Chapter Three – a brief biography
To this day, I hardly know how to explain why I founded, then lived and worked at Miriam’s House. Part of me wishes I didn’t have to explain at all. I wish my choice were as automatically understood as that of a wealthy business person who has risen to a position of power. Anyway, there’s no simple answer to the question, why did you want to?
But in trying to sift through it for myself, I can think of no better explanation for having ended up at Miriam’s House than the simple fact that I was a child of great sensitivity growing up in the sixties. This as much as anything else – a middle-class up-bringing with my parents’ emphasis on discipline, hard work, honesty and trustworthiness – shaped me into the woman who eventually cast her lot with homeless women living with AIDS.
When I was seven in 1962, I crouched with my classmates in the hallway outside our room, our heads pressed against the wall and knees tucked up to our chests. Air raid drills punctuated my early years with anxiety, making me fearful about what may fall from the sky above me. When one day I was sent running home from school because President Kennedy had been killed and no one knew if the bombers might be coming, I was only eight, sprinting in a panic across lawns and over fences, stomach churning.
When I was ten and eleven, it was civil rights demonstrations and militarily outfitted police, fire hoses, snarling German Shepherds and murder. It was body bags coming from Viet Nam, more and more of them, while protests against the war also increased. I was eleven the year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and my fear of death dropping from the sky morphed into horror at what people were capable of doing to one another.
The story of the My Lai Massacre broke in Time Magazine when I was fourteen, with its horrific photographs of women, children and men lying bloody and dead on dirt roads. That same year, the National Guard shot dead four student protesters at Kent State. I could make no sense of any of it. That appalled incomprehension was the foundation of what I would later in life call a passion for social justice.
Added to this sense of horror about the world was sensitivity that made me very vulnerable to the moods, words and actions of those more powerful than me. It was a mix that made for a rocky start into adulthood.
I was a happy kid with a lively curiosity, though shy and introverted. Innate to me was an empathy over which I had little control. My leg ached when I saw a person on crutches. I remember, during a rare family outing to a restaurant, feeling such pity for a man sitting alone and hunched morosely over his meal that I could not eat the food ordered for me. Vulnerable and sensitive, I craved solitude, wanting nothing more than to find a comfortable nook and read my way out of the world around me: back pressed against the baseboard heaters in the house in which I lived until I was ten; alone in my room after my parents moved us to a bigger house; tucked into the comfortable leather chair in my grandfather's library or settled high in the branches of the willow tree out front. I plunged into books in the same way I plunged into water, for the feeling that, later in life, would attract me to meditation: for weightlessness.
The underwater world – muted, silky cool and buoyantly free – lent me a confidence I felt nowhere else in my life. At nine, I joined the swim team at the outdoor behind the office buildings where my father worked. I loved the challenge, even though the competition and intensity often made me so nervous I would vomit, most embarrassingly at the edge of the pool while the children around me scrambled out of range of the splatter. But in the water I had only myself, striving alone. Rather than lose this feeling, I learned to function at the top of my abilities despite the nausea.
I was the third child of four. My two sisters – three and two years older – were less malleable, more independently minded than I. Thinking the contrast would get me parental favor, I became the helpful one, the good girl, a role that grew naturally out of my cheery disposition and love of peace. However, it occasionally made me an insufferable prig and was a role difficult to maintain because my temper was quick and defensive and I’d fight bitterly with my sisters. My brother, two years younger, was similarly possessed of a desire to please. We were the wave-smoothers and thus often allied in any family upheaval.
I developed an absorbing sense of responsibility for my parents' happiness. As the self-appointed Good Little Girl, I made it my job to ensure Mom and Dad felt like good parents. And under the influence of the anxiety I believe I inherited from my father, I was not just good. I was eagerly good, energetically good, and, finally, by about fourteen, anxiously good.
Thus I spent my childhood and teenage years learning to be what someone else wanted and needed me to be. Ungrounded within, my search for identity focused outwardly, leaving me at the mercy of random circumstance or another’s whim. The child I was seems a stranger now, many years and long hours in counseling later. My life was basically a happy one and I had a creative, joyous energy that brought me to animated engagement with the world around me. But as I grew older, I was just too busy trying to ensure the happiness of those around me to truly experience my own or gain much self-understanding.
Compounding this internal alienation was a slow-growing belief that I – the third daughter born instead of the longed-for son – must have been a disappointment to my father. Though I adored him and knew he loved me, I felt the power of his connection with his one boy and knew I was excluded, left outside because of my gender. This alone would not have had much power over me had it not been for other experiences that affirmed my outside-ness.
