3 Tips to Avoid Becoming a Crime Victim

Yesterday was a first: someone tried to steal my car. Thankfully, they only stole my car keys. I was at the pool and alone in the locker room, blow drying my hair, when a woman walked out of a bathroom stall and began drying her hands.

A few minutes earlier, I had overheard her talking with someone about the pool’s two-week free membership, so I told her I was new, too. I introduced myself, and she did the same. Megan told me she had just moved here, and we chatted briefly. Then she left, but not until she flashed a big smile and I saw her black teeth.

I don’t like to profile people. But in my line of work, you learn to recognize drug addicts. And having bad, or several missing teeth, is one sign of serious drug use. I didn’t hold it against her, though, until later.

Leaving the pool not two minutes behind Megan, I watched as a man who parked next to my car carefully opened his door, trying not to scratch my car. I smiled as our paths crossed, and got into my car.

But I was surprised to find it unlocked. I distinctly remembered locking it, so when a “key not detected” message appeared on the dashboard, I had a bad feeling. I turned my gym bag inside out, but my keys were gone. That was odd, because when I first went into the locker room, I lifted up the keys to look for a ponytail holder.

With no way to start my car, I returned to the locker room and checked the locker. It was empty. I asked the front desk receptionist, “Carla,” if anyone found my keys. Then I asked about Megan, and if she had completed the paperwork needed for her two-week free trial. She hadn’t. That was a red flag, since Megan told me she was looking forward to using the pool.

Carla said Megan and a female friend had come in and asked to use the restroom. The friend used the loo in the lobby; Megan came into the locker room to use one of those toilets. Carla also remembered that Megan’s friend left the building first, before Megan did.

I asked Carla if she had a bad vibe about the two women. She said she had but, like me, she didn’t want to be guilty of profiling. (Megan was white; her friend was black. Both women wore hoodies and jeans.) By then, I knew I needed to call the police. I did that but before the officer arrived, the driver who parked next to me left the gym. I asked if he had seen anyone near my car when he arrived. He said he had, actually. A woman was standing next to it but when a small, white (or grey) car pulled up one lane away, she got in, and the car drove away.

Here’s what I think happened: Megan planned to steal my car (or anything of value inside), when that fellow parked next to my car. So instead, she jumped into the getaway vehicle and she and her partner in crime split.

This is what I learned yesterday: another swimmer told me a recent news report said two women were approaching area gyms, asking to use the bathroom. Once inside, they steal car keys from lockers.

The officer said criminals like this target businesses without security cameras (like the pool), brazenly break into cars in broad daylight, then make their escape on a nearby interstate. She also said that if you try to hide your purse or other valuables on the car seat under a bulky item like a sweatshirt, thieves will still break in. So place everything in the trunk, completely out of sight.

The locksmith said he gets calls to gyms in the Sacramento area at least once a week, for just this type of theft. They even carry a small set of bolt cutters. Sometimes they take the cars, he said; sometimes they just break in and steal what’s inside.

I learned a lot yesterday:

1. Crimes involving vehicles aren’t confined to Oakland or San Francisco. They can and do happen anywhere.

2. Don’t bury your valuables under other items—that only attracts criminals looking for items to steal.

3. Always lock your gym or pool locker.

Because, as I learned the hard way, car keys are very valuable. Mine cost $250 to replace, plus after I completed an incident report at the pool, filed a police report, got a tow, and had the key replaced, 6 hours had passed.

* * * * *

Editor’s Note: My website is being revamped, and more changes are in the works. So I hope you’ll pardon the mess and be patient, as I iron out all the kinks.

* * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

Day 32: Stopping to Smell the Roses

I’m nearing the end of my long, literary journey, having driven more than 2,500 miles to date, from West Virginia to Arizona, and complete strangers have turned into new friends, as I stop and smell the roses – both literally and figuratively. The roses, you see, are the people I meet along the way. Each one unique, with his own fragrance or other gift of beauty.

Like Mandy (not her real name), a single mother of three who did what I did when her children were in danger: she took them and ran. But to do this, Mandy had to give up an excellent job. Although she’s since found another one in Pascagoula, Mississippi, her situation isn’t ideal. And her take-home pay isn’t enough to live on. So she and her brood currently live in a shelter. Not ideal circumstances. Not by a long shot. This woman is not only lovely inside and out, she is kind and smart and clearly a good parent. I met her when I stopped for the night in Mississippi. Even though she was at work, she didn’t have a babysitter so her children were with her. Undeterred and determined to provide for them, she went about her duties while they looked after themselves, until the middle child came up and politely interrupted us.

