More than 12 years after Jannie Duncan walked off the grounds of a mental hospital and into a new identity, Debbie Carliner opened a newspaper and got the shock of her life. She was lying in bed in her home in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday morning, thumbing through The Washington Post. It was January 5, 1975. Carliner flipped to the Metro section, where the top story was headlined “Fugitive’s Friends Call Her ‘Beautiful Human.’”
Carliner’s eyes widened as she scanned the photos accompanying the article.
“That’s Joan!” she screamed.
Her husband looked over, confused. Carliner showed him the layout, which included five snapshots of a middle-aged black woman looking radiant in various settings. There she was smiling, surrounded by friends in one image, resplendent in a wedding gown in the next.
The woman was Joan Davis, 54, a kindly and beloved former family employee. In the 1960s, when Debbie Carliner was a teenager and her mother decided to go back to work, her parents had hired Joan to make the beds and help with the cleaning. Joan was an excellent worker, and she was warm and unfailingly trustworthy — so much so that when they left on family trips, the Carliners asked her to watch after their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Debbie’s mother had often said that Joan was highly intelligent — “too smart to be a maid” was how she put it. All of which made reading the story that much more bewildering.
The article reported that Joan’s real name was Jannie Duncan. And that was hardly the only revelation: In 1956, Jannie had been arrested for the murder of her husband, Orell Duncan, whose savagely beaten naked body had been buried in a shallow grave near Richmond, Virginia, the story said. She stood trial, was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. After a few years, she was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution in Washington.
That’s when the story went from shocking to surreal. In November 1962, Jannie had walked off the hospital grounds and vanished for more than 12 years. After she was finally arrested again, on January 2, 1975, the story that emerged was as straightforward as it was unbelievable: She seemed to have simply melted into the streets of Washington, mere miles from the hospital, taken on a new name, and plunged into a new life.
Over more than a decade, Jannie had populated her new existence with a bustling community of adoring friends and employers who were oblivious to the considerable baggage of her old life. Even more strikingly, when her secret was revealed, every one of these acquaintances stood by her. The Post story was filled with the kinds of adulatory tributes usually reserved for retirement parties. Friends and former employers described her as a “high-class woman” and someone “of the highest character, the most honest person.” In an article in the Washington Evening Star, former employer Lewis Stilson held nothing back: “She’s astute, intelligent, vivacious, sincere, honest, and unquestioningly loyal to her employers.”
Like everyone else, Debbie Carliner was incredulous. Neither she nor her parents could imagine that the woman they knew as Joan could murder anyone. If she had, the Carliners figured there must have been a plausible explanation. “We did not believe the story about Joan,” Debbie told me this summer. “We certainly believed he deserved it, assuming it happened.”
I stumbled across the story of Joan/Jannie earlier this year while researching politics in the 1970s. I was so fascinated that I spontaneously abandoned what I was doing to look for other articles about her. The more I found, the stranger and more interesting the story became. For example, she told authorities that she couldn’t remember anything of her life from before she was Joan Davis — but she believed she had been kidnapped from the mental hospital.
The more I found out about her in the weeks that followed, the more I became consumed by a question: What was the truth about Jannie Duncan?
Her twin narratives diverged so sharply that there seemed to be only two possibilities: She’d been railroaded on a murder charge and slipped free of a punishment she didn’t deserve. Or she had killed her husband, escaped, and fooled everyone, cleverly concealing her status as a fugitive who had engineered a great escape.
She was a model citizen who had been wronged, or she was a con artist. I decided to find out which.
* * *
The woman the Carliners knew as Joan Davis was born Jane Waller on February 9, 1920, in Gravel Hill, Virginia, a tiny unincorporated community outside of Richmond. Public records indicate that she was the fourth of seven children. She dropped out of high school after the 11th grade, and, after turning 19, married Thomas Bowman, her hometown sweetheart.
The marriage was likely an act of heedless teenage passion. She left her husband after a few months, lighting out for Washington. There she worked as a clerk and maid during the day and plunged into the city’s boisterous nightclub scene by night, according to the Post. The divorce became official a few years later when Jane, whose friends called her Jannie, married a comedian named Telfair Washington in 1944. He died of a heart attack in 1946.
“He was the love of my life,” Jannie told Post reporter Maggie Locke decades later. “I think that’s when my problems started; after he died I was trying to find a man with his same beautiful qualities.”
Jannie took over Washington’s 17-room tourist home (essentially a boarding house) at 1622 7th Street NW. In 1950, she married again, this time to a gambler named James Terry. She divorced him about two years later, but the turbulence in her personal life didn’t seem to inhibit her business acumen. Within a few years, she employed a handful of people and owned a full-length mink coat and a 1955 powder-blue two-tone Cadillac Fleetwood.
In 1954, she met Orell Duncan, 37, a member of a gambling syndicate run by kingpin Henry “Piggy” Leake. In 1952, Orell Duncan had been arrested and convicted of operating a lottery and possession of number slips. Jannie married him in March 1955, but within a few months, they were living at different addresses.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened while she was working at the boarding house on 7th Street during the early-morning hours of March 11, 1956. What’s clear from court records and newspaper reports is that Orell turned up around 12:30 a.m. and a confrontation took place, and she pulled a gun on him. Orell disarmed her and again began struggling with her. Two of Jannie’s friends, Edward James and Calvin Simms, joined the fray on her behalf. Orell was later found dead from multiple contusions to the head.
Within a span of three days, police in Virginia and Washington arrested Jannie Duncan, James and Simms, and introduced a motive: Jannie’s estranged husband was snitching on her to the IRS. That detail became a staple in newspaper reports about the killing.
She was charged with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory death penalty. At the trial that autumn, the government’s star witness, 25-year-old Carl Winchester, a friend of one of Jannie’s employees, testified that Jannie had pointed a gun at Orell and pulled the trigger several times, but it never fired.
The crux of the trial centered around the post-fight drive in Jannie’s Cadillac. The prosecution claimed that the three defendants finished him off in the car, while Jannie and the others testified that they were talking calmly when the men began arguing and struggling with Orell, and he fell out of the car and died from his injuries.
