ABSENCE OF JUSTICE: THE ERICA KAY STORY by Erica Kay and David Webster, Chapter One
New York City — 1968
April 1968 in New York City should have been a magical, marvelous month for a 17-year-old small-town California girl who had run away to The Big Apple to seek a new life. I had arrived on January 2nd to find a city of gigantic marble and concrete skyscrapers looming overhead, crowding out the sky—a city overwhelming in its stature, yet, at street level with one block appearing nearly identical to the next. I must have walked around the same block several times before I realized I was just going around in a circle. Suddenly I began to understand just how insignificant I was. The sidewalks were crowded with people scurrying rapidly to and fro like ants, obsessively darting in every direction, not looking to their left or right, but intensely focused on the short distance directly in front of them. There were masses of people on every block, blindly passing by the occasional lifeless body lying on the sidewalk, clothed in filthy rags. These frantic crowds constantly rushed with blind determination to reach their destination on time. The traffic was bumper to bumper with taxicab horns blaring incessantly and the earsplitting scream of sirens stabbing at my skull. It was the first time in my life that I had felt absolutely alone. I was frightened by the coldness of the city and the apparent coldness of the people. Yet, even in my fear, I felt more alive than I had ever felt before in my entire life. Here, among the millions of people in this mammoth metropolis, I had finally found my freedom. I was invisible to the throngs of anonymous people, and I was totally free to be myself. I had always been attracted by the thrill, the glamour, and the excitement of New York City. I had studied dancing and acting in school, and I had been enticed by the many musicals and films I had seen—they spoke to me, beckoning me, calling me to New York. My foremost dream had always been to dance and act in the great theaters on Broadway, and I had always known that my destiny would one day carry me there.
As I continued walking, everywhere I turned I smelled food—every kind of food imaginable, from all over the world. The air was filled with an infinite variety of delicious aromas wafting from bakeries, delicatessens, ethnic restaurants, candy stores, Sabrett hot dog stands, chestnut vendors, soft pretzel wagons, coffee shops, bistros, and pizzerias. As I strolled through the concrete and marble maze, the fragrant flavors laid deliciously and heavily upon the wintry air. With every forward step another flavor boldly arose, asserting itself upon my senses, pulling and tugging at me to partake of its own unique epicurean ecstasy. I continued walking until the emptiness in my stomach became unendurable. When I passed a corner café, I succumbed to my ravenous hunger. I went inside, found the last remaining table, a two-seater, and sat down. It was very busy during lunch hour, and I basked in the toasty warmth and friendly atmosphere. I was intrigued by the menu, which included things that were unknown to me, but sounded interesting, like bagels and bialys. An affable waiter arrived to take my order. I was running low on cash, and I saw that one of the cheapest items on the menu was a chicken salad sandwich for $ 1.75, so I ordered one on rye with lettuce and tomato, plus a glass of chilled tomato juice which was priced at 40 cents. The waiter smiled, thanked me for my order, and headed toward the kitchen. At an adjoining table, a businessman in a three-piece suit got up to go, leaving behind a copy of the New York Times. I grabbed it and began reading it slowly and carefully. Within ten minutes my waiter returned with my glass of tomato juice and my sandwich, which, to my surprise and delight, was overstuffed and overflowing with chicken salad. It arrived on a platter, accompanied by a generous portion of hot, crisp French fries and a large, plump dill pickle. This was a new eating experience for me, and my taste buds exploded with the deep, meaty richness of the flavor. A couple of minutes later, the waiter came by to ask if everything was okay, and I told him my sandwich was absolutely fabulous. I savored each bite by chewing slowly and deliberately, and I was able to make my lunch last for two luxurious hours. During that time the waiter returned once more, saw that I was having a leisurely lunch, and politely allowed me to remain in the café for as long as I wanted to stay. I paid the check, leaving as generous a tip as I could afford, and got up to leave. Nobody else knew it, but when I left the café I had no place to go.
I had no coat, I was wearing only a long sleeve sweater, and it was the dead of winter. I continued my walk until later in the day when I happened upon the Staten Island Ferry. By then it was getting dark. The ferry was only a nickel to ride and I bought my passage. The boat had limited heat but at least it was warmer than a park bench. I had a small valise carrying a couple of changes of clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a few personal items, and my ID. When I woke up the next morning my valise was gone. Someone had stolen it from me while I slept. Now I had no extra clothes or ID. I was homeless in an unfamiliar place where I knew absolutely nobody. I wondered if this strange city would just swallow me up. I was scared and I questioned my ability to make it on my own.
