In January 2019, Jennifer Beyer, a registered nurse from Kansas, arrived at an Arizona mental health treatment center believing she’d never get to see her five kids alone again. She was suffering severe PTSD from all she’d been through in her 18-year marriage. No one understood what she knew, but couldn’t articulate for so long: that Brendan was an abuser and master gaslighter—in the original sense of the word. In their small, liberal community in Topeka, most people saw him as a doting father with the right values. While she worked at the hospital—“the best nurse I ever worked with,” says a former colleague—he was a member of the grassroots advocacy group Indivisible, and was often picketing with the kids in tow. But behind closed doors, he controlled Jennifer’s every movement, she says, and was physically and sexually violent. At his insistence, she explained away her bruises and broken bones as the results of falls in the shower or down the stairs. When she let onto others the truth about his behavior, they couldn’t believe it. His line was that she was mentally ill, suffering from postpartum depression, and she was making it all up. He told her that if she revealed the truth “she wouldn’t make it.” Fearing for her life, she took out a protection order against him, and filed for divorce. This forced him out of the house, but he moved nearby and made sure she knew he was watching her.
All of that led to the haunting incident that brought her to the Arizona treatment center. She began having dissociative episodes—breaks from one’s reality and surroundings. On December 27, 2018, a date that’s etched into her brain, she was driving her car with two of her young sons strapped in in the back. Then suddenly, without realizing it, she pulled the car over, opened the door, and walked some distance. A few minutes later she came to, and panic jolted through her. “Where are my kids?!” Hysterical, she immediately called the police, who were sympathetic. Within minutes, the kids were located and she was reunited with them. The next day, she was called into the Office of Child Protective Service (CPS). Believing she was safe, she shared what had happened. But afterward, she was informed that CPS was charging her with child abandonment. She was psychotic, Brendan told people, and now there was evidence. With a divorce proceeding looming, and everything on the line, she entered a mental health facility to prove she was sane and a fit mother.
The woman sitting across from me in a Topeka coffee shop on a rainy March day is extremely fragile, soft-spoken. There’s a service dog at her feet to help her with continued PTSD. As she gets going, though, she seems the antithesis of what Brendan tried to paint her as to the outside world. She’s warm, articulate, and emotionally intelligent. Which is part of the reason she’s scared to tell her story—she’s scared of repercussions, scared of appearing so gullible to the world. But it’s also why she knows she has to. She wants to make sure that the person who targeted her can never do that to somebody else—and that person wasn’t Brendan.
The Jennifer Beyer who entered treatment is a far cry from the Jennifer Beyer of today. Then, she was unable to function—a walking live wire. She couldn’t sit with anyone or make eye contact. The mere sound of a door scared her, a sudden noise would send a flash of panic through her body. In her small therapeutic “process group,” she was unable to talk about everything that had happened. Beyer was afraid of what this meant—maybe she really was hopelessly crazy.
The therapists, particularly one named Carly, started to grasp what had happened to her. According to Beyer, Carly could see this was PTSD with dissociative episodes, and she was determined to do whatever it took to bring Beyer back to health, even if it took months. Disturbing news from home didn’t help. Brendan had been arrested and had torn up an emergency room. The kids were sent to a foster home, but after a few days, they would have to split up. They ended up with Brendan’s mother.
About six months into Beyer’s stay, a new resident arrived named Jo, and became part of Beyer’s process group. Jo—the first name of a Grey’s Anatomy character that Elisabeth Finch was researching—was also suffering PTSD after a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, she said. Her friend was one of the victims, she explained, and in accordance with Jewish tradition, Jo had helped clean up the body from the synagogue floor. To Beyer, the signs of Jo’s PTSD started to seem exactly like her own. Jo had to sit alone when in a big group. Jo, too, was unable to make eye contact or sit by doors, couldn’t deal with sudden noises, and struggled to talk about the details of her trauma. The similarity gave Beyer comfort. After all, if someone like Jo—who had told people she was a professional writer and who didn’t seem insane—was having the same challenges, maybe Beyer wasn’t crazy after all. The two women started talking. And talking. For the first time ever, therapists saw Beyer laugh, she recalls. Jo suggested they become roommates. It was not the norm for two people in the same process group to become roommates, but the staff could see how beneficial Jo’s friendship was to Beyer’s healing. As they grew closer, Beyer noticed that as the trauma from Pittsburgh receded, another one was coming into view for Jo—that her brother, Eric, had been cruel and violent to her as a child, something she had never grappled with until now. It was another similarity—Beyer had Brendan, Jo had Eric—and it brought them closer. (In response to detailed questions for Finch regarding information from multiple sources, her attorney Andrew Brettler contended that not all of Beyer’s claims were true, and asserted that Beyer was neither “reliable” nor “unbiased” because the two women are in the midst of a “highly contentious divorce.”)