When the four kids were introduced as a family, I could see the adult’s eyes – particularly the men’s – skim past me to settle, pityingly, on my brother. They would say how sorry they felt for him having to live with three older sisters. All the grown-ups would laugh, and my sensitive soul would shrivel.
Shrivel-inducing too was the worship and biblical language at the Presbyterian church we attended. There I was told that God loved mankind, had sent his beloved Son to save all men, words of glaring exclusion spoken or read by black-robed and solemn men whose eyes, I imagined, skimmed past me. Once I asked my mother why God only loved men and why was it men, not women, that Jesus came to save. But her answer – that it really meant all of us, not just men – couldn’t satisfy me because the language didn’t change, the adults didn’t stop feeling sorry for my brother, and I kept feeling left out.
By high school I considered myself a feminist and had begun an erratic dance around the meanings of religion, belief and spirituality, a dance that would waltz me out of and back into church membership for decades. At sixteen I decided I was a deist after coming across the word in a Taylor Caldwell novel about Cicero and looking it up. A woman-child outside the all-powerful male circles both in my family and in church, and a product of the sixties’ upheaval, violence and death, deism simply made sense to me in a way that belief in a loving and all-powerful God did not. So I embraced the idea that this male god-thing had created the world and then turned away, indifferent, leaving us to our own crazed devices, a rejection of Christianity that foreshadowed years of struggle against and fascination with the tyranny of masculine gods.
I loved being in college. I loved especially researching and writing papers, the top grades they earned making up for poorer grades on multiple-choice tests that required a better memory than I had. I majored in Elementary Education and graduated a semester early with a B-average, not a brilliant but a hard-working student. Yet even with the degree behind me, I married immediately upon graduating college, still lacking the self-confidence to go overseas or even leave Delaware. He was a single parent raising a small boy, and there I had it: a mission, an unacknowledged substitute for serving elsewhere. What I told myself was love was actually a mutually agreed-upon, albeit tacit, arrangement whereby he got a wife; his son, a mother; and I, needed.
Years of searching outside myself for my identity had shaped me in ways that made no room for what would have been needed to leave home and family – as I had dreamed since I was a teenager – for a far-away teaching job or position in the Peace Corps.
I left that marriage after six years, depleted by disloyalty and emotional abuse, and heart-sickeningly guilty for how I had sometimes lost my temper with the little boy who I then abandoned. I carried that guilt for many years, catching sight of myself in mirrors or windows and watching a smile fade at the unbidden thought, “You don't deserve to be happy.”
After leaving the marriage, I turned back to a life-long love of singing, and studied voice at the undergraduate level for several years, then privately in New York. But a cyst on my left vocal cord – from screaming myself hoarse at some long-ago swim meet, I supposed – caused inaccurate pitch in the middle range and made me prone to laryngitis. I quit in early 1990, when I was thirty-five, unsure of who I was and what I was to do. I had been attending church in downtown Wilmington, Delaware with my parents – one of the many times I re-returned to organized religion in my quest to understand life and the world. With the time freed because I was no longer practicing and traveling to New York every other week, I joined a church committee formed to create an apartment for homeless men.
In doing so, I imagined for myself a life of service, a goal that was encouraged by a new connection with The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. I drove south to D.C. weekly for a springtime course at the church's Servant Leadership School, attended a week-long retreat in the summer, then took another course in the fall. There I met women and men who had built organizations of varying kinds – for affordable housing, job placement, adult literacy, addiction recovery, child care and education. These were people to whom I could relate, with their passion for social justice that matched my own and made me feel I belonged.
One of those organizations, Samaritan Inns, needed a resident manager in its Women’s Inn for homeless pregnant women. I interviewed for the position on Halloween evening 1990 and moved to Washington, D.C. fewer than thirty days later. My family's horrified reaction to the move had something to do with its haste and D.C.'s reputation at the time as the Murder Capital of the Country, but at least as much to do with my own graceless, abrupt and minimally communicative departure. I’d begun to claw my way free of the good girl role.
So different from me were those living at the Women's Inn, so different from mine were their life experiences that I suffered immediate culture shock. By mid-December I wondered what the hell I was doing there. But I remained in D.C. because my work at Samaritan Inns, as difficult as it was, forged a bridge across social and economic divides that so bothered me.
I had found my place.