by Karen Hunt
“Guys Beat Up Girls, Girls Beat Up Girls, But Girls Never Beat Up Guys.”
I am sharing this chapter, which delves into my friendships with Sister Janet Harris and Casey Cohen. There are those who did their best to sweep what happened under the mat and me along with it. One day I will, indeed, be gone (and that day is certainly looming on the horizon), but the truth remains. I wrote down many of my thoughts and conversations at the time, so I am able to be accurate. For example, during Silvia’s trial, I took forty-five pages of notes.
A Short Overview: The dying wish of private investigator Casey Cohen that I unlock the mystery behind a series of fantastical letters sent to death row inmate, Maureen McDermott, leads me on a journey from a Los Angeles juvenile hall, to death row, to Istanbul and beyond. Along the way, I discover how the powerful justify abusing those beneath them and the hard choices an ordinary woman must make to resist their control and stand up for her personal freedom.
A nun had introduced me to Casey Cohen, a highly respected private investigator who specialized in the death penalty phase. Sister Janet Harris was the Catholic Chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall and had been a friend of Casey’s for many years. A petit, strong-minded woman, she favored long dark skirts and crisp white blouses, sensible shoes and colorful shawls thrown over her shoulders. Her white hair was styled in a boyish cut, spiky on top. She wore wide-rimmed glasses behind which small, intelligent eyes viewed the world with a shrewdness that belied her round face and benign expression. Sometime later, Casey gave me a photo of her as a young woman in her nun’s habit, smiling and beautiful, young and hopeful, you could see it in her face, along with the mischievous good fun.
Becoming a nun did not mean seclusion for Janet, she was too strong a personality for that. But it did mean safety through submission to the most powerful male in the universe. That submission gave her the justification to further her good intentions, which were, of course, the intentions of God. In turn, those intentions, as with all religious zealots, justified ambitions that were shrouded in an outward show of humility and passionate words that she fervently believed with all her heart.
“I’m going to have someone call you,” she told me one day, perhaps a year or so after I had first started the writing program in the hall. She was accompanying me as I walked through gates and between walls, heading to the farthest end of the facility, where the girls were housed in one large room called Omega Unit. There were usually around forty girls in the unit and I taught a small group of them.
In 1995 I had gone into Central Juvenile Hall, met with the school principal, Dr. Arthur McCoy, and convinced him to let me try a creative writing class. I have a feeling he was too nice to say no to my enthusiasm. Not knowing quite what to do with me, he had sent me to see Ms. Neely, the teacher in the girls’ school. She had allowed me to teach some sessions in her class. I’d been entranced by the girls, surprised at their honesty and willingness to tell their stories. I had thought about it long and hard for a couple of months after that and had returned to meet with Sister Janet. We had met in the chapel, where she had listened to my vision of starting a writing program. Along with Dr. McCoy, she had offered to help me.
In those first few weeks, with the input of probation staff, I had established a small group of girls that I taught once a week.
“They’re the ones who are here the longest because they’re fighting for their fitness,” explained Ms. Pincham, the tall, powerfully built and abrasive head of staff in the girls unit.
“Fitness?” I inquired, having no idea what that meant.
She did not hide her disdain. “Karen, you better study up. Facing life sentences. We call them High Risk Offenders—HRO’s. They’re the most stressed, here the longest, so maybe you can do something with them.”
She said do something with them with a great deal of skepticism.
Twice a week I made the drive from the idyllic hills of Calabasas and into the heart of East Los Angeles. Central JH was situated just off Mission Blvd, next to USC Medical Center. Much of the original buildings had been destroyed by earthquake and they were still making repairs. In order the get in, I had to knock long and loud on a dirty orange door, with a small window cut out at eye-level. Eventually a guard’s face would appear, scrutinizing me through the window before letting me in. I was never searched, just waved through with my bags of writing supplies and food for the girls. Once I even brought them cappuccinos from Starbucks and fried chicken from Gelson’s, causing my husband Walter to roar, “You’re spending my money on those criminals?”
I kept right on doing it, which was the reason stated on the court papers for our divorce: Karen has chosen to use her free time doing charity work.
It had been while sitting confined in juvenile hall at a cold steel table with those angry and resentful girls, who in the beginning were forced by staff to be in my group and didn’t necessarily want to be there, that I had started to take a hard look at my own life. I had wondered with some trepidation how we would ever relate to one another. But amazingly, it hadn’t taken long before we developed a strong bond and looked forward to our time together. Barriers fell away and we discovered how similar we were beneath the surface–both with me and among themselves. Where they should have been enemies on the streets, they became friends at the writing table.
When the girls found out that I actually boxed and kick-boxed and fought with sticks and knives in the Filipino combat style called Eskrima, they were impressed.
“Damn, you do that? Like, for real. You get hit by guys?” they all wanted to know.
“Excuse me,” I objected. “I prefer to do the hitting.”
They were speechless, as if it was impossible to comprehend such a scenario.
Finally, one of them asked, “So you gonna teach us?” and they all got very excited by that.
I laughed at the unexpected question. “I don’t think I’m allowed to in here. Anyway, I bet you all know how to fight better than me.”