“I need a time out,” he said, after admitting what he’d done to one of his siblings.

I believe you can tell a large measure about a parent by her child, and that blew me away. How many children honestly admit their mistakes – and ask for discipline? I observed Mandy’s kids while they were there and found them to be quiet, well-behaved and very respectful. Clearly their mother has done a remarkable job. In fact, other guests were enjoying their company, too. Immensely.

But I was taken back in time to 1988, when I covered my first homeless story. Then, a woman and her daughter were living in the mother’s car, after also escaping an abusive relationship. It dawned on me then how dangerous it is for homeless children, whose parents may have to leave them inside a vehicle while they go on job interviews, or who are trapped inside a shelter and often targeted by homeless predators. Those dangers are above and beyond the daily psychological and emotional stressors, of not having your own home to go to. Of not having a routine, or a safe place where you can simply be yourself.

That first story taught me something, so since then I’ve given away my leftover (and utterly too large) restaurant portions to the homeless, and tried to help them in other ways. I know that the biggest percentage of homeless people are themselves either runaways, military vets, or mentally ill. Some of these folks also have addiction issues, often self-medicating to try and relieve their pain. This is yet another danger for the children exposed to these problems.

I’ve also been homeless myself, for a couple of brief moments in my life, but never to the point where I had to rely on a public agency for temporary housing. I was fortunate, because friends and family came to my aid. Mandy? Not so much. Like many women who protect their children when abuse comes into play, her family turned its back on her. Thought she was crazy to go to such lengths to keep her little ones safe.

There is a very long waiting list for Section 8 housing, which is all Mandy can afford, so I’d like to ask for anyone reading this who knows someone in the Pasmagoula area to reach out and help me find Mandy and her children a nice, safe home. So they don’t have to continue living in a shelter, which is not conducive to safety or good health – especially for little ones. You can contact me directly, using Facebook or Twitter or my contact info.

I believe people naturally want to help others. They just have to know when a need exists, and what they can do to help. I believe no one wants to let a hard-working mother like Mandy and her three little ones live in a shelter, so let’s help them.

We can do this!

Note: The photos accompanying this blog were taken on the road, at coffee shops or rest stops, or simply (and safely) while in traffic. Next time, I’ll share some of the stories – and more beautiful scenery, captured with my iPhone – during my visit to the Cochiti Reservation and Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you’d like to guess where I’m going next, and why, I’m hosting a contest at my Facebook group page.

* * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my first memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April. Prior to those two books, Guilt by Matrimony was released last November. It’s about the murder of Aspen socialite Nancy Pfister.

My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller) and Pretty Little Killers , released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18, 2014, issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

An Anniversary I’d Rather Forego

I’ve been struggling with this column for days. I even went into semi-seclusion for a week without realizing why—until yesterday—when an old friend offered his condolences.

My sister Lisa died two years ago today. The call came that morning, while I was working on The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese. Trying to meet another deadline. It was BJ, my former brother-in-law. I knew the minute I heard his voice it wasn’t good. I hadn’t talked to him in probably six months, if not longer.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” I said. “But you must not be. What’s wrong?”

“Well, I’m okay, but your sister isn’t,” BJ said.

At least, that’s how I remember it. BJ called me first, he said, after their oldest daughter called him with the news. “I knew you’d want to know.”

This past week it seems like it’s been that long, some 730 days ago. At other times, it really does feel like she was standing right there next to me—and then I blinked, and she was gone.

I’m still trying to figure out what to write, even as I carry out the task. Do I talk about my 2011 trip to Tennessee to help her start her life over, after she did a stint in jail? Or how, just a few months later, she jumped bail, sticking me with the tab? Or how, in return for helping Lisa, another sister accused me of killing her? (Funny, I don’t remember being her dealer.) Maybe that’s a starting point, but I’m not quite ready to write that story. Not yet.

What I think I’d like to say is this: until the drugs took over, Lisa was never without a smile, a funny joke, or a way about her that suggested that life was far too short to be taken seriously, so why not enjoy it while you can. She and I were polar opposites: I was quiet and serious; she was loud and rowdy. I liked pencils and books and wearing dresses. Lisa liked to run and climb and scuff the knees of her jeans. We fought like cats and dogs when we were children, but we were also best friends.

