Bunny's Story: Trauma and a Young Woman's Shattered Life
Highway 99 stretches from the south, near Los Angles, to northern Sacramento. It moves through the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto and California's capital. Possibly one of the state's busiest arteries, traffic throbs along the roadway at a dangerous pace. It has been rated one of the deadliest thoroughfares in the country. An article from the Sacramento Bee, published in 2016 states: "The 400-mile highway that runs through the centers of Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto and other valley cities recorded 62 fatal accidents per 100 miles over a recent five-year span."
Tucked along the exits near most of the cities along this stretch of road, are dozens of hotels that promise weary travelers a place to relax and recover. Many of these were once palatial establishments which served commuters traveling what was once known as the Golden State Highway. In the 1950's, many of these had fine restaurants with entertainment. Often performers like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra enchanted patrons in debonair ballrooms. The hotels were places of luxury and often locals would take time out in the evenings to enjoy a good meal at their restaurants and bask in the atmosphere.
Some views of a grander timeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Freeways, Motels, Billboards and Empty Lots
When it was designed in the 1950's, Highway 99 replaced much of Golden State Boulevard. According to Wikipedia, "U.S. Route 99 (US 99) was a main north–south United States Numbered Highway on the West Coast of the United States until 1964, running from Calexico, California, on the US–Mexico border to Blaine, Washington, on the U.S.-Canada border." Eventually, I-5 took over parts of this major route, but parts of it still remain in California carrying an average of 95,000 cars a day per mile.
Since then, many parts of the Golden State Highway still remain. Restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores. Billboards and empty lots. What was once an avenue that welcomed you to the community, lit with neon, has dimmed into a shadowy figure. While there still are some hotels along the route, open to commuters, many of these establishments are a specter of their once greatness. Unrented rooms, serve as long term housing solutions for transient populations and displaced families. Narcotics dealers, escorts, and parolees have sought solace in these buildings, tucked away from most of the local population.
Many of these once spectacular inns have decayed into squalid, boxes; victimized by vandals.
Not every hotel along the 99/Golden State corridor is in this state of array. Some are still comfortable and would be suitable for an overnight or weekend stay. Other lodges have been driven into the realm of the condemned.
For One (Brief) Night Only
She sits on the bed in a pair of shorts and a shirt that reads Bunny. "They call me bunny because of the way I crunch my nose," she says, and pulls back her lips into an amusing sneer, that seems almost childlike.
I look around the hotel room: at the full clothes basket, tucked under the sink; at the glass pipe on the dresser walled in by scraps of paper and empty food cartons, at the bed set at an angle, so it can fit into this too small room. She has agreed to speak with me and share her story. For that I am grateful among other things.
I am thankful for the comfortable apartment I have and for the meals I ate this day. I see a glass of orange juice in front of the vanity mirror at the back of the room and a half bottle full of Stolichnaya Vodka next to it. A syringe sits in a plastic cup next to the telephone on top of the bureau against the wall. A few coins, a book of matches, a nail clipper.
Her first arrest was for cashing counterfeit bills. Her position in the lay away department gave her access to customers. Some of them were her friends with the home made currency.
"They would bring in a hundred to pay thirty dollars," she explains. I would give them the change. They would split it with me. Eventually the Secret Service caught on and they sent her to Chowchilla Prison for Women outside of Fresno.
"Why didn't you do Federal time?" I asked.
"They only care about it if it is a large amount. We were small time. They didn't care really. Only if its like tens of thousands or more."
She stands up and walks around the room, as she tells her story. Her friend, Chloe who she has known since second grade, is sitting on the bed. Chloe laughs sometimes, but is mostly quiet. "We're not used to this. This is different," she says about our talk. "People don't come to us like this."
"I was down for like three years," she says. "I had a TABE score of 7.2 when I went in and I got my GED and had a TABE of 12.6 when I left," she explains. TABE stands for Test of Adult Basic Education and it is one of the ways the prison system measures the education levels of inmates.
"It was easy for me. I was friends with guards. No inmates would mess with me because I was bad. I had done foster care before and this was so easy."
Should prisons be reformed - such as they have in Scandanavia and European countries
"When I was born, I was born addicted to heroin and meth. I know I come across as a bitch," she says as she jumps up. "But I have to in order to protect myself. If you come on strong then people know not to mess with you. I'm an Okie and you know about junkyard dogs. They take a pit bull and cut off its ears and tail and it becomes mean. That's me."