Family weekend was approaching, and Jo’s parents planned to come visit. Two of Finch’s compartments were about to meet for the first time—it would take some tap-dancing. First, Jo needed to explain the whole name thing. She revealed to Beyer she was an important writer on Grey’s Anatomy and that she was using a pseudonym so that word didn’t get out. Jo said she had given the same explanation to her parents before their arrival, and asked that they address her as Jo, not Elisabeth. In the first meeting, when Jo went on about Eric’s cruelty during childhood, Joan and Robert listened, bewildered, Beyer recalls. Sure, there were sibling fights, but they had not witnessed any of the suffering she was describing. Still, Joan was placating to Finch’s perception of her childhood. The next day, Joan opened up about how much she had worried about her daughter over the years—about the cancer, how she would have wanted to be there for her.
It was the first time anyone in treatment, including Beyer, had heard about it. Finch replied that yes, she was living with cancer, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Beyer respected that. Just like Beyer, Jo was living with enormous pain.
Carly, as a matter of course, had been in possession of Beyer’s phone and had been receiving all kinds of angry, obsessive texts from Brendan. If a message seemed pertinent, Carly would sit with Beyer and read it to her, something Jo seemed to find interesting, Beyer says. Now a video came in, of Brendan saying, “I’m coming to get you.” Beyer met with the head of security. The staff arranged to have increased security around the facility. And then, in another remarkable coincidence, Finch claimed that Eric was closing in on her. Her parents had left a family photo album upon their departure. As Finch told it, she was just flipping through it, and inside she found a handwritten letter composed by him, threatening her. Beyer saw Finch holding this letter, but she didn’t ask to hear the details. There was only so much fear of men Beyer could handle. (Eric Finch and his parents did not respond to Vanity Fair.)
By early July 2019, both women were ready to leave the center and head back to their respective towns. The staff had been in the process of helping Beyer obtain a service dog, to help her keep present when she was having episodes. The dog was expensive. Finch interceded and asked Carly if she could pay for it. Beyer was deeply moved by this parting gesture. It solidified a profound connection. The women had an emotional farewell. They made plans to keep in touch—to not let their friendship die.
Finch returned to Hollywood and began filling in the contours of her newly recovered trauma. To a friend, she elaborated on the menacing letter found in the photo album, which had said, “Keep Your Mouth Shut.” She added a specific, ugly detail about Eric’s abuse—a detail that was identical to something Beyer had confided that Brendan had done to her when they were married.
Meanwhile, Beyer returned to Topeka and oh, how she missed Jo, the name she continued using for her friend. She moved into a shelter, unable to see her kids except for one hour a week under supervision, and faced numerous in-person court dates with Brendan, the thought of which terrified her. Brendan continued taunting her. He now posted pictures on social media of random spots near the shelter, signaling that he knew where she was.
Finch reeled in Beyer’s love just when Beyer needed it. She invited Beyer to come stay at her house in California—a beautiful spread she’d seen pictures of in their room at the treatment center. It was just the escape Beyer needed. The house was in Ojai, the most heavenly place she’d ever seen. There was a big gate at the entrance, a gorgeous sprawling yard with orange trees, and a swimming pool. Beyer wondered how she could afford it all. Finch told her that it was Anna Paquin’s house (that much was true), but that she owned part of it. (Finch does not own part of Paquin’s house, a source confirms, nor does Paquin have anything to do with Finch’s kidneys.) There were a couple of black cars out on the street. Finch claimed it was security, a luxury she had at all times. The pair spent the weekend cooking, swimming, lounging, laughing, and falling in love. They took dozens of selfies of their love. Wouldn’t it be great to make a slideshow and send it to Carly to show her how happy we are? suggested Finch, who talked a lot about Carly that week. And later, she did send it. “The joy I felt that weekend was incredible,” Beyer recalls.
When Beyer returned to Kansas and the shelter, Finch love-bombed her with texts and sentimental gifts, including a purple stuffed kidney. As they talked about the future, Finch underlined the importance of honesty, writing in a text that channeled Shakespeare: “My expectations are and always will be this: don’t lie to me. That’s all I ask…It can annoy us or bum us out even hurt us. But the Truth Will Out. Always.” After Brendan, Beyer was scared of getting close to someone again. These were the exact words she needed to hear.