When Two Worlds Collide

A DANGEROUS WOMAN: Exposing the Dark Underbelly of the Nonprofit World and How Cancel Culture Came for Me, Chapter 2

Estoy bien feliz…

If Silvia closes her eyes and tries really hard, she sees a little girl and she’s spinning round and round. She has a flowered dress on and it looks just like a big bunch of color, spinning like that, and she looks up at the sky and she’s so happy. She feels free, you know? No worries, no cares. Nobody after her, nobody wanting anything from her. Spinning like that, she thinks she can fly and she knows she will if she just goes fast enough.

Well, okay, maybe not this time, but next time.

See, if she just dreams and wishes, if she’s just determined enough and doesn’t give up and spins fast enough, then she can do it. When she’s flying so high, no one will laugh, they’ll believe in her, they’ll go, oh my God, and have a lot of admiration. She’ll be far away, she’ll be able to go anywhere, be anything, say, “eve chingados esta pasando” to everyone, it’ll be primo.

That little girl has so much spirit, so much hope that you’ve never seen anywhere, all coming out of her big brown eyes and her laughing mouth. So you know what they call her? Smiley.

Silvia loved Bella Gardens. She was happy there. Her family lived in a little house behind her aunt’s house. One day, Silvia was maybe seven years old, and she was bouncing a ball in front of her aunt’s house all by herself. This older boy, he came and took her ball and threw it down the street and called her a dirty bitch or something and ran away. Silvia loved that ball. It belonged to her and it was her favorite color, blue with gold stars on it. She wasn’t supposed to go down that street, but she loved that ball. Everything was quiet. The boy had disappeared. It was real hot, like around the late afternoon. The street looked so long, her ball looked so far away. Silvia was scared but she started to run down the street and then she picked up her ball. She looked back at her aunt’s house and she’d never been so far away before. But she wanted to keep going, so even though her heart was beating hard in her chest, she kept on running down to the end of the street. Just to be brave. Just to show she could do it.

Except that, somewhere between where she picked up her ball and the end of the street it was as if she lost her skin. It just came off, just like that, and she felt like all her insides were hanging out. She suddenly saw that she was all exposed and she wasn’t safe. It was dangerous where she was.

Well, should Silvia tell you why she was so scared? It was because she used to play drive-by’s with her cousins. Why did they do that? Because one time they saw a drive-by, for real. They’d been playing outside and a car went by them and down to the end of the street and then there was a popping noise—not like you think a gun would make—and somebody fell down on the other side of the street. Silvia and her cousins didn’t realize what it was, even though they were looking right at it and saw the whole thing. It was only when they heard some lady screaming and crying and shouting to get an ambulance that they figured it out. Because, you know, it takes a while to realize when something bad happens, you just can’t believe it. So, when Silvia realized what had happened, she just turned around and she’d never run so fast back to her house.

So that’s why she felt as if she’d lost her skin that day. She knew she’d gone too far. She knew it wasn’t safe. She knew she was all exposed and nothing would ever be the same again.

At 38 years old, I was living in an upper middle class tract home in the affluent northern Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas. I was married to a wealthy real estate developer named Walter Hubert Leimert III and we had two children, Walter, age 4, who I called Harry, and Max, age 2. My daughter, Katya, was from a previous marriage and was 14.

Such respectability, such normalcy, hadn’t come easily to me. As a teenager, I had rebelled against my fundamentalist Christian upbringing and run off to England to finish college. My daughter was the beautiful result of a disastrous marriage to an aspiring Yugoslavian pop star. I had lived with him for seven years, back and forth between London and a Slovenian village, before returning to Los Angeles at the age of 30 with my tail between my legs, holding onto my daughter with one hand and a single suitcase with the other.

One afternoon in 1989, Katya and I had been enjoying the beautiful weather on the bluffs above Santa Monica Pier when Walter came along on his bicycle. I noticed him loitering by a palm tree, presumably gathering the nerve to talk to me. He looked the height of respectability, and when he approached and struck up a conversation I didn’t turn away. We sat on a bench and talked pleasantries until I said I had to go. Walter flagged down a fellow bicyclist and borrowed a pen, fished a piece of paper out of the trash, and wrote down his work number.

“Call me,” he said.

I put the number in a drawer in my room and two months later came across it again.

“What have you got to lose?” my sister Janna said. “Call him.”

On our first date we met at a restaurant. On our second we went to see the movie When Harry Met Sally. We had a great time on both occasions. Walter had a good sense of humor. I liked that he acted proper and respectful. He had a real job and a steady income. All the complete opposite of my first husband.

The marriage proposal came a year later, to the day, on those same bluffs. It was romantic, thoughtful, and I said yes. Why wouldn’t I? I loved him in a sweet way, not the wild impulsive way of my first marriage. As we walked back to the car, aglow with happiness, a bird flew by and landed a turd right on Walters head. It’s good luck, I was told. I didn’t see how that could be, but never mind. I didn’t believe in superstitions.

