Ordinary People

They're not in the motel room anymore. When I knock on the door no one answers, and later I find out they're both gone. I already knew she had left but I thought he'd still be around.

He isn't, and I'm relieved. I didn't enjoy the company of Jose the last time I met him.

It was at this same place, this squalid motel on Grand Avenue. When I knock on the door right now, it's early evening, just getting dark. The air is cool. But when I first came here it was on a July afternoon, and the sun was pounding the parched buildings with fierceness that seemed physical.

I was there to see Judy Cannon. She had called to tell me that she'd been abused and humiliated while in jail for shoplifting. Ironically, she had called the cops because her boyfriend was hitting her. They didn't have enough evidence to arrest him, but they found that Judy had an outstanding warrant for shoplifting, so they took her to jail. Naively, she wanted the story of her incarceration to be published in the hope that it might help stop institutional abuses from happening to other people.

It was a common story. And the situation I found her living in was a common one, too--alcoholic, sharing a room with a man who supported her financially and beat her when he felt like it. Jose, a glowering, thuggish man in his 40s whose meanness made him seem younger, wouldn't let Judy talk to me when I showed up at their motel room that day. He told me to leave, and I did. I had to. It was his room, his rent.

I then interviewed Judy over the phone, and the story was published ("Grand Motel," August 6).

But, even as I wrote it, I was apprehensive. So were other people. "What if he kills her when he sees it?" one colleague remarked to me. But, reasoning that he was beating her already, and that if he was going to kill her he would anyway, I went ahead.

As it turns out, he didn't kill her. But he gave it a good try.

This time it was her mother who called me.
Joan Dunsire lives in Kentucky. She called to tell me that her daughter had called her from a Phoenix hospital. She was there because Jose had beaten her so severely that her leg was broken and she had had seizures.

"I didn't talk to her for long," Dunsire told me. "She said she had to go fill out some paperwork for the hospital, but she'd call me back after that. But she didn't." Dunsire lost track of her daughter, and feared the worst. "I called the Phoenix police, but they weren't helpful. I called the morgue and the medical examiner's office. Someone there was helpful, and checked to see if Judy's body was there."

It wasn't. Judy was alive, and was hiding out in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. She'd heard that Jose was looking for her.

Living in a cheap motel room. Shoplifting beer because you need a drink before the guy you live with comes home from work. Being battered by him. Screaming matches. Calling the cops while you're drunk, and being handcuffed and taken to jail yourself.

We like to think it's the kind of thing that only happens to a certain class of people. We call them white trash, trailer trash, crackers. We like to think we're safe from ever having to live that way, that the social context we're born into will protect us. We like to think that these people were born the way they are.

Judy Cannon wasn't.
Judy's upbringing was that of the archetypal American, middle-class teenager. "She was a promising student," says her mother. "She was a cheerleader. She lacked nothing. She lived in a $300,000 home. She had every privilege a child could have. She could have had a very good life. Why she didn't, heaven only knows."

But ominous signs began to appear when Judy was in her teens. Her parents noticed that the boys she dated uniformly treated her badly. She began drinking, and was an instantaneous alcoholic.

She got married in her 20s. Her husband was emotionally abusive. They had a kid together, but they weren't fit parents and the little girl was taken from them. She now lives with Judy's mother, who adopted her. Judy had another kid with another man, but her husband was given custody of that one.

"I know--it's a soap opera, isn't it?" says Joan Dunsire.
Has Judy ever tried to pull her life together?
"Yes," says her mother. "But she never does. About 10 years ago, she left her husband and came home. But he called her, saying he'd spent all his money on cocaine, and she went back to him."

The answer is predictable. "She thinks she deserves to be treated that way. She has no self-esteem."

Again, I ask why, but only as a matter of reportorial routine. If parents actually know the source of their child's traumas or tragedies, it's not in their best interest to talk about it. The guilty don't talk, and the innocent don't know.

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