My money soon ran out, and I began the long, lonely winter roaming the streets and alleys, struggling to survive, sleeping on park benches, in hippie crash pads, or riding the Staten Island Ferry all night whenever I had a nickel for the fare. My Southern winter clothes were no match for the raw, freezing temperatures, the biting winds, and the drifting snow. I was starving, and I mean literally starving. Soon I would surely starve to death if I didn’t get something to eat. With each passing day I felt and looked more like a walking skeleton. All my minimal body fat very quickly disappeared, and I looked like a frightening Halloween costume with my protruding ribs and my sunken, hollow face. My distended stomach growled continuously, begging for nourishment in any form. I could feel my stomach shrinking every day. Finally the growling ceased and was replaced by a gnawing, piercing pain. My scrawny body got weaker and began trembling from faintness. It was a brutal beginning for a 17-year-old kid.
~ ~ ~
With the April sunshine and the welcome warmth of springtime, my prospects had brightened considerably. I had a job as a waitress at a 24-hour coffee shop on the Upper West Side, only a couple of blocks from Central Park West. Coincidentally and serendipitously this was the same restaurant where I’d eaten my first meal in NYC. My job provided all my meals, and I even had my very own two-room suite at The Beacon, an old, but clean residential hotel on the corner of 75th and Broadway, directly across the street from my work. Most of the necessary ingredients for my happiness had arrived, but one essential ingredient was missing. I was not a normal 17-year-old girl from California. Instead, I was a female who had been born inside the body of a male.
~ ~ ~
I was born in Long Beach, California on July 6, 1950, and the name my parents gave me at birth was Eddie James Mundell. I didn’t know that I had been born with a genetic condition. I thought I was the only person in the whole world who had been born like this. Actually, my condition was not uncommon, but it was very poorly understood, both by the medical community and especially by society as a whole. Ever since I was a toddler I had known that my physical body didn’t match my gender identity.
To complicate matters, when I was five years old both my parents suddenly vanished, leaving their four very young children behind. My younger brothers were 18 months old and three years old, and my older brother had turned seven a few months earlier. My dad owned a gas station and was working seven days a week to support our family and pay off all the hospital bills which had added up over the years. My mother had recently started a new job as personal secretary to the CEO of the Safeway Grocery chain. I remember the day when Mom told Dad she would be going away for the weekend. She spoke in her youthful, honeyed, mellifluous voice that was infused with a rare tenderness.
“Jack, I’m going on a business trip this weekend to Lake Tahoe.”
My mother Marilyn Jean was 25 years old and 5’ 5” tall with a curvaceous figure that turned men’s heads wherever she went. With her arresting smile and alluring lips of natural amaranth rose, her long, wavy brown hair, and her captivating gaze, she could easily set a man’s heart on fire. She was as beautiful and charming as Deanna Durbin, the gorgeous and extremely talented Hollywood actress and singer from the 1930s and 1940s.
My 30-year-old father was tall, dark and handsome; his well-defined, muscular, six-foot stature was suave, and he made a dashing and debonair companion. Their marriage was an impassioned affair—when it was good, it was really good. When they were making love, it was wild and crazy and wonderful. But when they were fighting, it was wild and crazy and not so wonderful. His calm demeanor was easily upset by his acute susceptibility to fits of jealousy.
“You mean YOU and YOUR BOSS are going to Lake Tahoe, isn’t that right, Marilyn?”
“Yes, Jack. You know very well that I’m his personal secretary.”
He roared back, “Why in BLAZES are you going to LAKE TAHOE?”
“There’s a big grocer’s convention and my boss needs me there.”
“Yeah, I’ll BET he does. Tell, me, Marilyn, how much of this FUCKING TRIP is BUSINESS, and how much is PERSONAL?”
“I told you, Jack, it’s strictly business. There’s no hanky-panky going on between us.”
“Well, Marilyn, I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. I know DAMN WELL you’re having an affair with him!”
Her sensual Scorpio voice switched without warning to a stinging pitch.
“Like HELL I am!! You’re the one who’s always running around town like a wild Tom Cat!! YOU’RE THE CHEATER IN THIS FAMILY!!”
“MY ASS I AM!!”
“Now you listen to me, Jack Mundell. It’ll be all of our asses if we don’t get these hospital bills paid!! I need this job, and we need this money! If I don’t go on this trip I’ll get fired, and then where the hell will we be?”