There were seven of them seated around the table. Brittany had helped her uncle to kidnap a girl at gunpoint; Erika had shot someone on a dare; Ipress had participated in an armed robbery with her homeboys; Elizabeth and her boyfriend had stolen a car, run over a police officer and led police on a wild chase almost to the Mexican border; Maria had been left with the gun while her homeboys ran away after a shooting in the park; Silvia and Leonor were accomplices in a robbery and murder on the beach.
Silvia was the girl whose words came to haunt me the most. Little did I know in those first days that we would form a strong bond and twenty-five miraculous years later we would still be friends.
All of the girls were experts in giving and receiving violence, the abuse having started in early childhood and progressing beyond. There were certain rules to their fighting games. Girls beat up girls. Guys beat up guys. Guys beat up girls.
Girls never beat up guys.
“A girl tries that and she gets killed, straight up,” declared Ipress.
“We get even in other ways,” said Maria. “Like, I know a girl bleached all her boyfriend’s clothes. She tried to poison him, too, ‘cept it didn’t work. See, that’s smarter. Girls are smarter than guys. We gotta be, cuz we can’t beat them up. So we gotta use our brains.” She tapped her curly head.
Brittany, who spoke little and always seriously, said, “I stay outta that shit. Do my own missions. I don’t get into it with men. Don’t let them have no control over me.”
I didn’t see the point of reminding her that she was here because she had obeyed the bidding of her uncle. Hopefully, she would someday come to that obvious realization on her own.
“So then, how does a girl protect herself and get respect on the streets?” I asked.
Silvia answered. “You can’t by yourself. You gotta belong to a man.” She looked at me sharply. “But it’s like that in your world, too, right? I mean, you gotta get hooked up, gotta get married or you’re just a Nobody.”
“Not exactly, not these days. It used to be like that,” I said. I spoke the right words; the words that were supposed to make sense in a modern world, but deep inside I knew Silvia was right.
She snorted, “Uh huh?” as if I hadn’t fooled her a bit.
“The best a girl can do is get jumped into a gang, just like the guys do,” said Maria. “They beat you up and if you take it like a man, then you get respect.”
Leonor’s pale face twisted with painful memories. “Yea, I did that. I got jumped into the Playboys, got so fucked over, my face swollen, I couldn’t open my eyes. My lip was cut, my nose broke. Still, it got me no respect. Not like the guys get. And you know what? They beat me up hard. They’re not that hard on each other.”
Maria nodded solemnly and then all the other girls did, as if Leonor had just stated one of the unchangeable laws of the universe.
Leonor was so small and delicate. The thought of her willingly being beaten up by a gang of men was too horrific. And to think she had done it to gain respect.
Maria explained further, “Yeah, well, supposedly, if you get jumped in it means you’re down, a player for real. And some girls do get respect but that’s cuz they dress and act like guys. If you’re a girl straight up, you get used for, whatever. Like, if the gangsters want you to carry a gun, sell drugs, sell your body, you do it. They pass you around like a piece of gum and just chew on you til there’s no flavor left and then they spit you out.”
“Damn, girl, don’t be depressing me like that,” chided Elizabeth. She turned to me eagerly. “So, you gonna teach us how to box? I mean, I’d lose weight, right?”
“Yeah, come on,” they all pleaded.
“You’d have to do sit-ups and push-ups,” I said. “You’d sweat a lot. It’s hard work.”
Elizabeth’s face fell. “Oh God, no.”
Maria threw up her hands in disgust. “You see, heina, that’s what I’m talking about. You get all into it and then when you find out you gotta actually do something, you give up.”
Before Elizabeth could respond, Maria continued, “I just wanna know how to beat up my enemies. Isn’t there something quick you can show us?”
“You have a lot of enemies?” I asked her.
She squinted as if I were stupid. “Hell, yeah.”
“I already killed all mine,” said Erika, her voice disconcertingly soft and devoid of emotion.
The other girls shuffled uncomfortably, none of them meeting Erika’s dead stare. Erika was the youngest of the bunch, just fifteen, and received a lot of attention because of her youth and good looks. She had committed her murder at age thirteen. I knew she hid terrible pain but she never revealed it in the writing group. Erika ended up in prison for over twenty years. To be sent to adult prison at such a tender age is a crime in itself.
Tragically, when it came time for her to finally be released not too long ago, she committed suicide. Freedom was something she had only ever dreamed of and the reality of actually having it was too terrifying to face.
“Everybody’s my enemy,” said Brittany. “I don’t got no friends, just enemies.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh, and aren’t you a sad story?”
“I never won a fight in my life,” said Silvia. “But I sure would like to pay some people back.”
I asked, “When you think about revenge, who do you wish you could get even with?”
All of them said either fathers or boyfriends.
Silvia reflected for a moment and then added, “Maybe I don’t want no revenge. I don’t really hate nobody. My boyfriend, sometimes I feel like I hate him. He hurt me so much. Like one time I was waiting for him outside my house and he didn’t come so finally around midnight I went to bed. Then my friend Marisol came and said he was there so I went outside in my bathrobe and slippers. I ran out the gate and followed him but he was real drunk and kept pushing me. I begged him not to walk away but he got tired of my crying and begging so he turned around and punched me in the mouth and I started bleeding. I ran inside my house after that, crying. There was a lotta guys outside and they seen my boyfriend hit me but they didn’t do nothing.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Silvia shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “It was my problem not theirs so why should they care?”
