Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Remembering Amy

Today I was asked if we would be doing anything in recognition of Domestic Violence Month or Sexual Assault something or other, and I had to admit that we weren't. If I'd been more forthcoming, I'd have admitted that I didn't know what either of those things are, but instead I just mumbled something about domestic violence and sexual assault being ongoing issues for our women. And then I remembered that we did have a client once who had briefly become the symbolic face of domestic violence for one local govt. agency, and I remembered what it had meant to her to recognized the way she was, to be held up as an example of success, to be praised, to be used.

Amy was a long term YANA client. She was one of many to come from astounding levels of incest and violence, but unlike the other clients, she hid her vulnerability well. To me she was just a dumpy, middle aged white woman, with bad clothes, a flippant sense of humor, and what turned out to be some real aesthetic leanings. Unsurprisingly, I felt very comfortable with her. Sid, who easily saw how broken Amy was beneath the all the wisecracking, loved her.

Years after Amy began with us, YANA partnered with a prestigious university for a jewelry making project. I wasn't volunteering at YANA then, but I understood the jewelry making to be tremendously popular, and, of all our clients, Amy was the one who became most excited by it. She was good at it, really good, and invented necklaces that were strange enough to look like something a character out of Dr. Suess's books would wear, and still conventionally pretty enough to be sold as decoration. She dragooned other clients into making jewelry with her. She worked, obsessively, on what became her new business, and she learned that telling her story helped her make a sale.

One of the very first days I began at YANA, the Baltimore Sun ran an article on her, artsy picture and all, chronicling her success as a jewelry maker. The twist on the article was that this particular jewelry maker had climbed out of prostitution and addiction through the love of beads. Amy walked through YANA with that article like somebody waving a campaign poster on election day. And beaming, absolutely beaming, she announced that she never would forget YANA, no matter how famous she got. She was right. She never did forget YANA, but she was taken, rather dramatically, out of the life she had always known. Amy became the prop for the academics who had "saved" her. She made appearances. She starred in a fund raising movie and attended a showing. One time she went on network t.v.

Of course, the academic whose project had been her salvation was the main speaker for that segment. She praised her own project, her school, and Amy's redemption. I believe she said something about the important economic benefits of having learned a trade -- that was certainly a point made at other presentations. Around the time of the t.v. show I bought a beaded necklace at a chain clothing store. It had 10 strands and many hundreds of tiny beads which were interspersed with more elaborate ones. It cost 12 dollars retail. I wondered how an American, paying American prices and working by hand, could ever make a living at a trade like that. The professor did not elaborate.

She had enough other elaborating to do with Amy's (and her school's) astonishing success. Amy, naturally enough, sat staring at the professor with the kind of look a very young baby will sometimes give a parent -- unqualified love, unqualified devotion. Very possibly, my memory of this is distorted, but it seems to me that she was actually staring upwards at the academic, like a rather large, but grateful, pet.

And who am I to begrudge her that? Someone said she was special. Someone said she had done well. That's what all of us are supposed to hear when we're children, and if she was just hearing it now in front of the whole country, why shouldn't she be thrilled? Especially since, now that both of her parents were dead, she was repeating her incestuous relationship with her elderly stepfather and his new wife. The woman she called mom collected money from the man she called dad and paid Amy to have sex with him. "Mom" often watched. Later she'd call Amy a whore and wheedle a good portion of the money back from her. A number of Amy's friends believed that "mom" and "dad" were Amy's biological parents, apparently because Amy herself never thought of them as anything else. The day we drove her to the t.v. station, Amy told us she had recently gone to her parents' house to clean for her mom.

She wasn't walking the street, though, and her few other clients were "boyfriends" she generally saw in their homes. She also had periods of sobriety, and even when she was on the drug line she hid it well. Amy disguised her misery, in other words. And she got more than televised praise from the people who used her to promote their own success. She got free beads, restaurant dinners, a chance to sell her work at Baltimore's Visionary Arts Museum, and a new view of herself. At one point she rented one of the nearby row houses, and all of YANA knew Amy now had a house of her own. When one client asked her how she managed it, Amy proudly answered, "Beads! Beads, beads, beads. It's all about making jewelry!"

She collected blankets and linens from YANA donations, and got a church group to donate a used washing machine. She never really moved in, though. With her history, she wasn't able to get the utilities turned on. She paid rent for a few months, then quit, soon got formally evicted. She spoke about how she'd turned her life around at an anniversary party and gave the address of her rented house when a visitor asked where she lived now. The visitor was obviously taken aback. She knew that successful entrepreneurs at any level lived somewhere else. Amy didn't miss a beat. "You stay where you're needed!" she announced, and there was a collective murmur of approval. Business lady and neighborhood saint.

Pretending to be a success took a heavy toll on her, though. Amy disappeared for weeks at a time. She confessed tearfully to me that she felt like she was letting everybody down. As much as she courted -- and knew how to manipulate -- the attention, it also overwhelmed her. An extremely well dressed lady from one of the government agencies came to our place once to talk to Amy about displaying her jewelry at a domestic violence function. I sat down with the two of them and told Ms. Well Dressed that Amy had been sick quite a bit, so much so that making another appearance might be too much for her. You'd think most people would at least fake a little concern. Not Govt. Lady. I don't think it even occurred to her. She booked Amy for her display and left.

Amy never made it to her display for domestic violence gig. I can't imagine Ms. Well Dressed Govt. Lady felt concerned, but I hope she was at least mortified by her procurement failure. We've had several very different sorts of professional women come to YANA lately. They're professors from other colleges, and they spend a lot of time with our women, listening, asking questions, doing small things to help. I think they like our woman, and I feel convinced that they actually want to know who they are. With their help, maybe we'll eventually do something for Domestic Violence Month and whatever that sexual thing is too. God knows our woman would like to be told they're special, that they've done something well.


  1. Impressive if depressing story. It reminds me a bit of a story on the radio show This American Life about a teenager recently graduated from the foster home system who was so well-spoken that he was on a number of state advisory panels, but couldn't get his personal life together. Maybe I'll dig out a link some time.

  2. Thanks, Brian. Amy was an impressive, if sometimes exasperating client. Although we rarely have clients who can cover active addiction and trauma as well as Amy, we have quite a few people who are obviously intelligent, kind, intuitive, etc. I'll be posting more about Amy in another couple weeks.