After a full day of deliberation, the jury found Jannie and James guilty of second-degree murder. Simms was convicted of manslaughter.
Her incarceration at Occoquan women’s prison initially passed without incident. One then-inmate later told the Post that Jannie was quiet and tidy and kept to herself, studying law books. After three and a half years, on November 14, 1960, Jannie was moved to St. Elizabeths. Almost exactly two years later, she walked off the grounds and vanished.
* * *
Reconstructing a life from decades past takes time and effort. To dig deeper than the newspaper stories went, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the police, St. Elizabeths and the FBI. I asked a relative who specializes in genealogical research to dig into Jannie’s family history. I wrote letters and called the people connected to the story who were still alive. (There weren’t many.)
Over time, I assembled the jigsaw puzzle that was her life. Once out of St. Elizabeths, Jannie began quietly reinventing herself. She replied to a classified ad in the newspaper for a job as a domestic helper in Potomac, Maryland, then procured a driver’s license and Social Security card under the name Joan Davis. She spent about two years working for that family, according to newspaper accounts.
After she proved herself a solid and reliable worker, she parlayed strong references into subsequent jobs with the Carliners and others. David Carliner, Debbie’s father, was a prominent Washington attorney whose work, according to his New York Times obituary, “helped define modern immigration law.” (He died in 2007.) He described Jannie in the Washington Evening Star as “a lovely, warm, responsible person.”
Jannie never left the Washington area, except for the year she spent in Detroit with her new husband, Wilbert Lassiter, a Michigan native whom she married in 1972. Eight of her friends flew from Washington to attend the wedding. The Lassiters returned to the nation’s capital a year later.
In September 1963, about 10 months after Jannie’s escape, the FBI, frustrated in its attempts to find her, had issued a wanted poster: “Duncan is an escapee from a mental institution. participated in a vicious assault which resulted in victim’s death. Considered dangerous.” The document shows all 10 of her fingerprints and her mugshot. In the photo, her face is tilted just to the right, her mouth slightly downturned; her hair is closely cropped and forms a little wave on the right side of her head. She is listed as 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds.
Jannie made no attempt to leave the area; rather, she doubled down on Washington, steadily building a community there. Irene Carroll described her friend in the Post as fun-loving and generous. “She was a lover of children,” Carroll said. “She would get us all together and take us on picnics to Lake Fairfax. She’d say, ‘Don’t bring nothing. I’ll take care of the food.’”
But cracks eventually began to show in the foundation of her immaculately rebuilt life. She and Wilbert Lassiter separated around May 1974. By December 1974, he had taken up with another woman named Jannie — Jannie Dodd, according to the Post. That month, Dodd complained to the police that Joan Lassiter had made threatening phone calls and left menacing messages at her house. One such note, Dodd said, read: “Have a merry Christmas. This will be your last.” Dodd filed harassment charges.
Public records show that the Lassiters were officially divorced nearly a year later, after Wilbert learned that his estranged wife had been “convicted of an infamous offense prior to marriage without knowledge of defendant.”
That infamous offense came to light in a remarkable way. Police in Arlington, Virginia, arrested Joan Lassiter on the harassment charge on December 31, 1974. She was fingerprinted, processed, and sent home. As her paperwork was being filed — the sets of prints placed among about 310,000 others — a clerk noticed something surprising: The fingerprints of Joan Lassiter, housewife, perfectly matched the prints on the FBI wanted poster for Jannie W. Duncan, escaped murderer.
On January 2, FBI agent Stanley Niemala drove to Magnolia Gardens, the apartment complex in Arlington where Jannie Duncan lived. She was a convicted murderer on the lam, so he brought along two other agents as backup. They watched the building for a while, and when a light popped on in her second-floor two-bedroom unit, they moved upstairs.
When Agent Niemala told Jannie that she was under arrest, she “kind of froze,” he says. He saw astonishment in her expression; after 12 years of freedom, she clearly hadn’t expected to hear the name Jannie Duncan again. “When you’re out that long and somebody suddenly steps up and puts cuffs on you, it’s not easy,” he says.
She stood stiffly, eyes wide and blank, as Niemala handcuffed her. The now-retired agent describes her as “almost catatonic.”
The other two agents each took a shoulder, gently lifting her, for the walk to the car. She was still so immobilized that when they reached the FBI office in Alexandria, Niemala brought the fingerprinting equipment to the car rather than haul her up to the third floor where she would normally have been processed.
Then Jannie Duncan was returned to St. Elizabeths Hospital. After about three weeks of evaluation, officials there declared that she had no mental issues and shipped her back to prison.
* * *
Con men and women have been around for at least as long as humans have traded currency, and everyone who has received emails from a Nigerian prince promising a share of his just-out-of-reach fortune knows they’re still thriving. As I learned more about Jannie, I began to view her exploits more cynically. Several elements of her story fed into this.
For starters, Jannie’s explanation of leaving the hospital sounded fantastical. She told Margot Hornblower of the Post that she had no memory of anything prior to her life as Joan Davis. She said her mind was “like a blank.”
But during that same interview with the Post, she did recall that rather than having escaped from St. Elizabeths, she was actually kidnapped by Orell’s relatives, who were intent on killing her. “I remember being choked into unconsciousness by a heavyset, light-skinned man,” she told Hornblower. “I remember waking up and this lady told me to call her ‘Mama.’ She said I had been very sick and I didn’t know who or where I was …. She said, ‘I’ll find out who you are and everything will be all right.” (Hornblower, whose name is now Margot Roosevelt, said recently that she didn’t remember any further details about the interview.)
The threats leveled by Jannie in 1974 suggested that “Joan Davis” was invented to help perpetuate her escape. Those menacing notes offered evidence of her old, true self leaking out.
Most significant was another Post article that focused on Jannie’s connection with Ernestine Delaney, an Occoquan inmate whom she met in 1958. Delaney (who is deceased) relayed that she was contemplating trying to escape, but Jannie talked her out if it, saying she would only end up with a longer sentence. One passage near the end stands out. “She mostly listened to others and never talked about herself — except her plans to get transferred to St. E’s,” Delaney is quoted as saying. Jannie “wanted the transfer to St. Elizabeths Hospital because she thought it would be easier to receive a parole from the mental institution.”