“Your graduation picture was on the bathroom mirror the day she died,” BJ later told me at the funeral home. He said it was the only family picture Lisa still had.

When Lisa eloped to marry BJ at age 15, I think she did so because he really saw her. She had become invisible to us; I had already flown the nest and was expecting child number two. Mom was working full-time, so she needed a babysitter for our three younger siblings. Dad was absent. Again.

Lisa liked the excitement marriage to a long-haul trucker driver promised, and she often went on the road with BJ. She also liked the way he pampered her, taking her to car races and concerts, buying her clothes and cars and not one, not two, but four different diamond wedding ring sets over the course of their life together.

Then came the day when Lisa, BJ, and our entire family traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to meet their first daughter, He Young. Lisa had never been happier than when that beautiful little Korean baby doll was placed in her arms. When their second little girl, Kang Hee, joined their family, it seemed like Lisa’s life could not be any better, richer, or fuller.

Who can say what causes one person to become an addict, while another one turns up his or her nose at the stuff? What forces have shaped our genes, long before birth, predisposing us to addition? And why is it easier for one person to later kick the habit—cigarettes, liquor, narcotic painkillers—while another person dies an early death from them?

I wish I knew. But I don’t, and I know I’m not alone. From loved ones to medical and psychological experts, there is a large army of people who want the same answers.

Here’s what I do know: Lisa loved our “uncle” Bruce, and at family dinners, those two could laugh loud and long, inspiring a sense of wistfulness in everyone around them. None of us had quite the same relationship. She was an excellent cook, far better than me, and she regularly whipped up a big breakfast of biscuits and gravy, fried eggs and potatoes, and bacon on the weekends. And our three younger siblings delighted going anywhere with her, for she was so ornery and so much fun that she was less like an older sister and more like a favorite aunt.

Lisa was also generous, opening her home to a stray friend in need more than once, letting them live with her and BJ for many months or more. She also loved watching football with our father, especially after the move to Tennessee made their home a perfect pit stop, whenever Dad passed through on his way back to West Virginia.

There was the Lisa from her West Virginia years, and the Lisa she became after moving to Tennessee. Her daughters mostly only knew the second one. I hope they eventually get to know the other one, the girl with the easy smile who loved to laugh and crack jokes and make delicious country meals that many people will only eat if they go to Bob Evans.

Scratch that. That many people today never eat, unless they cook at home, in their own kitchen.

Because that Lisa was the real one. She was my sister.

* * * *

My latest book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, was released November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

“American Pain” a Fascinating True Tale of Greed, Addiction, and Pill Mills

If you don’t know anyone who’s been addicted to narcotic painkillers, you’re fortunate. Sadly, most of us do, or did, in the case of an addict whose addiction ended in death. It’s not a pretty topic—but it certainly is a crucial one.

Last fall I joined a local writer’s group made up largely of WVU professors. We email each other pages of our current project and meet once a month to provide feedback. It’s probably the best writer’s group I’ve ever been involved with, and I enjoy it immensely. One of the members, John Temple, was working on a nonfiction project he was under contract to finish. The early drafts of American Pain: How A Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic really grabbed my attention. In part because I lost a sister to drug abuse, after she got hooked on those nasty painkillers, and also because I’ve had several surgeries myself and almost every single time I was sent home with a prescription for an opioid—which is a synthetic form of opium. Most of the time, I didn’t even need to fill the script. Other times, if I did, I rarely finished the pills, and flushed those that remained down the toilet.

John Temple, a WVU journalism professor, signs copies of his new book, American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed American’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic at his August 31 book launch. [Photo by Benyamin Cohen]

Then, on Monday, August 31, 2015, I attended Temple’s book launch at the WVU Law School. There, a three-member panel composed of a psychologist, an attorney, and Temple, discussed the painkiller epidemic. I thought I knew how addiction worked, but I learned even more that night. For instance, the more painkillers you take, the more pain you have. That’s the word from Dr. Carl Sullivan, director of the West Virginia Addiction Training Institute for the last 25 years. Once the brain becomes accustomed to painkillers, any real or perceived pain seems even worse, which prompts the user to feel like he needs more pills at higher doses. It’s a vicious cycle that turns many people into addicts and eventually leads them to heroin.