Walter and I never had any real arguments until Harry was born. When he was a baby of a mere six weeks old, that’s when I started hearing what was to become an endless refrain: Karen, you don’t contribute your fair share. You’re taking advantage of me. You think you can just sit around and do nothing, live off of me? When are you going to get a job? My part of the “deal” as Walter came to call it, was to bear two children. We’d discussed the fact that if I was going to get married and have more children, then I wanted to focus on them until they were in school. This we had agreed on. Walter wasn’t poor, far from it. He came from an old California real estate family, with an interesting and, in some ways, troubling history, as I was to find out.  

The Leimert men had a habit of marrying artistic women and then discarding them after they had born children. The first Walter, the one who had built the real estate empire, had married a Zeigfield Follies girl named Lucille.

She’d gone on to write a column for the Los Angeles Times. Lucille had been so unhappy in her marriage that she’d run off to Carmel and built herself a house in the exclusive 17 Mile Drive neighborhood. Walter told me that when she died, they found her in the master bathroom where, on every inch of the bathroom walls, she’d taped torn bits of paper with horrible sayings about her husband. The times we went to stay in the house and I used the bathroom, I often felt as if her ghost was whispering to me, watch out.

It was creepy. How sad that on her death that was what she had to leave behind, bitterness and hatred. It would never happen to me, I resolved.

Walter’s mom, Joyce MacKenzie, had been an aspiring MGM actress. She’d been Jane in one of the first Tarzan movies and had kissed Gary Cooper in High Noon.

Joyce was a vivacious woman and a lot of fun to be around. I enjoyed listening to her stories of her past glory days, being invited on a date with Howard Hughes and flying with him in his plane (a very strange man), driving around with Marilyn Monroe (a nice, innocent girl who’d been taken advantage of horribly) in her cute little convertible that she had bought with her own money. Joyce had given up her career to marry Walter “Tim” Leimert Jr, because that’s what women did in those days. Tim had put her into a guest house with hardly any furniture while setting up his mistress in a swank apartment on Larchmont Blvd, where Leimert Company still has its offices. Joyce had born two sons, just like I was to do years later, and had filed for divorce shortly after her second son had been born. She had gone on to marry three other men, for a total of five husbands all together.

I was determined that my marriage wouldn’t go the way of the previous Leimert wives. But I was fighting an uphill battle. I didn’t know at the time that not only had my husband inherited this Leimert attitude toward women, but he had serious mental issues that would become more and more apparent as time went on.

In those days, I was far away from Silvia and her world. How could our worlds ever collide?

I would never have met Silvia Sanchez or any of the other girls in my writing class at Central Juvenile Hall if it hadn’t been for a restlessness in my spirit that I couldn’t quell. And a woman named Alma Woods. I suppose you could say that those two forces colliding were the initial impetus that led to the formation of the nonprofit InsideOUT Writers.

One morning in the spring of 1996, I was sitting in my light-filled kitchen reading the newspaper when I came across an article about Alma. Almost single-handedly she’d been responsible for the construction of the Watts Public Library. A Black mother raising two sons on her own, she’d fought the bureaucrats to get the library built and had finally won. A huge controversy had ensued. The community wanted to name the library after her, but there was a rule about public buildings. They could only be named after someone who had contributed at least a million dollars to their construction. Alma certainly hadn’t done that. Her contribution couldn’t be measured in dollars. It was priceless. The community had won and today would be the opening ceremony of the library bearing her name.

That morning, having taken my daughter to school, my two boys playing in the other room with the housekeeper, Estella, I felt that familiar restlessness rising to the surface. I’d been able to suppress it during the time when I’d been preoccupied with bearing children. But now, what was I going to do beyond that? I’d started going into Central Juvenile Hall to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth but my husband didn’t approve.

Yes, I was trying very hard to be a normal suburban mother. I had dutifully born my two sons and I was very happy and had a wonderful sense of fulfillment in that regard. But it wasn’t enough for my spirit. There was more that I yearned to do with my life. I could not just be the suburban housewife. Except for one wild habit, that of studying various forms of martial arts and weapons and having achieved a 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, since my marriage I’d made every effort to conform to what was expected of me in society as an upper middle class American wife.

Surely it wouldn’t hurt to make one more slight deviation. How much trouble could I get in for that? With some excitement, I resolved to get in my car and drive down to Watts. I would attend the opening ceremony of the Alma Reeves Woods Public Library and I would find Alma.

To anyone reading this it might seem like such a crazy random thing to do. But as I reveal more of this story, and it becomes more apparent the life I had led and the example my parents had set for me, it will not seem so strange. I felt something calling to me and I heeded the call.