When I contacted St. Elizabeths, a spokeswoman told me she was permitted only to confirm the dates that Jannie entered and left the facility. The law prohibited her from discussing Jannie’s diagnosis or care.
But the Post passage suggested the possibility that Jannie had planned the whole thing: She had engineered the transfer not because it would be easier to be paroled, but because it would be easier to escape.
* * *
I felt I had a firm handle on Jannie’s exploits by the time I scored my most significant research breakthrough. After calling the federal courthouse in Washington to ask about her murder trial, I learned that the case file is stored in the National Archives. I drove to Washington to see what I might learn.
In the research room, I flipped open the first box, which contained the first few hundred pages of a 3,000-page trial transcript on thin onion-skin-type paper. Though I would eventually read everything, I jumped straight to Jannie’s testimony.
What I read stunned me. It began with a description of her life over the previous year — the entire duration of her marriage to Orell. She said that her husband drank almost daily, and that when he did so, “he would act like a crazy person. He couldn’t remember the things that had happened when he was drinking.”
She testified that a month into their marriage, he came home from a night of partying and “started beating me and picking me up and throwing me back down on the bed and knocking me about,” she said. “He finally knocked me on a table that was sitting beside the bed and it cut me up here with my eye.” She fled to the bathroom and called her mother-in-law, who took her to the hospital.
Soon after that, she was at Russell’s Barber Shop selling tickets to a church event, when Orell “came in and jumped on me and struck me about the head, picked me up and pushed me out of the shop and pushed me into his car …. I had a knot on my head and bruises on my leg.”
Jannie soon moved out but didn’t divorce Orell, and in May 1955 they were in a bar and he wanted to leave just after she’d put a quarter in a jukebox. When she said she wanted to hear the music, he began “striking her about the head.” She fled, but he jumped in their car just after her, pushing her into the passenger seat. After driving a short distance, he reached over, opened her door and pushed her out, then exited and began hitting her while she was on the ground.
The violence escalated. In one instance, he believed that she’d put sugar in his gas tank. When she denied it, “he pulled his gun out and put his gun right up here and he pulled the hammer back on his gun and said, ‘Well, yes, you did put sugar in my car.’”
She escaped that situation, but another time he threatened to stab her to death. She made several hospital visits. At Freedmen’s Hospital, the staff closed a laceration on her left arm with eight stitches; at Farragut, she was treated for a one-inch laceration over the right eye, abrasions on her legs, and multiple contusions to the head.
Then she took his gun one night when he had passed out from drinking, and on February 18, he came into the boarding house at 2:30 a.m. and demanded it back. She said she’d turned it in to the police; he punched and kicked her. This time the district attorney put through an arrest warrant. “I have an open cut on my left knee and bruises all over my body and I am still in pain,” she was quoted as saying in the warrant. “Also my husband has phoned since and said he was going to beat me to death before Monday morning.”
When Orell learned about the warrant, he threatened to have her killed if she didn’t have it withdrawn. She refused, but still, Orell was never once arrested for any of the attacks. (The warrant and hospital reports were introduced at the trial, and other witnesses testified to seeing Orell abuse Jannie.)
All of this culminated with his arrival at the boarding house just after midnight on March 11, 1956. Jannie had finished fixing up Room 7. “Duncan met me in the small little hallway, and he grabbed me by the throat and he started choking me,” she testified. “So he said, ‘I could kill you right now. No one knows I’m in the building.’”
Just then the doorbell rang, and he pushed her back toward the hotel’s entrance. Afterward, he sat her down at the dining room table and said, “I can come up here any time I get ready. You’re still married to me.” He wanted his gun back. When she said she didn’t have it, he “hit me upside the head …. Then he kicked me, and I fell out of the chair. And when I got up, I pulled this gun on him. He said, ‘Oh, so you do have it.’”
She had gone to the bedroom and retrieved the handgun she’d taken from him a month earlier. She held it on him as he walked into the kitchen, then she gave the gun to an employee while she called Edward James. A few minutes later, James and Simms arrived.
Carl Winchester was the key witness against Jannie. In his testimony, he said Orell reached for the gun and struck Jannie — “he lunged at her and almost knocked her down” — when she pulled the trigger. But the employee had removed the bullets when she called James.
James and Simms began scuffling with Orell, but eventually they stopped. Several bystanders broke up the altercation, and the four of them cooled down, settling into a temporary détente. Orell asked Jannie to give him a ride home, and she agreed on the condition that the two other men came along. They headed outside and climbed into Jannie’s car, witnesses said.
A postmortem toxicology report in the file showed that Orell was heavily intoxicated. Given what a sloppy drunk he was, the defendants’ testimony about how he fell out of the car suddenly sounded more plausible: Simms testified that they were arguing and scuffling in the back seat, and at one point Orell said, “Well, I ain’t going to stay in here.”
“And just before I noticed it,” Simms testified, “the door was open and he was out.”
* * *
This was the 1950s, and the nation’s high tolerance for violence in the home at that time has been well documented. While some states began to criminalize domestic violence as early as the 1800s, those laws were rarely enforced, and cases of physical and sexual assault were largely viewed as marital issues best worked out within the domicile. One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry as late as 1964 posited that a husband beating his wife was a positive development, because it served as “violent, temporary therapy” that “served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man.”
Jannie Duncan’s testimony about Orell’s abuse was vivid, detailed and substantiated by witnesses. Yet none of it seemed to register with anyone: not the judge nor the jury nor the reporters covering the drama. There was no mention of it in newspaper coverage. At one point, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Smithson, said of Jannie: “I believe this woman to be that type of individual that … they call accident prone.” He defined that as someone who “make[s] claims against her paramour or husband for the purpose of harassment and to get various pieces of property from him.”
Smithson also questioned whether Orell was capable of beating Jannie in the ways she described, noting that he only weighed marginally more. He wanted the jury to ignore Orell’s obvious physiological advantages—and that in some cases he was wielding weapons.
