Thursday, May 31, 2012

GUNS AND CHILDREN: A Deadly Environment

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 21, 2000; Page A01

MOUNT MORRIS TOWNSHIP, Mich. –– They say barely anything good comes from around here--nothing pretty, anyway. The flowers that grow here are plastic.

Neighbors watched as the little boy sat on that concrete porch painted blood red. They watched as the boy, 6 years old, sat there while a steady stream of people, "crackheads," walked in and out of that house--leaving the door wide open even in the dead of winter.

The boy never played, one neighbor said. He just sat there with his 8-year-old brother, "like men," while the men of the house drank their 40s, sold drugs, shot guns and cussed at the neighbors across the street.

People shake their heads now and wonder about the little boy--still small for 6. "Looks more like he is 4." What made that little boy go into the second bedroom of the "crack house" he lived in on Juliah Avenue, open the cardboard shoe box on the bed, and grab the loaded .32-caliber semiautomatic that was already set to fire? What made him put it in his pants pocket and walk the five blocks to school that cold Tuesday morning, Feb. 29?

A shadow of a child walking to school, he probably stepped over the empty whiskey bottle in his dirt front yard, walked by the dead mouse next door, passed the vacant lots where houses once stood. There are no sidewalks on this stretch of Juliah Avenue.

The first-grader passed the schoolyard sign warning: "THESE PREMISES ARE UNDER CONSTANT CLOSED CIRCUIT TELEVISION SURVEILLANCE," whose big words he couldn't yet read. He had to walk under the sign that said, "WE {heart} OUR CHILDREN AND WE CARE FOR THEIR SAFETY." He turned right to go to his class, Classroom 6 at Theo J. Buell Elementary School.

No one knows why he waited an hour and 40 minutes after the 8 o'clock opening bell to pull out that tiny gun. Maybe he wasn't planning it at all. No one knows why he waited until 19 of his 23 classmates had left the room to line up in the hallway.

Twenty-four children minus 19 equals five.

No one knows why he swept the room with the semiautomatic, pointed it at Kayla Rolland, then said, "I don't like you!" and shot her.

Five children minus one equals four.

Then he put the gun in his desk and walked to the principal's office.

Four children minus one more.

The debate over a 6-year-old killer rages.

"But for that kid living in a crack house, this would not have happened," the talk show host is booming on the radio. "What jail do you put 6-year-olds in? What place will you put him to make things better for him? He knows for the rest of his life he's a murderer. What teeny-tiny jail cell do you put him in? Call me and tell me what you think."

A man calls. His voice is passionate, but not angry. "This child should be executed."

The host: "You are a kid-killer. This is a baby, man! You are saying this child should go on death row."

The man: "I didn't say death row. I said death. He's a baby who killed a baby!"

A woman calls. She, too, is passionate. "He's a victim! He sees violence every day on television. Now are you going to kill him?"

The man is still on the phone. The man says the kid should not just be locked away but executed.

The host: "How many hours did you spend in a crack house? How can you understand? You never lived in a crack house."

It has come down to this, the "crack house" on Juliah Avenue. The street is called an avenue, but really that is a fancy name for a pocked lane where sagging frame houses sit behind chain-link fences, where rusted cars wait on concrete blocks, where plastic bags pretend to be windows.

Go on down Juliah Avenue. Look to your right. It's the house right there. The one with no screen on the front door. The one where the stained pink mattress lies next to the curb. It's the house where the residue of a "condemned" notice still sticks to the door frame and where a pale yellow note warns of a utility cutoff because a $247 bill is past due.

It's the one where a television reporter in knee-high suede black boots is rehearsing her script, telling the tragic story of the bad little boy who came from this bad house and killed a good little girl.

The boy's mother, recently evicted from her own rented house nearby, had dropped off her two small sons to stay with their uncle and a family friend.

The mother, a store manager at a shopping mall, took her daughter, who is 5, to stay with other relatives. The boys slept on the sofa, while, according to police, crack addicts ran in and out, itching with need, dragging in stuff to swap for crack.

"This ain't no place for little kids," said one neighbor, Jerry Marshall, 45, a heating and cooling repairman. "No toys. All people in and out all day long."

Willard Oscar, 36, who lived next door, watched and heard. He said they were nice kids. "I had to tell them, 'Don't tease the dog. Go play in your own yard.' But the kids were polite, really."

For 10 days, this is where the little boy lived, the boy with braids and a missing front tooth who used to be cute before he betrayed his age and killed somebody. He is the boy who remembered to take a gun to school and forgot to take his daily progress report. He fired one shot. The girl fell, and now people wonder why he did it, and what to do with him.

But before, few wondered why he was living in that house with his uncle and another man, a 19-year-old he called "uncle." One neighbor called child protective services, but by all appearances, no one did anything about it, and two boys were still living in a house with suspected drug traffic and no toys.

Inside, a garbage bag has split open, spilling over its contents in the hallway. Footprints are left of people who walked over it on the way to the kitchen. In the kitchen is a pan of cold, burned chicken, dry from sitting out. Inside the refrigerator are cans of soda and some spoiled milk.

There is nothing more to say about the house, except that this is the place many people in the aftermath of the shooting are pointing at, peeking through its splattered windows, knocking at the door. And planting in the yard the blame of who is responsible for the shooting.

"There was some indication guns were shown around that house. Clearly, the little guy saw guns," says Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney Arthur A. Busch. "He was there often before he went there to sleep on the sofa. And there are indications people actually were shooting there."

Busch is not a cream-puff prosecutor. His record shows he can be as iron-fisted as the best of them. When Busch was told a 6-year-old killer was at the township police station, he had to decide quickly what to do. He knew that Michigan law prevented him from charging a 6-year-old with murder. But some people were urging him to lock up the kid, execute him.

But that is the problem: The kid is a kid.

"He's been exposed to a lot of things, but that doesn't make him an adult," Busch says. "In this little guy's world, the male role model was somebody with a gun.

"The whole assertion this was a planned event is obnoxious. I don't think he understood guns. I don't think he understood the gravity. His level of cognition is that of a small child. He simply did not have any appreciation for what he had done.

"Some adult made the idiotic decision to leave a gun around," Busch says. "But for there was a gun, there wouldn't be an issue here."

Kayla Rolland was sitting at her desk when the bullet entered her body, through her armpit, exploding internal organs as it sped out her back.

The children's teacher, Alicia Judd, called 911 on her cell phone to report that a student had been shot.

The dispatcher received the call at 9:53 a.m.

The teacherJudd: "I have a student at Buell school that [is] dying. I need an ambulance immediately."

911: "Where's the child that has been shot?"

Teacher: "Right here on the floor in my class. Oh, God, please, she's getting white. The little girl is getting white."

911: "Is she breathing?"

Teacher: "No, she's not."

911: "Do you know how to do CPR?"

Teacher: "Yes, but I don't remember."

911: "Where is the child that shot her, ma'am?"

Teacher: "He's in the office."

911: "He's in the office?"

Teacher: "Yes. I can't feel her pulse."

911: "Okay, let me tell you how to do CPR, okay?"

Teacher: "Okay."

911: "Where was she shot?"

Teacher: "I can't tell. I'm scared to turn her body. Oh, God, please Lord, please Lord."

911: "Ma'am, where is the blood coming from?"

Teacher: "I can't tell. She's laying on her stomach."

911: "Has she been shot in the head?"

Teacher: "No, it doesn't look like it. It looks like she's shot from the front."

911: "She's shot from the front?"

Teacher: "I can't feel her pulse, but she's moving."

911: "Okay, but she definitely is a student?"

Teacher: "But she's convulsing, minor convulsions. She's trying to get air."

911: "What room are you in?"

Teacher: "I'm in Room 6, but I can't feel a pulse."

The boy was in the principal's office when police arrived. The police moved to protect the crime scene, Room 6. The school's 458 students were evacuated to the church across the street. Social workers and grief counselors were called. Parents raced to the school, horrified. Calling hospitals to find out if their own children had been hurt.

Police took the 6-year-old into custody. His little desk was carried out as evidence.

At first, the boy lied: "Someone else shot the gun."

When he realized police knew he had shot Kayla, he told them he had had a fight with her. "She slapped his hand," Police Chief Eric King says the boy told him. "It could have happened earlier in the day or the day before.

"When we got past the fact that we knew he did it, he said he was trying to scare people in his class," King says. "He thought this was like television, meaning people don't really die. He was expressing to police he didn't understand it was real."