From my bedroom I could hear them arguing. I went to the door and peeked around the corner. The coal-black pupils of his chestnut-brown eyes appeared ready to burst into flame, and I expected his temper to erupt like a volcano. She was unstoppable and she was determined to have her own way. Her sultry, sapphire-blue eyes glared at him relentlessly, penetrating beyond his ferocity, melting his anger away. With that one look she could tame him every single time, and once again, he was mesmerized by her bewitching beauty and charm. He replied in a calm and capitulating voice.
“Okay, Marilyn, you win. You call Mrs. Thompson to babysit for the kids. When are you coming back?”
“I’ll be back on Sunday afternoon, Jack.”
~ ~ ~
On Friday afternoon Mrs. Thompson arrived to take care of me and my brothers for the weekend. For the previous few weeks she had been our regular babysitter on weekdays. She was in her early forties, tall and slender, and almost skinny. She was quite conservative and plain in appearance, but very dignified and well spoken. Her gentleness and natural maternal instincts were always a comfort during our mother’s absence.
Mom left that evening and Dad came home a little later. I could tell that he was agitated. When you’re five years old you just know when things aren’t right. My brothers and I went to bed at our normal time. I woke up early the next morning, and went into the living room and sat down on the couch. Meanwhile, Dad was in the master bedroom and the door was open. He was ready for work, dressed in his white, starched uniform with a blue jacket sporting his name embroidered on the upper left chest. His white gas-pump jockey cap was cocked forward and to the left, crowning his mane of thick, wavy, jet-black hair. He didn’t see or hear Mrs. Thompson coming down the hall. He opened the dresser drawer, carefully reached in, and pulled out a snub nose .38 revolver. He spun its well-oiled cylinder to see if it was loaded—it was. As Mrs. Thompson passed by, she heard the distinctive clicking noise of the gun’s cylinder. She glanced into the bedroom and saw my father slip the pistol into his jacket pocket. She continued without pausing and hurried to the kitchen. My dad heard her as she passed by. He followed her to the kitchen, where she was preparing to make breakfast. My youngest brother was sitting in his high chair. My dad went right over to him and gave him a kiss on his forehead. They both smiled. My dad turned to Mrs. Thompson.
“Mrs. Thompson, I’m leaving for work.”
“What time do you expect to be home, Mr. Mundell?”
“I’ll call you later to let you know.”
Dad turned and walked out the door. When she made breakfast for my brothers and me, Mrs. Thompson tried her best to be calm, but she dropped an egg on the floor and she spilled some orange juice. I could tell that she was extremely nervous. My brothers and I sensed that something was very, very wrong. Dad never called on Saturday and he didn’t come home that night. A couple of hours after dinner Mrs. Thompson spoke to us before we went to bed.
“Your mom will be home tomorrow. Your dad must be very busy and working late tonight. You kids go to bed now, and don’t forget to say your prayers.”
Mom had never been away on the weekend and Dad hadn’t even come home for dinner on Saturday. This was the first time we had ever been without our parents on a weekend. Even after Mrs. Thompson’s reassurances I felt a sense of impending doom. It took me a long time to fall asleep, but when I finally did I escaped my fear and fell into a deep sleep. Early Sunday morning I was awakened by the aroma of bacon frying in the skillet. I got up, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and staggered groggily down the hall to my parents’ bedroom. The door was open and the bed was made. I followed the smell of bacon to the kitchen where I found Mrs. Thompson feeding breakfast to my youngest brother. He was sitting in his high chair with a big smile on his face. It looked like he was wearing as much Pablum as he had eaten—it was plastered all over his face, his bib and his little hands. Mrs. Thompson gave him another spoonful and he eagerly and contentedly swallowed it down. With a warm washcloth, she gently and carefully wiped my brother’s face, his bib, and his hands. While keeping a close eye on him, she continued making breakfast for my brothers and me. Since my dad hadn’t been in his bedroom, I expected to see him in the kitchen, but he wasn’t there.
“Mrs. Thompson, is Dad here?”
“No, Eddie, I’m sorry. He didn’t come home last night. Are your brothers awake yet?”
“Could you please go wake them up and tell them that breakfast is almost ready.”
“Yes, Mrs. Thompson, I will.”
I went to their bedroom, woke them, and the three of us in our pajamas returned together to the kitchen. We sat down at the table and Mrs. Thompson served us bacon, eggs and toast. My older brother Jack began to quiz Mrs. Thompson about my father. She said she hadn’t heard from him and she didn’t know where he was. She picked up the telephone and dialed the number for my dad’s gas station. She put the receiver to her ear. Faintly I could hear the phone ringing and I heard a voice answer. I recognized that it was Bud, my father’s mechanic.
“Jack’s Service Station, Bud speaking,” said Bud in his loud, gravelly voice.