I was also struck by another aspect of the transcript: It raised serious questions about Jannie’s purported motive for killing Orell. She clearly had issues with the IRS; court records showed that she owed $26,369 in back taxes. But she testified that she’d been on the agency’s radar for years, and her lawyer, James Laughlin, argued vehemently for permission to introduce evidence that “would show an investigation was underway long prior to her marriage or contact with Orell Duncan.” Laughlin, in fact, had represented her during the IRS proceedings.
Independent proof suggests that this was almost certainly true. On April 4, 1956, a few weeks after Orell’s death, the IRS ran a classified ad in the Evening Star announcing an auction for Jannie’s mink coat to recoup unpaid taxes. The IRS typically auctions off property only after expending significant effort, often over the course of several years, to extract back taxes.
But Judge Joseph McGarraghy refused to allow testimony or evidence about Jannie’s IRS history, and the jury apparently accepted the contention — introduced by the police within days of Orell’s death, repeated frequently in newspapers, and advanced by the prosecution — that Jannie was furious at Orell for snitching.
In light of all of this information, it was jarring to see her story so casually dismissed. It was as if the alleged abuse didn’t matter — like it couldn’t possibly have been a factor, even in a crime of passion like Orell’s killing.
But even a casual reading of recent American history reveals that none of it is particularly surprising. The idea that a black woman’s version of events would be ignored in a trial in the 1950s, and that the word of the police and a white prosecutor would prevail: Of everything about this strange story, that was the shortest leap of all.
* * *
Viewed through the lens of the trial transcript and the information the jury never heard, everything about Jannie’s story looks different. Orell died from a result of Jannie’s acts of self-defense during a series of drunken brawls. He could easily have killed her, and probably would have eventually.
Seemingly minor details suddenly take on new significance, like the physical description on Jannie’s wanted poster: “scar in right eyebrow, small scar under left eye … scars on left arm, left shoulder, left side of chest and on right shoulder.” All of them correspond to injuries she described.
The transfer from prison to St. Elizabeths? It could have been her scheming, but one document among the court papers shows that she was moved to St. Elizabeths after being diagnosed with “severe depression, catatonic withdrawal with auditory hallucinations.” Which would be understandable, given what she’d been through.
As for the memory loss, that could potentially be explained by dissociative amnesia. That’s a condition in which a person blocks out certain information, often associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving them unable to remember important personal information. A 2007 study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law noted that the disorder “is associated with crimes that are committed in a state of extreme emotional arousal and in which the victim is known intimately by the offender. Frequently, the crime is unplanned and no motive is discernible.”
The alleged threat to kill Jannie Dodd in 1974? That charge was dismissed, and it appeared Dodd had exaggerated or even fabricated their interaction. U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert, in responding to Jannie’s parole application, noted that because of the way the charge was abruptly dropped, the incident “could not have been particularly substantial.”
Then there was her public support. Given all of the above, it suddenly seemed far more plausible that she’d simply been a genuinely good person caught up in a horrible situation who had navigated her way out as best she was able. In February 1975, a group of 30-plus people formed the Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee, raising money and circulating a petition seeking her release; they collected 5,000 signatures. Friends recruited the support of D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy and Walter Fauntroy, a prominent politician, pastor and civil rights advocate. More than 20 friends and employers offered to provide character statements in court on Jannie’s behalf.
Silbert was the U.S. attorney in Washington then, so he wasn’t necessarily in the business of letting people out of prison early. His response to her parole request is a pitch-perfect coda to Jannie’s uncommon odyssey. It’s obvious, reading between the lines, that he struggled to reconcile the particulars of her story, which he characterized as “a somewhat singular case.” Her interactions in her jobs over her 12 years as Joan Davis “reveal someone in whom these employers have complete trust and confidence and even more — as a person. In addition, this office has had contact with other members of the community who also demonstrate an equally high regard for Ms. Duncan. These comments cannot be lightly ignored. To the contrary, they are most persuasive.”
Jannie was released in April 1977. The Post showed up to cover her departure from prison, taking her picture for a front-page story headlined “The Saga of Jannie.” The subhead is notable for its Martin Luther King Jr. echo: “‘Lady in the Dark’ Is Free at Last.” She said she hoped to one day seek a presidential pardon and write a book about her ordeal. The friend who fetched her from prison suggested a title: “The Case that Rocked the Nation’s Capital.”
But after this brief bit of fanfare, she was never heard from publicly again. It was as if she dissolved into her post-prison life with all the anonymity and quasi-invisibility of her years as Joan Davis.
Her family is content to let her story fade out of memory. Jannie’s sole remaining close relative, a daughter now in her 60s, at first denied that Jannie was her mother. Shown evidence to the contrary, the woman replied that she preferred not to participate in this article. I subsequently sent her a draft of this story. “All I can say is WOW! She had more alias’ [sic] than ‘Mission Impossible,’” the daughter emailed back to me. “All this just explains a lot. I must commend you on the great details you uncovered. However this still does not change my mind. I’d rather remain silent and not open up old wounds.”
But one friend filled in Jannie’s final chapter. Lorraine Sterling, a friend from the Joan Davis years, kept in touch with her by phone after Sterling moved to North Carolina in the early 2000s. Sterling says Jannie lived quietly in Maryland after her release from prison, working and spending time with friends. She evinced no interest in garnering further attention. “She was a very loving and giving person,” Sterling says. “She had friends, but she kind of stayed to herself at times too.”
When Jannie became frail, her daughter moved her into a nursing home. She died in May 2009, at age 89, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her relatives held a quiet ceremony at Scott’s Funeral Home in Richmond on a warm May afternoon, then wended their way to the Washington Memorial Park and Mausoleums in Sandston, Virginia, near her birthplace, for the burial. The circle of her life was complete.
I understand her daughter’s impulse to pat down the earth over this complex tale. But as I exhumed Jannie Duncan’s full narrative, two things stood out. The first was that initial assumptions about people are often wrong. Mine were in this case — and in a time when we’re seemingly growing more alienated from each other, I was reminded to look deeper for the complexities inside all of us, our shared humanity.
