They were serial killers, both of them. They were also the people my mom chose to babysit my sister and me. Regardless of where we were, I was happy if it wasn’t at home with an emotionally absent mom and an abusive step-father. When we were at home we were padlocked in a room for hours every day. Generally speaking, being away from home also guaranteed us a meal or two–we did not get that in the prison room.
Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole ultimately admitted to hundreds of murders, one of them being my step-sister, but most notably Adam Walsh. Both men were friends with my step-father and so we saw them often. We were responsible for feeding ourselves, so my sister and I worked odd jobs. One of my jobs was cleaning the serial killers’ house. I was seven years old and have vivid memories of washing dishes standing on a step stool. I often feel fortunate to be alive. There really isn’t a logical explanation that either one of them did not add us to their murder roster. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, this was a time God showed up. His will trumped the unspeakable evil in those men and as a result I am alive to tell you about the faithfulness of God. He is, indeed, faithful and so good regardless of how it looks.
Otis Toole was arrested for the murder of Adam Walsh and Henry Lee Lucas disappeared after he killed my step-sister. Eventually they both ended up on death row where they died of natural causes. But, their arrest did not protect me from other men abusing me. My mom continued to send us to unsafe places with unsafe people. Ultimately, because of her neglect, there would be 7 different men who decided I was their property. At about age 7, I decided to pick where I was going to hang out, but even I picked unsafe places. And it was at that age abuser number one stole my innocence along with the innocence of several other kids in the same room. For years, I could not remember who the man in the room was. There were so many nights I fell asleep talking to the air, hoping somebody was listening.
About 3 years later, I was at my friend’s house when we opened the door to a man and a woman offering free candy if we wanted to go to church. To be honest, I viewed going to church as another place I could be that wasn’t home. I was all about jumping on that yellow bus and going to church. What I found there changed the course of my life forever. That “Air” I had been talking to had a name and it was Jesus, and He had a plan for my life. The people at church told me I was important and valuable. I’d never felt so loved. Every time the doors were open, I was at church. As it would turn out many years later, God used that church and those people for a season of my life when I had nobody but them. God continued to remain faithful and I know that knock on the door changed everything for me. However, it was difficult to reconcile how a “good” God could allow all that happened to me up until that point. I wanted to know this Jesus and as I sought to know Him, I clung to His promise to never leave me because everyone else had.
My mom continued to bring danger into our home. Ultimately, the state got involved and removed me from her care. They told her if she would make her pedophile boyfriend leave that they would bring me back home. She agreed, and I was elated that she’d chosen me over the man that would have been the 8th person to abuse me. The social workers drove me to our house and from the car I could see a yellow sticky note on the glass front door. The note had 5 words on it: “Gone to get married, Mom.” Those five simple words made me an orphan, alone and abandoned by the one who gave me life and should have loved me. The social workers walked me back to the car, their tears matching mine.
They drove straight to the courthouse where I watched the judge sign off on paperwork terminating my mom’s parental rights. I literally belonged to nobody, except the state of Florida. I stayed with my pastor and his family for 18 months before being placed in a children’s home in Tampa, Florida.
I often tell people that the years I spent at the children’s home were some of the best years of my life. However, when my foster parents dropped me off there, it felt like another abandonment. My already fragile heart shattered into a million pieces as I watched them drive away from the children’s home. The first weeks were brutal, but my faithful God provided for me from the first day. I was immediately loved and cherished by the people there, and that was a time when the Air I’d been praying to felt palatable to me; it felt like He just picked me up and carried me. By the time I got to the children’s home it felt like I’d lived 3 lifetimes. But the truth is I’d only traveled around the sun 14 times. I’d survived more trauma than most people would see in a lifetime. But He was still there, He changed the narrative and got me out of situations where abusive people would be added to my roster. Even at that young age, I understood that I would not survive all that happened without Him, and I was and am confused as to how people live their lives without Him.
While at the children’s home, I had many opportunities to tell my story, and I did. We traveled to churches around the country and I would stand in front of hundreds of people and tell the story of the serial killers. I testified that neither one of them hurt me, because that is what my memory told me.
But memory is a weird thing and once I was safe at the home, I began to remember other things that I’d buried in a memory bank that I wished was permanently closed. Even so, I thrived there and after graduating from college, I moved back to Jacksonville where I met and married the next name to be added to my roster.
By the time Henry Lee Lucas died in 2001, I had all but forgotten about him, but remained fearful of the things that would withdraw itself from my memory bank. By that time, I was in the throes of an abusive marriage. There were times I wished the serial killers would have chosen me for one of their victims. I’d survived 7 different abusers as a child and now was living with, being hit by, and controlled by a monster.
