This is one of those posts. I will end up a prescriptivist and am not completely sure of myself but it’s that time of year and I have complaints about how she is being remembered.
There is more to this story than psychophobic social justice activists are willing to look at, if I can get that much clear it will be a start.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and don’t want to hunker down and empathize then do your duty and stop reading this blog, seriously. Blow away.
No. Wait, It’s a long story is all I’m sayin. And if you’re just meeting Mary Jesus, then meet her.
LA Times June 10, 2005OAKLAND — After scattering hundreds of copies of her suicide note from the seventh-floor ledge of a downtown building, Mary Jesus held her nose and raised an arm in the air.
Then, like a swimmer taking a plunge, the former Turlock woman leaped to her death.
“Goodbye cruel world and all that,” read the note, in which she blamed her suicide on an eviction that she had battled fiercely — and unsuccessfully. “Everyone will say what they always say when something totally preventable isn’t prevented, ‘Why didn’t anybody do anything?'”
In the seven months since her death at 33, Mary Jesus has become a symbol. Tenant leaders have highlighted her death as one of eviction’s darkest consequences in an era of rising rents and an urgent shortage of affordable housing.
Landlords say they are not to blame and draw a different lesson.
They point to failings in a mental health system that, they say, should have rescued Mary Jesus long before she stepped onto that balcony in the Oakland Tribune newspaper tower.
Many Oakland tenants have been swept out of their apartments by an overheated housing market. Most go quietly. Mary Jesus — stubborn, articulate, unstable — orchestrated a final act of defiance.
Diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder, she was stable as long as she had stable housing. But like others in similar situations, once her sanctuary was threatened, she lost her grip.
She was born Mary Jesus Brazil to Catholic, Portuguese immigrant parents in Turlock.
A photo from age 6 shows her smiling in her bedroom, a pet bird perched on her head. Months later, she was bouncing from a domestic violence shelter to a cheap motel with her mother and siblings.
At age 10, Mary’s family said, she found her mom in the kitchen with a wound to her chest, her father hovering with a butcher knife.
Her mother survived. Her father served prison time. They divorced.
Mary endured stints in foster homes, in juvenile hall and on the streets. With her 10-inch blue mohawk and counterculture views, “Mary just broke the mold in Turlock,” said her oldest sister, Maria Kurtenbach, 45.
In the punk rock underground, she found like-minded spirits, uncompromising in their rejection of what they considered a sexist, class-based society.
She found her sanctuary in Apartment 15 on the first floor of a 1913 building on Oakland’s Alice Street, a neighborhood of stately but dilapidated buildings in the shadow of downtown. The rent, when she moved in 14years ago, was $550 a month.
Mary refurbished the wood floors and hung black lace curtains. She painted the one bedroom unit black and red in a Japanese motif and decorated with her own paintings — dark explorations of death that challenged Christian symbolism.
“She really loved the place,” said Emmely Dittmann, who with her husband, Hans, owned the 30-unit building known as the Dunsmuir Apartments for decades. Mary looked to the couple as surrogate parents. They hired her as manager.
She took to wearing all black. She learned to garden. She cut ties with her family and, to purge her father from her past, she ditched the name Brazil, becoming, simply, Mary Jesus.
In 1998, as the dot-com boom swept the San Francisco Bay Area, the Dittmanns sold the building for $1.3 million to Mark Roemer and James L. Lewis, who were fast accruing Oakland properties.
As San Francisco refugees flooded Oakland, vacated units often rented at a 35 percent markup, said James Vann of Oakland’s Tenants Union.
Landlords are now bound by a 2002 law that requires “just cause” for eviction. But during the boom’s early days, a 30-day notice sufficed, even if a tenant was up to date on the rent. Anne Omura, director of Oakland’s Eviction Defense Center, recalled “grabbing lawyers off the street” to help tenants fight evictions.
Roemer and Lewis could have served Mary Jesus with a 30-day notice.
But there was an initial truce. After she posted memos around the building noting that the new owners were violating the law by not having an on-site manager, they hired her, waiving her rent, as the Dittmanns had. She kept the building clean and welcomed newcomers.
She tacked notes of gratitude from tenants on her wall. “Thanks again for really pulling through for us,” one couple wrote in May 1999. “It’s a crazy war out there to get an apartment. Being young and black probably didn’t help us any either.”