The boy looked scared as police walked around him, but a juvenile officer comforted him and gave him paper to color on.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1893: "The rule of the common law was that one under the age of seven years could not be guilty of felony, or punished for any capital offence, for within that age, the infant was conclusively presumed to be incapable of committing the crime. . . ." A child must be 7 or older to be in the age of reason.

Now, some people are demanding that the age be lowered.

"My Lord, where does it stop?" wonders King. "At 6-year-old children? Where do we stop? Are we going to change the laws to criminally prosecute babies like this one? Truly, there are two tragic victims here and they are both children."

He wonders where such a tragedy might happen next. Metal detectors are now in middle schools and high schools. Suspicious bulges in teenagers' pockets are checked out. Backpacks are emptied. But a 5 1/2-inch bump in the pocket of a 6-year-old, a bump a little bigger than a set of keys? It could have been a candy bar or a juice box. Who would have thought the bulge was a gun?

"Heaven forbid we have to start patting down babies."

King's forehead has been touched with ashes. He has been praying and observing the start of Lent, a season of sacrifice.

The boy told police it was his "uncle's gun." A police officer gave him a box of 64 crayons. And the boy drew pictures while police and prosecutors considered what to do next.

"Someone has to understand what they are doing," Busch explains. Understand what "allegedly" meant. Understand the right to an attorney. Understand a right to remain silent.

"I explained that I would find some justice," Busch says. And the clearest justice was "getting to the adults who made this gun accessible."

School records did not show the boy lived at that house. So first authorities had to find the house where the boy started that morning, then get a search warrant. Inside, police found a stolen gun and what they believe to be narcotics. And they found two bedrooms: One belonged to the boy's uncle, Sir Marcus Winfrey, 22; the other belonged to Jamelle Andre James, 19.

The boys did not have bedrooms.

The house, law enforcement sources said, had been under federal investigation for drug and gun trafficking before the shooting. Neighbors had complained repeatedly. Police were documenting, making a case. But they had not yet moved on the house.

In the bedroom where James slept, the mattress--the one where the boy said he found the shoe box with the gun--was on the floor.

Both men living there had outstanding warrants. James had a traffic warrant. Winfrey had one for receiving stolen property; he's now in jail on that charge, awaiting trial.

Police looked for justice in that house. Looked for blame. Looked to personify the blame. Ignorance of the law excuses no man. Ignorance of a kid having your loaded gun and taking it to school excuses no man.

The evidence mounted. Three men have since been indicted on federal weapons charges for possessing a stolen gun allegedly used in the school shooting. Robert Lee Morris III, police say, sold a stolen .32-caliber semiautomatic handgun that wound up in the possession of James and Winfrey. James and Winfrey pleaded not guilty yesterday.

But the blame for the actual slaying has fallen on James. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The warrant alleges that James "on or about Feb. 29, 2000, did commit the crime of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of the late Kayla Rolland, a six year old female child, without malice and unintentionally by doing or committing . . . at various times prior there to, then and there did negligently and or recklessly possess a certain Davis semi-automatic pistol, Model 32, serial #182094, and did feloniously and willfully keep the said pistol at the premises located at 1103 West Juliah, Mt. Morris Township, keeping said pistol loaded. And at various times exposing the same to a minor child, by twirling the pistol in front of [the child] and by failing to keep the same safely secure and out of the reach. . . ."

Kayla's mother was at work when she got a call that her baby was hurt. There had been an accident at school. Veronica McQueen, 38, drove quickly from the electronics company to the hospital. McQueen thought it was a scrape, a bump, a broken leg.

Then they told her Kayla had been shot. That another 6-year-old had killed Kayla. And she started screaming. It was inconceivable. Didn't make sense that a boy so young could have a loaded gun, would bring it to school and shoot Kayla.

Terry McQueen, 39, the brother of Kayla's stepfather, said the boy was a bully. "Kayla went to her mother and told her mother there was a confrontation," he says.

Kayla's mother told Kayla to tell her teacher, and if the school didn't do anything, McQueen and her husband would go to the school to talk to the little boy.

But what mother knows when to let children resolve their own problems and when to go to the school and tell the bully to leave her child alone?

Kayla lived in a white house with red shutters on Princeton Avenue. A chain-link fence encloses the front yard. There is an iron trellis, but no flowers. Wind chimes are hanging outside the front door, but they lean against the house and don't blow in the wind. Junk collectors are collecting piles of furniture left on her curb. They leave behind an electric typewriter, four black garbage bags, a rag, a plastic roof to a doghouse, a Doritos bag.

A black boy and a white boy ride a bicycle down the street. The white kid is pedaling; the black kid is standing on the kickstand on the back. A chow chow runs behind them. Kayla's dog, chained in her yard, does not notice the junk collectors, the junk truck or the boys. He just lies there.

Kayla had a dirt yard like the little boy who killed her. The difference is there is a soccer ball in it and a dog.

"She was a good girl. Loving and caring. She loved church. She liked to play with cars. Jump rope. Her smiles got to you. She loved to run," says Tammy Fortin, 33, mother of one of Kayla's half brothers and the ex-girlfriend of Kayla's father.

Fortin says Kayla counted on her older brother, 13-year-old Nicholas, to take up for her. Nicholas and Kayla have the same father, but not the same mother.

Family life can get complicated.

Tammy Fortin is explaining how they are related to Kayla. Kayla's mother, Veronica, and Fortin had babies by the same man, Ricky Rolland. When he broke up with them--one after the other--the two women lived together for a while, raising their children together.

"Veronica and I were very, very close," Fortin said. "When they were living with me, Kayla was a little itty baby. I'd hear her crying. I'd get up and change her pants and feed her. She was a beautiful little baby. It shouldn't have happened.

"She told Nicholas, 'These boys are messing with me.' She would say, 'That's my brother and he will get you if you mess with me.' Family stuck up for family."

They are standing outside McQueen's house, a half-block from where the little boy lived. They never noticed the little boy who lived down the street.

Their lives are connected, were connected long before they knew it: Fortin met Kayla's father when she was 17. And they lived together. They rented the same house where the 6-year-old boy was living before he killed Kayla.

The house that police say became a crack house.

Buell Elementary is squat, an unimpressive blond brick structure. The school flags are flying at half staff.

The school had a reputation in the neighborhood for being a good school. Sixty-one percent of its students are black; 31 percent are white; 8 percent are Hispanic. Classes start at 8 a.m. Breakfast is served. Ninety-three percent of the children who go there qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunches.

This year the school became a pilot for a national program, the Primary Mental Health Project, intended to identify children with aggressive tendencies. The program was reorganized after the shooting at Columbine High School last spring. Buell's was one of the few pilot programs in Michigan that identified students as early as kindergarten.

The 6-year-old boy, who had been taunting other students and poked one with a pencil, had been identified as potentially violent. He was scheduled to see a psychologist. He was not late for his appointment. The appointment was too late for him. It was scheduled for six days after he fatally shot his 6-year-old classmate.

The boy had been identified, but nobody had made home visits where he was staying. In fact, when the shooting occurred, nobody had his new address.

Ira A. Rutherford III, superintendent of Beecher Community Schools, is pained.

"I've been racking my brain. There are socio-economic indications. We look at 6-year-olds as innocent. This shatters the concept of reasoning."

Rutherford is reliving the details in his head, wondering. "One shot was fired. There were three bullets in the gun. The gun was left in a ready-to-shoot position. You put the clip in the bottom . . . it puts the bullet in the chamber.

"As far as we know, the only person who knew he had a gun was his brother."

Under Michigan law, Rutherford says, the boy must be expelled--any child who brings a weapon to school is automatically expelled. If the child is in the sixth grade or above, it's for 180 days. If a child is in the fifth grade or below, it's 90 days.

"You don't have to hold a hearing, but you must give the child an opportunity for a hearing. If the child and parent turn down the opportunity, the board is bound by the law."

Rutherford has drafted a letter to send to the mother. And he will. He will write a letter telling the mother who dropped the child and his brother off at the house that she has a right to a hearing. And he will explain that if the boy is expelled, he has a right to petition for reentry.

"I doubt this would be in the interest of the child to reenter a Beecher school," Rutherford says.

The boy, his brother and sister are living with a maternal aunt in Flint until the court makes a decision on what to do with them.

How does this school system put itself together? After the shooting, schools were closed for a week. The first day back at Buell, 79 percent of the students came back. Attendance for first grade was 83 percent. On Tuesday, 83 percent of the students came back and first-grade attendance was 100 percent.

