You can save a life. You may not be aware that it is happening—it could be a simple conversation, a violent interaction, or just your presence in a situation. Some small part of your day-to-day that you wouldn’t normally blink at could be the life changing moment for someone else. It was for me.
I was dragged into the station on two counts of mail fraud. Who knew that sending threatening letters to people through the mail would be a federal offense? I had already stolen (or in my words, “borrowed’) two cars and had been caught shop lifting, “that’s the last time I train a newbie”, I thought to myself. To me, I was there to get my hand slapped and sent on my merry way. Detective Brown had other plans for me. I was thirteen years old.
The police in my town had become common house guests at Chez Duane. Mom had been dating a very violent man who thought that a good time was blacking out and trying to kill us. That was a typical Monday night. I hated this man with every fiber of my being, to the point of contemplating his demise, which preoccupied much of my time. How could my mother allow for this man to pound on her like a bakery kneads fresh dough, while her babies watched in helpless horror? How could she take the money my dad provided so that she and Jon could get so drunk and high that they wouldn’t remember anything the next morning? And how could this woman invite the cops into our home every night and pretend like everything was fine? I was convinced that this was the eighth wonder of the world.
The cops knew everything was far from fine; but honestly, what could they do? Even when I would speak out against her, I had no clout. It was her house and I—I was a prisoner in what seemed like a minimum security prison. Of course, I could always leave. But at that point, where could I go? My father was in financial ruin from the divorce and living with my grandparents. Plus, I wouldn’t go alone. There were three of us at the time and I refused to split us up. It just wasn’t an option.
So, here I am, sitting in the interrogation room of the West Haven police station waiting for the slap on my wrists. The tangerine colored plastic chairs were extremely uncomfortable to sit in, yet alone squirm. I found myself wondering why eternity was so long.
Finally, a tall, svelte black detective came in. I don’t remember him, I thought. When you have cops in your house every day, you think you know everyone.
“Ja-Naé, I’m Detective Brown and you, my dear, are in a lot of trouble.”
“Please! Tell me something I haven’t heard before”, I said. “God, I am such a bad ass”, I thought.
“Well, ok. Let’s get to it. This is it. You have two federal offenses against you right now. The family you’re harassing originally wanted to press charges until we explained your situation at home. Their hearts go out to you and they’re willing to drop the charges.”
“Wait a F*&^ing moment! Who’s talking? It’s no one’s business. What the F*&^!!!”
(NOTE: I had some anger! But honestly, could you blame me?)
“Ja-Naé, listen up! This is it. If you ever breathe wrong, we have to turn you to the state. You’d be owned by them until your eighteenth birthday. That means no regular school, no friends, nothing. It’s juvenile detention, missy.”
I remained as still and silent as I possibly could. I didn’t give a rat’s ass, but I liked creating a pensive affect. Listen, just lock me away. It doesn’t matter. Then I could actually have some peace.
Detective Brown could tell that he was far from penetrating my stoicism. I was sitting across from him, working on my best statue imitation and trying to turn my eyes into two icy daggers that would pierce his heart. Refocusing my eyes I would look. Was it working? “There must be a secret way to do that”, I thought.
After a short staring contest, the detective leaned in putting both elbows on the table and lowered his head. Then very softly, he spoke:
“Ja-Naé, we are all so sorry for what you’ve been going through at home. It sucks. It really does and many of us wish there was something we could do. J, if you go away, what will happen to your siblings? Who will feed them or protect them from Jon? It won’t be your mom. I know he hasn’t gone after you guys, but honestly, it’s only a matter of time. It you’re gone, what will happen to them? You are their protector. They have no one else. You have a choice to turn your life around, to make something of yourself, and help those kids out. They need you. So, what are you going to do?”
It was a sobering realization for me because he was right and I knew it. What would happen to them if I got put away? How could I live with myself if I allowed that monster to hurt them? Yes, a change needed to occur.
That conversation sparked a ton of revolutions and changes in my life. I changed who I was hanging out with, I began going to Alateen meetings to find ways to cope with the insanity. I even lost 65 pounds. And though those were my immediate changes, they allowed me to make better choices throughout my life.
Things did not get better at home, but much worse. Jon had been imprisoned several times for his abuse and attempted murder. I continued to let our guests in our home on a regular basis until I left for college. But I had changed and I always made sure the kids were ok.
Detective Brown and I never spoke again after that day. It does not change the fact that a simple conversation with a detective that really cared, saved me and has helped shape the woman I am today.
Thank you to all of you who work so hard and may not understand how and why sometimes you touch and shape more lives than you know.
Ja-Naé Duane is a strategist, artist, creative economist, and author of “How to Start Your Business with $100”. Ja-Naé has been written about and seen in dozens of media outlet, including the Associated Press, NPR, Classical Singer Magazine, Boston Globe, and Business Week. Mostly recognized for her diverse skill set and unwavering commitment to improving the quality of life for our global community, Ja-Naé was nominated as one of New England’s “Most Innovative Leaders of 2007.” She is CEO of Wild Women Entrepreneurs, CEO of Ja-Naé Duane Ventures, Co-Founder of the Massachusetts Artist Leaders Coalition, and Founder of The Leaders. Ja-Naé is also a professional opera singer, social media strategist, and a faculty member at Northeastern University.
Note from Lauri Stevens: I met Ja-Naé Duane at a #140Conf Tweetup in Boston a couple months back. She told me this story when she learned of my work and I invited her to tell it here. While it doesn’t have anything to do with social media or the Internet, I thought it would be appropriate to use social media to deliver her appreciative words to Detectives Brown and Burke. Because of the men and women in law enforcement who work every day to keep their piece of the homeland safe, we have much to be thankful for. #tacop (Thank-A-Cop-Thursday) this Thanksgiving Thursday, and every day.