The Power of Words
A DANGEROUS WOMAN: Exposing the Dark Underbelly of the Nonprofit World and How Cancel Culture Came for Me Chapter 3
In an excellent piece by Glenn Greenwald, he says, “Equating accusations with proven fact is reckless and repressive. It is also standard behavior in liberal politics, whereby they ruin lives without a second thought.”
My life was ruined—or attempted to be ruined because I refused to let it overcome me—by rumor and innuendo. This, long before cancel culture was a thing.
It’s ironic that during this time of lockdowns and other restrictions on our innate rights, I at last feel the freedom to write this history. I’m glad to have found this space on Substack where I can write without worry of censorship. There is nothing more important to me than having my voice.
It was in the winter of 1996, or perhaps even in the fall of 1995, I’m not sure which, that I first went into Central Juvenile Hall. I gave my heart to building a creative writing program for incarcerated youth, fighting to have their voices heard. When I stood up against the established elite they took my right to speak away. It was so easy for them. They had all the power. No one dared to question their decisions. Certainly, not when an award-winning nun was leading the charge. I was asked many times, but why would she do that to you? It’s all here, in these pages. It will take a few chapters to get there, because nothing is as simple as the media pundits would like you to believe. Telling rumors, or part of the story, twisting facts to seem like the opposite of what they actually are, is a tactic of the powerful to control those they perceive as weaker. But I am not weak. I am not afraid to tell the whole story.
I grew up in a Christian home where I was taught that words matter. The first line in the New Testament is “In the beginning was the Word.” Your word is your bond. To my father and mother, nothing was more important for their children to learn than this truth. When you give your word, you must mean what you say because you will have to stand by it. In fact, you must be willing to die for what you believe.
My background is Mennonite. My mother can trace our ancestors back hundreds of years, all the way back to the 1500s, to the Marquis van Bergen, a Dutch nobleman. The Library of Congress in Washington DC sent my mother copies of volumes relating to his journey on July 1, 1566 to Madrid. There, he asked King Philip to be merciful to the Anabaptists, who were being tortured and killed by the Inquisition. The king accused him of treason. Refusing to deny his faith, he was put into prison where he died.
So, these were the sorts of stories I was raised on. My ancestors had fought for their freedom to worship as they believed. They had died for that right. When the Marquis van Bergen was asked to denounce his faith with words, he refused. So, we certainly had a long tradition of standing by one’s word. As I write in my childhood memoir of our world travels, part of which is published in Memoirist and called At the Gates of Hell and of Heaven, I rebelled against this idea that there was only one way and we, as Christians, had it. But I never lost my respect for my parents. They stood up for what they believed in many trying circumstances. And when I stood up against these powerful people, my father, who, by that time was a highly regarded Christian author and public speaker, and who I’d butted heads with many times, stood up with me. I had all the right connections to become a Christian writer myself. In fact, I published some wonderful children’s books with my father’s publishing company, Harvest House Publishers. But I never felt like I fit into that world completely. I have never fit into any one box, whether religious, conservative, liberal or anything else.
All these years, I have been a small voice crying in the wilderness—to take advantage of another biblical phrase. I would have liked to have published this years ago. But I was blacklisted. Now, I’m glad I didn’t get it published back then. I struggled with the best way to write it. I was angry one day and contrite the next. I wanted to say everything and yet I wanted to be forgiving, as a Christian should be. Now, I don’t have those conflicts. I am not angry and I do not feel constrained. I just want to tell the truth.
I am thankful to those with bigger platforms who are speaking out now. One example is Glenn Greenwald, who I quoted above. He was canceled by The Intercept, a company he started. When I read his letter of resignation, and Bari Weiss's letter too, it actually made me cry. I also wrote a letter back in 2005, knowing I was, in effect, destroying my career, but doing it with good conscience because I knew I couldn’t do otherwise. My letter was never published for all the world to see. The people who canceled me were quite confident no one would listen to anything I had to say, ever again.
I well remember walking out from that last board meeting in a high rise in Century City, and taking the elevator down to the street. When I reached the bottom floor and went outside, I looked back up at where I had been. I would never reach those heights again and it didn’t matter. I felt an incredible weight lifting from my shoulders. I had done what I knew was right. I was free.
Those people inside that building were the ones in chains. They had sold their souls for power and money. They could never just let it go. They were bound by their images of success, their big houses and cars and private planes, their prestigious jobs and invitations to exclusive parties. I had never belonged there. I was a single mother living in a small home with my three kids. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. No one was going to control me. No amount of money for my silence was going to change my mind. As I walked back to my car that day, I thought, yes, I would rather be on the street with the “little people,” as I heard one Hollywood corporate elite so disdainfully call them, than in the clouds with those who had compromised their integrity so much that they hated anyone who they knew had kept theirs.
I’m grateful for those who are standing up now. I don’t feel so alone anymore. I feel validated, vindicated. Perhaps my voice will be heard at last.
Let’s continue, back to 1996…
I did some research and decided to try my luck getting into Central Juvenile Hall in downtown Los Angeles. CJH was built in 1912, the first juvenile hall to be built in Los Angeles and surely one of the oldest in the country. It seemed the obvious choice to try my luck there.
There was a school inside the facility and I was able to make an appointment with the principal, Dr. Arthur McCoy. I wasn’t famous or anything but I was the author and/or illustrator of nineteen children’s books and had been teaching my WordPower program in public schools for a couple of years, so I at least had some sort of experience. With excitement, I headed down on the big day. I parked my car and searched for the entrance, surprised to find it was simply a nondescript door with a little window at eye level. The window was shut. I knocked and then banged on the door before someone yelled, “Coming!”
The window opened and two eyes peered out at me suspiciously.