100 percent minus two. One buried, one lost. What does that equal now?

The boy's father, Dedric Darnell Owens, 28, arrives on time. He is in a forest-green jumpsuit. He is on the third floor of the county jail, under medical watch in his torment.

He hasn't seen his son since January, when he went to jail, and he has not talked to the boy or the boy's mother, Tamarla Trinese Owens, 29, since the shooting. When he sees the boy again, "I'm not going to say anything to him about the incident. I don't think it would be appropriate to talk about him, about the incident.

"To me I think he saw the gun as a toy. He put it in his pocket and took it to school."

Why were those boys there, at that house?

"His mom got evicted. She didn't have nowhere else to take them. . . . I would have took my kids to my mom's or my sisters."

Who's to say that would have been better--his mom and a sister have both faced drug charges.

Last year, Owens's son had told him: "They always messing with me."

In a neighborhood of kids who don't have much, he had a little less. At his school, there are mothers and fathers who walk their kids to school every day, or drive them there in cars. When the bell rings, the parking lot fills with parents and other relatives. Sheila! Jessica! Scott! In those names was wealth.

"I didn't think he meant it, but as a parent you are supposed to look at that situation. I told him it's not right to hate people. I told him to stop all the fighting he was doing. He told me, 'Okay, Daddy.' "

But then Daddy went to jail. Daddy has been in jail most of the six years that the boy has been alive. "I got locked up when he was 2."

Dedric Owens was born in Flint. Tamarla Owens was born in St. Louis and moved to Flint when she was a teenager. They lived next door to each other, and started dating, then married.

Things went sour, and Tamarla filed for divorce last March. Welfare reform laws required her to work; at the time of the shooting, she was working two jobs, away from home 14 hours a day, helping manage a retail store and making desserts at a cafe. She made about $250 or $300 a week. It wasn't enough. She fell behind in the rent and lost her house.

"Her only crime is being poor," says Sam Riddle, a spokesman for her. "When she was evicted, she had nowhere to turn but to her immediate family, her sister and her brother."

The brother did what he could to help his sister, Riddle says. "Tamarla had no idea what was going on in that house. What was going on in the house? Tamarla has been the victim of the greatest media smearing since Richard Jewell. . . . Everyone keeps calling this a crack house, but it was not raided. If everyone knew this, how come no one did anything about it?"

Today, Tamarla and Dedric Owens will appear in court to fight for custody of their children, even though they have been charged with child negligence.

"The mother left this boy in that squalid house with guns and drugs," says Busch, ". . . and obviously we would begin to show what went on in that house to the court and what has been going on in the little boy's life for some time. The kids were left alone and were raising themselves at times even before she dropped them off.

"The mother presently doesn't have a home," Busch said. "The father is in jail."

The kids could become wards of the court, or the case could go to trial.

The boy's father has filed an appeal to get custody of the children. He says he wants to get out and raise his kids, and you wonder, what does hard time do to the families of inmates.

"People are making judgments on their past life," says Dedric Owens's attorney, Terry R. Bankert of It's the Law Legal Services. "They are trying to take their kids. Obviously my client can't take custody. Maybe in six months. Who are they to say this child should end up in foster care?"

Dedric Owens's record is thick: attempted home invasion, cocaine possession, cocaine possession with intent to distribute, fleeing and eluding police. The dates of arrests, court appearances, convictions, sentencings, jail time, drug treatment, boot camp, probation, probation violation are like signposts in the six years his son has been alive. At each court appearance, there were warnings issued from the bench to this man that he had to do better by his children.

Oct. 26, 1995: Owens stood before Genesee County Circuit Judge Geoffrey L. Neithercut for sentencing on his second felony. "I can't avoid noticing that you've been involved in some criminal activity before this case," Neithercut said. "As a matter of fact, my notes were that you had a rather boisterous past. You have fathered a whole bunch of kids, and your care for those children is tenuous. You appear to have been living on the edge of society's limits for quite some time. And those are bad things. . . . Is there anything you'd like to tell me?"

Owens stood before the judge. "Well, you know, the reason I--the reason I find myself in this trouble is because I was on drugs, and now you know that I got myself in this trouble, I've have enough time to sit back and think about it."

He was sentenced to a year in the county jail and four years of probation. He went back to jail after violating probation.

"I blame myself for not being there."

He says "it was bad judgment" for the mother to drop the child off at the house.

The story has tied itself into knot of blame and won't unravel.

The little boy's avenue is three-tenths of a mile north of the Flint city line. But simply because it sits in the shadow of the city doesn't make it suburban. It has 14,000 people and the population is declining.

On this side of Flint, the main street is called Detroit Street. On the other side, the same street is called Martin Luther King Avenue, as if the dream stopped when it got to this side of the road.

Not all hope is dead here. Where there is not a church, there is, as they say here, "a party store," selling beer and wine. Two blocks from the little boy's school is a liquor store. The painted signs say: "We accept WIC coupons." Paper signs taped to the window advertise "We carry produce and meat," too, almost an afterthought.

The woman behind the counter says she knows the 6-year-old. "A little itty-bitty thing. I can't understand how a little thing like that can lift a gun. He come to about here," the woman is saying as she raises her hand about five inches above the counter.

A customer puts a liter of malt liquor on the counter and pays for it with eight dimes and four quarters. The clerk is still talking about the children. Behind her, there are bottles of Hennessy and cognac, Perfectos, Blunts, Zig Zag paper.

A little girl puts a quarter on the counter and asks, "How many pieces of gum can I get?"

"The man took our gum back. It was stale," the clerk says, "but you can buy two candies."

She returns to the description of the little boy.

"He was always nice to me. Always real nice. I never had no problem with them. They came in to buy groceries; food, bread, hot dogs and bologna. I love the kids. I love them all."

Laughter doesn't echo on Juliah Avenue. It looks gray and cold on a sunny day.

A 29-year-old man who used to live across from the house has come to check his mail. He does not want to be identified for fear of retribution. He says he moved because of the little boy's family.

"It was horrible," he says. "It used to be a good neighborhood. The day we got broken into, words were said across the street. The little boy sat in the middle of it. They were saying they were going to come by and they said they were going to shoot my house up."

The man who was threatening this was holding the 6-year-old boy on his lap at the time, he says.

"They were throwing gang signs up at the house. . . . I always seen him over there. He was acting like a little grown-up. Even when they were smoking dope and drinking 40s, he was right there with them. He was dressed like everybody else, baggy pants and jerseys.

"In December, with all the snow, they just left the door open. People come in and out like they had a turnstile. You know the kids didn't get any sleep. We heard gunshots and think nothing about it. You know those kids didn't get any sleep."

The man said his brother called social services a few weeks ago. "I was standing there. He called and said, 'You need to come check this out. It's a drug house and kids are living there.' "

They never called the man back. And they never came.

There is a park in this neighborhood. Or what looks as though it once might have been a park. It doesn't look as though kids play there anymore. The top is sheared off the monkey bars. The seesaw is still. A metal slide sparkles in the sun, propped against the useless monkey bars.

But there are no stairs leading to the top of the slide. And you wonder, if a kid wanted to run through the weeds and try to climb, how would he get on top?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Fascinated by the Idea of What it Means to be "Other"

Foreign No More Ping Chong Portrays the Immigrant Experience With Real People

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer

Vamos a empezar.

Bay dia se bat dau.


Sh ka tioban.

Let's get started. Please sit down.

The stage is black.

The voices are in color.

They speak, and you think you know who they are. Ninety minutes later, you realize that what you thought you knew was only a fraction of the truth, the for-colored-people-only truth. The voices don't fit in a box.

The people onstage are not actors. They are reading from scripts, but the scripts are not really scripts. The words are their own stories told with stage directions--their own lives, now on paper.


They are presenting their lives at Washington's GALA Hispanic Theatre in a revolutionary stage documentary called "Undesirable Elements" by New York playwright and director Ping Chong. Chong has dedicated himself to bringing real life to art. He travels the world, interviewing people and turning their lives into a stage production that explains what it feels like to be Other.

His only qualification in selecting his cast is that they be people who have moved from one culture to another, because it is in that transformation that lessons are learned. Cultural stereotypes are splattered. Differences become blended. The single, taut thread of humanity becomes tighter.

"We all have common human experiences," Chong says. "We all have to deal with life, death, war. Those common threads are fundamental facts of human existence: suffering and happiness."

Chong says he got the idea while teaching a theater course in the Netherlands in 1991. His students would have lunch together. "I thought: We are all from different places in the world. We are all doing something positive and creative, and we are not shooting each other. Can I do a show about people, with all their differences, sitting in the same room talking about joy?"