“She was a really good manager,” said tenant Geoffrey Andersen, 27. “If there was a plumbing problem, she’d get on the maintenance guy. … She took the whole building very seriously.”
But her demeanor intimidated some. In her black outfits, black lipstick and parasol, she often talked — with a laugh and flourish — about having been raped or about her occasional work in the sex industry, Andersen recalled.
“If you were friendly, her attention to you became oppressive,” he said. “If you ignored her, she was hostile.”
Mary Jesus’ friendships often ended abruptly. But when she was feeling good, she was charming. In 1998, she cold-called V. Vale, whose Re/Search Publications gives voice to challengers of the mainstream, to pitch a memoir on her punk days.
In late-night conversations that lasted hours, he listened to her tales and encouraged her.
“She was a genius in a way,” Vale said.
Tensions with Roemer and Lewis flared, court filings show. Mary Jesus contended that she bore the brunt of their anger when another tenant called code inspectors.
By her account, Roemer pressed her to offer money to induce an elderly tenant to move out — freeing the unit for a rent increase. Mary Jesus told tenants that the landlords were “evil.”
In July 2000, court records indicate, she was taken to the Alameda County Medical Center’s psychiatric facility.
The following May, Roemer and Lewis notified her that her tenure as manager was over. She could keep her apartment but would be expected to pay rent of $599.50 a month.
Mary Jesus applied for and began receiving food stamps and $336 in monthly general assistance. The Alameda County checks went directly to her landlords. Increasingly anxious about leaving home, she earned the rest of her rent money by working as a phone-sex provider from her apartment.
She objected fiercely to use of the name “Brazil” in letters from the owners, convinced that they did it to harass her. Her mental health was deteriorating.
“I thought for sure that if I made it to 30 the demons would stop tormenting me,” she wrote in her diary in late 2001. “But it has only gotten worse.”
Mary Jesus often burned incense in her bathroom, triggering the fire alarm — some believed intentionally. The manager encouraged tenants to file police reports against her after incidents of verbal abuse.
“I could tolerate Mary Jesus, but I can’t say she was a good presence in the building,” Andersen said. “I was always surprised there wasn’t some way to get rid of such a disruptive tenant.”
She needed Medi-Cal coverage to pay for the mental health care that she required. But she could receive Medi-Cal benefits only if she qualified for federal Supplemental Security Income, or SSI.
Kimberly Satterfield, a county social worker who helps clients obtain SSI, tried to assist. She arranged for psychologist Jeremy Coles to evaluate Mary Jesus. Coles noted numerous problems, including borderline personality disorder. But SSI is difficult to obtain, Coles said, and such a diagnosis would not guarantee it. Mary Jesus chose not to undertake the grueling process.
“She’s a classic person who falls through the cracks,” he said. While Mary Jesus’ condition made it hard for her to disengage from her landlords, Coles said, “she wouldn’t have needed to be in this conflict had she gotten some support.”
Satterfield bent the rules to keep seeing Mary Jesus. She scrounged up vouchers for a gym — the closest thing to therapy that the county could offer.
“She comes in completely dressed in black, with black gloves and sunglasses, and a jacket on that says ‘Kill Christ,’ and then she wonders why people are offended,” Satterfield said. “It’s like, ‘Mary, well hello!'”
In late 2003 and early 2004, the landlords twice attempted to raise Mary Jesus’ rent. She successfully fought both increases before Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program, arguing that she had not been given legal notice.
But in early 2004, a hearing officer inaccurately concluded that Mary Jesus was ahead in her rent. So she took the liberty of paying less.
For the first time in years, she bought a pair of shoes that cost more than $10 — black pumps with spiked silver heels. By the time the officer corrected his mistake, she was in arrears.
The rent board backed her again, ruling that she had fallen behind inadvertently. Even so, Mary Jesus owed her landlords $1,018.77. That was “just cause” for removing her.
“They wanted her out,” said Mona Breed, director of the nonprofit Sentinel Fair Housing, where Mary Jesus sought help. “She kept reminding them about all the things she used to do that they no longer did.”
Sentinel, which does not provide legal advice, referred Mary Jesus to attorneys. But — buoyed by her first jury victory — she chose to fight alone.
“The whole process of fighting them became her reason to be alive,” Breed said.
Mary Jesus filed a new lawsuit against her landlords, alleging retaliation and discrimination because of her mental disability.