And second: Jannie’s story is more relevant in 2018 than ever. She was a black woman who lacked power or standing while facing a justice system dominated by white men aligned against her. She was easy to brush aside; her telling was easy to dismiss and distort.
There are some lingering questions that may never be fully answered, but this much is now clear: Jannie was a survivor. And we know, after these last couple of years, that there are countless survivors today facing the same systemic hostility, the same biases, the same obstacles arrayed against them.
Finally, then: This is the story of Jannie Duncan, survivor. For her sake, and the sake of others whose lives were damaged by what happened one night in March 1956, it’s tragic that no one listened then, more than six decades ago. For the rest of us, it’s not too late.
Everyone in California is waiting for “The Big One,” an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or greater that will destroy infrastructure and cause mass panic. Yet when I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, I discovered that since most of the people I knew were making do with small apartments and ever-increasing rent, having supplies on hand for a natural disaster required a space premium that many couldn’t afford. I began to put together an earthquake kit that would not only serve my household (which over the years fluctuated from one to three other people) but also my neighborhood, if needed. Even with all that work, I didn’t consider myself a prepper, just someone who heeded the Red Cross’s warnings.
When the average person thinks about doomsday preppers, they probably think of paranoid right-leaning wing nuts clinging to a small arsenal of guns and stockpiling toilet paper from Walmart in case their conspiracy theories come true. It’s a fair assumption — many television depictions reflect that mind-set, though the fears vary from group to group. Some are afraid of government collapse, others fear a solar flare, still others are preparing for a race war they think is inevitable. When those are the dominant examples, it’s easy to dismiss the practice as absurd and hysterical.
I am a leftist, anarchist prepper, and while we differ politically, I have to admit, the extreme preppers you see on TV are not completely out of their minds.
I used to focus only on preparing for earthquakes and other natural disasters. That changed in 2011 when I went to my first protest, an Occupy Oakland action, with a medic bag. I didn’t know yet that I’d be out there for hours, so I didn’t have supplies I consider basic now — food, caffeine, extra smokes, insoles for my combat boots. I didn’t know how aggressive the police would be, and the handkerchief around my neck was more for a punk look than medical necessity. I hadn’t received formal training to be a street medic; I just happened to know first aid and CPR and wanted to help. I carried a 15-pound bag on my back, full of medical supplies, mainly gauze and tape but also things like tourniquets that I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I was scared — I’d had rubber bullets shot at me the night before — but I was determined to drop off water to the protesters and make sure that people had sterile supplies.
That night, I tasted tear gas for the first time. You smell it before you taste it, and you taste its strange, bitter sting before it fills your lungs or blinds you. I was alone, and terrified, among a crowd that was shouting and crying and panicked in the streets.
“Disperse!” came the command from the helicopter hovering above us. Every exit point seemed blocked by clouds of tear gas or the loud kapow! of flash-bangs. Every explosion startled me; I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. Rubber bullets were being shot at us from every direction by cops dressed in SWAT gear, as if this was a war, not a protest. Someone next to me fell to the ground grabbing his face. I saw he was bleeding and scared, and I dropped next to him, telling him he was going to be OK, that I was a medic. It was my first time treating a wound in the street during a fray. Looking down at my hands and seeing a stranger’s blood on my gloves chilled me, but there wasn’t time to feel anything. My legs moved on autopilot, going from person to person to check on them. “Do you need a medic?” I found myself shouting over the noise every time I heard a scream.
I went home, shaken and shaking, all of the adrenaline flooding me at once. I slept uneasily, tossing and turning in my bed. I wanted my partner to sleep next to me, but also couldn’t bear to be touched. I had nightmares that lasted for weeks: dizzying, confusing dreams where I was struggling to breathe or see but could hear pain all around me, and I would wake up panting and sweating.
Despite the trauma, I kept going to protests. I felt grimly determined, and as I kept going, I became more desensitized to the chaos. My medic bag evolved into something more suited for treating the effects of police brutality than simply a place to keep extra snacks and water on hand. I learned from other medics how police often target medics and organizers for arrest in order to destabilize and demoralize the entire group, and I grimly prepared for an inevitable attack or arrest.
I also began to realize that I needed to prep for something that’s increasingly as likely as earthquakes: large-scale civil unrest, which I witnessed a taste of in the streets that night. I began to think of how people act when they’re scared, including and especially law enforcement. I started to think about home security, transportation options if fuel was limited, how to access information without the internet. I studied natural disasters and their repercussions around the world as a way to understand how to keep myself and my community safer.
* * *
While I was beginning to explore the art of prepping, I met my partner, a fellow anarchist who specializes in constructing urban shelters and creating makeshift weapons out of random finds from the local dumpster. Ape is many things I am not — slender where I am curvy, tan where I am pale, easygoing where I am exacting. One of the bonds of our relationship is our enjoyment of teaching and learning from each other. Ape teaches me how to handle and care for knives and guns, while I teach him how to recognize medicinal herbs in an urban setting, how to preserve food, and how to stitch up a wound. Rather than depending on each other to do certain tasks, we’ve worked on becoming capable of filling in for each other in a pinch, leading us to learn new skills that we’ve found useful while camping, when the car breaks down, or during any number of other mundane situations. Our shared nerdy interest in preparing for disaster, combined with our complementary skills, has made casual but constant prepping a core part of our relationship. While other couples may prefer a nice candlelit dinner out, I love poring over the most recent articles in Survival Magazine or seeing what new products knife company Cold Steel has this month.
Ape and I had sex at an “End of the World” orgy on the night of Trump’s election. The crowd was mostly sex workers and queer folks. None of us wanted to face this election alone, so we got together at a friend’s loft apartment to handle the news as best we could — with food, alcohol and sex. What was normally a group of boisterous party animals started off with us tentatively nibbling at cheese and crackers, whispering to each other in corners, and halfheartedly making out, one eye always on the votes coming in. The room was increasingly quiet and depressed as the votes were counted and we realized that our worst nightmare, a United States governed by the pinnacle of toxic masculinity, was coming true.