He was worried that "we were growing more insular from each other, a result of the Reagan era, when it became okay to be selfish, okay to be intolerant. People in America should have the right to have different opinions. When one group tries to clamp down on another group, that is fascism. Americans have forgotten what democracy is."

He debuted "Undesirable Elements" in 1992 in New York. For eight years, the idea has toured--to Cleveland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, Rotterdam and Tokyo, where in 1995 he received a Yumiuri Theatrical Award naming it one of the year's five best plays produced in Japan.

Two months ago, Chong came to Washington. He screened about 30 people and emerged with a cast of five. Chong and co-writer/director Michael Rohd figured out how their stories could be told dramatically. The piece was written as a series of journal entries read to an audience. The entries are woven together in a chronology.

"The stories are so rich, so fascinating, they beat what playwrights try to write," Rohd said. "When real life is woven into theater, you have the best of both worlds. You have truth and you have real life."


The five people performing their own lives on a black stage covered with white gravel take their cue offstage. They march in silence, forcefully, with direction, swirling around their half-moon pit. No expression. They step into the pit. The stones crunch under their feet. They take their seats.

They introduce themselves.

There is Marlene Calista Cooper, born in Monrovia, Liberia, two months premature.

Alida Yath, born in Alta Coban Verapaz, Guatemala. It was the dry season.

Arnoldo Ramos, born in San Jose, Costa Rica, in a taxi near a stop sign in front of a cathedral.

Dang Ngoc Hoa, known in this city as Sandy Dang, born in Hanoi with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

Eugenio Longoria, born in Brownsville, Tex., growing up skipping the border between Mexico and Texas, living in two worlds.


The people performing their own lives sit back in the hard black folding chairs on the stage that is black covered in white gravel. The scene behind them is a shimmery white moon, painted imperfectly on a black curtain. The people performing their own lives don't leave the stage again until you know them.

And you will know them. You will dig deep beneath the stereotypes of their cultures. You will live their births, their childhoods, the coup d'etat, the rapes, the poverty, the shoes so tattered that the nails patching them together make your toes bleed because you have to walk a mile from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. You will get slapped with the racism from the majority people and the racism from your own people because your skin is too light or too black, your eyes are too green, you are Chinese in Vietnam, you are white and Mexican. You will learn that to be poor is to be resourceful.

You will come to America and get fired from a bartending job at the elegant restaurant on the fifth floor of Garfinckel's because a newspaper columnist asks you for chilled white wine and you don't know what chilled white wine is so your co-worker puts ice cubes in the white wine and serves it to him. The columnist writes about it jokingly the next day. He does not know that his words will steal your paycheck.

Their stories swell. And as they speak, you listen and hear their histories from their perspectives. You heard something about the coup in Liberia. Wasn't that sometime in the 1970s? You heard about it. But it seemed so very far away. You don't know the story until Marlene, the Liberian American, tells you, from the inside out.

"One hundred thirty-three years of rule by a tiny elite of about 300 extended families descended primarily from freed slaves and free blacks comes to an end."

There is dancing in the streets. At noon soldiers enter her yard looking for her father. They fire guns over her head. They take her mother downstairs. Her mother fights. They tell her mother if she doesn't stop fighting, they will rape her daughters. The mother stops fighting. They rape the mother. Marlene is 9 years old.

Mexican nicknames: El Chivo, meaning the goat. El Canalero, meaning river man. El Verde, meaning the man with green eyes. El Guero, meaning a white-looking Mexican.

Vietnamese names: Tai, meaning greatness. Tuan, handsome. Minh, bright. My, beautiful.

Costa Rican nicknames: Indio, Negro, Pipo, Tico, Pepita. El Macho, the slang name for North Americans in Costa Rica: On one level, it means someone who is blond. On another, it means someone who comes and dominates you.

Liberian slang: Sweet Motha, refers to platform shoes or shoes no longer in style. Holy holy, a public bus. Where's my Christmas, meaning: Don't you have any money for me today? Play is play, and joke is joke, but sticking your finger in a blind man's eye is damned provoking. No translation necessary.


Chong is sitting in the hollow theater, directing the lives of the people who are reading their lives onstage. "Read it louder. Slow down. You told that story with more emotion. Now you are just reading it."

They are not professional actors. But there is power in their words because the words belong to them, these immigrants we think we know but we don't know.

You see a woman, a Chinese-Vietnamese community leader in Washington. She is sharp. She is an advocate. But did you know that when she was a child, her family built a bomb shelter under their home in Hanoi? Did you know that for 11 consecutive days, the United States rained bombs on her neighborhood? Did you know a bomb dropped 10 blocks from her house, wiping out the largest hospital in Hanoi?

"If the bombs had been just a little closer, I would not be here now."

She is reading the line. It is not made-up play drama. It is real.

What do you think of when you hear the words Costa Rica? Eco-tourism!

Arnoldo thinks of a haven, his parents, forgiveness and the essence of his being.

What do you think of when you hear the word Guatemala? The answers: poor, submissive, drunk, meek, illiterate.

Alida thinks of her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, a beautiful place, a culture she wants to save but is disappearing. She thinks of the scent of orange blossoms.

What do you think when you hear the word Vietnam?

People think War.

Sandy thinks, "My childhood . . . a guava tree, playing house under the shade of bamboo, of eating a breakfast of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves."

What do you think when you hear the word Mexico?

People think cheap labor, Taco Bell, illegal immigrants, cheap vacations and exploited people.

Eugenio thinks of his flag, the scent of taquitos, papayas, churros, the smell of hard work. He hears his mother's voice singing his brothers to sleep.

What do you think of when you hear the word Liberia?

People wonder: Is that Russia? Isn't Gadhafi there? They think of bare-breasted women.

Marlene thinks of heat, red earth, salt air, mangoes, country chop, palm butter and rice, foo-foo, the song of the pepper bird.

She thinks of the silence of the dead.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Margaret Atwood at Times Talks

Split Personality In Margaret Atwood Reside Both the 'Ordinary' Person and the Extraordinary Writer

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Foreign Service


She slips into a local cafe like one of her characters -- a woman in a pastel purple print dress, porcelain bare arms and pastel purple hat. She looks almost translucent. She is alone. None of her characters is hiding in there. They have been left behind long ago in the pages of her books. She, the writer, does not bring them with her as much as her readers want her to.

Most of these characters -- memorable women on the verge of sanity, on the edge of nervous breakdowns -- came from her. But are not her. Not Elaine, the girl gasping for air in "Cat's Eye," who peeled her own skin; not Marian in "The Edible Woman," who thought she would be eaten; not Kat in "Hairball," who saved a tumor in a glass jar and placed it on a mantle; not Iris of "The Blind Assassin," whose sister, wearing white gloves, deliberately drove off a bridge.

Writing, Margaret Atwood has said, is something she does. Not something she is. "The mere act of writing splits the self in two," she says. There is the ordinary person, and then there is the "slippery double" who does the writing.

She is often reminded of this tortured duality by a clipping tacked to a bulletin board in her office, "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate. . . ."

The famous, she notes in her latest book, "Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing," "are always shorter and older and more ordinary than you expected."

On this afternoon, the ordinary woman who has shown up happens to be Margaret Atwood, whose name is often printed three times bigger than the title on the covers of her books. The winner of the 2000 Booker Prize, she is one of Canada's foremost poets and novelists and has helped to show the world that this country is producing some of the best writing in modern times.

This is the woman who has helped to give Canada its voice and its identity. Yet, in this uncrowded cafe, no one seems to notice her, or maybe it is the Canadian way not to stare, to point and whisper that there sits Margaret Atwood.

Still, something about both her and her books makes the reader so curious about the origins of the characters and the plots, the passions or fears that lie beneath.

She sits behind a cup of coffee with milk. She is the regular person, the one who bakes great brownies, knits her grandbaby sweaters, invites lonely newcomers to dinner at her downtown home (because Toronto can be a closed place) and greets every guest at her Boxing Day party, where she and her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, serve baked beans and ham. (Is that Michael Ondaatje standing in the corner? And who is that beautiful woman who looks like Atwood, who has flown in from Europe and is joking about milk and whiskey?)

You ask her, the writer who is sitting in the cafe, about confidence because you think she must be confident, more confident than many in the world who sit in rooms alone with words that multiply but never amount to anything.