The next time I was in the gym, Silvia’s answer rang in my head. Getting beaten up was her problem. How many women from all walks of life, all over the world, all down through history and until the present time had been told it’s your problem; it’s your fault. Be a better wife, a better girlfriend, a better daughter. Obey.
When I’d returned from London to Los Angeles with Katya, I had started training in martial arts. Simple expressions of inner strength, like letting out a loud kia at the moment of impact, had been difficult at first; but only at first. I had quickly taken to the discipline, training studiously at least four times a week as well as running every morning, continuing the habit I had formed back in London. Within three years I had achieved my black belt in Tang Soo Do. I was awarded my 2nd Degree black belt when I was married to Walter. And then, realizing that I knew very little about practical fighting, I started to train in Eskrima and then boxing and kick boxing. I even trained for a time in Okinawan weapons and the short sword. I loved all of it.
I like the quiet of the gym in the early morning, knowing that before long the room will be filled with bodies moving just like mine, pounding air and earth to the beat of ear-splitting rap music. When I walk in, the gym is clean and the smell of last night’s sweat is a faint memory. The owner, a small slim man with quick, nervous movements, is obsessive about cleanliness and can be seen at all hours pushing the vacuum cleaner or wiping the mirrors and bags with disinfectant, while admonishing everyone to stop sweating on his stuff, a crazy thing to say since that’s what the gym is all about; pushing to the limit of endurance—and that means sweating.
I wrap my hands with long pieces of cotton cloth, like bandages, to protect my wrists and knuckles. All fighters have their own way of wrapping their hands, like a signature. I jump rope or run in place to warm up, do sit-ups and push-ups. When my trainer arrives, we don’t talk much, just get right into it. Three minute rounds in the ring remind me to keep my hands up, never flinch or take my eyes off my opponent, tuck my chin, stay light on my feet, and, for God’s sake, keep moving, never get stuck in a corner, always make sure there is a way out, bob and weave, fake, anticipate, take control.
In the ring a person’s character is quickly revealed. You find out if you are easily flustered and distracted or made angry; or if you can command yourself under pressure, completely focus your energy and master your anger and fear. I face various opponents, each with his or her particular fighting styles, but in the end, winning or losing has nothing to do with them and everything to do with my own, inner battles. What I like best about the ring is that, unlike day to day life, it is clear and absolute. I never wonder if I’ve done right or wrong, failed or succeeded. I don’t have to wait days or years or a lifetime to figure out if I’ve achieved my goals. I know immediately. Either I do a technique correctly or incorrectly. Either I win or I lose. It’s obvious when I’ve given my best and when I haven’t and the reasons why. And each time I overcome my fears by stepping into the ring, I grow stronger mentally and physically because it is a process by which, simply by keeping at it and not giving up, I improve, even on the days when I am a little sick or unenthusiastic. Sometimes, just showing up and surviving the training is the biggest achievement of all.
Yet, there I was, tough, strong, determined—and knowing exactly how the girls in my writing group felt as abused victims. After each session, I took their writing home and it kept me awake at night, forcing me to accept the fact that I was still an abused woman, even though I thought I’d gotten out of it. It was depressing to acknowledge that I had merely exchanged one controlling man for another. Those girls gave me strength to finish my journey towards freedom. I was hooked on them, no doubt about it. I knew I had to keep listening to their stories, even if it meant my husband, Walter, heir to the Leimert real estate fortune, divorcing me.
Walter hated me teaching those girls and when I told him I wanted to sit in on Silvia’s trial he almost had a seizure. I was determined to do it anyway. The first morning I dressed in a suit for court and he watched in disgust as I descended the stairs.
“This obsession’s taking over your life and ruining our marriage,” he said. “Look at you, pretending that you have a job, dressed up like that. You’re not earning a penny. It’s embarrassing, Karen. And what about the kids? You’re abandoning them.”
“Why do you say that?” I hated having to justify my actions when there was no need. But at least in this marriage I wasn’t afraid to look my husband in the eye and express my opinion. At least I had progressed that far. “Katya’s in school. I’m taking Harry to preschool now. Max will be with Estella. I’m only at the trial in the mornings and I’ll pick Harry up on my way back. Everything is fine.”
“It isn’t. I pay for a housekeeper so you can play at this shit?”
Maybe it was the suit that made me particularly authoritative that morning. I walked right up to him and stared down.
“What would make you happy, Walter? If I stayed home and never went anywhere? Or, my other alternative, as you say, is to get a ‘real’ job, but only of your choice and under your conditions. You keep talking to me about being a teacher, or sometimes out of the blue you say I should be an animator for Disney.”
“Exactly,” he interrupted, as if it all made perfect sense.
“Well, you know what? I don’t want to do either of those things! They don’t interest me and I’ve never studied for them. Being a teacher makes no sense. Why would I earn maybe $25,000 a year if I’m lucky and leave the kids all day every day? I’m trying to build something where I can earn a living once the boys get in school full time—like we agreed before we got married—while mainly working from home. Have a little faith. I can do better than what you expect from me.”
I was surprised I’d managed such a mouthful with only one interruption. But I was wrong if I thought he was going to support my decision. He came back full force. “You think you’re better than other people? You think you’re better than me? I have a regular job, what makes you think you shouldn’t, too? I’m not letting you get away with avoiding responsibilities, running around town going to murder’s trials and teaching losers in jail for free. You’re acting like a teacher without doing the work to learn to be one. Why not do it the way you’re supposed to, like everyone else?”