“Hi, Bud, I’m Mrs. Thompson, the Mundell’s babysitter. Is Jack there?”
“Jack left for work yesterday morning and he never came home last night. Do you have any idea where he is?”
“He came by yesterday morning and told me he was going to go look for his wife. He left the keys to the station with me and asked me to take care of the business until he got back. Haven’t seen him since then.”
“Okay, thank you. Please ask him to call me as soon as you hear from him.”
“Okay, I will.”
Mrs. Thompson hung up the phone. She turned toward us. Her face was ashen. She saw one carefree baby and three terrified children staring back at her with desperately frightened eyes.
~ ~ ~
By Sunday night Mom and Dad had failed to return home. Mrs. Thompson put my brothers and me to bed. From my bedroom I could hear her talking on the phone to her husband.
“Carl, Mr. and Mrs. Mundell aren’t back yet, so I’ll have to stay overnight here again.”
I waited until she spoke again.
“I’m sorry, Carl, but I just can’t leave these kids alone. Mr. Mundell left here yesterday morning and I haven’t heard from him since then. I called him at work, but he wasn’t there and hadn’t been there since yesterday morning. If somebody doesn’t return home here by early tomorrow morning, I’ll get on the phone and get someone else to come over and take care of the kids. Can you go in to work a little late if you have to?”
Mrs. Thompson paused to listen to her husband.
“Thanks, Carl, I love you, too.”
I heard Mrs. Thompson hang up the phone. I could hear her crying. I wanted to go out and talk to her, but I stayed in bed.
~ ~ ~
On Monday morning, with no word from my mother or father, our entire household was gripped in panic and fear. I was confused, anxious, and terrified. My mind was racing like a runaway train, imagining the worst possible scenario. I remember huddling around the breakfast table with my brothers and a panicked babysitter. Mrs. Thompson began going through my mother’s phone book, frantically making call after call, trying to find my parents or someone else to take care of us. We could see the fear in her eyes as she watched us—four young children—a fractured family, suddenly left with no parents to call their own. She was desperate to get home to her own family, but she couldn’t leave us alone and helpless. Finally she reached my paternal grandparents, who jumped in their car right away and drove sixty miles to come and care for us. By the time my grandparents arrived, it was mid-afternoon. Mrs. Thompson was in the kitchen drinking a cup of coffee when my grandparents pulled their Yosemite Green Metallic 1939 Chevy coupe into the driveway. They got out and came in the front door. Mrs. Thompson shushed them with her index finger pressed perpendicular to her lips. She spoke quietly.
“Thank God you’re here, Mr. and Mrs. Mundell. The children are taking a nap. Please come into the kitchen and have a cup of coffee. I have some things I need to explain.”
My grandmother and my grandfather followed Mrs. Thompson to the kitchen. They sat down and she poured coffee.
“I’ve been so scared, I was at my wits end. On Saturday morning I saw Jack put a pistol into his jacket pocket just before he left for work. I called Bud yesterday morning at the gas station, and he told me Jack had taken off to go find Marilyn and had left Bud in charge of the gas station. I think Jack suspects that Marilyn is having an affair with her boss, and I’m afraid he might have gone after them.”
“Don’t you worry about anything, Mrs. Thompson,” said my grandfather. “We’ll get to the bottom of what’s going on. You go on home now to your own family. Thank you very much for calling us, thank you for staying with the children until we could get here, and thank you for letting us know the whole story. How much do Jack and Marilyn owe you for babysitting?”
“They said they’d pay me twenty dollars to stay overnight for two nights from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon.”
My grandfather took his wallet out of his pants pocket, pulled out thirty dollars, and handed it to Mrs. Thompson.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Mundell.”
Mrs. Thompson put the money in her purse and walked out the front door with her overnight bag. My grandfather sat down at the kitchen table and my grandmother picked up my mother’s phone book.
“Clarence, you drink your coffee. I’m going to make some phone calls.”
My grandfather took a sip of coffee. My grandmother walked over to the phone, picked it up and dialed the number for my maternal grandparents, the Caswells. My maternal grandmother, Teresa Caswell, answered.
“Hello, this is the Caswell residence.”
“Hello, Teresa, this is Carrie Mundell calling. Have you spoken with Marilyn over the weekend?”
“No, Carrie, I haven’t.”
“Clarence and I just arrived at Jack and Marilyn’s house to take care of the children. Marilyn left Friday on a weekend business trip. Jack left on Saturday, and neither one of them is home yet.”
“Oh my God, Carrie. Are the children all right?”