Sullivan knows addicts. Prior to 1985, most of his patients were alcoholics. But in the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies began pushing drugs like OxyContin, saying that opioids were safe. They pushed them right into West Virginia, which has a large worker’s compensation population, due to such dangerous jobs as cutting timber and mining coal. At the same time, pain became the fifth vital sign doctors would check when examining patients. Because pain isn’t easy to quantify, and it’s impossible for doctors to confirm if a patient doesn’t have any, “doctors felt compelled to treat it,” Sullivan said. The result was a perfect storm here in Appalachia and elsewhere. “Opioids in West Virginia were just flowing like water,” he added.

We can thank Purdue Pharma for this change in the medical community. In the early 1990s, Purdue developed OxyContin, a controlled-release pill. It would replace MS Contin, one of their other drugs, used only to treat cancer patients. As Temple writes in American Pain, “Purdue wanted OxyContin to be prescribed to a much broader array of patients and for a longer period of time.” So Purdue began a major marketing campaign: first, they educated the American public about the problem of untreated pain. Then, they provided the solution—their new drug!

When West Virginia figured out what was going on with pill mills, Temple said, it became one of the first states to clamp down on the problem, which included patients who would doctor shop and buy far more painkillers than they needed. “The drugs may go away but not the addiction, so you go where the drugs are,” Temple said. Thus the reason West Virginia residents, like many people in southern states, began driving to Florida to get their fix.

The morning of the book launch, Sullivan treated 23 patients. All of them were addicted to opioids. These and other addicts have symptoms that include an intense craving for painkillers, being restless, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, and thinking only about one thing: getting more drugs. “Without treatment, nothing good happens,” Sullivan said, “squalor, death.”

Not long ago he felt hopeless. Since then, new treatment programs are helping people addicted to painkillers. The clinical psychologist said he “feels more optimistic in 2015 than in a long time.”

Who would believe that this painkiller epidemic started, in large part, because of a construction worker–and felon–in Florida? The story of their American Pain clinics and the drug-dealing doctors who worked for them is amazing! Temple spent three years writing his book while on sabbatical from WVU, where he teaches journalism.

Not only is his writing crisp and clear, but Temple also cites fascinating numbers that help tell the story of this American epidemic. For instance, Temple says that during one period, Florida doctors bought nine times more oxycodone (the main ingredient in OxyContin and other painkillers) than doctors in other states. “That’s nine times more than the other forty-nine states combined,” he says. Records from the Drug Enforcement Agency show that in “one six-month period,” Temple says, “Florida doctors bought 41.2 million doses while every other physician in the country collectively purchased 4.8 million doses.” In fact, he says “four of [American Pain’s] clinic’s full-time doctors ranked among the top nine physician purchasers of oxycodone in the country.”

American Pain got its start, in part, from a health care industry that comprises 18-percent of the U.S. economy, according to Valerie Blake, a WVU associate law professor. That’s huge, and it’s climbing. When the pill mills were pumping out pills so fast almost no one could keep count, Florida then had virtually no laws regulating health care, Blake said. And the state certainly had no database to help track patients who were “doctor shopping.” Nor did it have any laws that stipulated who could or couldn’t own a medical clinic, she added.

Enter the George brothers, Chris and Jeff, and their construction worker buddy, Derik Nolan. Not even knowing what they were doing, they ran their little operation haphazardly, but over time they learned what the DEA looked for, when determining if a clinic could be busted for dispensing too many drugs. And they began implementing changes accordingly, until their company became a major player in the narcotic painkiller industry.

Astonishingly, though, when Chris George checked out the DEA’s own 2006 policy, he found that the federal agency would consider suspicious any doctor who “prescribes 1,600 [sixteen hundred] tablets per day of a schedule II opioid to a single patient,” Temple wrote. With numbers that high, it’s clear to see why the George brothers and Nolan thought they could get away with what they were doing.