“What do you mean, like everyone else?” I cried. “How dare you think you have the right to discount who I am, to disrespect everything I’ve done in my life to get where I am now. How would you like it if I did that to you? If I had the power to force you to change the course of your life, give up everything you’d worked hard at so you could fit into a mold of what I thought you should be?” I tried to calm down. At least he was listening.
“Look, I’m not saying I’m better than anyone, why do you fixate on that?” I pointed at myself. “This is who you married, and you seemed fine with it then. In fact, why aren’t you proud of me—I don’t get it! I love working with these kids and I want to expand the program. We get results and people are taking notice. It’s amazing to see their minds opening up, starting to believe in themselves. It’s miraculous! Why don’t you come down sometime and see for yourself? I’ve invited you and you never do. Walter, listen to me!” I cried, as he gave a fake yawn and rolled his eyes. How could I get through to him? “Did it ever occur to you that I might actually be doing something important?”
“Important?” His voice dripped disdain, as if I couldn’t have made a more absurd remark. “You’re so full of yourself it’s embarrassing. Sometimes I just listen to you yap-yap-yap, unable to believe you’re actually saying what you do. Okay, I’ll give you this: someone should help those delinquents but someone with the proper credentials, not you. The bottom line is you need to work for your keep. If you don’t want to be a teacher, fine, I never said you have to. Get a job at something else. Like Starbucks.”
I couldn’t help my horrified expression and he nodded with smug satisfaction, as if he’d caught me in a well-sprung trap. “Oh—don’t tell me you’re ashamed to work at a decent job. But of course, you’re too good for that aren’t you, and downright lazy! Welcome to the real world. If you don’t start contributing something around here, you’ll be out on the street.”
“Out? Start contributing?” I fumed. “I signed the premarital agreement. I bore two children, gladly. Now, you want to take away my freedom of choice for the rest of my life. You want me to stop doing everything that fulfills me as a person—stop going to juvenile hall, stop doing my children’s books—.”
“You don’t earn enough money at those books to make the amount of time you spend working on them profitable.”
I threw up my hands in defeat. “Why am I talking to you? Oh, and don’t forget I’m supposed to stop my martial arts training, even though you spend every weekend at the LA Country Club playing golf, at no small expense.” Inside, I hated myself for going down this road of tit for tat. Why did I always do that? There was no winning, just wasted energy.
“You don’t work, Karen, remember? Get a job and you can have the luxury of hobbies.”
I started down the back hall to Estella’s room, where Harry was sitting with her and watching morning cartoons. I threw over my shoulder, “I wish you would have informed me of all this before we got married. I never would have done it.” Not that I really thought this was true. I knew in my heart that once again I had fooled myself into thinking it would all be okay. I had repeated the same mistake of my first marriage, telling myself lies and thinking if I believed enough I could turn them into a secure and stable life after the insane one in London, with a man who I thought was “normal,” whatever that meant. I could not have read the situation in a more muddled fashion.
“We can arrange that.” He yelled, grabbing at my arm. That was one thing I no longer allowed—physical aggression. I shook free, whirling around to confront him yet again.
“You listen to me, Walter! I have a right to make these kinds of choices about what to do with my future. I would understand your complaints if I was running around Rodeo Drive buying out the boutiques, or if I was having an affair, or was addicted to drugs or neglecting the kids, but I’m not doing any of those things. I’m trying to build a creative writing program for incarcerated youth. What’s so wrong about that?”
I stood tense and visibly shaking, feeling the sweat under my armpits, as if I had already lived through an entire day of stressful situations when it was still only 7:30 am.
“Little Miss Self Righteous. Did you ever think that I might be concerned for you, that you’re making a fool of yourself? What do you know about teaching these kids? Nothing!”
“Oh, so now, it’s all because of your concern for me? Please! Have some faith in my abilities for once! Look, I’m going to this trial because I want to address the issues that concern you. They also concern me. After I’ve observed an entire trial, which will probably take no more than two weeks out of my life, if I still feel that I can help these kids and believe in what I’m doing with them, then I’m going to put my whole heart into making a success of it. You might not believe in it the way I do, you might not value what I’m doing, or think I have the ability to make it succeed. But I do—so support me, encourage me, give me a chance! Please, please try to understand its importance to me. I’ve showed you the writing of the kids. I’ve shared the experiences I’ve had with you. I’ve wanted to include you and asked you to come down to special events at juvenile hall. You’ve refused. I can’t do anything more. If you don’t like it, you’re just going to have to put up with it.”
I couldn’t have made a more incendiary remark. He turned livid. “You’re nobody! You’ll be sorry you ever crossed me.”
Where had I heard that before? But now, instead of standing passively, I turned to continue down the hall. He grabbed at me again and tried to strong arm me into staying where I was. I looked straight at him, unafraid. “Let go of me.”
Like Sasha, his eyes were blue. But Walter’s were a flat, calculating blue, whereas Sasha’s had been filled with uncontrollable anger. “Do you have a lawyer?” he asked.
“You heard me.”
“You better get one.”
“And you do?”