"It's a defense mechanism," I reply. Many people who are traumatized become bitter and jaded. Psychologists will tell you that in order to ward off anxiety, people will numb themselves to their true feelings. Some examples of these tactics include denial, acting out, repression and compartmentalization. The mind is a fragile organ and people who have been abused find ways to cope with their hurt. This is often visible in soldiers who have experienced war and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"It started when I was seven and I thought it was normal. I thought everyone did this," she explains. "I would go to school and there would be sores on my mouth. He blew himself up making meth." As she talks about her abuse, she starts to sob slightly. "I hadn't really talked about this before."
Bunny talks about her stepfather and his involvement with the drug culture. He was wounded in a meth lab accident, survived and met Bunny's mother. He walked around with leg braces and Bunny mimics his gate, pacing around the room while telling the story. "He would touch himself," she explains, while my mom was at work. "Then he started touching me."
She explained the story to her mother by leaving her a letter. Her mother packed up the kids and they left. "All the while, he kept staring at me real hard. My real dad was white, and my mother is Mexican."
Are medical Marijuana laws good for society? (In other words, should pot be legal)
Out of the Frying Pan
About her stepfather she says, "I wanted to call CPS on him," Bunny says. The woman's young life is tale of abuse. According to a publication by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape "Research has consistently linked childhood sexual violence with a victim’s entrance into prostitution. Women are more likely to work in prostitution if they were sexually victimized as children". Bunny's tale is probably typical of many young people in the Central Valley.
"All my family is white trash and I'm the prettiest of them all. My grandfather was messing with his daughters, all of them. The stepdad that my mama met was cooking meth. He was killed in a shootout with the police in Shafter."
It was around this time, when Bunny started to move into foster care. "At 19, I spent 30 months in prison and six months at fire camp. I know how to put out fires," she quips.
Eventually Bunny's mother met a good man. "He's a Christian and a graduate of Cal Poly." She speaks highly of him, and one wonders if his influence was earlier in her life, if this would have made a difference.
Through a Glass Darkly
Bunny talks about her relationships with men. "I'm the abusive one in relationships sometimes. I need to be in control." This is another fact about childhood trauma. It is carried into adulthood. Regardless of gender, most abusers have been victims themselves. It's a form of learned behavior that is part of the cycle of violence.
Kern county has one of the highest levels of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACES as they are referred to. According to an article in The Bakersfield Californian, this fact is contributing to a shorter life-expectancy for people who live in the area. "People who live in Oildale, Kern River Valley and Taft — three impoverished, majority-white communities — have the highest premature death rates across Kern County". Comparatively, research indicates that the poverty and stress is "on par with life expectancies in less-developed countries like Iraq, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan".
ACES are a factor that is used to calculate tendencies towards criminal behavior and recidivism rates for parolees. Individuals like Bunny often come in contact with the criminal justice system and remain in that state. It's a vicious cycle.
This certainly doesn't justify her aggression toward her partners of course. But understanding the cycle of violence is probably a necessity in an area with one of California's highest poverty rates. Drugs, crime, and various forms of abuse are rampant in Kern County and effective intervention is one of the keys to curtailing these social ills.
See "An Invisible Crisis..." article
- 'An invisible crisis': Toxic stress is helping to shorten life spans in many Kern County communities
People who live in Oildale, Kern River Valley and Taft — three impoverished, majority-white communities — have the highest premature death rates across Kern County, dying four to 17 years
when a child endures excessive trauma, the body loses its ability to regulate stress response, and it remains in a constant “fight or flight” mode that it’s unable to turn off.
Visions and Interpretations
Bunny sits on the bed and shares some more stories. Suddenly she stops and says "Oh I just thought of something about changing and how to do it. I had something come to me like when you are in the desert and the Indians do it..."
"An epiphany," chimes Chloe. "You had an epiphany which means an awakening. You realized something and know how to change. You had a vision."
According to psychological theorists, there are five stages of change: Pre-Contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance (and Relapse).
Pre-Contemplation: is the stage where nothing is changing. The person is comfortable where they are at. For example, the alcoholic who insists on more than three drinks a day and does't see a problem with it.
Contemplation: The stage where the person is thinking about making a change in their behavior. "Maybe I should stop doing this."
Preparation: The person is motivated and making plans.
Action: Where the change is happening. The behavior ceases or is replaced by a healthy alternative.
Maintenance: The actor manages to maintain their level of refraining.
(Relapse: Falling down. The person goes back to the same behaviors.)
As she relates her story, I am uncertain what she might be speaking about. Stopping the substance use, ending her lifestyle, finding a way to deal with the anger and angst.
"I was kicked out of school every year since second grade until I got to high school," she says. "I got pregnant and have five kids. I've worked at McDonalds and danced at DejaVu. I have good relatives in my family. There are some good people."
Her eyes are faraway and I wonder about the influence of trauma on her life and the many others I see in the community. The homeless living under the 58 freeway overpass, the zoned out young men and women who hold signs on the medians.