American Pain is an important book about an epidemic that is far from over. Not only did Temple dig into the DEA’s own puzzling actions of allowing pharmaceutical firms to manufacture more pills than ever, but he did so while weaving together a powerful and sometimes even funny story about the three Florida construction workers who became so wealthy and powerful they were mafia bosses in their own right. Bosses the FBI brought down, when a female agent named Jennifer Turner took an interest in the construction workers’ clinics. Turner and her fellow agent, Kurt McKenzie, worked for more than a year to bring the case to trial. According to Temple, McKenzie says the only “other investigation that took the same toll on him . . . was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

There is one other important thread Temple wove throughout his book: the victims of American Pain’s pill mill practices, many of whom died. Like the Racine, W.Va., man, who smashed his Camaro into a pickup truck while high on oxy. Or the Tennessee man who died in a Boca Raton motel, two days after being treated at one of American Pain’s clinic.

But Temple’s story about Stacy Mason, a young concrete worker from Kentucky who drove to Florida to get oxy so he could cope with back pain from a serious vehicle accident that made it impossible for him to work, will leave you longing for justice for all the victims of this terrible epidemic.

Many times, Temple got in his own car and drove up hollers in backwoods Kentucky to interview the Mason family for this book. Their story, like those of the other addicts Temple writes about, will make you angry that so many senseless deaths have occurred because of greedy pharmaceutical companies. Be prepared to settle in for a long read, because American Pain is an addictive read. And it will captivate you, making it almost impossible to put down.

* * * *

In November, I will have five books, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Robin Williams: “Oh Captain, My Captain,” You Are Far From Alone

Robin Williams is dead. He left behind a world of grief, even though 99.9-percent of us never met him. We knew him, though, as much as we can possibly “know” anyone through a lifetime of work.

All of this grieving is about losing Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, and My Captain, but it’s also knowing that if someone like Robin Williams can succumb to suicide, so can the rest of us.

I found this great tribute on Facebook; if someone knows who I should credit, please let me know so I can. Thank you.

With frightening finality, suicide is claiming more lives than ever before. According to The Montreal Gazette, for every Robin Williams, 200 others have attempted suicide—and another 400 people have thought about taking their own lives. This April, the Awake magazine said more than 20 former U.S. veterans commit suicide every single day. While another 950 try to do so each month.

I’ve been to that dark place—but stopped myself just in time, more than once. Many of the kindest, most caring, and artistic people I know have, too. Some of us still battle our demons, mostly in the privacy of our own homes. Sometimes we turn to booze or cocaine or even sex to numb our pain—because even though they will kill us in the end, they “love” us in the meantime. They are far kinder than the world around us, because they don’t judge us.

“We” self-medicate because society continues to stigmatize mental illness and marginalize those who suffer from it. People turn noticeably uncomfortable when they hear the words “bipolar,” “schizophrenia,” or simply “depression.” They tend to not know what to say, which most likely hampered Robin Williams’s loved ones (and those of Phillip Seymour Hoffman) from talking openly about his illness.

The end result? Families don’t want, or don’t know how, to ask for help—for themselves or the people they care about.

I know this, you see, but I’d rather not. During the last year, while I was under contract to produce not one, but two books, I found myself taking care of my adult daughter, who has gone missing at different times in her adult life. She simply dropped off the map, and we often didn’t know if she was dead or alive.

My daughter is fine, of course. Yet she talks to people who aren’t there, pens thousands of words of poetry and prose at a time, and sits and stares at pictures of people for hours on end. “I’m sending him a message,” she says, when I ask what she’s doing.

She insists she is normal and healthy. Yet she refuses to take a single pill, see a doctor, or give out any private details for fear the government may find her. The brief moments of brilliance we all glimpsed in her as a child still shine through at odd moments, but they are growing more and more tarnished. Every so often, she says she has nothing to live for—and that’s when I really begin to worry.

My family is no stranger to depression or other forms of mental illness. In December 2013, my sister’s suicidal efforts finally paid off. At first glance, Lisa’s death didn’t look like suicide. I believe that’s what it was, though. After a lengthy battle that was born of alcohol, nursed with narcotic painkillers, and which morphed into a full-blown addiction of God only knows what, the drugs did her in.

I had seen her a month earlier, when she told me she didn’t care if she died. It wasn’t until after her death that I realized: Lisa had probably been depressed for decades. I wish we could have traded places, that she would have checked herself into the psych hospital that saved my life, back in 1991, or that she would have followed in my footsteps and gotten the help she needed.

Maybe if we all stopped being so judgmental, she would have. Or maybe, instead of having the entire world mourn his loss, Robin Williams would have ascended a stage somewhere, and talked candidly about what it’s like to fight this demon called depression.

If he had, we would have cheered. He would have received a standing ovation. And he’d still be alive.