He puffed up like a peacock. “I have a list of lawyers as long as my arm. When I need one, I call one up.”
The door to Estella’s room opened and Harry came out, jumping into my arms.
Walter threw a last jab. “Fine, go play at your pretend job, but I’m warning you—“
By this point, I was fed up with obeying husbands. There was no way I wasn’t going to attend that trial.
Ironically, Walter lost all control over me and over his fortune that he obsessively thought might be stolen from him, through early onset of Alzheimer’s, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Unknown to me at the time, this started to display itself not long after he divorced me and the beginning of his second marriage. Although, I suppose his increasing paranoia during our marriage could also be attributed to the illness. For years now, Walter is now without power even over his own mind. He resides in an upscale, lockdown facility.
All actions are connected. If I hadn’t met those girls I wouldn’t have met Sister Janet. If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have met Casey. I had my problems with Janet and she certainly had her problems with me but I like to think that at least in the beginning she wanted to do something good when she introduced us to each other.
“His name is Casey Cohen. The two of you should be friends.” Her voice was soft and breathy, always sounding as if she could never quite get enough air.
And so one morning, the phone rang.
“Karen?” I can still hear the hesitant, hopeful lilt of Casey’s voice calling my name through the phone line, from wherever he was, probably in his home, a place I would never go.
From there, the conversation took off and we covered everything from philosophical and historical questions, books we loved, places we’d visited around the world, our pasts, our present situations, his most interesting cases, all of it tumbled out, our connection intense and immediate. At last he began to cough.
“I must have a cold,” he apologized. He excused himself, but not before we had set up a time to meet in person.
That meeting never happened. Instead, Janet telephoned.
“Casey’s in the hospital,” she said.
Hearing those words, I realized how desperate was my need to see him, as if instinctively I had known that fate would try to keep us apart and it was imperative that I meet him right now, this instant, before it was too late. I couldn’t bear the possibility that our interaction might only be that one exchange through a phone line.
“What happened?” I could only imagine that perhaps he’d had an accident.
Janet sighed. “I think he wouldn’t mind you knowing. He has cancer. Lung cancer. He asked me to apologize.”
“How sick is he?” I spoke fearfully.
“Very. It’s not from smoking. He always wants people to know that. He left home as a teenager and joined the Navy and thinks the cancer came from being posted near a nuclear testing site in the South Pacific. Sometimes he has problems with his breathing and he has to go to the Veteran’s hospital so they can clear out his lungs. He’s still quite strong. I’m sure you’ll be meeting soon.”
And so we did a couple of weeks later. That first meeting was at one of his favorite restaurants, El Cholo, in downtown Los Angeles and just a couple miles from Central Juvenile Hall.
“A hangout for lawyers and judges, but don’t let that put you off,” he joked.
He was tall, slim and slightly stooped, led forward by a sharp nose and jaw, wearing a t-shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes—his signature outfit. His hair and beard were white; his large brown eyes those of a soulful poet, his hypnotic gaze irresistible to those he interviewed, even the most hardened criminal found himself opening up to Casey. He made them feel as if he was a father confessor absolving them of sin, just as his real name suggested: Kaddish, a prayer for the dying. He was his name. He certainly hypnotized me. Meeting him confirmed what I had already felt through the phone line, that we had an intense connection, as if we had known each other all of our lives, or even in some previous existence. That is not to say that I necessarily believe in reincarnation, but that is how it felt. During the ensuing three years, neither of us visited the other’s home nor did we meet each other’s spouses. Our relationship existed within neutral spaces: in juvenile hall at the writing table where Casey enjoyed talking with the kids; in the courtroom if I was following the case of one of my students; in the law offices of his friend, “attorney to the Stars,” Charlie English.
When Casey wasn’t working for criminal attorneys such as Leslie Abramson on some of the most notorious murder trials in the country, he worked for Charlie, helping him with the likes of Tommy Lee when he got in trouble for allegedly abusing Pamela Andersen, or Robert Downey Jr. when he was picked up for drug or alcohol related charges—these were the old days before he turned his life around. Casey’s job was fascinating and sometimes dangerous, inhabited by a host of characters more colorful than any movie, with him the most colorful of all.
For almost a year he didn’t look ill. It would have been easy to imagine that everything would be all right, that the unpleasant reality would miraculously go away—except that it wouldn’t.
He was frank about his illness, explaining at that first meeting, “I didn’t like to mention it in our first phone conversation—didn’t want to scare you off, at least not immediately, I probably still will—but the fact is, I don’t expect to live very long, so let’s make the best of it, shall we?”
I didn’t know how to answer and when I hesitated, he laughed, as he always would thereafter, with an edge of melancholy and never with abandon, as if too much happiness led to pain. “You don’t have to say anything. I’m just letting you know. I have this thing about the illusion of time.” He added with obvious sarcasm, “Don’t ask me why.”
When the doctor first told Casey he had lung cancer he decided not to go the route of chemotherapy, wishing to continue living as natural a life as possible and to die as natural a death. Upon leaving his doctor’s office, he went home and put his affairs in order, burned most of his files, stopped taking on cases and moved to Thailand, thinking he would stay there until he died.