"Confidence?" she repeats. "I don't know that I have any. I have the same list of paranoias that every other writer has as far as I can determine. 'It's no good! This is useless! I hate this!' It's the same blank sheet that everybody starts with."

That sheet, she has said, is "smooth, white and terrifyingly innocent. . . . White, because it's hot, it will burn out your optic nerves. Those who stare at the page too long go blind. . . . The page is a skin that can feel you touching it. Did you really think it would just be there and do nothing?"

Atwood's "Negotiating With the Dead" explores those pages, their written words and the writer's relationship with them.

She writes: "Let's say it's a book about the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different. It's the sort of book a person who's been laboring in word mines for, say, forty years -- by coincidence, roughly the time I myself have been doing this -- the book such a person might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she's been up to all this time."

Or: "Perhaps I wish to say: Look behind you. You are not alone. Don't permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for the snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist -- it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you. Advice for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless; dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded."

Still, the readers keep asking such obtuse questions as: "Where does it come from?"

When she was a child, writing and art were not something people were absorbed with, she says. She was born in Ottawa in 1939, two months after World War II began. "People had other things on their mind and even if they hadn't, they wouldn't have been thinking about writers." She remembers once that a poet wrote a magazine article and titled it "Canadians Can Read, But Do They?"

Her father ran a forest-insect research station in Quebec, taught her entomology, and each spring, her parents would leave for the cold North and return to a different city each fall. The "landscape of the north" became her home town.

Often writers grow up with "books and solitude," Atwood says. In the North, there were no theaters and the radio did not work well, she says. All she had were books and time. She became a writer in a split minute of transformation. She remembers it was 1956. She was walking home from school, when a poem wrote itself in her head. Later, she wrote it down. "I didn't know that this poem of mine wasn't at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn't have cared," she writes. "It wasn't the result but the experience that had hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in 'B' movies."

Over the years, she has produced more than 37 volumes: poetry, children's books, fiction and nonfiction, including at least 10 novels and three short story collections. She has written in hotels, on airplanes, in the middle of the night. Ask her when she sleeps, and she says the most appropriate question is when she eats. It used to be that the best time for writing was the middle of the night, but lately getting up at that hour has become dangerous because stairs covered in night can trip up a writer.

Atwood has wondered: If she went blind would she be able to write? "Henry James apparently dictated his later novels, but I don't think I would be capable of doing that. I seem to have to be able to see them." Or what if something happened to her hands, would the black thread that spins the words stop coming? Writing, she says, is produced somehow by the connection between the brain and the hand. "It's not you sitting up in your brain directing your hand." The brain and hand are one.

Stories come to her, she says, dropping in like unexpected visitors. Sometimes there is not enough space for them, no rollaway beds to lie on while she finishes something else. "But they aren't always the right ones," she says. "They come and then some of them go. And the ones that stick around are usually the ones that you would think maybe a sane person should not endeavor to write," she says.

She is speaking of "The Handmaid's Tale," published in Canada in 1985, a futuristic novel about a dystopian society in which fertile women become handmaids for reproduction and are farmed out to have babies for barren couples.

The idea for "The Blind Assassin," a novel about the rise and fall of a Canadian family, began simply as a subject Atwood wanted to explore, that of a woman who had lived through the 20th century, watching the changes between 1901 and 2001. The book's main character, Iris, first appeared to Atwood carrying a container.

"So when I first started looking at her, she was dead and she had left behind the container, which was a hatbox, and somebody else was discovering her container and was finding out what was in it, which were some letters."

But that didn't work. So Atwood threw the woman and the container out. The next time the woman appeared to her, she was alive. "But she was being discovered by two other people who were younger than she, and she had a container, which was a suitcase and in the container there was a photograph album," Atwood recalls. "That didn't work, either. But one of the photographs survived." Then the two young discoverers started having an affair "and he was married with baby twins."

The characters took over the life of the old woman. So Atwood "put them in a drawer."

"Maybe they are carrying on in there. I don't know. The twins were very cute and it was sad to give them up, but there you are."

As soon as those characters were put away, "the old lady moved to the first person and began speaking herself. Once she began speaking herself, then it was all right."

"The only way you can write the truth," Atwood writes in "The Blind Assassin," "is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person and not even by yourself at some later date, otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it."

There is nothing mystical about her own hands, except when you look at the early drafts of her novels that are saved in the rare book library at the University of Toronto. And you see that she starts her novels on lined paper in spiral notebooks. There are certain pages where the handwriting seems to have gotten faster and faster and becomes more and more illegible as if the hands were simply trying to keep up with the story that is spilling onto the page.

"Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space," she has written in black ink. The words are in cursive, written quickly. JT, she has written then scratched it quickly. She picks up. "Space is curved and so time must be curved also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in it [she scratches out 'it,' replaces it with time, then scratches out that, too] it and exist in two places at once."

In some ways, it seems sneaky to be here in this library, looking at these original versions. Her early thoughts are lying here with no one but the librarian to guard them. Here we find the many beginnings of her epics written in pencil, crayon, black and blue ink, roller pen. Typed and crossed out. Filled in the margins. Self-edited. Arrows and circles. And if you flip back far enough, there are pencil sketches of flowers, bulbs and roots and a mask of a beautiful woman crying. And here you pause, because this page reveals that this woman is not only an artist of words but one of pictures.

Later, the hand writes, "I chew the skin off from around my fingernails. Some things don't change." And there is something written in the margin. But it is illegible. Squint. Decipher. It is written quickly. It is probably a secret to the method but it can't be read. "What I am not afraid of, snakes, worms, toads, mice, rats, dogs, leeches, guns unattached to people, most men. What I am afraid of: thunderstorms, spiders, poisonous jellyfish, some men (megalomaniacs and psychopaths). Sharks. Large red tropical centipedes. Wimps: harmless-looking, but they can give you a vicious nip. This is how I would have described myself until a week ago. Now I would add to the last list: women."

It is hard to know where the fiction fuses itself with real life.

Atwood has been called a feminist who wrote a prototype feminist work, "The Edible Woman," published in 1969, long before people knew what category to put it in.

"Let's pretend that we're back in 1969 and that our very first book is being published and that we are in fact 29 years old and that we are treated like the most amazing freak that has ever appeared on the face of the Earth, because we are a young female person, before feminism has really hit -- or about the moment when people have figured out that it has hit but other people don't know that, and some of the questions that would be asked are now pretty far beyond belief," she is explaining. "So those were the kinds of fools that I didn't suffer gladly, but if somebody asks a naive question in all good faith, my attitude was there are no stupid questions. There are only stupid answers. But there's a difference between that and outright aggression . . . which I certainly got a big dose of in my earlier years."

She lives by a general rule. "I never kick anybody in the knee first. I haven't. Never. But if they start. . . . Why stick around for it, why stick around for abuse?"

Atwood says she can usually tell when an interviewer is hostile, but some mask it. "The English are particularly good at concealing their hostility and then hammering you over the head with it when the interview actually comes out. But they've been quite nice to me lately."

That was before the Booker. "I think once I entered the old writer's category, they're rather fond of those. And it's true that younger women are more frightening to society at large than older ones," she says. "Because you don't know what they're going to do. Whereas with me, you have a fairly good idea because I've already done most of it."

She is an intensely private person. Some people know her but then they find that they don't really, even after reading two biographies about her, which she says she has not read. "I've looked at the pictures, though." She says if she started reading them, she would have to start correcting them. "And that way madness lies."

There are things people can't know about her and there are things she would never reveal. "You can't actually stop anybody from writing your biography. You can sue them if they are libelous once they've published it. But that is not the case with either of these biographies. I take it they're rather laudatory in possibly a somewhat more boring way than my life actually was or is, or was at the time," she says. "It's not that I'm a monster or perverse, but why would I tell private things to those people?"

So people try to write her into one of her many characters or a composite of them. They want to believe they know her. She has been sitting on their shelves and nightstands for all this time. Thirty-seven volumes of her.

Some people have called her prolific. She says she is not. "I'm old. If you take the number of years I've been writing, say from the age of 16 up until the age of 61 -- which I am now, 61 minus 16 is 45. So 45 years of writing. Then take the number of books I've actually published, and then count only half a point for the short ones. I'm not as prolific as you think. Ten novels over 45 years is pretty slow. Joyce Carol Oates is my standard. . . . That's prolific. I'm average."

Not really average. Atwood, who is now 62, is considered the major Canadian writer. Still last year, when she won the 2000 Booker Prize for Fiction, she was surprised.