* * *

I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about overcoming depression from domestic violence; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella BooksNellie Bly BooksAmazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

 

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Writing My Sister’s Eulogy


My sister Lisa died of a broken heart. She never got over losing our father—or feeling like she couldn’t measure up. I’m afraid we—her family—didn’t make it any easier for her. Many of us judged her, when we had no right. Especially when we didn’t even try to help her.

When Dad died in April 1999, Lisa was lost. A daddy’s girl from the get-go, Lisa was our father’s favorite. Back when it was just the two of us, 12 years before our three siblings came along. I was the quiet reader. Lisa was the lively doer. No doubt she epitomized our globe-trotting, pilot father’s own adventure-seeking spirit.

By the time she died last Friday, Dec. 27, Lisa had experiences in her short 47 years that some of us never get in a lifetime. Her adventures began when she ran right through mud puddles as a child, explored forests on Berry’s Mountain, climbed to the tops of rocks during our mushroom picking days, and later, as an adult, dove into the ocean at South Padre Island, in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Lisa also rode horseback in Texas, traveled cross-country many times (and I’m sure she also took the wheel of those big rigs, even if her husband’s trucker logbooks didn’t quite reflect that). Lisa drag raced her black Mustang at Eldora Speedway in Fairmont, and she learned to speak some Arabic in the Middle East, when she lived in Jordan with our parents during 1979. Lisa kept in touch with a neighbor boy there, who later moved to the United States, for many years. She did this even after 9/11, when much of the country shunned anyone who was a Muslim.

My sister loved taking care of our siblings, especially Elizabeth, as a baby. We hung out together during many a school night at the old Mountaineer Mall. Back then, I was more worried about making sure Mom saved some of that delicious walnut cake that Lums Restaurant served than taking care of a baby. But Lisa didn’t mind pushing Elizabeth up and down the mall corridors or changing her dirty diapers, until our mother’s shift ended each night.

Lisa was tons of fun to be around, and loved spending time with family and friends. She also had an uncanny knack for remembering—and reciting—every joke she ever heard. Even though she could be mouthy, Lisa was also fiercely loyal.

Most important, she didn’t judge others—she just loved them. Which explains why she didn’t hold grudges, and how she could be so forgiving when people mistreated her.

Lisa had health problems from an early age: she was diagnosed with epilepsy, she had a lazy eye and had to wear a black patch over one eye, she was always getting sick, and she had endometriosis so bad that at age 28 Lisa had to have a complete hysterectomy. That ensured she would never have the one thing she’d always wanted, children. I remember going with her to the Grafton doctor’s appointment where her OB/GYN told me, the healthy sister who was pregnant for the fourth time in five years, to give Lisa my unborn child. Even she could see how much Lisa needed a child of her own.

But since she couldn’t, Lisa did the next best thing: she had dogs—poodles and Cocker Spaniels that she treated like her children. I think she’s the first person I remember ever seeing dress up her dog, long before it became a popular trend.

Lisa was a fighter. She didn’t give up. Instead, she set out to find another way. She toyed with the idea of foster parenting. But her husband BJ knew it would be too hard for Lisa to give a child up, as often happens in the foster system. And ultimately, after a 14-year fight, her dreams came to fruition. Lisa found her babies: two beautiful daughters, Destinee (He Young) and Emilee (Kang Hee), in Korea.

I remember the day she became a mother. Our entire family gathered around Lisa in a Nashville, Tenn., airport, as we waited for He Young to arrive from Seoul, Korea. Crossing time zones would have made the journey feel like a 24-hour flight for her. The social worker told Lisa some babies have never seen a white woman, so He Young would either look at her and laugh–or cry.

“Push, Lisa, push,” some family members chanted, laughing as the plane landed. Tears were streaming down my sister’s face when He Young was placed in her arms. She didn’t cry when she saw her mother for the first time.

My two neices are Lisa’s crowning achievement—by adopting them and giving them a home in this country, Destinee and Emilee were given the chance of a life they never could have in their homeland. I am sure of that. For many years, Lisa’s life revolved around them. She planned for them, doted on them, took care of them.

Like she took care of other people she loved, including me. In 1991, after a particularly painful breakup, Lisa she was so worried she drove 60 miles in the middle of the night, to take me home with her. Always a wonderful caretaker, Lisa took care of our father in 1999 when he got so sick from his chemotherapy. She’s the reason I had time to fly from California and spend 11 days with him before he died. Lisa is the reason I got to tell our father goodbye.