“At first it was fine,” he explained, savoring his enchilada with molle sauce. I’d never tried it before and he insisted that I do. It was delicious. “I’m not a religious man, I’m an atheist. But I do believe in living a good life and being a spiritual person. If that’s a contradiction, well, I can’t help it. I’m attracted to the Buddhist philosophy. So I went there to live simply, on a beach, without the noise and distractions of the modern world. And I waited.” He shrugged sheepishly. “The problem is I didn’t die. And I guess I got bored. And with the heat and humidity, breathing was difficult. And then, I had to face the reality that there were now Pizza Huts and McDonald’s everywhere. I felt ridiculous sitting doing nothing so I thought I might as well go back to where I’d be closer to medical care. Not a very romantic tale, I know. I should have walked into the sea and disappeared or something but I’m not that brave.”
By the time we met, he’d been aware that he was dying for a few years already and ominous signs were beginning to appear; the worsening cough, the debilitating and overwhelming exhaustion. But he never complained. He made a joke of it, like how he talked about his spiritual journey to Thailand, which I could tell had really been a profound experience.
“Death is what happens. I just wish it wasn’t happening to me—everybody else, yes, but not me.” No matter how he brushed over it with light words, he couldn’t hide the hollowness in his eyes. He didn’t want to die. Who does?
“You make me want to live a little longer, Karen. Your life is interesting and I’m curious to see how it goes.” This, he told me a few months after our first meeting and on many occasions thereafter. He took on the Jeremy Stromeyer case because he felt I had given him the strength to carry on. “I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, not if I hadn’t met you,” he said and I wondered if that was a good or a bad thing.
In the beginning, I had joked that when I walked through Central Juvenile Hall with Casey on one side and Janet on the other and me sandwiched in-between that I felt perfectly balanced—the nun on one side and the atheist on the other. I was happy there in the middle. These were my real friends, unlike any I had ever known. Together, I believed we were a force that could change the world, I was that enthusiastic. But gradually, another view overcame the idealistic one; that I stood between two opposing forces, one for good and one for evil. That might seem extreme but that’s how it began to feel. Casey tried to prepare me for what might happen when he was gone, but even he could not have anticipated how bad it would get.
During the trial of my student Silvia, we had been walking like that, the nun and the atheist on either side of me, heading towards the girls’ class where I was scheduled to teach, Janet giving my arm a light squeeze and smiling sweetly, always ready to insert a needle of doubt or spite, something subtle to cause division without the recipients ever really knowing where it had come from—or if they had imagined it all and should feel ashamed for their distrusting thoughts.
She was saying, “Karen attracts drama, don’t you hon? I dragged her into Gil Garcetti’s office the other day.” This she said with an added dose of mischief.
Casey groaned. “Why do you pander to politicians? They’ll never give you anything.”
“That’s because you don’t believe in miracles,” she chided while patting my arm. “There are a few things that Casey and I disagree on.”
“Your brazen opportunism, perhaps? But you’re so good at playing dumb after you do something outrageous that everybody forgives you. Your actions are perceived as innocent blunders but we know otherwise.” Casey winked at me.
She did her little self-depreciating shrug coupled with soft laughter, just that perfect hint of mischief in her eyes to top it off. I came to know that look very well.
I wasn’t going to say how I felt about the Garcetti incident but it had left me with a bad taste. Even today, it’s hard for me to talk about things I don’t agree with in a way that might be perceived as “complaining.” The culture I’d been raised in of women suffering in silence while never complaining in public had been so powerful.
Janet and I had been at the courthouse sitting in on Silvia’s trial. Janet had called it a “rite of passage” for me.
It was clearly established during the trial that although Silvia had been at the scene of the crime, she had not participated in the murder and had, in fact, refused to be a part of whatever her boyfriend was planning. It was never proven that she knew that a murder was going to be committed. Still, she faced the sentence of life without parole, along with the other defendants.
Evaluated as having a below average IQ and told by educational experts that she would never graduate high school, Silvia had proved them wrong by graduating with all “A’s” and being chosen as valedictorian of her graduating class. During the three years that I taught Silvia at Central Juvenile Hall, also helped along by her teacher and the principal who both believed tenaciously in her abilities to succeed, I saw her transformed from angry and withdrawn to animated and articulate, writing with a perception well beyond her years, her words cutting into my heart. Mostly, she wrote about how and why she had allowed herself to fall into abusive relationships and what she could do to better herself.
That night, why can’t I forget that night? I wasn’t supposed to be there. Me and Claudia, we were supposed to go see some other guys but then Jerry showed up and I was afraid to leave. Oh, if only I’d left before he got there!
I’m trying to let go. I dunno what to say to him or myself. I loved him once, maybe I still do. I’m so confused. He was my teacher and I was the student and I was a good student so I learned.
I wish I stayed in school. I went to junior high after we moved from Bell Gardens but then, when I was supposed to go to high school, I didn’t go the first two weeks cuz I was scared cuz it was in a neighborhood I didn’t like. But then my dad found out and he made me go so I went. But then the ladies in the office they didn’t like the way I looked cuz of my tattoos that I did and my blond hair, so they gave me some forms and said I had to go home and fill them out and then come back. I took the forms home and I filled them out and then I came back, but they said I did it wrong. So then, they gave me some more and told me I had to go away again and bring them back. I said can’t I stay and fill them out here but they said no. When I was going home some enemies came and attacked me and beat me up. The school was in their neighborhood and I came from a different one, so I was in danger. After that, I just gave up and didn’t go back and nothing my dad did or said could make me.