Her reaction as she sat in the audience: "Surprise, A. B -- my feet were killing me because I made the mistake of buying new shoes. They're very nice. But it was the first time I had worn them, so that rather limping walk up to the podium was entirely genuine. Serves me right. Vanity. My outfit was black, so they were black but with sequins on them."

She was surprised because an English friend of hers kept telling her she didn't think this would be Atwood's year. "And since I'm a gullible person and very innocent and always do what people tell me, I actually believed her."

So Atwood was sitting there having a fine time when they announced she was the winner. "I hadn't put fresh lipstick on or anything, as you might do if you thought you might win it. So I was actually quite genuinely surprised. Nor had I prepared remarks. . . . So I had to improvise. And there are some pictures of me that look as if I am on some very strange drug. Because you walk backstage and there are all these people with flash cameras, so you're basically looking pretty much like an owl in headlights."

But that may not have been the writer they captured. Most likely it was her ordinary double.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Art in the Eye of a Needle

From a belittling time, micro-sculptor creates works that resonate with a power most disproportionate

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, December 3, 2009

They say it's not the story that intrigues us so much as the storyteller.

Willard Wigan, 52, a famous micro-sculptor, is telling his story to an audience at Prince George's Community College, explaining how he began creating art so tiny that it fits in the eyes of needles.

It began, he says, with his teacher in a classroom in England, when Wigan was 5 years old. The teacher holds her nose high in the air and speaks with the crispness of the king's English:

"Where is the little colored boy today? Yes, of course, there you are. Come here."

The boy wants to vanish. Instead he follows the teacher's instruction and goes to the front of the class. The teacher gives him a piece of chalk and tells him to write, but he cannot because he has dyslexia, a learning disability that his school in England in the 1960s had not recognized.

The teacher spins the little boy to face his classmates and announces: "Willard is an example of failure."

The boy wants to become smaller before his classmates, retreating within himself until they can no longer see him.

"Nothing," the teacher announces in a tinny voice. "Nothing is what this boy will become."

The boy hates school. And absconds. That's the word he uses. "I absconded."

His mother finds him hiding in the shed behind his home in Birmingham, where he was the middle child of five children.

"What are you doing here?" his mother asks in her strong Jamaican accent, not yet diminished by her life in England.

Her son, who is only 5, can't find the words to articulate his humiliation at school. He tells her he doesn't like school. She tells him he must go to school. He says he doesn't want to go to school. She tells him, if he doesn't go to school, she will drag him. She leaves him in the shed, staring at the ground. That is when he begins to notice small things. Before him crawls a trail of ants.

"I started to believe ants needed a place to live. I decided to make an apartment building and furniture for them, and a carousel out of splinters of wood." He put the edifice of splinters on a piece of cardboard with a dab of honey and the ants sought it out. "As a kid I lived in a fantasy world. I used to believe ants could talk. Not once did they say thank you."

He showed his work to his mother, who worked in a lock factory, and she told him to take it smaller. Each time he came to her, his mother would say: "Take it smaller. I can still see it," Wigan recalls. "She said your name will get bigger as your work gets smaller."

His father, a steelworker, "was a typical Jamaican man. If you asked him for a toy, he would give you cotton string and a wheel. If you did anything wrong, he would show you the switch."

Art under a microscope

Wigan is leaning on a lectern in an art gallery at the community college in Largo. He is uncomfortable. Admittedly shy. He is wearing a black suit, lavender shirt opened at the color. A diamond in his ear. He looks like one of those movie stars whose name you can't quite remember. A girl in the back whispers, "He has a British accent."

Tiny art is ancient, painted on grains of sand, carved into kernels of rice. Nanotechnology art, as Wigan's art has been called, is even smaller. (Nano means one-billionth of a part.) Nano art is about materials of dimensions so small they are often invisible to the naked eye.

Artist Cris Orfescu presents prints of microscopic images created by electrons of different materials: graphite nano particles; micro-flakes of oxy polyvinyl chloride; and mere dust particles. Another artist, Ghim Wei Ho, creates three-dimensional nano structures. Her gallery shows photos of "Nano trees," a "Nano sunflower," "Nano rings." Strange images as if they came from an abyss.

Wigan's art comes with his story, which he has told often to audiences who initially find it hard to believe what they see. It is incomprehensible to some that art so tiny was made by hands and not a machine.

Even as seen through the lens of a microscope, the work can appear impossible. How did Wigan make the Statue of Liberty from a fleck of gold? Sculpt the scene from the Mad Hatter's tea party sitting in a needle? Sculpt five cast members from "Star Wars"? There is the Obama family waving on election night -- all standing tiny in the eye of an ordinary sewing needle. As seen through the lens, the needle itself looks huge and rugged, almost as though it were a hollowed-out mountain.

All these tiny scenes and figures and more are in Wigan's collection, part of which will be on exhibit behind powerful microscopes at the Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, until Jan. 23.

His art is constructed of fibers from his shirt or from a carpet, he says. He chisels with chips of diamonds. "The diamonds are like little bee stingers when I smash them. I find the sharpest one and I gradually cut away at the fibers to get the shape. If it doesn't look like what I am trying to create, I turn it into somebody else."

He says he paints with the hair of a dead fly. He steadies his body, slows his pulse and works between heartbeats. He says he has trained himself to slip into a meditative state and often wears only underwear when working in a small room in his studio in England. He works only at night, to avoid traffic vibrations.

He has trained himself to feel the pulse in his fingers. "I can feel it jerking," he says, extending a finger.

During the lecture, he calls a volunteer from the audience to demonstrate the steadiness of his hand. Wigan is stage right. The woman is stage left. He points his finger in front of a projector casting shadows on a white screen. She extends her finger. Seconds go by and her hand, though she is trying to hold it steady, seems to be jumping up and down. Wigan's hand seems not to have moved at all.

Wigan says he must be careful not to breathe too deeply. A wrong move can mean destruction.

"Once, I inhaled Alice in Wonderland."

A defense of small things

His work is a glass menagerie of fragile things. To this reporter, who is not a critic, it gives the impression of otherworldliness, an attempt to escape a reality. And yet if you look closely, the tiny figures reveal a more penetrating expression of the way things would look if you were observing from a great distance, as though you were hovering above, godlike, looking down on little creatures.

Art critics on the whole do not seem to know what to make of Wigan's work, says Jeffry Cudlin, a curator, art critic and the director of exhibitions for the Arlington Arts Center. Cudlin says when he was researching Wigan, he found no formal critiques of Wigan's work.

"There seems to be nothing about the quality of what he does other than to say, 'Holy cow! This guy is making pieces that fit on the head of a pin,' " Cudlin says. "There is no attempt to talk about it other than as a phenomenon, an unlikely thing brought into the world."

"Here you have work that can only be seen removed, through magnification," Cudlin adds. "There is some layer of distance between you and the thing you are seeing. Here is art that only the creator is seeing firsthand. Everybody else has to see it through a medium. It is almost unavailable for critique because you can't see it with the naked eye."

Still, Wigan's micro-sculptures have a deep-pocketed following. In May 2007, British tycoon David Lloyd bought 70 pieces of Wigan's collection for about $22 million. Prince Charles owns one of his sculptures, as does Elton John and the Marquess of Bath. The queen of England has given him an award and praise, and there is a documentary being made about him by German filmmakers. Scientists everywhere are intrigued. Perhaps, they say, Wigan's method could help in surgeries.

Wigan's view of his art is loftier. It is a defense of small things, he says. "It is showing people what they can overcome."

"I heard someone say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven," he says. "I decided to sculpt camels in a needle."

He seems to enjoy teasing his audience from the podium. And yet at points he appears about to cry while telling his story.

Someone asks whether he ever heard from his teacher, the one who told him he would be nothing. He says he hasn't, but he now credits her.

"That teacher made it bad for me. I will have to thank her. She was a cruel woman. I was told I would become nothing. Now I am showing people how big nothing is."

Monday, March 12, 2012

DeNeen Brown: Will You Look This Good at 74?

At age 74, will you look as good as Ernestine Shepherd, the oldest competitive female bodybuilder?
By DeNeen Brown, Published: May 27, 2011
She is 74 years old, and she is ripped.

Sculpted deltoids, carved biceps and a stomach chiseled into a glorious six-pack that rises and falls into magnificent little hills and valleys.

It is the first thing you notice when you see Ernestine Shepherd in the front of the class, teaching body sculpting at a gym north of Baltimore.

Shepherd is wearing tight red shorts and a red bikini top. Between the two is her signature span of chiseled abs.

