March 21, 2011— -- Tom Peterson has surpassed all conventional odds. He endured the trauma of his mother's death, then accusations that his father killed her.
In June, the 18-year-old Peterson will graduate first in his class of 817 students as valedictorian at Bolingbrook High School in Illinois.
He is the son of Drew Peterson -- the man accused of murdering two of his four wives, including Tom's mother, Kathleen Salvio.
Tom has maintained a GPA above 4.0 and hopes to study neuroscience at Harvard University, among other elite colleges, according to an interview in the Chicago Tribune.
Tom Peterson was 11 when his mom was found dead in an empty bathtub at their Bolingbrook home in 2004, just before his parents' divorce was finalized. He has said he believes she died of an accidental drowning.
His father, now 57, is awaiting trial. Drew Peterson is also the prime suspect in the disappearance of his later wife, Stacey Peterson.
"After she died, it was by far the worst moment in my life," Tom told the Tribune. "I realized life was not the fairy tale I thought it was. So, after that, nothing really seemed to affect me emotionally, I guess. That's, honestly, how I'm getting through all this, just because nothing could have been worse than that."
"We do see resilience like this," said Christine Courtois, a counseling psychologist from Washington, D.C., who specializes in children who have survived trauma. "I have seen in my case load, people who compensated for terrible things that happened to them and even have drawn inspiration."
"There are different trajectories that come out of people with bad childhoods," said Courtois.
Tom Peterson tells the newspaper that he scores "off the chart" on psychological stress quizzes -- the product of a divorce and loss of a parent, not to mention alleged murder.
"I felt like, 'Wow, I must be a wreck right now," he said. "I must be an emotional disaster,' you know?"
Drew Peterson Case Traumatized Son
Tom was only 14 in October 2007 when his father's fourth wife, Stacey Peterson went missing. He and his brother Kristopher, then 12, were thrust into the limelight dodging television cameras, ogling neighbors and hate mail.
But today, according to his Facebook page, Tom is in a serious relationship, has been involved in his high school's marching band, math team and tennis club. He says he loves computers and, with some parallels to his own life, perhaps, the book, "Outsiders" -- a coming of age novel about young teens and violence.
Tom Peterson is likely doing well because he has support from family and friends. "That makes a difference," said Courtois. "This young man has a lot of intelligence and is able to make his own sense out of things and find meaning."
One high-profile survivor is Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron, who was only 15 when her mother killed her father in self-defense in their native South Africa.
Uxoricide, or parental homicide, affects an estimated 3,000 annually in the United States, according to a study at University of Virginia School of Nursing.
"These kids are caught in the middle," said Richard H. Steeves, who with co-researchers Barbara Parker and Kathryn Laughon, began a study on the lasting effects of domestic homocide in 2002. "It's hard for them to think the person supposed to be the protector of the family -- usually it's the man who does the killing -- did it."
"That means, 'I am the son of a killer,' they say," said Steeves.
How children cope is individual and depends, to a great deal, on the support they receive from family, teachers and school counselors.
An equal number of those who integrate their emotion and don't do so, go on to thrive.
Some have nightmares and don't cope at all, despite efforts to integrate. Others never seek help and researchers have no idea how they fared.
To the surprise of researchers, most children wanted to reconnect with the assailant and forgave abusive fathers who had killed their mothers. Their reasons were: religion called for forgiveness; the parents' alcoholism or mental illness reduced their culpability; and a belief that families should stay together.
Maintaining a bond with the assailant parent helped these children deal with the pain of separation, according to the study. But it also tended to predispose these children to violence later in their adult.
Tom Peterson Says Father is Innocent
Today, Tom lives with three brothers and a sister from three of his father's four marriages.
His oldest brother, Stephen, 31, takes care of the children."I realized I have one life so I'm just going to make it worth it, you know?" he told the Tribune.
The teen said he discovered he was smart in the sixth grade. The tragedies only made him work harder.
In 2009, after a girlfriend he liked took no interest in him, Tom set new goals -- one was running a marathon faster than he had in the past. In the process, he won the girl's affection and she is now his girlfriend.
Tom's endurance is "very common," according to Charles Figley, a professor who studies disaster mental health at Tulane University and is editor of the journal Traumatology."He has a good dose of trait resilience to enable him to deal with any adversity," said Figley. "They are able to more effectively calm themselves and to have a clarity of purpose. He will have set backs but often he is underestimated because of these early challenges."
Tom Peterson has steadfastly maintained his father, a former police sergeant, is innocent. He even asked to have his name taken off a wrongful-death lawsuit against his father by his mother's relatives, according to the Tribune.
He credits his father with teaching him old-fashioned discipline and tells the man he loves him in frequent phone calls.
Though Tom said his father has not been someone he looks up to, he called him, "definitely a large presence." The memory of his mother still lingers as a role model.
But psychologists say that Tom Peterson's focus on hard work might prevent him from processing his emotions, which can later "catch up" with him.
"Workaholism is still an 'ism' like alcoholism," said Courtois. "Work can get you a lot of things, but it can keep you from processing your emotions."
His role as "hero in the family" could also complicate how Tom ultimately processes his grief.
As for Drew Peterson, attorneys from both sides of the case area waiting for an appeals court ruling before a trial date can be set. If he is found guilty of two murders, that could be an even bigger blow for his son, Tom.
"If the evidence is stacked against him in a convincing way, this young man will have a real shock," she said. "He'll have to deal with this and get his mind around not one, but two deaths."
If Drew Peterson turns out to be a serial killer and his son "maintains his attachment...that would be remarkable," she said. "If he is found guilty, it will be devastating, I am sure."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Prof. Charles R. Figley as being on the faculty of Florida State University. He is now the Paul Henry Kurzweg, M.D.. Distinguished Chair in Disaster Mental Health at Tulane University and Director of the CCC PhD Program and Graduate School of Social Work Professor.