"Ephesians 9:26 says like a dog returns to its vomit," she explains and I'm a little impressed by her ability to quote scripture. Many involved in the abuse of substances relate to religion and rely upon spiritual affirmations.
I take this reference to mean that letting go of ones demons is a difficult task and that even after change, there is always the chance that one will slip.
Darwin's Laws and Loss Of
"Right now, I just try to survive. Day by day. I only need about a hundred dollars to survive. Most of it goes to the hotel which is about sixty bucks. I spend thirty on booze and drugs and the rest on food."
Listening to this part of her story, I realize how expensive motels are. At even the rate of $60 a day, this would be almost two thousand a month. That's a mortgage with nothing to show for it. It's easy to understand how some people end up in the cycle of poverty by just trying to survive. Most of what you manage to earn or come across will be spent on a room.
Abraham Maslow came up with his hierarchy of needs in 1943 with the most basic ones (food, shelter) at the bottom and the highest ones (self-actualization) at the top. According to Maslow, until the lower needs are met, one cannot realize the higher ones. This means that for someone to pursue and education or even be comfortable with a career, they need a place to protect them from the elements and the guarantee of food.
Survival of the Fittest
"I see about three to five guys a week. One of my first ones hurt me. I woke up, tied up and burns and cuts on me," she talks of one of her early customers.
I don't think I could ever get a guy unless he's in a recovery program," Bunny says, considering the possibility of a partner. She explains that she enjoys meth, weed, alcohol and sex (dicks and tricks as she puts it). When she says enjoys, I know that she means experiences; these are her addictions.
The number of homeless in the streets of Bakersfield is obvious to anyone who has been about the area. Much smaller than Los Angeles, the numbers of homeless encampments may not be as large, but there are many. According to a recent survey, The Bakersfield Californian states "Out of the total homeless population counted, 370 were unsheltered, a significant 46 percent jump over the previous count."
Kern County also has one of the highest concentration of prisons. There are five major state prisons in Kern: Kern Valley, North Kern, Wasco, California City and California Correctional Institution. There are many other community housing areas too; private prisons that house inmates preparing for release.
In addition, the Central Valley of California is sometimes referred to as the Methamphetamine Capital of the United States. Kern County takes the lead. Meth and heroin are serious concerns in this part of the state and most criminal activity is related to those problematic substances.
Did this article change the way you view drug offenders/addicts?
A Pretty Woman
Bunny shares with me some stories about some of the interesting people she has met. "One guy owned a business and helped me out a lot. He was a good friend. When he died, his partner asked me to show up to his hotel."
Bunny was under the impression he was going to take her out to a formal dinner. She wore a dress and high heels and some nice jewelry. When she walked up to his room, she knocked on the door.
"Um," said the man. "Na-ah. This can't do."
"What do you mean?", asked Bunny.
"This is not going to work."
"I don't understand."
"You have anything else to wear?"
"Yeah. I have some sweats and sneakers but they're in the car."
"Go get them. Put them on," he ordered and she walked back downstairs, and out to the car.
When she came back to the room, he was turned around with his back to her and bent over. His hands were in front of him and his arms were moving.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I want you to kick me!", he said.
"Kick me! Now!"
Bunny kicked him.
"No. That's not hard enough!"
This time, she lifts her foot in the air and brings it downward.
"Yah....owww...ah" said the man and collapsed.
The Night Moves
Bunny pauses for a minute and lifts her hand to her face and flutters her eyes. It's a coquettish look and quite becoming.
As I look at her, I can still see some of the child inside her; the part that didn't get a chance to develop. I can also feel in her tone, the anger and a teeming volatility underneath that is a bit frightening.There is a dark and sinister aura about her that permeates the room like a smooth ghost.
Her numerous tattoos are alluring and elegant even though they look like they were acquired in a correctional facility. There are many of them over her entire body - most of them exposed.
She stands up.
"I knew he was done then. He spent. And then he tossed me three hundred dollars and said get the F out." She looks up again, and laughs slightly.
I stand up and thank her for her time and walk out into the cool night. I can hear a couple other hotel guests opening or closing their doors, a shopping cart rolling in the parking lot with bottles rattling, a joyful scream from a child.
Streetlights have turned on, and the cafe across the way is lit in neon.
I listen to the traffic from the 99. It almost sounds like a cool zephyr through the autumn trees.
The ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) test
The Stages Illustrated
An article on Golden State Boulevard, Fresno
- Golden State Blvd. Fresno, 2016
Also known as Motel Drive, Golden State Served as the major highway between southern California and Sacramento. Now in preparation for the High Speed Rail, much of the area is being razed. These are some images of the old Highway 99
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Finn Liam Cooper