Lisa was so loved, the same man married her twice. My brother-in-law, BJ, never stopped trying to help Lisa—even after they divorced again in 2010. He said Lisa wanted to get to a better place in life. BJ believed she really did want to get her life on track—but she just couldn’t do it. I believe he’s right.

What is it that prevents some of us from having the fortitude to reach our goals? What causes some of us to become addicts, while others of us breeze through life without a worry—compared to someone like Lisa, who spent most of her short life in pain?

Becoming an addict was never part of her plans. I know that for sure. Lisa sustained a work-related injury that led to her prescription painkiller addiction. Lisa lived with chronic pain for most of her life. But the last 10 years were especially difficult. She was hospitalized in early November for an infection, and underwent emergency surgery at Ruby Memorial Hospital. When I saw her there, she said she was tired of being in pain and wouldn’t care if she didn’t wake up from the procedure. Trying to encourage her, I told her if that happened, she would wake up in the resurrection, pain free and healed from all her maladies.

The resurrection is one of Jesus Christ’s teachings, and a basic Bible teaching. At John 5:28, 29 (NWT), we learn that “all those in the memorial tombs will come out,” and at Acts 24:15, “there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.”

When Jesus went to see his friend Lazarus who had died, the Bible says that Jesus compared death to a deep sleep. Right after that, Jesus woke up Lazarus—even though he had been dead for four days. It’s interesting that when Lazarus woke up he was not in heaven—he was right here on the earth. That is one small example of what Jesus will soon do around the world for all our dead loved ones. And then, like the promise at Isaiah 25:8, Jesus Christ’s Father, Jehovah God, “will swallow up death forever.” This is when the earth will be restored to its original paradise condition.

Like I did, Lisa grew up in a home where we learned about the Bible’s teachings. We learned about a loving God who would never let anyone burn his human children in an eternal hellfire, and who never intended for us to die. Lisa’s faith wasn’t very strong, though, and I always wondered why.
I think I know. Many times, people like Lisa whose entire life has been a struggle, often feel a deep sense of worthlessness at their core. As a result, they can’t reach their goals.

Those feelings of low self-esteem may prevent us from doing what we have every intention of doing—but they do not keep our heavenly Father from loving us. The Bible tells us at Psalms 139:2 and 3 that Jehovah God sees when each of us sits down, and when we get up. There, we learn that he is familiar with all of our ways. And we learn at 1 John 3:1 that God wants to lavish love on every single one of us, his earthly children, in spite of our flaws.

I believe my sister Lisa—like so very many of us—wanted to offer her best to God, but she just didn’t feel worthy. Her heart condemned her, like the Bible says at 1 John 3:21. I say that because when I stood at her hospital bedside in early November and mentioned the Bible’s hope of a resurrection, I saw the look on her face: if she did die, Lisa didn’t think she deserved to wake up from the dead.

I quickly reassured her that some of the worst sinners in the Bible will be resurrected—because it’s a guarantee that a loving God promised his human children. Just because we as imperfect humans don’t think someone is worthy doesn’t make it true.

Jehovah God is the only one who has the right to judge us—and we have no right to judge each other. When I explained that to my sister, I saw her eyes light up, and I sensed she was remembering some of the teachings our mother taught us from the Bible as little girls.

As imperfect humans, as people who make mistake after mistake, we might think we are beyond God’s reach, beyond his love. But that simply isn’t true. Even though our steps falter, God gave up what he loved the most—his perfect son, Jesus Christ—so that we could have a do-over, a second chance, if you will.

People dream of getting a second chance in life—but few realize the Bible teaches that this hope is a reality. It’s called the resurrection. The God of the Bible that Lisa and I both learned about as children is a God of love. As such, I believe he now holds Lisa in his memory.

Like any good father, he’s letting her get a good, long sleep—until it’s time for her to wake up again. When she does, I want to be there to greet her. I hope you’re there to greet her, too. Because I’m sure we’d all like to see the expression on her face when she wakes up on a restored paradise earth and realizes she was, all along, worthy of peace and happiness and success and serenity.

Editor’s note: Berry and another West Virginia author, Geoff Fuller, have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the Skylar Neese murder. Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, is now live. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”