The Fairfield Wives

Dr. John Parkinson, a civic and religious leader in the perfectly suburban town of Fairfield, told women they needed pelvic exams. Long exams. Several times a week. For years. And they believed him.

Fairfield, California, is situated between the San Francisco Bay and the Central Valley in such a way that a near-constant warm breeze blows through on summer days. It's as if a giant hair dryer, set on low, were pointed at the city, the hub of Solano County. The breeze is part of what the Chamber of Commerce calls Fairfield's mild climate. The Chamber is also quick to point out that Solano County is the fastest-growing among Bay Area counties. Fairfield once was nothing more than a drive-through town between San Francisco and Sacramento. Now, thanks to skyrocketing home prices closer to the bay, Fairfield has truly become a "bedroom community" -- which means that thousands of its residents get up every morning and head west on I-80 into an amazing traffic jam, and that the Fairfield schools are painfully overcrowded.

The central point of recent Fairfield history is the advent of Solano Mall. People tend to say things happened either before or after "they built the mall." That's about the time when folks started coming from the south to live here.

But if the construction of a shopping center and an influx of suburbanites have changed things a little in Solano County, the change has not been fundamental. Fairfield remains a near-caricature of Middle America, a town so quaintly suburban that it has an almost surreal, Stepford-esque, David Lynch feel to it. Downtown is stubbornly planted in yesteryear and looks like Main Street U.S.A. Streetlamps line the sidewalks. Ladies in floral dresses and short pumps carry birthday cake to county office buildings. A large, blue arch hangs over one street, announcing, in letters that light up at night, that you have entered Fairfield, the seat of Solano County.

There's a farmers market every Thursday beneath the arch. In fact, there's nearly always some kind of community event going on somewhere in Fairfield. Travis Air Force Base, which is located within the city limits, has definitely left its mark, which includes a growing contingent of current and retired military personnel. People who live here tend to be conservative. A lot of mothers stay home to raise their children.

Fairfield is home to a large Mormon community, and for a long time many of the town's civic leaders have also been local leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Until the recent disclosures that have so disturbed the harmony of this serene and proper town, Dr. John Parkinson was one such leader.

Sitting in the immaculate living room of her immaculate house in Granite Bay -- an affluent suburb north of Sacramento near Folsom Lake -- Kem Atkinson sips lemonade and relives a time when Dr. Parkinson played an enormous role in her life. Age has been kind to Atkinson. She remains the same thin, energetic, attractive woman she was years ago in Fairfield, although the blond hair has turned ashen and glasses cover a face that wears more wisdom than it used to.

"I've never met anything quite like Fairfield," Atkinson says. She interrupts herself every so often to attend to the periodic crises of her 4-year-old grandson, who has lost an action figure or his swimming trunks, or just needs some attention. Nonetheless, she is very clear on the issue at hand, something she has given sworn testimony about. Her story goes like this:

Kem Atkinson's problems with Dr. John Parkinson began two decades ago. She was 28 years old and the mother of three children, all under the age of 6. She and her husband had moved to Solano County when he got a job in sales at a drug company. Fairfield was the center of Atkinson's territory, and Parkinson was an important client. The doctor had a big practice and served on several committees at the local hospital.

The Atkinsons were also active in the Mormon Church. Most of their friends and neighbors were Mormon, too. Their social life revolved around church activities: dinners, dances, fireside talks, kids activities, Sunday school, and so forth. It was quite possible to spend every day or evening involved in church activities, not to mention three hours at church on Sunday and monthly trips to the Mormon temple in Oakland.

None of the devotion to church life was new to Atkinson. She had grown up in Montana, gone to the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University in Utah, and married a young Mormon man just returning from a mission. They set about bearing and raising children immediately and, of course, Atkinson devoted her life to her family.

In late 1977, Atkinson began to be plagued with cramps and diarrhea that seemed to last for weeks. A sister in the church suggested that Atkinson go see Dr. Parkinson. Atkinson did not have a regular doctor at the time, nor did she and her husband have any extra money. She didn't know Parkinson, but she certainly knew who he was: a well-known doctor, first counselor to the local stake president in the Mormon Church, a highly revered man. Going to see Parkinson made all the sense in the world.

Parkinson examined Atkinson and sent her almost immediately to the hospital for a series of painful rectal probes.

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