She is a Dorothy Dandridge beauty, a knockout. Her makeup is perfect, lips painted candy red to match her workout clothes. She has thick, black eyelashes and wears her hair in a long, gray braid that swings down her superbly sculpted back.

She is wearing white Converse sneakers with little white kitten heels. She flexes. “If you are going to try to motivate people, you have to live that part,” she says. “You have to look that part.” Her husband will say later that he still has trouble keeping guys away from her.

Behind her, women many, many years younger than she are struggling — huffing and puffing and trying to keep up. Thighs heavy, bellies jiggling, breath short, they sweat away as their 74-year-old instructor with the body of a college cheerleader counts.

A woman rolls over on her back, exhausted.

“Everybody okay?” Shepherd, at the front of the class, asks softly.

“Third set. And one, two.” Her arms are spread like wings.

“Three, four, five, six.” The women are exhausted. Shepherd continues. “Seven, eight. Good! Nine, 10, 11, 12. And hold. Last set, and one, and two, and work those shoulders. Good. Put your arms down. Shake them out.”

A woman in the back of the gym, who has seen Shepherd on television, whispers: “How do you get to be 74 with a body like that?”

“Age is nothing but a number,” Shepherd says assuredly into the microphone. She has been featured in Essence, on the “Today” show and local television in Baltimore. Last fall, she appeared on “The Mo’Nique Show,” explaining fitness and aging. “We can do it! Why?” Shepherd asks. “Because we are determined, dedicated and disciplined to be fit. You can. You can do it.”

Her voice trails off under the beat of gym speakers blasting: “Young man, there’s no need to feel down. I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.” Seven more counts.

“You can do this,” Shepherd says again. Her voice has a hint of urgency, as if the class means something deeper, as if she were trying to save the women behind her. She turns on her side and stretches out a lithe movie star leg.

But the truth is, most people in this class probably do not have the discipline it takes to reach Shepherd’s fitness level. Most people will not have the determination to run 10 miles before lunch, 80 miles a week, passing people by as if they were standing still. Most people will not want to eat only bland chicken, green beans and cups of plain brown rice and drink liquid egg whites, the lean protein diet of body builders, three times a day. Most people will not have the discipline to turn down that slice of chocolate cake in the cafeteria. Most people will not be able to say, as Shepherd says, “I really don’t have a desire for it.”

Every day, Shepherd rises at 3 a.m. to meditate, then dresses in the cool of a Baltimore morning. She carefully applies her makeup, dresses in another fabulous color-coordinated running suit. She leaves the house quietly, climbing in her gray Corvette and driving in style to Druid Hill Park. Here, she will run for the next three hours through a wooded trail, running to fulfill a dream that did not start with her. Running because long ago she made a “pinkie promise.”

Over the past 18 years, Shepherd has completed nine marathons, won two bodybuilding contests. She was listed in the 2010 and 2011 Guinness World Records as the oldest competitive female bodybuilder in the world.

Most people will not be able to imagine that Ernestine Shepherd was ever once one of them.


“Believe it or not, I used to be a couch potato,” Shepherd admits with a slight smile. Bodybuilding was not something she ever really wanted to do. From the time she was a child, her main goal was to “sit and look pretty.” When Shepherd was 11, she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle, and she broke her ankle.

“From that, I said, ‘Gee, I don’t want to do anything!’ I had my mother write a note saying I couldn’t do any type of exercise,” Shepherd says. “That note followed me all the way through school. I did absolutely nothing, because I always wanted to look nice and I’ve always wanted to be noticed. I guess I’m vain, but vain in a good way.”

So for the next 45 years, she did exactly that: sit pretty and try not to break too much of a sweat.

But one day, she and her older sister Mildred were invited to a pool party. They immediately went to the mall to buy swimsuits.

They had always been pretty women. And they knew that. In fact, Shepherd had been a model in Baltimore for years, after her seamstress invited her to model clothes in a local fashion show. But the two sisters were about to encounter something in the dressing room that would change their lives.

“I was 56. She was 57,” Ernestine recalls. “We were in the same dressing room. She had selected white. I selected red. She always said she was too dark to wear red. She put her suit on and looked at me and started laughing. I said, ‘You are not looking that good yourself.’ ”

They didn’t buy the suits but went to the party anyway and sat by the pool, talking about how their bodies had changed. A woman overheard their conversation and told them about aerobics classes at what is now Coppin State University in Baltimore. The sisters started taking the classes from an instructor named Jay Bennett, who was well known in Baltimore. “My sister went in and told him what we wanted to do,” Shepherd recalls.

The instructor asked what their goals were. Ernestine told him: “I like my hips. I don’t want to lose them.” He said fine but told her there was no program in the world that would allow for “spot reducing.”

“My hips were a 41, and I thought that was great,” Shepherd says. The sisters continued the aerobics classes, with Mildred working harder than Ernestine. “I was complaining, jiving. I noticed she was working hard. I started working hard. I noticed a change in my body.”

The instructor told them they were shaping up nicely and suggested they begin to lift weights. “I said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to get big and muscular.’ ” But he told them that women did not have enough testosterone to develop huge muscles. He told them weights would help them tone.

“I followed her in there, but I would drag my feet. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t believe what he was saying. My sister got in there and did the routines. Her back developed.” That was the first thing Ernestine noticed.

“Everybody started paying attention to her but not me,” Ernestine recalls. “I was jealous. I left the gym and went home. She came back, and she said, ‘Teeny, if you want to enjoy what I am enjoying, you better do what I’m doing.’ ”


Ernestine and Mildred grew up in a red brick rowhouse in East Baltimore, the daughters of a carpenter and a schoolteacher. Ernestine was the third-oldest of the six Hawkins children, but she was closest by far to Mildred. She followed Mildred everywhere.

“I remember I was 5 and she was 6, and we were going to school. We would go to school, and we would hold hands. She would drop me at my class, and I would cry when she had to leave me to go to her class. All I enjoyed was being with her.”

Their mother dressed the two girls alike, with polished shoes and pressed dresses. Mildred was always neat in those pretty dresses. Ernestine, on the other hand, would come home for lunch, and her clothes would be rumpled. Her bows would have fallen out. Their mother would make them both change.

Mildred scolded Ernestine. I am going to have to watch over you, because I get tired of changing clothes. So Mildred would walk behind Ernestine. “If my ribbon fell off, she would pick it up and put it back on.”

When Ernestine was 7 and Mildred was 8, the two sisters were walking down a street in East Baltimore when they passed a beautiful grassy area with a sign warning: Seeded. Keep off the grass.

Ernestine uttered a terrible word. “I said, ‘I’m going to walk on this ‘so and so’ grass!’ ”

Mildred gasped. I’m going to tell Mum.

Ernestine recalls begging her: “Oh, please don’t tell. I’m going to get a spanking.”

Mildred agreed not to tell their mother.

“We made a pinkie promise,” Shepherd says. “Right then I knew she was my friend.”

The sisters became almost inseparable. As they got older, they never lived far from each other in Baltimore and talked or visited several times a day. When Mildred got married, Ernestine wanted to get married.

It just so happened that there was a young man who had been trying to court her. He had lived on the next street over, but she had not noticed him until he returned home from the Army.

Collin Shepherd remembers noticing Ernestine for the first time at a supermarket, where she worked as a cashier. She was 18; he was struck by her beauty.

“My mother would send me to the store,” recalls Collin Shepherd, now 80. “And I would go in and look at Ernestine. She wore so much jewelry, I thought she was married already.”

But Collin’s brother-in-law who owned a barber shop across the street from the food market told Collin that Ernestine was not married or engaged.

“That’s all I need to know,” Collin recalls. “ ‘I’m going to work on her.’ ”

Collin drove his shiny new blue-green ’56 Plymouth — with wings and whitewall tires — to the store and waited for Ernestine to get off work. But Ernestine wouldn’t get in the car. She told him she would walk home. “She just lived nine straight blocks, no curves, no turns from the store.” Still, as she walked on the sidewalk, Collin followed her. “It wasn’t like a pickup. Eventually, she got used to me.” But she was just that hard to get.

Collin persisted. After a while, they began dating. Collin’s big break came when Mildred got married.

“The sister I’m so crazy about,” Ernestine says, sitting in her kitchen after another workout, eating plain chicken and brown rice, “she got married a few months ahead of me. I wanted to be married. So I asked him would he marry me.”

“I was quick to go,” Collin says.