“Yes, they’re fine. Marilyn was supposed to return yesterday, but from what we can piece together so far, Jack suspected that Marilyn is having an affair and was not on a business trip. Jack’s taken his gun and he’s gone out looking for them. If you know anything, please tell us.”
“Jesus Christ, Carrie! I don’t know anything. You can be sure that if we hear from Marilyn, she’s going to get an earful from us! What’s wrong with these kids of ours?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t imagine a mother leaving her children with a babysitter and then not coming home. What kind of a mother would do that, Teresa?”
“Carrie, I’m sure I don’t know. I’ll call the other kids and see if they’ve heard anything from her. We’ll see if we can get to the bottom of this.”
“Okay, Teresa, thanks. Please call us if you hear anything. The kids are worried to death.”
My grandmother made several phone calls without discovering any new information. She poured another cup of coffee for my grandfather. The phone rang and she answered it.
It was my Grandma Caswell calling back.
“Hello, Carrie. I spoke with Marilyn’s sister Barbara. She wouldn’t open up at first because Marilyn swore her to secrecy, but she finally told me that Marilyn is having an affair. She’s with a man, but she won’t tell Barbara where she is, because she’s afraid that Jack will find out and come after her.”
“Hold on a minute, Teresa, while I tell Clarence.”
“Clarence, Teresa spoke with Barbara, and she told her that Marilyn is definitely having an affair. Marilyn won’t tell anybody where she is because she’s afraid that Jack will find out.”
“Well, damn it, Carrie, is she planning to come home at all?”
“I don’t know. Let me ask Teresa.”
“Teresa, is Marilyn planning to come home at all?”
“Carrie, I don’t think so. I think Jack and Marilyn’s marriage is finished for good.”
“Well, if you hear from her, have her call us. We won’t tell Jack where she is. After a fool stunt like this, Jack’s better off without her.”
“All right, Carrie, I’ll try to get Marilyn to call you. Goodbye.”
~ ~ ~
A little while later my two brothers and I woke up from our nap and arrived in the kitchen to find our grandparents waiting there for us. We were very excited to see them, and they gave us a big, warm, welcoming hug. Then my grandfather began explaining to us what was going on.
“Your grandmother and I need you to listen to me very carefully. We love you and we’re here to take care of you for as long as necessary. Your mother has left your father and she’s living somewhere with a boyfriend. Your mother won’t be coming home, at least not for a while. We haven’t been able to reach your father, and we don’t know where he is or how long he’ll be gone. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I want to make sure you know that your mother and your father love you very much. But they just couldn’t get along together any more. That’s why your mother left, and that’s all there is to it. Come on over and give us another big hug.”
My brother Jack burst into tears and screamed, “She has to come home! She has to come home!”
My grandmother knelt down and reached out to embrace Jack, but he ran screaming from the kitchen toward his bedroom. My brother and I were both crying, and my grandmother hugged us tightly. My grandfather went to Jack’s bedroom to try to calm him down. I was trying to stop the runaway train in my mind, but I couldn’t. It was obvious, even to me as a five-year-old, that my mother had lied to us—she had concocted the whole story about going away for the weekend. She had betrayed and abandoned us—her vanishing act robbed me of my earliest innocence, shattering my tender, impressionable heart. Suddenly I was thrust into a world without a sense of safety and security. I felt like there was nobody I could trust. Tragically, this was only the first in a long series of traumatic events that would haunt me for many decades to come.
~ ~ ~
We stayed at my parents’ house for several weeks, and then we moved to my grandparents’ one-bedroom trailer in Los Angeles. My grandparents were already approaching sixty when we began living with them. And even though they had been struggling financially, they were determined to provide a home for us instead of abandoning us to the probable fate of being split up and living in separate foster homes. I started sucking my thumb and wetting the bed at night. My young mind was tortured by endless confusion. I remember many nights crying myself to sleep. I was taught to say my prayers every night, and if I did so faithfully, God would listen to me and answer them. Kneeling down by the side of my bed, I said this common child’s prayer, which my grandparents had taught me.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take. If I should live for other days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways. God Bless Grandma and Grandpa, God Bless Mom and Dad wherever they are and please bring them back together, and God Bless my brothers, my aunts and uncles, and the whole world.”
Then every night I added my own secret prayer, which I spoke silently to God. I prayed that I would wake up the next morning in a little girl’s body. “God, I’m supposed to be a little girl, but I’m really not. I’m a little girl living in a little boy’s body. God, please let me wake up tomorrow morning and be a real little girl.”