On Sept. 28, she pinned a new $5 hairpiece to her bangs, donned a black velvet pantsuit and presented her defense in the eviction action. But she was far enough behind in her rent that the judge ruled against her. The eviction was set for Oct. 7.
“I will be homeless because I have nowhere else to live,” she wrote in an Oct. 5 motion seeking a delay in the eviction. “I have attempted suicide in the past, and I’m afraid if I’m evicted, I will become suicidal again.”
The next two months brought a series of emergency motions for reconsideration. Twice, Mary Jesus won 30-day stays of the eviction. To pay her rent, she borrowed $900 from Vale’s wife, Marian Wallace.
Twice, she was hospitalized at the county’s psychiatric facility after exhibiting signs of extreme anxiety in court.
Mary had a Dec. 17 hearing to present new facts. But on the morning of Dec. 7 — the day of the scheduled eviction — she learned that she had lost a final attempt to defer the ouster.
Once again, she was transported to the county psychiatric hospital in restraints.
Mary Jesus was released that day. Returning to her apartment, she put her belongings in plastic bags and hung them as gifts on the doorknobs of neighbors. She then set several fires and tried to hang herself.
She was back in the psychiatric ward Dec. 8. The following day, she was released to the custody of Wallace.
Edrington said that Lewis spent hours on the phone trying to track Mary Jesus down. He was astounded to hear she had been released.
In San Francisco, Wallace and Mary Jesus searched the Internet for rooms to rent. Mary Jesus did her laundry. When she left in the morning to run errands in Oakland, Vale and Wallace expected her back.
Instead, she wrote a suicide note, complete with court case numbers, and photocopied it. She took the elevator to the balcony of the Tribune tower, climbed the railing and tossed the notes. A crowd of 200 people gathered.
In negotiations with police and fire personnel, Mary Jesus at times moved away from the ledge and appeared to relax, witnesses said. Then she would scoot to the edge, prompting screams from onlookers.
After more than half an hour on the ledge, Mary Jesus’ breathing quickened, and she plunged off the edge.
Advocates for the disenfranchised have taken up Mary Jesus’ story in search of a larger message. They point to a dearth of affordable housing and a legal system skewed against the poor, noting that for $1,018.77, Mary Jesus’ death might have been averted.
“The suicide of Mary Jesus is a prophetic warning of what Mohandas Gandhi once declared,” wrote Terry Messman, editor of Street Spirit, an American Friends Service Committee publication distributed by homeless people. “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
“I believe this death was a profoundly important act of protest,” Messman said in an interview. “She touched the heart of the community of Oakland in a way no other eviction has touched us and no other homeless death — and there have been many — has touched us.”
Excerpt from Messman’s statement:
“She deliberately chose to end her life from atop the most prominent tower in Oakland, a newspaper building, a place where the press could scarcely ignore her suffering, the way they largely ignore the suffering of homeless people every day.
She took her suicide note to the top of the mountain, as did the prophets of old, and showered hundreds of copies down to the public gathered below. Then she plunged to her death and gave us all an unforgettable warning about how the avarice of landlords can join with the heartlessness of the court system to extinguish the lives of the poor.
Her unbearably sad death is made even more haunting because it occurred only two weeks before Christmas, a season when people try to stir themselves to remember the poor among us with sporadic acts of compassion.
When landlords calculate their profits, raise their rents and order their evictions without ever calculating the human costs of their actions, I wonder if they are ever reminded of another businessman in the seasonal masterpiece A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Ebenezer Scrooge, an avaricious business-man, is warned that his greed and exploitation of the poor are sealing his doom, wrapping him in ponderous chains made of the tools in trade of greedy landlords — “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
Asked to make a charitable donation, Scrooge refuses, saying that the homeless must go to prisons and poorhouses. When told that many cannot go there and many others would rather die, he replies, “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Mary Jesus did precisely that. She could not bear the thought of prolonged homelessness, of shivering through cold December nights in alleys or being hopelessly exiled to shelters and Dickensian poorhouses. So she died and decreased the city’s population of low-income renters.”
V. Vale, from RE/Search e-letter, Death of a Punk, he gave Mary Jesus refuge on her last night on earth:
“… she was intelligent, proud, and literate; and she told me she was confident she was going to win if things went to court, because she was in the right, and because she had started spending weeks at a law library learning the laws, and was determined to get a jury trial for her case. She believed in justice and her own honesty.