Now I go to school and I like it again, just like when I was little. I wanna graduate. I wanna be somebody in this world. I could be somebody. I could be a teacher for real, or a nurse, or a psychologist. If I get my GED, I’m gonna study psychology. Ms. Neely says I can, and the principal, he says I can. So if they say it then I say it, too. Cuz they should know.
But there’s hope these days. Those women who be independent, who earn money for themselves, women who play sports. They can do stuff just as good as men. Like Serena Williams. I seen her on TV. I bet men are just scared of her. So there’s hope. The day’ll come when women won’t be put down like that.
Maybe I’m gonna get my tattoos removed. All of them, even the ones Jerry put there.
Maybe then I’ll get his poison out of me. I just pray to God I have the strength.
It was after reading the writings of the girls, especially Silvia’s, that I started to gather the strength to write the truths of my own life. This piece by Silvia has always torn me apart. I think most girls know exactly how this feels:
To Be a Girl
To be born a girl, I see it as a punishment. As a little girl, they’d dress me up in a nice, beautiful dress and show me off. As I started to grow older it was, let’s do her hair, show her how to talk and dress her up in a tank top and some short shorts. Now she’s ready to go out.
All you have to do is ask him for a cigarette, smile, thank him and walk away. As a girl, you could walk into any club you want without showing in I.D. You could get away without paying for your meal. That’s what I learned. But then it wasn’t fun anymore. Sure, as a girl I liked the attention but now I was getting attention from the wrong people. Now my uncle looked at me like a piece of meat. His friends would whisper and say, let’s take her out, you know what she wants, just look at her, they all want the Same thing.
I was no longer considered a cute little girl. It was my fault that guy did that to me. I shouldn’t have dressed like that. It was my fault he hit me. I should have said, yes, you could do whatever you want to me because I’m a girl and it’s a man’s world. I should have been at home cleaning and cooking like all girls should. But I didn’t want to be like girls should be. I can’t never change the fact that I was born a girl, so the one time I decided to act stronger than a girl should, I stood up for what I believe and told him no. but still, as a girl, I got punished. I got punished for saying “no” to a man and I’ll continue being punished for the rest of my life.
As a girl, I feel I will always be punished.
I trained single-mindedly in the fighting arts so that I could know what it was like, as a woman, to stand without fear.
Euphorically, to this day, I unwrap my hands at the end of each sparring session. Later, perhaps I will find evidence of the fight—a bruise or a cut on my arm, sometimes a black eye. It doesn’t matter. They are the wounds of a warrior and I wear them proudly, knowing my opponent wears them too. At the end of our bout, we bow to one another with respect. In the London flat, I was terrified of the mirror, not wanting to see my hunted eyes, the bruised and swollen skin. In those days, I bowed to hide my shame.
Who was I back then? It appalls me to think that I stood there and took such abuse. No one would dare to treat me like that now, I would not allow it. Now, I see my former husbands as insignificant insects that I can flick away with one minimal, swift movement. I have no fear, only disdain for such cowards.
At home, still married to Walter, I always opened the folder where I kept the girls’ writing, looking first for what Silvia had to say, wanting to hear her voice, contemplating how it applied to me:
Me, Jerry and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking and Jerry got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk and he threw the knife at her and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree and he threw the knife at me and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.
There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.
Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right.
It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, Sasha kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a mad fury and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just go away. It never occurred to me to go with him. The only result I could imagine from his misplaced kindness was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home—because I would go home wouldn’t I? I always ended up in my prison.
If I ever tried to argue with either of my husbands, they would say “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman and I am a man. I have power and you do not. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark London days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman, or anyone who is oppressed for that matter, stand up the way the powerful do? Don’t the oppressed have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak freely without fear? Yes, they have the right, they just don’t have a way to be heard—and if they do happen to be heard, they must quickly be suppressed or discredited so that no one actually listens.
The girls in my writing sessions never stopped wanting fighting lessons and I never stopped wishing I could teach them.
“Every girl should be able to do that,” they would say wistfully.
I remember Elizabeth slamming the table with a fist and saying to me, “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous—a Dangerous Woman.”
I always hugged each of them good-bye; those condemned young women whose tough facades had been stripped away at the writing table, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understood exactly how they felt.
And now, with Silvia’s trial, I saw how there was little that could be done to change the fate of a passive girl who had never learned how to stand up for herself against abuse because no one had taught her and now it was too late.
I’d been given chance after chance to learn my lesson and I was still trying. It took years, perhaps a lifetime to break free of that stultifying mindset. I had thought that Janet was helping me in that process but little by little I was beginning to wonder. And the trip to Garcetti’s office had really made me uncomfortable.
Janet came to Silvia’s trial sometimes and sat with me. One of those days, we got in the elevator and she pushed the up button when we should have been going back down and out of the building.
“I heard that the illustrious District Attorney is in his office right now.”
I resisted. “So?”
She pouted. “Karen, seize the opportunity. I want to give him a hard time, some serious Catholic guilt. Make him change these terrible laws.”
“I need to get home to my kids.”
“We’ll be fast, I promise,” she assured me.
I sighed and followed after her.