I explained I had an appointment with the principal. The window slammed shut and locks were undone. I was let into an open area with a set of tables in front of a make-shift bungalow, beyond which were the inevitable high walls. My bag was given a half-hearted search. I signed my name on a list, was given a name tag, and was allowed through another door in a wall.
I was surprised to find myself on a walkway in front of a huge dusty field with a series of buildings on the far side. That was where the boys were housed. Beyond the buildings was another high wall with barbed wire, buildings rising into the sky beyond. The overall affect was drab and depressing.
I passed a guard post. Inside was a man, fast asleep and snoring. It was explained to me later that he had Narcolepsy. It seemed a strange choice to have someone with a sleeping disorder sitting in the first guard post. It did little to inspire confidence in the security system.
The school was a long, low building at the opposite end of the field from the boys’ units. Inside were a series of classrooms and a small library. Although everything looked shabby, the teachers had put effort into brightening the atmosphere with photos and positive quotes from famous people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I made my way to the administration offices and was ushered in to see Dr. McCoy. He was seated behind a messy desk in a small, stuffy room. I can best describe him as an older version of the Nutty Professor. He proved to be a wonderfully kind and generous man, willing to think outside the box in his dedication to the youth under his care. I found myself pouring out my heart with enthusiasm, telling him how I hoped to start my writing program there.
He asked me gently if I had any experience teaching this population. I said no, but I was willing to learn everything I needed and I promised he wouldn’t regret letting me try. I think because he was too nice and didn’t know how else to get rid of me, he suggested I go over to the girls’ school and talk to the teacher, Cheryl Neely.
One more step in reaching my goal! Happily I made the journey to the opposite end of the huge facility, a host of stray cats following along the way as I passed the small chapel, and finally reached a smaller, tidier and greener field. At the far end of this field were another series of classrooms.
I found Ms. Neely in one classroom with about forty girls, aged from maybe twelve to seventeen. Ms. Neely was an imposing Black woman with a hawk eye and the ability to take control of a situation that always appeared to be on the verge of chaos but never quite got there. In all my years going to Central, I never ceased to be amazed at her ability to deftly balance the widely varying needs of all those girls. Some girls were only in her class for a day, others could be there for a year. She made sure everyone had something to do that fit with where they were academically.
When she heard I wanted to come in and try three days of workshops and do it for free, she said, sure, why not?
I couldn’t believe it. I was in!
Not long after, I conducted the three days of workshops. The girls were attentive and responded well to the writing exercises. On the last day I told them to write about “a person who has had the biggest influence in your life, whether good or bad.”
One after the other the girls got up to read their writing. Most were about their own mothers, how their mothers had stood by them, loved them, even though they had refused to listen, some even admitted abusing their mothers. I had a teenage daughter myself and I very much doubted at her age she would have chosen me as her role model. Yet, that’s what these tough-looking girls, most with tattoos, some with teardrops on their faces, conveyed. As they read, one by one, I saw the tough facades fall away and the vulnerable children come to the surface.
After one girl finished reading, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Why? Why do I do that to my mother?”
I was speechless. I didn’t feel I had a right to say anything. How could I know her pain or her circumstances and answer with any level of honesty?
“I don’t know the answer,” I said, looking around the room. Every girl was looking back at me expectantly, waiting for what I would say next. “All you can do is to keep on writing. You’ll find the answer yourself. The answers are inside each one of you.”
I went away that day realizing that I couldn’t “help” these girls. What I could do was give them a safe space to help themselves. Through writing, they could put the puzzle pieces of their lives together. All those jumbled thoughts in their minds, all those hurtful stories and hopeful ones, they could let it out and create a beautiful portrait.
I stayed away for a few weeks but I couldn’t shake those girls. I decided I would go back.
All along the way, my husband disapproved to the point where it caused serious problems in our marriage. He didn’t want me teaching those “criminals.” Not only that, but no one in my family or circle of friends thought it was a good idea. It would take years for it to become “cool” and for the Hollywood elite to get involved. But at that time, it was just this little thing that I did that no one else cared about. I look back upon that time with so much nostalgia.
At last Walter and I reached an uneasy truce. I would teach a few sessions and see how it went, and then we would revisit the issue.
After meeting with various staff and with Sister Janet Harris, the Catholic Chaplain at Central, it was agreed the easiest way would be for me to go in as a Catholic volunteer and teach on Saturdays in Omega Unit where the girls were housed. Janet was highly regarded for her advocacy work with youth. She’d even been on the cover of People Magazine once. I well remember my first meeting with the diminutive woman. It was in the chapel. I was all of six feet and I towered over her. She had a preference for long black skirts, white shirts and scarves. Her white hair was cut short and large glasses framed her small, sharp eyes.
We sat in the pews, most of them covered in gang graffiti carved into the wood, and just as I’d done with Dr. McCoy I poured out my heart to her. She had a way of listening as if you were the only person in the world. She told me gently, “This is your calling.”
I thought she was the most wonderful woman I’d ever met, besides Alma Woods.
That day, some of the boys were painting the walls of the chapel. I offered to paint the dove above the entrance door. I was well familiar with the significance of the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. It was a beautiful image to have above the door as people entered and exited the chapel. So, I climbed up on a ladder, tottering nervously, and proceeded to paint a dove. I thought of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and wondered how he ever did it. I could hardly manage that one dove and it didn’t turn out very well, but over time I grew to love that dove. I don’t know if it’s still there. I hope so. I haven’t been back to Central in many years.
At that time, I only knew I wanted to start a writing program and I would take one step at a time to see what that meant. I had no idea how successful it would become and the battles that would ensue between me and those who wished to take it over. I only knew one thing. I wanted to teach. And so that’s what I started to do.