When it became clear that Trump was going to be our next president, silence descended over the mostly naked crowd. Everyone seemed frozen in place. I felt a sinking in my gut and I knew what we needed to do; my boyfriend and I looked at each other and began to dress without a word.
“I’ll grab my medic bag,” I said quietly to him as I pulled my socks on, and he nodded. We knew we were going out into the streets of Oakland that night.
We arrived at the protest in Oakland’s downtown Oscar Grant Plaza while people were still shouting through megaphones at a crowd pulsating with fury and fear. When we took to the streets, I reached for Ape’s hand, both for reassurance and so we wouldn’t lose each other. We interlaced our fingers when we heard the first flash-bang — I flinched but kept walking. It wasn’t long before the police were throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd. While others turned to run and escape, we squeezed each other’s hands and walked into the fray to find people who needed our help. I didn’t know if we were going to be arrested, or injured, or even killed, but I knew I had to be there as long as I was needed.
We were out there for three days straight. Our lungs took weeks to recover from the gas and pepper spray we inhaled, but we took turns making mullein leaf tea to help the process along.
After that, I began to take my prepping a lot more seriously, even going so far as to make connections with similarly minded leftist survivalists to create a local list of resources, both online and off, covering things like who has what skills and who has extra water or food stored away.
* * *
I was on a forum online a couple of months ago looking for suggestions about bugout bags (prepacked bags you grab when escaping a dire situation) for urban environments, particularly if you’re more inclined to “bug in,” or shelter in place. Every sensible idea was accompanied by conspiracy theories about who or what was going to kill us all — a race war, a solar flare, a nuclear blast. Many of the commenters talked frankly, and sometimes cheerfully, about the need to kill other people in order to protect their families. Many of them wore Make America Great Again hats in their profile avatars, or actively supported the police in their forum signatures. They spoke with disgust about those they deemed “un-American,” particularly protesters who participated in Black Lives Matter or Occupy-type actions. Heather Heyer’s death — the woman who was mowed down by a white supremacist’s car during the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest — was seen as hilarious, not traumatizing.
I leaned back in my chair, my eyes scanning the vitriol on the forum, feeling anxious. The sun slowly set while I sat motionless behind the glowing screen, transfixed and horrified, my tea going from piping hot to ice cold. I forgot it was there. I could feel the tension in my gut clench tighter as I read the words of people threatening to spray bleach in the eyes of protesters at the next action. I was trying to figure out how real the threat was.
It was very clear that if I wanted to learn from the people on this forum, I couldn’t say anything about who I was or what I believed. Realizing that I might be chatting with the same people who were wielding guns at the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville was a startling moment, especially when I felt so safe at home in the Bay Area. Here, in my second-story apartment surrounded by an urban herb garden, my two cats weaving around my feet, I was more concerned about the police than my neighbors. But on this forum, I was brushing shoulders with the alt-right. As they regularly and violently vocalized, they were prepping, in part, to protect themselves from people like me.
This had troubling implications for what might happen locally if “The Big One” did hit. Would the people most prepared for life without the internet, hospital care and city infrastructure be the right-wingers who wanted to Make California Red Again? Would my black, transgender and disabled friends have to beg Trump supporters for supplies? That seemed more dangerous to me than the potential disaster itself.
While MAGA-hat wearers believe strongly that leftists and liberals are weak and ineffective in a survival scenario, I discovered that many of us already engage in activities that could be useful in an apocalypse. Knowing how to sew and mend clothes, reuse trash in creative ways, and fix machinery were all things I found among my artsy friends, for example. My witchy friends knew a lot about herbs and urban foraging. And a surprising amount of my Burning Man community not only knew a lot about filtering and recycling water or using alternative energy but also seemed to own and use guns, contrary to the belief I heard on conservative Twitter that a lack of weapons would be the left’s downfall.
Just last week I was sitting at a worn picnic table in the back of my favorite dive bar, drinking a PBR tall can and debating favorite guns with a group of friends. The air was warm even as the sun started to go down, and Edison lights illuminated our faces while we chatted. The conversation was spirited but friendly, all of us bonded by a love of camping, metalworking, and yes, weapons training. I was about halfway through my beer, eagerly discussing my desire to develop my upper-body strength to have a steadier hand with various pistols. The sun set while my friends, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, continued to argue about which guns would be best in a zombie apocalypse, a thought experiment we used to discuss end-of-the-world scenarios that involve medical crises, hostile attacks, and the total collapse of city infrastructure all happening at once. For some, this might just be a silly conversation, but for us it offered a chance to work through multiple disaster scenarios at the same time and talk through real plans and theories.
By talking about prepping with more and more friends, I began to discover that many of them were also interested in developing skills that would be useful in a serious crisis situation. Several of them were already doing the same thing my partner and I had done — creating bunkers full of supplies and developing networks that could effectively take care of each other if the shit hit the fan. My community includes urban farmers, people who butcher their own meat, people who can and pickle the fruit and veg they get in their community agriculture boxes.
While the prepper movement may seem very right wing on the internet, offline I’ve found a vibrant survivalist society that is adaptable and stronger than they get credit for. Being a leftist prepper is less rare than I expected. We just don’t talk about it as much on the internet. Which, if you’re concerned that people are going to raid your compound for supplies, is probably sensible when you think about it! I also realized that the prepping I uncovered in my communities was less about individual survival and more about creating an alternative infrastructure, since the ones in place are already failing our marginalized friends and family, even without a disaster looming. Mutual aid is the core of our organizing, instead of pure self-preservation. Knowing this, I’m confident that we will not only survive, but heal, rebuild and thrive.
The sound of voices in the corridor outside roused me from my fitful sleep. The instant I forced my eyes open, the all-too-familiar feeling of dread gushed through my body. I winced as I leaned on my arm to heave myself upright. The fresh stitches on my forearm from my most recent self-harm tugged sharply. With blurry eyes, I squinted at the clock: 10:43 a.m. This meant I had to wait one hour and 17 minutes until I could have a drink. I never drank before midday; only alcoholics did that.
