VanCort
Eliza with her family

In 2014, Eliza was a mom to three kids when she got into a life-altering accident.

She was riding her bike in her hometown of Ithaca when a driver hit Eliza with her car. The driver didn't see her because she was texting.

"Time slowed down to a crawl. She looked up and we had this moment where we looked at each other and it was like, 'You know that I know, that you know, that I know, that you're about to slam into me,' " Eliza remembers.

Eliza was thrown onto the hood of the driver's car and hit one side of her head. When she landed on the pavement, she slammed her head again.

A big Marvel fan, Eliza compares getting hit by the car to The Incredible Hulk throwing her against a "sheet of metal."

"The last thing I thought was, 'I'm so glad my son, Lucian and I, have a rule that we never leave the house without saying 'I love you,' " she says.

Eliza woke up with a bilateral brain injury and a subdural hematoma. Later, she learned that her speech had regressed — a fact she didn't realize until a friend explained it to her. (She could still communicate, but with much less "sophistication.")

The accident had also taken something else from her. Every day Eliza would awake only to realize she'd forgotten half of what had happened the day before.

"It was absolutely terrifying," Eliza says. "I said to someone, 'They say that you should live your life moment by moment. But I actually don't think that's true because if you don't have your past, you can't learn.' "

Adding to her fear was her realization that she'd come full circle. Eliza now had a "dysfunctional mind" — just like her mom.

"I'd seen my mother trapped in her own mind, a dysfunctional mind, and suddenly I was in the dysfunctional mind," she says.

"My mother had late onset schizophrenia. She was 31 years old, which is incredibly late to get ill. And I remember thinking I wouldn't make it past 30 — that I would also get schizophrenia," Eliza continues. "When I made it past 30, I felt like I dodged this incredible bullet, this guillotine that had been hanging over my head. And then when this accident happened, I thought, 'I didn't dodge it.' "

"I Claim This Space for Her"

Despite these thoughts, Eliza found a way to be productive as she healed, spending time observing others because she was too exhausted to participate in long conversations. That's when she learned the five overarching lessons about communication and "claiming space" that she outlines in her book. She combined these teachings with her experience in theater.

"I actually cracked the code of how to help people — women, specifically — step into their power," she says. "Because I had months of just watching people."

Eliza adds, "I had a passion and fascination for it, largely because I had spent so much time being invisible."

Six months after the accident, the old Eliza reappeared — though she's still healing in small ways, she says.

Now mostly recovered, Eliza has made a career out of sharing the lessons her difficult yet inspiring journey has taught her. And she wants to thank her mother, who, in her lucid moments, always told her, "Eliza, be great."

"Mary Louise Marini VanCort was a brilliant writer," Eliza writes in her book's dedication. "Her life was cut short. Her story was never told. She told me I could do anything. I claim this space for her. Thank you, Mom."

A Woman's Guide to Claiming Space: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard. is on sale now. For Eliza's book tour schedule, visit here.

If you or someone you know need mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.