“Everything my sister did I had to do,” Ernestine says. “... The only thing we did different is she had two children, and I had one. I said, ‘Shep, don’t do this to me again.’ I don’t know how women have five or six children. I was still trying to get into my clothes. I was so prissy.”

Her kitchen is painted lavender. Inside the refrigerator, her husband has stacked plastic containers filled with bland green beans, scoops of brown rice, pieces of chicken breast. Plain. No salt. Collin, who retired in 1985 from AT&T, does all the meal preparations. “I cook and clean and whatever needs to be done,” he says. “I run errands to help. I don’t mind doing it.”

They have been married 54 years. Ernestine says he is the best husband. Right now, their son, Michael, 53, who lives with them, is upstairs. Her grandson, also named Michael, is 14.

Just then, her cellphone rings with the theme from the movie “Rocky.” Sylvester Stallone is her idol.


When she was working out with her sister, Mildred got to the point where she could do squats with a 135-pound barbell. Their instructor began inviting Mildred and Ernestine to talk about fitness at classes and fashion shows. And people began to notice the stunning sisters with muscles.

Mildred decided she wanted to compete in bodybuilding shows and took on a stage name. She called herself Velvet. Ernestine wanted to call herself Magenta, but Mildred suggested that Magenta didn’t sound right and told her she should just go by Ernie.

One day in 1992, Velvet told Ernie that she had a dream. They would be in the Guinness World Records for being two sister bodybuilders.

Then Mildred mysteriously confided to Ernestine, “If I don’t make this, you have to fulfill this dream,” Shepherd recalls. “ ‘This is something we want to do. Listen to what I’m saying.’ She said: ‘If anything happens to me, you are not to fall to pieces. You are to continue what you started.’ ”

Ernestine recalls looking at her sister and saying, “Vice versa.”

Mildred responded in a serious way: “ ‘I’m not playing.’ ”

The sisters shook pinkies as they did when they were girls.

Ernestine thinks now that her sister felt something was wrong with her but had decided not to tell anyone at that point.

About three months later, Mildred began complaining openly about headaches and ringing in her ears. But she rationalized the pain. The ringing in her ears was from weightlifting, she told her sister.

Mildred told Ernestine that the top of her head felt tight.

“We both wore our hair back in a braid. She said she would just loosen her hair up.” But then Mildred admitted one day she couldn’t see out of one eye.

“Velvet called me from work. She said, ‘I got up, and I didn’t know who I was.’ She said, ‘I couldn’t use my hands or anything.’ I said I would leave work and go with you to the doctor. I said, ‘I don’t want you dying over there.’ ”

Their parents and baby sister, Bernice, got to Mildred’s house first and took her to the nearest hospital, but the wait was too long. They left, heading for a second hospital. On the way there, Ernestine rode with her sister in the back seat. “She laid her head on my lap and she said, ‘Why does my head have to hurt like this?’ I said, ‘You will be fine.’ I whispered in her ear and told her, ‘When you get well, I will have to tell you how you worried me.’ ”

Mildred was admitted immediately. Soon, a doctor told the family in the waiting room that Mildred had a brain aneurysm, or bulging blood vessel. And that it had burst.

“If we had gotten there in time, maybe we could have saved her.” By then Mildred was on life support, which she had always told Ernestine she did not want.

When they pulled the plug, Ernestine jumped up and ran around the hospital. “I didn’t know where I was going.”

Bernice ran after Ernestine. Ernestine screamed: “Now, I don’t have anyone!”

Bernice held Ernestine. Two sisters crying for an older sister. Bernice told Ernestine: “You have me.”


Shepherd’s world seemed to stop. The sister she would talk with from morning to night had gone suddenly, giving her no chance to prepare. The sister who kept her together and told her what needed to be done was gone.

She sank into a deep pit of depression. “I developed acid reflux, panic attacks and high blood pressure.” Shepherd stopped working out. She lost her faith.

One day Shepherd was sitting in her bedroom in red pajamas when it seemed to her that the cream-colored walls began to move. She was careful not to wake her husband. The walls appeared to be closing in on her. Then when she looked down, she thought she saw “a third arm.” That afternoon at work, the third arm seemed to grow.

“It felt like I had three arms.” Two on one side and one on the other. “Now, this is when you are crazy,” she recalls, laughing. “I held my arm, which I thought was the third arm, which I didn’t have. I held that arm. I said, ‘I have to hold this arm. If I don’t, it will get in the way of the other arm.’ ”

At the time, Shepherd was working as a school secretary in an elementary school in Baltimore where her baby sister, Bernice, was the principal. “My baby sister, God bless her, she was right there for me. I didn’t cry. I just kept holding that third arm. I had sense enough I didn’t want anybody to know this.”

Shepherd recalls being on the subway and wanting to scream and run from the front car to the back car. “But I said, ‘Hold yourself together.’ When I got off, I ran.” She was 61 at the time, holding on to five years of grief.

“I just felt crazy with that third arm. I kept that arm for about a week. It sounds like a joke, but I’m telling you: Your mind can tell you anything.”


Shepherd went to a doctor and told him about the panic attacks and the acid reflux. “But I didn’t tell him about my third arm because I was afraid he would commit me. He told me he would prescribe medication for the panic attacks and told me all the side effects.” Some medical journals refer to an experience similar to Shepherd’s as “phantom limb” syndrome, a sense that an arm or leg is still attached to the body even after it has been amputated. In Shepherd’s case, she may have associated the third arm with her sister, she says.

Shepherd left the doctor’s office and went home. “I thought, ‘How will I fulfill my sister’s dream if I fall apart?’ ”

She sank down and prayed. “I came down from my room and called my husband and son and sat at the kitchen table. I said to them, ‘From now on, I will try to do the dream my sister had. Will you help me?’ They were so glad I was coming out of that. They said, ‘We will do whatever we can to help you.’ ”

Bernice told her: “Every time you feel like you can’t make it, lace up your tennis shoes and get out and go walking.”

So Shepherd put on her tennis shoes once again.


It’s Tuesday in Fort Washington, and Shepherd is hanging from a bar with her hands. Her trainer, Yohnnie Shambourger, 57, who won the gold medal in bodybuilding at the Pan American Games in Argentina in 1995, and in that same year won the title of Mr. Universe, is counting.

She lifts her full body weight up into crunches, working her abs.

“One and down. Two and down. Three and down.”

Shepherd grits.

“Fifteen. Get it up there,” Shambourger says.

“That’s it?” Shepherd asks.

“No, we are going to 20. Very good.”

In this gym, a storefront off Allentown Road, Shambourger began helping to train Shepherd at age 71 in 2007. (After her sister died, Raymond Day, a trainer in Baltimore, would pick her up and take her to the gym.) Shambourger coached her as she worked out, building and toning her muscles, and taught her how to pose in preparation for bodybuilding competitions. It is here that Shepherd comes every Tuesday morning, driving one hour from Baltimore.

A poster on the wall says: “Unleash the Winner in You: Yohnnie Shambourger, former Mr. Universe, shares his winning formula.”

Shepherd will lift heavy weights for 1 1/2 hours.

Finally, she works on her stomach muscles in another set of hanging leg raises. She will do 20 more reps.

“The six-pack,” Shambourger says, “that is her signature. When she walks in a room and you see her six-pack, you say, ‘Ohh! Okay!’ ”

Shepherd, careful not to chip her French manicure, grabs a 20-pound kettlebell. Fifteen reps, Shambourger announces. And she swings the bell as though she were chopping wood.

Between sets, Shepherd jokingly suggests that Shambourger doesn’t realize how old she is. But her coach doesn’t ease up.

“You are a champion,” he says. “I will train you like what you are.”


She is running through the forest in Druid Hill Park in a sleek, black track suit. A misty rain is falling. Her gray braid swings down her gorgeous back. Her husband and son walk behind her, admitting they cannot keep up. A young photographer runs beside her teasing, “You are not running that fast.”

Shepherd takes off, running so fast the young photographer cannot catch her. And she doesn’t stop for two miles. She circles back and zooms by her husband and son, who are still walking. Park service workers ride by in a truck and wave.

People ask Ernestine Shepherd how long she plans to run, how long will she lift weights, how long will she train so hard it hurts. “You will die soon,” they tell her.

She tells them simply, “We are all going to die.”

“But it’s the quality of life while I’m living.”

When she traveled to Rome last year to participate in the ceremony for the Guinness World Records, she carried her sister’s ashes.

“I spread those ashes,” she says. “It was something we dreamed about. I try to keep that dream alive. Now, it’s my dream.”

DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post staff writer.