This hollow feeling of dread had been with me for as long as I could remember, continually gnawing away at my insides. I tried to explain it to my dad when I was about nine years old. All I could tell him was that I felt sick and that something was terribly wrong. My dad took me to a doctor who, of course, found nothing physically wrong with me.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Robin Hood. I would strut around the garden wearing nothing but shorts and a tea towel cape tied around my neck. Grandad would chase me, hoist me onto his shoulders and spin me around like I was flying. It was one of the rare times that I would laugh with the reckless abandon of a typical child. I would grip tightly to his soft balding head and breathe in pipe tobacco and Old Spice as we spun. But as my teenage years approached, suddenly the chasing stopped. Grandad replaced my Robin Hood sword with hideously pink Sindy dolls in cocktail dresses. In his soft Birmingham lilt, he began to insist I “play quietly and sit properly.” I had no idea what “sitting properly” even meant.
As I got older, I began to understand the problem was that I wasn’t what people expected. I didn’t act like typical girls my age, and if it were left up to me, I wouldn’t dress like one either. The trouble was that as my body began to change, it became harder to find any clothes that I was comfortable in. Everything made me feel like there was too much of me. I began to restrict my food in an attempt to lose weight, but my body continued to grow in ways that repulsed me. My grandparents’ gifts started to include dresses, which I was obligated to wear when they visited. I couldn’t hide my disdain; I likely came across as a moody teenager. My grandad’s disappointment in me was evident. The gnawing emptiness was joined by an ever-growing sense of self-loathing.
When I discovered alcohol at the age of 13, it felt like I had found the holy grail. After I hurriedly swallowed a liter bottle of bitterly tart Merrydown cider, the sick feeling was suddenly replaced by a warm, soothing numbness. I felt as if I could breathe freely for the first time in my life.
* * *
I reached over to the bedside table, fumbling for my tobacco tin. My hand found cold metal, and I eagerly grabbed it, preparing to roll my first joint of the day. In my jumbled mind, smoking weed first thing in the morning was somehow O.K., even if drinking alcohol wasn’t. It wouldn’t send me into a blissful blackout, but it would at least take the edge off, enough to function until I could justify having a drink.
I stared across the clothing-strewn floor to my desk, redundant now that I was no longer studying. A few years earlier, I had begun a social work degree. I was 32 years old and it was one of many attempts to get my life together. However, it was there I started to spiral out of control, and just 18 months into the program, my lead tutor suggested that I leave and seek out some help. I hadn’t been able to work since then, and things had continued to get worse. Alcohol no longer took away the feeling of dread, it just barely skimmed the edge off it. Crippling anxiety now accompanied the empty void of despair. I had resorted to self-harming by cutting my arms, in another desperate attempt to blank out the pain. My doctor prescribed medication, and I attended counseling sessions, but the answer as to why I felt like this, or what I could do to change it, never came.
I thought I’d come close to an explanation in my early 20s when I met Denise. I was living in Eastbourne at the time and working as a care assistant in a nursing home. On one early morning shift, Denise breezed into the canteen. My eyes locked onto her face, taking in her sharp angular jawline, which framed a broad cheeky smile. My eyes traveled to her exposed and glorious hairy legs. I mistook her for a man at first and was shocked to discover she was female. Nothing ever happened between us, but the fascination I felt toward her led me to assume that I must be a lesbian. It would explain so much: the tendency to be a tomboy, my lack of relating to anything female.
I then jumped into my lesbian identity with the enthusiasm of an Olympic diver. I had my hair cut short and spiky, and I filled my wardrobe with shirts and ties of every color imaginable. For a while I felt good. I entered into a serious relationship with a woman who loved my masculine ways. However, as the novelty of my reinvention wore off, the deep empty pit of despair returned with new strength. Eventually, my partner couldn’t handle my depression, and she left. It seemed being a lesbian wasn’t my answer after all.
* * *
I inhaled deeply on the joint. As the gray-brown tinged paper burnt closer to my yellow-stained fingers, I began to feel the subtle numbness take hold. Thoughts about trying to sort out my life were soon replaced with thoughts about buying alcohol. It was the weekend; it made sense to wait until Monday to start trying to get my life together. I pulled on the nearest pair of jeans I could find from the heap on the floor, threw on my khaki baseball cap to hide my shame, and headed out.
Being around other people was an anxious and paranoia-inducing ordeal. I hurriedly bought milk and ingredients to make chili rather than just purchasing alcohol. I noticed the wine was on a three-for-£10 deal. I decided it made logical monetary sense to buy all three. Anyway, l was only buying wine as I was having chili that evening. Wine is just something you have with chili — or so I told myself.
The shop assistant did the usual double take when I replied “Thank you” in my high voice after he called me “Sir.” This was a common occurrence for me, and for reasons I could not understand, I really enjoyed it when I was mistaken for a man.
The chili remained unmade that evening, the pint of milk turned sour on the windowsill, Monday came and went.
Four months earlier, l had been discharged from a therapeutic community after completing a 12-month therapy program. There, they tried to teach me controlled drinking, which, based on the state of my life, seemed to have failed. It was clear to me that their therapy didn’t work, and I rang them up to tell them so.
“I’m not managing,” I complained to the receptionist, “I feel like therapy hasn’t helped at all.”
A week later, I met with my therapist, Gilly. Feeling at my wit’s end, for the first time in my life I was honest about the amount of alcohol I was drinking. Gilly looked up at me. A silver chain looped around the large glasses hanging from her neck swayed as gently as the cadence of her soft voice: “Perhaps it would be helpful to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”
“I’m not an alcoholic!” I protested. “If I didn’t have these issues I wouldn’t need to drink.” Despite my protests, I agreed to try it.
The following Tuesday night, I hovered tentatively at the side door of Saint Mary’s Church in Oxford. I was met by a tiny and decidedly over-enthusiastic AA greeter who dragged me inside. The narrow room was furnished with a table at the far end, chairs around its outer walls, and an oval arrangement of chairs in the middle. I wondered if the inner circle was for members only. I had imagined a musty and somber room, but this room was alive with bright smiles and laughter.