Garcetti was in his office and surprisingly for such a busy man, invited us in, making the standard joke, “No one stands in Sr. Janet’s way,” to which she responded with humble contrition, coupled with a subtle gleam of triumph and a depreciating, “Oh, really now.”
Garcetti was a strikingly handsome man, tall and lean, his white hair in stark contrast to his dark eyes and eyebrows, and with the self-assurance that authority figures wear like a magic cloak. Purposefully, he folded back into his chair and motioned with a regal hand for us to sit as well, offering me an inviting smile along with an inquiring look directed at Janet.
“Oh, this is Karen,” she said brightly. “I picked her up in the hallway.”
Garcetti’s gaze lingered appreciatively, a slow burn up and down my body. “If I saw her in the hallway I’d pick her up, too.”
Janet put a hand to her mouth in mock embarrassment, tittering behind it. Unable to think of a witty come back, I said nothing. The idea that I should think I was somehow lacking because I didn’t have a witty comeback is revolting to me now. It was a continual battle inside of me, feeling such treatment was wrong, no matter how subtle the supposed compliment, while not knowing how to combat it without appearing “unlikeable,” another no-no for a woman.
I was glad when the focus shifted away from me. I listened as they bantered back and forth, realizing I’d been brought along as eye-candy, an experience that I came to expect with Janet. Fortunately, we didn’t stay much longer than ten minutes. Garcetti looked pointedly at his watch and the courtesy meeting was over almost before it had started. I waited until we had left his office and we were on the street walking to my car before daring to voice my objections.
“That felt really awkward to me. I’m not comfortable drawing attention to my sexuality in a meeting. It’s unprofessional. And well, it just seems off somehow, coming from you.”
She pooh-poohed my reaction. “Oh, Karen, stop. These politicians, you know how they are. And you’re nice looking. Why not use it? I don’t expect you to talk much because you don’t have the years of experience that I have.”
I bristled. “How far would you suggest I go in ‘using it’ while you do all the talking?”
We were standing by my car now, me on one side and her on the other, about to get in. The sun reflected off her glasses and I could see nothing behind them, just a frosted white, as if she had no eyes at all. She spoke across the top of the hood, using the same bright voice she’d used with Garcetti. “Let’s not be hypocritical, hon. You’ve taken it pretty far already, haven’t you?”
It was a surgical slice. I had had made confession to her about a lot of things and she had consoled me. She spoke in such a soothing manner, even when she was saying the most degrading things, that it felt like she was trying to do me some good, teach me an important life lesson. I had made mistakes, I had done things I shouldn’t. I couldn’t deny that what she was saying was the harsh truth.
But then I would stop myself from those thoughts. Didn’t I automatically think in such a compliant fashion because of my history of submitting to punishment from my father and then later with abuse from my husbands? Sometimes, it was hard to tell if I was thinking things for the right or the wrong reasons. Every thought I had was influenced by my previous thoughts and experiences. Anyway, it was impossible to have a “right” or a “wrong” thought. They were just my thoughts and I had to untangle them as best I could.
The paradox made me extremely uneasy and I wanted to leave Janet right there and then; get in my car and drive away. Of course I didn’t. I couldn’t leave a nun stranded in a parking lot.
Back on the freeway with her sitting primly next to me, I imagined how she would have told the story, if I had: And then she just left me there! I can’t understand what’s happened to Karen. I’m terribly concerned. She’s been behaving so strangely lately, her words accompanied by a sad, drawn out sigh and an uncomprehending shake of her head.
I suppressed a sigh myself and listened in silence as she conversed about the program, about the kids in the classes, about how it was growing and becoming recognized. And after a few moments, I found myself pushing the awkward incident away. Surely I had misunderstood her. By the time we reached her bungalow in South Pasadena, she was once again the person that I loved, the nun who cared so deeply and who wanted to see what we could accomplish together. Because, after all, I had to have someone in my life who really cared about me didn’t I? And that someone was surely Sister Janet.
Janet and Casey, both street smart, both with the ability to extract confessions, both my dearest friends. And now, here we were, walking together, me between the two of them: Janet and Casey. It felt so right. And then again, it didn’t. Because I knew, or at least I was beginning to know, that I wasn’t as perfectly balanced as I had once thought. It was like the Bible verse I had memorized as a kid; the one that had been pounded into me along with all the others, convincing me that I should be a good Christian girl who meekly obeys those above her. “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” I was looking through the darkness. I had spent my life in darkness. When would I finally reach the light, and not only reach it, because I’d had glimpses along the way, but actually choose to stay there?
As a servant of God and married to Jesus, Janet deferred to men. But women, that was another story. Women should defer to her. There was a clear order of power. She had power over the women around her, and that was as it should be. In her eyes, I was supposed to comply. When I didn’t, I had to be punished into submission. Which was why she turned me into a criminal later, which, in turn, started the feeding frenzy. Because in her mind, that’s what she honestly believed I was: the usurper who stole everything from her, including her darkest secret.
Like the girls had told me, there are rules to the fighting game: guys be up girls, girls beat up girls, but girls never beat up guys. And those rules extended all the way up to the throne of God.
Where Janet should have had dominance over me, as she believed was her God-given right as a nun who was doing God’s will, I refused. Instead, I turned increasingly toward Casey for friendship, the one man in my life who encouraged instead of suppressed me. Janet lost control and she never forgave me for that.