I thought that some kind of mistake had been made when I was born, and in my own heart and mind, I was just asking God to make me the way I was supposed to be. I guess I didn’t realize that I was asking God for a miracle. I remembered learning in Sunday School about all the miracles that Jesus performed, such as restoring sight to a blind man, healing people who were sick, and even raising Lazarus from the dead. I wasn’t asking to be raised from the dead, I was just asking God to fix the mistake and put me into the body of a little girl. I believed all those stories, and why shouldn’t I have believed them? Our grandparents were born again Christians who were members of the Pentecostal Church that we attended every Sunday. At the end of each service the ministers, elders and deacons would lay their hands upon the sick, praying to God for their healing. And later I would hear the testimony from those same persons, sharing their stories of how God had healed them.
Night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, I kept asking God to make me over as a little girl in a little girl’s body. I really believed that God could do it. As time went on, it seemed as though my desperate prayers fell hopelessly on the ears of a God who was not listening to me. I finally gave up praying for a little girl’s body, and I began to pray to God to make the little girl in me go away and let me be a boy. But the little girl never went away. She was always there, playing with her Susie Homemaker Oven. At a very young age when I was at home alone I had started dressing in my grandmother’s clothes. I was happy and I felt complete. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw myself the way I dreamed of being.
Yet, even though I knew I was a girl, most of the time I was forced into the role of a boy. Everyone else thought I was a boy, but the truth was that I was a girl who was living in a boy’s body. That became my secret, and I owned my secret. But after my mother abandoned me, there was nobody I could talk to, because there was nobody I could TRUST.
As a child I was always drawn to the types of activities that girls would enjoy. If I had a choice of playing with G.I. Joe or Barbie, I would definitely choose Barbie. If I were given a choice of playing baseball or baking cookies, I would much rather bake cookies. I couldn’t even throw a ball, much less play baseball. Trying to behave like a boy and take part in boy’s activities was a constant struggle for me. I felt as though I was an actor on stage—a girl pretending to be a boy. I was never living as myself—I was always impersonating someone whom I was not. I would much rather participate in girl’s activities. In my female role I felt happy and content, and I cherished the times when I could be home alone and be a girl in private.
After my dad left, he never found my mother, and we didn’t see him or hear from him for a couple of years. He went to The University of Colorado and got a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He met a girl in college and they got married, and he got a job with one of the major aircraft manufacturers. When I was 14 years old we moved from California to live with my father and stepmother in Georgia. I was still bitter because of my confusing childhood, and things got off to a rocky start. I tried my best to stick it out, but after a year and a half my relationship with my father had deteriorated to the point where I felt that I couldn’t live at home any longer. When I was 16 I asked my dad for permission to quit school and leave home. He said okay. I worked at Burger Chef during the day and lived in a moving and storage building at night. I was scared, hungry, lonely, frustrated and depressed, but at least I didn’t have to take any more grief from my father. After several months on my own, I was sick and tired of being homeless, so I returned to ask my father’s forgiveness. He rejected me outright and told me I had to become a man, and the only way to do that was to join the military. The only branch of the service that would accept me at age 17 was the Marine Corps. My father signed a permission slip and I was shipped off to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina on July 12, 1967, just six days after my seventeenth birthday. I was quite small for my age and had not yet reached full puberty. I was feminine in appearance, had no facial hair, almost no body hair, and I was brutally harassed, humiliated and bullied in the Marine Corps. Things got so bad that I went AWOL after a failed suicide attempt and made it to New York City where I lived as a girl, mostly homeless, but with an occasional roof over my head. My luck was short-lived—I was caught, arrested, and returned to Camp Lejeune—this time with developing breasts, fingernail polish and all. I was given another Marine Corps haircut, placed into a male barracks, and immediately scheduled to go to Vietnam. One night a very large, strong and powerful Marine raped me while two other Marines held me down. As they were switching places for a gang rape, I managed to break free and ran naked out of the barracks, screaming hysterically. A couple of MPs picked me up in a Jeep, got me some clothes, and took me to the CO’s headquarters. My commanding officer convinced me to not make an official report because I would be branded as a homosexual and dishonorably discharged, and my family would be disgraced. The Marine Corps offered me no help or protection whatsoever. My CO sent me back to the same barracks where I would be forced to bunk with the same men who had committed this violent act against me. I was seventeen years old, physically under-developed at 5’ 6” and 112 pounds, and those Marines who raped me had every reason to assume that I had reported the incident. Would they rape me again? Would they beat me up? Would they kill me and dump me in the woods? These were the thoughts that were racing through my mind.
I was scared to death. When I returned to the barracks I realized that I didn’t have enough money to go AWOL again. I borrowed as much money as I could from anyone who would lend it to me so I could buy a bus ticket to New York. That same afternoon I boarded the daily Marine Corps bus for town, bought a ticket to New York City, and began my flight to freedom.