If I had life to live over again, I would have immediately said, “NO! You need to get a lawyer right away. There are pro bono (free) lawyers.” But I just listened to Mary Jesus and silently applauded her determination to argue her own case in front of a jury and judge.
When she finally called, she said, “If I’m evicted tomorrow, I have no choice but to kill myself. I have no resources, no savings, no money, and nowhere to go. I live on permanent G.A. (about $336 a month) and am classified as `totally disabled.’ It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
Finally the day came, December 8, 2004, when Mary Jesus called late in the afternoon and said, “I’m in the loony bin. Last night I set fire to my apartment and tried to hang myself in my closet.” She seemingly joked, “It’s not so easy to kill yourself.” But I was just on my way out, and couldn’t talk to her then, and just quipped back, “At least you have a place to stay tonight.” She left a phone number — the pay phone in the ward, which netted no answer the next day.
But that afternoon Mary Jesus called while I wasn’t home, and talked to my wife Marian. Mary Jesus asked if it was still okay if she stayed with us. Marian said, “Yes,” and Mary Jesus turned the phone over to a hospital administrator who merely asked for Marian’s name and address, then handed the phone back to Mary Jesus. She apparently released Mary Jesus to her “custody” — oddly early, in retrospect, after a suicide attempt.
Mary Jesus came over and spent the night. Foolishly, I assumed she had gotten “suicide” out of her system, and had no idea that when she left for Oakland the next morning, she would throw herself off the Oakland Tribune Tower, or I wouldn’t have let her leave.
I learned another lesson: If someone threatens to commit suicide, you had better take the threat ultra-seriously, and do anything you can to make them feel 100 percent safe and secure. I wish I had told her, “Listen, whatever it takes to get you into a new apartment, we’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about not having money. We’ll take care of it.” We can always find money for what has to be done.
When somebody kills herself, especially someone smart, intelligent, sarcastic and funny, it makes you feel very disturbed. I felt I knew Mary Jesus quite well through our lengthy phone calls over six years, yet had spent almost no time in the same room with her, ever. If she hadn’t been evicted, I feel she would still be alive today, living a mostly reclusive life in her beautiful apartment-refuge, and hopefully writing her manuscript.”
What she needed was SSI. The minimum SSI benefit is 585 dollars a month, added to her 366 $ in general assistance and food stamp allotment, it would have provided subsistence.
But, applying for psychiatric disability entails uncomfortable engagement with self-identity and an even fiercer reckoning with one’s social status as mentally disordered. “Mary Jesus chose not to undertake the grueling process.” Why not? That’s what the cool kids and social justice advocates should be asking themselves.
No, instead her psychological problems are outright denied for the sake of a tenants rights crusade that frames her suicide solely in economic terms.
LYNDA CARSON / Street Spirit:
“In a crazy world that’s gone totally mad, Mary Jesus was no crazier than any-one else; and it’s a shame that the media pundits insinuated that she was a lunatic who lacked therapy, when they wrote the stories about what had occurred on December 10, 2004 at the Tribune Tower.”
In the last 2 years I believe I’ve read all that’s been written about the life and death of Mary Jesus, and the only writer I’ve seen refer to her as a lunatic, is you, Lynda Carson, in that widely circulated press release, here, here, and again, and again, and again, and again.
And yes Mr. Vale, it is odd that someone would be released from the hospital one day after a suicide attempt, and the underlying policy bears investigation. Mary Jesus had a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, that’s why she was kicked out of the hospital, BPD is the mark of the beast, it’s nothing so much as a certificate of untreatability. It is a counter-transference based diagnosis, rooted in misogyny, whereby mental health shredders justify throwing difficult women into trashbins.
That’s the fight, erasure from the human race. She had rights she didn’t try to exercise, dues coming, as a woman fuct in the head with big disabling problems, who has been kicked out of the human race via the most controversial diagnosis in the DSM.
SSI was her only ticket out, and she didn’t take it. She had the stamina for battle but couldn’t face the unknown. There’s no clear strategy for overcoming obstacles that haven’t been identified, when you don’t know where to start. Let’s start with humiliation, she took every road but this one, for there is no warding off the disdain of hipsters in the protracted battle for psychiatric benefits, which she indeed had coming. So close and yet so far away. Where is her shame located? Who makes shame? Imagine you were her, what would stop you? Stop, start right there.
P.S. Just cremate me and I have no family.