The meeting began, and as people spoke, I was shocked to hear them describing the exact way that I felt. Yet, by following a sober life and completing the 12 steps, they had managed to find a happy life. I wanted that, but I could not accept I was an alcoholic. I knew I had a problem, but I was terrified of not being able to drink at all. However, the “one day at a time” approach of AA enabled me to cope with the idea of putting down the drink for a brief while. At my next meeting, I announced myself as having “alcohol dependency issues,” making sure to differentiate myself from the alcoholics.
The following weeks were hell on earth. Without the fuzzy haze of alcohol, the outside world became razor sharp, my internal world a raging waterfall of emotions. Then, finally, in one early morning AA meeting, I stopped fighting. I suddenly found myself announcing, “I am an alcoholic.” Those four words would change everything, but not in the way I expected.
* * *
Over the following months, my life changed dramatically. I remained sober, clean, and free from self-harm. Although the inner void was still there, I had learned healthy ways to manage the pain. I had even started to believe in a future where I could finally be free of it. I embraced facing difficult issues and the healing that came from that. One problem I could not seem to shake was my eating. I knew I wasn’t fat and yet the desire to restrict food was still there. It made no sense.
After sharing my eating issues in a meeting one day, I went for a coffee with Kevin, my AA best friend. We had a surprising amount of similarities in how we each struggled with feelings of shame about our bodies. Kevin leaned in, lowered his voice and asked me if he could trust me. I nodded. He took a deep breath and then, with a shaking voice, he told me that he dressed in female clothing at home. His honesty made me voice something I had only uttered a couple of times in my life: I wished I was male.
That evening, as I searched online for some support for my friend, I discovered the vast community of transgender people on YouTube. I had some knowledge of trans women but no idea that trans men existed. I found a video timeline of a trans guy celebrating a year on testosterone. He spoke about always knowing something wasn’t right, about his distress when his puberty began as his breasts grew and his hips developed. I watched his face light up as he described his growing sense of peace in himself as his face, voice, and body had changed. I suddenly had a moment of epiphany where I understood what was making me restrict food: Keeping very slim meant my figure more closely resembled that of a boy.
But I couldn’t be transgender, I thought; I would have surely known earlier in life. I apparently had some gender issues, wanting a boyish figure, enjoying wearing men’s clothes, so perhaps I fit the term genderqueer. In that case, I could alter my appearance a little, to see if that made me feel less ill-at-ease in myself. Watching numerous videos of trans men in early transition, I noticed that most used a “binder,” a vest made of a unique material to flatten their chests. I had been squeezing into a tight sports bra for years to get rid of the unsightly lumps. I ordered a binder, telling myself that it would just allow me to embrace more of my tomboy self.
The morning it arrived, I hungrily tore back the packaging. I squeezed myself into the skin-tight material, and violently shoved my sweaty breasts under my armpits, as per the instructions. I threw on the nearest T-shirt I could find and then stood back to study my appearance in the full-length mirror. I gasped, the realization like a punch to my stomach. There I was; that was my chest the way it should be. I understood at that moment that I was indeed male. I hadn’t realized earlier because when I was growing up, the words just were not available to describe what I had been feeling. There was a name for the pain I’d been feeling all this time: gender dysphoria.
I felt relief to finally know the reason for this pain, but enormous fear about what this meant. I would have to come out to my friends and family. I would have to go through the process of gender transition, and I didn’t even know where to begin with that. Everything was once again uncertain, the future terrifyingly unclear. For the first time in my life, I felt liked and accepted by people. I was convinced that if I said I was transgender I would lose the friendships I’d made, and likely my family, too. I was so afraid of the unknown future that I considered drinking again and this time not stopping until it killed me. Better that, I thought, than to face coming out and trying to lead a sober life as a man who would never be accepted as such.
I didn’t pick up a drink, but I did sink back into a state of despair and anxiety. Every time someone called my name or referred to me as “she” it was like a blow to my chest. I wanted to scream out that I was male. I wanted to tear my skin off and show people that I am here, that I’ve been here all along, underneath, and that the pain I felt was from years of suffocating the real me. Eventually, I reached a point where the pain of continuing to deny my male identity far outweighed the fear of what people might say to me when I announced it. I knew I just had to take a leap of faith.
Being in Alcoholics Anonymous made coming out particularly challenging. Having to announce my name in meetings meant that there wasn’t a subtle way to slowly come out. I just had to do it, fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. On a Friday morning, I walked into the church hall and was greeted by the familiar buzz of voices and the smell of fresh croissants and filter coffee. I said hello to a couple of people, but I was too nervous to do anything but take my seat and wait for the meeting to begin. The part of the meeting came where members were invited to share. I took a deep breath. My heart felt as if it was coming out of my chest and I could barely keep my head still for shaking.
“My name is Finn, and I am an alcoholic,” I announced.
The usual response is to say hello back, but as this was not the name people were used to, I was greeted instead by “Hello,” followed by incoherent mumbling. I took another deep breath and went on to explain that I am transgender and would be grateful if people could use my new name and male pronouns when referring to me. The remaining 15 minutes of the meeting went painfully slowly, and I felt like I was going to throw up every one of my internal organs.
When the meeting ended, I was engulfed by a large crowd, hugging me, saying my new name, congratulating me and expressing their admiration. At that moment, I felt more loved and accepted than I ever had in my life. The joy at hearing myself referred to as “he” confirmed that I had made the right choice. As I went on to other meetings and told more people, the feeling of knowing this is right settled more deeply into my being. I moved from wishing I was a man to understanding that I already was one — one that needed a few modifications, but a man all the same.
I am now approaching eight years sober and clean, and it’s been six-and-a-half years since I announced the truth of who I am. This morning I awoke to the familiar feeling of gratitude and possibility. I jumped out of bed heading for the bathroom, and the hallway mirror stopped me in my tracks. I paused to smile back at the man with the graying sideburns and white flecks in his full beard. I made a cup of tea and settled into my well-worn desk chair, preparing for a day of writing work and university degree study.