I didn’t tell Walter about my decision, nor did I lie about it. I simply walked out of the house, leaving my boys in the care of Estella, got into my car and drove off. I couldn’t have explained my decision to find Alma in a way that my husband would ever have understood. I didn’t understand it myself. I just knew I had to do it.

As I exited the freeway at Martin Luther King Street, unsure of which way to turn, I spied a young Black woman in a Toyota waiting at the light next to me, her baby strapped into the car seat in the back. I rolled down my window and asked her if this was the way to the Watts Library.

“Follow me,” she said with a friendly grin.

I doubted that anyone in my neighborhood would have been so accommodating.

The young mother led me all the way to the library and then took off with a wave. Seating myself amongst the crowd, it wasn’t difficult to spot the guest of honor, sitting on the raised platform. Alma looked exactly like the photos I’d seen, a buxom matron dressed in her Sunday best, smiling from ear to ear throughout the ceremony, on this her proudest day.

Shy and unused to introducing myself to strangers, I nevertheless squeezed through the crowd afterwards and managed to shake the hand of the formidable lady, asking for a chance to speak with her further. Cameras flashed, people pressed around us, vying for her attention. We looked at each other and smiled and for a split second, the crowds and the noise melted away and it was just the two of us. She didn’t care about all of that and neither did I. Quickly, I explained that I was an author and illustrator of children’s books and I wanted to learn more about her life.

Her response was more than I had hoped for.

“Honey,” she said, writing down her phone number. “You come and see me anytime.”

I drove home that day knowing that something important had happened to me, but not fully sure what it was. It didn’t matter. I had learned invaluable lessons from my unusual upbringing, and one of them was to be sensitive to the callings of the spirit and follow where it would lead.

I was hungry for meaning and truth and a purpose. In all the years I’d spent in Los Angeles, I had never befriended a Black or Latina urban woman. It was not that I purposely excluded them from my life. It was just that I had grown up and now lived in an area that was far removed from these women. One thing my parents had given me was an open mind about crossing borders and accepting everyone no matter what. Readers can find out more about that in my childhood memoir, Into the World, but for now, let’s just say I was missing that wide world my parents had introduced me to as a child. I wanted to break free of the confinements of Calabasas and its desperately upwardly mobile inhabitants. Over time, I came to literally hate Calabasas. I knew I didn’t belong there, but I didn’t know where else I belonged either.

When Alma extended her invitation I didn’t dwell on the implications. I didn’t ask myself if I should or shouldn’t go. I jumped at the chance. Once again, without my husband’s knowledge and feeling almost as guilty as a woman having an affair, I got into my car and made the pilgrimage, traveling from my perfectly pristine and over-sized Spanish style house, punched from the same mold as all the other houses in my gated community, down to Alma’s charming and unique little home on a tidy street in Watts. She took me on a tour of her neighborhood. She told me how she knew all the children, young and old, and how she chided them if she saw them standing on the corner instead in school. Was she afraid of those tough young gangsters? Certainly not! They were afraid of her. When they saw her coming, they hung their heads in shame. Alma knew no fear. What she knew was conviction.

I went back to visit her many times. I listened to her as a student listens at the feet of a master. Alma told me her life story and I shared my doubts about my own.

As an author and illustrator of children’s books, I visited schools, but rather than just promote my books, I’d started a writing program called WordPower for Kids. It was three days of workshops. On the last day, I asked students if they had fifteen minutes to stand in front of the entire world and they knew everyone was going to listen to them, what would they say. I gave them some time to write down their answers and then share them. One girl eagerly raised her hand, stood up and began to read. She wanted to tell everyone in the world that “there’s a sale on at Nordstrom’s and well, you know, like, we all love shoes, right? So we should all go to Nordstrom’s and buy shoes.” Then, I think she must have realized that what she was reading didn’t sound very good, so she added on, “oh and you know, like there are people starving in the world so we should feed them.”

This was more than a little discouraging to me. I found myself wondering what kids in more challenging circumstances might choose to write about. Where could I find such children? Juvenile hall perhaps? I had started classes there but I didn’t know if I should continue. I shared my thoughts with Alma. Was I crazy to have such ideas?

“Honey,” she said. “Don’t you ever let anyone stop you from following your heart. Don’t you ever give up! It doesn’t matter the obstacles. It doesn’t matter if it’s your husband, your lover, your mother, your pastor, you teacher, whoever. Only you can live your life. Only you! And you have only yourself to blame if you don’t live it right.”

Coming from the mouth of that strong Black woman, sitting in a place I should never have been, so secretly, because I knew the reasons for my being there would not be understood by anyone, least of all my husband, those words were like the incantation from a seer.

Alma’s blessing gave me the push I needed to step out of the ordinary life that was stifling me, and further commit to teaching at Central Juvenile Hall.