I survived a freezing winter in New York City sleeping on park benches, riding on the Staten Island Ferry, and going hungry for days on end. I still remember the acute pain of starvation in my stomach. I had dropped from 112 to 89 pounds, and I was a walking skeleton. Now it was April 1968 and I had taken a job at a restaurant. I lied about my age to get the job, as I was still three months short of my 18th birthday. I had created my new identity—Sandy Allison—complete with a social security number. Even though I had food to eat and a place to live and I felt like I was safely away from the Marine Corps, I was completely and totally despondent. I wasn’t a boy and I vowed that—come Hell or high water—I would never live to see anything resembling manhood. I was a young woman, but I couldn’t continue to live as a young woman in a young man’s body. I couldn’t see any way out. I was cursed with the horrible fate of being a freak. I felt like totally damaged goods, like there was something irreparably and irreversibly wrong with me.
Although I had been living outwardly as a young woman, every time I got undressed, I was reminded that I was imprisoned in a young man’s body. The pain and the shame I felt every minute of every day were so unbearable that my situation was beyond my ability to cope. I was humiliated and depressed, and I felt completely hopeless. I decided that I just couldn’t live like that anymore, and so early one rainy April morning in New York City I decided that the only way to escape from my imprisonment was to commit suicide.
I stood in my bedroom staring blankly out the window. My tears were falling as fast as the raindrops outside. My heart and soul felt as cold as the dismal, gray weather. I felt ashamed, unworthy, and unable to continue. My entire childhood flashed in front of my eyes. I felt the unbearable pain from the deep shame and humiliation that I had always felt, but had buried deep within myself. Now it was all rushing out and overwhelming me like a giant tsunami of grief and terror. I could not go on like this anymore.
When I was growing up, I had been taught in church sermons that homosexuals were labeled as queers who were possessed by demons, and they were condemned to burn in Hell for all Eternity. Maybe I was possessed by Demons? I cried out to God, “Why was I born this way? Why me? Please, God, I need a miracle. Give me a miracle or let me die.”
I stood there for a long time, but nothing happened. There was no miracle for me. In the confused mind of a 17-year-old it was obvious that I was unworthy of God’s Love, and that I was possessed by demons. It was clear to me that God had abandoned me. It didn’t matter that I would burn in Hell forever, because I had already been living in Hell for most of my young life. I climbed into bed and began sobbing even louder. After a long while no more tears would flow and I knew that the only way out was death. My family had abandoned me, and surely now God had also abandoned me.
I got out of bed and stood once again at the window looking out at the rain falling from the sky. My whole body was shaking, but I felt completely numb. I went to the bathroom to get my stash of drugs out of the medicine cabinet. The plastic vial was there with a pharmacy label: Tuinal. When I opened it I found only 4 capsules. I knew that would not be enough to kill me. I got a razor blade from the medicine cabinet, filled a glass with water from the sink, grabbed the vial of Tuinals, and returned to my bedroom. I set the glass, vial and razor blade on the night table next to my bed. I sat down on the bed, dumped the four Tuinals into my right palm, popped them into my mouth, took a slug of water, and swallowed them down. I set the vial and the glass down on the table. I picked up the razor blade with my right hand and made a tentative slash across my left wrist. It started bleeding, but I could see that it was not enough. I slashed again—deeper this time—and more blood flowed.
Still not enough, I thought. I better cut both my wrists.
I took the razor blade in my left hand and slashed across my right wrist. Some blood came out. In a violent rage of hate and self-loathing, I slashed again and again, deeper and deeper each time, with an ever deepening determination to bring an end to my miserable life. Blood began spurting. I was starting to feel lightheaded and I thought I had cut myself deeply enough to finish the job. I dropped the razor blade on the table and lay down on the bed. As I was fading into unconsciousness, I felt a tremendous sense of relief, and I was enveloped by a feeling of incredible warmth and love.
~ ~ ~
Across the street at the restaurant where I worked, Tom, the owner, looked at the clock, which read 4 a.m. He was waiting for me to arrive for my shift, and he was always glad to see me. He knew that I had been working double shifts and that I was tired, but still I always arrived at work on time, and to be late was completely out of character for me. He walked over to the wall phone and dialed my number. He let it ring six times, but there was no answer. He turned to Cosmo, the cook, who had just reported for his shift. Cosmo was a good looking Greek guy in his mid 30s.
“Cosmo, Sandy’s not answering her phone. She’s never late. Go across the street and see if she’s okay.”
