“How You Get Unstuck,” written by advice columnist Sugar from The Rumpus really struck a chord with me. Sugar always gives straight-shooting, marvelous advice, but in this post she shares stories from her past as a youth counselor which reverberated in two other stories I have been thinking about recently. This country puts so much emphasis on “making it” and “winning” that the tendency is to look away from or avoid the folks who aren’t doing just that.
There are all sorts of levels of not winning — financial status is just one measure. It is terrifically hard on young people, girls especially, who might be in difficult, even impossible, situations, that so many don’t want to even admit that they might be in trouble. Or that the system is helpless to actually help.
Photo by Darcy Padilla, The Julie Project
Sugar was a school counselor to middle school-aged girls, some of them barely teenagers. She found the harrowing stories of their young lives both riveting and heartbreaking. “I told the girls that these sorts of things were not okay. That they were unacceptable. Illegal. That I would call someone and that someone would intervene and this would stop.”
The school’s tactic was to expose the girls to positive things, in the hope that it would bring something positive to their lives. “I was meant to silently, secretly, covertly empower them by taking them to do things they’d never done at places they’d never been. I took them to a rock-climbing gym and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore. The theory was that if they liked to pull the weight of their blossoming girl bodies up a faux boulder with little pebble-esque plastic hand-and-foot-holds then perhaps they would not get knocked up.” As much as a program like the one Sugar was involved in might be a temporary balm, not everyone has access to one.
The Julie Project, a phenomenal photo essay by Darcy Padilla, chronicles the life of a young woman who truly lived on the edges of society. The subject, Julie, was an 18-year old with AIDS when she and the photographer first met in 1993. They stayed in touch on and off for the next 18 years, Padilla snapping photos of Julie, the men in her life, and her children, as she gave birth to them and had to give them up to foster care.
Padilla wasn’t a counselor like Sugar, but she did provide a stable relationship, a touchstone, in Julie’s life, a life beyond difficult from the very beginning. Padilla describes Julie in her introduction to the photo essay, ”Her first memory of her mother is getting drunk with her at 6, and then being sexually abused by her stepfather. She ran away at 14 and became [a] drug addict at 15. Living in alleys, crack dens, and bunked with more dirty old men than she cared to count.”
Padilla’s award-winning documentation of Julie’s life is presented clearly, without sentimentality or judgement. But it is very emotionally involving to look at these photos and read their captions. The Julie Project almost defies description — is it art, life, a call to arms or all of the above? It’s one of those things we thank the internet for — I’m not sure where else The Julie Project could reside. There is something more intimate about scrolling through Julie’s struggles and seeing them backlit on my laptop screen than if I was flipping through moments from her life in a magazine. On the printed page I might have skipped ahead or even closed the magazine, trying to bypass some of the more difficult images.
Photo by Darcy Padilla, The Julie Project
But Sugar is not an artist in the same sense as Darcy Padilla. She couldn’t apply the documentarian’s eye to the girls in her charge. She is someone who gets involved. After a few encounters with the system Sugar quickly learned that help is not always on the way. “I called the police. I called the state’s child protection services. I called them every day and no one did one thing. Not one person. Not one thing. Ever. One day, when I called child protective services … [she] told me that there was no funding for teenagers who were not in imminent danger … They intervened quickly with kids under the age of twelve, but for those over twelve they wrote reports … and put the child’s name on a long list of children who someone would someday perhaps check up on when there was time and money … The good thing about teens, she told me confidentially, was that if it got bad enough at home they usually ran away and there was more funding for runaways.”
What has happened to the way we view people, even children, who are at risk? A chilling story, about the ineptitude and inability of the system to intervene, to help, is coming to light currently in Florida. This month in Delray Beach two young children, Ju’Tyra Allen, 6, and Jermaine McNeil, 10, were found drowned in a canal.
The tragedy behind these young kid’s lives, and the half-hearted attempts by local authorities to protect them, resulted in disaster. The children had been taken away from their mother, Felicia Brown, numerous times in their young lives, but somehow still ended up back with her, in her home. As the Palm Beach Post reported, “Despite Ju’Tyra’s removal, and the fact that between 1997 and 2006 she had been arrested 16 times on charges ranging from shoplifting to cocaine possession to armed robbery, Felicia was able to regain custody of Ju’Tyra in 2006. Jermaine, meanwhile, was living with a family in another state, but efforts to adopt him fell through. He was briefly placed with a foster family, but was asked to be removed because he was fighting in school and had been suspended. It was then that Jermaine went to live with Felicia.”
Ju’Tyra Allen and Jermaine McNeil
Felicia Brown disappeared last summer, but somehow the two children were allowed to stay in the care of her on-again, off-again, boyfriend Clem Beauchamp during her disappearance. After the bodies of the children were discovered in the canal and identified, another body at first labeled a Jane Doe, which had been found in a local dump 8 months ago, was confirmed to have been Felicia Brown. Beauchamp, currently just a person of interest in all three deaths, is in custody on gun-related charges. The Florida Department of Children and Family claim to not have known Beauchamp was living with the family. A case like this defies all understanding of how we think local government agencies should work — both in the circumstances of Felicia Brown’s life and how they impacted her children’s lives.
Sugar quickly realized the dead-end that dealing with bureaucracy can be, and decided that she had to change her tactics with the girls — in order to be extremely honest with them and to live with herself. When one of the girls came in to talk with her about the latest horror in her life, “I told her it was not okay, that it was unacceptable, that it was illegal and that I would call and report this latest, horrible thing.” But Sugar doesn’t stop there, just throwing her hands up at the uselessness of the system. She tells it like it is, pulling no punches. “But I did not tell her [the abuse] would stop. I did not promise that anyone would intervene. I told her it would likely go on and she’d have to survive it. That she’d have to find a way within herself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if she wasn’t able to do that, then her whole life would be shit, forever and ever and ever.” And it wasn’t all good news, either. There would be no quick, fast solutions. “She had to count the years and let them roll by, to grow up and then run as far as she could in the direction of her best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by her own desire to heal.”
If only Julie and Felicia had come across someone like Sugar, who could shake them hard with those words of truth. Sugar only lasted a year in that counselor job, but 7 years later she ran into one of the girls. They talked about her promotion at her job at Taco Bell, about the girls from school she was still in touch with, and all of the things (rock climbing, etc.) they had done together. The girl hadn’t forgotten Sugar, or her strong words. “I made it,” she said. “Didn’t I?”
It’s too late to tell Ju’Tyra or Jermaine or Julie to reach, but not Julie’s kids. Or any of the other kids out there, living difficult lives. The gist of Sugar’s advice to those middle schoolers was that all tragedy is tragic (it’s deeper than it at first sounds) and the way to get out of any bad situation is to reach, “This is how you get unstuck … you reach … that place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really fucking hard to get there, but you can do it, honey.” Amen.