The prison room of my childhood was merely replaced by a prison house where I was isolated from friends and got very good at hiding bruises for when I was allowed to leave the house. He’d crowned himself both judge and jury and his game was isolation. He craved power and knew that controlling me was controlling the narrative of our crazy lives. I no longer trusted the faithfulness of God. The pain was too much and I began to believe that I was alive for the sole purpose of being the prey of others. I stopped going to church, stopped reading my Bible, and I definitely stopped talking to the Air. I survived by self-medicating which, in turn, became a full-blown addiction to pain pills. Remembering things I’d forgotten coupled with the war waging in my own home was too much for me. I didn’t want to be alive. I took a handful of pain pills, washed it down with a bottle of wine, and was shocked when I woke up the next morning. I knew something had to change and I needed help for the pervasive sexual and physical abuse that had firmly placed itself in the forefront of my memory. When I woke up that morning, grateful I didn’t die of an overdose, I started talking to the Air again. I wanted to end my decade long standoff with God. I found a Bible and begged God to change the story in my home, but also thanked Him for His faithfulness. Jesus met me at the intersection of hope & despair. It turns out that Jesus was exactly where He was when I decided to ignore Him and I craved relationship with Him—even if He didn’t change the narrative at home. I was very close to leaving my husband, but could not see my way clear to that since he had effectively taken all access to money away from me. The tipping point was the night I woke up to a massive headache as a result of being hit with a .45 caliber gun. I knew then that one of two things were going to happen. He was going to either pull that trigger and it would all be over, or I would find a way to leave him. So, with less than $1,000 I left him, spending some time in Canada first because of how dangerous he continued to be. Ultimately, I moved back to Clearwater where I went to college. Even though only a few of my friends lived there, it was important for me to get as far away from him as possible.
If I doubted the faithfulness of God at all, what happened next could not be scripted by the best of storytellers.
Signatures on divorce papers didn’t make the danger go away and I was constantly looking over my shoulder as my abusive, now ex-husband continued to threaten my life. Even though I left him, it felt like abandonment, again. I spent much of my time trying to understand God and when He would decide that I’d had enough. So, I stopped talking to the Air again; but Jesus was not going to let go. I remembered a big church on the corner not far from my apartment. So, I decided that I would give it a try. While that decision felt like my own, I can see now that this was another place where Jesus met me in that painful place. He picked me up and carried me. Again. I met friends at that church that stood in huge gaps for me and are still part of my healing today. While I was trying to figure out God, they were talking to him on my behalf, a lot.
Attempting to figure out God is exhausting. As it turned out, that big church on a corner had a school and I’d landed a teaching job. Both the church and work became a refuge for me. As long as I was at either of those places I was ok, but the real war came at night. And I was simply tired of fighting monsters that I could not see. I didn’t see it then, but I do now. God had handpicked that church, that school and more importantly those friends for the sole purpose of holding me up, because I couldn’t do it alone, no matter how hard I tried. And believe me, I tried.
I’d been in Clearwater about a year when all of the trauma caught up with me, and my body rebelled in grand fashion. Everyday felt like adrenaline was running through my veins, sleep was rare and eating even more rare. One night I laid in bed staring at the ceiling and every time the clock indicated another hour had passed without sleep, I took a Klonopin. By the time morning came, I’d taken 9 pills. I still went to work and about my day. For reasons that I can’t explain I told one of my bosses what I had taken the night before. As I spoke to him I felt like I was looking into the eyes of Jesus, because his compassion and kindness lead to a decision that probably saved my life. An hour later, one of my friends was driving me to the hospital. I signed myself into the psych ward, where I spent the next 5 days. The doctors began throwing around words like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and nervous breakdown. While I was there I felt free for the first time in my life to just breathe. Nobody wanted anything from me there, my only job was to eat, rest and breathe.
After getting out of the hospital the real work began. Memories were still stealing sleep and therefore my health was rapidly declining. Most of the PTSD flashbacks didn’t make sense, but I continued to have one very strong flashback and that was the first abuser and that hot dark room when I became the world’s youngest adult. I had several years of these flashbacks and I survived them because of my commitment to and participation in solid counseling. I knew there were things I simply could not remember, except in parts. As I got healthier both physically and emotionally, new layers of memories would present themselves. Most of them were benign in nature and I was able to use some of the skills I learned in counseling to mitigate the terror.
However, I had a true crisis of faith when my worst fear came true, remembering something I’d forgotten. Henry Lee Lucas was one of those things I’d forgotten. It was him, he was the one in the room. The realization of this crashed down on me in many ways. I ebb from grateful he did not kill me to guilty for the same reason. This has been a difficult realization because I understand that I easily could have been a victim of more than sexual abuse from Henry Lee Lucas. Remembering things like this that my brain has “forgotten” has driven me to my knees more than once in recent years. I would be lying if I didn’t say I am still fearful of the things I don’t remember. But, again, Jesus won’t let go, and so I find myself begging Him for grace to trust Him more if I do remember more things I have forgotten.
I realize that I cannot breathe without my Air. While my life is defined by abandonment, there is One who has never left, and who never will. I understand that He knows my pain as He himself was abandoned on the cross.
Because He is, in fact, good–even when reality isn’t.