“Right away, Tom.”
Cosmo exited the restaurant by the front door and dashed across the street to my hotel. Even though he was married, he had a crush on me. He had visited me before and he knew my room number, although nothing had ever happened between us. He took the elevator to the third floor, stepped out, strode quickly down the hall, and knocked on my door. There was no answer. He ran back to the elevator, went down to the lobby, and walked over to the man at the front desk.
“My name’s Cosmo. Sandy Allison works with me at the restaurant across the street and she’s late for work. There was no answer when we called her on the phone. I just knocked on her door and I didn’t get a response. Can you open her door to see if she’s okay?”
“Sure, right away. Sandy’s a great kid.”
The front desk clerk and Cosmo got in the elevator, went to the third floor, got out, arrived at my suite, and the clerk opened the door. Cosmo walked into the living room.
“Sandy…Sandy…are you home?”
He opened the bedroom door and saw me lying on the bed. He noticed a small pool of blood on the floor and some blood on the bedcovers. He rushed over to me, placed his fingers on my neck to check for a pulse, and found that I was alive and breathing steadily, but unconscious. He saw that my wrists had been slashed. He returned to the living room.
“Sandy’s okay. She’s been working double shifts and she’s exhausted, but she’ll be fine. Thanks for letting me in.”
“Sure thing. Take care, now.”
The clerk closed the door as he left. Cosmo rushed back into my bedroom and checked my pulse again. I was still alive and breathing steadily. He picked up the phone and dialed.
At the restaurant, Tom answered. “Tom speaking.”
“Tom, Cosmo here. Sandy slashed her wrists. She’s alive, but she’s unconscious and she needs help. I told the hotel clerk she’s okay, because I didn’t want her to get thrown out.”
“Oh, my God, Cosmo. Are you sure she’s okay? Do we need to call an ambulance?”
“I’m sure she’s okay, Tom. She’s got a pulse, she’s breathing okay, and it doesn’t look like she’s lost that much blood.”
“Okay, Cosmo, I’ll send Diane over right away.”
Diane had been a registered nurse who had gone on to get a Ph. D. in Psychology and was now a practicing Psychologist.
~ ~ ~
Cosmo grabbed a towel from the bathroom, tore it into strips, and wrapped them around my wrists to stop the bleeding. He covered me with an extra blanket to keep me warm, and sat on my bed next to me, with his hand on my forehead. Fortunately Tom’s wife Diane had dropped Tom off at work and was having breakfast at the restaurant. She came over to my room right away. Diane and Cosmo removed the strips of towels, and applied butterfly bandages to my wrists. Diane picked up the vial and saw that it was labeled Tuinal.
“Cosmo, it looks like she took Tuinal, but I don’t know how many.”
I came to, opened my eyes, and saw Diane looking at me.
“Sandy, how many Tuinals did you take?”
“Four,” I replied groggily.
“Okay, Sandy. You’re going to be fine. We’re bringing you home to my house and you can stay there for as long as you need to.”
I remember saying, “Thank you, Diane.”
Diane picked up the vial and the razor blade and put them in a brown paper bag.
“Cosmo, grab a towel from the bathroom and clean up the blood on the floor. Then we’ll get Sandy out of here.”
Cosmo quickly cleaned up my room. He and Diane bundled me up and took me to Tom and Diane’s home in Bayside, Queens.
~ ~ ~
I lived with them for the next year and a half. Living in a nice residential area with grass, trees and flowers was a very welcome change from the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Here I was able to recuperate and begin my new journey of recovery, renewal and rebirth. Although I was living at her home, Diane also took me on as a patient and we had regular therapy sessions. Diane began to explain to me that my condition was not really so uncommon. She was very much aware of the Transgender condition, and she recognized immediately that this was my condition. Diane was also very smart and very professional, and she knew that I needed to have more treatment than she could provide. She got me an appointment with Dr. Harry Benjamin, who in 1966 had published his groundbreaking book, The Transsexual Phenomenon. He recognized that this was not a mental condition, but instead was a medical condition that could be corrected with surgery. I found him to be very compassionate and kind. He was extremely sympathetic toward transsexual persons and the transsexual community. Over the next ten weeks I met with Dr. Benjamin for regularly scheduled appointments and therapy. He referred me to Dr. Benito Rish, who was a plastic surgeon and was also working with the transsexual community. He had studied sexual reassignment surgery and he had begun performing SRS operations on patients at Yonkers Professional Hospital in New York. On June 28, 1968, I realized that God really had been listening to me, and I received my miracle through sexual reassignment surgery, becoming the woman who I am today.